Keys To Fishing Smallmouths Can Vary Between North And South Waterways

By on October 2, 2015
Brandon Card holds up a catch from the Bass Elite on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: JD Blackburn)

It’s no secret that smallmouth bass act differently than largemouth. They are known for being “here one day and gone the next.” What I did not realize until recently was just how different they can be in northern waters compared to the southern smallmouth I grew up fishing for. Through trial and error, I have seen some differences between the two regions and also developed some theories about why they act differently.

Wind, Waves, and Overcast Skies

When it gets windy and overcast in southern waters, it is time to pick up reaction baits like jerkbaits, swimbaits and crankbaits when you are fishing for smallmouth. It happens all the time; the weather gets nasty and the smallmouth chomp reaction baits when I am fishing in southern waters. Up north around the Great Lakes, I have found it to be completely opposite.

In 2012, during my first year on the Elite Series, we had several northern smallmouth fishing events, and I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. The weather would get cloudy and rainy and I could not catch them on reaction baits at all. It took me a while to figure it out, but I have since learned that flat calm and sunny days are the best days to fish with reaction baits in northern waters. This goes against everything that I learned growing up fishing for smallmouth in Tennessee and Kentucky.

It really is a polar opposite between the two regions and I have found that when the weather is overcast and windy, the northern smallmouth feed along the bottom and your best bet is to be using slow moving baits like a drop shot or a tube. On the other hand, when it is hot and sunny in the southern part of the country is when you slow down and fish these baits.

What Causes This?

Brandon Card holds up two bass caught during a Bassmaster Elite Series event on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: James Overstreet)

Brandon Card holds up two bass caught during a Bassmaster Elite Series event on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: James Overstreet)


I don’t know for sure, but I do have a theory on why this happens. I think that a change in weather causes smallmouth to get active and feed aggressively. Up north, smallmouth bass spend months living dormant in extremely cold weather and even under ice in many cases. Even when there is no ice, there are often cold temperatures and big winds. The warmth and sun are something that they are not accustomed to and it triggers them to get out and feed.

When fishing for smallmouth bass in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, it’s the opposite. We normally have nice weather and the sun is usually out. When it gets cloudy or windy, it’s a “change” and as a result they start to feed.

Forage and Structure

Another difference between the two areas is the forage the smallmouth are eating. Down south, it is all about crawfish and the smallmouth are typically feeding around rocks where crawfish are abundant. In the northern part of the country, they still eat crawfish, but also feed on different types of minnows, perch and gobies.

The smallmouth in the north still relate to rocks, but I have found that sand and grass are very important keys to finding feeding northern smallmouth. In the south, smallmouth only relate to sand when they are spawning, but in the north sand is a huge deal. I think this goes back to the forage and places they look for food. The same is true of grass. In the northern part of the country, grass is very important for smallmouth and some of the best areas are places with short grass that is almost like a layer of carpet. The 6 inches to a foot of grass is usually perfect because the perch and gobies relate to it, but the grass is not too tall where they could completely hide from the smallmouth. Just like humans, smallmouth bass love easy meals! Down south, when you find vegetation, smallmouth bass is the last thing you would think about.

Largemouth in Different Regions

Brandon Card fishes on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: James Overstreet)

Brandon Card fishes on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: James Overstreet)


The Elite Series takes us all over the country and I have had success fishing for largemouth from Florida to New York. In contrast to smallmouth, largemouth act the same no matter where they live. A largemouth on the other hand will be in heavy cover when the sun is out and then will roam and feed in overcast and windy conditions, no matter what area of the country you are fishing.

Similarities Between Northern and Southern Smallmouth

While the smallmouth may act differently in different regions, the baits selection is always the same. Green pumpkin tubes work north and south, so do shad-colored jerkbaits, small swimbaits and drop-shotting small worms. Current is another thing that always helps when you are fishing for smallmouth no matter where you are. They also tend to relate to the same depth ranges in similar water temps no matter where you are fishing.

The smallmouth bass is an interesting fish to begin with, but when you factor in regional differences they become a hard fish to catch for many anglers. My experience with them shows that they will act much differently depending on where you fish for them. While they may challenge us sometimes, there’s no doubt that they are a fun fish to catch all over the country.

Top image: Brandon Card holds up a catch from the Bass Elite on Sturgeon Bay. (Credit: JD Blackburn)

About Brandon Card

Brandon Card is a Bassmaster Elite Series Angler, fishing guide and adventure sports enthusiast. He won the 2012 Bassmaster Rookie of the Year, qualified for the 2016 and 2013 Bassmaster Classic, and has six top 10s in Elite Series competition.

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