Smallmouth are predictable — sort of, anyway

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Jonathan H. Milo

You hear it all the time: Smallies are nomadic. They move constantly, seemingly without reason or purpose. They’re here today and gone tomorrow. They’re difficult, if not impossible, to target or pattern. 

It’s true that they move a lot, but that doesn’t mean there’s no rhyme or reason to where they go or why they go there. They don’t just take off across the lake for parts unknown for no reason. There’s a purpose behind what they do and why they do it. 

Before we get into all of that, however, I want to make sure you understand something. Most of my experience with smallmouth bass is with those that live at the southern edge of their range. I don’t claim to know a lot about the ones farther north. What I do know about them leads me to believe they’re different from their southern relatives.

Southern smallmouth can be hard to find because for the most part they move with schools of baitfish. If you find concentrations of baitfish, you’ll find concentrations of smallies. Baitfish move constantly so it’s no surprise that brown bass do the same thing. And, that movement is both horizontal and vertical. 

On the horizontal side I believe they can and do move miles in a day. I’ve seen times when you’ll find them in a well-defined spot, but the next day they disappear. Run around the lake with an eye out for baitfish schools and you’ll find them under the baitfish, and farther away from yesterday’s spot than you’d have ever thought. It’s crazy. 

They do pretty much the same thing vertically. When the baitfish are shallow, like on a windy and cloud covered day, the smallmouth will be holding shallow under them. That’s shallow by smallie standards, though — maybe 10 or 12 feet. 

But, when the sun peaks through the baitfish go deep and so do the smallies. But, they’ll still be under the baitfish. Sometimes that depth change from one day to the next can be as much as 40 feet. That’s crazy, too.

I’ve seen them do this a lot at Lake Texoma. It’s a massive body of water so the movements are massive. 

The only other general observation about their vertical movements I’d make is that they don’t care to be real shallow. If you fish for them in the backs of the cuts, hollows and bays you’ll have some long days. Stay out where there’s deep water close by that they can reach with just a couple of flicks of their tail. 

The one thing about smallmouth bass that is consistent is that they tend to school. I’m not saying you’ll never find one alone, but I am saying it won’t happen very often. How big the schools are is anyone’s guess. There’s no way to know for sure. My guess — and it’s just a guess —is that most of the schools hold between 30 and 100 bass. I think the size of the smallmouth school depends mostly on the size of the baitfish school. 

The thing they don’t always do, though, is school by size. I’ve fished big schools where every fish was basically the same. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were catching the same one over and over. 

I’ve also fished schools where you’d catch a handful of 2-pounders and then, all of a sudden, a 4-pounder would grab your lure. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the difference, at least none I’ve been able to figure out. All any angler can do is fish for a while and see what happens. 

Both of these situations are common on Table Rock Lake. Some of the smallies there seem to want to be with their twins, others couldn't care less about size. 

Smallmouth bass are a worthy adversary. Sometimes you’ll think you have them figured out. A day later you’ll realize you don’t know much at all about them. But hey, that’s fishing. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.