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Top Five Fall Baits For Smallmouth Bass with Ben Nowak

TFO Ambassador Ben Nowak is no stranger to smallmouth fishing. Based out of Michigan, Ben hosts a YouTube channel called The Smallmouth Experience where he uploads weekly videos sharing his experiences of catching smallmouth bass, as well as helpful tips for anglers out there who want to find more success on the water.

While summer can be a fantastic time to catch smallmouth, the transition into fall is not to be overlooked for catching some serious numbers (size and quantity). While the casual, warm weather anglers are storing their boats for next summer, anglers like Ben are taking advantage of the less crowded lakes in Michigan, and finding success on migrating baitfish near the banks.

As we begin to move into fall, we decided to catch up with Ben on how he adjusts his tactics and setups for catching more fish.

Tell us about your home waters and what tends to happen as we transition into fall. What temperature fluctuations do you see, how does it effect the fishes’ behavior and location?

I spend a lot of time fishing on Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, and several other glacial bodies of waters in Michigan. Up here, the biggest thing is we are starting to get a lot colder nights. You go from the summer time where you’ll have 80 degree days with 65 degree nights, and now we’re transitioning into 60 degree days with 35-40 degree nights. As the air temps drop, this causes bait fish to push shallow and into the grass or up into the rock piles in the shallow water situations.

My favorite part of this is when the fish wish will start to move into the river mouths, and they’ll push up and congregate at the first piece of cover or structure (drop off, rock pile, or grass patch) they come to. This, to me, is when it’s the most fun, because in the summer, a lot of our fish can get really tough because they spread out a lot more. As it gets cooler, locating fish is a lot more predictable, and you can get into some serious numbers when you find that first really hard piece of structure outside of a shallow grass flat or river mouths. Typically they’re in 15 feet of water or less located next to something pretty obvious such as grass patches or boulder fields with some sort of drop off. This is where my 5 fall baits and specific TFO rods come in handy.

Swimbaits for the win on the 7’4” Medium Heavy Graphite Cranking Tactical Elite Bass. Photo: Ben Nowak

1.) Medium Diving Crank Bait (12-15 foot diving)

I’ll typically use the 7’4” Medium Heavy Graphite Cranking Tactical Elite Bass rod  – TLE LW 74CB-1, or I’ll mix in the 7’4” Medium Heavy Tactical Glass Bass -TAC GB CB 745-1 (Coming This October) depending on how the fish are reacting. The biggest thing is getting the feel for how the fish are eating the bait. I like going with graphite because it has a little bit more backbone, but the glass rod if I want to give it a little bit better before I set the hook is what I go to for that.

For both rods, I’m using 12 lb. test line. Typically, with this set up I’m targeting the medium depth rocks out in front of rivers where you tend to have some of that gravel pushing and those bait fish are kind of pushing up on that gravel. This is probably my favorite approach in the fall because you can usually catch so many fish and it’s just an awesome bite.

2.) Swimbait

 For smallmouth, I typically got with a lighter wire swimbait. A lot of anglers are going to want to throw this on a heavier rod, I’m actually throwing it on the cranking rod as well –7’4” Medium Heavy Graphite Cranking Tactical Elite Bass rod  – TLE LW 74CB-1. With the light wire hook, you’ll want something that is a bit softer, and for the fish to get the bait a lot better.

This is one of my favorite applications with this rod, because it lets the fish get the bait a little bit better. It also helps me play the fish better. Once again, I’m targeting medium depth rock with some grass.

3.) Wobble Head

I really like to throw these because it’s almost like a compliment to the crank bait – fishing it slower and close to the bottom. I’ll throw this on the 7’5” Heavy Tactical Elite Bass – TLE FS 756-1. I like this rod because it’s moderate. When the fish hit that bait, a lot of the times the fish won’t get that bait the first time they bite it, so you want to let them have the bait a little bit more. The moderate action is going to let those fish get that bait, and you’re not going to tend to lose as many fish on the wobble head. A lot of guys go with an XH (Extra Heavy). For me, a softer and more moderate rod is going to help those fish stay pinned, and have a lot more success.

4.) A Rig

I throw this on the TFO GTS Swimbait Rod 7’11” Mag Heavy. I’m typically throwing a heavy, big A Rig – I’ll throw a seven wire with five hooks and two dummies. So basically, what you’re looking at is three jig heads that are ¼ oz., 2 jigs that are 3/8oz., and two dummies that are empty, non-weighted jig heads. It’s a heavy A rig so I throw it on the 7’11. When those smallmouth hit it, they just absolutely smash it! The rod loads up well, and you can cast it forever.

5.) Finesse Tube

I don’t like to go finesse in the fall, but when I have to, I’ll go to a tube or a ned rig. A lot of the smallmouth fishing I’m doing up here is in clear water, so I want to get that bait super far away from the boat. For this scenario, I’m going with the 7’3” Medium Heavy Tactical Elite Bass spinning rod – TLE MBR S 735-1 and then a 3000 size spinning reel.

The biggest thing is getting that bait super far away, but still having enough power in the rod to drive the hook home. So that Medium Heavy is pretty important. This is about the only (and my favorite) scenario in the fall where I use a Medium Heavy rod.

 

Ben Nowak is a TFO Ambassador based out of Michigan, where he has lived his entire life. Ten years ago, he started fishing TFO when he was in college, but came back to TFO last winter with the release of the Tactical Elite Bass and Tactical Bass rods. Ben hosts a YouTube channel focusing on catching smallmouth bass. (The Smallmouth Experience). His YouTube channel is all about sharing his experiences of catching smallmouth, but to also help others to be more effective smallmouth anglers wherever these hard-fighting fish.

TFO Ambassador Bill Weidler Wins Big at St. Clair

Patience, focus, and a lot of praying paid off for TFO Ambassador Bill Weidler this past weekend.

Weidler won his first title at the YETI Bassmaster Elite Series at Lake St. Clair in Macomb County, Michigan with a four-day total of 86 pounds, 7 ounces – earning him $100,500 and nearly doubling his career earning with B.A.S.S. to $204,350.

We checked in with Bill after he had time to celebrate and found out about the big day, along with the TFO rod that helped him bring home the win.

How does it feel to win your first title?

It feels unbelievable! I’m looking forward to getting to Guntersville and try to ride this wave while it’s still going!

Had you fished St. Clair before? What helped you know how to adjust to that lake versus the lakes back home in Birmingham?

I had never fished St. Clair before. I had talked to some other anglers to get the feel and layout of the lake. I knew it was a flat bottom lake with very little contours. It was all grass driven with open areas around the grass. The key to it was finding the bare areas. If you found those, you could find fish.

I wanted to do some largemouth fishing, but I know it was going to be primarily smallmouth, so I needed to get comfortable with that. I came ready with my spinning gear and was focused on getting my drop shots far out and deep.

It so funny because some people refer to this win as a Cinderella or underdog story for me. Prior to this tournament, this year has been pretty rough. 90% of that has been attributed to mechanical and electrical problems. It was one thing after the other. I wasn’t fishing bad, I just couldn’t get four full days. I’d made sure this time to be careful with my boat/gear and not overdue it. It definitely paid off.

What TFO rods helped you at St. Clair?

The TFO Professional Walleye 7’6” Medium Light. My first event at Lake Oahe for smallmouth I was fishing a custom medium-heavy spinning rod. Every time I’d button up with a fish, I’d lose it. I talked to Jim Shulin, Sport Fishing Category Manager at TFO, about this rod and told him I needed TFO to make a similar, but longer (7’6″-7’8″) rod that would be a good for drop shots, but I also needed it to be softer. This way I would have plenty of leverage when I snap that hook set, and also the rod acts like a shock absorber for the bigger fish when they jump and shake their heads while fighting them on light line.

On the last day I went down to 6lb. line and needed a rod with a softer action and I went with the TFO Professional Walleye 7’6” Medium Light and that rod did not leave my hand!

What’s next for you?

The next tournament is at Lake Guntersville in Scottsboro, Alabama. It’s the last weekend of September. It’s basically a home lake for me about 1.5 hours from where I live. I grew up fishing it so I’ve got a game plan in mind. Last year I finished 27th, but I’m hoping to make it to the top 20.

For a tournament angler that has been in the scene for a while, what got you interested in fishing with TFO rods?

I signed on with TFO this year. I had heard many great things about their conventional rods as far as the action and design. I love them, haven’t had a problem with them, and that Professional Walleye 7’6” Medium Light did some work this past weekend – I promise!

 

Squarebills for Smallmouth

Editor’s Note: This submission comes from TFO ambassador Burnie Haney, who offers some interesting strategy for smallmouth bass.

Oftentimes in our conversations about smallies the topic of topwater plugs, jerkbaits or the drop shot get the most attention, and yes, they all catch fish. However, one technique that isn’t talked about as much is casting squarebill crankbaits for smallies. In many regions of the country bass anglers are well-versed in casting squarebills in and around wood or over rock rubble for largemouth, but there are also many anglers who have yet to pick up a squarebill when they’re specifically targeting smallies. Below are a few squarebill presentations I’ve used over the past 15 years when I’m out chasing Great Lakes smallies and clear-water smallies in general.

