Increasingly, today’s bass anglers love to tell you which species they prefer, brown or green. But it’s the former that continues to spawn a cult-like following. Even a self-described largemouth nut or honest walleye angler will admit to enjoying a smallmouth outing now and again. And for good reason; smallmouth bass fight hard and are widely distributed. But don’t be fooled by the big bags of brown bass from famous fisheries that continuously fill our media screens and social media feeds; smallies aren’t always such an easy target – especially the larger individuals over four pounds.
Just in time for some of the best smallmouth fishing of the year, allow us to put forth some serious smallmouth strategy, elicited from a couple of the best brown-bass anglers from throughout the bronze belt. Their home waters and tournament experiences have taught them to look for and recognize changing smallmouth patterns, quickly adapt to current conditions, and develop repeatable, winning techniques that work in a variety of settings – not just unpressured northern waters.
Bassmaster Elite Series angler, Bob Downey, is no stranger to the podium and has some serious tournament finishes to prove it. Hailing from Hudson, Wisconsin, the St. Croix pro is part river guy, part lake guy, and 100% smallmouth guy at heart. He lists the Mississippi River as his favorite place to fish but has more “home water” in both Minnesota and Wisconsin than most could imagine.
When targeting smallies in natural lakes, Downey says he looks for large, shallow flats with a good mix of cover and a varied bottom composition. Cover specifically meaning boulders or patches of grass, and bottom composition variety in the form of sand-to-gravel or sand-to-rock transitions. “It’s usually a shallow-water game,” says Downey, who supplies prowess to the power-fishing game while focusing on water less than ten feet deep. “I’d rather fish a flat that has lots of bottom transitions with contour changes, patches, and clumps of scattered cover versus a plain sand flat with not much going on. I’m looking for variety. Fish spend time here post-spawn, and I feel I can power-fish my way to finding them, even if I need to slow down a little to get them to eat.”
Of course, that can be the challenge given weather patterns and fish that don’t always cooperate, which is why Downey keeps it simple for post-spawn smallies. “I’ll throw a black marabou hair jig first and foremost, and always keep a ned rig handy too,” he says. “In early summer, smallies tend to be concentrated. They won’t be everywhere, but when you find them you’ll generally find a good bunch. Covering lots of water until you locate them is key, and my favorite way to do that is with a black marabou hair jig.”
Search with a hair jig? Downey dives deeper. “I put the trolling motor on a medium to high speed and start covering shallower flats with deep water nearby. If you catch a smallmouth or start to see them with your eyes or side-imaging, put on the breaks and start picking that area apart,” he advises. “During post-spawn they’ll roam those same spawning flats before migrating to their summer areas.” Downey offers simple advice on working a hair jig to perfection, which may surprise some anglers who preach complex retrieves and subtle jigging strokes with this bait that seems to “breathe” underwater. “Don’t overthink the hair jig,” he says. “Simply cast it out and reel it back in at a steady pace. Much like you’d fish a spinnerbait or small swimbait. The bait should just glide through the middle of the water column. You don’t need to impart any action yourself, although you certainly can… or fish it on the bottom… but I find more success with just a straight retrieve.” Downey describes the hair jig as a deadly little bait that excels in all phases of early summer on those hot, calm days where the fish are post-spawn. “There have been days where that’s the only bait I need in the spring or early summer,” he reports. “It couldn’t be any easier or more effective.”
Downey offers a few tips to help cast hair jigs farther. “Add a small chunk of an old plastic worm to the shank of the hook up under the hair. These jigs are generally 1/16-to-1/8 ounce, so a little added plastic will help with casting distance,” says Downey. “Use thin, six-to-eight-pound braided line on your spinning reel with a shorter three-foot fluorocarbon leader so the leader knot doesn’t have to pass through as many – or any – guides during casting.” Downey is a fan of the FG knot for connecting braid to fluoro, noting, “I know it can be a difficult knot to learn, but it’s superior to any other when throwing a hair jig.”
“The length and action of a rod may be the most important component of throwing a hair jig,” he says. “It’s difficult to cast a light jig with a short, stiff rod. You need at least a 7’ medium or medium-light power and a fast or extra-fast tip. I prefer a 7’6″ to 7’10” rod in MLXF. It makes a difference. The medium-light power gives me a soft rod that absorbs the strike and the big head shakes during the fight, and ultimately allows me to land big smallmouth on a tiny bait. The extra length and extra-fast tip gives me the sharp ‘whip’ needed to snap that little jig way out away from the boat. There are some techniques in bass fishing where you could use a wide array of rods and get away with it, but the hair jig is not one of them.”
When asked what’s around the corner as early bites give way to mid and late summer, Downey says the fish start to split up, both shallow and deep. “Shallow areas can and will play all summer long depending on the weather conditions; sunny, flat, calm, hot days are best,” says Downey. “Shallow fish are super fun, but they can be less dependable at times. They move around a lot and are here today, gone tomorrow.” While that may make them his preferred fish to take a crack at for fun, it’s harder to cash tournament checks just throwing shallow.
