Smallmouth Bass and Current
September 16, 2015
It happens when bass won't cooperate. Or when bass can't be found—which happens on rivers. The kitchen sink begins to look promising. Everything else—topwaters, swimbaits, jigs, crankbaits, and softbaits—lie scattered across the deck.
Every one of those baits requires adjustments in presentation related to current. Then it finally sinks in: Each lure or tactic necessitates a new casting angle. For some anglers, the change comes naturally—like shifting gears on a bicycle when heading uphill or down. Before switching to a different lure, they've already figured out something about how it will work in flow. Within a couple casts, the lure is hitting the river where the retrieve angle utilizes current to the best advantage of the angler.
River rats know this. They might not know they know. It's like breathing. They know that fish face into current, generally preferring to see things coming downstream toward them. They know that the stronger the current, the less distance bass move to intercept things. They know that lures with a lot of resistance may blow out, look unnatural, or fail to get down when fished perpendicular to the current. They know water levels and current strength affect all these things and—to some extent—determine casting angles.
Hardbaits in the Flow
As water levels rise in rivers, current's power increases. Both factors narrow the effective angle of a cast with most lures, while requiring increased weight for jigs and rigs used with plastics or bait. As current velocity rises, bass 1) Increasingly concentrate near current breaks; 2) Move closer to shorelines; and 3) Hold tighter to bottom. As current lessens, the opposite occurs. At the lowest flows—typical of late summer—smallmouths often abandon current breaks and begin treating the river like an elongated pond.
Last year on the Upper Mississippi, water levels remained high all summer long. By late summer, bass can hit nearly any lure on any given day, depending on conditions. But typically, the bite begins to veer from topwaters and plastics toward spinnerbaits and cranks. With the water running high, we couldn't cast at any angle we wanted to. With Colorado blades, the range of effective casting angles shrank even further. Most of the time, Colorado blades couldn't find the strike zone at all.
Colorado blades, of course, offer the most resistance. Willowleaf blades, offering the least resistance, were the ticket. Fished side-by-side, it was amazing how many more bass were enticed by willowleaf blades in high water. Throwing them at the wrong angle to the current, however, got you nowhere. It was difficult to cast the Colorado-bladed baits at any angle to the current that would allow us to keep the baits near bottom. The moment a wider Colorado blade begins to turn, it catches more water and current lifts it up. But heavy baits fell too fast. Bass ignored them.
In lakes, the equation we try to solve every day is this: How to calculate weight and lure resistance (drop speed), as affected by depth and water resistance, to create the ideal lure speed. (No calculator required—just trial and error.) In rivers or current areas, it's those factors plus the effect of lateral current. The more perpendicular to the boat or wading position the cast is, the more effect drift speed has. The effect of current on fishing line causes this effect, and it can prevent lures from reaching the strike zone. The ideal presentation is finding that sweet spot where the lightest possible weights or lures can be fished with the straightest possible line, thereby maintaining the maximum feel at the right speed to attain the necessary depth. Almost every day, on every river, one of the primary tasks is finding that yet-to-be-determined casting angle.
Lay a clock over the boat. Noon is straight upstream. Cast to 3 o'clock—at a 90-degree angle, straight across moderate to high current. A spinnerbait might turn awkwardly and get swept. Cast at any downstream angle and it takes serious effort to keep that bait submerged at all. Cast straight upstream and the lure gets pushed. It works, but sense of feel can fuzz out. The perfect angle on a large river in those conditions is upstream between 12:15 and 2:30 (or 9:30 to 11:15 on the other side of the boat), depending on the spot, the current, the size of the blades, and the depth.
Crankbaits are different. Those built-in digging tools we call bills keep the bait stable and near bottom over a wider range of casting angles. Still, the most effective angle tends to be directly upstream. Even tossed straight upstream, cranks send vital messages back to the rod tip on a fast retrieve. And while a crankbait can be cast at downstream angles, it's seldom advisable in strong current.
"I prefer throwing a crank straight upstream and bringing it down," says Earl Wells, a boat repairman and river rat who spends 4 to 5 days a week on the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border—a world-class smallmouth fishery. "We have serious current. I usually cast cranks anywhere from 12:00 to 2:00 o'clock. Smallmouths face upstream. They like it coming at their face. Sometimes we cast straight at the bank, but 9 times out of 10 I cast a jointed #7 Rapala Shad Rap directly upstream. I work 1/4- or 1/2-ounce Bill Lewis Rat-L Traps the same way—but more often toward the bank."
Learning to operate lures at all angles to the current is an important skill. But most days, some angles are less effective than others. A crankbait running perpendicular to strong current won't dig as deep, look as natural, or approach bass at the ideal angle. It can get swept off target or move too fast. The bow created in the line by current softens hooksets. Lipless cranks, on the other hand, behave more like spinnerbaits in current. A little sweep is a good thing, but too much downstream angle and the lure won't stay near bottom. We have less control when casting directly upstream. In low current velocities, quartering downstream often works better.
