From midsummer through autumn, chunky smallmouth bass stay close to deep structures and schooling baitfish in or near lake basins. Exploring these areas takes grit, though, as open water smallmouth are transient and their feeding activity oscillates between seeing-red aggressive and very choosy. Here’s how forage and structure influence offshore locations, and the tactics you need to catch a hog of a bronzeback.
Find the forage
Smelt, shad, alewife, ciscoes, perch, and other suspending baitfish are common food for offshore smallmouth. The challenge with fishing around open-water baitfish is they’re constantly moving, which means smallmouth also tend to be nomadic and unpredictable at times. The more you fish offshore, the greater your understanding of how, when, and why this predator-prey relationship unfolds in your local lakes.
Offshore smallmouth also eat crayfish and gobies, which are homebodies compared to suspending baitfish. Areas where smallmouth snack on these floor-dwellers are more predictable places to find and catch bass throughout the day.
In conjunction with forage, structure influences smallmouth whereabouts. Good places to start are 18-to 35-foot deep humps, saddles, points, bars, and flats in or next to 40- to 60-foot basins. Structure attractive to smallmouth often divides into two categories, which for simplicity sake, I refer to as either a home or a restaurant.
Their home: No big reveal here; an offshore home is where smallmouth spend a lot of time. They eat here and mill around when not actively chasing forage. These places can be fished throughout the day and offer good odds of contacting bass. A 20 to 30-foot flat containing a few islands or humps, and baitfish, crayfish, or other forage is an example. Long underwater points and sizeable humps are also good.
Their restaurant: This is a less permanent smallmouth location. Bass come to eat, then split. These kill zones showcase the transient nature of offshore smallmouth. Timing is everything at a restaurant. At some eateries bronzebacks punctually arrive at certain times, making the popularity of certain spots as predictable as the early morning double-double rush at your local Timmies. Other locations are influenced by other factors, such as a windblown structure stimulating bass feeding on baitfish.
Restaurants come in many shapes and sizes. They include isolated humps, sand bars, rocky reefs rising out of deep water, points pushing into deep basins, lake narrows, and rock walls. A key attribute of a restaurant is its structural composition gives bass an advantage, letting them herd, trap, and attack baitfish within a confined space.
Go speedy for suspended fish
Fast retrieves with jerkbaits, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, umbrella rigs, swimbaits, and topwaters regularly put suspending, offshore smallmouth in the boat. The flash, noise, and commotion of these baits get the attention of smallies and help trigger strikes. Brisk presentations are useful, too, for covering the vast areas one encounters offshore.
Retrieving the lure above bass is critical to being in the strike zone when smallmouth are looking up to feed on baitfish.
Another tip: don’t be set on a specific presentation. Even aggressive smallmouth can be choosy. I’ve never been seasick, but any time I watch a trophy bass pursue my bait then veer away, I want to puke. This is your cue to start experimenting with the lure’s retrieve, colour, and profile, or switch to another presentation to troubleshoot what will trigger strikes.
…Or get sneaky for sluggish suspenders
When suspending bass are moody and uninterested in fast presentations, a dose of finesse is rarely a bad thing.
Spybaits remain potent for clear-water small- mouth. Long casts and slow retrieves are the way to go with this lure when you’re a bass neighbourhood or have spied fish with electronics.
Downsized swimbait: A two to three-inch swimbait is also reliable. Fire it out, count it down to where bass are in the water column, and reel at a moderate to slow pace. Adding a small twitch or speed burst with the reel handle is worth trying now and then as the erratic display it gives the bait is known to trigger following smallmouth.
Specialized swimbait jig heads (Scroungers, Chatterbait-style jig heads, and underspins) create extra vibration while enhancing action. Bladed jigs also add flash, an important visual for baitfish-hunting smallmouth.
Wacky-rigged stickbait: A five-inch stickbait on a weighted hook is a good clean-up bait when a feeding frenzy winds down. In scenarios where you might have got fish initially on reaction baits, a stickbait can get a few more fish before everything shuts down. I suspect bronzebacks cruise around looking to pick off any injured baitfish and are easily duped by the quivering stickbait. I do best with white, pearl, and other light colours.
Get moping: Today, it’s hard to write about catching suspending smallmouth without referencing moping and, in turn, tapping OOD contributor, Jeff Gustafson, who won the 2021 Bassmaster Elite event on the Tennessee River using this technique with a Z-Man Jerk ShadZ on a Smeltinator head. Gustafson detailed moping in the August 2021 issue, but here’s a quick recap.
“Generally, if fish are deeper than 15 to 18 feet, I like to use this technique. Anywhere they are focused on bait above them in the water column, it’s going to be an effective technique – think anywhere bass eat smelt, cisco, alewife, perch, etc,” Gustafson said.
Keeping the jig above the fish is a must and often involves studying what’s below the boat using sonar. The more you can hold the bait still in the strike zone, the more bites you’ll get, Gustafson says.
Playing devil’s advocate, I asked Gustafson how effective he finds the technique in clear water. His response:
“In really clear water, smallmouths know your boat is overhead down to at least 30 feet. Once fish have been caught or schools have been disrupted, they smarten up. This is where forward-facing sonar like Humminbird Mega Live is really helping us out because we can now pitch at fish in front of the boat and catch an extra or two before getting on top of them. Sometimes you have to get over them to really hang that bait in their face, but sometimes they’re active enough to just take a run at your bait moving by.”
A lake with abundant gobies or crayfish prompts smallmouth feeding near bottom. Imitating floor-dwelling forage is a good strategy when smallmouth are down in the water column and not feeding on baitfish.
Snap-jigging covers water and triggers reaction strikes from bass relating to flats, points, and humps. Tube jigs, crayfish or creature baits on football jigs, bucktail jigs, bladebaits, and spoons are good picks from late summer on.
Make a long cast, let the bait get to bottom, snap it up, and let it fall. Repeat. Play around with height and speed to learn what bass like best.
Get ready for a slowdown. It’s common to arrive at a spot and quickly catch the aggressive bass before snap-jigging’s effectiveness wanes. Sometimes the secret to keeping your rod bent is using a moderate, hopping retrieve or dragging the bait. Or, raise the trolling motor, run to the next spot, and continue snap-jigging.
When fast tactics fall short, try slowing down and knocking on doors with a finesse bait. I’ve had good success dragging and bouncing a 1⁄4 -ounce Ned rig along bottom. A tube jig presented in a similar methodical manner fools bronzebacks as well.
Another winner is a jig with a four- to five-inch shaky worm or stick-bait, like Berkley’s MaxScent The General. Shake and drag it along bottom, then soak it for a short time. A little hop can sometimes pique fish interest, but often bass respond best to the worm crawling along the lakebed.
These same worms on a Neko rig are also potent. The rig is a little more forgiving than a jig around snaggy terrain and good option for newcomers to deep-water tactics.
Smallmouth also have a hard time resisting a three to four-inch finesse plastic on a drop-shot. Start with a shake-pause presentation and refine as needed based on bass interest. Playing around with how high the bait rides off bottom can be key when bass are fussy.
As Gustafson mentioned, getting a bait away from the boat can fool savvy smallmouth. When vertical tactics with a jig or drop-shot prove ineffective, casting away from the boat can yield better results when up against pressured bass and on clear water systems.
Smallmouth are a cagey breed and finding them offshore demands legwork and determination. The tradeoff for the toil is the opportunity to catch giants, which in my book is certainly worth the effort. What about you?
Originally published in the August 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS