When the water warms up, smallies spread out, but the right techniques around the right structure will help you track them down quickly.
Smallies have a quick trigger compared to largemouths. They overtake plugs faster and hit harder; once hooked, they leap higher. And, even though smallies prefer rocky structure, the species doesn’t limit its whereabouts as much as largemouths. They move around in a lake or reservoir more extensively and frequently than largemouths.
If you pinpointed the summer whereabouts of smallmouth bass, you would see that they are a fish of great extremes. In Round Valley Reservoir, we catch them at sundown in a foot or two of clear water, and I’ve heard of them taken in 90 feet of water by fishermen looking for lake trout. The smallmouth’s wide range of habitats in the summer can make it challenging to find, but if you check specific structures in a variety of depths, you’ll stay on the smallie bite all summer long.
Deeper Than 25 Feet
Mid-reservoir humps produce especially well during the summer months. A large percentage of smallies avoid warmer temperatures by positioning 25 to 35 feet deep. Bass also retreat to these humps to escape fishing pressure, because the offshore spots are harder to find and fish.
I was fishing on Merrill Creek Reservoir with Fred Matero under bluebird skies, and knew about an extensive shelf-like point extending for a quarter-mile from shore before sinking to 20 feet deep. The point drops off to 35 feet, slightly more sharply than most of the relatively steep shorelines. Rather than involve my friend in a wild goose chase, we stuck close to shore and lost a few bass. Guys we met in passing caught nothing. Heading back to the ramp, we noticed two anglers in a boat far from shore, fishing one of two small humps, each about 30 to 35 feet deep. We spoke to another angler nearby, who claimed the anglers had caught two nice smallmouths – the only we’d heard.
Football jigs provide an advantage for nearly vertical retrieves because the lead’s form sets the jig upright on rock or gravel. Casting rods are best suited to heavier jigs, though fast-action spinning rods work fine for lighter lures, and quality braid is essential for improved sensitivity when using either setup.
Tubes, twister-tails, and other arrangements are all effective when fishing the bottom on deep humps, as are bladebaits (like the Binsky) that anglers can yo-yo up and down off the bottom.
12 To 25 Feet
The 12- to 25-foot depths are a good bet for finding summer smallies, especially during the changing light of the afternoon hours, under intermittent clouds, on rainy days, and especially as a front approaches.
Naturally, if you’re fishing rocks with weedy edges, heavy-bodied spinnerbaits with smaller blades allow control in water too deep for other types of spinnerbaits. Weedless jigs may be a better bet; Carolina rigs work; and if you fish edges without getting in the thick, wacky-rigged Senkos prove invaluable. Because Senkos are heavy-bodied and sink faster than traditional worms, fishing them in 20 feet of water is doable without adding weight, as long as wind doesn’t hamper the presentation.
Otherwise, Mann’s Little George is another productive lure for smallies in the middle depths, and has proven especially productive when a front is approaching. This 1-ounce lead-bodied lure with a Colorado spinner for a tail requires a quick retrieve when bounced off rocks. When the smallies turn on, they hit them hard. Crankbaits, whether lipless or diving, also serve the rock-bumping function, but you’ll have better control by fishing a Little George 25 feet down than by waffling a less compact lipless crankbait.
Rather than rocks, some waters have tangles of timber far from shore. For knocking on wood, bladed swim jigs, heavy-bodied spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and jigs work.
Shallower Than 12 Feet
The classic summer formula—fish early and late in the day—applies to the shallows. Fishing Round Valley Reservoir during my teenage years, I was awed by its windowpane clarity, and drew the erroneous conclusion that bass there could not get caught shallower than 10 feet. Then one day, while fishing with Fred in his deep V boat, I made my first cast right against Round Valley Reservoir’s rock-studded bank with a Hedden Baby Torpedo. Smallies blasted the plug. As dusk came on that evening, we heard the slurps of feeding fish in reedy shallows a foot deep.
Topwater fishing over clear water is not limited to very shallow water, however. The edges of flats extending outward into a lake or reservoir are very productive places to work a topwater. Areas with rocks in 8 to 12 feet of water will hold smallies willing to smash a surface lure around sunrise or sunset.