The river was brown, roily soup surging around the base of each tree at the head of the island. Could I run the trolling motor here, where I’ve walked in the past — where I once camped? The current, broken by a fence of oaks and pines, was slower where my tent once stood. After dialing down the speed and ducking under a few branches, I began pitching spinnerbaits into squirrel dens.
Thankfully, smallmouths had evicted the squirrels and came charging out from behind every third or fourth tree to try and demolish and ingest the spinnerbait in the same heartbeat. Which proves the axiom: When smallmouth fishing, expect the unexpected. Conventional wisdom holds that high water pushes smallmouths to the bank. These critters were in the middle of a raging river, albeit hiding behind a “fence” 60 feet high.
Most anglers head elsewhere when rivers rage over the banks, which is the smart thing to do. Things come careening down the river — trees, telephone poles, Volkswagons, ruined watercraft. The fish, meanwhile, are evicting squirrels and hiding behind real fences, made of barbed wire, hovering just far enough below the surface to make things real sporty. The current makes treacherous business of boat control and anchoring.
So you can stay home or fish lakes. Be safe. Live long and prosper.
Or you can dabble in extremes.
FLOOD LOCATION SAVVY
Cap’n Jack West guides on the rivers of Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Guides can’t take the day off when the river floods. If the client says, “Go,” you saddle up. “As we guided hardcore smallmouth fishermen throughout last year’s long, cold winter, we anticipated great spring fishing and the wonderful weather we knew was just around the corner,” West says. “Instead, we endured the wettest spring ever recorded in Tennessee and Virginia. High, muddy, often dangerous rivers became the rule rather than the exception.
“Many of the folks we regularly guide are expert hardcore fishermen, not deterred by the cold or muddy water. They reschedule floats only when weather creates dangerous conditions on the river. Consequently, we fish inclement weather conditions throughout winter and spring on eight rivers spread through upper east Tennessee and Virginia. Last year, extreme winter conditions and a deluge that lasted through early summer forced us to fish a lot of high, muddy water. We were faced with interesting challenges on a daily basis. And we learned a lot.
“Volumes have been written about fishing rivers for smallmouth bass. To my knowledge, little has been committed to print or film describing how to fish for trophy river smallies when weather conditions are horrible. How many TV shows have focused on fishermen going after smallies when rivers are running high and muddy?
“How many writers even suggest fishing for river smallies when water temperatures are near freezing and the ambient temperature is so cold that you have to dunk your rods into the water to thaw the ice from the guides before you can make your next cast, or when the water is so muddy that you can’t see the bottom half of a brightly colored 6-inch soft bait as you hold it at the surface of the water.”
Uh, not guilty, my friend. We’ve filmed a piece or two for In-Fisherman TV in high, cold-water conditions. In fact, given a choice between extreme high or low conditions, I’ll take flood stage every time. Low water scatters fish into every conceivable locational pattern. High water funnels fish into more predictable spots. The force of the river alone excludes the presence of smallmouths from a much higher percentage of the river’s total area in high water. And we’ve pulled our share of smallmouths through holes in the ice — which is the only choice we have when Cap’n Jack is guiding on open water in Virginia. But high, cold, muddy water in a river? We’ll leave the TV cameras in the office, thank you.
Most river smallmouths need deep water to winter in. In states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, radio-tracking studies reveal that smallmouths migrate up to 70 miles from summer to winter habitat. In many cases, the trip is much shorter, sometimes nonexistent, but a migration of some length is the rule. Most wintering sites on rivers are at least 20 feet deep in the North. Down South, smallmouths tend to migrate shorter distances and sometimes stay in creeks all winter. They seek deeper water, but a wintering site doesn’t necessarily have to be 20 feet deep.
Day length tends to cue fall movements. Somewhere around the vernal equinox — the first day of fall — shortening days trigger migration toward winter habitat. These movements don’t happen all at once. In many systems, the biggest fish move first. Smallmouths begin stacking up around these wintering areas as water temperatures dip below 60F in the South, and the low 50F range in the North. Wintering sites tend to be on straight sections of river, as opposed to bend holes. If available, plunge pools beneath dams make good wintering sites. Smallmouths in riverine habitat above dams often drop down into reservoirs to winter.
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