The fiery red Aruku Shad 75 bottomed out at 10ft on the backside of the main lake rocky point. Starting a slow but steady retrieve the rattlin’ bait pumped into life as it crawled and bumped as if ‘dancing’ along the rocky bottom to the crest of the point. On the decent, a protruding rock sent the bait crashing off to the right. The line ‘flicked’, then went limp as the fish inhaled the bait from behind and headed for deep water… as I cranked to catch up with the line the rod bent double and 2.6kg of supercharged Clanwilliam pre-spawn Smallmouth exploded meters into the air, thrashing to throw the rattle bait that was wedged ‘deep’ in its throat…
Having spent 12 years ‘working’ on catching Largemouth bass in Zimbabwe, new business commitments had me packed up and moving down to Cape Town. The thrill of spending many days on the water, chasing the famous Smallmouth Bass - pumped through me. Five years on and numerous smallies later, time has come to put pen to paper and share some of the tips and tactics learnt, for the spring season Smallmouth at Clanwilliam Dam.
Known by most as the premier Smallmouth rocky reservoir in South Africa, Clanwilliam Dam is built on the Olifants River, 230km west of Cape Town. The dam is 24km long but not particularly wide. The upper third section is more an enlarged version of the original river course. Usually an extremely clear water venue, which stains on occasion due to an influx of rainfall in the winter/spring period and heavy boat traffic on spring/summer weekends. The banks of the dam are lined with rocky shorelines and points and isolated rock piles – the rock is everywhere! Sand heaps on certain flats of the dam as well as a few isolated trees and timber that have been washed into the dam from winter rainfall also account for very limited structure and cover. Due to the lack of structure and cover for the Smallmouth to break you off on once hooked, anglers can afford to fish with lighter lines than usually used for Largemouth bass. Over the past few years winter rains have filled the dam to capacity, which has enabled the baitfish to breed abundantly and thrive. The dominant bait fish are Bluegill, Vlei Kurper, Yellowfish and crabs, so plan colour selection of your crankbait arsenal around these patterns.
The Rod/Reel Selection:
On a usual day to Clanwilliam I would start by having three rod-and-reel combinations set aside, specifically rigged for different cranking situations that might arise during the day.
Light cranking – 2500 or 3000 series (size) spinning reel spooled with 8lb (0.25mm) green monofilament and 7ft medium action spinning rod, with a fast tip action. This light combination is great for casting small and lightweight crankbaits over long distances.
Medium cranking – baitcasters - gear ratio of 5.8:1 or 6.2:1 spooled with 12lb green monofilament. A medium action 7’2” rod, with a fast tip action is favoured.
Deep cranking – baitcasters with gear ratio of 5.0:1, spooled with 10lb Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon (retie often). A medium heavy action 7’6” rod with an extra fast tip action is my preferred choice for deep water cranking applications. The 10lb fluorocarbon will create less drag and floatation qualities than monofilament as well as allowing me to ‘feel’ the crankbait working on long/deep casts. The extra length in the rod will allow for longer casts which means more time for your bait in the strike zone and maximum diving depth of the bait
SPRO – size 6 Hyper Snap (remove swivel from the snap and only tie the snap to the line) on the end of the line of all cranking rods. These are the strongest and smallest black nickel snaps on the market and great for changing crankbaits quickly and confidently without fear of the snap opening up on a big fish.
Late Winter/Early Spring Patterns:
Water temperature’s are in the mid 50’s – fishing is considered fairly difficult early in the season so don’t get frustrated if you go for a few hours without a fish. Smallmouths tend to ‘stack-up’ at this time of the year and when you do find them, you can have a limit in five casts. The first areas I will visit in the late winter/early spring season, is the main river section. This section is fairly long in comparison to the main dam and Smallmouths will relate to different sections of the river at different times during this period. Where exactly is determined by current strength and water temperature. The slower the current and warmer the temperature, the more likely you will find fish closer to the mouth section where it meets the main dam. Do not feel intimidated by the strong current at the very top of the river. At times, this area can offer mind-blowing Smallmouth cranking. There is a particular ±75 meter ‘straight’ section at the top (5-8ft), probably two and a half casts length wide and flaked on both sides by palmiet growth – fish it! - if you time it right you will be in smallmouth heaven! Cast cranks up current – Smallmouths like to hide behind rocks when sitting in the current and will rise up and slam a crankbait banging off ‘their’ rock / rock pile or going over their head. When searching for fish, fish the small points sticking out into the river channel and the channel bends that come in close to the bank. Start at the mouth of the river and work your way to the top, thoroughly working the specified areas. Preferred baits include the SPRO Aruku 75 in Mudbug Red, Old Glory and Clear Chartreuse; Salmo Executor 7SDR in Real Dace and Real Roach colours. Bomber Fat Free Shad or Fingerling in Dance’s Craw and Dance’s Tennessee Shad.
Main lake points also produce big limits of smallmouth throughout the day. Work depths of 8 – 16ft in the main dam section. Numerous points need to be covered before finding a decent school of early season Smallmouths, but once a school of fish has been located and activated anglers can load the boat from that area. The Aruku Shad and Bomber baits still feature in the main dam, as well as Salmo Boxer 4SDR in Yellow Craw or Red Craw and Bandit 300 series cranks. Rocky bluffs in the main dam can produce monster Smallmouths. I prefer to chase these big fish with 9 and 12cm suspending stickbaits, between 10am and 2pm when the sun is high. The sunshine gives the bait maximum ‘flash’ appeal and this drives smallies crazy. The colder the temperature, the slower this bait must be fished. Favoured suspending stickbaits are Smithwick Roques and Salmo Stings in Clown, Perch and Chrome Black colours.
Special Note: The Aruku Shad is mentioned often throughout this article and I am going to explain why. Over the last two years this bait has consistently produced ‘kicker’ fish for myself and many top SA anglers. The SPRO Aruku Shad 75 is an unique rattling bait that has the ability to sit ‘nose down’ on the bottom without rolling over and getting hooked up in the rocks (this concept can be checked and confirmed in your pool before your next outing). There are two basic ways we fish this bait.
One technique is to cast the bait out and let it settle on the bottom. Rip it off the bottom a foot or two and let it free fall back to the bottom on a semi-slack line. Repeat this technique back to the boat and pay close attention to your line. Bites will be an unmistakable ‘flick’ on the semi slack line during the drop or the fish will inhale the bait while it sits motionless on the floor – before ripping it off the bottom.
The second and most productive method I have found to fish the bait, is to find the desired depth at which you believe the fish are sitting in and make long casts, allowing the bait to come to rest of the bottom. Engage the reel and slowly but constantly reel the rattling bait back to the boat. The bait will bounce and deflect off the rocky bottom, seldom getting stuck. Big smallmouths totally ‘inhale’ this bait deep in their throats on this method, so please have your long nose pliers handy! This bait comes through rocks better than any other rattle bait I have tested and works wonders for largemouth bass as well.
Pre-spawn: Water temperatures are in the late 50’s and early 60’s and are regarded as ‘prime time’ of the year for catching lunker smallmouths. The water is warming, the days are getting longer and big pre-spawn fish are making their way to the bank. Freshly flooded grass and rocks in the shallows are teaming with year old baitfish from the previous year’s spawn and slime has started to grow throughout the dam, which can be frustrating for crankbait anglers. To overcome this problem work shallower running cranks like the SPRO Little John and Prime Crank 25, Salmo Bullhead 6F and Aruku Shad 60 ) over the top of the slime, or fish the break line of where the slime starts its growth from the deep towards the shallows. This break line is prime location for pre-spawn smallmouths and is considered even more consistent if a rock pile is located close to the break line. Find the depth at which the slime stops growing and cast cranks parallel to the bank in this depth of water. The depth at which the slime will grow varies throughout the dam but I would suggest looking in depths of 6-12ft. Time on the water has proven that during this time smaller crankbaits in 4cm and 5cm sizes outperform the larger versions. Deep diving cranks in these sizes are my “go to” option for cranking the slime break line as well as isolated rock piles in similar depths. Favourite models include Bomber Fat Free Fingerling, Salmo Boxer 4SDR and Bandit 300 series cranks. Smallmouths smash bright red/orange coloured cranks at this time of year, so anglers must carry a few of these brightly coloured models in their box. Another colour combination I have found to be successful when fishing the slime is a crank with a green back, yellow sides and an orange belly – examples would be the Bumble Bee colour from Norman baits as well as the Yellow Craw colour from Salmo.
Spawn and Post Spawn: When the water temperature reaches early to mid 60’s smallmouths conduct their spawn. Saying this, the moon phase plays a major role as to when exactly the fish will ‘bed’ down for the spawn. A full moon is considered the major spawn phase, but we do know that some bass also take up the spawn around the new moon phase (no moon). The lower two thirds of the dam become more of a dominant area for the smallmouths – they will be shallower than normal during the spawn and extremely spooky in the clear Clanwilliam water, so make casts as long as possible. Small pea gravel and shallow clay heaps are preferred spawning grounds for smallmouths. Look for coves and creeks off the main basin that contain such spawning areas. The crank bite does slow considerably 2 to 3 days before and after the spawning ritual itself. Saying this, I have experienced days with the light cranking outfit when the fish wouldn’t leave a finesse crankbait like a Salmo Executor 5cm or 7cm Deep Runner in Dace or Real Roach fished in 4-7ft. Another favourite is the Smithwick ‘original’ 10cm Rogue in Tennessee Shad. This is a lightweight, quick rising/buoyant stickbait, which is twitched gently and fished slowly along the edges of sparse flooded grass lines containing sparse rock. Plastic baits are also most versatile during this time of year (see next issue).
Rockin’ it down: Just like most dams, every bass in Clanwilliam does not spawn at the same time. You will find bass in pre-spawn, spawn and post spawn on the same day, in different areas of the dam. Changing water colour will affect depths at which the fish will hold at different times and wind can play a huge role in the success or otherwise of a day – smallmouths generally love windy areas! When the bite gets tough during a flat, calm day, search for banks that have a slight wind ripple pushing along it.
Clanwilliam Dam is South Africa’s number one Smallmouth bass fishery - the fish are big and strong with competition five-fish bag limits during the spring period regularly reaching 9 to 10kg. With the available space for this article I have broken the spring crankbait bite down as best as possible. I am confident the techniques and tips mentioned within will help any angler on the next fishing day at Clan. Smallmouth bass are not widespread throughout the country, so please handle these fish carefully and ensure to catch and release, so our children will also enjoy the fun of catching world class Smallmouth in South Africa.
*Preston Dale is the proprietor of Goya Trading and a keen and proficient bass angler in his own right.