Welcome to the blog for smallmouth bass lovers

Keep up with your bass
Sept. 2, 2009

Everyone knows that bass have seasonal patterns and that there are times when they move from shallow water to deep water and back again, from the main lake to the creeks and coves. We expect these transitions, but few of us truly anticipate them or try to stay ahead of them. And that's exactly what I want you to do on your favorite smallmouth waters.

Right now, as we're getting into September, it's still pretty warm over much of the country, but the days are getting shorter and it's not hard to see (even if it is hard to feel) that summer will be ending soon.

That means it's getting close to when we need to be thinking about fishing like it's fall. Just because we're not noticing all the signals out there doesn't mean the bass aren't noticing. They're much more closely plugged into nature. After all, they live in it!

We sit in air conditioning all day, wear clothes that protect us from the elements and rarely go more than a few steps from our homes and offices to our cars and trucks. The bass are out there all the time and their primitive nervous systems are picking up all the cues.

So even though we think and feel that it's still summer — and even though water temperatures have hardly budged from their summertime highs — some of the bass out there are already thinking about fall. And not only that ... it's some of the very biggest ones!

I'm not sure why it is, but it seems to me that some of the very biggest females are the earliest to react to things in nature. They're the earliest to the spawning grounds, the earliest to deep water in the summer and the earliest to the creeks in the fall. Maybe they're just more in tune with nature and the shad migrations that move up in search of plankton. It makes sense to me, though, that the biggest, most successful members of the species are also the most in tune.

This is the time of year — before the heat really breaks — you'll find me checking out the creeks in highland reservoirs and looking for those early lunkers. I won't usually spend an entire day looking at this point, but I like to check out a few creeks and some shallow water (5 to 10 feet) before heading back out to the main lake and their summertime holding areas.

My favorite bait at this time for this pattern is a 3/16-ounce shaky head jig with a 4-inch Go To Bait Co. worm in pumpkin pepper. I throw it on a spinning outfit and 8-pound line. It's not a fast way of fishing, but it'll catch bass of all sizes, and I have a lot of confidence in it.

If I'm out at night (and you can catch smallmouth at night all year long), I like to fish a 3/4-ounce black and blue Punisher spinnerbait with a big blue blade. I throw it on casting tackle and 12-pound line. The best retrieve is just to slow roll it around the points and drops. If something's there, the fish will just about take the rod out of your hands.

So if you're waiting for the weather to break before you start working your favorite fall spots, you just might find that the bass have beaten you there.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Slower is better
August 25, 2009

What's all this fuss about fishing fast? Just because everything in our world seems to be rushing by, lots of bass fishermen think they need to kick things into high gear, too. I call it the "VanDam Factor." These anglers are trying to be just like one of their heroes, Kevin VanDam.

Make no mistake, I think VanDam is an incredible fisherman — maybe the very best ever. But when I listen to anglers talk about how fast they fish or how fast they plan to fish or how fast they want to fish, I think most of them are making a really big mistake.

If you want to catch more and bigger smallmouth bass, you really ought to consider fishing slower ... a lot slower.

Of course a blanket generalization like that won't always hold true, and there are certainly times when faster is better, but if we're talking about the dog days of summer or the coldest parts of winter, slower is almost always better.

And speaking of Kevin VanDam, I'm frequently amazed at how many guys try to copy his fishing style even though they may not be fishing in a tournament or even fishing under similar conditions. That reaction bite that VanDam is trying to trigger is great when you can find it, but in the summer and winter, when the bass are lethargic and bites are tough to come by, you'll do better by going slower.

And remember that fishing and tournament fishing are two very different things. Sure, the Elite pros catch some big fish, but they do it despite themselves. True trophy anglers fish a lot differently, make fewer casts and fish slower.

How slow is slow? I once had an old timer tell me that after he cast his jig out and let it sink to the bottom, he'd light up a cigarette and smoke it all the way to the filter before he'd ever lift up on his rod to move that bait.

That's a long, long time, but he caught fish doing it and so have I. Do you really need to slow down that much? Probably not ... at least not most of the time. But you'll definitely do better with smallmouth under tough conditions if you'll double the time it takes to make your retrieve.

I'd say that on an average cast it takes me three or four minutes to work my bait back to the boat. And I usually work it all the way back until I figure out the depth they're in. After that you can start taking shortcuts and focusing just on the most productive areas, but even then I believe in soaking my bait in there just as long as I can stand it.

Slower makes sense when you think about it. Those big brown bass didn't grow to those sizes by exerting a lot of energy chasing down baitfish and fast-moving crawfish. They got big by expending as little energy as possible and catching nutritious meals that were slow and easy to grab.

I want my lure to be the slowest, easiest-to-grab thing out there. When it is, I know I've got a better chance to catch the biggest bass in the lake.

Now, when my wife or my fishing buddies tell me that they think I'm slow, I just say "Thank you!"

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Think deep thoughts
August 18, 2009

If I had to pick just one thing that most casual smallmouth anglers struggle with, it would be that they aren't as good as they need to be at fishing deep water. They're fine when the brown bass can be caught in 15 feet of water or less, but they struggle at depths greater than that.

That's the problem, and luckily there's a cure. It's not immediate or foolproof, but it is a cure... if you're willing to put in the hard work and concentration to make it work.

I'm going to help by making it as easy as I can. I think I can reduce it to just three steps.

Step 1: Learn to use your sonar equipment

Depthfinders have been standard equipment on bass boats for about 40 years now, and if you don't know how to use yours, you have no one else to blame. Luckily, they're getting easier and easier to use all the time.

To start with, forget all the nonsense you've heard about all the fine tuning you need to do to get the best image on your unit. It's a bunch of bunk. Today's modern sonar units will do the best job in the auto mode about 99 percent of the time. They're set right in the factory and altering the settings will usually just mess you up.

Study the simulator, read the owner's manual and spend some time with your unit while riding over well-known areas. Get familiar with it and know what you're looking at on the screen.

And by all means, have an imagination and use it. It's not enough to look at the pixels as they scroll across your screen. Imagine what it is they're showing down there and think about how bass or bait will relate to it.

Step 2: Use light tackle and line

Heavy tackle is great when you can get away with it — like in dirty water or really heavy cover. But heavy tackle will adversely affect how you fish deep water for smallmouth bass.

It takes longer for heavy lines to get pulled to the bottom. Heavy lines are more visible to the bass. Heavy lines dull the action of your lures.

And by heavy I'm talking about anything over 10-pound test. I use a lot of 4-, 6- and 8-pound line for my smallmouth fishing here at Dale Hollow Lake and elsewhere. At night I might bulk up to 12-pound line, but most of my fishing is done with 6- and 8-pound lines — and that's on the lake that produces the biggest smallmouth in the world. If we can get away with it here, you can use it where you catch smallmouth.

Step 3: Get off the bank

There's an old saying that when you're fishing the shoreline, 90 percent of the fish are behind you. They must have been talking about smallmouth bass when they came up with that one.

Yes, you can catch a few smallmouth near the banks almost any time of the year — if the banks are deep enough. But if you really want to catch them in numbers and if you really want to catch bigger brown bass, you're going to need to get off the bank to do it.

That becomes easier once you get comfortable with your electronics and allow them to become your "underwater eyes." It also gets easier once you have a little success in deep water, but that's only going to come with time and patience. You didn't win any races the first time you climbed up on a bicycle, and you can't expect to load the boat the first time out fishing deep water. You'll get better and better with time, though.

And that's a real key to being a better smallmouth angler.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

The Circle of Life ... and Fishing
August 7, 2009

Last week I told you about losing one of my greatest friends to cancer. This week I've learned a valuable lesson that's helping me put it all in perspective.

Cobby Hayes was a great friend and a wonderful fisherman. When he passed away last week after a short battle with cancer, I lost a part of myself that I thought I'd never get back. Since Cobby was my closest fishing buddy, I thought I might never see the sport the same way I did when we shared a boat. I thought it would be forever different and somehow less than it was.

I was wrong ... and I'm glad I was wrong.

You see, Cobby has a young nephew named Joel Hayes who is 20 years old and just as eaten up with bass fishing as I was at his age. He used to fish with Cobby when I was too busy to go and Cobby wanted a fishing partner.

Joel obviously soaked it all up when they were on the water. He's a terrific young fisherman, and, just like his uncle, an even better person.

For several nights after Cobby's funeral, Joel would come by the house just to talk fishing for half an hour or so. It was his "fix" and mine, too. Each of us was helping to fill in that gap that was left after Cobby died.

I guess I've known Joel most of his life, but we never fished together while Cobby was alive. Each of us fished with Cobby when the other didn't go. It seems strange to think of it now, but somehow fitting that we're becoming fishing buddies after Cobby's gone.

Just like Cobby, Joel fishes slowly. I fish a lot faster, and sometimes it costs me. Usually, I caught more bass than Cobby — and I'm catching more than Joel — but just as often they're catching bigger fish than I am.

I think all good anglers learn from other anglers no matter who they are or how much experience they have. I certainly know I learned a lot from Cobby. Now I'm starting to realize that Cobby's lessons for me aren't through just yet even though he's gone. He's just teaching me through his nephew now.

Hopefully, I can return the favor. If that's not the Circle of Life, at least it's the Circle of Fishing.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

A Friend's Passing
July 27, 2009

I lost one of my very best friends to cancer on Sunday, and I can't seem to think of anything else just yet. His name was James Hayes, but everyone called him "Cobby." It was a nickname he picked up as a child because he loved corn on the cob so much.

Cobby was a great fisherman but a better friend and person. I met him when we were putting our boats on the trailer one day. We had each been out fishing alone and helped each other take out. After we both made it up to the parking lot, we sat and talked for about 45 minutes.

After that, we seldom fished alone. There was no need. We fished together, usually for smallmouth, on Dale Hollow Lake and usually until our wives called and told us to get back home. Cobby lived near and fished the Hollow all his life. He knew it as well as anyone and loved it even more.

I'll never forget the pranks we used to play on each other out on the water. It seems like we were always loosening each other's reel drags or casting across each other's lines to be the first to a really good spot.

When we fished together, even though we were just out for fun, it was always a competition, and we always knew exactly how many bass each of us had caught. When one of us was a fish or two down, it was time to get serious. Things got quiet then, but they were always fun and I loved the company.

In July of 2007, I had the chance to relate a story about my buddy Cobby in BASS Times. It appeared in the section called "The Lighter Side" because it was a funny tale about a time Cobby thought he had hooked a new world record smallmouth. It turns out that he had hooked a piece of shale rock that was heavy and flat so that it dipped and darted from side to side as he tried to bring it to the boat. When he finally got it close enough that I could net it and see what it was, I fell to my knees laughing.

Well, when that story appeared in the magazine, Cobby had no idea it was coming. I waited until we were in a big group of friends to pull the magazine out. Then I started reading the story out loud to everyone.

At first, Cobby thought it was a joke and that I was just pretending to be reading it. But when he finally saw it and everyone laughed, he just smiled and said, "I'm going to get you for that, Headrick."

Afterwards, I saw him show that same article to anyone who would stop to take a look. The story was funny, but his pride in being in the magazine was real.

Tomorrow I may feel good enough to go fishing again. If I do, I'm going to stop at a couple of Cobby's favorite spots and try my luck. I'll think about the times we spent there and all the fish we caught. And, if I'm lucky enough to catch one and can see through my tears, I'll glance to the back of my boat and lift that fish up to Cobby.

Take care, my friend. I miss you.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

10 Ways to a World Record
April 6, 2009

It's springtime, and in the spring they say a young man's fancy turns to love. But in the spring, a fisherman's mind turns to bass — big bass!

There's simply no better time than the spring to target and catch a giant smallmouth bass — largemouth, too, if you're so inclined. In fact, if you were to take a look at a list of the biggest smallmouths ever caught, you'd see that most of them were taken in the spring.

Shortly before he died in 2002, my friend Billy Westmoreland put together a little book titled, My 10 Best Ways to Catch a World Record Smallmouth Bass. No one knew more about smallmouth fishing than Billy, and no one caught more really big smallmouth than he did, but I think even he would admit that catching a world record is a pretty tall order.

After all, the record is 11 pounds, 15 ounces and it's stood the test of time. David Hayes caught that fish from Dale Hollow Lake in 1955. No one's come within a pound since.

But a lot of the same advice that Billy offered in the little book produced by Horse Creek Resort will help you catch the biggest bass of your life — even if it's not a world record.

Here are Billy's tips along with my comments:

1. You need to fish somewhere capable of producing a record bass. That's true of any sort of fishing or hunting opportunity. If you're not where the big ones live, you're not going to catch or kill one. Dale Hollow still tops the list of giant smallmouth waters, but lakes like Pickwick and Erie produce lots of big smallies, too.

2. According to Billy, December through March is the best time for catching a record. I won't disagree except to point out that April is awfully good, too, and the world record was actually caught on a hot July day. Big smallmouth can strike at almost any time.

