Where to Find Them
Equipment
Baits & Lures
Angling Tips

Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass, among the most important Iowa gamefish, are most common in small to medium central and northeast Iowa rivers, but can also be found in larger rivers such as the Cedar, Des Moines and Mississippi, as well as some natural lakes in northwest Iowa. “Smallies,” a preferred species for many Iowans, can be found close to home in the local stream or river. The top predator in many Iowa river segments, these fierce fighters sight feed aggressively on invertebrates, minnows and shiners.


Where to Find Them
Streams and Rivers

Smallmouth bass are widespread and numerous in our flowing waters. They are typically found in free-flowing sections of streams and rivers with riffle-pool habitat and a moderate to high abundance of rock. Smallmouth bass are sight feeders and prefer waters with low turbidity, including some instream impoundments and portions of the Upper Mississippi River.

In the spring, prior to spawning, the water temperature is usually 40 to 50 degrees F. Water levels are normally high this time of year, allowing the bass to move freely and disperse from winter habitats. During high flows, fish are often found closely associated with large boulders, fallen tree snags and undercut banks that divert strong currents and create loafing habitat for smallmouth. These areas are also populated by forage species making it convenient for the bass to feed without having to work against the strong current.

In mid- to late April, smallmouth begin to migrate toward traditional spawning sites where the males construct nests. On large streams, the fish usually move up small tributary feeder streams in search of rock or gravel substrates with moderate to low stream velocity. Smallmouth may utilize sandy substrates for spawning, but prefer rock and gravel. In smaller streams, spawning often takes place in the mainstream itself. Immediately prior to spawning, both sexes readily take lures as their pre-spawn urge to forage often reduces caution. As spawning approaches, the males establish nests and territories; they are very susceptible to angling at this time.

After spawning, females move immediately into deeper water. Males stay on the nests to guard the fertilized eggs, but move to deeper pools following the hatch. Fish spawning in tributaries move toward the parent stream.

Where smallmouths relocate following spawning is largely dependent upon stream-water levels. High flows allow fish to use habitat too shallow or dry in low flow periods. Smallmouths disperse and use rocky and log-fall habitat containing two or more feet of water. Rocky habitat is usually selected over log jams.

As water levels recede through the summer, fish are forced into pockets of deeper water with rock riffles, log snags and cut-banks. The fish congregate into schools and become more vulnerable. Rocky habitat is preferred. A deep hole above a riffle is sure to hold fish. A cut-bank is also selected, especially if it contains an assortment of 2 to 3 feet in diameter boulders located in several feet of water.

As fall approaches, smallmouth bass remain close to prime habitat structures. Most of these areas are similar to summer haunts. Due to lower sunlight intensity and cooler water temperature, the fish will often be found in shallow water. The exception will be during the occasional wet fall when water levels are abnormally high. Bass will disperse more during these times.

Lakes
About a half-dozen Iowa lakes consistently yield catches of smallmouths. Spirit Lake and West Lake Okoboji have the best populations and provide good opportunities for large fish.

Most lake smallmouth bass are caught during early spring or late fall. In the spring soon after ice out and while the water temperature warms, smallmouth move from deep to shallow water. This usually occurs between mid-April and mid-May. Bass inhabit the rocky points and flat rocky areas that will soon serve as their spawning sites. During this pre-spawn period, fish are most often found in 4 to 12 feet of water.

Weather conditions in pre-spawn have some impact on fishing success, but probably not as severe as in the summer. Smallmouths inhabit the shallows even during inclement weather as they "feed up" in preparation for spawning. Severe wind blowing over spawning shoals will force smallmouths into deep water, making them more difficult to locate.

On bright days, smallmouths are reluctant to move into the shallows, except in early morning and evening. The fish will linger close by in mid-day and usually can be found by fishing several feet deeper.

