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3 Tips for Catching Trophy Smallmouth Bass

Cody Rubner knows a thing or two about bass fishing. As a competitive angler for the University of Maine, Cody competes in bass tournaments around the country. After finishing 2nd and 3rd in the All-Tackle and Fly Fishing divisions of the Cheeky InstaBass Classic this fall, Cody shared some of his expert insights into how he finds success targeting lunker smallmouths.

3 Tips for Catching Trophy Smallmouth Bass

What I learned fishing the Cheeky InstaBass Classic

By Cody Rubner

With the incredible array of waterways teeming with smallmouth within driving distance of my Maine residence, I felt confident in my abilities to make some waves when I heard about the launch of Cheeky Fishing’s bronzeback-focused “InstaBass Classic”. The premise of the contest was simple: it was an online, Instagram-based smallmouth bass tournament in which the longest smallmouth won big. While I had caught some quality smallmouth over the past couple years in my area, I knew I had to put in my time with Google Earth to find the proper spot to apply my efforts. My plan was specific - the water temperatures were cooling and bait were beginning to funnel out of the headponds down different stretches of the river. It took some time on the water, but I ended up finding a couple of locations STACKED top to bottom with my targets. The resulting fishing experiences were unforgettable (catching over 100 fish by myself over 4 cumulative hours of fishing one day) and I took 2nd and 3rd place in the All-Tackle and Fly Fishing divisions, respectively. Here are 3 things I learned from my time competing in Cheeky’s IBC:

1.) Location, location, location

This may sound obvious but honestly it’s as close to crucial as any detailed aspect of bass fishing can be. To catch fish, you need to find fish. This is especially true during the fall season, as bass will congregate wherever the bait is. If you can’t get yourself into this zone, you are diminishing your effectiveness as a fisherman.

Kayaks are stealthy and shallow, providing easy access to many fishing holes

I utilized my Old Town Predator MX daily in my pursuits of a trophy worthy fish. One of the biggest advantages was the ability to hold myself off the riverbank casting upstream at my target structure of choice. Any bait moving downstream is going to follow the stronger flow lines down river and big time smallmouth bass understand this. They will position themselves accordingly to make sure they have first dibs on whatever small, silver meals drift by them aimlessly. I simply couldn’t reach these key flow lines from shore, so the Predator MX was packed up daily with all the necessities.

2.) Just because you caught fish there in the summer, doesn't mean they'll be there in the fall

It took me awhile to establish the pattern that really got me rolling for the month and this was mainly due to the fact that I had made way to many assumptions before I even got to the water. After all, I knew of some prime summertime smallmouth spots on this stretch – they would obviously still be stacked up on those rock piles! Right? But after a couple trips, including a pair of skunks I made the decision to head back to the drawing board. I packed up the kayak and hit the water the following day and paddled around for a while without fishing. Utilizing my ability to stand up in my Predator MX and a pair of polarized Costa Sunglasses, some movement caught my eye. I saw a pair of Smallies scatter as my kayak went over the bank - one of which was quality in size. I never would have thought to fish this section because it simply didn’t look productive to me. I realized at that moment what the determining factor was for these fish – dissolved oxygen. Dissolved oxygen is very important for an aquatic environment; it supports ecological growth and sustains aquatic life, including vegetation and baitfish. With the seasonally dry weather and warmer water temperatures, the smallies were seeking out pockets of water where there was a healthy abundance of dissolved oxygen. I spent awhile fishing the area and crushed it – thick, healthy smallmouth cast after cast. The fishing was so fruitful that I even switched over to swinging the fly rod around for a while. 

Smallmouth seek out pockets of dissolved oxygens in rivers

So why was this new spot apparently teeming with life? During the day, aquatic vegetation produces more substantial oxygen into their environment, thus providing a dissolved oxygen source for local organisms, including fish. This is especially important in later summer and early fall, when oxygen is in higher demand for organisms with seasonally increased metabolisms. I spent a majority of the following week searching for and targeting isolated vegetation stretches.

3.) Be strategic with bait choices 

The cliché of “matching the hatch” exists for a reason. This can take time, but if you put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and start some detective work, you should be able to piece together the clues. To aid in this process, know what baitfish are present in the water you’re fishing before you launch! It will give you more confidence in your initial approach. Once you get into a bite, you’ll start to gather more information to base future decisions off of. Personally, I knew the stock of fishing I was on were feeding on heavily concentrated schools of young-of-the-year (YOY) alewives. Once I got the school feeding, I tried to match the hatch by throwing small spinner baits and jigs, as well as smaller sized color-appropriate soft plastics. I was able to trigger some fish with the fly rod using a golden retriever and a small epoxy smelt fly, using a very small split-shot weight to help get my set up down in higher-current areas. The right fishing patterns were producing solid fish, but once I felt I had worked a school pretty hard with one or two consistent baits, I would choose to go big. The way I see it, you’ve got some guys on base and it’s now time to swing for the fences. If you have a school of smallmouth triggered, you’ll be able to spark most of the smaller fish into biting but it may take the bigger-meal presentation to inspire the biggest class of fish in the school to bite. After all, the act of feeding for all animals is related to return on investment. They think, “if I invest energy to track down this meal, it better be a high calorie return”.

"Matching the hatch" is not just a fly fishing adage

My method of attack for the big dogs was dragging a thick 6.5” shad-colored swimbait along the bottom, with a pair of bullet weights in front of the screwlock hook to clack together and make commotion. I found if that I could maintain a tempo that kept that swimbait tail moving while barely maintaining bottom contact over time the one I was looking for would take her chance at the dinner buffet. In some of the river stretches with heavier flows, I utilized a typically saltwater-utilized craw bait to maintain bottom contact while offering a meaty big-fish presentation. Regardless of lure choice, fish methodically with your big fish tactic! If there’s a bigger fish in that school, chances are they’re not going to be the easiest to trick, but if you take your time you’ll be posting trophy worthy fish before you know it!

About Cody: Cody is a student at the University of Maine Orono, where he studies Marine Science.