If anglers limit their summertime bass fishing to daylight hours on deep, clear water reservoirs, it is unlikely they will enjoy a true smallmouth experience. That's the opinion of Jerry Brumbaugh, a professional angler from Pennsylvania whose specialty is brown bass.
Jim Duckworth, one of Tennessee's most recognized fishing guides, puts it in even simpler terms: "Smallmouth turn on when the sun goes down."
These experts know that during the summer from New England to Arkansas, smallmouth become creatures of the night on many lakes.
When nighttime calls
For years, Duckworth has been doing whatever it takes to ensure his clients meet with success. To that end, his bass fishing takes a decided turn to the "dark side" come summer.
"Smallmouth are a pretty smart fish, or perhaps it's better to describe them as having very good survival instincts," explains the 25 year veteran of Middle Tennessee reservoirs.
"Mature smallmouth are extremely wary - even more so than largemouth. Telemetry studies show that on lakes with a lot of summer boat traffic, smallmouth shift their primary feeding to the cover of darkness.
"Water clarity also plays a part," continues Duckworth. "On superclear smallmouth lakes, such as renowned Dale Hollow, the locals never bother fishing in daylight - through summer. I will not take guide trips during the day on Dale Hollow because it's a waste of time. But at night, it's a different story - I can count on a smallie over 5 pounds for a client every couple of trips."
North of the Mason-Dixon Line, Brumbaugh stakes out a similar position. "On my home water of Raystown Lake in south-central Pennsylvania, I can catch largemouth during daylight hours with regularity through the summer. But if smallmouth bass are my focus, then I must fish after dark."
Brumbaugh backs up his opinion by referencing the results of local tournament weigh-ins. Raystown's bass population basically consists of 50 percent largemouth and 50 percent smallmouth. But during daytime tournaments on the lake, largemouth catches outdistance smallmouth by a hefty margin.
"I'm not a biologist, so I can't put a scientific spin on the reason," continues Brumbaugh. "I don't know if smallmouth are turned off by boating activity, or if it's simply that preferred prey is more available after dark.
"I do know that when the lake stops churning from all the daytime boat activity, baitfish schools that have been suspended over deep water will move to the surface to feed. Plus, crawfish come out of crevices after dark, as well. So, with their favorite prey available, it only makes sense that smallmouth become more active."
Based on 15 years of fishing experience, Brumbaugh relies on a specific temperature guideline to launch his night fishing mode. "Once water temperature climbs past 80 degrees on inland lakes, smallmouth suspend off structure during the day and switch a significant part of their feeding activity to after sundown."
However, both anglers point to factors that may offset a strong night feeding response. Dark, overcast skies during the day sometimes trigger smallmouth to move shallower to feed. Also, current can impact feeding times. River smallmouth are far more active during daylight than reservoir smallies in the same water temperatures. And in power generating reservoirs, pulling water will result in bronzebacks putting on the feedbag.
Brumbaugh also spends considerable time fishing Lake Erie. He acknowledges that Great Lakes smallies feed during daylight hours right through the summer. "The water temperature on these big lakes rarely reaches 80 degrees - which supports my theory that temperature turns smallmouth into nocturnal feeders."
Night location: Habitat or prey driven?
The structural characteristics that typically describe a classic smallmouth lake are the very ones that make for a good night fishing lake, according to Duckworth. "First, I want a lake that has a lot of points dropping into deep water. Daytime water visibility must be more than 4 feet - in other words, pretty clear water. And I want a good flow so the water will be exchanged fairly quickly. Those green bass might like stagnant water, but not brown bass.
"At night I concentrate on main lake points as well as some of the major points in creek arms," continues Duckworth. "I like a shale bank with an area of red clay nearby.
Crawfish love red clay, and smallies love points. So when you put the two together — Shazam!"
Yet Duckworth says the best lakes for catching big smallmouth bass at night are ones with threadfin shad. "Threadfin are basically a shallow water baitfish, which means smallmouth will be shallow to feed. In lakes where alewives have been introduced, the summer smallmouth fishing has been crippled substantially because the bass will be more than 40 feet deep with the alewives. They won't even come shallower under the cover of darkness because there is so much food down deep."
Brumbaugh believes one way around the alewife problem is to focus on lakes with balanced habitat and a variety of prey species. According to Brumbaugh, Raystown is a good example of a balanced lake with flats and bluff banks, plus an eclectic mix of prey. Brumbaugh likes the availability of different main lake cover, including deadfalls and rock on the steep banks, and stumps, rockpiles and weedbeds on the flats. He also embraces the combination of gizzard shad, emerald shiners and crawfish in addition to the alewives.
"I feel that the more variety in food and cover, the more options the angler has to find active fish at night," explains Brumbaugh. "If the lake has good populations of different bait, the puzzle may be a bit more complicated to figure out, but at least there is a good chance for a solution. Just don't make the mistake of staying in one spot too long simply because you think bass should be there. Keep moving until you make contact."
Although over 600 miles separate the home lakes of these two anglers, Brumbaugh and Duckworth have independently settled on similar presentations to catch smallmouth.
Brumbaugh starts off each night by fishing main lake flats with a spinnerbait. He makes his own 1/2-ounce tandem spinnerbaits with copper Colorado blades and a dark skirt.