During summer, smallmouths disperse and are much more difficult to locate. Fishing pressure is usually targeted toward other species during this period, with angling interest in smallmouth renewed in the fall. Some persistent anglers are able to locate smallmouth bass even in hot weather by carefully working submerged rock reefs that maintain some vegetation, often using live bait. Smallmouths inhabit eight to ten feet of water on the top of the reef, particularly in low light periods. If the fish are not near the reef, fish the drop-offs where the depth increases quickly to 20 feet or more. Soft-shelled crayfish are one of the favorite baits in summer, fished on a number-8 hook and using just enough weight to carry the bait to the bottom.

Equipment

Smallmouth bass are caught with a variety of tackle ranging from simple to complex. A light or medium-light action spinning rod paired with and “open-faced” reel is the most common tackle combination for “smallies”. It allows casting of light baits, but provides a good drag system and rod with some “backbone” for handling larger smallmouth. Use 2 to 6 lb. test line. Monofilament line is the standby for smallmouth fishing, but fluorocarbon leaders are a great option for these sight feeders. Braided lines are preferred by some, especially if jig fishing or in areas with abundant snags. Some smallmouth anglers prefer a light baitcast combination when fishing bigger water and using bigger baits because of the superior drag system and ability to “thumb” the bait. A few anglers use fly-fishing tackle to pursue smallmouth bass. Most fly anglers will use around a 5 or 6 –weight rod tipped with 6X up to 3X line.

Baits & Lures
Stream Fishing
Time of year and conditions dramatically affect smallmouth feeding behavior. In one Iowa study of smallmouth fishing the following feeding behavior observations were made. "There was a period of several weeks following spawning when bass readily took lures. Many adult males seemed to retain their nest-defending trait and struck lures retrieved close to them. Smallmouths were least susceptible to angling between mid-June and mid-July following spawning and post-spawning, and the extreme clarity of the water seemed to induce adult smallmouth to concentrate into the larger and deeper pools. Schooling was first observed in mid-July. Smallmouth schooled as a species and with quillbacks, river carpsuckers and white suckers. Large bass tended to school with the larger suckers. Smallmouth showed little fear when schooled and often allowed anglers to wade within 20 feet of the schools. They were highly susceptible to angling when schooled."

In spring, minnows and shiners are numerous and are the favorite food choices. As early summer approaches, crayfish become abundant and a preferred food, especially in shallow rock riffle habitat. As summer progresses and crayfish numbers decline, smallmouth must again rely heavily on the more available minnows. Interspersed throughout this feeding pattern are periods of increased aquatic and terrestrial insect foraging, especially at peak insect hatches.

Prior to the spawn and later in post-spawn, when bass again resume active feeding, lures that resemble minnows are most effective. Single blade spinners work well, as do leadheads and shallow running minnow-shaped crankbaits. Size preference of a food item for smallmouth is smaller than for its relative, the largemouth bass. Use No. 0 through No. 2 size spinners, 2-5 inch long crankbaits or 1/16 – ¼ ounce leadheads.

During mid-June to mid-August, when crayfish are abundant, lures that mimic this crustacean are the top choice. Water levels are lower during this period and the fish are more concentrated, relying on the deeper holes around riffles and cut-banks. Crayfish colored crankbaits, especially those that resemble both the color and action, will usually yield fast action. Crankbaits that hug the bottom, bouncing off rocks, or stir up a small cloud of silt can trigger a response from a hungry smallmouth. Leadheads rigged with soft plastics in crayfish colors also work well, especially fished in an erratic motion by raising and lowering the rod tip.

In late summer and early fall, after the crayfish population is depleted, minnow imitating lures are again the top producer. Leadheads rigged with soft plastics work well, particularly the soft-bodied twister tail variety in white, yellow, or chartreuse. These lures allow the angler to work the bottoms of the deepest pools where smallmouth seek protection from sunlight.

Smallmouths appear to be more active surface feeders as mid-summer approaches and water levels recede. At this time there are many species of terrestrial insects common to the adjacent terrain that wind up struggling for freedom on the surface. Heavy hatches trigger increased surface activity as bass feed actively on these easily-caught prey.

