Calling a 5-pound Lake Cumberland smallmouth his personal best, Reese said he expects the same mix of baits to be productive anywhere smallmouth roam. The biggest difference he’s noticed between western fish and those in the Eastern U.S. is the way they relate their environment.
“For example, on Lake St. Clair, there’s often no rhyme or reason for them to be where they’re at,” Reese said. “In early spring, like April-May, when the ice is melting, you’ll find them around structure — key little rock points.
“It’s pretty textbook stuff, but after that, they could be anywhere out in that lake. On these big lakes, I think a lot of the smallmouth’s positioning has a lot to do with the gobies — where they’re staging.”
One thing Reese has found consistent in his eastern smallmouth pursuits is the impact of current; particularly current seams that guide the fish’s movement on powerhouse fisheries like St. Clair, the St. Lawrence and Detroit rivers and Lake Champlain. Current gathers bait and creates a natural food delivery service that smallmouth wisely exploit.
In his western fisheries, Reese feels confident he can always find smallmouth on rock piles, weed edges and current breaks. And don’t pigeon hole the brown fish into a purely deep water life, Reese says; these fish will often surprise you with their adventurous nature.
“Sometimes you’ll find smallies where you think you’re going to catch largemouth, but I’m sure that just has something to do with bait,” he said. “That may be a little pocket with some vegetation; you’re throwing a frog and you accidentally catch a smallmouth. You’re like ‘Why in the heck are you here?’”
Another productive western scenario Reese has leveraged is a steeper bank with a stair-step drop off. Here, the fish will utilize the nearly vertical edge like an elevator to adjust their depth for feeding purposes.
“On the West Coast, you get a lot of that stair step stuff where they just stage on areas like this because they like moving up and down,” Reese said. “What I see back east, the current seems to be a bigger deal.”
Wherever he’s targeting smallmouth, Reese finds a handful of presentations consistently productive. He breaks it down by seasonal faves, but notes that the presentations remain dependable anytime the fish are in similar positions.
Shallow gravel is always a good bet for staging smallies and Reese finds that areas close to a point — preferably right inside a point — prove most consistent. Such spots in 2-8 feet allow smallies to push bait against and edge for easier feeding.
“I prefer a cloudy day with a little breeze, but those smallmouth do get active when the sun’s out,” Reese said. “On a hot, sunny day, they can really active.”
Knowing the fish are looking for meals, Reese suggests rigging a shad color Zako paddletail swimbait on a 3/8-ounce swimbait head and makes long casts to cover as much water as possible. Casting parallel to the bank and making slow, steady retrieves usually delivers.
Hard bottom is key, but a little vegetation helps spruce up the smallmouth neighborhood. For bedding fish, Reese relies on dropshotting with a Shad Shape Worm (goby or baby bass color) on a Size 1 Gamakatsu G-Finesse dropshot hook and a 16-inch leader.
“I’ll use a 1/4-ounce weight, or a 1/8 if I’m fishing shallower, like 2-7 feet,” Reese explained. Reese believes he fares best with minimal shaking action. In his view, a natural fall looks more tempting than excessive undulations.
“If I have a 16-inch leader, if I get a slack line, that bait’s going to have action just falling to the bottom,” he said. “When you lift up to lightly shake it, a lot of times, they’re already there.”
For a purely offshore game, typically in the summer months, Reese likes dragging a tube to mimic gobies and other bottom-oriented forage. A great option for those slick calm, sunny, hot days, he’ll make a long cast, steadily retrieve and occasionally “restart” the cast with random pops to stimulate fish that might be following and watching his bait.
“Later, in the summer, I’ll go out in the middle of the lake and just bomb a dropshot with a 1/2-ounce weight,” Reese said. “I’m (generally) dragging it slowly, but you can move it faster when you’re looking for fish.
“Sometimes, you can work it fast while you’re trying to locate fish. You can hop it off the bottom, then reel it in four or five feet and a lot of times those fish will eat it on the fall. So, you’ll get more of a reaction bite than you would dragging it around all day.”
Summarizing his technique, Reese says: “I work it fast, but I work it slow. In other words, I’m covering water to find them and once I find them, I slow down.”
Regardless of where or how he pursues his smallmouth, Reese knows these high-strung fish will fight all the way to the boat. Using the heaviest line he can get away with, for any given presentation, helps; but the strategy of preparation plays an equally important role.
“You gotta pay attention to what they’re doing and you need a really good drag system on your reel,” Reese said. “I always try to anticipate the way the fish is going and try to keep the hook at an angle where the hook won’t come out.
“If I’m using heavier line, like 17- to 20-pound, I get them to the boat and I bring them in (quickly). But those smallmouth make surges and, if I’m using lighter line, I use my arms as an extension of my rod — like a shock absorber. When the fish makes a run (on light line), extending my arms prevents that instant tension that can cause a break-off.”