What do your smallmouths regurgitate? Crayfish, smelt, yellow perch, gobies, bugs, ciscoes, shad? Understanding the meal your smallmouths are chasing will bring you several steps closer to catching them. The prey will affect locations of smallmouths in a lake/river and also fishing presentations. Smallies may have the temperament to be very aggressive and territorial, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will strike anything grabbed from the tackle box. In fact, they can be very picky, more than a largemouth. So here are a few things I’ve observed over the years while fishing for smallies across their geographical distribution.
In most lakes/rivers, there typically are a few prey options available. But at a given moment in the calendar, usually a preference can be observed. For example, when I fish Rainy Lake in July, the bass will be spitting up hoards of crayfish. However, in the fall, their diet shifts to baitfish (ciscoes) and that is what I see regurgitated. So angling success depends upon picking up on these tendencies and making the adjustments to fishing location and presentation.
Let’s discuss crayfish eaters. When smallmouths are feeding heavily on crayfish, a five-bass limit held in my livewell will litter it with an amazing amount of crayfish claws and other various parts/pieces. So much sometimes, that the screens become clogged over and affect the livewell’s circulation despite cleaning it the night before. When the bass are gorging on craws, an angler needs to focus on those areas of the lake that harbor healthy populations of them. In the north, this often is in shallow, weedy parts of the lake. I don’t know why the craws are there. Is it the soft bottom that they like? Or, is it the weeds themselves? But nonetheless, crayfish can accumulate in these areas in large numbers to where several occupy a space equal to the area of my Ranger Boat. Smallies have a reputation for preferring rocky habitat, but they will abandon that stereotype when pursuing crayfish in the weeds. Areas of transition of rock to weeds can often be preferred, but I have caught many smallmouth far from any rock at all.
So if smallies are eating crayfish, it naturally follows that an angler should choose a presentation to mimic one. I like fishing an All-Terrain Football Jig, or a crayfish-colored crankbait on the transition areas. But when it is too weedy or the bottom is too soft for those lures, then the other option is to tease a Texas-rigged creature bait or tube through the weeds. Note this exception — when these crayfish-eating smallmouth are really “on”, they will gladly attack topwaters, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits even though these lures are more related to imitating baitfish. I mention this because they can cover large weed areas much faster.
Baitfish-eating smallmouths are quite different, using different types of locations and preferring different presentations. I divide baitfish into bottom-hugging baitfish (gobies), and suspending baitfish (smelt, shad, ciscoes). Yellow perch seem to crossover between the two.
Smallies eating bait related to the bottom typically are very structure related, with rock and gravel areas being prime. I rely heavily on my Lowrance to find these areas along humps, points, and near drop-offs. They are conditioned to search and eat their prey from the bottom. Therefore presentations should be fished close to the bottom and should mimic baitfish. So that means dropshot rigs, Carolina-rigs, bottom-bumping crankbaits, heavy jig/fluke combos, and blade baits. Mix in an All-Terrain Football Jig if you notice crayfish in these areas as well.
Smallies eating suspended bait can be very nomadic and difficult to pin down. Because as the bait moves, so do the smallies. I’ve seen them move into weedbeds, into open water, up against vertical walls, over large flats, suspend deep, and suspend just under the surface. They can show up just about anywhere it seems. Because they are eating fish and on the move, I try to set aside my slow, creepy-crawley presentations, and shift to baitfish-imitating presentations, many of which cover water quickly. Such methods include A-rigs, swimbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and topwaters. Once I have found some bass, I may switch to jig/fluke combos and pick-off the less aggressive bass. Or if my Lowrance indicates that the bass are suspended really deep, then I may use the jig/fluke combo or a dropshot, but being sure to fish them just above the fish and not on the bottom.
Bugs like mayflies are also eaten by smallmouth. I remember on Lake St. Clair once running into a huge feed on mayflies. Smallies were dimpling everywhere, but I had a difficult time catching them. Down-sizing a topwater produced some as did a small version of a fluke. But I left thinking that there had to be a better way. A tiny marabou jig may have been a better choice. Smallies can really get on these little jigs sometimes, but I don’t really know what it is supposed to mimic.
Another occasion requiring downsizing occurred while I was fishing a river. The smallmouth were grabbing tiny minnows of the surface. Only until I put on the smallest crankbait that I had (one designed for crappies), did I start to catch the bass.
Smallmouth bass are an aggressive fish with a possessive attitude. But so often they can be very picky as to what lure they will take. By looking at what they are regurgitating, an angler can pick locations and presentations to more quickly find success.
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