3. Billy thought the flats, old roadbeds and humps were key places to look for a record class fish. Points are good, too. To me, one key is deep water. A smallmouth has a better chance of reaching 10-plus pounds by living almost its entire life in deep water — away from hooks and fishermen.

4. When it came to lures, Billy was a big fan of tailspinners and blade baits. I am, too, but I also think a hair jig or even a float-and-fly jig is a likely choice to catch a real giant.

5. Leadhead jigs are great lures if they're small, according to Billy. I couldn't agree more, but I think there are times when you can bulk up — especially at night in the summer.

6. Carrying on with his love of leadhead jigs, Billy liked jig heads with small plastic grubs to tempt big smallies. He also liked spinnerbaits on occasion. There's certainly nothing wrong with either of those baits, but I'm going to put my money on those other baits we covered.

7. Billy believed that deep water was the home of big smallmouth, especially on Dale Hollow Lake. He recommended doing most of your fishing from 18 to 35 feet deep. I agree with him, especially with regard to the deeper end of that range. Smallmouth don't get big by exposing themselves to lots of lures and fishing pressure like you get in the shallows.

8. Deep diving crankbaits are great big bass lures in cold water. Billy loved the Luhr Jensen Hot Lips Express baits, and so do I. I keep my store well stocked with them and throw them when the water's cold right on into the spring. If you use really light line (down to 6-pound test), you can get them extra deep.

9. Billy acknowledged that live bait is a potential way to catch a new world record smallmouth. I don't fish live bait often, but I can tell you that the biggest smallmouth I've ever seen on the end of a fishing line was hooked on a minnow that a buddy was drifting around a point. He didn't catch that fish, but I hope to one day!

10. For whatever reason, there's no tip under number 10 in Billy's book. But I want to give you one here, and it's this: Carry a very big net in the boat with you whenever you're in waters that might produce a trophy smallmouth. If your buddies give you a hard time about it, just tell them that you're fishing for a different class of fish than they are.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

It's Float and Fly Time!
November 26, 2008

Have you ever been float and fly fishing? It's just about my favorite way to catch bass anytime, but it's absolutely my favorite way to do it when the water's cold — below 55 degrees or so.

Last time we talked a little bit about what the float and fly is. This time I want to talk about why the float and fly is so effective.

Since you already know that the float and fly is nothing more than a little jig suspended beneath a bobber, you might be wondering why it's so effective and why it catches so many big fish — especially smallmouth — during the winter.

Well, the answer is just about as simple as the method. The reason the float and fly is so good is that it takes the right lure — a tiny jig that's just the size of the baitfish the bass are feeding on at this time of the year — and dangles it in front of their faces (or actually just above them) for a very long time. No other technique does all of that nearly as well.

Now some of you might tell me that a small jigging spoon will work as well, and there are times when it might — but not most of the time. If you fish the jigging spoon vertically, you'll have to be right on top of the bass, and that can spook them in extremely clear water.

If you take that same jigging spoon and cast it out, it's going to fall through the strike zone way too fast to get much attention. So, as you can see, although the jigging spoon has its merits, it's far from the best tool for the job.

What about a suspending jerkbait? You could pull it down to the right level and let it hang there until a bass gobbles it up, right? Well, yes, but there's a problem with jerkbaits, too. The ones that are big enough to get down to that wintertime strike zone are too big to match the hatch. And the ones that are about the right size won't dive nearly deep enough to reach the bass.

Crankbaits? No, they don't stay in the strike zone long enough and move too fast. You just can't work it slow enough and keep it deep enough.

Spinnerbaits? Pretty much the same problem.

What about swimming a jig? Not a bad idea, but controlling the depth of a jig that you're swimming is pretty tough to do and far from an exact science.

Nothing I've found will beat the float and fly for wintertime smallmouth. (But I'm always looking.)

So have you got your float and fly gear all ready to go? If not, and if you need some advice in putting a good float and fly outfit together, go back and re-read my last column. I gave some suggestions and recommendations there that should help you.

Now that you see why the float and fly is just the ticket for cold water smallmouth, we'll talk next time about fine-tuning your technique so you can get the most out of it.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

It's Almost Time!
October 30, 2008

It's just about time for one of my favorite fishing techniques to get hot. Of course my very favorite fishing technique is whatever I used to catch the last bass, but I've got to admit that I love it when the weather starts to get really cool and the water temperature starts to dip into the mid-50s because that's when I begin thinking about the float and fly.

If you haven't already tried the float and fly, and you're a smallmouth angler, you're really missing out. It's just about the most fun you can have when you're on the water and it's cold. The float and fly technique is fun, and it's extremely effective once the water temperature drops below about 55 degrees.

Around most of the smallmouth world we're not quite there, but it's coming, and this is a good opportunity to talk about the float and fly so you can get geared up.

At its core, float and fly fishing is very simple. The smallmouth (it works on other bass, too) are suspended and lethargic (that water's getting cold!) so you want to suspend your lure at the same depth as the baitfish (or maybe a little deeper) to get their attention. Fast moving lures won't work because the fish are too sluggish to chase after them. Bottom bumping lures won't work because they're below the bass. A deep diving suspending jerkbait might do the trick, but they're a lot bigger than most of the food the smallmouth are eating.

The answer is to suspend a tiny jig (usually 1/16-ounce) under a cork float. No big deal, right? We all did that when we were growing up and fishing for bluegill on creeks and farm ponds.

Well, the problem is that while we caught the bluegill on worms and crickets that were suspended just a few inches or feet below the cork, these smallmouth are much deeper and targeting baitfish that may be 12 or 15 feet down. That means we need some specialized equipment to catch them.

And that's where a good float and fly rod comes in. Lots of companies make them (my favorites are made by Bass Pro Shops and GLoomis, but there are other good ones, too), and they come in lengths from 7 1/2 feet to 12 feet long. The longer the rod you choose, the longer the leader (distance between the cork and the jig) you can throw, but the heavier the rod will be. Those ounces can seem like pounds at the end of the day, so I do most of my float and fly fishing with an 8- to 9-foot rod. It's long enough to handle all but the longest leaders and short enough that it's still very light.

Since young-of-the-year shad tend to be pretty small at this time of year, you're going to want to use small jigs to imitate them. That's where a little 1/16-ounce jig comes in. It's the "fly" in the float and fly. The "float" is the cork.

It may look like a crappie jig, but a good float and fly jig is much different. For one thing, it's got a much better and bigger hook in it. You need a real bass-sized hook if you're going to catch big smallmouth. For another thing, it's got to look like a shad, so it needs to come in more sophisticated colors and patterns than the average crappie jig.

We'll talk more about the float and fly and why it's so effective very soon. For now, just think about how you can utilize the technique on your waters. And if you're already a float and fly veteran, feel free to e-mail me with comments or questions.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Live Streaming Fishing
October 3, 2008

The older I get, the more I think about when I was young. I guess that makes sense since the older I get the more I have to remember and think back on.

Some of my favorite memories are also some of the oldest — me and my father going fishing in the little creeks and streams near our home in southern Kentucky. We used to wade around casting for crappie and perch and whatever else would bite. Sometimes we got really lucky and caught some smallmouths. Those catches were the most memorable of all.

But it's not just the fishing I remember. Another thing that has stuck with me all these years is the time and effort spent in preparing to go fishing. We all know that you can't just "go" fishing. There's a lot more preparation than there is "go" when it comes to a fishing trip.

For those early trips that I took with my dad, there was quite a lot of preparation. For one thing, I had to catch the minnows that we used for bait. These were usually trapped or netted from a creek smaller than the ones we fished. The process of catching the bait always seemed to last a lot longer than the actual fishing, but when you're a kid and there's fishing at the end of the tunnel, no chore is too tough or too long.

After catching the bait and putting it in the bucket, I also had the task of fixing our lunch for the day and putting some drinks in the cooler. In fact, when I think about it, it seems my dad made me do everything to get ready for our fishing trips. Even when we walked from the car to the creek I remember that I was the one doing all the carrying while he was taking it pretty easy!

Of course, I'm not complaining. It was good training for all the fishing trips that I'd take in the years since then. It taught me to respect the process as much as the experience and to understand what it takes to just "go" fishing.

The hours we spent on those small streams were irreplaceable. It was not only bonding time for us, but it was also like time spent in a fishing classroom. I learned every inch of those streams, where the fish lived, where they ate and what they ate.

I think stream fishing is probably the very best way to get into the sport, even now. There's just nothing like it.

For one thing, the fish are just a little bit trapped. Their environment is pretty small. A creek is nothing like a giant lake with hundreds of feet of water beneath you and thousands of surface acres around you.

On a little stream, the fish are either in the shallow riffles or the deep pools. They're either holding next to some big rocks or an overhanging branch. They'll either respond to a grasshopper struggling across the surface or a hellgrammite tumbling across the bottom.

Smaller really is better, sometimes.

Not only did we have lots of fish confined to a relatively small area, but we could occasionally see the fish and watch what they were doing. It was like a classroom that you never wanted to leave.

And unlike today when I typically carry a dozen or more rods and reels and enough lures to stock a tackle shop, we used very basic equipment and just a few lures ... when we weren't fishing with live bait.

It was a simpler time, a simpler style of fishing and a very basic introduction to a sport that has been very good to me for a long time.

Even though I spend most of my fishing time on a big man-made reservoir today, I've never forgotten what I learned on those little streams or the time I got to spend with my dad.

I wish everyone could start their fishing on one of the streams I fished as a kid.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Have Fins Will Travel
September 22, 2008

A question I get asked a lot at seminars is also one that keeps me thinking. Different folks will ask it different ways, but it usually goes something like this:

"How far do smallmouth bass travel? I was really on 'em last week, and then yesterday I pulled into the same area and they were completely gone! What happened?"

It's a great question, and I wish I had an answer that was worthy of it, but I'm afraid we still don't have enough information to answer that one with a lot of certainty. So, until we find ways to get a lot more information or find a bass that can talk, we'll just have to speculate and use our best judgment on what's really happening.

My friend, the great Billy Westmorland, used to tell me that smallmouths were homebodies. He believed they staked out a home area and stayed there. He thought this was especially true with really big bass.

But telemetry (a fancy word that means they tagged them with a transmitter of some kind) studies by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency indicate that smallmouths move around quite a bit. What's more, their studies showed that the bigger the smallmouth, the more she traveled!

These studies were done in the mid-1990s, well before Billy passed away in 2001, and when he heard about them, he pretty much just laughed and decided those biologists had no idea what they were talking about. He figured the only way those bass moved that much (up to 25 miles in a year) was in somebody's livewell.

I'm not so sure, and I'm definitely not as quick to ignore the results of scientific research as Billy was.

The way I see it, there probably are some smallies that roam that much in a year, just as there are some folks who will drive across town to eat a burger they could have cooked at home. Luckily, I'm not trying to catch one individual bass that may be here today and two miles away tomorrow. I'm looking for all the bass I can find, and the bigger the better, but I'm mostly happy that those bass can only be one place at a time. So all I really have to do is find the spots that hold the fish.

I don't care if the bass I'm casting to was in that spot yesterday or if he was all the way across the lake, and neither should you. If he's there, I intend to catch him. And if I can't catch him after a reasonable try or two or three, then I'm going to move on — not because I don't think he's not there, but because I've lost confidence that he's there or that I can get him to bite. Once that happens, it's time to move on.

So how do you put those odds in your favor? It's really not that tough. The way I do it is to find those spots that have everything a bass could want — access to deep water, lots of cover, plenty of forage and close proximity to good spawning areas. If you can find a couple of these spots on your favorite smallmouth waters, you'll have places where you can catch bass — including really good ones — all year long.

Whether they're holding bass that live there all year long or just vacationers from up at the dam hardly matters. If you find one of these "year-round" type areas, you're in business.

In order to determine whether or not you're in such an area, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Where will the bass winter in this area? Is there a deep bluff nearby — maybe something that intersects the main river channel?

  • Where will they spawn? Are there some shallow flats with gravel that will hold the spawners?

  • What about the food source, is this an area that will provide a variety of forage — from crawfish to baitfish?

If you can answer all those questions satisfactorily, you've found a potential gold mine. All you have to do is start eliminating the options — shallow or deep, rocky cover or grass, fast baits or slow — until you start getting some data back from the fish in the form of bites.

Now that's the kind of scientific research I love!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Two Fall Patterns
September 4, 2008

We're getting to that time of year when the weather's just starting to break a little bit. After months of stifling hot weather, I can almost feel fall in the air. I like that.

Don't get me wrong. I love summertime fishing, too, but fall is special, and I'll be glad when it's here. Cooler weather, less boat traffic and the beautiful fall colors are all things that I look forward to at this time of the year.

I also enjoy the changing patterns that come into play whenever there's a transition between seasons. All summer long I've been focused on night fishing and working deep structure. And although I've broken that up with some other styles of fishing, I'm ready for a change.

Two of my favorite fall smallmouth patterns involve shallow water, and at least one of them will work for you this year, depending on the kind of smallmouth habitat you fish.

I'm lucky to live near Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee. Not only has the Hollow produced five of the seven brown bass weighing better than 10 pounds that have ever been caught, but the world record was caught here some 53 years ago. We have the biggest smallies in the world and some of the very best brown bass habitat — lots of rock, grass and great water quality. It's what makes this lake such a great training ground for smallmouth anglers.

The first pattern I want to discuss really has just two major components: grass and a topwater stickbait. When most bass anglers think of grass, they think of largemouths, but smallmouths love grass, too.

At Dale Hollow, we have grass growing down to 20 feet and more — the water's so clear. But no matter how deep the grass grows, I've learned that you can catch them on topwaters until the grass starts to turn brown. My favorite bait is the Zara Spook. I'll make a long cast across an area where I know there's grass and walk the Spook all the way back to the boat. A lot of times it'll get interrupted by a big smallmouth rocketing out of the grass to smash it on top.

These strikes can be really unnerving. Watching a bronze blur come out of the depths to slam your lure is very exciting, and it can cause you to miss a lot of strikes if you're not careful. Avoid the temptation to set the hook as soon as you see the splash. Wait — if you can — until you actually feel the bass moving with the bait, then set the hook. If you don't feel the bass very soon, he missed it and you can continue your retrieve. If he got it, he'll be headed back for the grass right away, so get his head up and moving your way.

My next fall pattern is one you can use even if you don't have grass where you fish, but you will probably need to be on a man-made reservoir. In the fall, baitfish migrate to the backs of creeks and other tributaries. You should, too, because that's where the smallmouths are going to be.

The bigger the creek, the more baitfish and smallmouths are likely to be there, but I really like targeting the smaller creeks during the fall for a couple of reasons.

First of all, a lot of other anglers will overlook the smaller tributaries thinking there won't be much activity back there. They're wrong. It's true that there won't be as much activity as on the bigger creeks, but that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of bass back there.

The best creeks tend to be the ones that are the most isolated — whether they're big or small. Find one that's off the beaten path, far from any launch ramp, and you're in business. Find one that's a good distance from any other creek, and you may really hit it big.

Another thing I like about small creeks is that you don't have to spend the whole day fishing them to find out if they're holding a good concentration of bass. If the creek's small, you and your fishing partner may both need to move up onto the front casting deck as it narrows down. And if it's shallow, you can put away your deepest baits and try to get action on shallow running crankbaits, spinnerbaits and topwaters.

If a lure looks like a baitfish, it's a potential killer in the fall of the year when fishing the backs of creeks. And if it doesn't look like a baitfish, you might want to throw something else!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

The Line on Lines
August 21, 2008

I run a convenience and tackle store in Celina, Tenn., and one of the most common questions I get from folks who are trying to get geared up for some fishing is this: What line should I use?

I really wish there was a simple answer, but there's not. The truth is that as fishing gear gets better, it gets more complicated and more specialized. That's the bad news.

The good news is that the gear really is getting better, and once you learn the ropes you can dramatically improve your presentation by making the right decisions. Now let's see if we can demystify some of the tangled truths and myths about fishing line.

First of all, if you're a smallmouth angler and you've only got one rod and reel to fish with under a variety of conditions and on different waters, you should probably go with 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line. That would be my pick as the best all-around line choice if I could only use one line. It's super-clear so it works well in clear water; it has low stretch so it's great for contact baits like jigs and blade baits; and it's extremely sensitive.

Of course, it's not perfect, and fluorocarbon doesn't do everything well. In fact, it's exactly the wrong choice for some presentations, but I do think it's a good general purpose line for smallmouth fishing in the typically clear waters where we find them.

Here's what else you need to know about line types:

Monofilament has been around for decades and decades, and it's still the biggest seller for bass fishing. I use it whenever I'm fishing a topwater bait (it floats), most of the time when I'm fishing a lure with treble hooks (it has a little stretch and that can help with baits like crankbaits and jerkbaits) and when I'm night fishing (I like fluorescent mono because it lights up under a black light).

Braid has been around even longer than monofilament, but the new super braids are a relatively recent development. I use braid on my main line when I'm float and fly fishing and when I'm working really heavy cover like dense vegetation.

The downside to braid is that it's easy for the bass to see in clear water, so you'll want to tie a fluorocarbon leader to the end of your braid for most fishing.

Fluorocarbon is the newest of the line materials. Its biggest selling points are that its refractive qualities are close to that of water, so it's nearly invisible underwater, and it has very low stretch, so it's sensitive.

The biggest drawback of fluorocarbon is that it sinks. That makes it unsuitable for topwater baits.

Got it? That's line selection in a nutshell.

So, for most of my jig fishing, you'll find me using fluorocarbon. For crankbaits and jerkbaits (unless I need the extra depth that fluorocarbon offers because it sinks), I'll use mono. For the float and fly, I like braid with a fluorocarbon leader.

If you still have questions, it might be a good exercise for you to rig up three different rods with the three different line types in roughly the same diameter. Then you can go out and see how different lures perform on the lines.

Be sure to carry a pencil and a notepad. It would be a shame to do all that research and then forget what you learned!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Tactics for Falling Water
August 15, 2008

Last week we talked about falling water and how it sends bass to the bluffs. This week I want to talk about the best lures and presentations for falling water smallmouths.

If I was restricted to three baits under these conditions, they would be (1) a 3/16-ounce Punisher jig in camo craw or black and blue craw, (2) a 5-inch Berkley Hollow Belly swimbait in gizzard shad, and (3) a 2 1/2-inch Lunker City Fin-S Fish in ice shad fished on a 1/16-ounce jighead.

The beauty of these baits is that by using different line sizes I can not only fish them at almost any depth, but I can control their rate of fall and thereby match the mood of the bass that are typically suspended when the water level is falling.

With the Punisher hair jig, I typically use 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon line on a baitcaster. Even in clear water I like the heavier line because it will slow the fall of the lure, and I think the fluorocarbon is a lot less visible than monofilament. It might seem like awfully heavy line in some circumstances, but I like the slow fall when targeting suspended bass near bluffs and steep drops.

I'll use the same line for the Berkley Hollow Belly. A lot of folks might think a 5-inch swimbait is too much lure for smallmouths, but I like it. It's big, but it's a good-sized meal for the lunkers I want to catch.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather catch one bass over 5 pounds than 10 that weigh 2 pounds apiece. Besides, the jig and Fin-S Fish will catch plenty of numbers for you. You need to have another bait in your mix that will help you target bigger fish.

Speaking of the Fin-S Fish, I like to fish it on fluorocarbon line, too, but with it I use 6- to 8-pound line on a spinning outfit.

As we noted last week, falling water means it's time to head for bluffs and steep drops. It also means that a lot of the smallies will suspend. With those three baits, you'll be ready for them and able to present a lure to them at whatever depth they might be holding.

When I'm working a rocky bluff, I like to use the Punisher jig by making perpendicular or 45-degree casts in toward the bluff. I want my jig to land as close to the bluff as I can get it, and then I want it to fall vertically to the bottom.

Once it hits bottom, I lift it very slightly and tight-line it down to the next little ledge. That usually means you only have to move it an inch or two. Sometimes, if the face of the bluff wall is really sheer, the jig may just free fall with nothing to stop it. That's OK. Smallmouth will still use that bluff. To fish these banks, just let your bait fall down to the level where you've seen bass or bait on your electronics and engage your reel. By doing this, you'll put tension on the line and cause the bait to swing away from the bluff ... right into where the bass are holding.

Count your jig down. Give it 10 seconds a few times and then 15 or 20. The longer you count before engaging the reel, the deeper it goes. Experiment with this until you zero-in on the right level, then repeat that magic number and catch a bunch of fish.

I do the same thing with the Fin-S Fish, except that I swim it a little more. It's a great little baitfish imitation.

With the swimbait, I like to parallel the bluffs and make long casts. Then I count the bait down and slowly crank it back. With a little practice you can find the right retrieve speed to make the tail kick just right. Then it's a matter of finding the right depth and keeping it there.

Don't let falling water levels get you down. Find a bluff and work it for some of the most predictable and reliable smallmouth of the year.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Bluff Your Way to More Bass
August 11, 2008

Everyone seems to think about falling water levels in the fall and winter when lake authorities start to draw reservoirs down in anticipation of spring rains. The truth is, falling water can happen almost anytime, including the middle of summer when demand for electricity is high.

I've noticed that recently on my home waters of Dale Hollow Lake here on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. It's been a hot summer, and people are running their air conditioners long and hard. To match that demand for power, the turbines at the hydroelectric dam have to work overtime, and that means a lot of water is leaving the lake.

Now a lot of people look at a situation like falling water levels and see it as a problem, but not me. A problem is only a problem if you don't have the solution. Once you know how bass — and especially smallmouth bass — react to certain conditions, these "problems" are just situations that you need to work on.

So when I look in the newspaper or otherwise notice that lake levels are steadily going down for a few days, I don't see that as an excuse not to go fishing, and neither should you. I see it as my cue to locate the sharpest dropoffs I can find.

I've heard a lot of speculation as to why bass move to bluffs and sharp drops under falling water conditions — that they're concerned about being left high and dry, that the falling water is less noticeable in these steeper areas, you name it — and I have to admit I have no idea why they move.

The important thing is that I know they move, and I know the kinds of places they move to. The rest doesn't really matter.

And when the water's falling, I go straight to the steepest bluffs and drops I can find. Typically, you'll find them on the lower part of your favorite lake or reservoir. That's where the deeper water is, and that's where the steeper topography is usually found.

Falling water is a great excuse to pull out your best topographical map and look for the contour lines that come closest together. These are the places you'll want to try.

Once you're in your boat and motoring through the area, keep an eye on your electronics and identify the depth at which you see the most baitfish or bass activity. That's where you'll start your search. If you see most of the bait at 20 feet, expect to find the bass at the same depth or maybe a little deeper, suspended beneath them.

There are a couple of other things that you need to factor in during periods of falling water in the summer. One thing is the thermocline  that band of water between the top layer that has lots of oxygen but high temperatures and the lower layer that has cooler temperatures but little oxygen. The thermocline has both cooler temperatures and good oxygen levels, and it's where the bulk of the bass will be living.

When you rode across the water and looked for baitfish activity on your electronics, that depth level where you saw the most fish was probably the thermocline. It varies in depth from day to day or week to week and even from one area of the lake to another, so you'll need to monitor that situation each time you hit the water.

Now, as the thermocline moves, the bass are going to move, too. And they're going to concentrate in areas where they find structure and cover at the level of the thermocline. If you keep good records for a couple of years, you can often stay ahead of these fish and anticipate where they'll go as the summer progresses, but you'll have to keep track of things like water levels and thermocline range.

Next week, we'll talk about baits and tactics that will take falling water smallmouth.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Rock and Roll Smallmouth
August 1, 2008

It seems that I get a lot of the same questions when I do seminars at tackle or outdoor shows around the country.

What's your favorite smallmouth lure? What's the biggest smallmouth you've ever caught? What rod and reel do you like for fishing a jig?

But one of my favorite questions is this one: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you when you were smallmouth fishing?

I've done a lot of smallmouth fishing and had a lot of strange things happen to me over the years, but one story stands out for me. I told it in BASS Times about a year ago, but some of you might not have seen it there. If you have, here it is again (and I apologize for the repetition). If not, you really ought to subscribe to BASS Times. It's a terrific magazine.

I was smallmouth fishing on Dale Hollow a couple of years ago with one of my best friends, Cobby Hayes, when he hooked into a giant on a jerkbait.

As soon as Cobby set the hook, the fish made a beeline for deep water. He had the rod bent as far as it would go, and every time I moved the boat with the trolling motor to give him a better position to fight the fish, the drag would scream. It was heading directly under the boat, and Cobby couldn't seem to do anything to slow it down.

After he had fought the fish for a couple of minutes, Cobby said to me, "Headrick, this is the one I've been waiting for. It's the biggest strongest smallmouth I've ever hooked."

Now Cobby has been fishing Dale Hollow for 50 years, so when he said that, I knew it was an enormous bass — maybe even a new world record. Every time he'd gain some line on the fish, it would go deep again, and the line would peel off his reel.

Finally, he got it near the boat and told me to get the net. I was dying to see the fish that could fight so long and so hard.

He was fighting it directly under the boat, and I was leaning over the gunnel holding the net when he finally got it up close enough that we could see it.

The giant smallmouth that was giving Cobby such a fit turned out to be a piece of shale rock about a foot square and hardly any thicker than a piece of paper. It was just sliding toward deep water and pulling extra hard when we changed direction with the trolling motor.

As soon as I saw it, I fell to my knees in the bottom of the boat — laughing so hard I was crying.

"You ain't gonna tell anybody are you?" Cobby asked.

No, I told him. "I won't tell a soul."

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Day for Night
July 25, 2008

I've spent the last three blogs talking about night fishing, but I know that night fishing is not for everyone. I love it, but a couple of friends of mine, Jonathan Sanders and James Thomas, recently took me to school in the bright light of day with a technique that really opened my eyes.

Now Jonathan and James are a little older than I am, and they have a lot of experience chasing smallmouths on Dale Hollow and all over the country. When they come into my store to buy baits, I pay special attention to what goes into their sacks because I know it must be working.

So when they recently picked up a few Super Spooks and Wounded Zara Spooks in the heat of summer, I wanted to know what they were up to.

Well, these fellows are the salt of the earth and are always happy to share their successful methods with anyone who asks, but I have to admit to being a little skeptical when they said they were catching big brown bass on topwaters during the bright, sunny part of the day. I wanted to see them in action.

So they said, "Come on, let's go!" And since no one's ever had to ask me twice to go fishing, we were off.

After a short boat ride to a flat that has produced several nice smallmouths for me over the years, they reached into their rod lockers and pulled out four baitcasters with topwater baits on them. Two were rigged with Wounded Zara Spooks that had been modified by taking off the front propeller, and two were rigged with shad-patterned Super Spooks.

Since the sun had been up for some time by now, I wasn't expecting much out of them.

They started with the Wounded Spooks, casting from deep water up onto the shallow flat that offered some grass cover and started working those baits hard — really ripping them for all they were worth.

Now, when you take that front prop off a Wounded Spook, it doesn't really stay on top of the water very much. Instead it sputters a little before diving just under the surface. What's more, it sounds just like feeding bass — at least to me.

They were ripping these baits along and tearing up the surface when all of a sudden Jonathan gets a strike on the Wounded Spook. He set the hook, but missed the fish, and they both started cranking those lures back to the boat as fast as they could.

When they got them in, they dropped those rods and picked up the rods with the Super Spooks. They made casts back to where that first bass hit and started walking the dog with the stickbaits.

Wham! Wham! Before I knew it, they had a double! I couldn't believe it!

Unfortunately, both of those smallmouths — good ones, too — got off. So they cranked in again and made another cast each.

Wham! Wham!

Another double! But this time they got them both in the boat — solid 3- and 4-pounders.

I was impressed ... and convinced! This technique works.

Talking with them about it a little more, I learned that this 1-2 punch is dynamite on feeding flats and main lake points — anywhere you've got good concentrations of baitfish.

At first, I found it hard to believe that they got most of their bites between 9 and 11 in the morning, long after the sun is on the water. Then they explained to me that another of their keys to success is wind to break up the surface and help draw the fish up. Before 9 or so, there's just not much wind on the water, and that's a critical element.

So, if night fishing just isn't your thing, don't worry. There are plenty of other ways to catch big brown fish all summer long ... as long as you keep an open mind and are willing to try different things and learn from other anglers.

That's what I do!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Night and Day
July 18, 2008

Last time we talked about some night fishing basics. I mentioned the importance of fluorescent line, fishing in the shade and keeping your rod, reel and lure selection to a minimum.

This week I'm going to cover some advanced ideas that can really make all the difference. A lot of guys fish at night, but most of them are really just casting in the dark. They're not doing the things that will impact their fishing enough to justify losing all that sleep. If you'll make these adjustment and follow these techniques, I can just about guarantee that your night fishing will improve.

And if you take my ideas and really apply them to your waters, making the little tweaks that are necessary anytime you change lakes, they'll be like the difference between night and day!

The first thing I want you to do at night is to be quiet. Nothing's quieter than a summer night on the water, and nothing can disturb that quiet and ruin fishing quite like stumbling and bumbling your way to a bass feeding area. There might be dozens or even hundreds of big smallmouths feeding in an area, but if you roar up with your big engine, trip over your landing net and kick your trolling motor over the side, nothing on God's green earth is going to make those fish eat for the next hour.

Go slow. Be deliberate. Turn your electronics off if you know the area well and don't need them. I'll even take my shoes off sometimes to keep from stomping around in the boat.

Another thing I do after dark is move into position and just wait for a few minutes. Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night and lay there in bed waiting for the next sound rather than get up and check it out? If things stayed quiet you probably went right back to sleep. I think smallmouths are like that. They hear the noise from your boat and are on alert. They stop what they're doing for a few minutes to find out what's going to happen. If you get in a big hurry, all kinds of lures start falling out of the sky and hitting the surface above them, scaring them. But if you wait, they let their guards down and go right back to feeding or whatever they were doing.

You can talk your head off after dark. I don't believe that those kinds of sound waves penetrate the water. But drop a pair of pliers or a livewell lid, and you might as well have thrown concrete blocks into the lake from a passing plane.

The second thing I want you to do out there is to slow down. Smallmouths are sight feeders. They generally need to see their prey to eat it, and after dark that's not nearly so easy. Crawl your bottom-bumping lures like jigs and craws across the bottom very slowly. Fish your swimming baits with a steady, rhythmic cadence. By doing this you're giving the fish a better chance to zero-in on your baits. That gives you a better chance to catch them.

Finally, I want you to be extra patient. During the daytime, there's lots to see, and you can tell when you've just made a great cast or if some good-looking girl in a bikini is sunning on the back of a boat. At night, you can really only see your line under the black light, so time can pass really slowly. Don't let it get you down.

Night fishing can turn around quickly. An area that was as dead as a hammer for an hour can be the hottest spot you've ever seen the next hour. But you'll never know it unless you tough it out.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Gear Down for Night
July 11, 2008

Last week I talked about why night fishing is so good for smallmouth bass, especially in the deep, clear waters that most of us fish. This week I want to talk night fishing basics.

The first thing you should know about night fishing is that the spots that hold fish during the day are also going to hold them at night. The difference is that the bass are usually shallower and more aggressive at night. That means instead of finding them at 30 feet, you might find them at 20 feet. And instead of crawling a jig to catch just a couple, you might be able to swim a jig or use a deep crankbait to catch a lot more.

A lot of night fishermen are fanatics about the moon phases after dark, and I'm a little like that, too. It's one of the reasons that the moon is part of my Punisher Lures logo. I'm a big believer in moon phases, but I'm practical about it.

My basic rule about the moon and night fishing is that night fishing gets a little better when there's a full moon. I think the fish understand that when they can see pretty well after dark, they don't need to do so much feeding during the day.

During the new moon, when it's pitch black outside, I think the bass will feed more during the day, knowing that conditions aren't that good for feeding after dark.

Now I'm going to tell you something that probably sounds pretty strange. Get ready!

At night, I like to fish in the shade.

That's right. Smallmouth are predators that like to ambush things. The best way for them to do that is to lie in dark places and look out into the light. They can see their prey better that way; it gives off a better silhouette. If they stay in the dark and keep their targets in the lighter areas, they can see the food, but the food can't see them. Make sense?

OK, so now you know my biggest secret about night fishing — fish the shade. You can really have a lot of fun with this at your buddy's expense. The next time you go out night fishing, keep your casts on the shady side of things and let him waste a lot of effort in the brighter areas. I bet you'll beat him good!

Last week I mentioned that it's important to keep your gear to a bare minimum at night. You don't want a lot of unnecessary junk cluttering up your boat and tripping you after dark. I like to have three rods rigged and ready to go for most of my nighttime smallmouth fishing on Dale Hollow. These rigs will work for you, too.

The first is a 6-foot, 8-inch medium-heavy spinning rod (my favorite is the GLoomis BSR803) spooled with 10-pound-test fluorescent monofilament. On this rod I rig a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Punisher jig in olive or camouflage with a Punisher Chunk trailer in red or green pumpkin avocado.

My second rod is a 6-foot, 9-inch medium-heavy baitcaster (I like the GLoomis SBR813) spooled with 15-pound-test Stren Microfuse line. This rod casts a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Punisher spinnerbait in green pumpkin red with a single No. 6 red blade.

The last rod I plan to carry is another spinning rod — just like the first — with a Gene Larew 4-inch Salty Craw in pumpkin pepper or green/orange. I rig it Texas-style with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce sinker and a 4/0 Gamakatsu EWG hook.

Are you wondering why I use monofilament and not fluorocarbon like just about everyone else these days? It's simple. Fluorocarbon doesn't light up under a black light and fluorescent mono does. I see a lot more nighttime strikes than I feel, and the mono really helps with that.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Who Needs Sleep?
July 3, 2008

I take a lot of pride in my fishing, and I especially take pride in my night fishing. It's an acquired skill and one I look at very seriously. That's why this week and for the next two weeks I'm going to discuss night fishing, night fishing and night fishing.

First we're going to talk about why night fishing is a good idea and what gear you need to get in on the action. Next week we'll cover the on-the-water basics. Then, in two weeks, I'm going to tell you some of the finer points that will help you really turn the corner with your night fishing.

Let's get started.

If you fish the usual types of smallmouth waters, summer might seem like your enemy. Your waters are probably deep and clear, and by early June there are more Jet Skiers and water-skiers on the water than you can shake a GLoomis at. If the heat weren't enough to keep the bass from eating, all the surface traffic would do it.

Well, if that's your problem, night fishing just might be your solution. Once the sun goes down, the traffic is usually off the water, the temperature drops enough to make things almost comfortable, and the bass will finally start to feed more. It's like being on a completely different body of water!

On the other hand, if you primarily fish waters that are dingy or muddy and that get little traffic, you can probably catch those bass during the heat of the day. But if you're like most of us, you'll need to trade a little sleep for more smallies.

Gearing up for after-dark bass action isn't tough, and it doesn't require a whole lot of specialized gear, but there are some tools that I don't want to be without once the sun goes down. Let's cover them one by one.

  • Life jackets — Good, comfortable PFDs are indispensable at night since you should be wearing them every minute you're on the water. What you can't see in the dark can definitely hurt you. Wear your life jacket!

  • Lights — Make sure your boat's running lights are functioning properly and keep them on all night long. You'll also want a Q-Beam-style handheld light to scan the water or banks when it comes time to get your boat back on the trailer or when you need to see out on the water. Finally, you want to have some flashlights in the boat for tying knots, unhooking fish and stuff like that. I like the kind that you can clip to your cap ... or that come as part of the cap itself. Check out Bil-Lite.com and PantherVision.com.

  • Facemask — After taking a couple of birds to the face in the past few years, I've decided that I won't get out on the water at night without something to protect my face and head. You don't want anything that will obstruct your vision or hearing, but you need something that will guard your face.

  • Black light — Since much of my night fishing involves baits like jigs and craws where you often see the bite rather than feel it, I don't go out at night without a good black light. My favorite is the Punisher Castglo, but that may be because I designed and manufacture it (PunisherLures.com). You need something sturdy that will help you see your line.

When you're on the water at night, less is more. Instead of six or 10 rods lying on my deck, I want no more than three. Anything more than that is just a problem waiting to happen. They're going to get tangled, you could kick one overboard or they're just generally going to get in your way.

But it's not just rods that you want to cut back on. It's everything. You don't want any unnecessary gear in your boat at night — no extra tackle, no extra snacks and absolutely no extra drink bottles. During the day you can see those things. At night you might step on one and find yourself falling right out of the boat!

Next week we'll go over the fishing gear and methods that will put big smallmouths in your boat even on the hottest days of the year.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Fun in the Sun
June 26, 2008

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for summer. It was the best time of the year. School was out and I could go fishing with my dad and friends. It was great.

Now that I'm just a little older (nearly 46), summer doesn't mean quite as much to me. When you work for a living, summer days are just other work days — only much, much hotter.

But there are still some great things about summer that I look forward to every year. First of all, it's the most stable time of the year. When you get on a good summertime smallmouth pattern, it can last for weeks or months instead of just hours or days.

Second of all, there are some summertime techniques that I dearly love and look forward to using each year. If we didn't have summer, I'd miss them as much as ice cream and the 4th of July.

Summer definitely offers some challenges to the smallmouth angler. First of all, traffic on the water is at an all-time high with skiers, personal watercraft, swimmers, tubers and other fishermen. You really have to pick your spots and timing to be successful.

Assuming you want to catch your fish during daylight hours (we'll cover night fishing in the next few columns — it's a real passion of mine), there are a couple of things you can do to beat the heat and other problems we face in summer. Here's what I recommend:

1. Get out there early.

Most of your vacationers who want to ski and ride around in their boats don't get up very early in the morning, so that's when you need to be on the water. If you're waiting for safe light to start your drive to the lake, you're waiting too long. You need to be there and ready to take off when it's light enough to see.

2. Find moving water.

If you live near a good smallmouth river or stream, now is the time to fish it. Smallies in moving water act differently than those in lakes and reservoirs. They stay more active even on the hottest days.

If you don't live near a river or stream with brown bass but your lake is used for producing electricity, you need to call the pumping station and find out when they'll be generating. Those turbines that pull water will create a current in your reservoir that will help to activate the baitfish, which then activates the bass. You want to be on the water when that's happening — even if it's the middle of the day.

3. Do something different.

With so many people on the water at this time of year, it becomes extremely important to find a way to distinguish your bait or presentation from all the others. There are an infinite number of ways to do this, but a couple of my favorites are ripping jigs and using swimbaits.

Lots of anglers fish jigs for smallmouths, but few use the ripping or stroking retrieve. It's easy. Just cast to the area you believe holds bass, let the bait sink to the bottom and then rip it off the bottom almost like you're setting the hook on a strike. This causes the jig to leap off the bottom and then fall all the way back down. It will frequently excite the bass into striking and turns a finesse lure — the jig — into a reaction bait.

Swimbaits are all the rage for largemouths, but they work for brown fish, too. My favorite is the 5-inch Berkley Hollow Belly in Tennessee shad. It looks just like a baitfish swimming through the water, and smallmouths aren't yet used to seeing such big lures. You might just set the hook on the fish of a lifetime!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Don't Believe Everything You Read ... Including This!
June 19, 2008

I can't tell you the first time I read all about thermoclines and how bass don't live beneath them, but I've read that same thing lots of times since then, and — based on my personal experience — it just ain't so.

I suppose that I should start by defining some terms, starting with "thermocline." The thermocline is a layer of water that develops in the summertime. That's when our lakes start to stratify and break up into three distinct layers from the top to the bottom.

In the top layer, the water's very warm and there's usually plenty of oxygen. In the bottom layer, the water's much colder, and there's very little oxygen. In the middle is the thermocline. It's where the temperature changes very quickly — from warmer to cooler as you get deeper — and there's still plenty of oxygen there.

All my life I've read about the thermocline being the best layer for summertime fishing, and — overall at least — it's probably true. All the books and magazines say it's where we should be fishing and that the water above it is too hot for much activity except very early and late in the day. Below the thermocline, they say there's almost no bass life since there's so little oxygen.

Well I'm here to tell you that you can catch summertime smallmouths below the thermocline ... and that some of them will be big!

Largemouths may like warmer water, but smallmouths will avoid it if they can. One way to avoid it is to get below it — in the thermocline and even deeper. I know they're there because I've caught them.

I can't tell you that it happens everywhere or on every lake, but it definitely happens on my home waters of Dale Hollow Lake and on other deep, clear, infertile impoundments I've fished. If you fish waters like that, I bet it happens there, too.

So if they're holding below the thermocline, what are they doing there? Are they resting, feeding or what? Well, I'm not sure, but I'd guess that some of them are resting and will move up to grab a meal when they get hungry. Others are feeding below the thermocline. After all, bass forage such as shad and crawfish will sometimes hold below the thermocline, too. They don't need much oxygen to survive.

One of my favorite baits for below-the-thermocline-bassin' is a jig and chunk. That crawfish look is perfect for bass that are taking it easy and not looking to expend much energy to feed. Look for them on points and drops where you found them before summer stratification took place and after it goes away in the fall.

So don't believe everything you read, and don't believe you can't catch bass somewhere just because no one else has caught them there before.

Act Your Age
June 13, 2008

If your smallmouth waters are anything like mine — Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee-Kentucky border — they've been showing signs of aging for some time. Instead of gray hair or a spare tire around the midsection, bass impoundments (this isn't true of most natural lakes) show their age with clearing waters, a lack of underwater cover and tough-to-pinpoint bass.

And since most of the impoundments in this country were built between 1945 and 1975, I'll bet you recognize some of these symptoms. It probably hits the largemouth fishermen harder than it hits us because green fish (largemouth) are more oriented toward shallow water and cover than brown fish (smallmouth). But it affects smallmouth, too.

Some parts of the aging process seem to be good for smallmouth and smallmouth anglers. Clear water is preferred by bronzebacks, so we may be gaining some smallmouth fisheries over time.

The other big factor about aging waters has to do with the loss of cover as it erodes and eventually disappears. That bass have fewer places to hide and less cover to use obviously isn't good, but we can work it to our advantage if we try hard enough. Whenever I think about a fishing situation, I try to think of how I can turn it to my advantage rather than just think about how it's going to hurt me.

One way to turn the lack of cover to your advantage is to create your own cover. Man-made brushpiles, tire reefs, stake beds and the like (in lakes where it's legal to plant them) can be just as good as natural stuff if you put it in the right place.

The right place to put man-made cover is usually an area that was already holding some bass. Remember that your cover won't likely make a bad spot good. But it just might make a good spot better. So think very carefully before you plant that brushpile, and put it in a place where it will do the most good and help to concentrate the bass.

And once you've planted your cover, make sure you know exactly where it is. Lock it into your GPS unit or triangulate it with features on the bank. You don't want to spend 15 or 20 minutes looking for it the next time you want to catch a bass.

One thing you start to realize really quickly with the bass in older impoundments is that they suspend a lot more than bass in newer waters with more cover. Ordinarily, I'd say that's a bad thing, but again we can work it to our advantage. The key here is to realize that these suspending fish — if they're going to bite — are usually relating to something. They're not just out there suspending in the middle of nowhere for no reason.

And the thing they're usually relating to is schools of baitfish. In fact, they treat the schools of baitfish almost like they would structure. They even move with the baitfish — especially in the hot summer months.

The key to catching these bass is knowing where they are and knowing how to read your electronics. Sometimes the bass are holding idly by the school of bait, and sometimes they're attacking them. When you see the big arches in and amongst the school, you can catch a bunch of fish fast. Sometimes you won't even have to watch your electronics; the bass will tear into the baitfish on the surface, and you can see the action.

A couple of my favorite baits for smallmouths at this time are blade baits like the Silver Buddy and tailspinners like the Little Sparky or Little George. You can cast them a mile — which really helps when you need to make a long cast to reach surfacing bass — and they work at all depths, from just under the surface down to 30 feet or even more.

Don't let the summertime blues get you down. There are bass out there to be caught, and you can do it if you're willing to put in the work.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Bass by the Gallon
June 4, 2008

Gas prices are out of control. Here in Celina, Tenn., at the Dale Hollow 1-Stop we're selling regular gasoline for $3.95 a gallon ... for now. Who knows? It may be up over $4 per gallon next week.

I know the price of gas very well for a couple of reasons. First of all, my wife and I own a convenience store and sell gas. Secondly, like you I like to pull my boat and go fishing once in a while.

In case you're wondering, I don't make any more money if gas prices are $1 per gallon or $4 per gallon. I make 10 cents per gallon either way, but if it's $1 per gallon, I hear a lot fewer complaints.

And even though I sell gas at the store, the price is hitting me, too ... hard. It's just not as easy to hitch up the boat and go fishing as it used to be. Each time I step on the throttle, I think about how much gas I'm burning and what it's costing me.

So, being the person I am, I decided to think about what the gas crisis can do to make me a better fisherman. It might help you, too.

First of all, I realized that I spend too much time riding around and not nearly enough time actually fishing. Why is it that fishermen want to launch in one place and then run all the way to the other end of the lake to do their fishing? The faster their boat, the further they want to ride.

It may be true that the best fishing in your lake is a long way from where you launch your boat, but did you ever think about all the bass you're driving by to get to it? Well, I'm thinking about that right now, and it's changing the way I fish.

I'm going to spend more time fishing right around the area where I launch. Not only will it save me some gas money, but I'll bet it'll make me a better fisherman, too. I'll be more thorough, more attentive, and I'll fish harder. I know that just because I didn't load the boat doesn't mean there aren't lots of bass all around me. It's high time I got to work at catching them!

I'm going to put my foot down on the control pad of my MotorGuide more than on the throttle of my Evinrude from now on. The MotorGuide doesn't go as fast, but I can't catch fish when I'm running that Evinrude wide open anyway.

Another thing I'm going to do is start exploring new water — right there on the same old lake I always fish. Instead of running around to lots of my old favorite holes, I'm going to do some closer looking right around the ramp. You know the areas I'm talking about, too, because you have them on your favorite lake. I'm talking about places that I usually disregard because they haven't produced in the past, places I've written off.

I haven't fish a lot of those "bad" places in 10 or 20 years! Things change, though. A bad place can get good sometimes. Vegetation might move in. Fishing and boating pressure might affect an area and make it different. A change in baitfish type can also make for a change in fishing.

It's high time I took a closer look at those "bad" areas and find out which ones might be really good now.

While I'm at it, I'll save on gas, catch some smallmouth and maybe even become a better fisherman.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Lessons from a Master
May 22, 2008

Growing up and living around Dale Hollow Lake, I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Billy Westmorland was. Even as a teenager, he was the "Legend of the Lake." Lots of folks even called him "Legend."

If you don't know who Billy Westmorland was, you need a lesson in smallmouth bass history. He was one of the greatest to ever wet a hook for brown bass, and he probably knew Dale Hollow Lake better than anyone before or since. Billy hunted squirrels on the farms and woods that were flooded when the dam was completed in the 1940s.

Billy passed away in 2002, but not before making his mark in the sport of bass fishing by winning a couple of BASS tournaments, qualifying for six Bassmaster Classics, writing a great book on smallmouth fishing (Them Ol' Brown Fish), saving the life of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and hosting a popular television fishing show. He was also probably the only man to catch both a largemouth and a smallmouth weighing better than 10 pounds.

I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know Billy and to have shared a boat with him. He was the very best, and he taught me a lot.

I remember one time standing around the old building that used to be my shop with Billy and a couple of fishermen from Nashville. As usual, Billy was holding court and telling these guys everything under the sun about smallmouth fishing.

They got to talking crankbaits, and Billy started telling them about one of his favorites, the Luhr-Jensen Hot Lips Express. He told them it would be good the next day on the lake, but that they needed to use red with black stripes in the morning and switch to bone at 1:42 in the afternoon. The two guys from Nashville were just eating this up and taking all kinds of notes. Every time they looked away to write down what he said, Billy would glance my way and wink. He loved pulling people's legs — especially fishermen.

When they left, Billy would usually say something about how color didn't matter and that it was just something to catch fishermen.

Not too long after that, my friend Bob Coan and I were out on the lake and ran into Billy. He was sitting in his boat and taking markers to some crankbaits, carefully coloring them red and drawing in some black stripes.

When I asked him why he was bothering since color didn't matter, he just laughed.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Wet and Wild
May 12, 2008

I have to admit that I do the great majority of my smallmouth fishing from a nice, big Ranger bass boat, but every so often — right around this time of year — I get an irresistible urge to leave the boat at home and find a creek or small river that holds lots of brown bass.

Instead of my usual tournament-style shirt, I'll wear something old and ragged with lots of pockets. My jeans will be the ones that my wife won't let me wear out in public anymore, and my tennis shoes will too grungy for anywhere but a creek bank.

I change my usual tackle, too. Instead of a dozen or more rods and reels of all actions and lengths, I'll opt for a single spinning outfit with a 6-foot long rod, a smooth reel and some 6-pound-test monofilament. Rather than all my big utility boxes carefully stowed away in compartments all around my boat, I'll stuff a couple of small boxes in my shirt pockets — jigs and hooks in film canisters, jerkbaits and crankbaits in cigar tubes.

Scaling down your approach is part of the magic of stream smallmouth fishing. It doesn't take a lot of gear or a lot of money to do it and to have a blast in the process. You just have to pack a few things and be willing to get in there with the bass ... literally!

My grubby clothes are the perfect wardrobe for wading and walking the banks of smallmouth streams. If the water's still really cold, a good pair of neoprene waders can be worth their weight in gold, but I'd just as soon wade wet and get out of the water for a little warming up if things get too chilly.

And although it's fun to get in the water, the only reason you'd really need to do it is to get the right casting angle at a target that you can't reach from the bank. Otherwise, you don't need to get wet at all.

The first thing you need to know about most stream smallmouths is that they don't get as big as their cousins in the lakes and reservoirs. Fighting that current and eating a different diet keeps them lean and mean.

Scale back on the size of your baits for stream bass and you'll catch a lot more of them. You'll also want to adjust your expectations. While a 4-pounder might be a really good fish in your favorite lake, a bass half that size might earn trophy status in a stream. Where you'll make up the difference is in numbers. Hit it right and your local stream just might give you lots more action than a lake will.

Target anything that breaks the current — even a little. Smallmouths don't mind current as much as largemouths do, but they're seldom going to be in the fastest parts of it. Instead, they'll hold behind big rocks, fallen trees, wing dams and bridge pilings. They'll hold just out of the current and wait for something tasty to come by.

Try to make your bait move naturally with the current. Cast upstream of the area you think will hold a bass and let the current help you bring it to the fish. That'll look natural and get you more bites.

And don't forget to enjoy the scenery around you when you're catching all those brown bass. That's a big part of the experience.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Hook Set Success
May 5, 2008

As a lifelong angler in the heart of smallmouth bass country, I've had the privilege of introducing lots and lots of largemouth anglers to brown bass fishing. Some of them have been really good fishermen, but most of them have had a lot of trouble getting the hang of smallmouth fishing. Far and away the biggest struggle they've had has been in setting the hook.

Hundreds of magazine articles and many television and video segments have been written and made about how to set the hook when bass fishing. The problem is that none of them that I've ever read or seen really covered smallmouth hook sets. Just as smallmouths are different than largemouths, the proper way to set the hook on a brown bass is generally different from the best way to set the hook on a green fish.

I love to go jig fishing at night in the summertime for big smallmouth, and when I take a largemouth fisherman with me, I'll just about bet that he misses most of his first few strikes because he doesn't get a good hook set.

Oh, he'll set the hook plenty hard. I've seen some of them nearly fall out of the boat backward when they rear back on a fish. And their equipment is usually just fine for the task, too. The problem is that they're not thinking about what they're doing, and they're not moving line the right way on the set. Here's what happens.

Most of my summertime jig strikes come in 20 to 30 feet of water. That means I'm more above the fish than I am horizontally distant from them. When I set the hook, I come up with the rod — hard! A lot of largemouth fishermen, because they're used to fishing shallow water for their green fish, sweep set the hook to their side. This doesn't move the line in the right direction to get good hook penetration. It moves plenty of line, but not in the right direction, so they miss a lot of fish.

That sweep-set is great if you're fishing mostly horizontally. But if you're more vertical than horizontal — and you will be on deep, clear impoundments — you need to come up with the rod tip.

Another thing largemouth fishermen do — or fail to do — that costs them fish is they don't get on the reel as they're setting the hook. A successful smallmouth fisherman is cranking on the handle of that reel during the actual hook set. He doesn't wait until the set is over. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, by cranking as you set, you'll move more line and get better hook penetration. Second, since smallmouths tend to move toward deep water when hooked (while most largemouths will move toward cover), you'll compensate for the fact that the smallmouth is moving toward you as you set the hook. This will really help your hook-up percentages. Try it!

Finally, don't get into a feeling contest with smallmouth bass. As soon as you feel the bite — or just feel something different — set the hook … now! Don't wait until you're sure he's there or wait to get in the perfect hook setting position. Set the hook fast and get the reel cranking. You'll have a much better chance of putting that fish in the boat by being quick on the set and getting the line moving right away.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

A Threat is Your Best Bet
April 28, 2008

Most of the year, you'll find me throwing baits that are designed to imitate a shad, crawfish or maybe an alewife. But there's one time of year that I'll always have at least one bait ready to go that resembles a bluegill, and that time is now.

During the spawning season — from prespawn right through the spawn and on into the postspawn — few bait colors will draw the attention or the ire that bluegill colors will get from smallmouth bass. The reason is simple. Bluegill are a threat to the eggs and fry of a smallmouth, and smallmouth won't tolerate that.

Everyone seems to know that bluegill are a threat to largemouth nests. You can see it. Since largemouth spawn so shallow — usually in just a foot or two of water unless it's exceptionally clear — the whole process is there for you to watch. I've stood on pond banks and in my boat watching bluegill pester and annoy largemouth until they just couldn't take it anymore. They'd run the bluegill off time and again, but the bluegill would stay after it until one of them got absolutely slammed by the largemouth.

Well, the same thing happens with smallmouth bass. We just don't get to see it very often because smallies spawn so deep. In fact, smallmouth spawn so very deep that I almost never bed fish — at least not like the largemouth guys do it. You won't find me anchoring my boat, staring into the depths and repeatedly casting to a single smallmouth that I find on a bed. It just doesn't work as well with smallmouth.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to take advantage of those same instincts and tendencies when fishing for smallmouth during the spawn that you know work on largemouth. And part of that involves using baits that trigger those instincts.

One of my favorite baits at this time of year is a spinnerbait that we make right here at Punisher Lures. I usually use a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce model in a color pattern we call "green pumpkin red." What it really looks like in the water is a bluegill.

Have you ever really studied a bluegill in the water? To me anyway, they have a lot of green pumpkin and chartreuse in them. I'll take one of our green pumpkin red spinnerbait skirts and a chartreuse dye marker and color up the very tips of the skirts with the chartreuse dye to create a pretty realistic bluegill pattern. The blade colors I choose depend upon water clarity. If the water's really clear, I'll use silver. If it's dingy or dirty, I'll use gold. Willowleaf blades will help keep the lure down where you want it. Colorado blades have too much "lift" for this technique.

I'll cast my spinnerbait out where I expect there are some spawning smallmouth and let it sink all the way to the bottom, then crank it back just fast enough to keep the blades spinning. This is the old "slow rolling" technique that largemouth fishermen use in the prespawn, and it works for smallmouth, too.

My goal is to put that lure in front of some of those spawners and get them to think it's some kind of crazy bluegill on steroids that's come to raid their nests. I always use a trailer hook with this technique because when the bass hit it, they usually aren't trying to eat it. They just want to kill it or scare it away, and that trailer hook can easily mean the difference between a bunch of fish in the boat and just a bunch of vicious strikes.

Give that bluegill spinnerbait technique a try when your smallies are spawning, and I think you'll see why I love it so much.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Zen and the Art of Jig Fishing
April 14, 2008

One of the greatest things about my weekly column here on Bassmaster.com is the e-mails I get from other smallmouth bass fanatics. One of the best came just the other day from John Whyte, a north-of-the-border brown bass chaser who loves to fish jigs for smallies on Canadian waters.

John fishes a lot of tournaments and says he uses jigs about 75 percent of the time even though other baits might cover more water or seem like the more logical choice. He's wondering if he's getting into a rut with them and whether he should spend more of his fishing time using other baits.

John, I'm with you, man! I know exactly what you mean about jigs and the tendency to use them when other baits might work better. The truth of the matter, for me at least, is that when I'm fishing a jig for smallmouth, I have tremendous confidence in my fishing and that confidence is critical to my success.

I don't get to fish as many tournaments as I used to, but I can tell you that I never started a competition day without at least one rod on the deck that was rigged up with a jig of some kind. The jig is just too effective and too versatile to ever leave it out of your smallmouth arsenal, and, while it might not always be best the tool for the job, it's almost always a good one.

The drawback of jig fishing is that it can be slow. You don't generally get to cover a lot of water when you're jig fishing, and the bass don't often want the bait moving very quickly when you present it to them. For that reason, a lot of guys will go to crankbaits, jerkbaits and spinnerbaits in an effort to catch the really aggressive fish out there.

And there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I do it all the time. As much as I love the jig, my very favorite smallmouth lure is whatever I caught my last bass on — jig, crankbait, spinnerbait, blade bait, whatever! I just know that the jig is probably the best all-around smallmouth lure ever devised, so I make sure I always have a bunch of them with me.

The other thing I want to tell you about my jig fishing is that I don't always fish them slowly. I sometimes use a jig to cover lots of water, and it works really well. Let me explain.

If you know the smallmouth are holding at around 25 feet on main lake points with pea gravel, you're wasting your time fishing in the backs of creeks. I think everyone would agree with that.

But you're also wasting your time fishing 15 feet deep ... or 35 feet deep ... or on main lake points with chunk rock. It's the truth and you know it, but I'll bet you do some of those things and fish some of those places even though you know you're not likely to get bit there.

When I know the fish are on main lake points with pea gravel in 25 feet of water, that's what I fish ... and I'm usually using a jig. And I say that I'm fishing fast because I pull up to a point, step up to the bow of my boat, grab my jig rod and fire out a cast before I've dropped the electric motor. I let the bait get to the bottom, work it slowly and carefully through the productive depth range four or five times and, if I haven't gotten a bite, I'm on my way to the next point.

Way too many anglers will work that same point from the shallows all the way out until it drops into the river channel. They'll catch some fish, but they'll waste more time. While they fish one point, I've fished five or 10 and caught lots more fish.

So you can fish fast but do it slowly. BASS superstar Kevin VanDam does the same thing and has talked about it often. You can do it, too.

And you'll catch more bass.

So, John, don't give up on the jig, just use it to its greatest advantage.

By the way, I just might take you up on that invitation to fish Ontario with you. I can't say I agree that it'll produce the next world record (after all, I live on Dale Hollow), but I know you've got some awfully nice smallmouth up there.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Sometimes You Get What You Pay For
April 7, 2008

Recently a fisherman sent me an e-mail asking if I thought the high-dollar hard baits are worth their $15-plus price tags. I thought I'd answer him here rather than send a personal reply.

In a word, "yes." I think a lot of those high-dollar baits are absolutely worth every penny they ask for them.

I'll admit, though, at first I was more than a little skeptical. After all, when you're used to spending three or four dollars for a lure, $15 or $20 seems like an awful lot of money. And it is, but when you look at the difference between our earlier baits and today's top-of-the-line stuff, you realize that the modern baits are a lot better.

Of course, there's also a part of me that thinks, "Bass have really tiny brains. Can they actually tell the difference between a $2 lure and a $20 lure?"

I think they can.

It starts with the paint jobs. The look of the modern Rapalas, Lucky Crafts and some of the other premier baits we have today is so much sharper and more realistic than what we had just a few years ago, it's amazing. And it just has to mean more fish, especially on the tough days when everything has to be just right to get a strike.

The action on many of these baits is better, too. The weight system in these baits helps them to wiggle and shimmy like nothing that came before. Many have a weight transfer feature that puts the heaviest part of the lure in the tail when you cast — right where you need it to be to make a long, accurate toss.

The hooks are a step up from what came on standard hard baits years ago, too. Most of the hooks on premium baits are really high quality and very, very sharp.

Don't lose sight of the fact that older, cheaper baits will sometimes give you a false sense of economy. But when you take a closer look at what you're getting, you realize that you might be better off spending more money for a lure.

Let's take a look at the average three or four dollar hard bait we used to buy. Many of us still buy them. After all, they still catch lots of bass.

When you get one of these cheaper lures home, the first thing you do is change the hooks on it because the factory installed hooks are often inferior. That costs us not only the price of the new hooks, but also our time. While we're at it, we may even need to change out the split rings or snaps, too.

If we're really hardcore, we then drop the bait in the sink or a bucket of water to see how it's balanced. For jerkbaits or suspending crankbaits, we need to see if it'll suspend properly. If it doesn't, we get out the SuspenDots or lead tape and doctor it up until it works the way it's supposed to work. We may even change the look of the bait with a marker or paint.

Before you know it, we've got some fairly considerable time and hardware invested in this lure that started out being inexpensive.

On the other hand, most of the high dollar baits out there are ready to fish right out of the box. They don't demand any extra tackle from us, and they don't demand any of our time. You can just tie them on and start fishing.

And if they also look better to the fish — and I think they do — that makes paying my hard-earned money even easier.

Of course, you can't buy as many $15 lures as you could buy $3 lures, so you'll have to be careful about where you spend your money. Stick with the baits that look especially good to you (remember that your confidence is truly priceless) or ask area experts what baits and colors work best for them on your home waters.

And remember, it's more about where you cast than what you cast. The best lure in the world can't catch anything if you throw it where there aren't any fish, but the worst lure will probably catch a few bass if you throw it in the best area.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Don't Kid Yourself, Bigger is Better
April 1, 2008

It's that time of year! Bass fishermen all around the country are thinking about catching big bass.

Whether it's three-pounders from a small stream or river or six-pounders from a major reservoir, we all want to catch the biggest bass we can. It's in our nature.

I've been getting a lot of e-mails lately from guys who are probably pretty good anglers asking how they can catch bigger fish from their favorite waters. They tell me that they catch a lot of 14- and 15-inch smallies from the streams they fish or that they're getting lots of three- and four-pounders from their local lake, but nothing much bigger.

The first thing I wonder — and the first thing they need to focus on — is whether there are bigger fish there to be caught. After all, if a two-pounder is the biggest fish in the stream, you're going to have a hard time catching a five-pounder.

And that's the biggest mistake fishermen make when they set out to catch that fish of a lifetime. They fish waters that just don't have the quality they're looking for, and they expect these giants to magically appear out of nowhere. It's kind of like going to McDonalds and expecting to get a really great pizza. It's just not there.

So the first step in your trophy chase is to get really serious about finding the right place to fish. Check with area biologists, local newspapers and magazines and any experts you can trust. Find out what body of water is producing big fish right now — not five years ago — but right now.

The second thing you need to do is spend as much time on the water as you can. Making deadly accurate casts with the latest and greatest lures or being able to read a depthfinder like you read this column is a big help, but there's just no substitute for spending time on the water and giving yourself as much opportunity as possible.

Finally, remember that trophy fishing is a long, often tiring and sometimes very solitary business. My old friend, the late Billy Westmorland, used to spend days and days on his favorite Dale Hollow lunker spots looking for just one strike. He wasn't hoping to load the boat with five-pounders. He wanted one bite from a giant. That's why he was one of the very best to ever wet a line.

Spend the time on the water and pay your dues.

Oh, and carry a very big net!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Change your attitude about colors
March 25, 2008

As the owner of Punisher Lures, I know how important it is to make good decisions when you introduce a new lure or lure color. The fishing industry is extremely competitive, and a bad decision can mean the difference between a bait you can't keep on the shelves (because it's so popular) and one that no one wants in his tacklebox.

My best ideas have come when I was trying to solve a problem or fill a need. It's easier to be creative then, and to anticipate any issues. When I try to create something from scratch, it's hard to know where to start.

One day I got to thinking about lure colors and it struck me that we, as bass fishermen, have programmed ourselves to use certain colors with certain baits. Worms are usually green pumpkin, junebug, watermelon or some similar color. Spinnerbaits are white, chartreuse or white and chartreuse. Buzzbaits are white... period.

That kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous because it limits us as fishermen. We have to remember that we don't really know what bass see or want. We have to be ready to do things differently and to experiment.

And that's how my worm-colored spinnerbaits came about. We catch bunches and bunches of bass on green pumpkin worms or junebug worms. Why not use the same colors for spinnerbait skirts? If the water color looks good for a watermelon worm or jig, why not a watermelon spinnerbait?

When I thought about it, it made all the sense in the world. And when I talk about it at seminars, you should see everybody in the audience nod their heads. I suppose it's why my Punisher spinnerbaits in those colors have been so successful. I think they do several things that make them catch bass... and fishermen.

First of all, they're different. Not that many anglers are using worm colors on their spinnerbait skirts, so not that many bass have seen them. It often helps to be new and different. How many times have you seen a hot new bait tear up the bass at a particular lake. Well, these colors are new... at least to spinnerbaits.

Second, these worm colors are a lot more natural looking than the spinnerbait colors most fishermen use. Especially when you're fishing clear water, I think it's a good idea to be as natural as possible — at least until the fish tell you they want something different.

Third, these colors have worked forever, just on other lure types. Watermelon, green pumpkin and junebug have caught bass for decades. I'll bet you've got bags and bags of these colors in your boat right now. And guess what? They work on spinnerbaits, too!

So don't hesitate to experiment with your fishing colors. If it looks good to you, it just might look good to the bass, too.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Stay ready
March 4, 2008

A question I get asked a lot when I'm traveling around the country doing seminars is "What's the most common mistake smallmouth bass anglers make when they're fishing a jig?" It's a really good question, and I've had a chance to think about it for several years now, so my answer has changed a little over time.

I used to tell people that the biggest mistake was that they didn't fish the jig often enough or that they didn't fish it slowly enough. Both of those answers are true, by the way.

But now I think the biggest mistake most anglers make when fishing a jig is that they don't keep their rod tip low enough when they fish it. Instead they keep the rod tip up at 11 or 12 o'clock, which is a great position for detecting strikes, but a poor one for setting the hook.

If you watch your line carefully, like I do, you'll soon realize that you can see more strikes than you ever feel. And since that's true, you'll do yourself a big favor by keeping your rod low during a jig retrieve — from about 9 to 10 o'clock.

You might be able to get away with a high rod angle when largemouth fishing or even when the smallmouth are really tearing it up, but on slow days or when you need to turn every strike into a catch, keeping your rod tip low will pay off for you with more bass.

The reason is simple. When your rod tip is low — nearly parallel to the water — you're in a better position to set the hook, and you need to be able to do that very, very fast. Smallmouth are curious creatures, but they don't have hands. The only way they can check something out is by picking it up in their mouths. When they're curious and not really feeding — which I think is a big majority of the time — you don't have as long to set the hook as when they're eating heavily and sucking that lure all the way to the backs of their mouths.

By keeping your rod low, your eyes on the line and by having a hair trigger hook set, you're going to catch a lot more smallmouth.

And remember to set the hook just as soon as you feel something different, something you can't recognize. The strike isn't always a solid thump or even a mushy feeling. Sometimes it's the complete loss of feeling because a fish has picked up your bait and is moving toward you with it. Other times it's completely different from any of those. Watch your line closely, and set the hook just as soon as you see it move or feel something different.

Almost as important when you're setting the hook on a good smallmouth is to get your hand on the reel right away (better yet, never take it off) and get cranking on that fish to keep the line tight and the bass moving toward you. Slack line is your enemy, and you need to keep that fish coming after the hook set.

Finally, don't wait when you have a strike! It's a guarantee that the bass doesn't have your lure in its hands!

The shadow knows
Feb. 1, 2008

When I take people out night fishing in the summertime, they're usually surprised to see that I fish the shade — even after the sun goes down.

"Smallmouth hate light," I tell them. Then I suggest that they fish the areas exposed to moonlight while I continue to work the shady stuff. After they fall behind by a couple of fish, they're back casting right beside me to the darker areas.

I'm no biologist, and I can't tell you a lot about the smallmouth's sense of sight. I understand that their eyes have both rods and cones, so they're well adapted to seeing in color and under low light conditions. But I don't know that they see things the same way we do, and until someone learns to speak smallmouth I'm not sure that anyone else knows, either.

What I do know is that big smallmouth are frequently ambush feeders and that they rely on their ability to hide or surprise their prey to feed. They're like muggers hanging out in a dark alley waiting for someone to walk past.

For that, darkness helps. It helps them to avoid being seen and it probably gives them a sense of security and well-being that makes them more willing to feed.

Put the same fish out in the open where the water's better lit, and you're not going to get more feeding or a better sense of security. In fact, I think feeding will slow way down.

That's why you'll always find me casting to the shady side of anything — day or night, sunny or cloudy, clear water or muddy.

Smallmouth bass are shady characters!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

It's all about the bait
Jan. 31, 2008

Here in the dead of winter you have to really be on your game to have a great smallmouth trip. In the spring, almost anyone can catch them. They're hungry and aggressive and more vulnerable than any other time of the year. In the fall, they can be like that, too.

Come summer, I like to go out at night and work a hair jig around deep grass beds. Catching smallies then can be challenging, but nothing like the winter. In the winter, tough fishing is expected.

One of the keys to catching smallmouth in winter is finding the bait and doing the best possible job of imitating it. Since crawfish hibernate in the winter, I don't try to emulate them at this time of year. Instead, I do what I can to imitate a baitfish. Just what kind of baitfish you want to imitate depends on the body of water you're fishing and the bait available there.

Another key is to find a way to present that baitfish imitation slowly enough to match the metabolism of winter baitfish and bass. That generally means one of two techniques — the float and fly (which suspends a small hair jig beneath a float so you can move it as slowly as possible) and the suspending jerkbait or crankbait (which can be stopped and will hold in place for long periods of time).

You need to a use a lure that won't plummet to the bottom when you're not moving it. The limiting factor with the float and fly and suspending hard baits is how deep you can get them.

A jigging spoon or blade bait could work — and you can get them much deeper — but you'll have to fish them vertically. They're great choices for when you've pinpointed the bass, but poor search baits.

It's an old truism that if you can find the bait, you've found the bass. That's as accurate in the winter as at any other time. Baitfish can be patterned just like bass and will respond predictably to weather changes.

In the winter, if there's been a warm rain, you'll find the baitfish in the backs of creeks that are dumping warm water into the lake. If the rain was a cold one, they'll be out in the main lake where temperatures are more stable. After a few warm, sunny days, you can expect the baitfish to move up shallower where the water warms more quickly.

Look for them on your electronics. Typically, they'll be deeper after a front and near the main lake. Find the lure that best imitates them and that you can fish slowly, and you should be in the action.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

5 Simple Questions
Jan. 21, 2008

Since I started doing this column for Bassmaster.com, I've been getting a lot of e-mails asking some very interesting questions. Some of the questions are so thought provoking that I've turned them into columns. Others have been expecting a little too much from me.

For example, I've had several folks ask me what lures I'd throw if I was fishing this lake or that lake. The odds are pretty good that I've never even seen that body of water, much less fished it.

So, rather than try to tell you what lure you ought to be throwing, I'm going to give you a list of five questions you should ask yourself every time you go fishing or think about lure selection.

1. What time of year is it? Think in terms of "bass seasons" — prespawn, spawn, postspawn, summer, fall and winter. How bass behave and where you'll find them depends more on this than anything else. As a result, it has a great deal to do with what lure you'll want to be using.

2. What is the water temperature? Since bass are cold-blooded, they're basically the same temperature as the water. Temperature will dictate whether you can use a fast moving spinnerbait or must stick with a slow moving jig. It also tells me what retrieve speed I can use.

3. What is the water color? Water color will help me decide on a lure color. I go with natural colors (most of the time) if it's clear, and I go with bright colors or black when it's dirty. I also look at light conditions and use the same guidelines.

4. Is there any wind? Conditions might be otherwise ideal for fishing a light jig, but if the wind is howling at 40 mph, there's no way I can feel it. I'll need to change to a heavier bait and probably one that can be effectively fished on a fast retrieve. Most of the time, of course, the wind isn't a determining factor, but when it blows you have to think about it.

5. What is the available forage? Most often, I want to mimic the same food that the bass are eating. If they're targeting shad, I want to use something that looks like a shad. If they want crawfish, I'll probably throw a dark jig or crankbait. I want my lure to fit into their environment and look like food.

If you can answer these five questions, you can go a long way to figuring out just what you should be fishing with and why.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Cutting Your Teeth on Blade Baits
Jan. 14, 2008

If ever there were a lure that seems to be associated with smallmouth bass — but not so much the other black bass — it would have to be the blade bait.

Now you can catch any kind of bass on a blade bait, but the art of blade bait fishing seems to have eluded other bass chasers. That's a shame — for them — because the blade bait is an extremely effective lure anytime bass are feeding on shad or other baitfish and especially when they're in deep water.

My favorite blade bait is the Silver Buddy. It was designed by Buddy Banks and my late friend and smallmouth legend Billy Westmorland. Billy and Buddy worked for a long time to perfect the balance between lead and aluminum that is the Silver Buddy, and Billy once called it the best lure ever devised to catch smallmouth bass.

Well, I'm more partial to the jig, but even I'll admit that there are times when a blade bait will outfish anything else you might tie on. And the wintertime is a great time to fish a blade bait. I seldom go out in cold weather without having a 1/2-ounce Silver Buddy tied to one of my rods — usually a 6-foot, 6-inch medium heavy GLoomis spinning rod with an Abu-Garcia Cardinal 804 strapped to it. I'm generally spooled up with 10-pound-test Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament.

Most people who are new to blade bait fishing give up on it way too soon. They don't see the beauty of this little slab of lead and aluminum. But I'm about to tell you how easy it is to use this lure type and give you a solid winter pattern that you can use now.

First, if you've got lots of cold water where you fish, one of my favorite winter patterns involves fishing the warm spells that we get every year. You know the ones I'm talking about — things warm up a little and we get some rain that's a good deal warmer than the lake water.

This is the perfect time to take your blade bait and work the points and pockets back in the creeks of your favorite reservoir. You see, the water that came in with the rain is warmer than the lake water, and that will draw the baitfish in. When that happens, you know what's next — the smallmouth follow.

Here on Dale Hollow, the big smallies will go back until the bottom is about 20 feet deep. They don't seem to like water any shallower than that. The smallmouth on your lake may be different. Keep an eye on your electronics and do some fishing to find out.

As for fishing a blade bait, I like to cast it out and let it fall all the way to the bottom. Then I lift it up 3 or 4 feet and let it fall back to the bottom again. Your strikes are going to come on the fall, so you need to let the lure fall on a semi-tight line. If you don't, you won't feel the little "tick" that indicates a strike.

Sometimes the bass want a slow, short hop, and sometimes they want you to rip the bait 5 or 6 feet up off the bottom. You just have to experiment until you figure out what they're looking for.

And you might wonder why I go with 10-pound line even in extremely clear water. Well, anytime you throw a bait with treble hooks and let it go to the bottom, you're going to get hung up once in a while. With that 10-pound line, I can pull the lure loose most of the time. With 6- or 8-pound-test, I'd lose a lot more lures.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

New Year's Resolutions
January 1, 2008

Another year is gone, and it seems like they go by faster every time.

A lot of people dread New Year's resolutions. Not me.

I try to see them as opportunities rather than burdens. In fact, some of my New Year's resolutions get repeated year after year. It's not that I don't accomplish them. I just want to do them all over again!

One of my favorite resolutions is to go out and fish four smallmouth waters that I've never fished before. Now four might be too many for your schedule, but it works out pretty good for me — just enough to keep me looking for good new water but not so many that it puts a dent in my fishing budget or schedule.

In 2007, I was able to check several great smallmouth lakes off my "to-fish" list, including Table Rock Lake in Missouri, where I got to fish with the legendary Charlie Campbell while filming my new float and fly video. I wish I could always test new water with a member of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame!

Another resolution that I make every year is to learn more about some aspect of smallmouth fishing. I'm always reading bass fishing magazines, like Bassmaster and BASS Times, or checking out what's new on the Web or on television or videos. I like to collect all the material I can on a new technique or lure, a baitfish or moon phase, and create my own folder or notebook of information that I think might help me catch more fish. After assembling as much information as I can, I like to get on the water and try to put it to work.

Getting organized is always a good New Year's resolution. Staying organized is even better! The fact that I can't seem to stay organized is the reason this resolution is one I make over and over again.

Simplifying my approach to smallmouth fishing is a new resolution for me this year. I hope that this blog is helping you catch more smallmouth because it's certainly helping me. As I sit down to write them each week, I'm forced to really think about my methods and ideas, and it makes me a better fisherman. I wish I had started years ago!

