Most smallmouth experts agree that prespawn is prime time to whack a trophy bronzeback. They’re moving shallower and putting on the feedbag big time after a long winter, and those big females are getting a serious attitude as their bodies bulk up with eggs. When, where and how you catch these gorillas depends on what region of the country you’re in, so we’ve called on two veteran smallmouth guides — Michigan’s Chris Noffsinger (www.northernadventuresfishing.com) and Tennessee’s Jim Duckworth (www.jimduckworth.com) — to share proven prespawn strategies and patterns for their respective regions. Their input, presented in their own words, should put you on big smallies regardless of which side of the Mason-Dixon line you’re fishing.
Up here, smallmouth spawn on sand flats from June into July, with the full moon often triggering a major spawning event. I’ve seen ’em spawn in 56-degree water, but 60 to 64 degrees is more typical. Sight fishing for bedding smallmouth is extremely popular on clear Northern lakes, but I find prespawn fishing more challenging and exciting. Not only will you catch plenty of big fish then, you’ve often got the lake to yourself.
While Southern smallmouth fishing primarily takes place in reservoirs, we Northerners mainly fish natural lakes. I guide on Lake Michigan as well as on a number of inland glacial lakes; all of these smallmouth-rich venues are extremely clear and unbelievably deep — Grand Traverse Bay, near Traverse City, Mich., is 620 feet deep in places. While Southern smallmouth reservoirs are often full of submerged wood cover, the main form of cover where I fish is rock. I think cover is highly overrated for smallmouth, anyway; in Northern lakes, they’re more likely to relate to a structural element such as a dropoff, point or flat.
Duckworth fishes those ice-free Tennessee lakes all winter long, but I don’t even pull my boat out of my garage until late April, when our ice has finally melted and Michigan’s catch-and-release season opens. Of course, smallmouth don’t have any idea what month it is; their movements and behavior are governed by water temperature, not the calendar.
In Lake Michigan and the inland lakes I fish, smallies will spend the winter suspending over deep water, sometimes at depths exceeding 125 feet. Once the ice melts and we get a few calm, sunny days, the water temp begins creeping into the upper 30s, and they’ll enter their early prespawn phase. They’ll move to what I call “hard breaks” —sharp, vertical dropoffs, often found at the extreme outer edge of spawning flats. The depth varies, but I’ve caught some giants during early prespawn on breaks that were 20 feet deep on top and bottomed out at 60 feet. An interesting fact I discovered while perch fishing after ice-out: Early prespawn smallies love hard breaks with a muck bottom. “Wigglers” (mayfly larvae) live in that soft muck, and smallies in icy water will gorge on them, probably because their metabolism is slow and bigger prey take too long to digest. You’re not going to catch a boatload of fish in 38-degree water, but you’re liable to hang a real monster now — my biggest late April smallmouth weighed 7-10. If you can tolerate frigid weather, this is a good time to hit a Northern lake and get your string stretched.
My go-to early prespawn lures are 1/2- and 3/4-ounce silver and gold Silver Buddy blade baits. Because they sink quickly and put out tremendous vibration and flash, blades rule when smallies are sitting on bottom in deep water. I’ll cast the Buddy to the shallow side of the break, tight-line it down the slope, then pop it off the bottom so it vibrates frantically — that’s when they’ll usually nail it. When the water warms into the mid-40s and the fish get a little more active, I’ll also try a silver or gold River2Sea Glassie Vibe lipless crankbait, fished with that same drop-and-pop retrieve — they’ll whack this lure so hard, they’ll practically rip the rod from your hand! The transition from early to immediate prespawn generally takes place when the water temp tops 48 degrees. Now the fish move to points and shallower breaks — 10 to 20 feet, 8 to 16, etc. — and may be either suspending or bottom-oriented. Because they’re feeding on crawfish now, they like a harder bottom with scattered rocks. The Goby Replica, a super-realistic lure made by Lake Erie smallmouth expert Joe Balog, is deadly when they’re on this pattern.