When the Bass Pro Tour hit the home stretch of the 2021 season with three events on smallmouth waters – Waddington, Champlain and St. Clair – I was reminded why I have such a passion for catching smallmouth bass. For me, the pinnacle of bass fishing is finding an untapped school of smallmouth and experiencing just how mean, aggressive, competitive and unrelenting these brown fish can be. But searching for schools like that can be like chasing unicorns.
This is especially true in the Bass Pro Tour format, where every scorable-size fish counts. When visiting smallmouth fisheries on the Bass Pro Tour, the pace is blistering: you have to be stacking fish on SCORETRACKER® constantly or you’ll get left behind. But if you’re the one to catch that elusive unicorn and tap an unpressured school of smallmouth, it’s an unlimited supply of scoreable bass and no one can keep up with you.
Look at Jacob Wheeler at Lake Champlain and Michael Neal at Detroit: both found the unicorns and both dominated those respective events. Just knowing that possibility exists in a fishery keeps me fired up and in full search mode, believing the next cast might be the unicorn.
Defining the Unicorn
The reason I call those big schools “unicorns” is because they’re super elusive. Even if you find one, it usually disappears. Largemouth have a tendency to stay in the same cover or structure for a longer period of time. But smallmouth are very good at evaporating into thin air. They’re notorious for being here today and gone tomorrow and I enjoy the challenge of trying to keep up with them. They can make you look like a hero one day and a fool the next. They move around a lot based on bait location and conditions. Many times they move; other times they suddenly become very wary of lures and become super finicky to your game. With that, you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.
Over the years, I’ve watched guys who were new to smallmouth take a big lead in a tournament one day and then falter the next day. They get married to a single magical spot and the next day the unicorn is gone. When the school disappears, standing around in the same place waiting for it to return is a waste of time.
Once the unicorn disappears, you have to go find it again – it’s always on the move. The key is to keep moving, keep looking, and keep running water as fast as possible until spot that crazy creature again.
Spying Unicorns with Forward-Facing Sonar
I will say, the game of unicorn hunting has changed tremendously with forward-facing sonar. This new technology helps locate all kinds of fish, but it really shines in the realm of smallmouth because they tend to swarm in such big schools. Now you can see these schools and read the fish even before you make a cast. With my Humminbird Mega Live, I can instantly see how big the school is, how they are set up on the cover or structure and what direction they are moving. At times I can even tell what they’re feeding on, as fish close to the bottom are probably on gobies, crawdads or perch while those farther up in the water column are more likely to be chasing alewives or smelt. But the greatest advantage is being able to see how fish react to your bait.
Smallmouth are really bad about following lures to the boat just for fun and not biting. This has gone on for years and we didn’t know about it until forward-facing sonar came out and allowed us to see just how curious smallmouth are. Now we can see it happening in real-time and rotate through lures, actions, vibrations and colors until one of the fish reacts and the whole unicorn comes to life.
When I’m down on the leaderboard, the clock is ticking and I’m on the heels of the unicorn, it’s such an exhilarating feeling. To contact a big school or find the lure that trips their trigger and then start racing up SCORETRACKER® is such a rush. It’s no wonder chasing those big schools of brown bass is still my favorite way to fish!