Sitting in the rear seat of a 3-person inflatable raft, I listened intently to renowned smallmouth guide Britt Stoudenmire's color commentary as he guided us through the rushing waters of Virginia's New River. "This is a large river with extensive structure in the form of ledges and boulders, as well as bank cover," explains Stoudenmire (New River Outdoor Company, newriveroutdoorco.com, 540/921-7438).
"It's a smallmouth paradise," he continues. "Along this bank, the Virginia state record of 8 pounds 1 ounce was caught in 2003. I like to say the New fishes nearly 75 percent, meaning fish-holding structure is so abundant that bass may inhabit up to 75 percent of the entire river, including its mid-section, at some point in the season. But in spring, you need to narrow your focus. I've developed a system to intercept big bass in predictable places."
Surveying the river's rocky ledges, mid-river shoals, current seams, eddies, and erratically placed boulders, the decision where to cast seemed wide open. Everything looks good. But Stoudenmire says lots of fine-looking spots don't hold big bass.
Anglers across the country face a similar dilemma: In a constantly changing river environment, how do you select the best spots for big fish? Stoudenmire's theories on "narrowing the playing field" apply to river smallmouth fishing in many regions.
"The old adage that 90 percent of the bass are in 10 percent of the lake applies to rivers as well. The amount of flow dictates which 10 percent of the river holds big bass," Stoudenmire says. "For example, during a spring with very high water, big bass may not use traditional spawning flats. But in areas where a dam controls flow, bass won't move into nontraditional shallow spots to spawn because the river may drop unexpectedly. In such situations, they often spawn at the shallow lower end of their wintering holes."
Rate of spring warming also plays a major role in big bass location. "A speedy warm-up brings bass from staging areas to spawning flats earlier than usual. If high flows coincide with warm weather, however, traditional spawning flats get washed out and bass scatter.
"On the other hand, a slow warm-up causes big bass to hold in traditional staging areas longer, making it easier to stay on them, and the bite usually is fast. When a higher-than-normal flow coincides with slowly warming water, it reduces the number and size of suitable staging sites, forcing more big bass into confined areas. That's the ideal situation for a mega-catch.
"In general, I love high water, or more specifically, higher-than-normal water," he adds, "since it limits fish-holding water. Many mid-river ledges, seams, and eddies get washed out. Bass location becomes more predictable, and staging areas are more defined.
"Normal or average spring flows typically bring the toughest conditions because everything not only looks good but is potentially productive. Ledges, current seams, and eddies all may hold fish. But which ones hold the biggest bass? During these conditions, I try to cover as much water as possible."
Stoudenmire explains that under low water conditions, bass tend to stay close to winter holes longer in spring, waiting for favorable conditions to arrive before moving to spawning habitat. It's important to identify smallmouth wintering areas, where you can make impressive catches while other anglers wait for something to happen near traditional spawning sites.
Water Level and Color Affect Presentation
During spring, he targets big bass in current seams, ledge eddies, shallow feeding flats next to winter holes, and what he calls, "learned spots," those that lack recognizable fish-holding features, but that have produced quality-size bass in the past. These areas can't be defined by visible current movement or physical impediment to the flow, but have hidden features that draw big fish every spring, under a given flow regime.
"I try to avoid anchoring if possible, Stoudenmire says, "as I prefer to back-row outside key spots, holding in current and allowing clients to fish into them. We always fish outside these areas because the biggest fish often hold on the outskirts."
High Water: "In high water conditions, current seams are great producers of big bass since they stack on these seams to feed. I pull just inside the bottom end of a seam, and either anchor or back-row. Casts are upstream, so the jig tumbles along the seam. Feed slack line after the cast to get the bait to the bottom before you lift your rod tip."
High flows also tend to move bass toward shore. Although most mid-river spots are blown out, the bottom ends of islands provide mid-river breaks that fish seek, so don't overlook them.
