What bass angler doesn't dream of magical fishing holes teaming with lunkers? For largemouth, it's timber-filled reservoirs in the southern U.S., Mexico, or Cuba. Smallmouth anglers, though, look to the north's remote fly-in lakes or pristine parks, such as Quetico in northwestern Ontario.
Yet, much of the lower half of the province is a Mecca for smallmouth anglers. And great fishing isn't always off the beaten path. Some regions that were always good smallmouth producers, such as the Great Lakes, Kawarthas, Ottawa Valley, and northwest Ontario are getting even better. They're yielding more and larger bass. Just listen to some seasoned smallmouth anglers.
Wil Wegman, an information officer at the Ministry of Natural of Resources' Aurora office, says, "Ontario has the finest smallmouth fishing in the world, but we've yet to realize it."
"Smallmouth fishing in the northwest is still virgin," states OOD field editor Gord Ellis. "The whole region is booming. Around Thunder Bay, most lakes offer excellent bass fishing, but for trophy bronzebacks, Rainy Lake is best."
Todd Million, owner of Keswick's Riverside Marina and a Lake Simcoe smallmouth guide, is amazed at the huge schools of bass he encounters. Having fished Lake Simcoe all his life, he's seen its smallmouth fishery explode over the last several years. "It's common to see hordes of 5-pound (2.3 kg) smallies chasing shiners. Last year, two clients and I witnessed a school of well over a 100 bass, and each one of them was four to five pounds," he said. Perhaps the best-kept secret, though, is the Great Lakes. Greg Horoky, of Harrow, said of Lake Erie, "It's the best it's ever been, and it's getting better." Being a professional walleye angler and a smallmouth guide, Horoky apologizes when clients only catch 20 bass a day; 50 per day is routine, and 100-fish days are possible. "Lake St. Clair used to be the best in this region, but now Erie is the best in the whole province," concludes Horoky.
One reason for the boom in trophy smallmouth is an increase in water clarity in some lakes. Contributing factors include a decrease in pollution, due to stricter environmental controls, and invasion by filter-feeding zebra mussels. Anglers on Lake Erie, hard hit by zebra mussels, can often see schools of smallmouth cruising rocky humps down 20 feet (6 m). With increased water clarity, sunlight penetrates deeper, reaching the preferred habitat of smallmouth. Overall, increased visibility broadens the range of sight-feeding smallmouth within a waterbody and allows them to excel as predators.
Although Ontario's smallmouth fisheries are diverse, several common factors dictate their location during late summer/early fall, regardless of where you fish. One essential ingredient is relatively clear water. Equally important is deep water, a relative term. In an oligotrophic lake or the Great Lakes, deep can mean 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 m) down. In a mesotrophic lake, it's 18 to 22 feet (5.5 to 6.7 m. In eutrophic waters, 12 to 17 feet (3.6 to 5.2 m) is considered prime depth for bronzebacks. There is, however, no magical depth that can be applied across the province. Search out each lake to determine what depths bass are using.
With a good lake chart in hand, Million recommends that anglers concentrate on points, islands, shoals, and any other irregular features. He says to focus on first and second dropoffs. The first breakline is where the water initially deepens. Usually, it will get progressively deeper from the shoreline, then drop quickly. This first break can be a magnet for aggressive smallmouth. The best location, though, is the second breakline, where water depth tapers off. As the bottom slopes deeper, frequently there is a second dropoff. Regardless if it's sharp or subtle, it usually holds big bass. For years, walleye anglers have routinely hooked huge smallmouth while fishing second dropoffs, but these locations have been ignored by shallow-water bass anglers.
Million advises anglers to fish along both sides of a point or a shoal and then follow the structure into deeper water. Fish will concentrate around a specific spot along the feature. It could be a small rock pile, some wood, or the actual drop. The only way to discover this is to thoroughly fish a structure. To fine-tune your search for monster smallmouth, focus on the type of cover on a structure. When choosing an area to fish, search for a hard bottom. "Shale, sand, or rock are ideal, but avoid muddy bottoms; they simply won't hold fish," said Million. "A mix of gravel, boulders, wood, and weeds is the key to finding quantities of bronzebacks."
