Reel in an epic bass this fall

by Lonnie King | November 6, 2013

reel - A man holding two smallmouth bass

Ontario’s smallie water bodies are pumping out more and bigger fish than ever before. Southern Ontario easily stands out as one of the hottest spots, not just in the province, but arguably, in all of North America for smallmouth bass. And if it’s a true trophy you’re after, fall is one of the best times of year to catch one.

A mere glance at the results of local tournaments reveals that daily limits of 4- and 5-pound fish are no guarantee of a top-10 finish.

Certain fisheries, in fact, are so well known for bulging bags of bronzebacks that even tight-lipped tournament anglers hold nothing back in extolling their remarkableness. Among the more notable of these big-fish bastions are lakes Simcoe, Erie, and Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River.

Here’s what some of the province’s leading smallmouth experts had to say when asked for their perspective on tackling these trophy fisheries in the fall.

Lake Erie

Frank Dimarcantonio is a guide on Lake Erie who chases smallmouths all season long. But, like many guides in the area, he looks forward to the fall as a prime time to match his clients up with big fish.

Using his electric trolling motor, Dimarcantonio will position the boat directly overtop of fish and watch his rig descend on the bow-mounted sonar. Rather than letting the rig hit the bottom, he will first hold the bait overtop of the fish and tease them to come up and hit the bait.Another nuance to his drop-shotting set-up is the short lead between the sinker and hook, often only a few inches. To prevent losing his weight, he will also add an extra granny knot so the drop-shot weight doesn’t fly off when fish jump. For baits, Dimarcantonio relies heavily on Jackall Crosstail Shad and 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnows.

“As fall approaches, smallmouth bass that have spent the summer foraging on pelagic baitfish swing back shallow to meet up with resident populations of inshore fish,” said Dimarcantonio. “Fish are almost always grouped together. So, if you find one, you can be assured there are more nearby.”

One of the more challenging aspects of Lake Erie, however, is its vastness. Given smallmouth bass’s often nomadic behaviour in the fall, and with so much potential cover for fish to shelter in, Dimarcantonio spends considerable time each day simply scanning key structural areas with his sonar for schools of fish.

Another challenging aspect of Lake Erie’s fall personality is high winds. They not only make it difficult to fish, they also churn up the inshore area, dramatically altering water clarity. Anglers need to be aware of daily wind conditions, and prevailing wind patterns to anticipate fish location.

For Dimarcantonio, adapting to changing water clarity is all part of the game. He typically prefers to drop-shot in the clear water and relies more on dragging tube jigs as the water gets more turbid.

Lake Ontario
Some of the best smallmouth fishing on Lake Ontario takes place out of the Kingston area, around the main Duck Islands and moving east.

Tube jig
In the fall, a particularly important presentation for Strub is dragging heavy tubes. In the summer, tube fishing is often hindered by dense growths of filamentous algae, but this largely dies off in late summer. Strub prefers a larger 4- to 5-inch body in the fall — typically sticking with darker, goby-imitating colours, such as watermelon or green pumpkin, often with gold or red fleck. For this presentation, he uses heavier spinning gear.His preferred outfit is a Shimano 7-foot, 2-inch medium-heavy Cumara rod, spooled with 20-pound no-stretch line and a 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. This offers him the extra backbone he needs for fishing heavier baits in deep water.

This vast area is also one of the most exposed and challenging places to fish for bass in southern Ontario. But for those willing to take it on, there are bruiser bass to be found. An angler who regularly fishes these waters is Derek Strub. He has a long list of tournament victories from this area, including the Canadian Open Title in 2010.

“One thing that sets Lake Ontario apart from other top bass fisheries is how cold it is,” Strub pointed out. “While most of the bass fishing takes place in 25 to 35 foot depths, it’s not uncommon to have 100 to 170 foot depths nearby, and it doesn’t take much of a wind to cause these colder water masses to move.” This area is also characterized by strong currents, resulting from the large volumes of water pushing towards the St. Lawrence River. A change in wind direction can cause water temperatures to drop by 15˚F overnight — moving bass in the process and also altering current patterns, which collectively can send fish into a tailspin, making them exceedingly difficult to catch.”

St. Lawrence River

The Ontario portion of the St. Lawrence River is a top smallmouth bass producer. It stretches from Kingston to Cornwall, and includes a portion of Lake Saint Francis, which is shared with Quebec and New York State. In total, it is approximately 250 kilometres of clear-water habitat, with ample current and complexity.

Jerkbaits are an essential presentation for smallmouth bass in virtually every situation where fish are relating to shallow water. For Currie, the ideal outfit for fishing jerkbaits consists of a medium-light action rod spooled with 10-pound no-stretch line, and an ample length of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.When fishing jerkbaits, he instructs his clients to continually vary the retrieve.Not only the speed and cadence of the snapping action, but also the rod position — often throwing in a mixture of high, low, and sideways snaps to keep the lure’s action spontaneous. To prevent fish from throwing the lure, he also sets his drag light enough that it lets out a tiny bit of line on each snap, as he retrieves the lure.

