Popular wisdom says there are largemouth lakes and smallmouth lakes. Some will hold both but the structure is often very different. When it comes to targeting smallmouth, there is nothing like rocky shoreline, ambush structure and moving water. There are certain “go to” patterns that will increase your odds of catching smallies on lakes with a decent population. Smallmouth are unpredictable fish. On my favorite lake in the Adirondacks I just scratch my head when they seem to be there one day, but under the same conditions a day later, they are nowhere to be found. Still, the key is finding smallies is to find other locations with the same characteristics.
A productive smallmouth spot will generally be slightly deeper than where the largemouth hide. If smallies are shallow it is only because they have quick access to deep water nearby. Smallmouth are the velociraptors of the fish world. They hunt,stalk and ambush prey. They exhibit this behavior in rivers as well as lakes. But there is more to locating smallies than locating the bait pods they prey upon. If I want to catch smallmouth in a lake, what I have learned is to fish lake waters that remind me of river waters. Anyone who fishes a river knows to look for current breaks and eddies formed behind rocks near deep holes,and channels. These smallmouth hotspots are hotspots in lakes too. For example, on Adirondack lakes the major habitat is weed beds- good water for largemouth and pike. In one particular area, the lake narrows, large rocks on both shores form an area where the water moves more swiftly and the depth increases. Without fail, each time I fish this area, I pull in one or two smallmouths on a lipless crank before we move through to fish top water for largemouth in the weeds. There are a few places on the Delaware that remind me of this spot- a narrowing, “channel” of faster deeper water- they hold smallies too.
Largemouth are cover oriented, hiding under pads and in heavy weeds, under docks or timber. On the other hand, smallmouth orient in areas of major structure- humps and rock piles, structural points with deeper water surrounding, rock faces and channels- structure that will have a significant impact on how the water moves through that area. Find these and you will likely find smallies. Look for rocky or sandy points that stretch from shallow water to deep. Smallmouth will often position themselves on the deeper edge to ambush anything that ventures over top. When fishing points, cast your bait up onto the shallows and run it back over the deep water. This will trigger the ambush reaction. Depending on conditions you can use top water baits like jerk baits, poppers or buzz baits early in the morning. Lipless cranks, in-line spinners or spinnerbaits also will bring strikes, especially when the top water bite passes and the sun rises further in the sky. If a slower or finesse approach is required, a tube, grub or Senko will produce. I recommend a jigging retrieve with or without the actual weight of a jig- depending on wind, temperature and other conditions of the day. Using this approach, cast the jig as close to the edge of the drop as you can, and simply let it sink, then jig it in.
Humps will require you to keep your eye on your electronics. Humps rising from depths of 8-25 feet- or even more- to as shallow as three feet- as long as they have some sort of structure, will definitely be worth your fishing time. Depending on how you fish, a search bait like a lipless crank or a medium diving crank that can get down onto the hump to tick the rocks might be just the ticket. If it is a slow, blue bird day try a more vertical finesse approach like a Senko or tube or even slow rolling a spinnerbait or jig with a craw trailer added. If that doesn’t entice them and you have to slow it down even more, try a Carolina rigged worm. Your electronics will be key in mapping the size, shape, and position of the hump. Use them to find where the bass are holding. As you dissect the area with your electronics you will learn to fish the different areas on and around the hump. Notice how the water flows around and over the hump. This will impact where the fish hold. Remember, like the river, you want to fish the edges where the water is moving.
Lakes also have feeder creeks- an area not to miss when fishing new water. These areas are fish magnets just like a creek mouth on a river. When the water at the creek mouth reaches 50 degrees, the bass will find it, especially if the deeper surrounding areas offer ambush structure. The mouth will feature sand bars, drop offs, channels, current breaks- the same fishy structure we have discussed. Key in on these areas particularly where one transitions to the other. Sandbars are a favorite for the smallmouth, they will sit on the deeper side and wait for unsuspecting food to come their way. Try dragging an in-line spinner, a tube or other stick or swim bait over the bar and let it drop into the deeper slack water behind it. Active smallmouth will usually ambush a spinnerbait or crankbait as it comes flying over the sandbar, pausing at the edge before resuming its path.
In summary, just because it’s a new lake doesn’t mean you can’t “own” it by looking for the familiar and adapting how you fish similar situations in the past to the new situation. A lake is often part of an ancient flowage formed by the glaciers- Canadian, Maine and Minnesota shield lakes being classic examples. Impoundments in Kentucky and New York fish like the rivers that formed them. When studying the map or taking that first ride on a new lake, remember that you will need to identify a lot of potential smallmouth hotspots because some days they will be in a spot and within a day or even a matter of hours they’ve moved on in search of that next great ambush. What I know for sure is, once you have one on, there is no better fight to live the passion!