Stained Water: Confronted with stained water, he relies more on crankbaits and spinnerbaits. "I tell my clients, 'stain brings pain' because you can wear yourself out throwing them all day. Those lures make noise and allow me to cover more water. Bass usually are more aggressive in high, stained water, so cranks and spinnerbaits attract big bites."
Moderate Flow: Under moderate flows, covering territory becomes important because the number of potential fish-holding sites increases dramatically. "I use reaction baits most of the time, including jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits to check every potential fish-holding area," he says.
Unlike many anglers who get in the boat and begin fishing, hoping to figure out things, Stoudenmire evaluates flow and weather factors beforehand. After selecting a particular river section, he identifies on a map the 10 spots most likely to produce big fish under the given river conditions.
"If I have 10 proven big fish holes in an 8-mile float, I expect to catch, on average, a big fish from one of those spots. On a great day, 5 or 6 spots might produce big fish. I don't waste time fishing everything that looks good."
Be Wise to the Rise
Like most river smallmouth anglers, Stoudenmire likes a rising river as it brings active fish. A sudden rise may result from heavy rain in the watershed or water released from an upstream dam. On the section of the New River he guides on, unscheduled releases cause fast rises on a weekly basis.
"The biggest bass feed on the initial rise of the river so I want to be in a good spot as quickly as possible when water starts coming up," he says. "The key period is the first 30 to 60 minutes of the rise."
With water inching up the shoreline, anglers may not immediately detect an initial rise. But there are other indicators to watch for, such as the sudden appearance of floating feathers or other debris that's washed off the bank and is floating along.
"At times, the bite can persist after the river crests and stabilizes," he notes. "My best day ever was landing 9 smallmouth of 20 inches or more during such a stabilization period."
Stoudenmire uses tube jigs and hand-tied skirted jigs with a pork frog trailer during all conditions on the river and supplements them with jerkbaits, crankbaits, and spinnerbaits. "I rig Mizmo's Big Boy Tube with a 3/0 Barbarian Hook insert-head during high flows and a 4-inch Cabin Creek Salty Critter Gitter with a 2/0 VMC Barbarian Hook during lower flows."
He favors VMC Barbarian hooks for their wide gap. "In spring, big bass often take a tube jig deep in their mouth. When you set the hook, you've got to penetrate the tough roof of the mouth. I've found the angled Barbarian far more effective than round-bend jig hooks."
Jig weights range from 1/8- to 3/8-ounce, depending on flow. He prefers lighter greens and browns tubes during lower flows—typically clear water conditions. He switches to black during higher flows with stained water.
During coldwater periods, Stou—denmire relies heavily on a hand-tied rabbit hair jig nicknamed the Undulator Jig. Under normal flows with clear water, he works suspending jerkbaits, particularly Lucky Craft's Pointer 100 and Rapala's X-Rap 10.
When high murky calls for bolder baits, he fishes crankbaits and spinnerbaits to increase flash and vibration. He favors Bandit 200 and 300 Series as well as their Flat Maxx. As for colors, "chartreuse, orange, red, or anything loud works for me," he notes.
"I'm a big fan of S&W Spinnerbaits which are only sold at Greentop Sporting Goods in Richmond" he admits. "I prefer the 1/2-ounce tandem model in white, chartreuse, white-chartreuse, or black. For a trailer, I use a Zoom Split-Tail in a coordinated color."
Preferring spinning tackle, he carries a selection of G. Loomis 6- and 6½- foot medium and medium-heavy rods with Shimano Saro 2500 reels. He prefers braid, generally Power Pro 20/6 in Moss Green for jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits. For tubes and jigs he uses the same line in Hi Vis Yellow with a 10-foot leader of 12-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon attached with a double Uni Knot.
While every smallmouth river has unique features, free-running waters from the John Day in Oregon to the Penobscot in Maine share key features with the New. Stoudenmire's systematic approach and vast experience point the way for some fine spring action, regardless of what Mother Nature brings.
Darl Black, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, is free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Bass Guide.