May 20, 2009 by Al and James Lindner
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of FLW Outdoors Magazine, but we felt it was a piece still relevant today and timely with summer on the near horizon. This is Part 1 of a two-part series on smallmouth behavior, with an emphasis on suspending fish. Before we can begin to discuss presentation methods and strategies for locating and catching suspended smallmouth bass, it is imperative to first understand what waters smallmouths will suspend in, what waters they won't, when they will suspend and when they won't. That critical information is covered in this article. Co-author James Lindner has won two midsummer tournaments back to back (2003-2004) at Rainy Lake on the Minnesota/Canada border (pocketing $90,000) with 15 fish limits (five per day for three days) weighing 55 pounds, 8 ounces and 53 pounds, 14 ounces, respectively - all were caught suspended. All were caught approximately 5 to 6 feet down in water between 20 to 50 feet deep. How he accomplished this will be covered in Part 2, which will run next week at FLWOutdoors.com. Learn more about FLW Outdoors Magazine and how to subscribe by clicking here.
Each year, as major bass-tournament circuits continue to expand their geographic coverage, the smallmouth bass as a target fish is coming more and more into prominence. On waters like Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake St. Clair, Green Bay, Lake Champlain and the like, 19-pound-plus five-fish limits of brownies are common fare.
In years past, because of the emphasis of tournaments in more southern waters, the smallie was viewed, at best, as a secondary fish and did not get that much attention.
After the creation of many large, deep reservoirs, the clearing of the waters and expanded stocking programs, smallmouths can actually be found today over a larger geographic range than largemouths. They exist in waters as far south as central Texas, northward well into Canada and from the East Coast to the West Coast. While its range is actually larger than the largemouth's, the smallie's environmental needs, however, dictate that it is found in fewer waters. Nonetheless, as competition on waters that house smallies continues to expand, so, too, does the understanding of the fish as a distinct species.
The smallmouth's ability and propensity to move up and down in the water column poses one of the most fascinating and perplexing problems for tournament anglers who are trying to establish patterns based on smelt, shad and alewife movement.
Many walleye anglers who regularly encounter the fish are amazed at the smallmouth's ability to grab an offering in 35 feet of water, shoot to the surface, leap, then dive, put up a sustained battle and still not blow its "stomach" like largemouths and walleyes routinely do. Therefore, it's imperative to first understand the smallmouth's amazing capacity to equilibrate itself quickly. There is ongoing scientific investigation into this equilibration phenomenon. While the smallmouth is not totally immune to the "bends," there's no question it can tolerate quick depth-pressure and water-temperature changes far beyond the capabilities of largemouths or walleyes. And though they inhabit many of the same waters and structures, it must be realized that the smallmouth is not a walleye on steroids or a largemouth that is operating in open water. As a species, the brown bass has a set of characteristics that are all its own.
When conditions are right, a smallmouth bass, while refusing offerings dragged in front of its nose in deep water, might suddenly show no compunction in coming off the bottom in 30 feet of water (20 feet or less is more common), swimming up like a rocket and smashing a lure on, or near, the surface. More amazingly, the fish might bring along three or four buddies that follow it to the boat during the fight, eating the food the hooked fish is regurgitating. Even after the hooked fish is netted, the following fish might sit under the boat, trail it for a while or swim off - either horizontally or vertically. This type of behavior separates the smallmouth from its near kin and most other fish and baffles anglers - even good ones!
Therefore, much of what we have learned has to do with the radical up-and-down movements of smallies as well as their penchant (in waters that have a lot of shad, smelt and/or alewives) to periodically suspend off structure. Fishing scientists are now calling this the fountain effect. These are movements of fish from deep water to shallow or vice versa, which can occur seasonally, weekly or even day to day, but oftentimes hour by hour.
Where the fountain effect occurs, different groups of fish might be moving up or down at different depth levels, all at the same time. One group might be moving down, while another group on the next point or sunken island is moving up. Some may move to structure. Some others may simply suspend. And even within these groups, individual fish or groups of fish may opt not to move with them.
Obviously, in shallow rivers or in waters without a lot of deep suspended forage of the right size - or if the smallie population levels are low and big schools don't evolve - the suspension behavior pattern won't develop or be apparent to any discernible degree. And this drives us to the subject of home vs. roam.
