By Louie Stout
Al Gearhart has learned a few things about big smallmouth in his annual spring trips to Lake Charlevoix.
His credentials speak for themselves. He's caught four smallmouth bass over 7 pounds from the lake and numerous 5s and 6s. And yes, he releases all of the big bass he catches.
Charlevoix is a "drowned river lake," meaning it is an inland lake with access to Lake Michigan. It's also Michigan's third largest lake.
Gearhart has made trips there each May for 16 straight years. Although he's noticed that the giant smallmouth have been harder to come by the past couple of years, the quantity and quality of fish he catches are still pretty darn good.
He usually targets the East Bay and fishes the windy side of the bay, keeping the wind to his back. Smallmouth like the wind, he says.
Some years the bass are up on the spawning flats, but most of his big fish come deeper ñ 12 to 30 feet of water.
"I caught one big smallmouth on a bed in 18-feet of water," he said. "Because the water is so clear, some of those big fish like to spawn deep."
Primary areas are underwater points and the deeper edges of flats.
Signs of baitfish are the key. Sometimes he can visually see balls of shiny bait glimmering in the clear water, but can also spot them on his electronics.
"If I start seeing a lot of bait, it's safe to assume the smallies are nearby," he said.
The Mishawaka angler has employed the same basic lures and strategies to catch big smallmouth on every trip.
Some have come on jigging blade baits, like the Silver Buddy. Most come on a 5-inch Yum Dinger stick worm (similar to a Senko) rigged on a jighead. He makes long casts and lets the bait settle on the bottom. The key, he adds, is not getting too impatient to move it.
"I leave slack in the line and let it lie there for at least at least a couple of minutes," he said. "There are some underwater currents that create natural movement while the bait lies on the bottom; you have to give the smallmouth time to investigate."
That's not always easy. The natural inclination is want to impart action or move the bait after a few seconds. But Gearhart says that's a mistake.
"I've taken buddies up there who get frustrated because they aren't getting the bites I get," he joked. "Trying to convince them to let the bait lie is like trying to teach a dog to stay. But once they do, they get bites, too."
He'll pick up the slack to feel for pressure or signs that a fish has it. If there are no takers, he winds in and makes another cast.
"I'm not a big fan of working the bait back to the boat," he said.