Rewind to 35 years ago. I’d just moved to Tennessee and had never caught a smallmouth. From what I’d heard, these fish were supposed to be bad dudes, and I was dying to tie into them. But the lakes in the Volunteer State are vast, and after several fruitless outings on my own, I realized I needed someone with experience to point me in the right direction. That’s when I hooked up with a crusty old guide named Jake.
“So Jake, where are the best places to catch smallmouths?” I asked as we headed across the lake at daybreak.
I expected him to rattle off a laundry list of topographic features like points, offshore humps, creek channel drop-offs and the like. Instead, he answered mysteriously, “You can catch little smallmouths just about anywhere. Big smallmouths like somethin’ different.”
Since then, I’ve fished some of the best smallmouth waters in North America with a cadre of expert anglers, and have picked their brains for countless magazine articles. If you could put all those guys in one room, they’d probably argue till the cows came home about what presentations work best. But there’s one thing they’d all agree on: as Jake said, big smallmouths like something different.
My goal here is to pass along this nugget of wisdom. Once you understand it—once you make it the very foundation of your smallmouth fishing—you’ll agree that it’s the single most important bit of information you could ever know about smallmouth bass, a skeleton key that can help you unlock the many mysteries secrets of this great gamefish.
“It’s little wonder many bass fishermen have such a hard time catching smallmouths,” says Jim Duckworth, a guide on Tennessee’s Center Hill and Priest reservoirs. “We’re constantly taught in fishing magazines, books, videos, TV shows and seminars that bass gravitate to cover. This is definitely true for largemouths, but it doesn’t apply nearly as much to smallmouths. You can catch largemouths all day long around weeds, brush and submerged timber, but smallmouths don’t relate strongly to this stuff. They’re far more oriented to transition zones than to cover.”
Transitions, Duckworth explains, are areas where one type of shoreline, bottom or water condition meets another. In other words, a transition is “something different.”
Many of waters where smallmouths grow big and nasty are deep, clear and rocky, Duckworth says. “A newcomer often becomes frustrated because they may not have a clue where to fish. It’s relatively easy to find good largemouth habitat on a strange lake—just head for a shallow flat or cove and start casting around stumps, grassbeds and other visible cover.”
But according to Duck-worth, that all changes in classic smallmouth waters, where there’s little wood or grass—only mile after mile of rock. Even worse, most of it looks the same to the untrained eye. That’s where spotting transitions, especially subtle ones, becomes key.
“A transition butts two different types of habitat against each other, creating enhanced feeding opportunities,” he says. “Here, they can take prey living in two entirely different habitats without moving a great distance. Just as you’ll see a hawk circling above the border of a forest and an open field, you’ll find smallmouth bass holding where one type of bank or bottom composition, bottom contour or water condition changes into another.”
Fred McClintock is a veteran guide on Dale Hollow Lake, a clear, rocky im-poundment straddling the border of Tennessee and Kentucky and the home of the world-record smallmouth. He counts on several common types of transitions to attract and hold big bronzebacks.
Shifts In Rock Size—“Just as Eskimos have dozens of words to describe snow, skilled smallmouth fishermen learn to differentiate between rocks,” McClint-ock says. “Let’s say you fish down a quarter-mile of fist-sized limestone rock bank and don’t get a strike. Then suddenly that limestone changes to black, flaky shale. That’s a major transition, and it’ll draw monster smallmouths from a wide area.”
Other rock transitions McClintock fishes include boulders changing to chunk rock or gravel, sheer vertical limestone bluffs changing to ledge or “stair-step” limestone, head-sized rock changing to fist-sized rock, etc.
“The varieties of rock transitions are practically endless; the main thing is to be aware that any change in rock size or type is a potential smallmouth magnet.”
Transitions In Bottom Composition—“Smallmouths aren’t only attracted to rock; they can gravitate to other types of bank and bottom materials including clay, mud and sand. Little wonder, since crayfish find it easy to burrow into these softer materials,” McClintock says.