Mark Currie knows these St. Lawrence smallies well. Once an accomplished tournament angler, he has turned his bass fishing passion to guiding.

Over 30 or so years of fishing the area, Currie has watched the size of smallmouth increase — a trend which he attributes to the expansion of round gobies, an invasive species to Ontario. Native to the Black and Caspian Seas in eastern Europe, gobies are believed to have been introduced to the Great Lakes via the ballast water of sea-going ships. Gobies were first collected in the St. Clair River in 1990. Since then, they’ve rapidly spread throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basins.

“We used to think a 5-pound fish was a giant,” Currie reflected. “But since the arrival of gobies, bass size has markedly increased. I now go into each season eager to see just how many times my clients can break the 6-pound mark.”

On one fall outing with Currie, we managed a 5-bass limit, which topped 27 pounds, most of which we caught by throwing jerkbaits. However, there are so many good spots to catch fish in the river, you likely stand an equally good chance of catching a 5-pound fish using just about any tactic. You’ll find fish both deep and shallow, but like all the top smallmouth anglers I have met over the years, Currie advises potential trophy hunters to go in with an open mind and apply a range of tactics to find the fish’s preference. Unlike the larger lake fisheries, river anglers are less likely to get blown off the water by wind, however yacht and tanker traffic often generate rogue waves that can send a speeding boat airborne if you’re not paying attention.

Like all border waters, it’s important to be mindful of where you’re fishing and carry the right licences for the province or state you’re in.

Lake Simcoe
With a surface area of 287 square miles, Lake Simcoe is the largest inland lake in southern Ontario and the fourth-largest lake wholly situated in the province. It’s also the centre of one of the fastest growing urban populations in the country. Simcoe holds the distinction of having produced the largest five-fish tournament weight ever recorded in Ontario: a 31.5-pound bag of smallmouth caught by Joe Muszynski and Mark Moran during the Bass Pro Shops Lake Simcoe Open tournament in 2010. Not surprisingly, that tournament was held in October, when an equally impressive 8.05-pound smallmouth was also brought to the scales.

Burning spinnerbaits
One presentation in particular that Desforges relies on for finding and catching big smallmouth bass is retrieving extra fast, “burning,” big spinnerbaits.“It’s hard to beat these baits when your objective is covering water,” Desforges insisted.“Even when fish are inactive, they’ll often rise off bottom or track in behind the lure, which is enough of a clue for observant anglers to locate prime fish holding areas.”

Lake Simcoe is predominantly a clear-water fishery, with deep (maximum depth of 135 feet) and shallow-water habitats, and an ample supply of forage, which provides all the necessities for growing big bronzebacks.

I had the opportunity to fish this area with noted tournament angler Mike Desforges and walked away with a heightened sense of appreciation for both this amazing fishery and those anglers who have made a reputation catching its big bass.

Desforges is regarded by many as one of the most consistent smallmouth anglers in the province, and after having fished with him, I can understand why. During our trip, Desforges described Simcoe as “the sort of place where you hope for five or six bites a day, knowing that if you get them, you’re probably looking at a 20-pound bag of fish, or bigger.”

His description aptly set us up for a sunrise-to-sunset day of fishing that involved visiting countless waypoints Desforges had logged on his sonar over the years. In the course of the day, we saw a good portion of the lake and fished a wide range of depths, throwing everything from jerkbaits to jigging spoons.

Ultimately, it was the combination of drop-shotting and dragging jigs across flats in 20 to 40 feet that resulted in several hefty smallmouths in the 5-pound class.

While few would complain about catching such incredible fish, it took an above-average level of effort, and was a humbling reminder that as good as a fishery might be, catching trophy fish is often the product of hard work.

Desforges’ ideal spinnerbait outfit consists of 17-pound monofilament line fitted on a high-speed baitcasting reel, and 7-foot rod. He uses this combination to hurl 3⁄4- to 1-ounce double-bladed spinnerbaits a country mile and burn them back just under the surface. His preferred spinnerbaits are the Terminator T-1 series with a white skirt and double willow-leaf blades for clear water.

“I never add a plastic trailer, such as a grub to my spinnerbait. I find it creates too much drag. It also gives the bait too big a profile, which I think reduces bites. However, I do add a trailer hook. Usually, I’ll use a single hook, but if the smallies are just nipping at the back of the skirt and I’m missing fish, I’ll switch to a treble hook as my trailer.”

If a trophy smallmouth is on your to-do-list this fall, then southern Ontario is certainly the place to be, and the advice of these top sticks could put you on your way to making it happen.

Originally published in the Fall issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine.