Best Bait For Smallmouth Bass: Tips for a Successful 2023

Written by: Dan R
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All too often, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are lumped into the same category. That’s understandable, considering they’re from the same family, but sharing those family bloodlines is where the similarities often stop. A lot of baits used for either fish can be overlapped, and what catches one will often catch the other. But successful anglers know that if you want to dial in on either or, changes need to be made. Smallmouth bass can be quite different from largemouth in what they want and how they want it.

Because of that, we’ve put together this guide to help determine the best smallmouth bass baits and hopefully help you boat more fish.

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The Best Baits for Smallmouth Bass

Minnows

It doesn’t matter what you might be fishing for; it’s a simple fact of life that big fish eat small fish - and lots of them. A live minnow can take a lot of the guesswork out of figuring a smallmouth out. You might have to spend some time figuring out the right action, vibration, or scent with an artificial lure or bait, but those things are built right into a live minnow.

golden shiner minnow

While the best type of minnow is going to be related to what smallmouth are feeding on in any given body of water, shiners and redtail chub are always good options. Thought of to be big fish bait, suckers are also something many smallmouth anglers sleep on. Smaller than the ones fished for pike or even walleye, suckers are a great option in cold water because they tend to be more lively in colder temps than other minnows. 

Smallmouth also love a bigger bait when they're putting on the feed bag in preparation for the scarce winter months.

  • Live minnows can be great all year long and shine in the winter when other baits are less prominent and fish are holding deep.
  • A simple jig head and live minnow is often all that's needed.
  • Suckers are heartier than most other minnows, and late-season smallmouth love a big meal.
  • Ultra-realistic artificials can be a great alternative to fishing live bait.

If live minnows aren’t readily available, or you don’t have the proper means of keeping them alive, there are plenty of artificials that are good options. The Berkley Gulp! Alive Minnow’s claim to fame is that it can outfish live bait, and that’s hard to dispute as these minnow baits look, feel, and smell pretty close to the real thing.

Gulp! Alive!® Minnow

Bass Pro | Amazon 

Another great option is Kalin's Sizmic Finesse Jerk Minnow. A downsized version of the popular Jerk Minnow, this imitation minnow features a split tail that mimics a live minnow’s movements.

kalins-sizmic-finesse-jerk-minnow

Bass Pro

Leeches

leeches

When most of us think of leeches for bait, the first thing that comes to mind is walleye, but smallmouth bass love them, too. The warmer the water, the more active leeches become, and the often-lethargic smallmouth that inhabit those warm waters will hug close to the bottom, or rocky cover, slurping them up as they pass them by.

When the water is warm, a leech will wriggle around like crazy, so there's no need to impart any type of action when fishing them. It’s as simple as dragging a leech on a jig head across the rocks to bag fish that have turned down just about everything else. Pay close attention, though, as a smallmouth will simply suck the bait in, making the strike very subtle and tough to feel. 

  • Leeches are an outstanding warm water bait, as that is when they are most active and are easy prey.
  • While there are artificial alternatives, it’s hard to beat the incredible movement of a live leech to attract weary bass.
  • When fished on a jig head, subtly banging that jig and leech off the rocks can call in fish that normally would pass it by.
  • When smallmouth are being picky, a leech can also be suspended slightly off the bottom by fishing it under a slip float.

Of course, tackle companies are wise to their effectiveness and have created artificials that closely resemble the real thing. When it comes to leeches, we prefer live ones, but just like with minnows, Berkley has created an ultra-lifelike imitation with their Gulp! Alive Leech. It’s hard to tell the two apart, and there are times when they will out-fish the real thing.

berkley gulp alive leech

Bass Pro

Hellgrammites

Hellgrammite

Hellgrammites are another one of those baits that are too often overlooked but can be incredibly productive in the right situations. They can catch fish on just about any body of water but shine when fishing smaller rivers and streams.

