Let me flashback to a May day in 1994. I was on Delevan Lake in Southeast Wisconsin catching dozens of small walleyes, but in amongst those 100 or so walleyes were a dozen beautiful golden bass, which, I assumed were smallmouth bass. Having returned to fishing just a couple of years earlier, these were the first smallies I’d ever caught. They weren’t big, but did they fight, and I was impressed! It took me a few more years before smallies became the primary species I was chasing. Catching that first smallie happened over 25 years ago and having kept a log, I’ll be ending my fishing in 2019 having caught and released close to 23,500.
I’m going to share information I’ve learned the past quarter century that I hope will help you become a smallie fan like me, or just a better smallie angler. I’m a zealous catch and release angler and love the slogan on the signs the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance posts around the state, “Free the Fighter”.
Across much of the country smallmouth bass inhabit many lakes and rivers of all sizes. I have spent most of my time fishing the big waters Lake Michigan’s Green Bay and Lake Michigan in and around Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin , along with smaller rivers and streams across the state. In Sturgeon Bay I fish from a boat and my Jackson Kayaks. For those smaller rivers I’m either in my waders, or again, one of my Jackson Kayaks. Depending on the water you fish, for me, the quiet and peaceful aspects of wading and kayaking add to the overall pleasure of fishing for smallies.
If you are new to smallie fishing let me suggest that you Google smallmouth bass fishing in your state. Also, local fishing clubs and sports shows are a great place listen to talks and learn about smallie fishing in general and in your area. If you live in a location where smallies are abundant in a variety of waters, you might want to consider hiring a guide, which can be a great way to learn those local hotspots.
As I look back over the 25 years of chasing smallies, I’ve always used the KISS principle, Keep It Simple Schultz! Many lures catch more anglers than fish, and, it is easy to spend a lot of money on tackle. What I’m going to do with this article is narrow it down for you, which will save you time and money. And, what I’m going to be suggesting for rods, reels, line and lures, yes, an investment, but for the years of use you’ll get, reasonable.
I’m going to cover the two types of smallie fishing I do, which should be a helpful template for most of what you’ll be doing. Nicely, smallmouth bass inhabit rivers in much of the country and are so much fun. For your river fishing, I’d suggest two or three St. Croix Triumph, Premier or Mojo spinning rods in the 6’6” to 7’ range with medium-light to medium power and fast and extra-fast action. These rods retail for $90 to about $130, and the quality is such that you won’t have to upgrade. For reels, a few winners in the $59 to $99 range that I use are the Pflueger President, President XT and Supreme in the 30 size. Also, the Daiwa Fuego 2500 and Abu Garcia Revo X in the 20 size. All are perfect for your smallie fishing. For line I’d suggest braid or a superline like Berkely Ultra 8, Daiwa J-Braid or Shimano Power Pro in 8 to 10-pound test. I recommend a 30 to 40-inch 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. You can Google how tie it to your braid/superline. I use the uni-to-uni knot. Also, with these lines being more expensive than monofilament, have a sports store spool it on using the cheaper mono for backing.
As noted, I’ve always kept it simple. When hitting a small river in waders or kayak, I’m only using a few lures that I’ve caught thousands of smallies with. I will have the Rebel Teeny Wee and Middle-Crawfish, the Ned Rig with light 1/15th ounce Z-Man ShroomZ jig and the Z-Man Finesse TRD or TubeZ. I’ll also be swimming a Kalin’s Lunker Grub, Keitech 3.3” FAT Swing along with the Mepps inline spinners and the Booyah Pond Magic Buzzbait, which is a topwater.
With the Rebel Crawfish I cast cross-current or downstream and retrieve against the current. This will enhance the already tremendous wiggle and vibration. I think the profile and action is more important than color. With the Ned Rig and Z-Man soft ElaZtec plastics, which are buoyant and stand up off the bottom, I let the current move them with subtle twitches and very slow retrieve. There are many great colors that you can experiment with. For me the Finesse TRD Green Pumpkin Goby has been the best color and all the ShroomZ jig colors work, but I mostly use Chartreuse. The Kalin’s and Keitech are cast cross current or downstream and retrieved steady and as slow as you can reel to keep it off the rocks. My best river color and size for the Lunker Grub is the 4’ Blue Pearl Salt and Pepper and for the Keitech FAT Swing, Shad, Black Shad, Goby and Alewife. The Mepps in natural colors is retrieved the same as the Kalin’s, Keitech and Rebel Crawfish. The Booyah Buzzbait is best cast perpendicular to shore and retrieved slow to medium speed and steady. I like the white and white/chartreuse skirts. Most of these lures and presentations would be considered finesse, so I can stick with them spring, summer and fall.
