A smallmouth isn't a largemouth. The late Billy Westmorland often repeated that statement when trying to teach others about how to catch the popular bronzeback.
Like many smallmouth experts, Westmorland realized that most fishermen overlook the obvious. They mistakenly view the smallmouth as simply a color variation of the largemouth — instead of a separate species of fish requiring a different approach in fishing lures and strategies.
Despite such a myopic view, they sometimes catch smallmouth bass anyway, especially when and where the two species of black bass share the same habitat, forage and even cover.
But those who catch smallmouth bass most consistently are those who recognize the differences. This is especially true for those who target bronzebacks with spinnerbaits. These anglers have learned that smallmouth bass typically have larger strike zones than do largemouths.
"Largemouth are usually on a stump or log or clump of grass. They will hit a bait that comes within 5 feet or so of that piece of cover. But they aren't going to go after something that's 20 feet away," said Lawren Wetzel, a tournament angler from Ontario.
"Smallies will move farther because of the type of cover they are on, such as a large flat. They tend to actively chase down their food more than a largemouth, which ambushes its food."
Yet another consideration is the speed of the lure presentation.
Depending on its mood, a largemouth might attack a lure moving fast or slow or somewhere in between. A smallmouth generally likes it one way.
"Speed makes smallmouth bass stupid," said Mike Desforges, another noted bronzeback angler and competitor from north of the border.
And the strike? Sometimes, a largemouth's bite is subtle, almost undetectable. Not so with the bronzeback.
"I fished with a guy who lost rods two years in a row when smallmouth hit his spinnerbaits," said Stephen Headrick, owner of Punisher Lures (www.punisherjigs.com). Headrick is recognized as one of the best smallmouth anglers on Dale Hollow, the Tennessee impoundment that many consider one of the top smallmouth fisheries on the planet.
Smallmouth bass aren't always found in clear water, but they are more likely to be there consistently than are their larger cousins. That's why Desforges and Wetzel prefer willowleaf blades — specifically for blade flash rather than throb— along with heavy but more compact lure bodies.
"I have guided several people from the United States who are used to using big spinnerbaits with big skirts and big blades," said Wetzel, who prefers Strike King's Premier Pro line. "Smallies will shy away from those more often than not. Smaller, compact profile baits are better.
"You can still use a 3/4-ounce head, but you have to trim the skirt shorter and put on smaller blades. They will sometimes still hit a big bait, but smaller ones tend to work better overall."
Smaller blades, Desforges added, help keep the bait in the water during high speed retrieves.
"A No. 3 or No. 4 [willowleaf] blade seems to be a good compromise because it gives off a good amount of flash with a minimal amount of lift," he said.
Headrick will use a double willowleaf configuration, but he prefers a tandem setup that includes a willowleaf and a Colorado style blade, especially when the water has a bit of color to it. That's why his Flame spinnerbaits, especially designed for smallmouth bass, feature a gold willow and a small red or nickel Colorado.
"Maybe it's a confidence thing, but I always use gold," Headrick said. "Water clarity doesn't matter."
Because he fishes spinnerbaits mostly in spring, when the water color at Dale Hollow is usually stained, Headrick also likes a profile larger than seems to be preferred by his Canadian counterparts.
"Smallmouth feed mainly by sight," he said, adding that his baits have a flat head, which makes for an easier-to-see target.
With his gold/silver blades combination, Wetzel likes a white, white/chartreuse, or shad-color body and skirt.
Preferring Nichols spinnerbaits for smallmouth, Desforges uses mostly silver blades with white or silver skirts and heads. Because Headrick likes natural hues, the bodies and skirts on his lures often feature "worm" colors such as watermelon, pumpkin and junebug.
The strength of the wire frame that links the lure body to the hook and blades, meanwhile, is critical because of the ferocity with which smallies slam spinnerbaits.
"The hit is very hard, usually because the bait is moving so fast," detailed Wetzel.
Desforges added: "If you've ever walked a big dog with a retractable leash and the dog stops while you continue walking, you'll get the handle jerked out of your hand if you're not paying attention. That's what it feels like when a smallie hits a spinnerbait."
These fish tend to bend and twist the wire frame, breaking it at the head, explained the Punisher Lures owner, who uses a thicker wire than most spinnerbait manufacturers.
"It's more durable and it puts more action in the body and skirt," he said.
Stronger wire also prevents the frame from collapsing during a fast retrieve, which can push the blades against the hook and hamper the action of the bait.
A fast retrieve isn't always necessary, though, according to Headrick.
"If the smallmouth are in 10 or 15 feet of water, you want a slower retrieve to keep the bait down," he said.
A fast, fairly constant retrieve produces best for Desforges.
"Allowing a bait to pause and flutter often triggers largemouth to bite," he said. "But it often causes smallmouth to lose interest and turn away. What does work for smallmouth is creating sudden, erratic moves to cause the bait to jump or dart, kind of like you'd do with a jerkbait. But it's important to keep the bait moving constantly and fast."
So what happens if the fish won't chase the blades?
Wetzel advises a diagonal retrieve, after making a long cast that allows the spinnerbait to sink to the bottom.
"For some reason, smallies really react to a bait that moves toward the surface," he explained.
"During the retrieve, the bait isn't on the surface like it would be if you were burning it, it's not on the bottom like slow rolling, and it's not constantly in the mid range, as if you just cast out and reeled back. It takes a diagonal path toward the surface and works really well on those neutral fish that won't chase a fast-moving bait."
As with largemouth bass, smallmouth hit spinnerbaits best during the spring and fall months — but not necessarily in the same places.
"During the prespawn, you're likely to find the largemouth shallower, back in the creeks," Headrick said. "The smallmouth will be on the main body of the lake, in deeper water off the flats."
He added that postspawn females will return to those same locations for a brief time.
"My best time is when the water is between 65 and 75 degrees," said Wetzel. "That usually is the time when smallies are in transition and are on those shallow flats, rock points and banks on their way to or from summer areas.
"They also are actively feeding at those times. Either they have just recuperated from the spawn and the water is getting warmer each day, so they tend to eat more ... or they're moving shallow in the fall and are feeding up for winter."
We asked each of these smallmouth experts to share at least one of their secrets for catching more smallmouth with spinnerbaits. And here's what they offered:
• Desforges: "When fishing a spinnerbait, get that retrieve started as soon as the bait hits the water. Often the most crucial part of your retrieve is the first half-dozen cranks. The initial splash attracts curious smallmouth, and if it's moving immediately, it will keep them interested and make them bite."
• Wetzel: "I put the skirt on backward. This gives an extremely flared look to the skirt. I will trim down the long side of the skirt to the length of the top side, with the exception of 5 to 10 strands that function as the bait's trailer. When you pause the bait, it causes the skirt to really flare out and gives the bait a look like it actually stopped dead in the water, like a fish flaring out its fins to stop itself. It triggers a lot of strikes."
• Headrick: The eyes of a smallmouth are more sensitive. For night fishing under a full moon, I go against the grain. Instead of a dark bait, I like a white or bubblegum spinnerbait. Those fish can see just as well at night as during the day, so they're feeding on baitfish. Sometimes, I'll even fish in the 'shade' under a full moon."