B.A.S.S. Insider: Cover Story, Episode 10

  • Editor's note: April through June 2006, B.A.S.S. Insider presented by CITGO airs each BASS Saturday at 8 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Click here for details.

    Ask experienced anglers which species of bass they'd rather catch and nearly all would agree that the smallmouth bass is in a league by itself.

    Why? Because smallmouth are gamers. They wake up mad and stay that way all day. Their more popular pot-bellied cousin, the largemouth, grows bigger and can certainly put a bend in your rod.

    But in a tug of war, the smallmouth bass — also known as a bronzeback or brownie — wins every time.

    That's because smallmouth are lean and athletic, dazzling anglers with their speed, agility, strength and determination to fight to the bitter end.

    It's true that smallmouth can be sneaky and perhaps a little unpredictable, but experts say they can be easier to catch than largemouth once you locate their whereabouts.

    Many of the same techniques that take largemouth fool smallmouth, too. But when fishing for fussy bronzebacks in clear water, the tube jig is undeniably the most deadly lure of them all — from early spring and into winter.

    Northern smallmouth experts Randy VanDam and Greg Mangus certainly know this and they have refined the skills needed to find and catch and America's most intriguing gamefish with tubes and other finesse baits.

    Although some southern streams and impoundments contain smallmouth bass, the muscular brown fish thrives best in the clear, cool waters across the northern tier of the U.S. and southern Canada.

    Perhaps that's because they feed most effectively by sight, preying on crawfish, minnows and tiny insects. They prefer rocky substrates and will use vegetation when it provides them optimum feeding opportunities. And if there is current, it's even better.

    One significant difference between smallmouth and largemouth is that smallmouth wander in wolf packs and rarely feed alone. Get one to bite and they all want a piece of the action.

    They love large flats in all depths, providing the flats contain isolated cover and a hard bottom. Whereas largemouth tend to prefer abundant cover or substantial depth changes, smallmouth need less of both. A single rock, log or patch of grass on a flat can hold numerous fish.

    That's one reason why the tube jig is the most popular lure among smallmouth anglers. It is a lure that can be fished shallow or deep, fast or slow, and one that imitates just about any creature that a smallmouth will devour.

    Just ask Michigan's Randy VanDam, brother of famed Elite Angler Kevin VanDam and holder of the Ohio State Record with a mammoth 9 pound, 8 ounce smallmouth taken from Lake Erie in 1993.

    VanDam always has a tube jig rigged when smallmouth are present. It's deadly for fishing over spawning beds, for bouncing over flats to imitate a vulnerable baitfish or dragging on the bottom to resemble a scooting crawfish.

    The tube bait is merely a hollow, soft plastic body with tentacles. While southern anglers prefer to Texas rig a tube for flipping into heavy cover, northern anglers fishing isolated cover or flats insert lead-head jigs into the body cavity and fish it with the hook exposed. The bait is more compact hook-ups are more efficient.

    VanDam opts for different colors to match the area he's fishing and the forage he's trying to emulate. If he suspects smallmouth are feeding on baitfish, he'll opt for light-colored tubes; if crawfish are abundant, he'll go to shades of green and brown. Avoid gaudy colors, and choose those that blend well with the smallmouth's natural environment.

    Catching smallmouth — or any bass for that matter — is all about presentation, says Northern Indiana angler Greg Mangus, arguably one of the north's most respected smallmouth anglers. He's spent a lifetime studying the fish he admires the most and has become a dominant force on Midwest tournament waters that contain bronzebacks.

    Mangus has refined a unique technique for covering water quickly to imitate fleeing forage and triggering reactionary strikes. While many anglers use a drag or drop presentation with tubes and other plastics, Mangus keeps his bait moving along the bottom with an rhythmic shaking, twitching process that elicits more strikes.

    Because the tube is the No. 1 staple among smallmouth anglers, there are times when other finesse baits can be more productive. Bass living in heavily fished lakes see a steady diet of tubes — which is why Mangus likes to show them other types of lures.

    And what about tackle? Spinning gear with 6 to 10 pound line is preferred for fishing finesse lures.

    Some anglers believe the smaller line is less visible to the fish, therefore fussy smallies are more likely to bite phony plastics. However, the real benefit to smaller diameter line is it offers less resistance, which helps keep small, baits close to the bottom. The dainty line enhances the action of the lure and promotes longer casts, both of which are critical in clear water.

    Sensitive, medium action graphite rods at least 7-foot long enable anglers to make proper presentations with finesse lures in clear, shallow water. The long, medium action rod also absorbs the unexpected surges that powerful smallmouth make near the boat, making it easier to land them on small line.

    And as any smallmouth angler will tell you, the defiant smallmouth has a bagful of tricks that it can use to shake free and break your heart.

    But that's yet another reason why smallmouth are so special and why anglers like Randy VanDam and Greg Mangus consider the mighty smallmouth bass America's most gallant freshwater fish.