Once you find streams and rivers that have smallies I’d suggest working up or down river from bridges, which many times will have access points. Or, down river from dams. Google Maps is a tremendous tool for scouting rivers, access points and good and bad water. Over the years, I’ve knocked on a few doors asking farmers if they’d be OK with me parking and fishing on their property. I always note I’m catch and release and won’t tell anyone if I’m successful. When river fishing, especially in waders, make sure your wading belt is tight around your waste in case you fall or step into a hole.
On the river look for slower water before and after faster moving water, downed trees, downriver side of boulders and rocks, along with deeper holes. Once you begin studying rivers, you’ll find it becomes very easy. Personally, I’ve always felt rivers were much easier to find smallies in than lakes. The roadmap for river smallies usually is just staring you in the face with the areas I mentioned. But, on lakes other than shallower rocky areas, docks and downed trees on the shoreline, you need electronics to see what’s happening below the surface. For me, most of my lake fishing has been on water that is very clear and in areas I know well from my boat fishing, so when in my kayak, I don’t even use electronics.
When I’m fishing in Sturgeon Bay and the ultra-clear waters of Lake Michigan, the smallies are going to be in shallow from early May and many times as late as early July depending on weather and water temperatures. Once the water warms, they move to off-shore locations that are deeper, relating to humps that are shallow coming out of deeper water, rocks, islands and many times will just suspend. Personally, because of the danger of hurting a smallie pulled from deeper than 25’, I don’t fish deeper than that. When the smallies are shallow on Lake Michigan, I’m using the same rod, reel and line set-ups as my river fishing. The only change I make is spending more time with rods that are medium power with the fast and extra-fast action as I will have a good chance to catch numbers of smallies from 4 to over 6 pounds.
My lure arsenal is much the same as on rivers and again, because of the finesse nature, stays the same all season. I have always felt big baits catch big fish, however, finesse presentations catch fish of all sizes. For my big water fishing I do not use the Mepps or Booyah Buzzbait, but I do add a couple other winners. One is wacky-rigging a 4” Yum Dinger or 5” Kalin’s Wack-O-Worm in natural colors. These are usually not search baits, but for when you have already found smallies. Center hook them on a 1/0 or 2/0 wide-gap worm hook and just let it undulate to the bottom. The other great lure is the Kalin’s Jerk Minnow in light and natural colors. Nose hook it with the wide-gap worm hook, cast, let it settle and use a jerk, jerk, pause retrieve. On the big water I also add the 3.8” Keitech FAT Swing. For both my river and lake fishing, as you can see, I do keep it simple. To learn even more about the Ned Rig and swimming the Kalin’s Lunker Grubs, I have articles on these on this Jackson Kayak Fishing Community site in April 2017 and February of this year.
Here are a few other things for you to consider. Whether on a lake or river, I would highly recommend that you invest in a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Often on clear water lakes these are much more important than my electronics. As a zealous catch and release angler, I have a few tools to make sure the smallie is released in good shape. I would suggest a needle nose pliers or medical forceps in case a smallie takes a lure deep, and good net with coated netting. I also like to weigh bigger fish and suggest a gripper style scale with one of the best being the BogaGrip. If you need to take a picture in your boat, kayak or wading be sure your camera ready, so you don’t have the fish out of the water longer than needed. In my boat and kayaks I use the RAM Mount camera mount. In my kayaks I use the Lip Gripper tethered to the side handle and can let the smallie swim safely next to the kayak while I get things ready to take a picture or weigh the fish. With the rods, reels and line I’ve suggested you should be able to get any smallie you catch in quickly. The longer you fight that smallie the more lactic acid builds up which can cause problems. If I think the smallie is stressed, it goes right back in the water, no picture or weight. Speaking of weight, on most lakes the weight of the smallie will trump its length as far as being impressive. On rivers it usually is reversed In Sturgeon Bay a 19” smallie in the spring an easily weigh over 5 pounds. On a river, a 20” smallie might only weigh four pounds.
If you’ve never fished for smallies, I know it will quickly become one of your favorite fish to chase. I hope this information will help you catch and release even more smallmouth bass. If you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com.