Confirming all of Million's locational choices, Wegman treasures secondary points. He favours less conspicuous points, solely for their lack of fishing pressure. Most smallmouth anglers target main points. Shrewd anglers like Wegman and Million scoot to secondary points and clean up on ignored lunkers.
Wegman and his friend Leon Maloney experienced how much of a magnet secondary points are last October, while fishing a memorial tournament on Lake Simcoe. Probing points, Wegman soon latched into a beast of a bronzeback. After a dogged battle, it was quickly netted and placed gently into the livewell. The bass later weighed 6.85 pounds (3.11 kg).
Techniques for catching trophy smallmouth vary as greatly as the locales they inhabit. It's best to differentiate smallmouth presentations as either horizontal or vertical. Casting a lure and retrieving it back is a horizontal presentation. Working a plastic tube jig or a metal jigging spoon beneath a boat is a vertical presentation. Most anglers have a few proven methods, but it's wise to experiment with presentations.
When bass are active, throw horizontal baits. Overcast or windy conditions seem to heighten smallmouth aggressiveness.They'll crush top-waters, spinnerbaits, or suspending jerkbaits. The speed, vibration, and flash of these lures triggers ferocious strikes. The key to drawing in smallmouth is high speeds and colour. Anglers often are timid in imparting quick, jerky retrieves to their baits. When smallmouth fishing, snappy retrieves are the norm. Colour preference varies greatly throughout the province. Have a selection of bright colours, such as chartreuse, along with natural finishes, such as smoke. Regardless of what bait you're throwing, long casts are a must. The longer the better.
Top-water lures such as poppers, prop-baits, or stickbaits are excellent when a lake is calm. These baits cover water quickly and effectively. They're often overlooked, though, for targeting deep-water bronzebacks. In clear water, though, aggressive smallmouth will zoom up and pounce on top-water lures. When a lake is too choppy or fish are reluctant to snatch surface baits, switch to a suspending jerkbait.
Suspending jerkbaits are minnow-shaped plugs weighted so that they hover in place when stopped. Ideal lure length is between 3 and 7 inches. Smallmouth, particularly on lakes that have smelt or shiners, become accustomed to feeding on a specific size of baitfish. Frequently, anglers must match lure size to forage size. A 7-inch jerk-bait or a large top-water plug is a killer when bass are snacking on smelt.
A secret for many top smallmouth anglers has been soft plastic jerkbaits. Often, bruiser bass will follow lures, but not hit. Frustrated anglers soon discovered that 4- to 6-inch soft jerkbaits entice these reluctant biters. These baits flutter and glide like an injured baitfish, making them irresistible.
Spinnerbait choice is simple. A double willow-leaf model, weighing between 3/8- and 3/4 ounce, is perfect. Double willow-leaf blades transmit a tremendous amount of flash and work well at high speeds. For colours, choose a mixture of bright skirts and blades and translucent models. Always use a trailer hook, either a large single or a treble. Smallmouth often slash at a lure and miss the main hook, but nail the trailer. Using one will increase your hook-ups.
Tradition has dictated smallmouth tackle should be light and whippy. Not so, say most seasoned anglers. They prefer a medium-action 6-foot or longer casting rod. It can heave bulky baits great distances and control brute bass. Line shouldn't be too light either. Twelve- to 17-pound test is ideal.
When horizontal presentations fall flat, go vertical. When weather is unstable, water is cold, or bass are lethargic use slower, vertical presentations. Jigs are the most common. Hair or soft plastic-bodied jigs are tops. They deliver life-like action. The most common choice is a soft plastic jig. Most anglers feel that the texture of plastic is more realistic. Injecting it with salt or scent further enhances its fish-catching ability.
Soft plastics come in hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and colours. Most try to mimic baitfish or crayfish, two common bronzeback foods. Smallmouth anglers favour tube bodies, twister-tail grubs, spider grubs, and tiny finesse worms. All work well under most conditions, but a 4-inch tube jig seems to be most popular. Colour choices range from natural, translucent tubes, to earth tones (greens and browns), white, smoke, and chartreuse, sprinkled with metal flakes. Have a variety of colours, but don't lose your perspective. Smallmouth location is the overall factor for success.
