Make no mistake; the Great Lakes are in a constant state of change. Thankfully, some popular fish species have adapted to these changes. In the case of the smallmouth bass, it could be argued that these fish have actually thrived in the face of these changes.
Siphon feeders such as the zebra and quagga mussel have had a profound impact on removing plankton from the water and converting clear water fisheries into gin clear environments. Evidence of these invasive species and the changes they have created can be found in every corner of the Great Lakes and also the Great Lakes Connecting Waters.
Some of the more profound changes include clearer water, better light penetration, expanding aquatic weed growth and also deeper weed penetration. All of these environmental changes favor the unique niche occupied by smallmouth bass.
The Michigan DNR has for years claimed that smallmouth bass are not targeted by sport fishermen nearly as much as other species such as walleye, panfish, trout and salmon. Quietly, the smallmouth bass has populated every corner of the Great Lakes and in many areas they have become the dominant species.
To my way of thinking, smallmouth are abundant, fun to catch and a resource that isn’t likely to be depleted anytime soon. Thankfully, the majority of anglers who target the smallmouth also practice catch and release. The future of smallmouth bass fishing in the Great Lakes is bright indeed.
Smallmouth Love Structure
It’s a forgone conclusion that smallmouth are routinely found where there is either good bottom structure, weed cover or both to hide in and also from which to ambush their forage.
A bottom make up that features a nice mix of boulders and melon sized rocks represents a near ideal environment for roaming schools of smallmouth bass. Sight fishing these boulders with the help of polarized glasses is an exciting way to target these fish.
The best smallmouth weeds are often those that grow in deeper water such as common pond weeds, or what many anglers simply refer to as cabbage. Cabbage weed is most often found on flats or along the edges of structure in water from six to 15 feet deep. Places where cabbage weed grows right up to the edge of drop-offs are especially attractive to smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth love these edges that allow them to hunt in relatively shallow water and when the mood strikes them to slip into deeper water for security. Places where food and cover is located close to deep water appeals to bass for another reason.
Smallmouth are especially vulnerable to cold fronts and abrupt weather changes. When a cold front blows into town, smallmouth that were actively feeding tend to get lock jaw. These same fish also slip into deeper water where they sulk and wait for stable weather to return.
Targeting Smallies With Jerkbaits
Because the Great Lakes are large and cold bodies of water, spawning among smallmouth bass takes place much later in the year than many anglers realize. Depending on the latitude, smallmouth in the Great Lakes are spawning in May, June or as late as July.
Prior to spawning and immediately following the spawn, one of the best search and destroy lures is the jerkbait. These slender and shallow diving minnow baits cast well and can be used to cover water quickly.
The magic of a jerkbait is in understanding how to fish these lures. Make a long cast and retrieve the bait for a few feet to get the bait diving. Once the bait is below the surface, stop the retrieve, lower the rod tip to the water and using your wrist snap the rod tip in short strokes. Much like the process of “walking the dog” with a topwater plug, the short jerks on the rod tip cause the bait to dart one way, hesitate for a second and then dart in a completely different direction.
A jerkbait in the hands of an angler who knows how to use it is deadly effective on smallmouth. Jerkbaits are available in various sizes from 3.5 inches to 5.5 inches in length. Some of the most popular baits are carefully weighted so as to create lures that suspend in the water when motionless. A suspending jerkbait has great darting action, but when the angler pauses between jerks of the rod tip, the bait hangs motionless in the water.
Floating jerkbaits have the same darting action, but when the retrieve is paused these baits rapidly float upwards towards the surface. Floating jerkbaits are also lighter and don’t cast as well as the suspending models.
A few of the most popular jerkbaits on the market these days include the Strike King KVD Jerkbait which is produced in three sizes, the Bomber Pro Long A, the Yo-Zuri 3DB, the Rapala Rip Stop and X-Rap and also the Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue.
