I love explosive topwater strikes from smallmouths as much as anyone. The jolt on the rod when an enraged brown bass spanks a crank gives me chills. And when the river is rising I'm first in line at the ramp to get on a hot spinnerbait bite.
Every angler relishes smallmouth encounters resulting from active presentations. But let's be honest: How often are conditions during summer conducive to smallmouths attacking baits? In river situations, bass rarely need to hunt during low flow. Instead, they move into position and let a meal be served to them in current seams. The smorgasbord of natural prey drifting along with shallow currents allows anglers to adopt presentations that catch more fish with less–less casting, less winding, less effort.
Smallmouth bass fanatic and river guide Pete Cartwright spends an astonishing amount of time on flowing waters. "Most of the time, smallmouths position in current to sample whatever comes by," he says. "They constantly test suspected food by taking it into their mouth to see if it's edible. And they spit it out in a flash if it doesn't taste and feel right. Drifting realistic artificial baits is the most natural presentation an angler can do, short of using livebait."
Lifelong river angler Dale Black says there are days that call for flashy, vibrating, or noisy lures but they tend to be the exception in summer. "When a river's low and clear, I rely on the most natural-looking presentation possible, drifting jigs and softbaits." Although senior by age, Gene Winger is a newbie when it comes to river smallmouth fishing. "I started fishing artificial lures for bass when I retired four years ago. Fishing several days a week, usually alone, provides lots of time for trial and error. So I learned what works and what doesn't. And dead-drifting softbaits during summer certainly works."
The Dead Drift
Dead-drifting is simply letting the lure be carried downstream, presented to bass in the most natural way. The drift is the retrieve. While some slack line is necessary to allow for a natural drift, too much slack spells trouble in terms tracking the bait and determining when strikes occur. Yet keeping too tight a rein on a bait creates an unnatural drift that finicky smallmouths are likely to reject.
Tension on the line should be just enough so you feel what the lure is doing in the event you cannot see it. Is it drifting freely, ticking bottom, or maybe getting snagged? Or did a bass just grab it? Determining the exact amount of feel for the drifting bait cannot be mastered immediately; it takes practice. It also requires self-control not to impart excessive gyrations. Give the bait a little twitch or shake now and then, but don't impart exaggerated movements.
Summer Location and Approach
Dale Black: "With low flow typical of late summer, I find lots of smallmouths in fast-moving shallow water. Well, not actually in fast water but positioned at a current break, in a washout pocket along the bottom, or in the broken current along the shore–somewhere protected from the fast flow, but ready to dart out to grab prey coming by. I also dead-drift baits in somewhat deeper current flows at the head and tail of riffles. One technique is to keep the bow of the boat pointed upstream while drifting backward downstream and casting almost perpendicular to the shore. This works if the boat and bait drift at approximately the same speed. But if the boat is moving faster than the bait, the lure gets pulled rather than drifting freely. The second approach is to anchor in fast water, cast at 45 degrees upstream of a potential fish-holding site, keep the rod tip high and let the current deliver the lure."
Gene Winger: "During summer, I drift unweighted and lightly weighted baits in fast-moving water only two to three feet deep. I also concentrate on slightly deeper tailing water below a riffle, rapid, or chute. My typical cast is angled at 45 degrees upstream, fishing the lure on a downstream drift by taking up enough slack so I'm in contact with it. Two vital pieces of equipment help position my River Pro jet boat for effective dead-drift presentations. The Spot Lock on my Minn Kota Terrova Auto Pilot and Minn Kota Talons allow me to hold the boat in fairly strong current for repeated casts to a productive stretch. If the water is sufficiently deep, I can set the Auto Pilot to move the boat back and forth across a riffle to drift baits through all potential bass holding areas."
Pete Cartwright: "When river temperature climbs above 70°F, I start dead-drifting. This presentation is particularly effective when the water is low and clear. I fish almost exclusively by wading. I find wade-fishing to be far more effective because I'm stationary, giving me better control than sitting in a boat. I don't have to worry about maintaining boat position. Furthermore, being low to the water, I don't spook shallow bass as easily as someone with a higher profile in a boat. I fish a variety of water as long as there's good flow.