Rig soft plastics on jigs ranging from 1/16-to 3/8-ounce in weight. Most smallmouth haunts are devoid of heavy cover, so you can use an exposed-hook jig head. Be sure hooks are super sharp and large enough to do the job on big bronzebacks. Finding 1/8-ounce jigs with 2/0 hooks takes a bit of shopping around, but after landing your first 4-pounder (1.8kg), you'll be thankful you used the larger hook.
Jig presentations vary greatly. The standard lift-drop, lift-drop is always deadly, but many top smallmouth anglers prefer slowly dragging a jig along bottom. It isn't too exciting, but it's effective. Million said, "Keeping the bait on bottom is important. And the slower you fish, the more bass you'll catch."
A vertical bait that receives little attention is a metal jigging spoon. Most commonly used in the Great Lakes, jigging spoons are a quick way to scour deep water for smallmouth. Spoons in the 1/4- to 3/4-ounce range, in gold or silver, will cover all fishing conditions. Jigging techniques vary from faint hops to violent lifts. Experiment to determine which sequence is best on any given day.
With jigs, spinning tackle is the way to go. A sensitive 6- to 7-foot spinning rod and matching reel, filled with 6- to 10-pound-test line, will cover all your needs. A light rod tip easily flicks out finesse baits, but ensure the rod also has enough backbone to drive the hook into a big bass's tough jaw.
Wind is always a factor when out on water. Instead of battling it, anglers should use wind to their advantage. A steady blow can energize a dormant school of smallmouth, providing super fishing. Drifting with the wind is a stealthy way to fish. On big lakes, a drift sock is vital. Dragging one of these big mesh bags behind a boat's transom helps regulate speed, for greater control. Without it, you'll zoom past bass.
Playing the weather is the name of the game when smallmouth fishing. When targeting deep-water locations, though, wind can also be a dangerous foe. Safety is critical. Strong wind and whitecaps can easily trap anglers offshore. I've run treacherous seas numerous times, and I'm still a little nervous when I venture onto big water, like the Great Lakes. Even in a large bass boat, the ride is risky. Be smart. Avoid taking chances in rough weather.
Late summer/early fall is one of the best times to target big bronzebacks. Applying the above techniques on deep-water structures in your favourite clear-water smallmouth lake will pay off in world-class bronze.
They can shimmer and dance and seem to come alive in your hands. They can smell like candy or rancid sardines. And just about every bass angler worth his or her baseball cap has pounds of them in almost every conceivable shape. Some styles come and go. Others have stood the test of time. While confusion often reigns, the following are some basics that can guide you through the glitter of soft plastic bass baits in the aisles of your favourite tackle shop.
Five basic qualities to look for in any fishing lure are action, size, colour -- the three sight factors -- plus scent and sound. Soft-plastic baits can have all of these qualities, built-in or added by you, not to mention their natural texture. No wonder they're best bets for bass.
Action becomes most critical when bass have a longer time to see a lure, such as in clear water. In tight cover and in stained water, bass have a short sight window and pounce quickly on food, without fully knowing what it looks like and how it behaves. If they waited, the prey might escape. In many cases, a subtle, natural action works better than a frantic movement, as when using tube jigs for smallmouth. At other times, the undulations of an action-tail soft bait triggers hits.
The size factor is normally a matter of matching the size of prey that bass seem to be feeding on at a given time. Smallmouth can be particular, generally preferring smaller prey, while largemouth often swallow huge items. But even smallmouth break the rules at times and want oversized lures, and largemouth snack on panfish-size baits. Experiment.
Colour comes into play in strange ways. It makes sense that natural shades that mimic bass prey would be best in clear water. Brighter colours, including chartreuse, especially for largemouth, are better choices in stained waters. Preferred colours for smallmouth include white, yellow, or black. Other times, grey, silver, and crayfish oranges and browns get the nod.
Sound, which a bass's lateral line picks up first as vibrations, helps them detect and home in on prey they might not even see. When closer to prey, their inner ears come into play to pinpoint dinner until scent and sight take over. Soft plastic is fairly soundless, but adding a vibrating tail (for the advantage of action, as well) or inserting a rattle into any soft bait can improve its fish-catching ability. Make surface baits splash and gurgle to attract bass.
