Take Aim For SmalliesBy Ted Takasaki
Mike Weinkauf is vice president of Field Logic, a company that manufactures and markets innovative products to the hunting industry. To hear him tell it, that explains his addiction to sight fishing early in the season for smallmouth bass.
“If you enjoy hunting at all, fishing for smallmouth bass is as close to hunting as you can ever get with a pole in your hand,” he said. “With good polarized sunglasses, you’re stalking them. You’re sneaking around on the water up on the bow of the boat trying to get on top of them. It adds a whole new element in excitement.
“Once you identify the magical depth for pre-spawn or spawn, you’re on their turf. You can literally find the exact fish you want to catch.”
Weinkauf doesn’t mind at all when people think it strange why a guy who grew up in walleye country would rather fish for bass. He just looks at the only fish he has mounted on his wall in Duluth, Minn.—a seven-pound, three-ounce smallmouth—and describes the species’ over-developed tenacity.
“The reason I like to smallmouth fish is they are very aggressive fish. I like them because they are extremely acrobatic. Most of the time you catch a fish, you don’t have an idea what you have hooked until it’s in the net. With a smallmouth, you might not even know you have it hooked before it jumps out of the water. That’s when it gets fun. That’s when the whole boat starts yelling.”
When water temperature reaches 50 to 55 degrees, they gather to spawn on sandy, gravelly hard-bottom shoreline-related structures like reefs and points. Spawning usually occurs at about 60 degrees. They’ll stay in the same areas after spawning if they have the right combination of food and shelter, and/or deep water for security.
Smallmouth aren’t hard to find early in the season. One key is warm water. Weinkauf said to check bays on the sun-drenched northwest side of the natural lake you’re on. Bays also offer protection from the wind that can rough up the surface so you can’t see what’s below, and that spoils the hunt, he said. Bays with feeder creeks and rivers will warm faster, too.
The best bottom content is often sand with a few rocks mixed in. Use a side imaging Humminbird to locate the cover.
“That’s where they will congregate to do their business,” Weinkauf said.
Some often-overlooked fish also locate on mud bottoms with the odd boulder or isolated rock pile. Then, it’s simply a matter of sight-fishing the shallows. Keep moving until fish are found.
“From my experience, once you find one, you’ve found the mother lode. You’ll find a lot of them.”
Mark your map, set a GPS point, do whatever you have to so you can find your way back.
“They’re there year in and year out. They’ll be coming back non-stop.”
Light to medium spinning gear, such as a St. Croix Legend Xtreme, is perfect for the challenge.
“Using light tackle is fun for shallow smallies because they’re a lot of fun. From a freshwater fish standpoint, they’re as strong as they get, pound for pound.”
He uses soft plastic baits when he can. Four-inch ribbon tails or creepy crawly plastics with lots of wiggly feet are normally best. Slide down to three-inch when fishing is tough. Tube jigs, Senkos and jerk shads work, too.
Color choice is more for the fisherman than the fish. Pick something that contrasts with the bottom so bait control is easy. For a dark bottom, use a bright color. Light bottom, dark color. Sometimes the bait will reach the bottom, sometimes it won’t. There are times when a smallmouth can pick up the bait, move it and drop it before an angler can react. Being able to see it allows a quick hook set.
“The first time you feel a bump or that you see a smallmouth bass take it, set the hook. This is not Lindy rigging for walleye. If you wait, the fish is gone,” he said.
Jigs like the Lindy X-Change Jig weighing 1/16- to 1/8-ounce are normally enough to take the bait down in windless conditions. Weinkauf’s tackle box has a lot of 3/32-ounce jigs.
Sometimes in very cold water or super-calm conditions, Weinkauf will use a hook with no weight at all so the bait falls slowly right in the faces and stays.
Before you go to the lake, practice casting at a bucket in the backyard until you get good at hitting it. Small areas can hold many fish, he said.
Even smallmouth bass can be extremely finicky sometimes. That’s when Weinkauf switches to leeches.
“At that point, when the leech starts doing its thing, they have a real hard time resisting.”
Stay in the same areas, but upsize baits as water temperature rises toward summer. Four-inch plastics and even larger will work. Smallmouth are also willing to chase, so try spinnerbaits, shallow-running crankbaits or top-waters.
Also, begin targeting weeds, as well as, sand and mud with rocks and reefs, as well as shoreline structures. Smallmouth often hang out in the same spots as walleye that time of year.
Go hunting from your boat. You just might bag a trophy smallmouth.
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