"I always work upstream, casting ahead of me. For big fish I focus on the end of a pool where it rises into a riffle or chute. Another outstanding area is the funnel of water between two islands as it rejoins the main river. While I can't wade raging current areas, I can methodically pick apart rock-studded river flats that are only given a quick cast or two by boat anglers. Here I look for any kind of water disturbance caused by a large rock or log, or a slight change in water depth due to a ledge or washout."
Lure Choices & Rigging
Black, Cartwright, and Winger choose softbaits that imitate shiners, chubs, dace, darters, stonecats, crayfish, and hellgrammites found in rivers. Basic picks include soft jerkbaits, stickworms, craw-jigs, and tubes.
Dale Black employs three different baits: a soft jerkbait (Rock River Custom Bait's Jointed Jerk-Bait or YUM's Houdini Shad), a stickworm (4-inch YUM Dinger), and a jig-n-craw. He nose-hooks soft jerkbaits with a 2/0 Owner Mosquito Hook. Stickworms are rigged wacky-style with a 1/0 Mosquito Hook, or Texposed on a 4/0 Daiichi X-Point Light Wire Hook and 1/16-ounce slipsinker. He uses 3/16-ounce Booyah Baby Boo Jig with YUM CrawBug in deeper current runs. "The Jointed Jerk-Bait has great lively action in current, and the CrawBug is the most realistic crayfish imitator I've used on a jig."
Pete Cartwright relies on two baits for summer dead-drifting–a stickworm rigged wacky-style on a #4 Owner Split Shot hook and a hand-poured Small Jaw Craw from 412 Bait Company affixed to a homemade 1/8-ounce skirted football jig with a 3/0 hook. In color, he sticks with various shades of green (with and without colored flakes) during summer. "Depending on the situation, I adjust the brand and size of stickworm. In the shallowest water, I go to with a YUM Dinger because it sinks slower than a Senko. In deeper current stretches I step up to a 5-inch Senko because it sinks faster."
Gene Winger employs Solid Body Darters and Swimbaits from Winco's Custom Baits in select baitfish colors, along with stickworms and tube jigs in darker colors. For the shallowest water, he runs a 1/0 drop-shot hook through the nose of a Winco Darter. In slightly deeper water he drifts a wacky-rigged stickworm or a Cabin Creek tube jig. "When bass begin stacking up in pockets during the late summer and early fall, I switch to a Winco Swimbait on a weighted Flutter Hook. Positioning the boat above a pocket, I cast the bait at 90 degrees cross-current and let it drift into the pocket. Most strikes come as the boot-tail swimbait swims naturally through the sweeping turn at the end of the drift."
Rods & Lines
When wading, Cartwright is limited to one spinning rod. "A rod for wade fishing must be long with a fast tip and powerful butt section, able to handle 1/8- to 1/4-ounce baits. A long rod aids in controlling the drift and provides a full sweep on the hook-set. My favorite is the 7-foot 4-inch G. Loomis Bronzeback with a Shimano CI4 reel filled with 8-pound fluorocarbon line. I recently tested a new 7-foot G. Loomis E6X model and found it suitable as well, but wished it was a tad longer."
Dale Black employs three medium-power Dobyns rods for each type of bait. The soft jerkbait rod has 20-pound braid with a 10-pound Gamma Edge leader. For stickworms, his reel's filled with 6-pound Gamma Edge, while the jig rod carries 12-pound Gamma Edge.
"I prefer the same rod, reel, and line setup for all my baits," Winger says. "My rods are 6-foot 10-inch Fenwick Elite Tech Bass Rods with Pflueger Arbor spinning reels spooled with bright yellow 10-pound braid and an 8-foot Gamma Edge fluoro leader."
Save repetitive casting and winding of hardbaits for situations where those lures work best. In summer heat, when the river is low and clear, slow down a bit and drift your way to success.
Cartwright Covers All Angles
Pete Cartwright considers all the angles when drifting baits for river smallmouths. "When targeting an area you suspect holds big smallmouths, be sure to test different drift angles until you draw strikes. I start by casting upstream at about 10 o'clock and letting the bait drift to about 7 o'clock before reeling in. I may make 8 or 10 casts from this position before changing.
Next I cast straight ahead at 12 o'clock, letting the lure come straight at me while I take up slack and constantly checking for pressure on the line.
"Finally, I turn 90 degrees to face the other side of the river, then cast almost perpendicular to the current and let the lure drift downstream and into the sweeping turn at the end of the drift before reeling in. Experiment until you find the right angle to trigger bites."