Hellgrammites are the larval stage of a dobsonfly and spend the majority of their lives hiding in rocks or deadfall until ready to emerge. When the time comes, Hellgrammites will come out of cover, sometimes by the thousands, and make their way toward shore. This is when smallmouth bass will capitalize on a very easy meal. When hellgrammites are emerging, it’s not uncommon for smallmouth in rivers and streams to ignore everything, gorging on the abundant prey.

Often when the bite is slow or non-existent on a river, turning over a rock and grabbing a hellgrammite can easily change your luck. They are aggressive, nasty little bugs, but if you can get your hands on one, they are actually quite easy to fish with. Using nothing more than a jig head, you can grab the hellgrammite behind the hard collar and run the hook up from the bottom through either the collar itself or the head. We recommend trying to get the hook through the collar, as they will stay alive that way, but a lot of the time smallmouth are so keyed in on them that it doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive.

  • Hellgrammites are a major food source for river and stream smallmouth.
  • If you’ve exhausted all your options and fish aren’t biting, it could be because they are keyed in on hellgrammites that are on the move.
  • Live or imitation hellgrammites can be presented on a small jig head or under a slip float worked close to bank cover. 

If flipping rocks and looking for bugs isn’t your thing, the Bass Pro Shops Hellgrammite is an excellent alternative, and it pays to have these handy when walking your local stream. The soft plastic construction gives a realistic presentation, and they come in multiple colors to fit any river condition.

greenpumpkin_hellgrammite

Bass Pro

Goby Imitations

goby fish bait

With the explosion of the goby population in the Great Lakes came another abundant food source for smallmouth bass. An invasive species, gobies not only flourish in the Great Lakes but are also spreading into inland lakes across that same region. But the lakes you fish can be great options even if they don’t have gobies in them. Gobies closely resemble sculpin, a food source available in most lakes across North America. Not in the same family, Gobies look so close to a sculpin that smallmouth will have a tough time telling the two apart.

Like sculpin, gobies lack a swim bladder. That means they spend all of their time swimming around the bottom, cruising around the sand and mud, using the same rocks that smallmouth love so much as cover. This means goby imitations need to be fished directly on the bottom. The aptly named Erie Drag, a slow and steady technique born from the surge in smallmouth feeding on goby, is the best way to accomplish this, whether you’re using a tube jig or a realistic copy. With a heavy jig head, let the bait quickly sink to the bottom, then drag it back to the boat without any jigging motion.

  • Goby imitations will work on any lake, river, or stream, regardless of whether or not there is a goby population.
  • Gobies are nearly identical to sculpin, a bottom-dwelling fish that smallmouth have always fed on.
  • Goby baits should be presented slowly and methodically, dragging them along the bottom.
  • When fishing tubes, always use a jig head heavier than what you think you need to ensure constant contact with the bottom.

Tube jigs are by far the most popular - and possibly one of the most effective - ways to imitate a goby. Any tackle company that makes tube jigs will have colors that closely resemble a Goby. A favorite is Strike King’s Coffee Fat Tube. The tube is shorter than regular tubes, yet keeps the same diameter, giving it a wider look. The infused coffee oil and bean granules offer a scent that smallmouth can’t refuse.

Strike King Coffee Fat Tube 2.75'' / Watermelon Candy Green Pumpkin (CT2.75-129)

Bass Pro | Amazon 

 

The Savage Gear 3D Goby Tube offers a different take on the usual tube jig by adding prominent soft plastic side fins that move in the water while it’s dragged along the bottom. While not always necessary, sometimes that addition can help trigger weary smallmouth that might otherwise pass a regular tube by.

Savage Gear GT-100-MM 3D Hollow Tube Mike's Magic, 4'

Bass Pro | Amazon 

Crawfish Imitations

crawfish bait for bass

Smallmouth bass love crawfish. It’s not surprising that they are one of a smallmouth's favorite foods, considering how abundant they are in lakes, rivers, and streams throughout North America. What can be said about the crawfish that hasn’t been said a million times already? A favorite spring through fall, it’s often the first bait smallmouth anglers will reach for.