Many methods used to fish soft plastics are slow and easy, giving bass time to use their sense of smell to determine if a lure is good to eat. Bass will hold onto a flavoured bait for some time, giving you a better chance at setting the hook. Most soft-plastic bass baits now have cooked-in scent. Salt, said to taste like blood, and "secret" protein scents are popular. Bottled scents are also available to apply regularly as you fish. Scent can be an attractant or it may simply mask human scent. It really doesn't matter. Scented soft-plastic baits give you an edge.
Let where and how you fish for bass determine which soft-plastic baits will serve you best. Keep in mind the qualities of each lure that should dominate for your situations. We won't be getting into naming specific soft-plastic baits here, because there are so many good ones and they continue to evolve. But knowing the basics of what to look for and how to fish them will help you make wise choices.
Put some soft-plastic worms in your tacklebox and every other lure will feel self-conscious, and for good reason. Few other bass lures can match the worm's versatility.
The standard worm length for Ontario bass is six to eight inches. Choose 4-inchers for cold fronts, spooky bass, or clear water. Bigger worms excel for big bass and in muddy water. Largemouth tend to prefer large, brighter worms, while smallmouth prefer smaller baits in natural shades. These are only generalities. Experiment.
Thin, supple worms have an undulating action. They're best used along the edges of structure and cover and in deep water, but they get ripped apart by heavy cover or panfish. Fat, soft worms are better for Texas rigs in heavy cover. They also sink slowly, which can be an important strike trigger. Stiffer worms glide and twitch better in more horizontal presentations.
In clear water, during cold fronts, or when fishing pressure is heavy, reach for a worm in a natural shade. For active bass or murky water, opt for gaudy colours. For largemouth, purple, dark red, dark blue, and black are standards. Smallmouth like black, brown/orange, smoke, and silver/grey. Bright colours, like chartreuse, work well in conjunction with a dark colour, giving the best contrast in muddy water. Two-tone worms let you fish two colours at once. Metal flecks shine under sunny skies, but are of limited value on cloudy days, and might spook shy bass.
A worm's action must fit the conditions. For fishing holes in weeds, twister-tails have a lot of action and drop slowly. Long, thin tails swim like a ribbon leech around muddy bottoms. Paddle-tails work well in open water, where they send out vibrations. The new rage is straight worms with no inherent action, but they glide well when twitched. They're a killer for tough smallmouth. Scented worms are an advantage, as is inserting a rattle chamber in a worm in cloudy water.
Rigging plastic worms boils down to where you'll be using them. In cover, a weedless Texas rig is hard to beat. Just crawl and hop it through the jungle. Use quality wide-bend worm hooks and sinkers. The hook should extend back about one third the length of the worm. Insert a toothpick into a bullet sinker to keep it from sliding down the line or use weights with metal springs that screw into the worm. Always select the smallest weight possible.
In open water, swim a worm on a light mushroom-style jighead, or fish with a simple hook and split-shot rig, just like live bait, retrieving slowly and pausing along bottom. In deeper water or on shoals, use a Carolina rig to call fish to the sound produced by a glass bead sandwiched between the sinker and swivel. -- Drew Myers
The action-tailed grub body, teamed with a jig head, might be the best bass-catching plastic bait of all. It's the chameleon of the lure world, able to become a crayfish, minnow, nymph, or leech with only the slightest adjustment in retrieves. Once the domain of walleye anglers, grubs are rapidly becoming the plastic of choice for bass anglers too.
The basic action-tailed grub is a cylindrical, ribbed plastic body tapering to a ribbon-like tail -- a mini-worm. There are, however, dozens of variations. Twin-tailed, spade-tailed, twin straight-tails, and paddle-tailed grubs are also popular. Body shapes also range from squat to lean and flat. All of these variations have adherents, but the basic curly-tailed grub is still the most versatile. When fishing for bass, most anglers use 3-inch grubs -- the length of the average crayfish, minnow, and leech. In the fall, or if you're targeting only giant bass, you could move up to a 4-inch grub, but when smallmouth go sour and refuse to bite a 3-incher, scale down. I've had many days saved by switching to a 2-inch grub on a 3/32-ounce mushroom jig head.
This is finesse fishing, so stow away the baitcaster and 12-pound line. I use a one-piece light-action spinning rod and a high-visibility 6-pound line. Cast the grub out, let it drop, and watch the line. Bass often hit on the drop. When one inhales a 2-inch grub, it's almost undetectable.
