VanDam’s 3 Picks for Back to School Smallmouth

In much the same way late August and early September causes breakfast Pop-Tarts to shimmy in the bellies of children facing the unknowns of a new school year – this ‘in between’ time on bass fishing’s calendar of seasons can also raise the anxiety levels of serious smallmouth anglers.

Fear not – the most decorated angler of the past two decades has been chasing smallmouth since his grade school days at Alamo Elementary in Kalamazoo – and he graciously offers up the details of three rods, reels, and lures he would choose to chase smallmouth right now as class gets back in session.


“More so than the season or the calendar – in the Northern US, it’s all about the forage base,” says VanDam. “Whether it’s gobies near the bottom, small perch, or in some cases, open water baitfish – it’s your job as an angler to figure out what they’re eating the most of,” says VanDam.

“But I’ll tell you this, ever since gobies became so prominent, smallmouth are not nearly as nomadic as they used to be – they don’t roam in search of baitfish in open water as much as they once did – and so dropping on them vertically with a drop shot or tube near the bottom is going to be my first choice,” says the Team Toyota angler.

“Secondly, Smallmouth are visual feeders, so I’m always going to have a deep diving KVD jerkbait handy,” says VanDam. “With all the flash and erratic action you get out of a jerkbait, as long as the water is clear enough for them to see it, they can’t hardly stand not to smash it.”

“For a third pick, I want to make sure I’m covered if we’re on a southern smallmouth reservoir like Table Rock or Dale Hollow– so I’m picking a Strike King 5XD in a bluegill or crawfish color,” says the 4-time Bassmaster Classic Champion. “Just because it’s still really hot in the South doesn’t mean smallmouth won’t get around flat, main lake, gravel points to eat bluegills and craws – but the key is to retrieve it really fast.”

Drop/Shot Tube – “They’ve been eating a tube for 35 years, and they still do,” grins VanDam. “As far as drop shot lures, I use either the Strike King Dream Shot, which has a ton of action, or the new Strike King Half Shell in a color called “Edge” that I’ve done real well with this summer. The Half Shell sits perfectly horizontal on a drop shot hook,” he explains. “I use an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader on a Size 40 TourKVD spinning reel, and 90% of the time I’m using a medium action 7’ 4” TourKVD spinning rod.”

Jerkbaits – “One of the most versatile rods Quantum ever built is great for jerkbaits,” says VanDam. “It’s a 6’ 10” casting rod that I pair with a 6.6:1 TourKVD reel spooled with 12-pound fluorocarbon. And again, day-in-day out the deep diving KVD jerkbait that Strike King makes is pretty awesome.”

Crankin’ Down South – “If you want to cover a ton of water quickly on the big reservoirs down South, it’s hard to beat a 5XD crankbait this time of year in a bluegill or crawfish color. I always crank with a 5.3:1 Quantum reel spooled with 12-pound fluorocarbon, and for 5XDs, I use a 7’ 4” medium heavy TourKVD Cranking Rod.”


Note: The author has a Masters in Fisheries, and loves Smallmouth more than football and pizza – so tremendous care was taken to provide oxygen-rich aeration amid the speedy photo work of the attached image. The fish was released alive into public waters less than a mile from the classroom.