Lighten Up for Northern Smallmouth
Back in 2010 I learned a very important lesson about fishing for northern smallmouth. I say “northern” smallmouth because I do not profess to be any kind of expert on smallmouth south of Lakes Erie and Oneida, but I suspect the same lesson applies.
It was 2010 and I was fishing the Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Champlain. In practice I had found a few groups of quality smallmouth, in 12 to 20 feet of water, that were ready and willing to bite a football jig. At the time I was new to Dobyns Rods and only had a few models. I was throwing the football jig on another brand, a 7-foot heavy action that I had used with success on largemouth also with a football jig. But we all know that old adage, “A smallmouth ain’t a largemouth.”
While the fish were willing to bite in practice, I struggled to consistently put them in the boat. It was practice so I was not necessarily trying to hook every fish, but the few that I did want to hook and land (to check size) seemed to come off too easily. Just when I had had enough, a northern pike ate my jig and jumped off. Pike very rarely jump off in my experience.
Some anglers might have thought that increasing the stiffness in the rod might be the trick to driving the hook home, but I was not so sure. I was already using a pretty stiff rod. So I changed rods to a Dobyns Savvy (now Sierra) 733; a model 3 inches longer and medium-heavy, with a much more parabolic action. I didn’t lose a fish the rest of that event and placed high in the money.
My reasoning for going to the softer rod had two components. First, northern smallmouth pull hard, very hard. They usually live in current or heavy waves (sometimes both) and as a result grow very strong. We call them “freshwater tuna” for the tenacity and style with which they fight. As a result, a rod that does not absorb the blows of this hard pulling fish can easily tear a large hole from the hook in the fishes mouth, causing it to get off easier. Similarly, a rod that does not bend easily or in a parabolic fashion, will more quickly lose tension in the line when the fish jumps (and smallies love to jump) or surges hard close to the boat. Lost tension too often means lost fish.
I learned a similar lesson several years ago while running a guided trip on Lake St. Clair. Most of my clients up north prefer spinning rods and we were catching smallies on light swimbaits. My clients were using the Savvy 703 spinning rod and landing some fish, but in my mind too many were getting off. I had the client switch over to the 702 model and his landing rate went up significantly. Because we were using braid to a fluorocarbon leader, we were still able to get a good hook set, but the 702 model better absorbed the jumping and pulling smallmouth, and resulted in more fish in the boat, especially the bigger ones.
The other thing I have noticed about northern smallmouth, especially the bigger ones, is that their mouths are super tough. A light wire hook will actually allow you to land more fish, because you will get better penetration in the muscular jaw of a trophy smallmouth. Too heavy of a rod
will bend the light wire, causing more fish lost. As Kevin Vandam discussed in his first book, your rod, reel, line, and hook are a system. They all work together.
Now a quick caveat. I am not saying that a medium or even medium heavy spinning rod is never an appropriate choice. For instance, in super heavy current (think mouth of the Detroit River or parts of the St. Lawrence), I will go to a medium action because there is so much bow in the line with the current pushing it around. A medium action will help get a better hook set and keep control of the fish in the heavy current. I also adjust the drag as soon as I hook up and/or back reel more to compensate. The same goes for heavier baits, like a spinnerbait, but I still use a rod like the Sierra 734 (heavy) because of its parabolic bend.
These days the Fury and Sierra, 733 baitcasting rods and 702 spinning rods see 90% of the work with my clients. The Kaden 743 and 712 are starting to see some significant use as well. These 3-power action baitcasting rods and 2-power action spinning rods simply put the smallmouth in the boat at a better rate than other actions. I would estimate my landing rate somewhere between 90 and 95% on most days with these rods and with clients of all experience levels. Even for my personal use, I stick with these models but in the premium Champion or Champion Extreme versions, although I never hesitate to pick up the Sierras.
Bottom line, if you want to improve your landing rate with big smallmouth, don’t be afraid to try lighter action models of rods, paired with lighter wire hooks. If you want to talk more fishing message me using Facbook @ryansaidfish, Instagram @ryansaid19 or youtube.com/c/ryansaid19.
Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, as well as many of Michigan's inland lakes. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is beginning its ninth season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa (now Toyota) Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and "on the water" instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is a frequent contributor to iBass360 and is pro staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish