May 21, 2018
By Jim Gronaw
Throughout the U.S., plenty of smallmouth water resembles trout streams more than "classic" smallmouth water. I've fished beautiful streams in the Ozarks and the Upper Mississippi drainage. Across the Southeast and Atlantic-slope regions, countless waters offer anglers plentiful options. The Great Lakes also provide many venues, often unnoticed due to headliners like steelhead and walleyes, or the giant bronze tankers offshore.
Though many miles apart, small waters offer miles of peaceful, isolated and exciting bass fishing and action far from crowds. This is the realm of stream smallmouths, where bass boats and sonar play no part.
The world of creek smallmouths is far different from that of lake or reservoir fish. The moving-water environment governs everything these bass do—feeding opportunities, spawning, and seasonal movements. Every spring, the spawning urge lures fish from deeper wintering holes to shallow shoals, calm pools, and low-current areas that allow bass to lay and protect eggs and fry from predators and harmful conditions like siltation.
Smallmouths typically undertake upstream migrations to areas with gravel. Prespawn fish tend to hole up in deeper undercut banks or pools with little current or even larger eddies before dispersing to shallower, sunlit areas to spawn. During this period, water temperatures generally run from 60° to 66°F. Cold fronts and unseasonably cool weather can slow the progression of the spawn as below-average readings at night drop water temperatures.
Perhaps the biggest threat to successful creek smallmouth spawns is heavy rains that dramatically raise water levels and disperse bedding fish, sometimes wiping out an entire year-class of fish if the water remains high and muddy. Even if a successful hatch occurs and fry have emerged, swift currents typically limit recruitment of bass. Fortunately, most heavy rain events are localized, and some sections of most creeks see a successful spawn in most years.
Larrimore adds that a long, dry winter keeps flows below normal, restricting the number of bedding sites. Conversely, a wet winter can keep water levels too high and muddy for successful spawns. He estimates that once every four to five years, conditions are ideal for exceptional spring bass fishing in the creeks he plies. Those conditions include adequate flows with good clarity, progressive warming that maintains a 62°F to 66°F water temperature, and a two-week period of little rainfall.
Tackle selection is simple, with light spinning gear with either 6-pound-test monofilament or 10-pound braid as a mainline. I favor Gamma PolyFlex in clear or Optic Yellow or green Gamma Torque Braid. Fast-action rods 6½ to 7½ feet long with at least medium power set hooks and muscle bass from snags or rocks. Stream fishing calls for accurate casts of 30 to 50 feet to deliver small lures near targets. I use Tec Lite rods or the Daiwa Presso 71/2-foot model in most situations. Both rods have many microguides that enable effortless casting with small lures. I match them to Quantum Trax 10 reels.
During the Prespawn and Postspawn periods, bass typically are looking down to feed, not up, so presentations should imitate crayfish or minnow forage. Hair jigs work great in sizes from 1/16- to 3/16-ounce. Crayfish patterns in brown, olive, black, or dark green are most effective. We like bulky ties tipped with softbaits that sink slowly. Heads from 1/16- to 1/8-ounce cover most bases.
Small crankbaits like the Bagley Mini Series and the larger Rebel Crawfish are deadly when fished slowly about two feet below the surface. The crankbait bite tends to be more of a prespawn pattern as bass are moving and actively feeding.
Keep casts short, as setting the hook in current can be challenging, as it sweeps the lure, creating bow in the line. In murky water, in-line spinners such as #2 or #3 Mepps Aglias or Yakima Roostertails often work.
As the spawn winds down and waters warm, we abandon chest waders in favor of wading wet. During summer, expect to encounter fish of all sizes and other species may dominate the catch. Big postspawn smallmouths often settle in large, deep pools and roam shallow early and late in the day. In spring, the bite often peaks at midday, but summer action is focused on the early-morning and evening periods. Evening insect hatches stir feeding activity by several species. Cloudy days sometimes extend a morning bite until noon and a thunderstorm can be your friend if the waters don't become too muddy. Rain showers roil the water, which can mask wading activity and cover up a less-than-perfect presentation. But in many creeks, summer drought puts the water level at a seasonal low, combined with the highest water temperatures. Bass often hole up, staying in the deepest water during the day and venturing out at dusk and dawn or after dark to feed.
