Trolling for Offshore Smallies
I first stumbled upon deep-water bass trolling in 2002, while fishing at a friend's cottage on a lake west of Ottawa, Ontario. It was early fall and the foliage was beginning its colourful transformation, a sure sign smallmouth would be putting on the feedbag. After scouring the shoreline for most of the morning with little to show for our efforts, we decided it was time for a change of pace. On a whim - or, as I remember it, a way to pass the time - we opted to troll down the middle of the lake, although neither of us had much confidence in the tactic. Our first fish came quickly out of 93 feet of water, with our lures down 16 feet, and we managed to land 12 smallmouth in total over the next two hours from water deeper than 45 feet. The fish were all between 3 ½ and 5 pounds, which was no surprise since they were at a buffet-style baitfish restaurant, with no apparent closing times.
Since then, we've honed this technique. In order for this system to work, a number of variables need to be in place. Deep water is a necessity, with depths ranging from 30 to 100 feet being optimal. Such lakes are usually oligotrophic or mesotrophic (or a combination of both) and have clear water and limited vegetation.
The second needed ingredient is an offshore food source, and in this instance it's pelagic baitfish. The most predominant species found on the menu are shiners, smelt, shad, alewife, and young-of-the-year cisco, depending on the lake. These baitfish roam in large, constantly moving schools and often suspend over deep water.
Once summer bids farewell, these baitfish group up away from shore. This in turn starts a semi-migration for smallmouth from shallow to deep, following their prey as the water cools and the days grow shorter. With winter just around the corner, gorging on fatty prey gives bass the necessary body reserves and energy to help them through the hard-water period. There's usually no rhyme or reason for the depth at which baitfish schools travel in fall, as it could be down 42 feet over 70-foot depths or 15 over 40.
Much like dolphin corral huge schools of tuna in the sea, smallmouth bass form feeding packs, lunging and bursting through pods of baitfish and filling their stomachs to capacity. Locating huge schools of baitfish and presenting a lure that will run through them are the keys to this technique.
Searching for offshore baitfish is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. It can be downright impossible without proper tools. If you choose to troll blindly across big water, hoping to intercept fish by chance, more than likely you'll end up with an empty gas tank and a full load of frustration. That's not a good combination. This is where your trusty fish finder can save the day by scanning the depths below and highlighting where fish are holding.
The first step I take is to cruise the lake with the fish finder on. I work the boat anywhere that has decent depth, paying close attention to the sonar's display for signs of activity. On most units, baitfish schools register as large dark pods or long lines. Many times, these dark pods will be accompanied at the edges by large hooks or fish symbols - a telltale sign smallmouth are on the feed.
Once I locate a pod of bait, tossing a marker buoy out is the easiest way to maintain my bearings. Although the marker's anchor won't reach bottom when fishing great depths, it stays in the area long enough to help me search it for bass. Having a floating beacon in place allows you to work outwards from the area, often staying and reconnecting with fish as they travel farther away.
Once you've found a school of baitfish, get down to business. Trolling runs should be a mixture of changes of speed and turns. Your lure should be noticeably different, tempting and arousing a smallmouth's curiosity and ultimately making it strike.
How fast you troll can have an impact on how many fish you hook. Although I've yet to find a magical pace that always works, I've noticed that constantly changing speed is one of the best tactics.
Get the speed up. Many of the bigger fish I've connected with have come when the engine has been revving significantly. As long as you can feel the vibration and side-to-side action of the lure, you're doing fine.
Altering the direction your lure travels can also bring big rewards. Fish seldom swim in a straight line, and neither should the fake baitfish you're pulling. Utilize S-bends, large circles, and zigzag patterns. Not only will you cover a larger area, you'll also give bass something different to look at.
Outfitting for a day of offshore trolling can be a simple task. When it comes to rods and reels, baitcasters are my favourites. A 7-foot medium-action stick will work well, especially if it has a decent backbone. Couple this up with a dependable reel that has a silky-smooth drag. You'll appreciate this when a big bronzeback decides to peel line off in a lightning-fast run.
For line, mono and braid work equally well. I run 14-pound mono on my baitcasters. If you choose a braid, back off on the drag slightly, as smallmouth can hit like freight trains, and these low-stretch lines have less shock-absorbancy than mono.
A wide assortment of big-lipped deep-diving crankbaits will catch smallmouth. Although downriggers can be used with this technique, I've found that the majority of bass stage between 30 feet down and the surface - an ideal depth for the flat-lining enthusiast.
Since you're trying to replicate baitfish, and often cisco, shad, or shiners in particular, the best baits to run are stubby shad-shaped cranks. Most of these are 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches long. Baits that have brought me success have included the Strike King Pro-Model Crankbait, Rapala Fat Raps, Excalibur FatFree Shad, Bagley Diving B, and the Storm Thunder Crank. When smelt are on the menu, try slimmer crankbaits. Carry a selection of shapes and sizes and experiment to find out what the fish want.
Choose models that dig down to between 14 and 25 feet and have built-in rattle chambers to attract fish from a distance. In clear-water lakes, smallmouth will swim upwards of 25 feet to smash a crank, so don't be too concerned if your lure isn't exactly in the strike zone. If fish are present, they'll find it.
Although my most consistent lure finishes for trolling have been white or silver, a variety of other hues will also grab a smallmouth's attention. Chartreuse (especially on dark days), orange, and baby bass have all proven their worth. Figuring out a productive colour pattern is what adds to the challenge of this technique.
Trolling for offshore smallmouth can bring consistent rewards. With summer finally over and the leaves vibrant with crimson hues, I can't think of a better way to celebrate than trolling down the middle of an uncrowded lake - the cottagers long gone - with nothing more than baitfish and spunky smallmouth to keep me company.