We had seen the signs for years. Every so often a smallmouth bass would bust bait on the surface way off structure. From time to time, usually when the fishing was slow, we would race out and fire topwater lures over the deep, open water. Most of the time, it was to no avail.
After a series of frantic, fruitless casts, we would return to whatever sunken island or shoreline drop-off we had been fishing and continue along, frequently with the same slowresults. We'd scratch our heads and muse on the reasons behind this bass behavior.
On some waters, a "get on a drop-off and go" approach would work from early spring through fall. But on certain other fisheries, smallies—particularly big fish—became strangely absent after the postspawn dispersal. Oh yes, we could usually catch small fish and even a few quality bass in the morning and toward evening, but the midday bite was tough.
We believed that when the sun was high, big fish lay among the deeper boulders or down the lip of the drop-off, in a negative feeding mood. While this was true on some waters, we found it wasn't on others. Time, plus experience and observation, as well as technological advances like underwater cameras, multi-transducer sonar and exhaustive electronic tracking studies, would eventually tell us why.
Ironically, we got a better handle on the smallmouth's weird ways not through the bass tournaments we fished, but by taping television shows for the Professional Walleye Trail.
On the Great Lakes, as well as many of the lesser, but still relatively large, inland waters where these events are held, the habitat of walleyes and brown bass overlaps. Michigan's Lake St. Clair, Wisconsin's Sturgeon Bay and the St. Lawrence River in New York are just a few examples.
As it turns out, the walleye anglers proved to be great bass researchers. Except for topwaters, they use just about every presentation bass anglers do, and more. Armed with planer boards, downriggers and flatlines, the 150-boat contingent of competitors common at most tournaments can quickly and effectively seine a water column. If there are any smallies (and we might add spotted bass) roaming open water, they'll find 'em.
On one occasion in the Dakotas, our producer, James Lindner, filmed an angler as he fished a deep, sunken island with a jig-and-minnow. Problem was, this fellow couldn't get his bait through the suspended small jaws down to the bottom-hugging 'eyes below. After releasing 20 bass (all decent size) he was literally driven off the spot.
A similar scenario played out at an event on Sturgeon Bay. Fishermen pulling Rapalas on planer boards for suspended walleyes were driven off a 50-foot-deep flat by incessant attacks from a school of aggressive bass.
As we added up the evidence and anecdotes from these and other tournaments, a unique "Up, Down, All Around" pattern began to emerge that would forever change our approach to summertime smallmouths.
Biologists say form follows function, and that's certainly true with the smallmouth bass. Its muscular frame, powerful tail, blunt nose and vise-like jaws allow the bronze bass to forage on bottom, rooting crayfish from rocks. Yet it can just as easily swim off structure to attack big, suspended baitfish.
Much of what we have learned about their vertical and horizontal movements, as well as their penchant to periodically suspend off structure—particularly where smelt, shad or alewives are abundant—has to do with what some scientists are now calling the "fountain effect." Bass travel from deep to shallow water, then fan out and suspend near bait, in mini-migrations that occur seasonally, weekly, day to day—even hour by hour!
To fully understand these fish, the fountain effect along with another important factor, the smallmouth's incredible ability to change depths, must be taken into consideration.
It never ceases amaze me how a smallie can grab a bait in 35 feet of water, rocket to the surface, leap and then dive, put up a sustained battle, and still not blow out its stomach as would a largemouth or walleye. This capacity to quickly equilibrate itself plays a role in the patterns of smallmouth movement.
There is ongoing investigation into this phenomenon. While the smallmouth is not totally immune to the "bends," there's no question it can tolerate quick depth pressure and water temperature changes, beyond the capabilities of many other species. Understanding these two factors allows anglers to look at smallies in a whole new light.
A brown bass is not a walleye on steroids or a largemouth bass that has forsaken cover; under the right conditions, a smallmouth bass that refused offerings dragged in front of its nose in deep water may suddenly rise off bottom in 30 feet of water (20 or less is more common), swim up like a missile and smash a lure on or near the surface.
More amazingly, the fish often brings along three or four buddies, who follow it to the boat during the fight. Even after the hooked fish is netted, its followers may linger below the boat, trailing it for a while before swimming off—either horizontally or vertically.
