Reefin’ Summer Smallies

By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Ted Takasaki with a bruiser smallmouth bass caught on a Lindy X-Change Jig and plastic grub. Find and stay on smallie action this summer by following the formula laid out by top guide Jim DaRosa. The action can be hotter than the weather!

Other fish might fight better, pound-for-pound, than smallmouth bass. 

We just don’t know of many.

They’re like copper-colored missiles shooting from the water when they’re hooked. It’s a blast catching smallies with a medium-light St. Croix rod and Ardent S2500 spinning reel.

Finding smallmouth isn’t usually rocket science either. All that’s needed is knowledge of what makes smallmouths tick and a willingness to keep moving until you connect. You’ll know when that happens. With smallmouths, it’s often a case of find one, find 50 or more.

They’re so much fun that outdoor radio personality Jim DaRosa spends summers guiding clients on Mille Lacs near Brainerd, Minn., to smallmouth bass in a world where most anglers target 50-inch muskies and 8-pound walleyes.

“When you get a 6-pounder blowing up on top, there is nothing like it,” he says. DaRosa’s simple formula to find smallmouth bass has three main ingredients.

“They need the deep water, cover and food source,” he said. Deep water nearby offers smallmouth an escape when hungry muskies show up looking for a meal of bass.

Cover is often composed of boulders, maybe even weeds, which most anglers associate with largemouth bass. Cover gives smallies a place to hide from predators and a vantage point to ambush prey.

The smallmouth’s menu ranges from crawdads, which crawl around the rocks, to young-of-the-year fish of all kinds. Bug hatches provide a main course at certain times of the season.

The smallmouth’s world perks up when water temperatures reach 50-55 degrees F in spring. They begin to gather to spawn on sandy, gravelly hard-bottom shoreline-related structures like reefs and points.

Timing of season openers in northern waters is delayed to protect adult fish while they reproduce. Smallies usually become fair game after the water temperature is 60 degrees F or above. Fish are done laying their eggs. But, they don’t necessarily move too far away from spawning areas.

“They’ll stay there all summer long,” says DaRosa, “as long as they have everything they need to be happy.”

Schools of bass also move away from the shoreline as the season progresses and the temperatures rise in the shallows. They find offshore humps and islands just like walleyes. In fact, you’ll often find smallmouth bass in the same areas as walleyes from June through the remainder of the summer. Smallmouths tend to be the shallower of the two species. The exception comes when a breeze disturbs the surface enough to cut the glare of sunlight and allows walleyes to hunt the tops of humps or along shallow, wind-beaten shorelines. In that case, the bass may get displaced to deeper water.

DaRosa has targeted smallmouths with topwater baits even when waves are a foot-and-a-half high. But if the wind gets too strong, DaRosa and his low-profile bass boat stay home. He could switch to a higher-sided boat, but that style is harder to control in wind and boat control is key to success, he said.

While most people focus on rocks, DaRosa thinks mud is an untapped smallie location. He’s using his Humminbird side-imaging sonar to search the soft-bottomed flats for the odd boulder or isolated rock pile that can harbor bass. His record is nine fish caught from a single boulder no bigger than the hood of a car. Find a spot like that, mark it on the GPS, and smallmouths will be there day after day.

Smallie metabolism increases with water temperature. Early in the season, DaRosa said, bug hatches augment other available food. As summer progresses, food sources deplete and the fish become more aggressive. The mid to late summer bites are great. Fast presentations work well. But, last year was an exception. Temperatures stayed unusually cool in the northern Midwest. Fish metabolism never rose. Smallmouths and other predators stayed fairly neutral to negative all season long. Having a slow approach in the bag of tricks was critical.

For DaRosa, “fast” translates to topwaters like the Pop R and Zara Spook. A propeller, a rattle, something with a design that creates noise when jerked through the water – it’s all good. Make sure everyone uses something a little different to start, whether profile, size or color. Let the fish tell you what they want that day.

“From late July on, a little bit of noise and they’ll charge from the bottom. Sometimes two or three will hit the same lure. Hook one and several will often follow it to the boat,” he said.

Sight fishing and staying mobile are the keys for finding fish on larger rock structures. A reef can be huge. DaRosa likens schools of smallies to herds of cattle that graze from one area to another. As a guide who’s on the water nearly every day, DaRosa is able to stay on the fish from day to day. But weekenders must move fast to locate the right spot for that day. Don’t be shy with the foot pedal on the trolling motor. Keep moving until a tattletale smallmouth lets you know where others may be.

“Slow” means jigs in smallmouth parlance. Swim a Lindy X-Change Jig weighing in at about ? ounce and a 3- to 4-inch YUM plastic grub in crawdad-mimicking pumpkin colors over rocks in 4-5 feet of water. Tube jigs, stick baits, and jerk shad style baits work, too. Super braid line of 8-pound strength and 2-pound diameter on a St. Croix medium spinning rod are best. It’s simple fishing, but highly effective.

Try dropping the jig back or switch to monofilament if you get short strikes. The mono stretches to allow fish to hold it longer than the no-stretch braid so you can set the hook.

Exceptions to the rock scenario occur in spring and later in fall when targeting weeds can be productive. Though weeds hold more walleyes and largemouth bass, smallmouth will hunt the same foods. Especially in fall, DaRosa tries the vegetation when he sees perch fishermen move to shallow water. Spinnerbaits work then.

Listen to DaRosa and his co-hosts Don Dziedzina and Ray Ludkevicz on several stations in the Chicago area or 24/7 at Contact DaRosa’s guide service at

Take a trip to target smallmouth bass this summer. But be sure to get ready for liftoff. 

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