There are so many ways to present a crawfish, and every tackle company will use crawfish patterns in pretty much all lures, from crankbaits to jerkbaits. There's no limit to how you can take advantage of a smallmouth’s insatiable taste for crawfish, but offering them a soft plastic imitation is hard to beat.

Even then, it can be hard to narrow down the best plastic, as the options can seem limitless. You can never go wrong with a tube jig. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the versatility of a tube makes it one of the best ways to catch smallmouth, no matter what you’re trying to replicate. Crawfish imitations are no exception.

  • Crawfish are a major food source for smallmouth bass in any lake, river, or stream.
  • They’re best fished between spring and fall as crawfish will bury themselves into the soft lake bottom when water temps are cold, taking themselves off the menu for winter bass.
  • Soft craw imitations, tube jigs, and crankbaits are all excellent choices anytime smallmouth are feeding on crawfish.
  • Live crawfish can be an excellent option when smallmouth are finicky.

The Bass Pro Shops Tender Tube is super soft yet highly durable. It stands up not only to multiple fish but also to the punishment of being dragged through rock and timber. Available in multiple crawfish colors, this tube is double salt impregnated to attract fish and make them hang on longer.

Bass Pro Shops Tender Tube

Bass Pro

As we mentioned, plastics aren’t the only way to imitate a crawfish, and if crankbait fishing is more your style, then it’s hard to beat the Rebel Crawfish. Available in several fish-attracting colors, the Rebel Crawfish has been a staple in smallmouth anglers’ tackle bags for years and continues to catch fish on any lake, river, or stream smallmouth are found.

Rebel Crawfish-Stream Craw, One Size

Bass Pro | Amazon 

Plastic Worms

We can’t talk about Smallmouth baits without mentioning plastic worms, and no tackle bag is complete without them. Some things in life are just meant to go together. Smallmouth bass and worms are two of those things.

Worms come in all kinds of styles, sizes and colors and can be rigged in ways that will cover just about any scenario, making them one of the most versatile smallmouth baits. That being said, it’s hard to deny that they’re most effective for smallmouth when finessed, fished slowly and methodically. Where they lack in the flash that other lures offer, like rattle and vibration, plastic worms make up for with natural movement and added scent. 

  • Often fished differently for smallmouth than for largemouth, most consider plastic worms a finesse bait. 
  • Worms aren’t found out in the open water naturally. Fish them in and around the cover or rocks that smallmouth are relating to.
  • Slow and steady is key; let the worm do the work.
  • Fish plastic worms that are very soft and have their own natural movement in the water.

The Yamamoto Senko is a perfect example of a plastic worm done right, which is why it’s a staple bait for any serious smallmouth angler. In sizes ranging from 3” to 7” and seemingly endless color options, the Senko can catch fish whether you’re tossing it weightless into cover or suspending it up off the bottom with a drop-shot rig.

Yamamoto 9-10-301 Senko, 5-Inch, 10-Pack, Green Pum-Packin W/Lg Green & Pur

Bass Pro | Amazon 

The Bass Pro Shops Flick’n Shimmy Worm is another option, especially when fishing wacky rigs. The ends of the worm move around widely when the bait is on the drop, a time when smallmouth are more than likely to hit it. 

Bass Pro Shops Flickn Shimmy Worms

Bass Pro

More options here: Best Worms for Bass

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that plenty of baits can be used for both smallmouth bass and largemouth Bass, but successful bass anglers all over the country would agree smallmouth can be a different fish altogether, and your bait needs to be adjusted accordingly. 

Do you use any of these baits? Do you fish live bait for smallmouth bass? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

About The Author
Dan R
Dan was practically born with a fishing rod in his hand. Growing up in the Great Lakes Region fishing has been a major part of his life from a very young age. When not on the water you can find Dan enjoying time with his family.
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