Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Summer Smallmouth Bass: Herring for Suspended Bass, other Techniques

Summer Smallmouth Bass Lake Methods

Lake smallmouth bass can get depressed during summer. Sounds crazy? Not if it’s Lake Hopatcong, Spruce Run Reservoir, or other lake with oxygen stratification. This has little to do with depleted brain cells, but exile from home. Good-size smallmouths suspend over their natural habitat—deep, rocky drop-offs. If you’ve ever had the blues, you know the feeling of suspense and unwillingness to do much. Suspended smallmouths will show up on the graph recorder, but chase almost nothing offered them.

Ripping and rolling crankbaits through the water column may work in favorable conditions. But usually a better approach is to match the homeless mood. No bass will bum money off you, but a few may swipe live herring.

If wind is not heavy, a slow drift over drop-offs with a few live herring out, no weight, just hooked through the nostrils on a size 6, plain shank hook, can work wonders even on a sunny afternoon. Herring head right down to the oxygen break and make their way at the zone until bass find them. On Hopatcong, that’s about 15 to 18 feet in August, possibly 12 feet on Spruce Run. Set the hook quick to ensure a clean release.

Nothing perfects the approach to stratification as herring do. This is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty and specific effectiveness of using live bait. To whet curiosity, we’ve tried live herring in Stony Brook, Mercer County, and small bass only play with them. But good-size lake smallmouths have no compunctions.

The situation for smallmouths with a breathable retreat path to the depths calls for any number of lure choices. Find these summer bass associated with rocks and gravel anywhere from the shallowest reaches several feet deep, down to 40 or 50 feet deep or more. I know someone who caught a smallmouth on a live herring intended for a lake trout 90 feet deep in Round Valley Reservoir during summer.

Where bass will stage along the routes they take from deep to shallow, shallow to deep, and on migrations around a lake depends on so many variables volumes could be filled on the subject. A good book to read is Will Ryan’s Smallmouth Strategies for the Fly Rod, which goes into detail about smallmouth bass behavior. But a good rule of thumb is that changing weather patterns, especially falling barometer with the onset of rain, usually jump starts action towards shallows.

A typical fishing depth may be 10 to 20 feet. Among rocks, bass will hit subtle presentations throughout the day, and may slam crankbaits retrieved at moderate speed. I caught a 3 ¼-pounder during a partly sunny afternoon in three feet of crystal clear water one recent summer—it didn’t hurt to try that cast. 4 and 5 inch Senko-type worms are my go-to choice. They cast a mile and sink fast, no weight needed to get down 20 feet pretty quick with control of line in a steady breeze. Wacky rigged in the middle is effective, but an inset worm hook allows the worm to nose dive into wide rock crevices where smallmouths wait to ambush. If the day is really slow—no breeze on clear water absorbing a demon sun—I use a seven-inch Chompers worm, perhaps with two inches of plastic removed from the head, on a size 2, plain shank open hook. Slow descent and subtle feel can literally make all the difference. For one thing, a slow-descending worm stays in the bass’s visual field longer.

With optimal weather conditions that really get bass on the move feeding, crankbaits may out-produce any other lure or bait. All sorts of diving lips offer a range of depth options. Crankbaits come in very small sizes too, but the notion that smallmouth bass want small offerings is not necessarily true. For example, when I use a Senko, I almost always choose a five-inch worm over four-inch and have caught plenty little smallmouths on the larger. 

Years ago when I first encountered a Rat-L-Trap, I thought it was a clumsy, awkward, useless device. One day with stained water on the Delaware River, I chose to try it for the rattle and have been hooked on this lure ever since. Since lipless crankbaits sink, you can work them effectively 20 feet down and even deeper. They can be yo yo’ed, ripped and paused, etc.

Jigs and smallmouth bass are inseparable. Now that hard metals such as steel and brass are replacing lead, the possible effectiveness of tapping jigs along rocks is increased. Whether or not this really makes a difference, harder metal gives you a little better feel. Tungsten jigs would be best. This metal is denser than lead and extremely hard.

Fly rodders have fun on lakes for smallmouth too. Weighted streamers don't serve the same function as jigs. A sinking 6-weight fly line may be best, must be a sinking line. Jig action is more irritating by stops, starts, and clicks; streamers behave like dissociated forage fish cruising and darting just off bottom or suspended. Fly fishing in lakes is a subtle approach that may be effective when other methods fail. It’s certainly a way that could be tried on suspended smallmouths.


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