River Smallmouth Eat it up
River summers offer gamefish a plethora of food to pounce on from many structural angles. It’s impossible to find a single pattern that would really exclude all other fishing possibilities; fish will strike from all sorts of positions, especially smallmouth bass. Lures and approaches can vary, or you can select a single method and do well with that. Smallmouths are willing feeders all day, if the lunkers, especially in low, clear water, are aloof and more aggressive early and late.
Insects fallen from trees and blown into the river; insect larvae; leeches and worms; crayfish (especially small and molting); and a whole host of baitfish, including shiners, chubs, dace, smaller fallfish and suckers, darters, madtoms, fingerling channel cats and bullheads, panfish are all forage for smallmouths, so a wide range of lures is effective. Most anglers use light spinning outfits, although a few flyfish nymphs, wet flies, streamers, poppers, even dry flies. Until September, when shad and herring fry head downriver on my home Delaware River, lure choices are limited only to imagination. Once two-inch fry rich in Omega 3 make themselves available, the bass tend to feed on nothing else, so enjoy summer variety while it lasts.
Lures imitate forage and get where bass are; some are effective for many situations. It’s easily possible, for example, to float trip the Delaware all day using only a four or five-inch Senko style plastic worm rigged Wacky on a plain shank #2 Mustad, or an 1/8th ounce jighead dressed with a three-inch Berkeley Gulp! Leech. Either will apply to all sorts of structure, from rapids to holes nearly 20 feet deep, drawing strikes all day. Senkos are great for casting distance, sink fast and deep without added weight, can be retrieved when rigged Wacky at a moderate, pulsating clip through fast water, and nine-inch smallmouths rush them in shallows to make distended efforts at swallowing the total length. Three-inch Berkeley leeches are a light touch by comparison, but about equally effective.
What I like to do—most of the time—is try to beat the odds by using a wide array of lures, interchangeable by small snap, not snap swivel unless I opt for an in-line spinner. And otherwise I tie jigs and hooks for Senkos directly to the line. Something rubs me wrong about throwing a rubbery Senko into rapids. If a minnow imitation plug is not really more effective in fast water, at least I like to think it is, and my confidence in the lure certainly counts for something.
Just the same, a fast, deep sluice between a set of huge boulders, with more boulders on the bottom releasing boils on the surface, just begs for a crankbait to course down, ricocheting off the tops of rocks, digging in sand beside those obstructions, pausing to snap a smallmouth to attention, then tearing off on its way provoking the bass rush and engulf it.
Don’t believe it! It’s not all about food. For us to think the bass just like to eat is awkward because our eating habits get wrongly associated with the life of bass. We eat with manners—bass play their own energies. They don’t rocket to a swimming plug because they desire the taste of meat that much. Forage and predator alike are sporting. They have no concept of sport, but they feel it, and the feeling of life is what it’s all about for them.
An 1/8th ounce jig may be effective in the same spots as plugs, but you can knock on bass’s doors with a jig—tap it on top of a rock, then let it tumble off the edge to drop by the window, the open space of the crevice where a bass stalks. By such a sensitive approach you will never wield power as you will with a crankbait. When free-floating a canoe or raft, or power boat drifting and steering electrically, a crankbait gives you more control as you cover more area. But fishing fast is not the only way. And covering water is relative—which I’ve never encountered anyone else think or write about. A crankbait obviously seems to “cover” more water, but not if bass are hiding in the rocks. Bass under rocks will never see a crankbait plow through. A bass will feel it slam into the rock it is underneath, but that will be all—the bass is in recess and will not rush out and take chase. What is covering water if the condition of the bass itself is not respected? Quite literally, a light jig that subtly falls in full view, illuminated by sunlight right at the crevice opening, and then waits for the bass with Leech moved by current, is covering water that a crankbait cannot.
Nothing beats getting out on the river just before a cool dawn, with steam devils whirling off the surface funneling 90 feet up and informing you that the water temperature is down a little closer to what is optimal for smallmouth bass. Now’s the time to be quiet. You can hear a bass take a baitfish from the surface 200 yards or more away. Until the sun gets over the ridge, smallmouths move into shallow flat areas with loads of baitfish, especially among common aquatic vegetation. On very rare occasions—pickerel are probably at least as rare as muskies—teeth will threaten your surface lure. More likely a largemouth will engulf it, but not as likely as will a smallmouth, and during this magic hour topwater plugs are especially vulnerable to big ones.
Don’t be afraid to put some muscle into your approach. A quarter-ounce plug isn’t too loud. Consider lunker smallmouths’ needs. While the average one-pounder picks and pecks away all day, even at trout-sized edibles, a big smallmouth over two pounds, possibly four, needs to consume more each day (or possibly each night) than do bass half or a quarter their size. A four-pound bass does not likely maintain its mass solely by eating stonefly nymphs. Toss a Heddon Plunker, Heddon Baby Torpedo, Rebel Pop-R, or any popper or bladed topwater to coax out strikes. Never fish routinely. Nature is spontaneous, erratic, and ultimately unpredictable. We think of it as lawful and orderly, but this implies only what we know of nature, and we will never be omniscient. The point of fishing is to beat the odds. So count on original moves to get a fish to strike. Break cadences into motions that surprise even yourself, by feeling your own natural responses.
With sun rays beaming through treetops, in-line spinners become especially effective. Blades with prismatic reflective tape do wonders for sun rays, but the old standbys of silver or gold blades still catch fish. A straight, moderately fast retrieve through faster water broken up by boulders or rocks is best. With spinners, to pause the lure—as is effective with plugs and spinnerbaits next to an ambush point—is to defeat the purpose of what these lures do. They imitate a healthy, if overly determined and outstanding (especially with prismatic tape) baitfish. To pause a spinner is to kill the sustained, mesmerizing effect. It’s mesmerizing for us, and bass at least don’t mind. On the other hand, pausing a spinnerbait may be the best way to draw a strike since the blades, swivel mounted, just shift into upward position and turn and flutter as the jig body carries the lure down. A twister grub instead of a skirt is obviously effective this way. An 1/8th ounce spinnerbait with smaller size Colorado blades may be fished a lot like a jig in boulder strewn channels, also allowing for effective blade vibrations and steady retrieves.
And speaking of jigs, tubes are an old standby, but forever deadly. Effective in winter with water temperatures in the 30’s by allowing the plastic tentacles to pulsate in slow current as the jig remains motionless on bottom, summer certainly allows you increased tempo. Tube jigs especially draw strikes on the drop, or possibly soon after they hit bottom (and pulsate). So with an 1/8th or possibly quarter-ounce jighead, you can drop it on and next to likely lairs, work it off the bottom a few times, reel it in and try another target.
All other plastics—swim baits, twister grubs, Shad Rap type realistic imitations, etc.--are effective choices that can make the day interesting and possibly turn a catch to your favor. But never rely on a lure itself ahead of how you use it. Reading water and timing (not staying too long or short in a spot or area) are more important factors than lure choice. If you can read water, you can judge at least fairly accurately what lure to use and have an idea of how to place it. You may think of a better lure while fishing a spot, even try three or four or more, but most important—find fish. To cast a lure where no fish lay is certainly to catch nothing.
These lures and approaches—besides flies—require only a 5 ½ foot, medium power, fast action rod. A six foot or even longer will work, but accuracy on a river is important. The shorter, not too short, rods are more accurate with some loss of casting distance compared to longer. Stick with six-pound test monofilament and you’ll have all the casting distance you need.