By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan
Many times during his Bassmaster career, Chad Pipkens has fallen on hard times. But don’t pity the Michigan pro – it’s quite intentional.
Specifically, Pipkens knows smallmouth bass spend a lot of time in and around various types of rock structure. Preferences vary by season and scenario, but the general attraction is basic biology.
“A lot of times, rock is what draws in the bait; especially on places that have gobies, they live in all the rock crevices,” Pipkens said. “Wherever the forage lives is where you’ll find the smallmouth.”
Like most habitat features, location determines much for rock relevance. With the exception of depth extremes – too deep for effective presentations, too shallow too support a fish – there aren’t many “useless” rocks, but the laws of likelihood definitely apply.
“The main types of areas we fish for northern smallmouth are deep natural lakes and rivers, like the St. Lawrence, the St. Clair and the Detroit rivers,” Pipkens said. “In the rivers, it’s all based on current flow and where things have gotten washed out.
“In natural lakes, it’s based on how the glaciers carved it out. Sometimes it’s an extension off the bank, but even if the contour maps aren’t really good, they still give you enough of an idea on where you need to go graph. If you have a straight line that jogs out a little bit, something probably changes.”
Specifics will vary from lake to lake and river to river, but Pipkens shared some broadly applicable insights.
One of the most common scenarios in which those big chunks of rock play a key role involves the smallmouth spawn. The bigger, more experienced fish will often stake out the best spots where they can set up shop long enough to usher in the next generation.
“Another big player is when you have those big boulders in places like the St. Lawrence or the Detroit River where they have current washing around them,” Pipkens said. “Even places you may not think about; like Lake Erie, there’s tons of current in this lake.
“There and places like Lake Ontario, when you get those heavy winds, it changes the flow of the water and those boulders can be places where fish (hold) based on what the current’s doing. Even after the fish spawn in the spring, boulders are good ambush spots, whether it’s current-related or they’re just sitting around them.”
One thing about these “boulder guarders” – especially the darker fish – is their ability to blend into the shady areas. Sunny days and super-clear water definitely help you spot the roamers, but Pipkens said the big rocks can be straight-up smallmouth hideouts.
A crankbait, a dropshot and a Ned rig are among Pipkens' preferred baits for rock-oriented smallmouth.
“Smallmouth are notorious for tucking close to the bottom,” he said. “When it’s sunny, it’s easy to use your forward-facing sonar and your eyes because they’re up higher. When it’s cloudy and windy, they might just be stuck to the side of the boulder.”
As far as location, Pipkens suggests judging each scenario based on its probability – how likely it is to attract quality fish?
“You can put a boulder out in the middle of nowhere and you might find some fish on it, but a lot of times, it’s that boulder that’s around the gravel or the boulder that’s around the sand or grass,” Pipkens said. “Sometimes they get on boulders that are out in the middle of silt, but I like the boulders that are in the areas that have populations of fish because they’re more likely to stop on those from time to time.”
> Bait selection: For shallower spots, Pipkens targets boulders with a three-hook jerkbait, a hair jig or a dropshot with a Perfection Plastics minnow. The first two may very well do the trick, but watching his Humminbird MEGA Live, Pipkens notes if he sees any fish rising to sniff the baits. If so, deploying the dropshot or Ned rig usually closes the deal.
From modest clusters of rocks the size of cinder blocks to scatterings that resemble softballs or even golf balls, Pipkens knows this is another prime spawning habitat. But while the standouts – perhaps one prominent rock or some other unique feature – typically attracts the reproductive focus, the entirety of a sprawling, low-profile hard patch presents a benthic buffet, especially in goby-filled waters.
On such spots, Pipkens knows that a thorough search will often turn up more than initially meets the eye.
“If it’s spring and I find a bed in some of that gravelly smaller rock, then I really dissect it just to make sure I don’t miss anything,” he said. “Sometimes, you see one and then they’re like bluegill.
“You might miss one by 5 feet and it might be a 5-pounder one rock over, or one stretch over.”
> Bait selection: Pipkens said he loves to crank this type of rock habitat with a Damiki DC 300.
A traditional target for the St. Lawrence and other northern rivers, these ridges of sand and rock offer multiple features, so Pipkens is keen to determine the daily hot zone.
“I look for irregularities in the contours,” he said. “Sometimes, they’re on the upcurrent end, but other times they want to be on the downcurrent end. Sometimes, you’ll have a rectangle bar with corner pieces that stick out; a point off of that is always a player.”
Naturally, water flow controls this game. But can you have too much of a good thing? Pipkens said no.
“Those fish love current; they just reposition with current,” he said. “If they’re active, they’re going to be on the front side of one of those rock reefs. Sometimes, if the current’s too strong, they leave the front and they go to the back.”
Preferring dropshots, Ned rigs and Carolina rigs for rock shoals, Pipkens notes a particular challenge.
“If you have wind pushing against the current, a lot of times that makes it tough to stay on the spot,” Pipkens said. “When this happens, it’s like when they stop pulling water on a TVA lake. The fish like to suspend and you can catch them in the middle of the water column.
“It’s a hard one to target because they’re usually roaming, but you can catch them cranking. I’ve got on the scenario where you catch two or three reeling in your dropshot halfway to the boat and then the lightbulb goes off and you’re like, ‘Maybe I need to crank.’”