This type of behavior baffles anglers, even good ones. Patterns evaporate as bass move up and down in the water column and periodically suspend. In short, the fish are there one moment, gone the next.
Rhyme And Reason
Forage availability, combined with water temperature and clarity, sets the tune to which smallmouths dance. In some waters they are nomadic—in others, homebodies. For example, in central Minnesota's sprawling Mille Lacs Lake, there appears to be little overlap in the hunting ranges among schools of bass.
Mille Lacs covers 132,000 acres and is just 42 feet at its deepest point. The northern portion of the lake is dominated by mud flats that typically rise from six to 10 feet from the basin floor. The southern section features numbers of gravel and rock bars. The lake provides a very stable environment with plenty of crayfish, small perch, minnows, mayfly larvae, bloodworms and other forage in the shallows all year long. Thus, the fish become homebodies, and sustained, suspended movements don't occur.
Contrast this with the huge north arm of Rainy Lake in Ontario, Canada. Rainy is a typical Canadian Shield lake dominated by a rocky bottom. Overall, it covers 220,800 acres, with a maximum depth of 161 feet.
After the postspawn dispersal, pods of adult bass may leisurely move to late-summer or early fall haunts, stopping here and there along the way. However, depending upon the weather and available forage, a quantum leap of many miles can happen very quickly. One day a group of fish can be just outside its spawning grounds, the next day it's gone.
And just as suddenly, in another part of the lake, a point or sunken island and the surrounding area will host hundreds of smallies. It appears that once smelt got into Rainy, the big smallmouths said goodbye to crayfish and spottail shiners. Similar scenarios exist in many areas of the Great Lakes, as well as in large, deep reservoirs and natural lakes from East to West.
Once the fish suspend, they apparently switch to an almost exclusive diet of smelt or other pelagic baitfish. They establish new home ranges that may be quite extensive, even overlapping other groups' territory. The size of baitfish schools and where they are located determines these ranges and how long the bass groups utilize them.
As the thermocline forms, it becomes the floor of their vertical movements. When lakes turn over in fall, the fish move steadily deeper. Periodically, they may return to shallow water, but they will eventually move to deep-water flats where they spend the winter.
The most common behavior we've observed is when a wolfpack of bass swims up or out from a deep hump or point to attack forage suspended nearby, then returns to the structure to rest and digest their huge meals. This behavior appears to be temporary and opportunistic.
We know smallies, like walleyes, can and do school up, suspend and roam over open water for extended periods of time. What we still do not know is how far they will wander, how tightly they group and how long they will stay there before resting on some sort of structure. In our experience it's usually a smash-and-grab, hit-and-run situation.
Even while suspended, the bass relate in some way to structure. While they may hold six to 10 feet deep in 30 to 50 feet or more of water, the bottom is often a saddle between two shallower humps, a ridge of rock or a hump surrounded by deep water. Bass will also suspend in deep water adjacent to a steep bluff wall or an extended deep lip off some shallow point.
Smallies hunting smelt, shad or alewives like to hover above a deep flat between two landmasses (an island and the shoreline, or two islands). Neck-down areas where baitfish are funneled by wind or current are perennial hotspots.
Tools And Tactics
When smallies root crayfish on bottom or scrounge the shallows for perch and shiners, location and presentation are pretty straightforward. Get on a drop-off and cast toward or parallel to a shoreline bank of some sort. Keep your eyes open; look in enough areas long enough, and eventually you'll find 'em.
A potent arsenal of angler-friendly and familiar lures can help, including tubes, craws, spider grubs, lipless cranks, spinners and topwaters. But it's a different matter once smallmouths zero in on pelagic, offshore forage and play the "upsey-downsy-daisy" game.
A pod of bass may start the day at 30 feet or deeper, then move up, suspend and end up six feet beneath the surface, only to return to deep water in late evening. These movements are tough to pattern.
To boost our efficiency, we usually don't fish unless we see smallies in an area first. It's sight fishing, all right, but with electronic gear. Armed with an Aqua Vu camera (with depth and temperature display), we establish the thermocline. Then we motor over deep structural areas with a dual-transducer, Vexilar Edge 2 graph (with l0-degree narrow and 40-degree wide cones), augmented by a Vexilar FL-18 flasher with a 20-degree cone. We mount the transducers so the cones overlap approximately 20 feet below the boat.
