Guiding for smallmouth bass had enabled me to meet all types of anglers. Some people have limited ability while others are seasoned veterans. Most people fit somewhere in the middle. Often, the success rate depends on the ability of the individual client. One person is content with catching numbers of 12- to 15- inchers, while another is looking for one to put on his wall. Unfortunately, there are only a few places where you can catch numbers of smallmouth and have a shot at a trophy. During the past few seasons there was an increase in the numbers of fishermen in pursuit of big smallmouth.
This past year was an excellent year for big smallmouth. The largest one boated was a 23-incher that weighed in at 6-3/4 pounds. Along with that hawg, we managed to boat 42 smallmouth over 20 inches, with all but one being released. These big smallmouth were caught on a variety of baits and in different types of water. Out of the 42 fish, eight were caught on flowages including the 23-incher, 17 were caught on natural lakes and 17 were caught on the Menominee River. The key to my success was not just knowing where to fish, but fishing the right place at the right time. To catch big smallmouth consistently, you must consider both the time of year and prevailing weather conditions.
Spring is the one time of year where you can take big smallmouth in a variety of places. Clear, natural lakes are very productive in the early season. Smallmouth go on the prowl as they search out spawning areas. Most fishermen have no trouble finding action and an occasional big fish. The biggest mistake made by most of my clients is they use too small of baits. Medium-sized crankbaits and three-inch plastic grubs are great for 12- to 16-inch smallmouth but don’t expect to catch numbers of big smallmouth. If you are fishing a lake that has only a few big fish, this is fine. However, if you are fishing big fish water, use big baits even in spring. While guiding, we have to make the decision to go for number or big fish. It is possible to do both on some lakes, but it will mean changing your game plan. One Florence County lake we start hunting for hawgs and then switch to catching numbers. If conditions and timing are right, you can have the best of both worlds.
Location is also important when searching for big smallmouth. Smaller male fish will cruise the shorelines and relate to rubble and shoreline wood. However, the big hawgs will key out specific points and transition areas. These points will be close to deep water. Big smallmouth will move no further than need be. The best points will have transition areas where rock and rubble mixes with sparse weeds or downed wood. The more cover the greater the odds are that the point will hold a big smallmouth. If no distinct points are present, search the shorelines for wood rock transitions.
My first choice in baits when looking for a big smallmouth is suspending jerk baits like a Husky jerk. This bait has been responsible for putting more big smallmouth in my boat in clear water than all other baits combined. The best color patterns are blue/silver and silver. After I work the area with a Husky Jerk, I switch over to plastics. Plastics are most effective when the water temperature is below 60 degrees. A 1/18th ounce jig with a four- or five-inch Kalins Grub is tough to beat and easy to use. Black, smoke and motor oil are the preferred grub colors. This grub can be slowly worked along the rubble shorelines. If the action is slow, switch over to a 1/8-ounce Hyper Head Jig with a skirted twin-tailed grub. The grub can be worked weedless and you can finesse the grub over rocks and downed wood. When using plastics, it is essential to make the longest possible cast. Moving too close to the shoreline or point will spook large smallmouth. I use a Lamiglas 6-1/2 foot IMS 661 or a seven-foot IMS 703. Light line is also a must and use four-pound test as much as possible. If snags are a problem, I use eight-pound Berkley ultra-thin line which has a diameter of four-pound test line.
Stained water flowages can also be productive in spring. On many flowages this is the only time big smallmouth are vulnerable. Flowages have a variety of structure including rock, wood and weeds. Most of the year smallmouth can scatter and are tough to locate. Flowages also warm faster than natural lakes and will see active smallmouth a week or two earlier than natural lakes. Rock and rubble areas can see active smallmouth as early as the first week of May. Suspending jerk baits are again the top producing bait for big smallmouth. Fire tiger and orange crawdad are the top colors in stained water. When fishing a grub, stick with bright colors.
Once summer sets in, big smallmouth are tough to catch on both natural lakes and flowages. There are feeding periods early and late in the day but they can be tough to pattern. In summer, most of my big smallmouth are taken in rivers. Most river smallmouth become active about the time the action slows on a natural lake or flowage. The top producing areas for big river smallmouth are weed/rock transitions with access to deeper water. These areas will also have distinct current breaks including downed wood. The more elements present, the greater the odds the area will hold a trophy smallmouth. Smallmouth will find a variety of forage present in which to feed on.
Spinnerbaits are my first choice in summer baits. Use either a 1/4-ounce or 3/8-ounce spinnerbait and cast it as tight to the wood as possible. Both single blade and double blade spinners are productive. Single spin baits work best if the smallmouth are in the neutral mood. Smallmouth fishermen who prefer in-line spinners on rivers, usually catch smaller fish. At dusk, work the edge of the river grass with topwater baits. Big baits like a Zara Spook are deadly right at dusk. If smallmouth are holding in the deep water, crankbaits would be my first choice in baits. After you work the crankbait, then drop back and use a live crawler or leech. Live bait can be deadly on summer smallmouth.
Rivers continue to be productive for big smallmouth through fall. Late September and early October is prime time for a trophy. By early October the big smallmouth will stack up along feeder creek channels and along the edges of backwaters. Forage fish like shiners are also stacking up as they leave the shallows. Big spinnerbaits are again the top-producing bait. Spinnerbaits resemble suspending baitfish and will pose savage strikes. Suspending jerk baits are also effective. If artificials don’t produce, try a jig and shiner.
Once the water temperature drops below 55 degrees, catching big river smallmouth can be difficult. By late fall, those same clear-water lakes where you caught big fish in spring are again prime. Look for big smallmouth to stack up along shoreline points off steep rock dropoffs. Use your electronics to locate forage and smallmouth. The best presentation is a jig and redtail chub. If smallmouth are suspended, go to a slip bobber and set it slightly above the marked fish. Either drift or use your electric trolling motor to position yourselves over the school. Vertical jigging spoons can also be effective.
While catching big smallmouth is never easy, you can increase your odds. Make sure you fish the proper water at the best time of year.