Sometimes, you have to go deep if you want to catch a football-sized smallmouth. Deep water structure are places where many big smallmouth live much of the year if the conditions align, and fishing deep is a great way to catch the fish of a lifetime. Television host and bass fishing personality Mark Zona and prominent smallmouth specialist and guide New York's Capt. Joe Fonzi each spend plenty of time in deep water when searching for the biggest fish in the lake.

They each have a specific approach to targeting deep water, with everything from the tackle and gear used to where they look having a purpose. While much of their focus is on the Great Lakes, the key themes will apply to catching smallmouth anywhere.

When to Go Deep

Zona spends much of his time filming Zona's Awesome Fishing Show throughout the Great Lakes region, and fishing deep is nearly always a part of the plan. There are a few exceptions, but often, he chases suspended bass in deep water or fishes right along the bottom where big smallmouth live.

"From ice out until the water gets to be around 50 degrees, you can find a good amount of fish hugging the bottom from 20 to 50 feet deep," he said. "Then they come up and do their business and head right back out but tend to suspend a lot more. The prime times to catch them in deep, clear water on the bottom are early in the year, then late summer, and again in the late fall. Those breaks between seasons are when I concentrate on shallower water or suspended bass out deep, which is a different subject."



Fonzi, who spends much of his time guiding clients with his Thumbs Up Guide Service on the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie, is nearly always in deep water regardless of the season.

"Ever since zebra mussels became prevalent and cleared up the lake years back, our water has gotten much clearer," Fonzi began. "Now fish can stay deep all year and spawn in water as deep as 30 feet. A certain percentage of fish, not all, but especially the biggest fish, will spawn in the deepest water that sunlight can hit."

Even during the spawn, Fonzi is generally in deep water but will go even deeper at other times of the year.

"We start to catch them very early in the year when we are perch fishing in 55 feet of water. Those smallmouths are mixed right in with the perch," he shared. "Most of the year, we can find fish from 30 to 65 feet of water on Lake Erie."



Instead of aimlessly heading to deep water, Fonzi is careful to locate areas that serve as travel routes for smallmouth. Many of the thousands of waypoints he's amassed while watching his electronics are single boulders or transitions from one type of bottom to another.

"A big boulder field isn't as good as a transition area where two substrates come together," he said. "Those places where sand meets mud or sand turns to gravel will always hold fish. Even a small vein of gravel on a sand flat will attract smallmouth; anything with a change in structure is a high percentage area."


Targeting Deep Smallmouth

Fishing in deep water requires a little more preparation when it comes to gear. Add in the wind and waves on many of these big fisheries, and it takes even more consideration, according to both Fonzi and Zona, who lean toward baits that get down quickly and stay there.

"I learned very early on that 'power finesse' baits are the way to go," said Zona. "I use a lot of tube baits with heavier heads that are ⅜, ½, and even ¾-ounce. Other good ones are a Ned Rig with a ⅜-ounce head and a blade bait."

For all of these baits, Zona prefers the performance of Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon used as a mainline without a braided line. He does it for several reasons, primarily to get the most out of his baits.

"If I'm targeting suspended bass, I like Seaguar PEX8 braided line because it's so thin and cuts water so fast, which is key," he said. "But when fishing on the bottom, I prefer straight fluorocarbon because it gives me the best feel and most natural action to my baits. It also corrects my hyperactive nature. I don't overwork the bait, which can happen easily because there's no stretch in braided line."

When fishing Ned Rigs, 8 lb Tatsu is his go-to and will increase in size based on the bait he's using. "I'll use 8 and 10 lb Tatsu for my tube baits depending on the head size and use 10 lb for anything over a ½-ounce head," he said. "For blade baits, I always use 15 lb Tatsu. Another thing I will do when using straight fluorocarbon is go up one power for my rod to get the best hook set like you would get with a braided line."



Fonzi follows a similar pathway for his bait selection and adjusts it based on
water temperatures. One thing he will do differently is employ a braid-to-fluorocarbon leader for fishing deep water. Like Zona, he has his reasons for choosing his line.

"My bait progression changes as it gets warmer, and I'll start early in the season with a blade bait or spoon when the water is below 50 degrees," he said. "Then, as the water warms up, I fish tubes and swimbaits and use a heavy ⅝ or ¾-ounce head to keep them on the bottom. Then, after the water hits 60 degrees, I'm primarily using a drop-shot but will go back to the blade bait again once the fish start grouping up in big schools in deep water later into the season."



For nearly all of his fishing, Fonzi keeps it simple with a 10 lb Seaguar Smackdown Flash Green braid with a leader of 10 lb Seaguar Gold Label, which he says all hold up well to the abuse of dragging baits over zebra mussels.

"I also like the feel of braid and all of the sensitivity you get when fishing deep water and think the combination of 10 lb and 10 lb is perfect," he said. "Smackdown is bulletproof, and even guiding as much as I do, the line stays on all year, and it's still as strong as when I put it on. It doesn't deteriorate and get 'hairy' like other braids do when they start to fray."

Fishing deep water is a great way to catch monster smallmouth bass for much of the year. These hard-fighting and often nomadic bass go where the food and habitat are, often to great depths. Targeting these deep-water fish requires a specific approach and the right gear, something Fonzi and Zona have perfected after years of practice.

Seaguar Tatsu Fluorocarbon mainline is available from 4 to 25-lb test on 200- and 1,000-yard spools.

JDM PEX8 Micro Braid is available in 200-meter spools (219 yards) and comes in 12, 16, 18, 21, 24, and 33 lb. tests. (This is a micro-thin braid- please check line diameter when selecting product)

Seaguar Gold Label Fluorocarbon leader is available in twenty-five and fifty-yard spools in 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 & 12 lb tests for freshwater use, complementing the 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, and 80 lb test leaders available for saltwater.

Seaguar Smackdown Braid is available in high visibility Flash Green and low visibility Stealth Gray. It is available in 150- and 300-yard spools in sizes ranging from 10 to 65 lb tests.