At a recent tournament on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota, a young angler asked me if I would expect to find the smallmouth bass to be schooled up. He wanted to know if I expected to catch more from a spot where I just caught one. The answer was “no, not likely, but possible.” Then I went on to explain a little about the schooling nature of smallmouth bass, which is the point of this article. Yes indeed, smallmouth will school up, sometimes in big numbers! But not always. It all mostly depends upon the time of the year, that is the greatest determining factor in the occurrence of schooling smallmouth.
First, let me define what I view as schooling smallmouth. To me, this is when I hook one and multiple other smallmouth pursue the hooked bass as I fight it to the boat. In clear water, the other bass can often be seen with the naked eye as they chase in excitement. In less visible situations, forward-facing sonar (like the Lowrance Active Target) now can spot these other bass in pursuit. By how ever means they are spotted, this can be quite a fun moment because other anglers in the boat can now direct a cast towards these others and take advantage of their heightened aggression. These “joiners” as I call them, can be very easy to catch.
So when can we expect to run into these schools? As I mentioned above, it depends upon the season, therefore I will walk this through each of the seasons beginning at ice out.
If you are quick enough to get fishing after the ice melts, you may still encounter bass occupying their wintering holes, which is typically some kind of deep structure. But this window is very brief. In fact, I have never personally experienced it, but have had discussions with anglers who have and I have seen the pictures to back up their claims! Bass stationed at wintering holes are usually present in high numbers.
This ice out opportunity quickly vanishes as shallow waters rapidly warm. When bass vacate the deep water where they were huddled in masses, the school breaks apart. As the pre-spawn period takes hold, bass begin showing up in shallow water. Often they are attracted to the same areas so bass can still be found together. However, they may be more spread out over an area. Some of the bass will be singles, but groups are still encountered as well, but usually only a handful to a pack. One exception to this occurs in rivers when a bunch of pre-spawn bass find a current seam that they all like. In this situation, several quality bass may be caught without moving.
Next comes the actual spawn period as water temperatures hit 60 degrees F. It is during this period when schooling activity is at the very minimum. Bass will be spread out over the spawning habitat, being occupied with the duties of nest-building, spawning, and nest/fry-guarding. Males really seem to keep their space from one another at this time, as they are the ones that handle these duties. Small groups of females may be encountered as they stage just before or after laying their eggs. For example, you may find two to four big females positioned around a giant boulder, a clump of weeds, or a dock any of which is positioned in or near spawning habitat. But then again, you may find just one big female all alone staging. Juvenile bass that are too young to spawn can still be found in small groups at this time.
Once the spawning cycle has completed, bass begin finding one another again, sharing the same cover and structure. Immediately after the spawn, schools will run in small numbers. But at this time, you can start expecting to observe other bass chasing a hooked one so be ready. As summer rolls onward, these schools that are small in numbers begin merging and the schools build. More numbers of bass can be caught from one boat position.
When Autumn arrives, the merging and building of schools continues. When an angler finds one, they have often found many! October might be my favorite month for smallmouth because of this. A large number of bass can be caught from just one deep hump or point. Thankfully the Minnesota DNR has recognized this vulnerability, and has placed catch-and-release regulations on smallmouth starting sometime in September. Other states should consider the same.
As Autumn progresses to early-winter, smallmouth have pretty much settled into their wintering areas in big numbers. They can be very moody with the chilly water temperatures (low 40s F or less) and get finicky about biting. But because there are so many in one place, bass can still be caught.
These big schools of bass remain all the way to ice-up, through the winter ice, and until we reach the refreshing of the cycle as I started with. I’ve never targeted smallmouth through the ice, but I understand it can be successful.
So when I told the young angler – “no” at the beginning of this article, it was because the season was at the tail end of the spawn. I knew most males were guarding fry and some were still guarding eggs and they keep their space when they do this. I hadn’t been finding females together either or at all. As that day of fishing unfolded, that is how it played out. All of the quality bass that I caught that day were singles and most likely males. In fact, during the four days that I was there, only once did I spot a “joiner” (not counting the juveniles).
How does understanding this about smallmouth schooling help an angler? Easy. In the Spring and early-Summer, the bass are more spread out, so keep the boat moving. Don’t expect to catch a pile sitting in one place. If you eyeball a bass cruising or nesting, target it and troll forward after catching it – or not catching it. As the season progresses to later in the year, the emphasis needs to be on finding the right “spot”, because when it’s found, the boat doesn’t have to be moved much at all!