She felt her minnow stop, then watched her line swim away with that steady, delicious downward pressure that makes you crazy. She ever so patiently fed him enough line to hang himself, then crossed his eyes with a solid hookset. I knew she had hooked up as her rod tip twitched and bent for the water like a divining stick. She squealed excitedly as the heavy fish dove for the bottom, then shot back up. You instinctively know a 5-pound smallmouth when you see one dance, tail-walking across the surface, then disappear in another deep dive, peeling line off against the drag, then back out of the water for another awesome tail walk, valiantly trying to spit the hook.
"So why do they call them smallies when they're so-o-o-o big?" asked WW&W wildlife correspondent Paris Hiltunen as she guided her first trophy Torch Lake smallmouth into the net.
"Nice work and good question," replied AIM walleye pro Mark Martin, removing the hook and releasing the fish to the live well. "That mouth is the size of a hockey puck." The gorgeous bronzeback weighed five pounds-plus and measured 20 inches. We boated a dozen keepers ranging from 3 to 5 pounds that day, releasing half of them, filleting the rest for a fish fry.
Whenever Mark's in the Keweenaw for the late season splake and smallmouth bite, we fish like there's no tomorrow. I'm exhausted yet invigorated from fishing five straight days with him this week, but in a good way, like after spending a romantic weekend with Paris. She couldn't have picked a better coach; Mark has smallies dialed in.
Pound for pound, the smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) is the scrappiest freshwater fish I've ever fought and caught. Big smallies aren't just an oxymoron, they're things of beauty. Their color varies from dark brown to bronze to olive green, which goes especially well with those red eyes. They are eating machines that feed day and night. That formidable protruding jaw and stiff upper lip come in handy for crunching and munching its favorite foods, crayfish, bluegills and minnows, especially emerald shiners. For the really big yank, try slipping them 4-5-inch trophy sucker minnows and creek chubs, the chubbier the better.
"These smallies are hungry now," Mark remarked, rigging a fresh, wriggling sucker minnow to Paris' slip-sinker setup. "After a summer of laying low and frustrating fishermen, they're feeling frisky and feeding aggressively again."
As the days shorten and the water cools, their aggression peaks. Water temps of inland lakes and Lake Superior are still in the low 50s. Vertical jigging, live bait rigging, slip-sinkering and dead sticking gets their attention and triggers the bite. Smallies also have a fatal attraction to RJ bladebaits, crayfish-colored and purple Rapalas, jigs tipped with Mister Twister tails and tube baits, and swimbaits like the Northland Mimic Minnow. An aggressive 3- to 5-pound smallmouth can whack a crankbait or a crawler harness trolled behind a planer board and pull it under like a bobber.
I like discussing smallmouth in pounds first and inches second. I also like living in a place where the smallmouth bass run bigger than largemouths. We've got six gorgeous lakes where you can usually find willing-to-bite smallmouth with an attitude; Lac la Belle, Lake Medora, Lake Fanny Hooe, Gratiot, Portage and Torch lakes. All have free public access boat landings, and this late in the season, you've pretty much got the water to yourself.
The Michigan state record is 9 lbs-4 oz, and the IGFA world record smallmouth, 10 lbs 14 oz, was caught in Dale Hollow Lake, Tenn. Anything over 5 pounds is master angler material and I'm lucky enough to have two of them, both from Lac la Belle in November when most anglers have their boats back in the barn and are battening down the hatches for winter.
Smallies love structure. The only thing better than finding rip-rap, a rock pile or a weedbed, is finding a rock pile within a weedbed. Find that and you'll find a motherlode of big smallies. I love twitching top-water lures and pitching slip-sinkered minnows in shallow rocky shorelines, weedbeds, pilings and under docks.
"Any presentation you fish for walleye will catch smallmouth," Mark advises. He loves slipping it to them with a slip sinker and keeps it simple with a single red bead to match their eyes, a ball bearing swivel tied to a 4-foot Berkley Vanish 10 lb. leader and a No. 2 red steelhead hook tipped with a frisky minnow. For more tips, techniques and pointers, visit markmartins.net.
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at firstname.lastname@example.org.