Trying to put a pattern together for last year's BASS Elite Series event on Lake Oneida, I was lucky enough to spot birds that were actively feeding on baitfish. I got close enough — but not too close — to see that they were stuffing themselves on juvenile yellow perch that were being pushed to the top of the water column through an opening in some aquatic grasses.
Since this was Oneida, I had a pretty good idea what was pushing them to the surface. And over four days of competition, I pulled enough smallmouth out of that area to finish sixth in the event.
The moral of the story is not how well I did in the tournament, but rather the secret of locating smallmouth. Whether you're fishing for smallmouth in the North or the South, chances are you are going to find them deep at some point this summer. But exactly how deep is going to differ from place to place. Knowing how to narrow your search will save you a lot of time and help you get more fish to the boat.
When I say that you will be fishing deep for smallmouth this summer, remember that "deep" is a relative term. In some places, deep can be 15-20 feet; in other places it can be 40-60 feet. What determines how deep the smallmouth are is the depth of their dominant forage. With exception of the spawn, smallmouth always go where their main forage is. On Lake Oneida, that main forage is juvenile yellow perch, about 3-5 inches long. At Champlain, the smallmouth will be eating alewives and on Lake Erie it will be gobies.
When I approach smallmouth water this time of year, I determine what the main forage is and learn as much as I can about that species. I determine where in the water column these baitfish will be. I can then focus my smallmouth-finding efforts on locating places that will hold those species and tailor my bait and equipment selections to suit fishing under these conditions and at these depths. Learn the most you can about your electronics and use them to look for structure breaks (drops, rises) that hold baitfish, since these fish are a lot like bass and will relate highly to structure and cover. On low-light days, start working the tops of the breaks, but on bluebird days start on the bottom. But let the fish tell you where they are.
The best setup to use when fishing for smallmouth in deeper water is a drop shot rig. I use a drop shot a lot, but especially in these situations. It keeps the bait up off the bottom and allows me to put it right in front of a smallmouth's face. Last year on Oneida, I used a pumpkinseed Berkley® Gulp!® Wacky Crawler. That's exactly the color of those yellow perch, a perfect match of their size and — on the drop shot — a perfect imitator of their action. It quivers on the fall and I can shake the rod tip and give it the look of an easy-to-catch yellow perch. When we get to Lake Erie, there's two ways to catch smallmouth that are feeding on gobies. One of my favorite ways is to use a Berkley PowerBait® Power Tube in a color called Camo. I know that the gobies will be in water anywhere from 25-35 feet deep, so I'll use a 3/8-ounce weight aspirin head jig head. This jig head fits inside tube and makes head look fat. Goby has a really fat head so it makes it look natural. When it comes to imitating an alewife, nothing works as well for me as a drop shot rigged with a Berkley Gulp! Minnow in smelt color.
I truly believe that there is nothing better than Gulp! for smallmouth. My opinion is that smallmouth have a better smell sense than any other species of bass. And Gulp!, because of the way it smells and the way it disperses scent through the water, it catches more fish and gets more bites.
Almost as important as bait for catching deep water smallmouth is line selection. For smallmouth in deep water, you need 6- to 10-pound Berkley Vanish® or the new Trilene® 100% Fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon line is a must because it gives you the clarity, even in bigger diameter line. Also, it eliminates stretch and gets bait down quicker, which is important for deep-water smallmouth fishing since you could be fishing in 30-60 feet of water. Less stretch also allows for more positive hook sets.
When fishing deep, you can also be talking about dealing with big water. Equipment wise, line is the big deal. I use fluorocarbon line 75 percent of the time. But if the water is really deep or if the wind is really blowing, I will tie Berkley FireLine® Crystal to a swivel and then fluorocarbon line below the swivel. I prefer a 6 ½- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod and small reel. In the wind, I'll use drift socks to slow the presentation down and keep in contact with the bait and stay in one place. Also, marker buoys are really important to mark turns in depth breaks or bald spots in grassy areas that smallmouth seem to feed more heavily on or to mark when other smallmouth are following up a hooked fish.
Smallmouth are one of my favorite species to fish for and I'm excited that we're entering the part of the BASS Elite Series schedule where they will play a bigger role in a deciding who wins the tournaments. I grew up fishing for smallmouth on a lot of these northern lakes and some of my fondest fishing memories came from those times. By knowing how to find and fish for smallmouth once they return to deeper water, you can go out and make some excellent fishing memories for yourself.