(Editor's note: The following is the latest installment in a series of fishing tips presented by The Bass University. Check back each Friday for a new tip.)
Bass University instructor Mark Zona has been a front-row witness to the changing northern smallmouth landscape of the past few decades. Twenty years ago, he said, a 20-pound bag was considered big. Ten years ago, it took 22 to 23 pounds to be competitive. Five years ago, the 25-pound mark became normalized. Today, it takes 30 pounds to really grab attention.
That’s why he’s a fan of fishing “gigantic water to catch gigantic ones.” He believes that on every Great Lakes-style fishery there are two populations of big smallmouths – one that’s born deeper and lives deeper, and another that wants to be in shallower water their whole lives.” Despite those differences, they have certain similarities.
“Generally, when he’s rolling to kill, he’s rolling with buddies,” Zona offered. If you catch one, you’re likely to catch a bunch.
Additionally, when you start your search, “You have to find a stop sign. If there’s nothing to eat, a smallie won’t hang.”
He spends hours of idling, looking for those stop signs with his graphs. In shallow water, sometimes he’ll get on the bow of the boat and have one of his sons idle. In either case, he said you just waste too much time by trying to do it on the trolling motor. What’s he’s looking for are intersections ¬– places where you find “something different than what is around.” When you locate a “collision” between an irregularity and food, that’s where they’ll likely be.
Once he locates areas that are likely holding spots, he’ll start off with the passing game – lures that cover fast amounts of water. One key tool is the Strike King Tour Grade Bladed Titanium Umbrella Rig. “Why not start the party with a machine gun?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the best fish-finder on planet Earth for smallmouths.” He fishes it on an Ish Monroe Tatula Frog Rod with Seaguar fluorocarbon. For reasons that remain unclear to him, it gets far fewer bites when fished on braid.
The other element of his “passing” game is a Strike King KVD jerkbait. He uses the deep-diving model in water deeper than 10 feet and the shallow-diving model in shallower water. That’s the conventional part of his approach. The unconventional part is that he often long-lines it. He’ll get on an irregular area, open his spool, move away and then start jerking. It substantially widens his range for finding the big ones and has produced half of the top 12 biggest smallmouths he’s caught.
His third tool is a tungsten wobble head, using the exact same rod, reel and line that he employs with the umbrella rig.
When it’s time for the “running” game, Zona switches to a dropshot – usually a Strike King Z Too – or a Coffee Tube. They may be subtle, but there’s nothing finesse about his approach. “I do not believe in anything light on the bottom,” he said. In fact, with the tube, the lightest weight he’ll ever use is 5/16-ounce, and that’s only on rare occasions. The key with the tube is to make a commotion by hopping it aggressively.
If you want to learn some of Zona’s big-water smallmouth secrets, including the two main reasons why he never uses braided line when fishing a tube for smallmouths, check out his full video, available only by subscribing to The Bass University TV.