Safety Considerations

Smallies are a fish with big attitude, and they get pissed off when you hook em, which is why I like them so much. And once you get them in the net or in the boat, they’ll show you just how sassy they can be. For this very reason I have a couple recommendations that can better prepare you for this close encounter. Wear a quality pair of polarized sunglasses; this allows you to see where and how well the fish is hooked as you get it near the boat, and should the fish throw the lure as you attempt to land it, the glasses prevent a treble hook from hitting you in the eye.

Another handy item is a good set of needle nose pliers or a hook-out device. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than trying to pop out a treble hook and it finds the flesh on your thumb or finger with a pissed off smallie still attached to the other end. Now I realize that may sound weird to some folks and you could be thinking if treble hooked baits are that dangerous why throw them at all? I can only say I throw them because they flat out catch fish and that’s what I’m all about. So being prepared for a hook in the hand should the unthinkable occur isn’t all together a bad thing, either. Now having said that, if you use the needle nose pliers, you’ll greatly reduce your odds of getting hooked in the hand.

Rigging Up & The Presentation

I do most of my squarebill fishing with the TPM CB 7105-1, 7-10 MH power rod. I keep two of these rods rigged, one with a 6.3:1 reel and the other with a 5.1:1 reel. Both reels are spooled with 8-pound. Cortland Master Braid (Moss Green). I set the drag so the line slips just a tad on the hookset. What I most enjoy about this setup is it lets me make 35 yard casts or longer which is super important whenever I’m chasing clear-water smallies and the rods moderate action doubles as a good shock absorber on the strike while the braided line provides rock-solid, long-distance hooksets.

As for the two different retrieve speeds, during low light conditions I’ll use the 5.1:1 reel and once the sun gets up good I prefer the 6.3:1. If I notice multiple fish are chasing the hooked fish back to the boat, then I may pull out an 8.3:1 reel and turn-on-the-burn. I’ve found with clear-water smallies you can use speed as a trigger, especially so when you’re around a bunch of actively feeding fish. It seems to make them more aggressive as they race each other to get to the bait first.

Most of my clear-water squarebill fishing for smallies is focused in 3 to 7 feet of water in and around slate shoals or rock rubble areas. And if the area has some scattered vertical vegetation near it, that’s even better. What works for me is firing a cast out employing a steady retrieve trying to contact the hardbottom area. When the lure contacts the tops of any perimeter vegetation, the braided line is great because a hard snap of the rod tip will make the lure explode out into open water, which can stimulate a strike from a following fish.

Early in the season when the water temps are 58-65 degrees, I usually start with a 1.5 squarebill. As the summer progresses and the water warms into the mid-70s to 80-degree range and the bait (baitfish and crayfish) get bigger, I’ll use the 2.5 squarebill more, but even then I usually start my day with the 1.5 and I’ll let the fish tell me what size they prefer.

I use Lucky Craft squarebills; keep in mind there are many brands available and for this style of fishing getting the bait to deflect off the hard-bottom area is what triggers the most strikes. I recommend you find a squarebill bait that you like best then try it out on different size lines and retrieve speeds until you find it regularly bumping bottom. Once you get that dialed in then it’s just a matter of locating what areas of your lake or river are holding the actively feeding smallies.

I try to keep my color choices simple. I’ll use a Mad Craw (Red Craw) early in the spring, switch up to a Chameleon Brown Craw in the warmer summer months and mix in a Perch or Shad imitator as the season progresses. Day in and day out those four colors will usually get you bit anywhere you go.

Remember with squarebills seeking hard-bottom areas that provide deflection opportunities with a steady retrieve is usually the best option, but on some days, they’ll also work along the weed lines with a stop-and-go retrieve. Let the fish tell you how they want it and don’t forget speed as a trigger anytime you’re around a group of feeding smallies because their competitive nature can get the better of them resulting in more hook ups for you.

Good luck and be sure to post photos of those catches. Comments, questions about fishing for smallmouth? Feel free to comment on one of our social media pages.

A Few Tips for the Hearty Smallmouth Bass Angler

Editor’s Note: This week, we turn to TFO Ambassador Burnie Haney for a few tips on fishing for late-fall smallmouth bass. Enjoy.

When the water drops below 50 degrees, it’s the best time to down-size your presentation for consistent rod action throughout the day. In central and northern New York, our waters are running 46, 47 degrees, and when other power presentations fail to produce, light line and small baits will get you bit day in and day out.

This past Friday my bass tournament teammate (Mike Cusano) and I fished Oneida Lake with the TFO Professional Series TFG PSS 703-1 paired with 5.1:1 spinning reels loaded with 4 or 6-pound test to present 2.8 and 3-inch Keitech swimbaits on 1/8 or 3/16-ounce jig heads.

Our best presentation was a long-distance cast with a slow steady retrieve. We wanted our baits to imitate the small size forage base of perch and shad, and these little swimbaits baits work perfectly for this application.