Fat-bodied grubs do a great job at copying a crayfish. Drag one along bottom and then give it a light pop so that it hops. At times, dragging the grub super slowly is enough to coax a bronzeback into biting.
Thinner grubs are dead ringers for a leech or minnow. If bass are primarily feeding on minnows and leeches, swim the grub. There are a couple of ways to do this. Cast the grub out and then, with gentle sideways sweeps of the rod, let it flow through the water as you retrieve. The action of the grub's swimming tail is enhanced by this gentle "ebb-and-flow" retrieve. You can also slowly raise and lower the rod tip. The grub will swim towards you as you raise the tip, and tumble back as you follow it down with the rod. Pause for a pickup and repeat. Most hits come as the grub falls. This trick will pull largemouth and smallmouth off open structure. It also works wonders in grass beds and around lily pads.
When bass are really aggressive and busting minnows, bump up the jig head to 3/8- or even 5/8-ounce to gain casting distance. You'll have to retrieve the heavier jig more quickly, however, or it will sink like a stone.
Last but not least, grub bodies are excellent for tipping spinnerbaits and flipping jigs, for extra action. This is where double twister- or straight split-tails are most useful, although even a standard single tail will work.
Grub colours for bass tend to be more subtle than those used for walleye. When smallmouth are the focus, grubs in smoke, red shad, black, pumpkinseed, and any of various crayfish shades are tough to beat. Largemouth anglers are more varied in their grub colours, although pearl white, translucent/glitter, blue, purple, and black with red or chartreuse tails are popular choices. -- Gord Ellis
Minnow and shad baits were among the earliest soft-plastic designs. They range from 3- to 8 inches in length, but smaller sizes are most popular for bass here, especially smallmouths. Original designs had paddle tails, but newer versions have forked, twister, or ribbon tails.
The real trigger of these baits is their realism. Standard baitfish hues have always been popular, but now companies are producing extremely realistic photo and even hologram finishes. Matching the dominant bass forage in the lakes you fish is easier than ever. The most common method of fishing these baits is on a jig head. I favour ball or football heads. Rigging these baits as soft jerkbaits or drop-shotting them (learn more about this in our August issue) is also becoming popular. Standard jig-rigged bodies are not weedless, but they excel around shoals and other open-water situations when bass are feeding on minnows, perch, shiners, or shad in clear water. Retrieves are endless, but slow crawls with a few twitches mixed in is often the best. Let the realism and subtle actions of these baits work for you. Medium- to light-action spinning rods and reels are perfect for working these lures.
Swim baits, the latest craze, are really just versions of the minnow/shad body with realistic hologram finishes and moulded in jig heads. They're a favourite of California's big-bass hunters, who prefer huge baits. In Ontario, 3- to 6-inch versions are more versatile. They can be jigged, but are designed to be retrieved like shallow-runnung crankbaits. Keep the retrieve steady and mix in several pauses. -- Luigi De Rose
Bass love tubes. Invented by Bobby Garland in the late 1970s, they gained quick praise. Originally intended to fool largemouth from deep, clear waters, they've also become a mainstay for smallmouth anglers.
Available up to 6 inches in length, the original hollow cylinders have little action of their own. Sporting tentacles instead of an action tail, they produce minimal vibration or sound. So why are they so lethal? Their natural appearance mimics crayfish and minnows. These days, the simple tube has competition from realistic crayfish and baitfish tube bodies and other models with action tails or fin add-ons, but it still holds its own.
Two potent retrieves are hopping and dragging. Hopping consists of snapping the rod tip 6 to 12 inches, to hop the bait off bottom. Dragging is just as simple. Slide the rod horizontally or allow the wind to push the boat over potential spots. When done correctly, the tube slides along bottom.
Vary retrieves. When bass are fussy, slow down. If that doesn't work, try quick and snappy. Speed can trigger neutral fish, especially smallmouth.
Tubes are finesse baits, so adding scent and using subtle colours usually are best. Variations of grey, white, brown, black, and green with metal flake fare well anywhere. Try to match the hatch. Smallmouth feeding on minnows or smelt are suckers for 2- to 4-inch smoke, pearl, or shad tubes. Something that resembles a perch or crayfish will entice both largemouth and smallmouth. Largemouth seem to be pickier over tube colours. Pink, mustard, watermelon, and June bug all get super hot, then seem to fizzle without reason. Experiment.
