It’s spring on your local smallmouth lake, this means bedding smallmouth bass. The trees are blooming and the water is clear. This means only one thing… smallmouth bass on beds. If there is an easier yet more exciting way of catching bass, then I’ve not found it. Unlike largemouth bass that are much more finicky when spawning, smallies are always aggressive when on the bed. They may not hit just any bait thrown in the bed, but they will hit a bait regardless.
Sight fishing for spawning bass of any species has always been a love affair of mine. But I’ve learned in recent years that smallmouths are almost completely different from largemouth and spotted bass in regards to their attitudes when spawning. I’ve learned from experience and by talking to other more knowledgeable anglers, when fishing for spawning largemouths, not each fish is actually catchable at that moment. There are numerous ways an angler can tell if a fish is willing to defend the nest, and therefore, strike a bait. The list is rather long and I’m not going to go into it in this article. However, I bring it up for the understanding, when fishing for spawning smallmouth, a list is not needed. Smallmouths are naturally just angry when spawning. Rarely will they spook from the bed when easing through the shallows. Often times they won’t leave the bed until I have nearly brought the boat right over the top of them. Even then, they will often come back to the bed in a matter of minutes.
Over the first three weekends in June 2014, I had three separate tournaments on different lakes in my area. All of which included fishing for spawning smallmouths, both sight fishing and blind casting, as part of my pattern. In this article, I’m going to break down each event.
In any scenario when searching for spawning fish, it’s most important to find a hard bottom. These are the places most conducive for spawning. In this event, the lake was about four feet low; leaving a lot of shallow rock piles, normally perfect spawning sites, high and dry. However, it meant whatever rock I did find would probably hold a concentration of fish.
So to find hard bottom areas, I simply would keep my trolling motor on high and visually scan the shoreline for some form of rock cover extending out into the water. Whether it was pea gravel or chunk rock wouldn’t really matter. Sometimes, the rocks would be so few there may only be 10 plate-sized rocks scattered around. In most instances, this would only be an area no longer than 10 yards and would only extend into the water less than 6 feet. But in each case, there would be at least a few beds there.
Because these areas were so small and the water clarity was a little tannic, I chose to not sight fish. Instead, I would either cast a Whiskey River Bullhead Tube or a wacky rigged Hoss into the area. Since these spots were so small, I could saturate it in less than 15 casts. This allowed me to cover each spot quickly and efficiently. I also found I could return to these spot later in the day and they would reload with fish.
This event was held on a lake with great water clarity and visibility reaching down to around 8 feet. The bottom composition consisted mostly of sand on main lake shorelines and mud/silt in the back of coves and pockets. Even though my experience and articles I’ve read tend to show that bass like to spawn in protected pockets, I did not find a single bed in any of them. Every bed I found was on unprotected shorelines in both the main lake and creeks. However, these areas did offer something the pockets did not… a hard bottom. I noticed the fanned out beds exposed a group of white stones roughly the size of my fist. This made it very easy to find the beds because these white spots would almost glow against the relatively dark background of the lake bottom. If there was a boulder or log next to the bed, it would almost always result in a larger than average fish.
Obviously, because of the water clarity I chose to sight fish for this event. These fish were basically fearless when on the bed. During practice, I caught fish literally while the trolling motor blade was sitting in the bed. Never have I seen this happen when targeting spawning largemouth. When the fish are this aggressive, sight fishing is the easy choice.
Everyone in the tournament elected to sight fish and did well. However, I had a little bit better day by targeting beds deeper than the average bed. I’ve learned the larger bass usually spawn deeper. Normally, the depth is right at the limit of what I perceive the water clarity to be. On this lake, it seemed to be right at about 7 feet deep. The rest of the field was catching their fish by targeting the easy to find beds in 3-4 feet.
I found these deeper beds during practice by locating the shallow beds then moving to slightly deeper water and slowly trolling along and visually scanning below the boat for beds. Once I got close enough to a bed, it was easy enough to see since it would still show up like a glowing white plate. Once I spotted the bed, I’d drop a waypoint on it. On tournament day I could come right back to the spot and make one pinpoint cast to it.
I found a couple weird quirks about these fish. Some would want a bait actually lying in the bed, while others would want something hovering above it. To catch these fish, I would either throw a tube and shake it in place or a drop shot and let it hover a few inches above the bed. With both baits, I went with a highly visible color. With the tube, I used chartreuse/pepper and the drop shot bait was pure agave.
As with the first tournament, this lake’s water clarity made it difficult to sight fish. However, even though I primarily blind casted for bedding fish, sight fishing was still part of my arsenal for the day. This was possible due to the practice I was able to get in a few days before the tournament. During the practice, I dropped waypoints on beds again allowing me to make a perfect first cast. Nearly every time, I got a bite on the first cast to a bed.
For the majority of the day, I would fan cast spawning areas with topwater baits like a popper and a buzz frog. I missed most of the bites on these baits, but I was actually expecting this. Spawning bass of all species are looking to protect the nest and, therefore, are just swatting at the topwater lure. Instead, I would use those lures as search bait. After the bass would blow up and miss the bait, I could quickly cast a tube or wacky rig into the same spot to coax the fish into biting. In most cases, the fish would still be worked up enough it would bite the soft plastic bait in short order.
While I was fishing those search baits, I would also be searching for any boulders below the surface. On this lake, the beds show up as dark spots and they really like to spawn next to a boulder or two. When I would find a boulder and hopefully the bed as well, I would take one of the two soft plastic lures and cover the area with them.
After reviewing those tournaments, there are a few things that stood out in each of them. First, the bottom composition is everything when it comes to the spawning season of any bass species. If the lake bottom had any type of silt to it, the fish would not be there. They would find one lone rock and spawn on it instead of spawning on a mud bottom.
Second, the importance of keeping my eyes peeled for the subtleties. What I mean is, while I was primarily doing something else, like fishing a topwater or lipless crankbait, I would be scanning for something another angler could easily miss. It could be a deeper than average bed, a group of boulders, or maybe even a single log. Any of these would often hold a quality fish helping separate me from the rest of the field.
Lastly, the significance of finding spawning fish in slightly deeper water relative to the rest of the bedding bass was key to a bigger bite. This always resulted in above average quality fish. For the second tournament, this was the difference between 3 pound and 4+ pound smallies. After fishing these tournaments, finding spawning areas and then fishing in just a little deeper water, confirmed to me the premise the bigger fish are bedding deeper.
Even though this article centered on smallies, rest assured these same tactics apply their green cousins as well. Either way, give these a try the next time you find yourself looking for spawning bass. And if lucky enough to be around smallmouths, it will be a day not soon forgotten!