Its name implies this fish can only eat small morsels at a time, so smallmouth bass usually receive a steady diet of diminutive offerings from Bassmasters.
However, savvy smallmouth anglers know these voracious eaters will attack anything, even if it is more than a mouthful. They also have learned from experience that the best way to catch a trophy-size brown bass is to offer it a magnum-size meal.
"To catch the bigger fish, you want to use a steak versus a candy bar," suggests Paducah, Ky., BASS pro Mark Menendez. "It's kind of hard to teach an old dog new tricks, so I have developed some techniques with bigger baits associated with structure fishing." Rather than learn the finesse tactics that catch smallmouth throughout the northern parts of the country, or even closer to home at Dale Hollow Reservoir, Menendez sticks with Bubba baits, since smallies on his home waters of the Tennessee River and Kentucky Lake are more receptive to larger lures.
Tennessee guide Joey Monteleone also advocates using big baits for quality smallmouth. "It's obvious that the bigger the fish is the more it eats to sustain its body weight. And if it has a choice of eating something big or something small, it is always going to eat something bigger," discloses Monteleone.
During his smallmouth fishing seminars, Monteleone debunks the theory of using small baits to "match the hatch." He shows his audience a small lure and then one nearly twice its size and asks the crowd which they think a hefty smallmouth would prefer. "They usually pick the bigger bait, so I ask them why they aren't throwing it," says Monteleone. "So, you can take a classic largemouth bait, apply a little common sense and decide it's a good bait to throw."
Guiding on Lake Pickwick has taught Bassmaster Open competitor Roger Stegall that heavyweight smallmouth prefer large forage, such as gizzard shad or 6- to 7-inch freshwater drum. "I've caught a lot of 5- to 7-pound smallmouth that had big drum in their mouths and then they hit a big crankbait or some other big lure," says Stegall.
Fishing on his home waters, Stegall set a record for the largest smallmouth stringer ever taken in a Red Man tournament by catching five Pickwick Lake brownies weighing 27 pounds, 6 ounces on a modified 3/4-ounce Strike King Premier Pro Model spinnerbait. The Iuka, Miss., angler has concocted his own trophy smallmouth version of the lure by removing the front blade and beads while retaining its #5 willowleaf blade. He favors a chartreuse model with a gold blade in dirty water or a chartreuse-and-white skirt with silver blade for clearer water.
Stegall started tinkering with the magnum spinnerbait in the fall of 1996, and on one guide trip, he and his clients took 14 smallmouth weighing 59 pounds. The next spring the modified blade bait produced his record-setting stringer that included hefty prespawn smallies weighing 6-9, 5-9, 5-7, 5-4 and 4-9.
In the summertime, Menendez supersizes to a 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait for catching bass that are suspending 10 to 12 feet deep off ledge drops. The BASS titleholder opts for a spinnerbait with white, white-and- chartreuse or clear/blue tint skirts and tandem gold and silver willowleaf blades (#4 and 4 1/2).
In the fall, Menendez rips these magnum spinnerbaits with white double willowleaf blades when the water temperature ranges from 54 to 60 degrees. "You don't get a lot of bites on Kentucky Lake doing that, but when you do, it is always a 3- to 5-pound fish," says Menendez.
Monteleone also likes to throw a larger blade bait in the fall, so he relies on a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with a single #5 or 7 willowleaf.
Bulky jigs and trailers
When smallmouth finish spawning at Kentucky Lake, Menendez tricks these fish by stroking a heavy jig (ripping the lure off the bottom and letting it free-fall on slack line to the bottom) along the first gravel bars or breaks of the major creeks. His favorite stroking bait is a 1/2-ounce jig in black/blue/chartreuse, black/brown or black/blue/ brown with an Uncle Josh #11 pork frog.
Throughout the summer, Stegall catches numerous 4- to 5-pound smallmouth popping a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce Strike King Elite jig and twin-
tail plastic grub trailer off the bottom. When Monteleone wants a smallmouth lure that resembles a crawfish, he opts for a 1/2-ounce flipping jig tipped with an Uncle Josh Jumbo Frog.
Magnum jerkbaits and crankbaits
During the prespawn, Menendez tempts wall-hanger smallmouth with large suspending jerkbaits. The Kentucky angler believes when the water temperature ranges from 40 to 50 degrees he has a chance to catch his biggest smallmouth of the year on a 5 1/2-inch jerkbait in hues of blue-and-chrome, black-and-chrome, clown or green-and-white.
Slowly sweeping a suspending Strike King Wild Shiner jerkbait produces big smallies for Stegall in the spring. He believes smallmouth prefer brighter colors, so the guide selects jerkbaits in flashy chartreuse hues.
Menendez and Stegall both rely on magnum deep diving crankbaits for catching heavyweight smallies on their home lakes during the summertime. Menendez chooses a Norman Lures DD22 or Strike King Series 6 crankbait in shad colors or chartreuse with shades of blue, purple or green, while Stegall cranks a Strike King Series 5 or 6 model in a shad hue with yellow stripes, which resembles the yellowtail threadfin shad in Pickwick Lake.
Stegall discloses he has caught several smallmouth in the 4- to 6-pound range on a Heddon Zara Spook. One of Monteleone's favorite topwater lures for hulking smallmouth is a 3/8-ounce buzzbait with an oversized blade or a 5/8-ounce buzzer. When other anglers are coaxing nesting smallmouth into biting small tubes, Menendez tempts these fish by slowly dragging a Carolina rigged 6-inch plastic lizard through the beds.