Now is the time to use small crankbaits and surface lures to catch lots of fish. Favorites include the Rapala Original Floating Minnow, which can be fished as a shallow runner or twitched on top. The #5 series, 2 inches long, in a silver or gold finish, has served creek anglers for decades. The slightly larger #6 Husky Jerk may have the edge in attracting big bass and works as a crankbait or a topwater. When you see minnows skipping frantically across the surface, it's time to toss them, or else a Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow F1161. Its 2-inch length is ideal for creek bass and we've had great success with the Baby Bass and Glass Minnow patterns. The Pins Minnow has a tight, wiggle that imitates frantic minnows well.
For fishing a bit deeper, the 1.5-inch Rebel Wee Crawfish F77 model is another longtime favorite. Top colors include Stream Crawfish and Natural Tan, which has a softshell appearance that appeals to neutral bass. The only drawback is the lure's #14 treble hooks that often lose their grip during battle with a 3-pounder. I prefer to remove both trebles and replace the back one with a #6 or # 8 treble from Owner or Wright & McGill, as they improve catch rates with bigger bass and still land plenty of rock bass and sunfish.
Small plastic worms and swimbaits are overlooked options. The 4.25-inch Stank X Stix, made by Travis Crosman of Kalamazoo, Michigan, remains one of my go-to baits when hardbaits come up short. I fish them weightless on a 2/0 Owner offset worm hook, twitching them along slowly in larger pools that offer shady cover in midday. Wacky-rigged worms generally catch more bass, but Texas rigs work better through grassy areas or isolated rock. For a swimbait, I rig a 5-inch Keitech Swing Impact swimbait on a 2/0 hook and fish it like a small buzzbait on the surface or work it with twitches and pops through the water column. Downsize to a 4-incher if strikes are tentative or you miss bites on the larger lure.
Summer can be a great time for action and quality fish, but if your wading or casting skills are lacking, success can be greatly diminished. I can't tell you how many times I've fished behind anglers who have hustled through a stream, and caught plenty of bass they missed because they were either in too much of a hurry or they had the wading skills of a water buffalo. Slow down, take your time, and cover the water thoroughly. Always try to wade upstream when you can to avoid murking the stream. If you must proceed downstream, avoid disturbing unfished spots with your wading.
The Fall Bite
Fall is like a reflection of the spring bite, but in reverse. Water temperatures are falling and bass feed ahead of the cold winter. It's time for insulated waders again, as conditions can range from high and muddy to low and clear. Autumn leaves also play havoc with presentations as they fall and float downstream. And leafless hardwoods lose their shade-producing qualities. Yet, fall is a fun time to fish, offering opportunity for your largest creek bass of the year.
Over many years of creek fishing, my most productive lure in murky waters below about 60°F is a small buzzbait. Fall rainfall reduces visibility and pushes smallmouths to shoreline cover where eddies form. Careful wading is needed, but casts don't have to be pinpoint. Retrieve a 1/4-ounce buzzbait through the backcurrent slowly and steadily so bass can track the lure and zero-in for an explosive strike. I use the Strike King Mini Buzz and lures made by Gary Livesay of Taneytown, Maryland. His Hi-Rider has a lexan blade that can be crawled slowly on the surface. Another top option is Rivers2Sea's Whopper Plopper 90.
Hair jigs also shine during fall. Fish 1/8-ounce models slowly through pools and along undercut banks after the leaf litter has dissipated. I often tip them with a dark-color 1.5-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad. Strikes sometimes feel mushy, almost like the extra weight of a leaf or stick. So treat these sensations as a bite and you'll be surprised at how many start pulling back.
If you're like me, you'd rather fish in quiet solitude than battle crowds by blasting many miles across an expansive lake or reservoir to find fish. Smallmouth fishing in small creeks and rivers remains one of the most pleasant and productive options for millions of anglers throughout much of the nation.