How to Catch Monster Smallmouth Bass

Great Catch A Lake Superior smallie surrenders. Photos by Tom Martineau / The Raw Spirit

For the biggest smallmouths, those over 5 pounds, the time is now. Full of eggs and hungry, the belly-draggers can’t eat enough, quickly enough. There’s no waiting—not for you, either.

Friday Evening
Get depth charts of the lake you intend to fish. Prepare medium or medium-light spinning rigs spooled with 8- or 10-pound-test fluorocarbon and jigheads ranging from 1⁄16 to 3⁄8 ounce so you can fish different depths in different winds and currents.

Study the map and circle flats in 5 to 15 feet of water. Smallmouths spawn in these areas when the water reaches 60 degrees. The closer the ­water is to that mark, the closer you want to be.

Scanning out from the spawning flats, note the adjacent deep water (20 to 40 feet). Pinpoint, in particular, the breaklines—there may be one at 10, for example, on the edge of the spawning flat, and another that runs from 15 to 20 and creates a transition zone, before a hard break that falls to 30 to 40 feet. If spring has been cold, mark nearby shallow bays that enjoy a long fetch with a southern wind. Identify several areas with these elements: flats, deeper staging ­water, nearby warming bays. Pick one area for a start.

Morning
The opportunity for a prespawn trophy is not exactly a state secret, so be on the water at sunup. The largest smallmouths are the first to shy from boat traffic, but they are also the most aggressive. Make sure the first bait they see is yours.

Weather will dictate your opening strategy. A warm morning with water in the 50s will bring bass over the hump onto the 5- to 15-foot flats. (The flat must have a gravel bottom to be a spawning area.) Position the boat outside this skinny water and cast right to the edge with lightly weighted tubes in golden shiner, smoky shiner, chartreuse pepper, or dark melon orange copper (for crayfish). No interest? Try a weightless, wacky-rigged 5-inch Senko in watermelon, pumpkin, or smoke.

Then move to deeper water. With wind from the south and water in the mid 50s, stay closer to the flat in the 10- to 15-foot depths; if it’s cold with a north or east wind, move deeper and slow down the presentation. Use as light a jighead as possible and keep in touch with the bottom. Fish as slowly as patience permits and be ready for subtle strikes. Sometimes the take of the biggest fish feels like nothing more than growing pressure, often coming as the tube rests on the bottom.

The same technique can be used in clear water to fish floating poppers, such as a Yo-Zuri 3DB, which makes maximum noise with minimum movement. My friend Stan Warner often fishes two rods, one with a floating popper, the other with a tube. He sets down one rod, picks up the other to make a twitch or pop, waits a minute, then switches again. He gets some of his biggest smallmouths in 45-degree ­water with the popper resting unattended.

Hand Off A Mississippi River hawg gets released

Midday
In late morning, with the sun on the water, move closer to the edge, drifting through the 10- to 15-foot range, casting free-falling weightless, wacky-rigged Senkos or tube jigs, swimming (rather than dragging) them. If a spring sun pushes the water into the mid 50s, use more aggressive horizontal presentations. A suspending jerkbait such as a Smithwick Suspending Rattlin' Rogue in silver-and-gold lets you fish the slope up to the spawning area. ­Shallow-​running (4 to 6 feet) white Cotton Cordell Big O crankbaits are real killers, with their combination of vibration and visibility.

If you don’t have your trophy by afternoon, try one of three strategies: Zip over to some nearby warming bays and drift the 10- to 20-foot depths with tubes; pull up stakes and hit a new staging-bay-and-flat complex; or if you’re marking fish or are otherwise convinced you’re in the right area, troll a lipped crankbait or a Rapala along breaklines. Go with the crankbait in 10 to 20 feet, and the Rapala in 5 to 10 feet. As with all prespawn lures, use natural, muted baitfish and crayfish colors in clear water, and hot colors in stained water.

Late Afternoon
Visit the transition zone to make your final casts of the day with a tube jig on the outside edges, fishing first the 20-foot break, then the 15, and then the lip of the flat.

Repeat the ritual on Sunday—especially your late-afternoon strategy. With boat traffic waning quickly and putting big smallmouths on the prowl, it just might be the spot and time for the bass of your life.

Essential Lure

Photo by Cliff Gardiner & John Keller

Tender Tube, 31/2-inch: On warm mornings, work a lightly weighted tube over 5- to 15-foot flats with a gravel bottom.