Another thing this blog is doing for me comes directly from you — the smallmouth fans reading it. I've gotten a lot of great e-mails from you that have caused me to think about things that might otherwise have slipped by me. It's been great trading messages and phone calls with you.

The more I think about my methods in a systematic way, the more I realize that good smallmouth fishing doesn't have to be complicated. If you're systematic, thorough, thoughtful and always stay one step ahead of the weather, the forage and the fish, you can really improve your fishing. Of course, that's easier said than done.

The last resolution I'll mention here is another one I make every year. I resolve to take at least six people fishing who have never caught a smallmouth bass before. It's the very best way to introduce someone new to the sport and show them the passion that you have for it and that it deserves. Surprisingly, when you introduce that many people to smallmouth fishing, you'll teach yourself along the way. And the questions they ask will get you thinking.

You might even get a new fishing buddy out of the deal.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Back to School
Dec. 27, 2008
I get to meet a lot of fishermen in my work, and I love talking with them. Fishermen are the salt of the earth and some of the best people you could ever meet.

One of the things I love about bass fishermen is that we're always trying to learn more about the sport we love — a new technique, a new lure, a new way to sharpen hooks, whatever.

Unfortunately, far too many of us overlook one of our best sources of information, our state fisheries biologists. In Tennessee, where I live, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency not only does a fantastic job of managing our fisheries, but they're also great sources of information on anything to do with fishing.

I'd recommend that anyone interested in catching more bass spend some time cultivating a relationship with your local fisheries biologist. Give him or her a call or stop by the office to introduce yourself. It's a relationship worth developing, and it will help you better understand the fish you're chasing and the way our tax dollars are used to support the resource.

Another great resource is the local library. If you fish an impoundment, you might be surprised at the kind of information you can find at the local library. Plans for the inundation or even topographical maps of the land before the lake was filled may be in the records room. We all know how valuable that can be.

If you're reading this, you've not only shown that you have access to the internet, but that you're interested in learning more about bass fishing. The World Wide Web isn't called the information superhighway for nothing. Tens of thousands of avid smallmouth anglers get online every day and exchange information on how they catch their favorite fish. The only problem is that there's not enough time in the day to find it all, much less read it. Target a few reliable sources and add them to your favorites list so you can easily go back to them day after day … or at least week after week.

Of course, the usual sources of information that most fishermen rely on can be good, too. Tackle shops and guides both collect information, but you need to be careful in processing it. The tackle shop is apt to push you toward something that's not selling in an effort to get it off the shelves while the guide might be pretty closed-mouthed since you're not paying his fee.

If I'm headed for unfamiliar waters, I'll use all these resources to give me the greatest possible chance for success. I start with a call to the local biologists so I can learn about the available forage on the water, the results of any electroshocking efforts and the overall health and status of the fishery. Have the bass spawned yet? Are they in their summertime patterns? What depth do most of the fish seem to be holding in? I'll also call the lake authority to get the lake level and generation schedule if there's a hydroelectric dam.

I try to buy the best map I can find and pour over it for a few hours before heading out. Internet research is helpful, too, as are old articles in magazines like Bassmaster and BASS Times. And don't forget the internet for up-to-the-minute information and advice.

If I have time, I'll stop by a local tackle shop and spend a few dollars as I ask the clerk a few questions about the depth of the bass that are being caught and what types of baits seem to be producing. If there's a guide around, I might take a peek at what he's buying for his clients to use.

The only way we can really get better is to keep studying. I think that's why it's so ironic that skipping school has always been called "playing hooky."

Most of the really good bass fishermen I know are excellent students.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Get on the bus!
Dec. 19, 2008
When I was approached to do this blog for Bassmaster.com I did it with the understanding that I'd need to be open and honest and tell some secrets.

Well, here's the first.

Giving up secrets is not something most fishermen like to do. After all, revealing those secrets can cost you fish, which might cost you money … or at least bragging rights back at the dock.

But I don't see much point in keeping secrets. I'm not a tournament fisherman looking for an edge or a meat fisherman looking for my next meal. I'm a smallmouth fisherman who gets just as big a charge out of watching someone else catch a fish or hearing that someone else caught a fish using advice I gave them as I do if I catch it myself.

Besides, some of the secrets I'm going to tell you are so wacky, so offbeat and so counterintuitive that almost nobody is even going to try them.

It's like that with this first secret.

Now, if you know me or even if you're just getting to know me through this weekly blog, you know that I love jig fishing. It's my passion, and I think the jig is the very best lure ever designed for smallmouth bass fishing.

This blog is all about my favorite wintertime jig technique. If you read last week's blog, you know I love the float and fly. But there are times when I can catch more and bigger bass by using this other method. As a result, when the water's cold, you'll always find me with both outfits on the front deck of my boat.

I'll start with the tackle because that's the easiest part to believe. I use a G.Loomis spinning rod that's 6 feet, 8 inches long and has a medium-heavy extra fast action. It's part of their Mossyback Series and is as fine a light jig rod as I've ever fished. On that rod I use a Shimano Stradic 2500 reel spooled with 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line.

The strange thing is the jig that I tie on the end of that line … or at least the color of the jig. I use a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce Hoss Fly jig (www.punisherlures.com) that's SCHOOL BUS YELLOW!

That jig is so bright and so gaudy that anyone who sees me fishing with it probably thinks I'm after crappie. But it's also the best color I've found when the water temperature is in the low 50s and below, and I have a theory about why.

I think the crawfish are mostly hibernating at this time of the year, but that a few of them will pop out of their deep water holes from time to time. When they do, I think they're probably very light colored, and that bright yellow jig gets the attention of any smallmouth nearby.

The other thing you need to know about this jigging technique is that it's for deeeeeeeeep water. I usually fish it in 30 to 50 feet around steep drops. Cast that jig out, be very patient as it sinks all the way to the bottom, and then pop it up off the rocks. You want it to jump up a foot or two with each pop.

Then, just as soon as it falls back to the bottom, pop it again. Keep it hopping and expect your strikes to come on the fall. Fishing it so aggressively seems contrary to just about anything you read or hear about wintertime fishing, but I promise you that it works. I think the bass think the bait is getting away and hurry over to grab it.

Give it a try!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Float and Fly for Brown Bass
Dec. 12, 2008
Last week I wrote about my favorite smallmouth lure — the jig. This week, I want to tell you a little about one jig application that is near and dear to my heart and an absolutely deadly way to catch brown bass right now!

It's called the "float and fly," and if you've never tried it before, you're in for an absolute treat. Not only is it effective, but it's fun and will take you back to your earliest days of fishing.

For starters, let's clear up a couple of common misunderstandings involving the float and fly.

First of all, it's not a fly-fishing technique. You don't need a fly rod to do it, and you don't need to be able to fly cast. The "fly" in float and fly fishing is actually just a small hair jig. "Fly" is just the word we use in my part of the country (Tennessee) to describe a hair jig. It's been that way for as long as I can remember.

"Float," by the way, refers to the bobber or cork that suspends the jig and keeps it up off the bottom where the fish are at this time of year. It doesn't have anything to do with float fishing on a river or creek — though I love that style of fishing, too.

The rod you use for float and fly fishing is a long, spindly spinning rod with a very light action. You need that light action since you'll be using very light line — usually 4- to 8-pound-test fluorocarbon — running from the float to the jig.

The perfect reel for float and fly action is a quality spinning reel with a very smooth drag. That comes in handy when you're fighting a big, strong fish on light line. As you become more experienced with the technique, you may want to try backreeling instead of using the drag, but for beginners, the drag is definitely the way to go.

I mentioned the line going from the float to the jig because you'll want a different type and size of line that goes between the float and your reel. That's where I like one of the superlines like Fireline Crystal in about 8-pound test. It's strong and casts well, but also has a nice, small diameter.

Your main line (off your reel), your leader line (going down to the jig) and your float all meet up at a three-way swivel. You'll tie the two lines to one arm each of the swivel. Clip the float to the other arm.

By the way, the length of line between the float and the jig depends upon how deep the fish are holding. With this sort of rig and a long spinning rod (8-10 feet), I can pretty easily handle a 15-foot leader. But I'm a tall guy with plenty of practice. You might be more comfortable with shorter leaders ... at least for a while.

Well, those are the nuts and bolts of the float and fly setup. It's a terrific technique for catching smallmouth (or any other bass) when the water temperature is at the mid 50s or below and the fish are suspended below schools of baitfish.

The technique — in one form or another — has been around for decades. Crappie fishermen have used it for a long time as a way to fish jigs for suspended panfish. A Tennessee angler named Charlie Nuckols first brought it to prominence in the bass fishing world almost 20 years ago. It still works.

If you'd like to actually see the float and fly in action, check out my new float and fly video at www.punisherlures.com. You'll see all the elements in action and watch 5-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Charlie Campbell use it for the very first time on Table Rock Lake in Missouri.

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

It's all in the jig
Dec. 5, 2008

When I think of smallmouth bass lures, I always start with the jig. It's all there, really. Everything you need to catch a brown bass can be found in that hunk of lead, strands of hair, rubber or silicone and a hook. In fact, most of the best smallmouth bass lures are jigs or variations on jigs.

I don't think that because I'm in the jig business. I'm in the jig business because I think that.

I'll bet that more smallmouth bass have been caught on jigs than any other lure … maybe more than all the other lures combined. I know that I've caught more smallmouth on jigs than anything else — especially big smallmouth.

And while a crankbait (a 600 series Bomber) caught the biggest smallmouth bass of all time (David Hayes' 11-pound, 15-ounce giant from Dale Hollow in 1955), I believe the next world record will fall to a jig of some kind. After all, the second biggest smallmouth ever caught (John Gorman's 10-14 from Dale Hollow in 1969) was taken on a jig.

So what makes the jig such a great smallmouth bass bait? It's a lot of things. First of all, a jig can mimic the action of several great smallmouth foods. If you fish a dark jig on or near the bottom, you're using the best crawfish-imitating lure ever. If you take a lighter jig and swim it up off the bottom, you've got the makings of a pretty great baitfish imitation. And with the varieties in shapes, sizes and colors we have today with better molding, better materials and better skirts, there's almost nothing a jig can't be made to copy.

Second, jigs tend to be fished slowly, and like it or not that's usually the best way to tempt smallmouth bass — especially the biggest ones. You can get away with fishing fast some of the time, but when the chips are down, the fishing's tough and no one seems to be getting many bites, you can bet that most of those bites are coming to jig fishermen who are adept at really grinding it out and fishing so slowly it almost hurts.

Finally, I think jigs are so good because fishermen tend to put them in the places that bass live. Face it, you'd sooner throw a $1 jig into a tangle or rockpile than a crankbait that might cost more than 10 times as much. That might be false economy over the long run, but it's human nature, and it means that the jig is getting the lion's share of the work in the places that bass are feeding.

Yep, if you gave me just one lure type to fish for smallmouth bass for the rest of my days (and nights, too!), it would be a jig. I've got lots of tips for how you can become a better jig fisherman, but those are other topics for other days. Stay tuned!

Until next time, if you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.

Brown bass are different
Nov. 5, 2008
Smallmouth bass are different. If you don't believe me, go catch one. For my money, they're stronger than a largemouth or spot. They fight harder and longer and are more challenging to catch.

This column is dedicated to the smallmouth bass and everything that makes it special. I've dedicated my career to catching these brown fish, and I wouldn't have it any other way. After all, smallmouth bass are different … and special.

Having lived my entire life near the Tennessee-Kentucky border and fishing Dale Hollow Lake for about 40 of my 45 years, it makes sense that I love smallmouth. But I like catching them anywhere and everywhere, not just at the Hollow.

To some extent, smallmouth bass are smallmouth bass wherever you find them. They'll behave similarly under a wide variety of conditions and circumstances. But it's also true that smallmouth can be very peculiar to a particular body of water.

In this blog, I hope to give you some insight into smallmouth fishing, smallmouth catching and why my favorite bass deserves your respect and attention. Along the way, I hope you'll come to understand why I think bass fishing, but smallmouth bass fishing in particular, is more than just a hobby or sport. It's a way of life and a language all its own for some of us.

Whether you chase after them in the fast-moving streams of Arkansas and Missouri, the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota, the fly-in lakes of Canada, the Great Lakes along our northern border, the deep clear lakes of the West or the giant impoundments of the South, you join a family of anglers who know that the brown bass is not like all the rest, not for everyone and absolutely not just another fish.

It is our fish, our tradition and our way of life. And it's up to us to nurture this lifestyle just as we carefully release the majority of the bass we catch. After all, who better to spread the gospel of the brown bass than those of us who cherish it?

For those who do not fish or understand the magic of tempting a creature you cannot see into eating a piece of plastic, hunk of lead or splay of hair, it's difficult to convey. When women say they can't explain what giving birth is like, I take them at their word. I can only imagine the experience.

Luckily, catching a smallmouth bass is something almost all of us can do if we try.

For now, I'll just say that this column is for smallmouth bass lovers.

If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Please e-mail me at Stephen@thesmallmouthguru.com.