River Smallmouth Bass
October 07, 2015
I love fishing shallow rivers during summer because smallmouth bass are always just a short cast away. Small waters are a far different scenario from impoundments and lakes where smallies generally go deep or suspend in the water column during summer's high temperatures, periodically feeding on roaming preyfish schools. Considerable effort is involved to target lake-bound summer smallmouths, often with little reward.
Riverine bronzebacks, though, seem to feed constantly during warm weather, or at least they're ready to feed any time. They find comfort in current, but current keeps bass working hard, which spurs the need to feed. The story's the same from New England down the East Coast, across the Appalachians and into the Midwest. If you want fast summer action, go to a -shallow river.
The best smallmouth rivers typically have a moderate gradient of alternating pools, riffles, and runs founded on firm bottom (combinations of sand/gravel, rubble, bedrock ledges, and boulders) as opposed to slow meandering flows with soft bottom. Examples include the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota, the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and the New River in Virginia. An equally productive one is likely located near your home, offering good current speed and the right bottom content.
To provide a balanced look at summer tactics, I asked several hardcore brown bass anglers to share their insights. "I like shallow sections during summer because I can transverse shallow stretches in my jet boat, leaving behind anglers who can't run in inches of water," explains Chris Gorsuch, a former Susquehanna River Guide and now Vice-President at River Pro Boats in Missouri. "Summer fishing is a visual thing — it's all about reading the water so you can select the best targets. I'm addicted to pulling big smallmouths from inches of water."
"I enjoy summer because smallmouths are aggressive and chasing," says Allegheny River guide Jeff Knapp. "You can catch them on free-swimming lures. I don't have to resort to bottom-bouncing baits, which clients snag frequently. Summer smallies tend to be kinder to guides and their guests in terms of effort-per-fish, producing high numbers of fish of all sizes."
"l'd take summer on a smallmouth river over any other type of fishing," confesses Dale Black, President of Gamma Fishing Line. "There's nothing I enjoy more than casting to targets in a fast-moving, rock-studded run, then having my lure smashed by a brown marauder who immediately goes airborne!"
All three river rats prefer stable river conditions. Under normal low summer flows with fairly clear water, smallmouths can be found almost anywhere. But most will be in or adjacent to strong current. Examples include the hardpan lift at the tail of a pool; tailing current seams below a raging chute or rapid; a hard current push against a boulder embankment or riprap; rock-studded current runs; the current lift and tail eddy of bridge abutments or islands; and in the middle of a shallow riffle behind current-breaking objects.
Should the river start to rise and color up following rain in the watershed, fishing success initially improves. Smallies tend to move into hard cover along the changing shoreline or hold in newly formed bank eddies. The bite often remains good until the river turns chocolate, at which point it dwindles. All three anglers agree that the worst situation is falling water following a significant rise. In a receding river, smallies go into transition mode, putting them off their feed and making them harder to locate.
Lure Choice and Presentation
Jeff Knapp: "During summer, I use two basic lures when the water is relatively clear — a #8 Rapala X-Rap and Winco Custom Lures Solid Body 4.75-inch River Darter. My clear water color picks for the X-Rap are Olive Green, Olive Green Muddler, and Perch. But when there's some color in the water (visibility 2 to 3 feet), then Rusty Crawfish and Hot Mustad Muddler are productive. I fish X-Raps aggressively, employing sharp downward rod snaps while reeling in slack line. I incorporate plenty of pauses in the retrieve, stalling it for three or four seconds."
When fish are not hitting the X-Rap, Knapp switches to a River Darter. He uses soft twitches with extended pauses, allowing the bait to sink slowly. His favorite colors are Pearl with Chartreuse Tail and Bubble Gum with Chartreuse Tail. With a wide head and no hook slot, the River Darter is designed for nose-hooking. Knapp uses a #1 Gamakatsu Octopus Hook inserted about 1/4 inch back from the nose.
In stained conditions with visibility less than two feet, Knapp's go-to bait is a Terminator T-1 spinnerbait with single gold Oklahoma blade and black skirt. "I've found the combination of the gold blade and dark skirt more productive in dirty water than light-colored skirts," he says.
