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Borderline Bronzebacks

By Brian Athern - July 1, 2000
The rhythm of the jigs soft pop-flutter was interrupted by a violent THUMP! That's when all h-e double hockey sticks broke loose. What began as a tug of war in strength soon progressed into an aerial display of grace and athern07_01.jpg beauty. Canada would not deny me on this cast though, finally surrendering a gorgeous 18 1/ 4 inch smallmouth bass for a few photos. My partner, Frank, profiled the fish well in several shots for my album and then I was rewarded with returning the favor and releasing the fighter.Someone else would tangle with that stocky bronzed warrior another day.

Thus begins the time of year that many savvy smallmouth bass enthusiasts live for in the northwoods. For it is in the month of June that nature urges these great sport fish to go shallow and expose themselves for the rigors of the spawn. Nature's call is a double-edged sword, bringing smallies into casting range also.

Whether you're fishing Lake of the Woods, the U.P.'s Bays de Noc, Leech Lake, northern Wisconsin with MidWest Outdoor's Mike Mladenik, or the smallmouth bass capital of North America on Rainy Lake, a few tips will catch fish everywhere. Using tools for search and find and then picking an area apart thereafter pays huge dividends in both inches and pounds.

First, establish your game plan by targeting high percentage areas like wind sheltered bays and flats.

The rhythm of the jigs soft pop-flutter was interrupted by a violent THUMP! That's when all h-e double hockey sticks broke loose.
Ones that have water averaging 2-10 feet are excellent choices. Access to deeper water near by only ups the ante on these places. These areas should include fist to pea sized gravel and rock with or without a sandy bottom. Weeds are a plus but not always a necessary added cover. Transition areas that feature all of the above should be given special attention as they highlight the ideal situation.

Once the game plan is established it's on to the plan of attack. For my partners and myself, that typically includes the use of two different types of "search" lures. If wind is present, that dictates a spinner bait and a crankbait. In the absence of wind, a buzzbait and a jerkbait. On both the U.P. and Rainy Lake's waters, the crankbait was more than adequate at locating fish. Color patterns like perch, silver/black, firetiger, athern07_02.jpg blue/chrome, and blue/chatruse produced the best. Good spinner and buzzbait selections are white, chartruse, firetiger, and contrasting black patterns. Once these lures performed their job, it became ours to dissect that given area.

When search mode transitions into found, it's time to switch rod and reel combos and downshift gears. At this point, I get the chance to exploit my methodical side. Arguably most smallmouth anglers bread and butter, we begin throwing lead and plastic at them. Sizes ranging from 1/16 up to 1/ 4 ounce are best opting for the lightest jig possible for the conditions. By varying the retrieve speed, success will be measured one cast at a time.

For this work, a 6 - 7 foot light-medium/light spinning combo is chosen. A rod with some back bone, yet with a light tip is best. Line choice should range within 6-8# test. Targeting rock laden areas for bruiser smallmouth is no time to skimp on line strength. A superline is an alternative, staying with a 2 pound or better diameter for best results.

Armed with your favorite spinning outfit, tie on the lead and get casting. On the business end of your presentation, some form of lead jig and plastic. Given a bronzeback's typical diet of minnows and crayfish, a few good options stand out. A tube may be employed to imitate either-or, a skirted or spider grub primarily as a crayfish fooler, or my personal favorite the twister tailed grub.

With a plethora of colors to choose from along with successes on so many of them, simple may be better. With tubes, I like to stay with a clear/smoke pattern highlighted with silvers, reds, and blues in clearer waters, allowing the tube to "absorb" some of it's back ground. Soft hues of green, pumpkin, and watermelon fill in when clear or smoke choices aren't working well. In stained waters, pearl, cotton candy, chartruse, sparkle, and motor oil patterns show up better. A variety of retrieves will catch fish, swimming,hopping, popping, shaking, or yo-yo types being the most popular ones. With these lures, an insert type tube jig, standard round head, or Texas rig/bullet sinker are the most versatile methods to fish it.

With skirted grubs stick to the same colors as your tubes, carrying a few that will fit both stained and clear water situations. Some of the most effective ways to fish a skirted grub are on a stand up or football style leadhead, dragging, hopping, or swimming them back to the boat. Around the rocks, few smallmouth baits outfish this lure.

Finally, my favorite pick of the litter; the twister tail. As with both the tube and skirted presentations, the color choices should remain simple. To prove the point, on last year's trip to Camp Narrows Lodge on Rainy Lake with Frank, we CPRed hordes of bronzebacks on over 15 different color athern07_03.jpg patterns. Over 2 dozen different jig head combinations were used also. The only constant being we stuck with 3-4 inch models, modifying 5 inch ones to suit our needs. In the shallow water conditions of June smallie fishing, 1/16 and 1/8 ounce leadheads were ideally matched. Alternating retrieves similar to the others baits, fish will be taken with this method.

The most important part of targeting smallmouth bass at this time is to remember how vulnerable the fish are. We must free those spawners to ensure future catches for our grandchildren. Bring a few cameras and highlight your trip for years to come with great memories, photos, and even a quality graphite replica of your catch. To begin your adventure, head north to some of those borderline waters and hunt for the prized bronzed warrior. It's a trip worth taking to enjoy good catching in the great outdoors!

Good Fishing!

Author Brian Athern
Brian Athern
Brian J. Athern is a Field Editor with MidWest Outdoors Magazine, Fishing Facts Magazine and has also worked with the former If you have any questions or comments regarding this article you can email Brian at [email protected]
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