Smallmouth bass are among North America’s best fighting fish anytime of year. But, fall fishing for smallies has another advantage — the scenery along the rivers and lakes where smallmouth thrive is fantastic!
Many of the best spots for smallmouth in the Midwest are well known. Places that come to mind include the Mississippi River, where legendary ice angler Dave Genz spends the open-water season chasing bronzebacks and walleyes. Others include places such as Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay or Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota, or Lake Erie.
Great Smallmouth Fisheries Abound
Other smallmouth destinations are gaining attention including Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay at Ashland, Wis. Still others are closely guarded secrets. Smallmouth addicts are close-mouthed when they discover a stream all to their own. It’s not all for selfish motives, though. Too much angling pressure by people who don’t practice catch and release can harm fragile fisheries.
One thing is sure no matter where smallmouth are found — you’re in for the tussle of your life when you hook a trophy! These aren’t finicky fish. Put a bait in front of a school and you’re likely to get one, or several, to play. A common sight is seeing another smallmouth bass swim to the boat as you reel in the one that’s hooked. Tactics to catch them are generally straightforward. The key is finding them.
Find Good Populations Of Fish
The first step to success — identify the places with good populations of fish. Check on-line sources such as websites devoted to smallmouth bass, or to destinations where they are found, or to the guides who lead travelers to smallies. Websites for state natural resource agencies also offer up-to-date data on surveys.
Careful study of a Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for your state will reveal important streams that link to larger waters that harbor smallies. Those little blue lines are often worth a look, and the maps list boat ramps. Anywhere roads cross water offer potential access points for someone wading or using a canoe.
Next, read the water. The search for smallmouth bass is all about current. Like other river predators, smallmouth relate to moving water. They want to be near the food and oxygen it provides without having to fight it all the time. They may be even a bit more oriented to slack water than walleyes or sauger. Places where the bass can sit while waiting for an easy meal are key. But, exactly where they locate themselves relative to the current will change with the seasons.
Summertime and early-fall fish relate to riffles where water bubbles over rocks. The churning adds to oxygen content and cuts the glare of the sun. Genz even catches fish in the prop wash of his outboard during mid-day, the time when the bite seems best. He targets the current seam right against the bank behind brush or behind an island. In times of low water, the right current speed is usually found behind mid-river boulders.
Low Water: Less Hiding Places
Genz said the low water translates to fewer places for the smallmouth to be — meaning locating them is easier than ever! They can’t hide along the bank in shoreline cover because the downed trees and brush are out of the water, so they station themselves behind rocks along current breaks. The water may only be 2- to 4 feet deep there. Genz uses a River Pro jet boat with a 200 Mercury Optimax to maneuver to places where canoes bottom out.
Genz uses a bullet sinker or a Lindy NO-SNAGG Center Slip sinker. The weight is normally 3/8-ounce. He wants the weight to be able to fall to the bottom, and then move with the current as he lifts the rod tip and drops it again. If it doesn’t reach the bottom, then the water is too fast to hold smallies. If it falls too quickly, then there’s not enough current to attract them.
Genz uses big minnows of 4-inches or more. In tournaments where live bait is banned, he’ll substitute a 3-inch tube lure on the hook. Use a variety of colors to see what the smallmouth want that day.
In lakes such as Mille Lacs or Lake Michigan, target the tops of rocks piles. The best structures are often the ones that top out at 5- to 10 feet, and are surrounded by 20- to 30 feet of water. Swimming a jig dressed with a Munchies Thumpin’ Grub or another plastic slightly over the tops of the rocks works wonders. Don’t get hung up using only drab colors, such as pumpkin seed. Experiment. Use a drift sock on windy days as you drift the breaks.
Cool Water, Deeper Fish
September and October can be outstanding on the Mississippi River. Focus on rip rap banks related to shore with a 1/8-ounce jig and a grub or tube.
But, where warm-water river fishermen avoid holes that hold only a catfish or two that time of year, deeper holes are the places to search for smallmouth bass as weather cools in late October and November. They’ll spend the winters there. Best spots are nearly devoid of current, so fish don’t have to work to hold their place. Prime areas also feature a fallen tree or big rocks, but cover isn’t necessary.
Try casting a suspending jerkbait. The density of water changes so if the bait rises slowly, add a suspend dot to the bottom. Bend the hook barbs down to avoid injury to the fish. Cast, jerk it, pause as long as you can stand it, then repeat the jerk, and pause through the hole.
A 1/4-ounce jig and small plastic crawdad also work. Stand-up jigs with hair that move slowly in the water are best. Cast, drag it on the bottom, pause, shake the rod tip, and repeat.
The third tactic is a “float ‘n’ fly,” — a method promoted by Illinois smallmouth guide Jonn Graham. He uses a tiny 1/48-ounce hair jig suspended below a small round weighted bobber set so the jig rides a few inches off the bottom. Cast and wiggle the rod tip to work the jig.
Bigger Water: Try Live Bait
On bigger water, live-bait Lindy-Rigging with big chubs at spots such as Little and Big Bay de Noc, or on Lake Superior, pays big dividends. Fish relate to deep-water humps as water temperatures dip to 50 degrees and below. If you’re catching walleyes, which isn’t all bad, move shallower on the structure. Smallmouth bass will be there. Work vertically and slow. Pick-ups can be subtle even with big fish. Set the hook hard to drive the point into their tough mouths. However, be careful because the wrist snap used for walleyes leads to lots of lost smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth bass are fun to catch. But, smallmouth fisheries can be harmed if too many are harvested. Photograph them and let them go. Graphite reproductions are great reminders of the experience.
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