Gorsuch favors areas where nervous and calm water meet. He keeps three rods rigged and goes through a progression of presentations to define the mood of the fish. "At the head of a pool you generally find fast shallow water, often with the flow broken by exposed rocks or grassbeds. My lure choice is a War Eagle Screaming Eagle Spinnerbait with a gold front blade, silver back blade, and a white skirt. Holding my rod tip high, I roll the spinnerbait just under the surface, allowing the blades to bang and crash into the rocks. In those areas, I often catch bass in just 12 to 18 inches of water.
"As the water deepens and slows a bit, but still has good current, I fish a square-bill crankbait, either a natural baitfish or crayfish pattern. I typically fish 3 to 5 feet of water, either working along a rocky bank or over rocky bottom in the center of the river. The lure should bang off bottom every now and again. Keep the rod tip low and pause for a second each time it hits bottom. That drives bass wild." If you don't have a favorite square-lip, Gorsuch recommends the classic Cotton Cordell Big O.
"At the end of the pool where the bottom begins to rise and water pushes into shallow riffles, bass cruise these flats looking for an easy meal. I fish a soft plastic swimbait about 3.5 inches long on a Sled Head Jig (wackyworm.com). I cast the swimbait and let it swing into the current. It's a natural presentation, like a minnow being swept downriver."
During unfavorable conditions, Gorsuch finds salvation with a nose-hooked soft jerkbait. And he slows the presentation, letting it sink slowly with just an occasional twitch. "Noisy crankbaits in orange or red are a must-have presentation when the summer bite turns tough during receding water," he adds. "Something so loud and obnoxious cannot be ignored. Bass react, like a cat that can't resist chasing a mouse."
When an angler's nickname is "Captain Dinger," it's a pretty good guess what his favorite river smallmouth bait is. "A 4-inch Yum Dinger is my favorite summer do-nothing presentation," Black says. "That simple stickworm can represent a variety of natural baits, from hellgrammites and crayfish to darters and dace. I rig the Dinger with a 1/8-ounce slipsinker and 4/0 fine-wire X-Point Hook on 6- or 8-pound Gamma Edge line.
"I fish the Dinger in both fast water and slower current, casting upstream at a 45-degree angle and employing a deadstick drift with the current, steering it into eddies behind rocks. Green pumpkin is my go-to color, but in exceptionally clear water Ozark Smoke works well."
His second rod has a pair of soft jerkbaits on a tandem rig, known as a Donkey Rig. This is reserved for smallies observed chasing baitfish. "Nothing says frantic preyfish like a pair of soft jerkbaits jumping and darting," Black says. "It gets crazy when you hook two bass at the same time on this rig!"
When the river level climbs way above normal and turns dirty, he ties on either a chartreuse spinnerbait or chartreuse ChatterBait with a Larew Sweet Swimmer as a trailer. He casts them to current breaks along the bank. "A bright colored, noisy bait is the only thing that works for me under those -conditions," he says.
While a number of productive summer presentations for river smallmouths have been addressed, jig swimming has been slighted. I was indoctrinated into jig swimming while fishing with local experts on smallmouth rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin some years back.
Jigs designed for swimming are labeled swim jigs, but you do not need a "swim jig" to swim a jig. One of my best days of jig swimming was with a pitching jig that had a head design that helped it to swim through cover. Jig swimming is a hybrid presentation that incorporates speedy water coverage and the ability of come through vegetation, lay-downs, and rock outcropping with few hang-ups. It's like swimming a grub but with a larger profile.
I use a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce jig. The line-tie eye must be at the tip of a torpedo shaped head. A typical trailer is a 4-inch single- or double-tail grub. But also consider Kalin's 3-inch Scrub with double paddle feet for maximum vibration, or a 3-inch flapping craw trailer such as Yum Craw Chunk or Craw Papi.
Cast and reel it in any current situation, usually perpendicular to the flow. In extremely shallow water, reel fast. Bang it into rocks. Slow it down in current seams. Reel it past objects that create a current break or over flowing eelgrass. In high-water, a swim jig comes through flooded shoreline vegetation and floating debris better than any other bait. Keep it moving, picking up speed as you near the end of the retrieve to excite a following bass. Versatility — that's a swim jig. â–
*Darl Black, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, is a freelance writer and photographer and editor of the Northwest Pennsylvania Fishing Report. He regularly contributes to Bass Guide.