Natural baits, such as crawfish, minnows, hellgrammites and night crawlers can trigger a response when all else fails. Threaded on a No. 6 or 8 hook and weighted by a small split shot, these baits can be cast or drifted into the deeper holes with little difficulty. When a smallmouth picks up a crawdad, the first impulse is to immediately set the hook. This action usually results in rebaiting for another try. Smallmouths normally carry the prey for a short distance in their jaws prior to ingestion. Patiently waiting for the fish to stop its run, then reeling up the slack and setting the hook yield much better results.

Lake Fishing
Smallmouth feed ravenously during pre-spawn. Cast and retrieve leadheads along the rocky shoreline and points. Since the water depths fished are relatively shallow, lightweight jigs of one-eighth to one-quarter ounce are best. Many smallmouth anglers prefer hair or marabou dressed jigs this time of year in white, blue, purple and combinations of these colors. Anglers often tie their own leadheads to get the favored combination.

The other leadhead dressing often used in pre-spawn is a plastic body twister. Colors in purple, yellow, and white are preferred. With either the hair jig or the twister, the hook can be tipped with a minnow without affecting the action, and it will often result in better fishing success.

While leadhead presentation is important at all times, when the water temperature is 48 to 55 degrees F, the colder temperatures affect the reaction time of a fish to a lure. Slow retrieves with a pumping motion so the jig bounces along the rocky shoreline habitat will improve your chances of catching a smallmouth.

Toward the end of pre-spawn, small crankbaits will provide action. The 2-inch size lure is preferred because smallmouths select relatively small-sized food items. Crayfish colored crankbaits work best, particularly on the numerous rocky land points in West Lake Okoboji.

A crankbait is one of the best lures for summer fishing; those resembling the color, size and action of a crayfish are preferred. When using crankbaits in water deeper than 10 to 12 feet, a split shot may be placed in front of the lure to make it run deep.

Fall is one of the best fishing periods for smallmouth bass. The fish are closely associated with shallow rock reefs in 10 to 15 feet of depth. Crankbaits are still the preferred lure, but they must be deep-diving models. Leadheads run a close second, and should be tipped with a minnow this time of year. Minnow shaped plugs that imitate bait-fish are the third choice for fall smallmouth.

Angling Tips

The large watersheds of most Iowa smallmouth streams can cause rapid deterioration of water clarity after heavy rainfall. Spinner-baits or rattling crankbaits are the best lures to use when turbidity limits clarity to 6-inches or less. Another option when fishing turbid water conditions is to use lures of colors most easily seen under low light conditions. Best colors include chartreuse, brown, and black or lures with silver or gold reflecting flakes.

In hot weather during July and August, smaller fish will often be active in one to two feet of depth immediately above and below rock riffles. Larger bass will more often frequent structures extending into deep holes. Crankbaits that hug the bottom in four to five feet of water or leadheads bounced along the bottom work best to catch quality-sized fish.

In spring and fall, with cooler water temperatures and decreased intensity of the sun, even larger bass will be found near shallow structures. Spinner-baits, which ordinarily are fished only one or two feet below the surface, become very effective in these conditions. Shallow-running minnow type crankbaits are also good.

Weather conditions have some effect on how actively smallmouths react to a lure presentation. As a cold front approaches, bass often become extremely active. They can be very non-selective in feeding and will strike at almost any lure presented. Once the front settles in, the fish retreat deeper into structure. During this period, accurate lure presentation becomes of utmost importance in coaxing a fish to strike. Lures must be placed extremely close to the fish, yet not so close that the fish will be spooked.

Smallmouths will readily pursue surface presentations, especially in the early morning and late evening. The cast must be made past the spot suspected of holding a fish and retrieved through that location. The best locations are behind large boulders or on the edge of a quiet pool adjacent to a riffle. Experimentation is necessary to determine whether a continuous retrieve or a crank-and-pause method will be most successful.