Smallmouth bass wear the moniker of "smallies" as if they have a chip on their shoulder - something to prove. What they lack in size, they make up for in brute strength and feisty attitude.

And they patrol stretches of Pickwick as if daring anything to invade their backyard.

"Pickwick is not the only place in Mississippi to catch a smallmouth bass," Iuka's Roger Stegall said. "But the size of the lake and the smallmouths population concentration make it the best Mississippi water to consider."

And Stegall should know: He's probably forgotten more about smallmouth bass fishing than the average angler ever learns.

Pickwick is a big lake, with a wide variety of structure and habitat, and just like their cousin the largemouth, smalls have their own patterns and preferences, Stegall said.

The key to catching these fish is to decode those patterns.

Stegall has guided on Pickwick Lake for 25 years and has fished the lake for 35 years. Over the past 25 years he has boated 40 to 50 smallmouths in the 7- to 8-pound range.

The lake has yielded a five-fish tournament limit of 27 pounds, 6 ounces, and another 10-fish catch that weighed 52 pounds.

"I believe the next world-record smallmouth will come from Pickwick Lake," Stegall prophesied. "Two 10-pound smallmouths have been caught from Pickwick."

The state record caught in 1987 was a 7-pound, 15-ounce fish caught in Yellow Creek. The world-record smallmouth weighed 11-pounds, 15 ounces - and has stood since 1955. That fish came from Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee.

But as fall creeps into the state, Pickwick's smallies set up shop in predictable locales.

"In September, the secret to catching smallmouths is to work the ledges," Stegall said as he cut the power to the Mercury motor and dropped the trolling motor on the Ranger Boat. "That's what I recommend at this time of year, anyway.

"Under normal circumstances, the fish are transitioning from deeper water to the ledges by mid-September."

And there are two notable spots that fit this bill.

"Bear Creek and Yellow Creek are excellent places to start looking for the smalls," he said. "It is also a time when the young shad are starting to become the bass' main diet. It's like they gorge themselves for the coming winter."

Stegall keys on secondary ledges, anywhere there is a drop of a foot or more from the primary ledge to the secondary ledge. The drop may be as little as a foot or as much as 5 to 6 feet or more.

He cites an example while pointing to the depth finder. One drop is a sheer change from 5 feet to 12 feet of water.

A Carolina-rigged tube bait with a football-head jig makes the leap from the first ledge, but never reaches the second. A fat smallmouth comes to the boat for a moment of admiration and instant release.

The bait is adjusted and resumes patrolling the water.

"Then if I can't get the bass to bite the Carolina rig, I'll use the Strike King Series 5 or Series 6 crankbaits," Stegall said. "My favorite crankbait color for big smallmouth is the shad-colored ones. My No. 2 color is chartreuse with a black back.

"Recently, I've found very good success with the (Strike King) Red Eye Shad. I use the Series 6 if the water is 10-feet deep or more, and I fish with the Series 5 crankbait in water that is 6- to 10-feet deep."

Exactly what triggers strikes takes a bit to determine, he said.

"I use a slow-retrieve reel to crank the bait down to the bottom," Stegall explained. "Then I vary my retrieve and let the bass tell me how they want the bait.

"Once I've determined the retrieve that the big smallmouth wants, I'll use that same retrieve on other humps and ledges in the lake."

And it doesn't take huge contour changes to hold smallies.

"Don't overlook the smaller drops," Stegall said. "Even transitions of as little as a few inches can hold bass. The ledges are a common occurrence at Pickwick, and where some structure exists in addition to the drop-off the bass will gang up."

Stegall finds smallmouths like smaller baits. Crankbaits such as the Strike King Spittin' King or Sexy Daddy are great for locating schooling smallmouths along the ledges.

Any of Strike King's Series 5 crankbaits come highly recommended.

He also pointed to areas where these contour changes end as potential hotspots.

"Where the ledges play out onto a gravel bottom there are often mussel beds," Stegall said. "They show up as a very solid, bright yellow line here on the Hummingbird.

"Smallmouths like the beds because they can find a lot to eat there."

Gravel requires a lure change, however.

"I keep a rod baited with a Pro-tour tungsten jig for places such as this," Stegall said. "I can feel the bottom really well, and a bite on a braided line is like a hammer falling on the bait."

Past the ledges, Stegall moves into the open water.

Pickwick is full of underwater humps and mounds. Many of these underwater humps are actually ancient Indian mounds that were on the landscape before the lake was impounded.

To excavate these mounds, archaeologists dug trenches through the center of the mounds. The trenches can be located on depth finders.

Oftentimes there will be a drop-off on the top of the mound and then the mound will reappear and drop off again.

There also are hills that drop off sharply into the lake, and smallmouth bass usually will relate to the hills and drop-offs closest to the main river channel - especially when current is pulled through the lake when the hydro-electric plant is pulling water to generate electricity.

Current is less when the dam is simply releasing minimum flow.

Grass beds are another key finding Pickwick smallmouths. On those rare September days when the air is cool and the water is warm, these are great places to throw crankbaits as the sun breaks the eastern horizon.

Stegall said there's simplest of explanation for this congregation.

"The baitfish find cover in the weeds or grass," Stegall said. "The bass patrol the edges, picking off the careless baitfish.

"If it is a bright sunny day, the bass simply slide under the grass to escape the sun. When this happens switch to a punch-bait and braided line to get to the bass."

Stegall also said largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are often found in the same areas: It is not uncommon for him to catch the different fish on consecutive casts.

"They may also be a little competitive," he said. "Several times I've caught a largemouth and smallmouth on the same lure, on the same cast - like one is trying to take it away from the other.

"That really adds spice to a trip."

To fish with Roger Stegall, call 662-423-3869, or visit www.fishpickwick.com, or email rogstegall@fishpickwick.com.