If a lot of targets appear on the graph or flasher, we drop the camera to determine if the fish are indeed bass.
When this pattern emerges, smallies' foraging demeanor takes a peculiar twist. They tend to quit feeding on bottom, preferring overhead or eye-level prey. They also quit chasing fast-moving, tight-wobbling and erratic lures—baits that work very well a month earlier. Lying under or near immense clouds of suspended bait, the hovering groups of bass watch for easy meals. Any weak, injured or dying baitfish that flutter out become potential targets.
Once bass focus on suspended bait, they're more attracted to slow-moving, slow-falling, gliding, suspending and slow, start/stop types of presentations. As a bonus, there are also just enough occasional dramatic topwater episodes, when bass drive baitfish to the surface, to keep everyone on their toes.
Our favorite approach involves two anglers. The first is a lead man, who uses a bow-mount trolling motor to guide the boat within a cast-length of the edge of a submerged island, point, saddle, or other sunken treasure. From this vantage point, he fires casts toward the structure with a variety of standard bass presentations—including topwaters, Carolina rigs and jigworms.
Our favorite topwaters are Rapala's Skitter Pop and Skitter Prop. A typical Carolina rig consists of a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce No-Snagg sinker, 6-foot, 10-pound mono leader, and 4- to 7-inch, black or white Berkley Ribbontail worm on a Mustad jerkworm hook. When we use a jigworm, we keep it light, say, a 3/32- to 1/16-ounce head with a 3-inch grub.
When the rig or jig hits bottom near the top edge of the structure, the lead angler uses the motion of the boat to drag and swing it along bottom down the drop-off.
This phase of the retrieve ends when the rig reaches the depth of the thermocline, and he'll slowly reel the rig back to the boat, checking for suspended fish on the way. Sometimes, he'll zigzag the boat over the top of deep structure, other times he'll work open water as well.
Drop-shotting is another option. Here, we use a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce No-Snagg, five to six feet beneath a 4-inch Berkley Jerk Shad or 4- to 7-inch Ribbontail. Don't cast the drop-shot, though. Drop it and use the trolling motor to slowly swim it at the depth of the fish.
The rear angler serves as tailgunner. He long-lines either a 1/16-ounce mushroom head jig tipped with a 6- to 7-inch, black or white Ribbontail worm, or an HJ12 Rapala Husky Jerk. The jig or Jerk should run 75 to 100 feet behind the boat, six to eight feet down. This often catches the biggest bass.
When one person hooks up, his partner reels in and drops a 1/4-ounce hair jig eight feet down, directly off the side of the boat. You'd be surprised how many quality-size bass will nail the jig after following the hooked fish to the boat.
Another variation is when bass blow up on top. Then, both anglers fire topwaters toward the surfacing fish.
Anytime from late summer to early fall, you'll frequently face fish that have recently fed. In some cases, they may be totally bloated. Presentation—or rather, exacting presentation—takes on a whole new perspective.
Keep in mind, these observations are general in scope. There are times shallow fish will take slow-falling baits, and deep fish will take rigs on bottom. And when smallmouths get into one of their ravenous moods, anything can happen.
That aside, the patterns and tactics I have revealed are deadly. By gradually applying them to our bass fishing endeavors during the two tourneys we fish in Canada each year, we have, since 1992, logged three wins, two seconds and four thirds. On one circuit, my brother Ron has posted six top 10s. Interestingly, each year, half of the bass he weighs are caught suspended six feet down over 15 to 30 feet of water.
You can do it, too, when you acknow-ledge that big smallmouths run open water on certain lakes. Learn to find and stay on the fish—anticipating their movements and moods—and figure out how to successfully angle for them, and your summer smallmouth success will blossom. With trial, error and patience, you'll tap bronze beauties other anglers only dream about.
Author's Note: Thanks to biologists Dr. Mark Ridgeway, Darrel McCloud, Dick Sternberg and Steve Quinn; guides Billy Doughty, Joe Prichert, Dean Howard and Norm Lindsey; and tournament anglers Phil Risnes, Dave Lindsey, Mark Raveling and Jim Moynah.