UPCOMING EVENT: Bass Fishing League - 2016 - Lake Okeechobee

Suspending smallmouths

The Linders land a nice smallie.

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 Smallmouth basslargemouth 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.

Smallmouth bass tend to either roam or stay at home.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.

Part 2

Tags: al-and-james-lindner  tips-and-techniques 


1000 Islands Midday Update Day 2

Day two of the Costa FLW Series Northern Division event presented by Mercury at 1000 Islands got started on a slightly different note this morning when FLW’s tournament directors declared Lake Ontario off limits due to hazardous conditions. The change threw a few of the top pros off their primary plans, but regardless the 137-boat field will be cut down to the top 10 after today, so adjustments need to be made in order to qualify to fish the weekend. READ MORE »


FLW Podcast 126 - ICAST



2017 Walmart FLW Tour Schedule

In what has become an annual tradition at FLW, the 2017 Walmart FLW Tour schedule was announced at a press conference and industry gathering held Thursday on the show floor at ICAST in Orlando, Fla. READ MORE »


Si Se Puede ... Yes We Can

Mexico’s Lake Zimapan is different in many ways from the lakes to the north such as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and California’s Clear Lake, but one element it has in common with those famous fisheries is big bass. READ MORE »


5 Rookie Lessons Learned

People have asked me what my first year on the Walmart FLW Tour was like. Well, it was like running headfirst into a hurricane for a few months. I came out the other side a little battered, bruised and smelling like fish. READ MORE »


FLW Podcast 125 - Scott Martin



Review: Lew’s Custom Speed Stick Lite

Recently I had the opportunity to try one model in particular – the 7-foot, 4-inch Magnum Pitchin’ rod. After fishing with it several times, I’ve concluded that it performs as advertised, is sensitive and lightweight, and is well worth the money. READ MORE »


Reunited, and it Feels so Good

This year I really had a reunion with finesse fishing. Most of my better tournaments came from fishing some type of finesse presentation. Finesse tactics seemed to always give me a certain confidence about the day. While finesse tactics are nothing new to the game of bass fishing, this year I regained the confidence and joy of catching bass on smaller offerings. READ MORE »


2016 ICAST Preview

The doors to ICAST don’t open until next week, when everyone gets out on the showroom floor in Orlando, Fla., but there are already plenty of snippets of information available. FLW’s media crew will be there in full force to bring you coverage of the hottest new products, as well as the annual New Product Showcase awards. For now, take a gander at some of the early birds. READ MORE »


FLW Canada Kicks Off at Tri-Lakes

Among these Canadian all-stars was the eventual winning team of Chris Vandermeer of Peterborough and Jeff Slute of Millbrook. Capitalizing on a strong day one shallow-water smallmouth pattern, the duo took advantage of the slick-calm conditions using a silver-hued topwater popping plug to agitate the lake’s bronzebacks into attack. READ MORE »


FLW Tour Pro Cooksey Recovering After Accident

Walmart FLW Tour sophomore Dalton Cooksey of New Concord, Ky., is recovering at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee following a single-car accident that took place Wednesday afternoon. READ MORE »


FLW Podcast 124 - Jeremy Lawyer



Stetson Blaylock’s Recipe for a Wacky Rig

From March until the end of the fishing season I’m going to have a wacky rig on deck. It’s a really effective way to fish anytime the fishing is tough, or if the fish are up cruising banks. Anytime fish are about 5 feet deep or less, I can catch them on the wacky rig. READ MORE »


Morgan Claims third FLW Tour Angler of the Year Title

MINNEAPOLIS – Livingston Lures pro Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tennessee, added to his incredible fishing resume by winning his third Walmart FLW Tour Angler of the Year title Saturday at the FLW Tour's final 2016 regular-season event on Lake Champlain.... READ MORE »


Three Things by DD: Kentucky Lake

Kentucky Lake did not go the way I intended. I was pumped and ready to rock out a top-20 finish. I had great expectations of myself, but nothing seemed to come together. Practice was dicey, but I thought for sure I could put something together to make the cut. That was until day one came, and the whole vibe of my day instantly went from eager to agitated. READ MORE »


How to Catch Smallmouths with Hair Jigs

The “right” hair jig for smallmouths is a small 1/16- to 1/8-ounce marabou jig with a round or mushroom-shaped head. The jig is similar to marabou jigs used by crappie fishermen, but bass models will often have a larger, stronger hook and possibly a longer or thicker skirt. Naturally, anglers have their favorites, and there are subtle differences in jigs that make some better than others. READ MORE »


Two Exciting Events to Look Forward To

We are in the last stretch of the 2016 Walmart FLW Tour. Awaiting us is the Lake Champlain tournament in just a few days. A couple of things will be settled there: the pro field for the Forrest Wood Cup and the Angler of the Year. READ MORE »


Tagging Along with Sprague in Kentucky

Through the first four events of the 2016 Walmart FLW Tour season, Jeff Sprague finished inside the top 20 every time and challenged for the win at Beaver Lake. After stop No. 4 on Pickwick, Sprague took over the lead in the Angler of the Year race. This is the story of his first tournament as the AOY leader – stop No. 5 on Kentucky Lake. Currently, Sprague is preparing for the finale on Lake Champlain. He’s in second place in the AOY standings. READ MORE »


Waunakee HS Wins WI Title

The Waunakee High School duo of Colin Steck and Nathan Lorenz brought a five-bass limit to the scale Sunday weighing 13 pounds, 3 ounces, to win the 2016 TBF/FLW High School Fishing Wisconsin State Championship on the Minocqua Chain of Lakes. The win earned the team trophies, the title of state champions and advanced the team to the High School Fishing Central Conference championship on the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on September 23-24. READ MORE »


Travelers Rest HS Crack 25 for Win

The Travelers Rest High School duo of Oakley Connor and Gantt Connor brought a massive five-bass limit to the scale Saturday weighing 25 pounds, 6 ounces, to win the 2016 TBF/FLW High School Fishing South Carolina State Championship on Santee Cooper. The win earned the team trophies, the title of state champions and advanced the team to the High School Fishing Southeastern Conference championship on Lake Cumberland in Somerset, Kentucky, on September 16-17. READ MORE »