Here's an article, an earlier version of which got published in the Knee Deep Club's Around the Lake. Laurie Murphy of Dow's Boat Rental's has reported this week that smallmouth bass fishing in Lake Hopatcong is good.
Meeting Suspending Smallmouth Bass Halfway
By Bruce Litton
My son, Matt, and I have for years live-lined herring on early July mornings for walleye and hybrids on the lake. Four years ago, under a July cold front so severe that we never took jackets off, leaving the lake early in the afternoon, we came up with smallmouth bass over three pounds. They hung close to rocks 20 feet deep, down to about 26, apparently suspending over the deepest rocks of the drop-off.
Early in the summer, the lake’s oxygen is depleting, not to the degree it will by August, but the depths at which fish can survive become much shallower. By August, none survive any deeper than about 16 feet.
Deeply impressed later on with the bass’s response that chilly July day with cloudless skies, during the first couple of hours fishing we got no hits; my son couldn’t even get sunfish to tap his live nightcrawlers. I felt afraid we would be skunked for the first time on the lake, and seriously didn’t want this to happen. I had almost given up hope, when after three hours Matt hooked the first smallmouth on a herring. When the outing completed, I knew we would try meeting smallmouths half-way again by allowing herring free reign. Each summer since, we scored smallmouths better than three pounds. Matt’s was the largest at an ounce or two over three-and-a-half pounds.
Can they be caught on crankbaits or even by stripping streamers on a fly rod and sinking line? I suppose so. I wouldn’t want to use tube jigs, since my assumption is that the bass tend to suspend off bottom. You could try swimming jigs, but that’s a lot of guesswork as to where the bass lurk in the water column, and where in the column the jig swims. I would never say it can’t work, but I enjoy live herring fishing instead.
Live-lining isn’t really letting the herring do all the work. While the bait swims freely on a size 6 plain shank hook through its nostrils, keep an interested awareness in the situation, even if you cast a Senko while two herring lines per man stay busy.
I could cast a crankbait instead, but I don’t because I find these plugs noisy and in general less than subtle. As I wait, I fish a Senko among rocks a little shallower than I place herring and catch a largemouth or pickerel perhaps, or I succumb to my son’s nightcrawlers. Crankbaits can produce reaction strikes under bluebird cold front skies. Nevertheless, it’s in the way I imagine smallmouth bass suspended, somewhat in exile from their rocky homeland and surviving in water temperatures higher than optimal that makes me think they’re less interested in aggressively attacking a lure than pouncing on a herring met one to one.
The lake has many rocky drop-offs and our bass have come from several. I typically anchor in 20 to 25 feet of water, but whatever is necessary to place herring so they swim among or over rocks 20 to 30 feet deep is sufficient. Single prong hooks hang up around the very active herrings’ heads, which is why trebles slightly advantage, but our interest is the bass’s survival if gut hooked. This is a shallower orientation than that for walleye or hybrids suspended over greater depths, although range may crossover. We’ve found hybrids well out in the main lake away from a drop-off during summer, and this I wouldn’t expect of smallmouths, less inclined to rove free of structure. If smallmouths suspend, they remain close to their native rocks.
Rather than race about the lake, attempting to fish every one of the drop-offs or even a quarter of them, it may be best to settle down at one or two spots on a given outing. This hasn’t been especially fast action for us, unless you include the palm-sized sunfish and pugnacious perch caught on nightcrawlers. The panfish fun, bass trump them all.
Summer live-lining is usually a different kind of fishing than the quickly successive pick-ups we have enjoyed fishing October hybrids. It’s a way of subtly locating good-sized smallmouths with hopes of hooking a really big one. Smallmouths surely reach five pounds in the lake. Imagine. Slow down and let your anticipations lengthen, rather than be busied by a lot of hard cranking.
Light tackle is all that’s necessary. Matt caught the biggest on an ultra-light. With our medium power rods, we use six-pound test and there’s never been a problem with losing fish to obstructions.
Summer live-lining is hook and line, no sinker. My preference is not to set the drag light, but keep the bails open, two rods per man, and involve myself by keeping an alert eye. The moment you see line moving, tighten up and set the hook. So far, we have gut-hooked only one bass. The idea is to hook the fish in the mouth. This way we feel more assured of a bass’s survival after release.