Fighting winter for lunker smallmouth

It’s a risk many anglers are willing to take. It’s the fishing chance of a lifetime. It’s an opportunity to experience bassing at its absolute, unbelievable best, says Bassmaster Elite Series pro Charlie Hartley.

He’s talking about fishing the Great Lakes in November. The upside of doing so is acres of smallmouth bass that run 4 to 6 pounds, with a few giants over 7. Hundred-fish days. Muscles aching from fighting and reeling.

But there’s also a downside: winds that can whip lakes Erie, Ontario and Michigan into howling banshees. Waves that can toss bass boats around like floating matchsticks. Rollers that should have the word “steam” in front of them.

“I’ve been out on days when I wanted my mama,” Hartley divulges. “I’ve had times when I’ve kissed the ground when I made it in. I’ve seen tournament partners that demanded to be taken in, and they wouldn’t go back out. Anybody planning to fish the Great Lakes in late fall should understand that they have to pick their days. When the wind advisories are up, forget it. But when the wind is down, you can catch smallmouth like you never dreamed of.”

Hartley lives in Grove City, Ohio, and he loves bass fishing this time of year. He says, “I’ve fished in November and December from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Up north, the bass are feeding up for winter. In the south, they’re in prespawn. So there are good fishing opportunities all over the country.

“But for my money, when the weather cooperates, the Great Lakes offer absolutely the best fishing this time of year. When you hit it right, you won’t believe how good it can be.

“This great bite lasts from a week to a month long, starting in late October. The water surface temperature will be from the mid-40s down to the mid-30s, and the pattern will hold up until the lakes begin to freeze over.

“This time of year, the smallmouth are gorging themselves on perch and smelt just out from where major tributaries empty into the lakes. They’re hanging on deep rock flats where the bottom shallows up toward the mouths of the tributaries.”

Hartley adds, “Find the bait, and you’ll find the bass.”

One of the easiest ways to do this is to look for perch boats. “These are guide boats that target yellow perch, which feed on the smelt. You’ll see these boats in clusters, sometimes 20 to 30 of them working around the mouth of a tributary.

“When you find the perch boats, start idling among them while watching your scanner,” Hartley continues. “You want to see bait on your display that’s solid from top to bottom. I’m talking about where you’re having trouble recognizing the bottom of the lake through all the fish returns. Don’t be happy until you see that.”

The baitfish and predators will typically be layered, with smelt closest to the water’s surface, Hartley says. The perch (along with small bass and walleye) will be in the middle column, stalking and feeding on the smelt. The big smallies will hang at or near the bottom, waiting for crippled smelt to flitter down from the frenzy above. He says, “The average depth of the big smallies will be 35 to 45 feet deep. They usually won’t be farther than a couple of miles out from the mouth of the tributary.”

Hartley emphasizes, “Now I’m not talking about one bass here and one there. I’m talking about huge schools — thousands! This is the closest thing to ocean fishing in freshwater.”

When he’s confident he’s over a school of smallmouth, Hartley sets about catching them. He uses one technique and two baits: vertical jigging with a jigging spoon or a blade bait.