Honing in on smallies
One interesting peculiarity that smallies exhibit are their home-or-roam propensities. As a species, smallmouth bass set up and forage a home range - a circuit of sorts. In certain waters, such as the sprawling Mille Lacs in Minnesota, bass groups tend to be very confined to specific areas of the lake. They spawn in the same bays (indeed, sometimes next to the same rock) year after year. Then they move a short distance to a nearby large reef, where they spend the summer. They use the reef and the surrounding firm bottom areas as a home-range foraging circuit.
In the fall, they move down the reef's drop-off for a period of time and later move to a wintering area of adjacent firm bottom (around 20 to 25 feet deep), where they spend their time under the ice in a kind of semihibernation. On Mille Lacs, there appears to be very little cross movement of hunting ranges by these fish groups with other groups in other parts of the lake. This lake provides a very stable environment with plenty of crayfish, small perch, minnows, mayfly larvae, bloodworms and other localized forage in the shallows all year long. These fish will attack baits off the bottom or on the surface, but nonetheless, spend a lot of time rooting food directly on the bottom. The fish repeat this "stay-close-to-home" cycle year after year. There is no indication that they consistently move out and prey on the deep-water ciscoes that roam the vast offshore, deeper mudflats. This scenario is typical of the many small, shallow lakes with moderate or limited smallmouth populations that dot the upper half of the United States.
Contrast this with the huge north arm of Rainy Lake in Canada. When water levels allow, certain spawning bays and other areas appear to be utilized year after year, probably by the same fish that were born there. After the postspawn dispersal, fish groups might leisurely move to their late-summer or early fall haunts by stopping here or there along the way. However, depending upon the weather and available forage, a shift of many miles can happen like lightning. One day a fish group can be just outside a spawning ground, and the next day they are gone, and gone en masse. And just as mysteriously, a point or sunken island in another portion of the lake (usually close to deep water), which was devoid of fish the day before, might now be host to a hundred or more smallies. Here these fish, usually big ones over 3 pounds, switch to an almost exclusive smelt diet and tend to attack upward rather than dip down to take an offering. From these late-summer locales, the fish will then steadily move to the deeper-water humps, periodically returning to shallow water, but eventually moving to deep-water flats to winter over them.
The ability of the tournament angler to guess the smallmouth's seasonal movements on waters such as Rainy Lake - as opposed to those of Mille Lacs - is crucial. On Mille Lacs, the bass options are limited and relegated to restricted areas, and finding the fish isn't that difficult. But on waters where big aggregations roam - such as Rainy Lake and the big, deep reservoirs of the Dakotas, many sections of the Great Lakes and some very large, deep lakes across the United States and Canada - the fish not only move horizontally, but vertically. Fish groups might start the day in 30 feet of water (or much more), start moving up and end up in 6 to 8 feet of water or even shallower, only to return to the deep water sometime in the very late evening. These are tough conditions to pattern.
The availability of baitfish is what appears to make the primary difference. In the Great Lakes and the Dakotas, smallmouths are caught by salmon and walleye fishermen down 50 feet suspended over l00 feet of water. Forage - such as ciscoes, especially the real big ones - is usually still too deep during late summer and early fall for the smallie to feed on effectively. But with the smelt or small alewives, it's different. Massive schools of these baitfish can be found at, or near, the thermoclines and will even venture, or be forced, above it - a range that intersects quite nicely with the smallie's hunting abilities and environmental preferences.
Home vs. roam
Smallmouth bass exhibit unpredictable behavior, even among themselves. Patterns vary from lake to lake, even between different areas of the same lake. Smallmouths can often be classified into two groups - those that roam and those that stay home.
Smallies that roam move great distances over the course of a year - sometimes as far as five miles in one direction - only to return to the same spawning area each spring. These fish can even cover a great distance from one day to the next. They may follow the same route each year but simply move a lot as the seasons change.
Smallmouths that stay home are much more predictable. They have a relatively small territory and only travel a fraction of the distance their counterparts do. They tend to congregate in areas where deep water, reefs and spawning flats are in close proximity.
These patterns may result from forage preference, lake size and lake topography. To become more effective at catching smallies, anglers must understand how the fish in their areas behave.