Often times in tournament fishing we hear anglers talk about employing a stop-and-go retrieve to help generate strikes. However, when it comes to cold water bassin’ I believe a slow steady retrieve works best especially for smallmouth. My theory: Since the water is colder, the fish usually react a bit slower. If they can find forage in open water that’s slowing passing by, they’re going to hit it nine times out of ten rather than let it go.

We employed this presentation with good results on a recent Friday and knew we could duplicate it on Sunday in the 2018 Brian Rayle Go Anywhere Tournament on Oneida Lake. During the tournament we landed 35 bass and 20 perch, with our five best bass weighing 21.31 pounds, which beat the second-place team by more than a 2-pound margin.

A lot of anglers put their boats away once the late fall hunting starts, and when they do, they leave behind some of the best smallmouth bass fishing of the season.

So the moral of this story is the next time you find yourself surrounded by cold-water smallmouth bass, in gin clear water, make sure you have a TFO Professional Series TFG PSS 703-1 rod paired with a 5.1:1 reel loaded with 4-6 lb. test and a handful of small swimbaits with 1/8 or 3/16th oz. jig heads.

Trust me on this one, you’ll be glad you’re properly geared up to enjoy all-day rod action.

Additional thoughts on smallmouth tactics? Let us know on one of our social media pages.

It’s Back to Basics for Smallmouth

Tis the time of year for freshwater transition. It’s September. It’s still a bit too hot for trout, and the largemouth bass is a morning and evening proposition. However, the most willing sparring partner in early fall is not hard to find. The smallmouth bass is a viable fly-rodding option as summer yields to autumn. Smallies love to take a fly and fight hard, from the hookset to the release.

Even though the bronzeback is a formidable foe, it’s a fish I’ve consistently neglected throughout my 30 years of fly fishing. I’ve always found trout sexier. It’s true that trout, as a species, boast loads of tradition, but if you honestly evaluate the attributes of each species, the smallmouth compares favorably and is well worth pursuing.

And since trout usually need a break, I’ve decided to give smallmouth a fair amount of love from now on during each fishing season.

So, it’s back to basics. Below are a few key components of my strategy.

Time Year for Smallmouth

Geography, of course, plays a role. I live in Western N.C., where the southern smallie season starts in late spring and ends in late fall. My fishing calendar starts in March and April with trout. As soon as the trout start to feel the heat of summer in late May and early June, it’s time for smallmouth. And when the autumn leaves start to turn, it’s about time for trout.

Temperature and Time of Day for Smallmouth

Smallmouth can be caught if the water temperature lingers in the 50s, but cold water is better for trout. Smallmouth like water temps in the high 60s and 70s, about the time trout head for the oxygen of the riffles.

For most of us, fishing revolves around work and family commitments, but the ideal time for smallmouth is early or late in the day. Low light is better than bright sun simply because the fish feel more secure. If you can fish on a cloudy day, take advantage of such conditions. The fish will hold shallower longer.

Where to Find Smallmouth

Smallmouth are not easy to find on your local river. But if you find one smallmouth, you will usually find several. And once you pinpoint a fishy spot, remember it, because chances are, fish will hold there consistently.

Smallmouth are ambush feeders. They use structure — logs, rocks and boulders — to hide and wait for unsuspecting prey, not unlike brown trout. And don’t forget your trout training. The tails of pools usually hold nice fish. Deeper runs are also a good option.

Food for the Smallmouth

If you don’t have a specialty box of smallmouth flies, don’t despair. Trout love dragon flies and crayfish. The venerable woolly bugger works well for both. I like to use bead-head versions of this pattern. When fish are feeding on the surface, I love poppers, and there’s no better smallmouth popper than the Sneaky Pete, which can be fished with a small woolly bugger or similar substitute as a dropper.

For trophy fish, there’s no better option than Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer. The Game Changer’s movement rivals many conventional lures.

The Equipment for Smallmouth

Heavy trout or light saltwater setups work well. A 5 or 6-weight rod is about as light as you would want to go. A 7, 8-weight can be used to throw bigger poppers. If you throw small flies, you can bring your lighter rod. Big flies, obviously, need a bigger stick.  For instance, you would not want to fish a Game Changer on your 5-weight rod. Step up to a 7-weight or bigger.

Temple Fork’s Axiom II series is a good option as is the BVK series. As for reels, our Power or BVK are good choices.

I fish for smallies with standard weight-forward line, but specialty lines and leaders come in handy when you need to throw bigger flies into a headwind or find yourself fishing deeper water, where you need to get the fly down fast.

Most of the time, I keep the leaders simple —- with a 9-foot 2 or 3X approach. Again, the main variable here is the size of the fly. There’s a difference between casting a size 10 woolly bugger and a 5-inch Game Changer.

If you have any other smallmouth suggestions, feel free to leave a comment on one of our social media pages.