Smallies, Nightcrawlers, and Seasonal Movements.


Years ago, possibly decades now, I received an invite from a buddy to chase smallmouth about an hour north of Denver. My friend Jim who was from the pacific northwest and staying up north for college, had the local smallies dialed in. Not the little rats the area was known for. I’m talking broad-shouldered bronze units!

Jim was an outdoorsman in every sense of the word and a financially strapped college kid. When he first moved to Colorado and started getting the local game and fish dialed in, he eased his financial stress by catching most of his meals for his entire freshman year, including a smallie he said would have given the state record a run for its money. I’m sure bass anglers all over are up in arms reading this, but remember this was almost two decades ago. Not sure why I’m preemptively apologizing, as Jim wouldn’t have. He’d probably talk about selective harvest and how it’s up to the license holder to decide when and what to harvest. Then end with a recipe. I was older than Jim when we fished together, but he had a way about him that made it feel like he was from another era. A Giles Alkire type who could hunt as well as he fished, make a fine camp with some twine and a tarp, make coffee on a campfire that’s better than anything you can buy at a fancy place that writes your name on the cup, to sum it up there was no question that Jim could live off the land, comfortably.

After picking his brain for a bit I asked what tackle I should bring for the upcoming trip. I was expecting the typical stuff for the time of year, you know jerkbaits, tube jigs, etc.… nope. He asked me how the nightcrawler situation was around my house. I told him it’d been a while since I’d fished with crawlers, but I’d check the gas stations around me. He started laughing and said, don’t worry about it. He’d get the bait. I’d need some size two and four Eagle Claw bait hooks and some split shots. I started putting one and two together and began wondering if we would go chase bass with nightcrawlers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not too fancy to fish with bait. Heck, whatever the fish want, I’ll oblige. It had just been a while since I’d heard anyone reference live bait with bass fishing around town.

The night before our fishing trip, I went to my backyard with a coffee can and a flashlight, hoping to save face a bit. I might not be the next Jeremiah Johnson like my buddy Jim was, but I wasn’t a city slicker either. The crawlers at my place weren’t as big or plentiful as they were when I’d last chased them at my grandpa Cassidy’s house last time I caught my own, but I filled a coffee can up with what I could.

I met up with Jim at the lake around 3 pm the next day. I wondered why we didn’t get there bright and early, but then remembered although he was a heck of an outdoorsman, he was still a college kid. It looked like this reincarnation of Jeremiah Johnson had a long night and just woke up. Nonetheless, we started making our way down to the water where Jim would give me the lowdown on the spots we’d fish and how we’d catch them. Which went something like this;

“The smallies are in different stages of the spawn out on that island. Most are pre-spawn, so they’ll be staging in deeper water outside the areas they’ll spawn. It’s a small little lake that isn’t hard to figure out. There are old fence posts on both sides of the island that the biggest smallies like to bed on. Anything around there is a good spot to fish hard. The idea is to start deep work around the island once at least then start moving in. The fish that are locked on beds will hit anything that moves so there’s no rush on getting to those fish. The big girls staging a little deeper can get a little skittish if you move in too quick”.

I was both excited and confused. When Jim started talking about nightcrawlers, I foolishly assumed his species knowledge wasn’t as high as it clearly was. A reminder I’ve had as an angler a few times over the years. Just because someone decides to fish with live bait or from a lawn chair isn’t in any way an indicator of how serious they take fishing. Over the years I’ve learned a ton from folks that might not look the part but know fish as well as anyone with logos all over a jersey.

As we worked our way out to the island, I wondered what I was supposed to do with these nightcrawlers. Don’t get me wrong, I’d trout fished my whole life and wasn’t a stranger to fishing crawlers, but it just felt weird to me. I attached a split shot about a foot up from the hook and started threading my crawler on like I would trout fishing. I hooked it through the crawler a handful of times before letting the tail dangle to entice bites. Jim, patiently watched me botch the crawler part before schooling me on how to present a crawler to get the best results there.

He showed me how to hook the crawler and effectively hook fish that would hit a presentation like this. Now, believe it or not, this blog isn’t about fishing crawlers, so I’ll be brief on this one, but believe me, it works. It works so well that I still use the same thing at the same lake every year. The gist of it is you nose hook the head of the crawler, similar to how you’d hook a finesse worm on a drop shot hook. You add your split shots anywhere from twelve inches to a foot above your hook. The idea of the weight is enough to easily cast your crawler and get it down, but not enough weight that the smallies will feel resistance when they take it. After making a cast with spinning gear, open the bail with your index finger staying on the line, and wait for a bite. As soon as you start getting bit, remove your finger from the line, let the fish run for about 15 seconds (you’ll develop a feel over time), close the bail, reel down, and put the wood to them. I’m assuming many of you are worrying about gut hooked bass by doing this. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of how or why it doesn’t, but I can tell you over the years, I’ve caught countless fish this way and have never had an issue.

That first day with Jim was magic. We caught so many smallies in the 15-17 inch range I lost count after the first hour or so. We also caught a handful in the 18-20 inch range that were flat out slobs. Not great lakes fat, but for out here, they were stacked!

Over the next three weeks I fished that bite with Jim and alone until it finally tapered off and died. The best bite was the first couple of days when the pattern was developing, then as it set in, the local bass community got wind of it, and the amount of pressure helped slow it down a tad. Little by little, the fish did their thing and moved off to the island altogether.

This isn’t your typical tidbit on seasonal patterns and how they can dramatically increase your odds as an angler. I’m hoping this boom and then bust tale illustrates just how important knowing and following predictable seasonal patterns is for anglers across the board. Jim was new to Colorado but quickly adapted and started catching fish that had locals in awe. Jim was an excellent angler no doubt, but all he did was take his seasonal movement knowledge from back home and apply it to Colorado to help supercharge his learning curve and immediately put him on fish. Jim did this same thing with walleye in the spring and brown trout and lakers in the fall.

To cover all freshwater gamefish seasonal movements in one blog would either be a long book or too vague to deliver all that information. Instead, I wanted to introduce you guys to seasonal movements a different way. Then I’ll follow with relevant species-specific information to help you guys find and catch more and bigger fish!

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