Banking on Bronzebacks: Tackling Northern Smallmouths
July 10, 2020
Try these winning techniques for dependable summer action with smallmouth bass in the waters of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.Text & Photography by William Clunie
Northern New England is blessed with some of the cleanest, clearest lakes, ponds, rivers and streams in the nation—freshwater gems that draw vacationers from all over the world. These crystalline waterbodies teem with game fish, yet many visiting anglers have a tough time catching something other than the occasional sunfish or chub during the hot summer months, when many of the more coveted species such as trout and salmon retreat to deeper, cooler zones.
Fortunately, many of these same northern waters are home to smallmouth bass, also known as “bronzebacks” or “smallies,” which were introduced in the mid-1800s. No matter what you call them, though, these feisty fish can provide dependable action through the hot summer months—if you know where to look and the right techniques.
Smallies will readily take live worms and minnows, but using artificial lures is much more fun and challenging, in my opinion. Whether using spin or baitcasting gear, I like throwing traditional topwaters such as the Chug Bug, Hula Popper, Jitterbug, Pencil Popper and Torpedo, especially in the early season when the fish are holding in shallow areas near shore. If the lure causes a commotion on the surface, smallies will attack it. While surface lures can take fish throughout the day, they usually work best in the early morning or evening, especially in hot weather.
My advice when fishing topwaters is to cast them around lily pads, stumps, logs, fallen branches, rocks, docks, bridge abutments and other types of structure. Shady, wooded banks along a lake, pond or river hold plenty of fish from May through mid-June (later in northern reaches of the states), when the bass gather to spawn and the males guard the nests aggressively. Once the spawn is finished, the fish retreat to deeper areas.
Soft-plastic worms, tubes and lizards also work well. Fish them unweighted on a worm hook or with a small bullet sinker on the line to get them deep, then hop them over the bottom with slight twitches of the rod. Another effective shallow-water bait is the “wacky-rigged” soft-plastic worm. In shallow water, simply hook the worm at its midpoint on a 2/0 or 3/0 wacky worm-style hook. Cast it out and let it settle to the bottom then twitch the rod to make the worm’s ends flex outward. Allow the bait to settle again and repeat. Be prepared to set the hook when you feel the slightest tap, as bass often inhale the worm as it’s descending toward the bottom.
Fishing wacky worms is a great way to prospect for bass scattered over open, rocky or weedy areas. In midsummer, you can use a nail weight embedded in the worm or a small split-shot on the line to fish depths of 20 feet or more.
No matter what type of lure I’m using, I always tie directly to the line—usually six- to eight-pound-test monofilament. Any light rod will suffice, but my favorite is a six-foot, three-inch G. Loomis fast-action model rated for 8- to 12-pound-test line. It’s a fairly stout rod, but is sensitive enough to let me detect subtle strikes. The reel should hold roughly 100 yards of line and feature a gear ratio that lets you gain line quickly to maintain direct contact with a running fish and retrieve lures at a good clip, which smallies seem to prefer in shallow water.
Of course, subsurface lures work well, too, especially in summer when the fish move in deeper, cooler zones. The aforementioned wacky worm, as well as a variety of spoons and spinnerblades, will take midsummer fish holding in 15 to 20 feet of water. My favorite deep-water lure is a five-inch GitZit tube rigged on an 1/8-ounce jighead and hopped just above the bottom. Another trick for deep-water bass is to hook a live shiner through the lips on a painted jighead and fish it near structure. In the hard-bait department, I like the Rapala Shad Rap or Count Down in colors that match the predominant prey. Booyah’s Tandem Counter Strike spinnerbait in white or chartreuse is another winner. I fish the swimming plugs and spinnerbaits with a slow, steady retrieve to keep them in the strike zone—typically from one to ten feet above the bottom.
As always, make sure to focus your efforts around underwater structure—logs, rock piles, steep drop-offs, channel edges—as this is where smallies and their prey typically hold. When targeting big bass during the summer months, I often look for areas where shallow water drops abruptly to deeper water, what some anglers call a “ledge.” The bass like to hold in the darker, deeper water before darting up to chase baitfish in the shallows.
Obviously, a decent depthsounder with a side-scan feature can prove helpful when it comes to locating productive structure in a lake or pond—as well as bait concentrations and the bass themselves. Once you find such a spot, make note of it so you can return to it year after year.
Go with the Flow
I also do a lot of smallmouth fishing in Maine’s rivers and streams. Here, the bass prefer to hold in the slowest water available, rather than expend energy fighting a swift current. Look for places where rocks, stumps, pilings, bridge abutments or logs impede the flow of water and form quiet eddies. These eddies provide resting spots for the fish, a place where they can wait for food to be swept past in the current. In this situation, cast your lure upcurrent of the structure and let it be swept along with the current. Provide slight twitches of the rod tip to give the lure some additional action as it drifts through the strike zone.
Lure color can sometimes make a big difference with smallmouths. As a general rule, I use bright colors on bright days and dark colors on dark days. However, you never know with smallies, so pack an assortment of lures in a variety of colors, and don’t be afraid to try different patterns until you find the one that works.
Smallies on the Fly
Smallmouth bass are lots of fun to catch on fly gear. I like to use a five- to eight-weight rod with a seven- or eight-foot leader ending in a eight-pound-test tippet, although a heavier tippet may be necessary when toothy pike or pickerel inhabit the same waters.
When fishing surface flies, use a line that will turn over heavy poppers, divers, gurglers, cricket patterns, and floating minnow imitations. Reels with a large arbor are helpful, as they allow you to gain line quickly when a fish charges the boat.
Subsurface flies require a sinking line. Some effective patterns include the Clouser Minnow, Lefty’s Deceiver, Wooly Bugger, Zonker, crayfish and leech imitations, and any streamer that imitates the local baitfish, such as smelt, juvenile trout and yellow perch.