A tube rigged with a light jig head inserted inside it is standard, but smallmouth anglers fishing over hard bottoms often prefer an outside head for better "feel." Most anglers favour 1/16- to 1/4-ounce heads, but jumbo jigs can be the ticket in deep water or in windy conditions. Spinning rods and reels with 6- to 12-pound lines are suitable for open-water situations.
Big tubes are also at home in heavy largemouth cover. Rigged weedless, their smooth profile slips easily thorough matted grass. Texas-rigging tubes with traditional worm hooks is difficult. Extra-wide-gap worm hooks or Eagle Claw's HP Hook, which has a clip to hold the bait in place, are better. Both designs offer enough gap to allow for excellent hook penetration. Switch to heavy-action casting or flipping rods and heavier line for thick cover.
An off-beat technique is to fish tubes like a soft jerkbait. Rig Texas style, but omit the bullet weight. -- Luigi De Rose
Jerks, cranks, and surface oddballs
Soft plastics have evolved into a well-rounded team, including valued players in mid-depth and surface applications. Three prime examples are jerkbaits, top waters, and crankbaits.
One advancement has been the soft-plastic jerkbait, which began with Lunker City Tackle's Sluggo. It shot immediately onto the must-have chart and spawned a host of other jerkbaits, many of them with realistic baitfish bodies. They can imitate the erratic, flicking, fluttering motions of a small suspended fish in distress, yet retain all the subtleties and fish-catching attributes of soft plastic.
Bass anglers now have a bait that can be worked high in the water and cover territory quickly, yet, when stopped, it flutters down gently. These baits excel in clear water, especially where bass won't respond to standard tactics. Although soft jerkbaits can be rigged in just about any fashion a plastic worm or minnow can, they were originally designed to be used on a straight-shaft worm hook and fished in a series of twitching actions, to impart a darting, gliding motion. Soft jerkbaits are often weighted slightly to add casting distance and increase sinking speed, but care must be taken not to hinder their action.
Weedless soft top-water baits, thick-bodied frogs and the like, are excellent for rooting largemouth out of snag-infested areas. To attract a fish's attention, skitter and splash the bait over dense cover, but pause at open ambush points to allow fish a clear shot at it. Melding soft plastic with hard lures started soon after the introduction of the first soft baits. Adding action-tail grubs or worms to the back of spinnerbaits and weedless metal spoons are prime examples of how anglers enhance the scent and action of these hard lures. There are also soft-plastic crankbaits that work well. Their downfall, however, is a lack of durability. They get chewed or ripped by fish eventually and must be replaced. As a result, they've failed to gain widespread recognition among bass anglers. More recent soft-plastic/hard-body hybrids with replaceable tails have been better accepted. -- Lonnie King
Critters are just about anything that falls outside of standard soft-plastic styles. They range from realistic imitations of common aquatic organisms to generic forms with exaggerated features loosely representative of something a bass could eat. Common shapes include crayfish, leeches, salamanders, and hellgrammites. This broad range of shapes offers anglers options to match any craving a largemouth or smallmouth bass might have.
Matching the hatch, a common tactic of trout anglers, is equally applicable to bass. Especially when food is plentiful, they can become selective about what they put in their mouths. They become programmed to respond to a specific silhouette, colour, shape, or action associated with an easy meal. At times, adding a few trailing tentacles, claws, or a set of legs to a bass bait is all it takes to fool fish. In clear water or when fish are less aggressive, more precise realism might be required.
The ability of fish to recognize patterns works both ways. Not only are bass looking for things to eat, but they also need to be aware of things they must avoid. After being hooked a few times, a bass can be repelled by certain lures. Here's where critters crawl into play again. A fish that might be wary of a tube, worm, or minnow might be attracted to another style of soft plastic.
Cost alone precludes carrying every conceivable size and shape of critter on the market, but have a range of styles representative of the likely bass forage found in the waters you fish. Whether you're jigging, split-shotting, or Texas-rigging, there's a critter out there that's just right for the job. -- Lonnie King