Bass ace Joe Balog lives near two world-class smallmouth rivers—the St. Clair and the Detroit. "When fishing without success on rivers, most times I feel it's usually due to improper 'flow of presentation,'" he says. "This is especially true with smallmouths in my area, but also is relevant with largemouth in lakes or reservoirs with lots of current influence—especially those with temporary current, like power-generation lakes. On those bodies of water, fishing without the right flow results in zero fish, despite being surrounded by them. The same applies to areas where bass feed when locks open to let boats through. Sometimes it even occurs when large barges pass through a system and back-flow the current. If you don't blend presentation with moving water, odds go down."
Braided line drives the odds back up. "Braided line is huge for cutting current," Balog says. "Its smaller diameter produces less drag. The low stretch increases sensitivity, so you always feel connected even when the current bows your line. Cast-and-retrieve baits, like cranks, became more effective because they don't get swept away as easily. Few innovations have had more impact on river fishing than braided line."
Hair and Plastics
When fishing current, Balog starts by assessing how sink rates are affected by drift. "The most important considerations for presentation are angle and weight," he says. "Sometimes, obviously, a heavy weight is needed to cut current and reach bottom. But too much weight can make the lure appear unrealistic. It's a delicate balance, but the most effective presentation involves the lightest bait possible that can still get to the strike zone and spend some time there."
Sometimes, drifting a lighter package with the current to a spot is better than dropping directly down with heavy jigs and sinkers. Dan Elser, owner of Get Bit Baits in Wisconsin and an avid tournament angler, watches how bass react to casts made at various angles to the current. "In an event on the Peshtigo River, we found smallmouth bass holding along ledges," he says. "We cast our Get Bit Crawling Tubes upstream and brought them down current. Pulled up-current with heavier jigs, we got no bites.
"At most angles, a presentation with softbaits isn't efficient when the current grabs the line and creates slack. You lose feel. When you perfect that casting angle, you can get bites on every cast. A 10-degree angle down from straight upstream (12:30 to 1 o'clock)—that's where I start. If you start by casting straight across, you get swept right away, especially with softbaits."
Elser also uses the current to find unique angles of approach. Using current to drift baits along bottom is a time-honored tradition in steelhead country. "Cast across the current or slightly downstream and a tube is swept along," he says. "It's like steelhead fishing. You feel the tick, tick, tick as it dribbles along bottom and then you work it and twitch it as it settles downstream of you. That's where you typically get bit. A 1/8-ounce head is ideal in most rivers when flows are average. It gives you a good drift and won't fall into crevices and snag often."
That downstream swing works with various baits, including his Get Bit Grubs. "It's true with wind-driven currents in lakes, too," Elser adds. "Once the wind switches direction, you see fish position differently. Current is something I consider whenever I fish, in order to create the most efficient, natural presentation. Most of the time, bass want to see lures coming to them with the current."
Guide and lure-maker Tim Hutchinson uses the currents of the Mississippi River to drift his Hutch's Hair Jigs naturally, timing things so the lure hits bottom near a key spot. "For me, the most critical thing is to make the jig hit bottom or get very close to bottom when it's straight across the current, at 90 degrees to the side of the boat," Hutchinson says. "Then I pump it or swim it, pulling it slowly toward me. But it has to stay within a foot of bottom the whole time. Smallmouths won't rise up as much in current. Many things they feed on are bottom huggers. And it helps if they hit the lure sideways. If they hit it upstream of that 90-degree angle they come off more often. You get more effective hook-sets when the jig first hits bottom on a tight line directly off to the side."
Like Elser, Hutchinson uses current to drift lures to key spots. "In August and September, we often drift tubes on Carolina rigs," he says. "Match current to sinker weight so you end up with a look as natural as possible. We use 1/4- to 1/2-ounce sliding weights with a Gamakatsu 5/0 worm hook and an 18- to 24-inch leader.
"I like to fish wing dams with a trough on the upstream side. I position the boat above the wing dam so the trough is 25 to 30 feet below. We quarter our casts downstream and glide lures into the trough, letting current carry the rig. Start with short casts and make each one a bit longer."
In this case, presentation is downstream, but the tube drifts to the bass from upstream—in the direction they respond to best. Earl Wells has a brother, Jim—a bass boat dealer now getting into boat manufacturing with Ballistic Boats. He also likes Carolina rigs in the strong flows of the Snake River. "We try to hold the boat in an eddy or out of the current. We fish from still water and let the current bring lures down into the eddy," he says. "We cast tubes upstream because that's more natural. When fishing Zoom Super Flukes on a heavy Carolina rig, however, you can fish at all angles to the current. I like a 2- to 3-foot leader behind a 3/4- to 1-ounce weight. I can work it faster. But when using a tube with an insert jig, I have to think more about casting from quartering to straight upstream, letting the Snake's strong current drag it down the eddy seam."
Swimbaits, drop-shot rigs, suspending baits, bobber-wacky rigs, jig-plastic combos—every imaginable presentation for river smallmouths has an optimum cast-and-retrieve angle. As water levels rise, those angles contract. As water levels fall, they expand. You can beat the angle requirement two ways—dumb luck and heavy weight. Good anglers never count on the former. As for the latter, when smallmouths turn their noses up at presentations that fall like cinder blocks and crash heavily along bottom, only two options remain in moderate to heavy current: Find the right casting angle or go home.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has fished rivers all his adult life and now lives on the Mississippi River. He often covers smallmouth bass topics.