Smallmouth Love Tubes
Tubes in the three to four inch sizes are legendary for their ability to trigger strikes from smallmouth bass. Part of what makes tubes so effective is they do a great job of imitating a lot of the forage species smallmouth key on. Most noteworthy, tubes are especially useful for imitating both crayfish and the abundant round goby.
Tubes cast nicely and can also be used to cover a lot of water. In Great Lakes waters natural colors in the browns, greens, blacks and smoke shades are often the most effective. Of course for every rule there is an exception to that rule.
In places where emerald shiners are abundant, white, pearl and silvers are also must have tube colors. What makes tubes effective is the slow spiral fall these lures are known for. Like a dying minnow, tubes are amazingly effective at turning smallmouth inside out.
The most common tube jig sizes are 1/4 and 3/8 ounce. Many tube jigs these days also feature a molded-in rattle chamber that helps these baits get noticed quickly by smallmouth bass.
As summer settles in, smallmouth gradually find themselves setting up housekeeping in deeper water. One of the most efficient ways of fishing smallmouth in water from 10 feet out to 30 feet deep and beyond is with the popular drop shot rig.
A drop shot rig features a short shank, wide gap hook tied directly to a fluorocarbon leader using a Palomar knot. The hook is placed about 12 inches above a sinker that is affixed to the end of the line.
This unique rigging allows the soft plastic to be wiggled and jiggled literally right in front of fish. Drop shot rigs fish great directly below the boat vertical jigging them and also casting them to spooky fish.
My favorite drop shot hook is the Trokar TK150 that features a slightly longer shaft that in turn presents soft plastics enticingly. A No. 2 or No. 1 size hook is a good all around choice for fishing a wide variety of plastics.
Just about any soft plastic can be fished on a drop shot rig, but a few of the most popular choices include the Z-Man Finesse TRD, Big TRD, Hula StickZ and Finesse ShadZ soft plastics. Other good plastics for fishing drop shot rigs include the Yum Dinger and the Berkley Power Drop Shot Minnow.
An avid smallmouth bass fisherman is well equipped with quality spinning rods and reels. Certainly jerkbaits are routinely fished on baitcasting rods and reels, but even a jerkbait can be fished nicely with a medium action spinning rod.
Jerkbaits are best fished on eight to 10 pound test fluorocarbon line. The low visibility of fluorocarbon line is important, but this line also has just the right amount of stretch to be ideal for presentations such as jerkbaits.
Fishing tube baits is clearly a job for a spinning outfit. My favorite choice for pitching tubes is a slightly longer seven foot-six inch spinning model in either a medium or medium-light action. I prefer to fish tubes using 10 pound test Berkley Nanofil with about a 24 inch leader of 10-12 pound test fluorocarbon as a leader.
The slightly longer rod yields some longer casts and helps pick up slack line better on the hook set. The longer rod also does a superior job of handling trophy class fish. Great Lakes smallmouth are big, mean and they aren’t afraid to leave it all on the playing field.
Drop shot fishing is typically practiced with a little lighter action rod than normally used to pitch tubes or grubs. The light tip of a “drop shot” rod makes it possible to shimmy and shake those plastics to life without moving the drop shot weight.
The ideal drop shot rod has that soft tip and a strong backbone that allows the angler to put pressure on a hooked fish. I personally fish drop shot rigs using Nanofil or other super braid lines. Many anglers like to fish drop shot rigs with a fluorocarbon main line.
If the fish are in water less than 20 feet I think using fluorocarbon as a main line would be fine. In deeper water or for the average angler, I feel that the better sensitivity of zero stretch braid is the right choice.
Summing It Up
The Great Lakes State has no shortage of smallmouth destinations. Lake Erie has a reputation for being a smallmouth bass factory, but avid anglers can tap into an almost endless list of productive Great Lakes bass havens.
Quietly, the smallmouth bass has become one of the most abundant species found in the near shore waters of the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Connecting Waters. Lots of fish, big fish and no shortage of places to fish. What more could an avid fisherman ask for?