“The fish commonly spawn on hard clay and sand. Always fish any spot where there’s a sudden shift from rock to any of these materials.”
Changes In Slope—“This is where geometry can influ-ence smallmouth location. Bronzebacks will often hang tight to, or suspend around, an area where a bank with a 45-degree slope begins to flatten out into a 20-degree slope, where a vertical rock bluff changes into a 45-degree rock bank, etc.” he says. “These places usually indicate where some major structural element such as a creek channel swings into the bank.
Changes in bottom contour are equally important to smallmouths, especially in places where sudden depth changes are involved.
“If you’re fishing an 8-foot-deep main-lake flat and the bottom suddenly plunges to 16 feet, you’ve found a submerged creek channel, which is always a likely spot for smallies,” he says. “They’ll suspend over the drop, venture onto the flat to feed, then bolt for deep water when danger threatens.”
Transitions In Shoreline Contour—“Seen from above, a reservoir bank, even a sheer limestone bluff, is never 100 percent straight,” McClintock says. “Event-ually it will cut in or stick out slightly. Even if they’re small, these cuts, pockets, points or prongs, make great ambush spots for smallmouths.”
Shifts In Water Clarity And Temperature—According to McClintock, these can be just as important as changes in bank or bottom composition or contour.
“Smallmouths can use water color transitions as a predatory edge—a great example is the mudline that can form against a wind-blown bank,” he says. “Smallies will sit in this discolored band of water, then rush out into clear water to grab passing baitfish.
He also believes smallmouths instinctively know that in spring, a sudden influx of warm, muddy water can trigger a mass emergence of crayfish from their winter hibernation.
“Smallies will pack into the back of a reservoir tributary arm, where warm, muddy run-off dumps into the clear, cold lake water, then gorge on crawdads.”
Develop An Eye
“Think of transition zones as your shortcut to big smallmouths,” says Tennessean Jack Christian.
He should know. He’s an expert at fishing Priest Lake, and has caught many giant smallmouths from transitions. He’s also led countless anglers from across the country to their personal-best smallmouths in a guiding career that spanned more than three decades.
“Once you know what to look for, you can put your trolling motor on high and scoot past miles of unproductive banks, then slow down and fish the transitions—that’s where the trophy-class smallies will be,” he says.
Learning how to do this requires time on the water spent scanning your surroundings for visual signs of something different, Christian says. “Reading about the difference between head-size and fist-size rock in a magazine is helpful, but I highly recommend that you go out and familiarize yourself with transition zones that occur on your home lake,” he says. “Don’t take any fishing equipment with you on your scouting trips—just go out and ride the lake, idling down rock banks, scoping out points and flats, looking carefully for the various types of transitions. Then when you return, you can head right for them and make the most efficient use of your time on the water.”
Many reservoirs undergo a significant winter drawdown, and this can be a golden opportunity to spot subtle transitions other anglers overlook, Christian notes.
“For example, the biggest females spawn on seemingly minor changes in bottom composition, such as a tiny patch of clay on a flat or point that’s primarily composed of gravel,” he says. “You’ll never see these places when the water is high, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb during winter, when the lake has been lowered and they’re left high and dry.
“While your competition is deer hunting or watching football, mark these shallow transitions on your lake map, then come back in spring and fish ’em.”
Use your depthfinder to locate deeper bottom transitions. “Watch for any rapid depth changes, Christian says. “Smallmouths relate strongly to these. Spotting subtle bottom composition transitions, like gravel changing to shale, may require that you run your graph on manual instead of auto, using its zoom function or kicking up the power output as needed to get a better view of what’s down there.
A color sonar like the Lowrance LMS-332c is especially handy when hunting bottom transitions; it’ll show a hard bottom in a different color than a soft bottom. This model also has built-in GPS, which is obviously a huge help in pinpointing bottom transitions for future outings.
Put all the insights from these transition smallmouth experts together, and you’ll have the roadmap for trophy-class fish few others can find.