"I focus on the weedbeds that grow around or immediately adjacent to stumps and small rockpiles," explains Brumbaugh. "The ideal situation is a weed patch that extends to a depth of about 12 or 15 feet, with a rockpile, row of stumps or an old gravel roadbed on the outside edge.
"I position the boat a short distance beyond the deep weed edge and cast shallower," continues Brumbaugh. "In most instances, there will be a 2- to 3-foot space between the tops of the weeds and the surface of the water. I retrieve the spinnerbait just fast enough so it does not sink into the vegetation. You've got to develop a sense of feel to keep the spinnerbait barely ticking the top weed strands."
When he reaches what he judges to be the weed edge, he slows the spinnerbait so it flutters downward. He continues slow rolling the bait a few more feet before reeling in quickly for another cast.
If unable to make connections with smallmouth after fishing several flats, Brumbaugh will move to a bluff area. Here he positions the boat much closer to the bank, because these shorelines fall quickly into deep water. Using the same tandem spinnerbait, he will slow roll it off the ledges, working the lure down to a depth of about 15 feet.
Brumbaugh's backup bait for the steep shorelines is a dark-colored 1/2-ounce jig with a rattle. He chooses either a Strike King Rattling Pro-Model Jig or a Stanley Rattlin' Flat Eye Jig. To this he adds a 4-inch Zoom Super Chunk, choosing this model because of vibrant-action legs compared to standard chunks.
Another favorite night bait is a 6- to 7-inch ribbontail worm on a 3/0 hook with a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce weight. Brumbaugh is partial to the Berkley Power Worm, but has success with other worms, too, as long as the bait has a swimming, ribbonlike tail.
"Since smallies may be very shallow on the walls at night, I cast the jig or worm right to the water's edge," explains Brumbaugh. "Let the bait fall straight down on a slack line. Once it touches bottom, take up slack line and pull the bait by lifting the rod tip a couple inches. Then hold the tip high until the jig or worm swims back to the bottom. I'll continue edging the bait down to about the 15-foot depth. That's the maximum depth I believe is necessary to fish after dark."
Practice stealth and finesse
"If smallmouth react negatively to boat traffic during the day, just imagine how they react to unnatural sounds at night, when the lake is so quiet," says Duckworth. To minimize making sounds in the boat, he recommends having extra rods rigged ahead of time and having everything in place. He also enforces a strict "no flashlight" rule, using only a small penlight for changing lures or landing fish.
Again based on information provided through telemetry studies, Duckworth has become a firm believer that depthfinders spook smallmouth. "No doubt about it. Sound emitted by depthfinders causes fish to move away. Therefore, I keep my depthfinders turned off at night. Study the area with the depthfinder before the sun goes down. Stealth is the key after dark."
Duckworth's two top lures are a Texas rigged Berkley Power Craw on a 1/0 XPoint wide gap hook with a 1/8-ounce sliding worm weight, and a 1/4-ounce Punisher Hair Jig. "This soft plastic crawfish rig works great for clients because it is very snag resistant. Plus, smallmouth will hold on to the Power Craw long enough for an inexperienced angler to detect the pickup and set the hook. I always go with a black or black/blue Power Craw."
However, Duckworth points out that the traditional bait for nighttime smallmouth in Central Tennessee is a hair jig. His pick, the Punisher Jig, is tied with a special craft hair that has more undulating action than similar products. Duckworth fishes the jig without a trailer. While recommending basic black to anglers, he admits the jig color on the end of his rod will likely be olive-green with a touch of orange.
"I'll start with perpendicular casts very tight to the bank, fishing the jig or craw very slowly with 3- to 6-inch movements. Work the bait to a depth of about 20 feet. Within an hour or so, I would hope to key in on the exact depth that smallmouth are feeding. As soon as that depth is established, I will position the boat so we can cast to that particular depth and fish parallel to the bank."
When fishing with experienced anglers, Duckworth works grassbeds with a spinnerbait, in much the same way that Brumbaugh does; by just ticking the tops of submerged vegetation. "Maintaining the right retrieve speed - not too fast and not too slow - can be tricky for novices." He uses a 3/4-ounce Terminator bait with Colorado blades and a black or blue skirt.
"On heavily fished clear water lakes, smallmouth are line-shy, even in the dark," says Duckworth. "I use only 6-pound-test Trilene XL on a spinning rod for hair jigs and craws. Because spinnerbaits will break off easily on 6-pound line, I'm forced to move up to 10-pound Berkley Sensation on a casting outfit - but absolutely nothing heavier. You can get away with a little heavier line when using a spinnerbait because the lure is moving steadily."
However, on lightly fished northern clear water lakes, Brumbaugh does not find it necessary to go to extremely light line. He uses 12- or 14-pound Original Stren Clear/Blue for both jigs and spinnerbaits. "I'm really concentrating on bumping individual stumps, climbing through branches of deadfalls and dragging over chunk rock. The lake bottom would eat up my lures if I went much lighter," notes Brumbaugh.
The need for a black light is a point of agreement for both anglers. Without one, many pickups would go unnoticed at night. Regardless of pound test, Brumbaugh and Duckworth use fluorescent line that will show up under the black light.