“You really are a bass guy!” said my friend, as I led another hefty smallmouth to the net. This was 20 years ago when a group of us were walleye fishing on Lake Erie’s eastern basin. With downriggers set, we took turns fighting fish. Every time I picked up the rod, though, a smallmouth was on the other end. By day’s end, I’d landed five. Each was caught from 35- to 63-foot depths, which I never imagined were suited to bass.
According to Dr. Mark Ridgway, a Ministry of Natural Resources researcher at the Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries Research, smallmouth bass hover off bottom for two reasons: food and preferred water temperature (roughly 65- to 70°F). “Smallmouth are very temperature specific and will seek out their ideal range,” he said.
His research indicates summer smallmouth will venture into the thermocline/metalimnion, the layer of rapidly changing temperatures in a stratified lake between the warmer surface layer (epilimnion) and colder deep water (hypolimnion). Furthermore, seasonal depths are linked closely to the development and degradation of the thermocline.
One of Dr. Ridgway’s studies, which tracked smallmouth between July 4 to September 26, discovered bass would rise higher in the water column at night and then descend as temperatures increased during the day. Bass remained at their deepest from 6 am to 1 pm. The largest bass remained deeper than smaller ones. Studies also discovered that smallmouth move vertically an average of 6- to 15 feet during the day and 3- to 9 feet at night.
The other key is bait. Smelt, alewife, perch, and cisco schools are also associated closely with the thermocline, and this is crucial to the position of the bass. This means if you find the thermocline and baitfish, you will find the bass – in theory, at least. It’s a little more complex. Smallmouth are transient, seasonally, weekly, even daily. The thermocline moves, too, influenced by wind, daily temperature, and lake size and configuration. This is why electronics are key. Without them, suspended fish can be difficult to find.
Eyes in the water
A GPS is indispensable. When paired with electronic maps, anglers can easily and efficiently search offshore structure that abuts the thermocline. Bass could be suspended on or near the structure. Paper hydrographical maps are still relevant and, depending on your lake, might be the only choice. Whether you use electronic maps or go old school, mark key structure and locations of active bass schools on your GPS. Don’t be lazy; anything that looks fishy is worthy of a waypoint.
I’m always amazed by the creative methods disciplined anglers use to succeed on their home waters. Frank Dimarcantonio, a talented guide from Welland,Ont. has two high-end GPS units on his boat’s dash. One is used to home in on precise structure, the other to guide the boat.
Throughout the eastern basin of Lake Erie, he’s marked productive boulders, hard spots, bars, and ledges. Using both of his units, he accurately steers his boat alongside each GPS icon. It’s taken him years to create a data bank of honey holes, but by flicking on his GPS, locating them is a snap.
Recently, Humminbird and Lowrance developed side-imaging capabilities on their top units. They were initially considered a luxury, but many big-water smallmouth anglers now consider them invaluable. There’s always a sweet spot on any structure; with side scanning, locating the spot on the spot is quick and accurate. Dimarcantonio says that with side-imaging, last year, to his surprise, he found a series of trenches that paralleled some of his best smallmouth drifts.
On the hunt
Running and gunning for smallmouths is a proven technique. To trigger strikes or at least have suspended bass reveal themselves, keep moving and continually cast to promising new water. It’s a numbers game. Try enough places and eventually you will hit the jackpot. Ideally, you will find an active school. If they’re not biting, keep moving until you do.
Big spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, rattlebaits, topwaters, and hard- and soft swimbaits are all great choices for this type of fishing. These lures cast well, have tremendous flash and vibration, and can be worked quickly.
Every smallmouth angler should seriously consider hard swimbaits, in particular. Moulded from hard plastic, these double- and triple-jointed plugs are ultra-realistic and have detailed paint schemes, 3-D oversized eyes, and perfectly balanced weighting, giving them a natural look like few other baits on the market. They’re definitely worth their hefty price tags for suspended bass.
If bass are visible on the depth finder or you see a school of behemoths follow your lure to the boat, but not hit, finesse fishing can be the best solution, says Jon Bondy, a guide and Windsor, Ont. native who has a knack for catching bass. Countless days fishing Lakes St. Clair and Erie, the Detroit River, and several years as a Bassmaster Touring Elite pro have polished his deep-water fishing skills.
“In most instances, suspended fish can be hard to catch, but they’re definitely catchable,” he said. “Using today’s fish finders is like using a video game; once you see what the fish look like on there, it’s as simple as dropping your bait to them.”
One of Bondy’s go-to methods is to drop a tube jig through the water column. Once it passes the fish zone, retrieve and pitch out another cast. The wide, spiral fall is enticing. Rig the jig with an ultra-sharp head inside the hollow body. The trick is to use a bait light enough to work its magic, but heavy enough that you can maintain contact with it, to detect hits.
Drop-shotting is another hot technique. Initially used as a bottomhugging tactic, it’s also a good way to present soft plastic baits at any level. Soft plastics with ultra-realistic finishes, drenched in scent or salt, are best. Smallmouths will eat anything that mimics a goby, minnow, or leech. Don’t ignore finesse worms, miniswimbaits, and soft plastic jerkbaits, either.
If the bite is slow, try wacky rigging the bait through the middle. For minnow baits, slip the hook a tad closer to the head, instead of dead centre.
Getting the best of suspended bronzebacks is possible. All you need is an understanding of the nature of smallmouths, a working knowledge of electronics, and time to spend on the water.