By David A. Brown
Brent Ehrler admits that his smallmouth experience has been limited to the summertime events he has fished during his years of professional bass tournaments. However, the California standout feels confident that he has these wily brown fish pretty well dialed in.
Never any assumptions, of course; as Ehrler knows he has to make it happen on every outing. Still, his desire to learn the ways of a fish foreign to his early years has motivated him to put in the work necessary to bring a solid game plan to smallmouth waters.
“I didn’t grow up fishing for smallmouth, so it’s something I learned on tour,” Ehrler said. “But fishing for smallmouth in the summer is something I like to do. I’ve had some success at it and I feel like I know the combinations of what to do.”
Know the Neighborhood
For Ehrler, the game starts with understanding the playing field. Unlike their homebody cousins with the green paint job and the big pie hole, smallies tend to be roamers. However, they definitely have their habitat preferences.
“It’s either rock, grass or a combination of both,” Ehrler said. “They really like breaks and depth transitions. I call them ‘color changes,’ because if it’s sunny, you can visually see where the fish will be on that transition.
“The best scenario is a flat that rolls out and breaks into deep water with rock and grass on that break. If you find both of those (elements), the fish are going to be there. If you find only rock, the fish are going to be there; if you find only grass, they’re probably going to be there. But I think they like hard bottom.”
That being said, Ehrler has also found smallies favoring a sand/grass transition, particularly along a depth break. The fish seem to like the cover they find in the grass, along with the feeding opportunities along the break line.
Noting the smallmouth’s documented reputation as a visual feeder, Ehrler said he finds this fish a little easier to catch than a largemouth; generally speaking. Some of that comes from the smallmouth’s curious nature, but a lot of it comes down to a voracious appetite.
“If it’s sunny and calm, and you can see them, cast to them and catch them, or you just fish a dropshot on those breaks that have rock,” Ehrler said. “And if the wind blows, I don’t care where you are, they’ll bite a jerkbait.
“I know that if I go out one day and it’s calm, I’m going to catch them on a dropshot; and I know that if I go out the next day and it’s windy, I’m going to catch them on a jerkbait.”
Now, if it’s starting to sound like we’re posturing the smallmouth as a dependably cooperative fish that always makes you look like a champ, think again. Truth be told, these little hellions have an annoying knack for testing an angler’s patience.
“Sometimes, they’re more difficult to catch when it’s cloudy; and sometimes, they’re more difficult to catch when it’s slick calm,” Ehrler said. “But there are always exceptions to the rule. I’ve had it where it was slick calm and I could catch them at will, but the wind blew and made it tougher.
“As a general rule, when it’s dark, they tend to almost look down to the bottom more; they’re not as visual in their feeding. They don’t go out and chase a moving bait as much.”
Across the board, Ehrler said he finds smallmouth fishing at its toughest in these dim conditions, but he surmises that the difficulty may be only partly attributed to fish behavior. Humans are also creatures of habit and weather can be a major speed bump.
“They’re such visual feeders, but, at the same time, we’re such a visual predator. It’s so much easier (in sunny conditions) for you to see those breaks in the bottom; those darker shades of bottom where the fish are going to be,” Ehrler said. “You can’t effectively cast to them when it’s dark out, because you can’t see those spots yourself.”
Best Baits for Brownies
Give Ehrler three choices for smallmouth baits and he’ll take a dropshot, a Lucky Craft Lightning Pointer jerkbait, along with topwater walker like a Lucky Craft Gun Fish. The breakdown’s pretty simple — topwater for slick conditions, jerkbait for windy times and the dropshot for targeting specific spots, regardless of conditions.
“The dropshot is a very good sight fishing bait,” Ehrler said. “You’ll often see smallmouth, throw a dropshot way out in front of them and they’ll swim right by and eat it on their way.
“This is also a bait you throw on those rock transitions where it drops off a little bit steeper or you throw it next to big boulders. If you’re on a lake that has humps, you just drop a dropshot down in 30 feet and catch them. I probably catch more smallmouth on a dropshot than any other bait — but you have to have a topwater and a jerkbait, too.”
Now, Ehrler’s an open-minded guy, but when it comes to dropshot baits, he’s unyielding: “In all the smallmouth fishing that I have done, I’ve tried every kind of bait, but I have found that the Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm is the best bait you could ever put on a dropshot for smallmouth. The best color you could use is the 938 laminate — a 301 top, which is a green pumpkin candy color, with a pearl belly.
“The Shad Shape is the ideal size and profile. Also it has salt in it, so it does sink. When you pause the dropshot and drop your rod tip, it sinks. So you get more action, as opposed to a floating worm. You take me to a MLF event anywhere with smallmouth, I’ll put that 938 Shad Shape on and I will catch fish.”
Tackle & Rigging
Ehrler fishes his dropshots on the Daiwa Tatula Elite Dropshot Rod he designed with a Tatula LT reel spooled with 12-pound Sunline X Plasma braid and a 8-pound Sunline FC Sniper leader. Ehrler favors this reel for its light weight and fast gearing, which allows him to quickly take up line for effective hook sets.
Nose hooking with a Gamakatsu G Finesse dropshot hook probably accounts for the majority of his dropshot arrangements, but Ehrler’s also keen on Gamakatsu’s Stinger Hook. The latter’s longer shank allows him to add a homemade keeper (fluorocarbon or jig trailer fibers) that holds his Shad Shape Worm when threaded onto the hook.
“This way, the point is still exposed like a nose-hooked arrangement, but now it’s farther down the worm,” Ehrler said. “With this hooking style I do not get the short strikes anymore. When they bite half the worm now, I catch them because I use that stinger hook.
“The good thing is that the Stinger hook has a weedless version, so I can fish it around more cover than I have before.”
Fight the Good Fight
Even a mid-size smallmouth puts up a vigorous fight, with a bag of tricks that’ll test your resolve. Ehrler counters this by using a 4000 size Tatula LT. The bigger reel, he said, affords him several strategic benefits.
“The reel will be a little heavier in the hand, but I can cast farther, I have more line capacity and I have more control over the fish,” Ehrler said.
The reel’s smooth drag also factors greatly, as line-peeling smallies will use their sudden bursts of speed to pull a Houdini. Ehrler’s advice: Muscle memory; master the “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” deal.
“When you’re fighting a big smallmouth, you have to crank that drag lefty-loosey at the boat, because he will make that big run and pull the hook, if you don’t react properly,” Ehrler said. “You have to make those momentary adjustments — crank it right to take up line; crank it left to loosen drag.”
Follow Ehrler’s advice and fight your fish with a balance of diligence and awareness. You’ve worked hard for that big brown beast; don’t want to lose him within winking distance.