Where to Find Them
Equipment
Baits & Lures
Angling Tips
Smallmouth Bass Fact Sheet

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 favorite species for many Iowans, can be found close to home in the local stream or river. The top predator in many Iowa rivers, 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 usually found in free-flowing sections of streams and rivers with riffle-pool habitat and a moderate to high amounts 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, before spawning, the water temperature is usually 40 to 50 degrees F. Water levels are normally high this time of year, letting bass move freely and scatter from winter habitats. During high flows, find fish close to large boulders, fallen tree snags and undercut banks that divert strong currents and create loafing habitat for smallmouth. Forage species also live in these areas, making it easy for bass to eat without having to work against the strong current.

In mid- to late April, smallmouth start to move toward traditional spawning sites where the males build 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 speed. Smallmouth may use sandy substrates for spawning, but prefer rock and gravel. In smaller streams, spawning often takes place in the mainstream itself. Immediately before spawning, both sexes easily take lures as their pre-spawn need to eat often reduces caution. As spawning approaches, the males form nests and territories; they are very vulnerable to angling at this time.

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

Where smallmouths move to after spawning is mostlyl dependent upon stream-water levels. High flows let fish use habitat too shallow or dry in low flow periods. Smallmouths scatter and use rocky and log-fall habitat with two or more feet of water. Rocky habitat is usually picked 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 gather 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 chosen, especially if it has an assortment of 2 to 3 feet in diameter boulders found in several feet of water.

As fall approaches, smallmouth bass stay close to key habitat structures. Most of these areas are similar to summer haunts. With lower sunlight strength and cooler water temperature, the fish are often found in shallow water. The exception is during the occasional wet fall when water levels are unusually high. Bass will scatter more during these times.

Lakes
About a half-dozen Iowa lakes consistently have 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 in early spring or late fall. Soon after ice out in the spring and while the water temperature warms, smallmouth move from deep to shallow water. This usually happens between mid-April and mid-May. Bass live in the rocky points and flat rocky areas that will soon be their spawning sites. During this pre-spawn period, find fish in 4 to 12 feet of water.

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

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

During summer, smallmouths scatter and are harder to find. Fishing activity is usually targeted toward other species during this period, with angling interest in smallmouth renewed in the fall. Some persistent anglers can find smallmouth bass even in hot weather by carefully working submerged rock reefs that keep some vegetation, often using live bait. Smallmouths live in eight to ten feet of water on the top of the reef, mainly in low light times. 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 with just enough weight to carry the bait to the bottom.

Equipment
A variety of tackle, ranging from simple to complex, can catch smallmouth bass. A light or medium-light action spinning rod with an “open-faced” reel is the most common tackle combination for “smallies”. It lets you cast 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 many 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 use around a 5 or 6 –weight rod tipped with 6X up to 3X line.

Baits & Lures
Stream Fishing
Time of year and conditions affect smallmouth feeding behavior. In one Iowa study of smallmouth fishing the following feeding behavior observations were made. "There were many weeks after spawning when bass easily took lures. Many adult males seem to keep their nest-defending trait and strike lures retrieved close to them. Smallmouths were least vulnerable to angling between mid-June and mid-July after spawning and post-spawning, and the extreme clarity of the water seemed to make adult smallmouth gather into larger and deeper pools. Schooling was first seen 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 let anglers 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 are 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. Spread throughout this feeding pattern are times of increased aquatic and terrestrial insect foraging, especially at peak insect hatches.

Before the spawn and later in post-spawn, when bass again start to feed actively, lures that look like minnows work best. 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 and the fish are more in groups, relying on the deeper holes around riffles and cut-banks. Crayfish colored crankbaits, especially those that are similar to the color and action, will usually get fast action. Crankbaits that hug the bottom, bouncing off rocks, or stir up a small cloud of silt can trigger a bite 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 down, 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 let the angler work the bottoms of the deepest pools where smallmouth seek shelter from sunlight.

Smallmouths seem to be more active surface feeders in mid-summer and water levels recede. There are many species of terrestrial insects common to the nearby land that struggle for freedom on the surface. Heavy hatches start increased surface activity as bass feed actively on these easily-caught prey.

Natural baits, such as crawfish, minnows, hellgrammites and nightcrawlers can trigger a bite when all else fails. Threaded on a No. 6 or 8 hook and weighted by a small split shot, you can cast or drift these baits into the deeper holes with little trouble. When a smallmouth picks up a crawdad, the first impulse is to immediately set the hook. This usually results in rebaiting for another try. Smallmouths usually carry their prey for a short distance in their jaws before eating it. Patiently wait for the fish to stop its run, reel up the slack and set the hook.

Lake Fishing
Smallmouth feed hungrily 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 work best. Many smallmouth anglers use 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. Try colors in purple, yellow, and white. You can tip the hook of the hair jig or the twister with a minnow without affecting the action.

While leadhead presentation is important at all times, when the water temperature is 48 to 55 degrees F, the colder temperatures affect how quickly the fish reacts 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 work well. The 2-inch size lure is preferred because smallmouths like fairly 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 similar to the color, size and action of a crayfish work best. When using crankbaits in water deeper than 10 to 12 feet, place a split shot in front of the lure to make it run deep.

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

Angling Tips
The large watersheds of most Iowa smallmouth streams can cause fast drops of water clarity after heavy rainfall. Spinner-baits or rattling crankbaits work best when turbidity limits clarity to 6-inches or less. Lures of colors most easily seen under low light conditions are another option when fishing turbid water 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 are often active in one to two feet of water above and below rock riffles. Larger bass will more often go to structures that extend 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 reduced intensity of the sun, even larger bass will be near shallow structures. Spinner-baits, usually fished only one or two feet below the surface, work well 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. Bass often become very active when a cold front approaches. They can be very non-selective in feeding and will strike at almost any lure. Once the front settles in, the fish hide deeper into structure. Accurate lure presentation is important to lure a fish to strike. Place lures very close to the fish, but not so close that you spook the fish.

Smallmouths easily chase surface presentations, especially in the early morning and late evening. Cast past the spot suspected of holding a fish and retrieve through that location. Look behind large boulders or on the edge of a quiet pool next to a riffle. Experiment to decide if a continuous retrieve or a crank-and-pause method works best.