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Going Deep For Fall Smallies

By Craig Ritchie - November 2, 2020
November is a hard time for anglers in the Midwest, because it seems like its prime time for just about everything. With the clock ticking down before winter's ice brings open-water fishing to an end, muskie action is peaking, walleye action is peaking, and of course it's prime time to stream fish for steelhead. But one thing I always make time for on my calendar is going deep for smallmouth, because it's some of the best action of the year.

Smallmouth spend their winters in deep water where they gather in tremendous numbers. Yet right before the water turn solid, they still need to pack away a few more meals to tide them over through the frosty winter months. Find these fish, and you can really hit pay dirt.

Finding Fish

Look for smallmouth to concentrate on fast-breaking rock shorelines and along offshore shoals where the depth drops rapidly into very deep water. You're looking for spots in the 20- to 50-foot range where the bottom is largely composed of rocks of different sizes - expanses of shield rock, or gravel fields with uniformly-sized pebbles, are not what you want. The ideal locations will have rocks ranging in size from a toaster to a Volkswagen - bottoms that attract a wide range of prey, and provide smallmouth with a bit of concealment as they hunt.
If you're not sure where to fish, spend some time examining a hydrographic chart of the lake and waypoint likely-looking spots. Then scan them with your sonar once you're out on the water. Late fall smallmouth fishing is all about finding the fish, since about 95 percent of the bass will be in perhaps 5 percent of the water. At first, you're probably going to do more driving than fishing. But at some point that sonar screen will light up, and that's when you want to get to it. The good news is that smallmouth tend to use the same locations every year, so once you do find some good spots that hold fish, they will usually produce over and over for years to come.

Tube Time

Smallmouth in their late fall locations aren't going to chase fast-moving baits, so it's an ideal time to break out the tube jigs.

In early November before things get really cold, the spiraling action of a tube fished on a simple, lightweight jig head can really work magic. If there's a key, it's to fish slowly and gently, lifting the bait by two or three feet then allowing it to drop on a slack line to bottom. Let it sit for a minute - or more - before you move it again. Use the lightest head you can get away with, and be patient.

Tubes work well when fished vertically over structure that you know holds fish, but they work even better when they're dragged behind the boat - either drifting with the breeze, or using the electric to glide slowly along. There's something about the subtle, spiraling action of a tube that pushes smallmouth to hit, even though these baits have been in widespread use for decades.

I prefer smaller tubes for late fall smallmouth, with the 3.5-inch Berkley Power Tube still a favorite. Even smaller 2.5-inch baits can sometimes work even better, especially on lakes with lots of fishing pressure.

Berkley Power Tube
I prefer smaller tubes for late fall smallmouth, with the 3.5-inch Berkley Power Tube still a favorite.

Thanks For Dropping By

As the water cools and smallmouth slow down further, tubes stop producing. That's when it's time to go super-slow with dropshot rigs.

The trick with a dropshot rig is to fish dead slow. When bass are in a neutral or inactive state, dead-sticking works best. As in literally putting the rod down on the boat deck and watching the tip for signs of a pick-up.

When fishing pressure is high, you'll have more success by getting the bait away from the boat. Drifting in the wind, or using the electric motor to gently glide the boat forward slowly with the bait a long cast behind it - and sometimes as much as 100 feet or more behind the boat - can produce bites when fish are otherwise shying away.

There are a wide range of soft plastic baits designed for drop shotting on the market these days, but it's still hard to beat the original Slammer developed many years ago by Canadian tournament pro Mark Kulik. Now produced by X Zone Lures, the 3.25-inch Slammer hooked through the nose on a light no. 2 Gamakatsu Drop Shot hook remains very tough to beat, to the point there are times when it still even beats live bait.

When drop shotting, experiment with the dropper line for your weight, trying lengths from 18 to 36 inches to see what works best on a given day. I prefer pencil-shaped weights like the VMC type over the more traditional teardrop weights or actual shot, as they seem to hang up less on those uneven rock bottoms than other styles.

XZone Finesse Slammer
It's hard to beat the original Slammer developed many years ago by Canadian tournament pro Mark Kulik.

Keep It Simple

I like to fish both tubes and drop shot rigs on a medium-light spinning outfit. Pros use 6-poound fluorocarbon almost exclusively, being practically invisible to the fish and because of its more neutral buoyancy than monofilament, allowing a more natural presentation. If you don't want to re-spool your reel with pricey fluoro for only one or two trips a year, you can simply use a 10- to 15-foot leader of the stuff tied to your main line. After all, a big part of the joy of late season smallmouth is the sheer simplicity of it.

November is a tough month, with action heating up for just about everything. But a day spent chasing big fall smallies is always rewarding, which is why so many anglers make a point of getting out at least a couple of times while they can. Try it once and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Gear Used

Author Craig Ritchie
Craig Ritchie
Over a near 40-year career as a full-time outdoor writer, Craig Ritchie has fished all over the globe for a variety of freshwater and saltwater species. The author of The Complete Guide To Getting Started In Fishing, he has written thousands of articles for magazines, websites and newspapers worldwide, appeared as a guest on several television fishing programs and won numerous awards for his writing and photography. He lives in the Great Lakes region where great fishing is as close as his own back yard.
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