Idaho is Smallmouth Territory
Idaho has a great mix of both largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing. Over the years I’ve caught about equal numbers of each fish, and in roughly similar sizes. This is a little surprising since largemouths are supposed to range more widely and average bigger than their bronzeback cousins. Basically it points out that our nippy northern state is essentially smallmouth territory. Compared to classic Southern waters, bucketmouth fishing hereabouts is just frosting on a bronzeback cake.
by Lew Watson
Unknown to many, the Northwest’s Columbia drainage (including most of Idaho) is probably among the top smallmouth regions in the country! Since most of our residents remain trout-and-steelhead-happy, much of this superb bronzeback fishing remains untapped. In a word, if you’re of the bassing persuasion and an Idaho resident, you’ll do well to ignore the flash and dazzle of traditional largemouth fishing and concentrate your efforts instead on Micropterus dolomieui, the smallmouth bass.
A bassing man is tempted to think, well, heck, a bass is a bass. I’ll just tie on a slightly smaller lure and work it around rocks instead of lily pads. That oughta do it for these smallmouths. And it does, sort of. Plenty of "red-eyed bass" are taken all over Idaho with no more technique than this. But, if you want to catch lots of bronzebacks, and especially the bigger ones of two pounds and up, you need to think of smallmouths as a separate species with distinct behavior and preferences.
To start with, Idaho largemouths most often are creatures of warm, shallow, fertile, (even murky) weed-and-brush-infested lakes and ponds -- or at least coves and bays of this sort on major impoundments. In contrast, smallmouths insist on large, deep, cool, clear, rocky reservoirs -- and they also do quite well in flowing waters, thank you. Cover-hugging largemouths are easy targets for simple cast-and-crank techniques near shallow shoreline structure. Smallmouths roam more, are less structure-oriented, and in their deep-water habitat are more difficult for the average angler to "work." We’ll get to other differences in a moment, but for now let’s consider this last important point --
"Working" deep-water smallmouths
On major Idaho smallmouth impoundments like Dworshak, Brownlee, and Anderson Ranch, casual anglers constantly complain about the large number of "stunted" bass they catch in the lake shallows. They’re convinced these waters are overpopulated with starving peewees, and that bag and fish-size limits should be lifted to clear out the surplus. Fisheries biologists and skilled tournament anglers resist liberalizing limits. They point out that larger reservoir smallmouths are mainly a deep-water fish. If you want big bronzebacks, get your lure down to 20, 30, 40, even 60 feet deep-and preferably right on bottom to cater to Idaho bronzebacks’ near-total devotion to rock-grubbing crawfish.
Bottom-scratching 40 feet deep with slow-moving lures requires much more concentration than just reeling a crankbait or spinnerbait past shoreline structure. Many lures can’t be worked that deep-most crankbaits, for example. Spoons and in-line spinners will sink into the depths and catch occasional smallmouths, but they require a too-fast retrieve to activate their flash. (Heavy "slab" vertical-jigging spoons are an exception.)
My number one Idaho smallmouth lure is a fast-sinking dark-colored leadhead jig about 1/4 to 1/2 ounce in weight. Jig dressings of bucktail, rubber, marabou, or nylon are all effective, though a short pork rind trailer can work wonders at times. The jig’s main appeal lies in its ability to imitate bottom-crawling crawfish, so use that quality by slowly creeping or gently hopping your lure in direct contact with rocks where crawfish typically lurk. (Avoid mud and sand bottoms and fast retrieves.)
For deep-water smallmouth jigging, light lines of about 6 to 8 pound test are far better than the 12-pound-and-up hawsers often used around dense largemouth cover. Light line lets your lure sink quickly and move naturally. Equally important, it keeps you in subtle "feel-contact" with that jig creeping along in the nether depths. This is absolutely vital in sensing the delicate pickup of a bass. (Touching up jigs with commercial scents, pork rinds, or natural baits like worms or crawfish tails can prolong such pickups, giving you more time to set the hook.) Finally, it’s important in deep-jigging to keep hooks needle-sharp to penetrate bronzebacks’ cartilaginous jaws far below.
In clear-water reservoirs smallmouths appear somewhat light-shy, which largely accounts for their deepwater preferences. In the low-light conditions of dusk and dawn, however, you can sometimes nail pretty fair bronzebacks near or even directly on surface. Ditto on overcast days. At such times, a fast-moving crankbait, in-line spinner, wobbling spoon or even surface plunker may do the trick on smallmouths. In any case, such lures can "prospect" a lot of water in a hurry compared to slow-moving jigs and bottom-hopping plastic worms.
Bronzebacks like slightly cooler water (63-68 degrees F.) than do largemouths (65-75 degrees F.). For summer fish in particular, this also says "deep water." A major hot-weather exception is at night. At this time, big smallmouths often come into night-chilled shallows to feed. Give midnight bronzebacking a shot this summer-you may find nocturnal action hotter on smallies than on largemouths, which in their brush-and-murk habitat often can’t find a lure at night! For night-fishing either fish, a slow and steady retrieve is important to help bass home-in on your hard-to-see lure.
I’ve talked to a number of bass tournament anglers who regularly fish all over the U. S. Almost to a man or woman, they agree the smallmouth is a harder-hitting and stronger-fighting fish than his bucketmouth cousin. Most agree big smallmouths are harder to catch. "Largemouths are eat-anything gluttons," says one competitor. "Smallmouths usually want something specific, and you’d better give it to them for best results."
Big-river smallmouths like those in the lower Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater may do a lot of roaming in larger pools and are as hard to locate as their reservoir kin. Smaller rivers like the lower Payette and Boise will have fish concentrated in obvious spots-deeper pools, eddies, and slow runs with rocky or gravel bottoms. Try hiking or floating into untapped small-river pools. On the lower Payette only occasional bronzebacks are taken from fished-out roadside pools, but I know a gent who rafted a few miles downstream and nailed over 30 good smallmouths in one afternoon! Stream smallies seem more active near dawn and dusk. My wife once hooked three bronzeback beauties in a row on a crawfish-imitating jig-well past sundown after we had flailed that 100-yard pool for the previous hour with no results.
In south-central Idaho, Little Camas and Salmon Falls Reservoirs are both good smallmouth impoundments. Further west begins perhaps Idaho’s best smallmouth waters-the flowing Snake River and all its impoundments from C J Strike’s headwaters to Hells Canyon Dam. Anderson Ranch and Arrowrock Reservoirs are excellent, as is the lower Boise and Payette Rivers. Often-drained Black Canyon Reservoir can be a smallmouth "sleeper" at times. The Hells Canyon stretch of the Snake River is great. I’ve caught upwards of 50 smallies in an afternoon in its lower reaches. Ditto for the lower Salmon from Mackay Bar downstream, and the Clearwater from about Orofino on down. Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater’s North Fork produced Idaho’s current 8 lb., 1/2 oz., 22 inch smallmouth record, caught by Dan Steigers in 1995, and continues to crank out fine bronzebacking every year. In Idaho’s Panhandle, only Hayden Lake near Coeur d’Alene is currently listed as a smallmouth fishery, so anglers in that lake-lush region should probably continue celebrating their remarkably widespread bucket-mouth angling.
Copyright 1998 Spring Creek Communications