That’s where deep-water strategies come in. “Fish that set up on deep structure tend to be a little more reliable,” advises Downey, who likes to target deep fish with a variety of presentations depending on the conditions. “I’ll chase deep smallies with ned rigs, drop shots, finesse jigs and reaction baits depending on the weather. There’s just so many ways you can catch them when they’re out deeper. Crankbaits, swimbaits, spybaits… that’s what makes summer so much fun when chasing smallmouth. And no matter what I’m doing, St. Croix makes an ideal rod for the presentation.”
Travis Manson is a familiar name to smallmouth anglers throughout the US. Both his guide service and popular YouTube channel are named “Smallmouth Crush” for good reason. A native of Northeastern Wisconsin, Manson honed his craft and love of smallmouth in the Northwoods but spread wings out east where he currently fishes more than 200 days a year on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and even the Upper Chesapeake Bay. His experience on such varied smallmouth waters has accelerated his understanding of patterns and behaviors, ultimately helping his clients catch more fish along the way.
Although the smallmouth spawn can extend well into June – even early July – in some Great Lakes fisheries, early summer means post-spawn behavior in most of the areas Manson plies. “I’m generally targeting areas close to spawning bays and grounds, looking shallow but anticipating a deeper summer setup,” he reports. “Not every fish is going to be deep the rest of the year, as there’s always resident shallow-water fish.” Given the choice, he advises fishing a mixture of both, but starting shallow first. “I start in three feet of water down to 15, focusing heavily on that eight-to-12-foot zone, which I find key.”
Like any talented smallmouth angler, Manson makes moves based on the conditions of the day. “On high-sun and calm days I’m looking for cruisers,” says Manson. “I climb to the highest point of the boat, put the trolling motor on high and tend to throw reaction baits to cover water and visually locate them. It’s really about casting to an individual.” That can mean looking for individual boulders or structure too, not just fish. “If a fish isn’t on a good boulder, I’ll mark it and come back during different parts of the year,” he says. “Anything from something the size of a bowling ball all the way up to a truck-sized boulder, I’m marking it ‘rock’ on the graph and visiting it often.”
When he’s throwing at rocks or really any shallow structure, Manson prefers finesse swimbaits and other plastics. “I’m using swim-head designs with a screwlock, which helps me get more use out of my plastics. I can have some good days up shallow, meaning 30 or 40 fish an outing, so keeping those plastics from being thrown can be really useful when guiding,” says Manson. “For the most part I’m using three- and four-inch baits in natural colors to mimic live minnows, like whites, ghost, or smoke colors. On some systems where there’s perch, I’ll mix in those colors and chartreuse as well.”
Other finesse plastics like tubes or creature baits get the nod in systems dominated by gobies. “There, I’ll focus on bottom baits in green pumpkin, straight black, or classic goby colors, paired with a mushroom-head-type jig,” says Manson. “Even a Senko can be deadly here, just pitching visually towards cover or even active fish.” Manson uses swimbaits and finesse plastics in concert, as a one-two punch, often seeing the fish approach or hit the swimbait. “I get some follows at times where fish pull off near the boat and then just hover by bottom. I’ll swing the boat around, get in position, then throw that finesse bait back to them in those cases.”
Manson is a huge fan of St. Croix’s Victory Series in general for smallmouth, specifically, the Victory Crosshair rod (VTS710MLXF) for swimbaits. “It’s a great hair jig rod,” says Manson, “but it’s incredible for long-cast techniques on all light jig heads in general. While it’s nice to have the distance, with the way a fish bites swimbaits, it’s really critical to have that long rod and extra-fast action.” Manson appreciates the extra length on the Victory Crosshair rod for another reason, too. “These fish are so good at getting off,” he says. “A longer rod aids your ability to do battle and keep them buttoned up.”
For presenting soft-plastic finesse baits, Manson emphasizes the importance of sensitivity. “I won’t fish anything here but St. Croix Legend Xtreme rods in 6’10” (XFS610MLXF) or 7’3” (XFS73MLXF), both in medium light power and extra fast actions,” he says. “Finesse means feel, and feel is the everything of these rods. I can get the distance on many long rods, but to feel bites versus rocks or baitfish, these are the sticks.” Manson uses his Legend Xtremes specifically for working baits across bottom, where contact is key. “I feel where to throw the bait and prefer medium-light powers to run lighter jigs with so much control. I’ve got all the power I need for hook-setting and fighting, while still maintaining control of a small jig, which is tough for most rods.”
Come mid-summer, Manson shifts his focus to offshore structure like ledges, humps, and especially long points that extend into deep water. “That’s where you find the big schools,” says Manson, who spends a good amount of time watching side-imaging, but more importantly, standard 2D sonar to find these big pods of active, deep-water smallmouth. “These fish show up and stay for weeks at a time, and often do so year after year. Still, smallies are notorious for being here today and gone tomorrow, which is why I confirm everything on sonar before setting up to fish.”
There’s no denying that the late-spring and early-summer timeframes deliver some of the best opportunities of the season to score big smallmouth catches, especially if you follow the recommendations of our experts.
Their advice is as solid as the chunky bronzebacks they’re sticking on a regular basis.