By Babe Winkelman
From April 25 to May 1 on our “Good Fishing” television program, we go to Wisconsin for some of the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught. They are absolute FOOTBALLS! I hope you have as much fun watching the show as we had filming it (even though that would be impossible).
Of all the fish we have in North America, I like catching smallmouth bass the most. Pound-for-pound, they’re the fightin’-est freshwater fish there is. And nothing is more fun than sight-fishing smallies when they’re up on the beds in late spring/early summer.
When to target bedded smallmouth…
Smallmouth Bass typically live in clear, clean lakes and rivers with moderate current. When water temperatures warm in the late spring and early summer, to 60°-65°F, the bass move up into shallow flats and reefs with hard bottom and good clean sand and/or gravel. Areas that are protected from wind are key spawning areas, and if there are good-sized rocks thrown in that’s a huge plus. Clean pencil grass also makes a good spawning ground, since smallies usually prefer to build their nests adjacent to some piece of available cover.
When the water hits that magic temperature, the males come in and prepare the nests for the egg-filled females. They “fan” the bottom and dust away the silt layer to expose the clean bottom. After the eggs are deposited and fertilized, the female bass move down to deeper water to recover while the males stay and guard the nest.
This is when Mr. Smallmouth is easily caught. He can’t stand it when something comes near the nest and threatens his little prodigies.
How to fish the nests…
Job #1 is finding the nests. This is pretty simple, since they’re fairly easy to spot in clear water with a good pair of polarized sunglasses. When you find a nest, dished out like an under-water crater, look carefully to see if there’s a fish on it. Depending on the bottom color and composition, a smallmouth’s camouflage can make him difficult to spot.
If you see a fish, ease up on him with an electric trolling motor and pitch your bait into the middle of the nest. Grub jigs, tubes, and other soft plastics work great. On certain lakes and under certain conditions, particular styles, sizes and colors seem to work best. As is the case with all types of fishing, experiment with different offerings to see what flips a smallmouth’s switch. One day I couldn’t get the fish to pick up baits off the bottom. But when I switched to a drop-shot rig and levitated the soft plastic a couple inches off the bottom, the bass attacked it. So remember to be versatile and try different things.
Sometimes a smallmouth will attack the intruding bait on the drop. But more often he’ll get agitated and swim around the bait as it sits in the bed. Remember, this is all sight fishing we’re talking about. So when the bait is in the bed, watch that fish and key into his body language. He’ll get all uptight and swim around your bait. Sometimes you’ll even see him change into a darker color when he gets ornery. Then, when he really gets mad at it, he’ll nose-down on the bait with his tail up just before inhaling it.
He’s not “eating” the bait. He’s simply picking it up to get it out of there. So after he inhales it, he’ll swim away to deposit it outside the bed somewhere. This is when you set the hook! A lot of sight-fishing novices tend to set the hook too soon, before the bass has his mouth closed down on the bait. Watch for it to disappear, then give it a second before setting the hook.
Now, if the bass are absolutely tight-lipped and don’t get agitated when a bait drops into their beds, I switch to the secret weapon. Leeches. Smallies hate it when leeches hang out around their eggs. Just pinch a small splitshot sinker about four inches above a hook and let it take that leech into the strike zone.
For equipment, I like a 7-foot medium-heavy St. Croix spinning rod with a fast tip, spooled up with 8-pound monofilament. It provides good shock absorption for big hooksets at close range to the fish. Smallies love to jump, and they’re very good at throwing the bait when they’re airborne. So when you fight them, keep a low rod tip and good line tension when you see them coming up for a tail-dance.
After the bass has given you a good, fun fight, treat him carefully… get a quick picture… and ease him back into the water near his bed. He’ll return to it in good shape and continue guarding his eggs and fry. If you’re lucky, you can go back to the spot the next day and catch him again!
So as summer approaches, spool up a spinning rod with fresh line and keep an eye on those water temperatures. When the time is right, get out and do some sight fishing for smallmouth bass… and you’ll have a smallmouth blast!
Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for nearly 30 years. Watch his award-winning “Good Fishing” and “Outdoor Secrets” television shows on Versus (VS.), Fox Sports Net, Wild TV and many local networks. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times where you live.