Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catching Smallmouth Bass in Streams and Small Rivers

Catching Smallmouth Bass in Streams and Small Rivers

Less common than their larger cousin the largemouth, smallmouth bass are special not only because they fight harder than other freshwater fish, but because the rock strewn environments they inhabit have something of mountain purity about them. Clean, clear water has a quality of vitality and levity that turbid water lacks.

More than 35 years ago, aged 13, I discovered smallmouth bass in Stony Brook, Princeton Township, New Jersey. I caught a few seven-inchers on panfish poppers and a fly rod. The next year, I tried a three- inch Mister Twister grub set just right on a size 2, plain shank hook so that it rode straight on the retrieve. The results blew me away. I caught smallmouths in every stretch and riffle two feet deep or more. I had been surprised that seven-inch smallmouths existed anywhere near where I lived, but now I was suddenly catching good bass to 14 inches.

It took a year before my friends and I discovered really good smallmouths in Stony Brook, approaching three pounds. Then I learned that all such streams have good bass in them. Even little Beden’s Brook near the Mercer-Somerset border has 17-inch bass. Smallmouths over five pounds are very rare, but they are caught. Last summer, Raritan River South Branch yielded a 6.6-pound smallmouth which before 1990 would have been the New Jersey state record.

It's that time of year when stream smallmouth bass respond regularly. Most of the techniques I discuss are for late spring and summer--during the early fall I use floater/diver Rapalas and the like rather than plastics. And to catch stream smallmouth when really chilly weather sets in it's best to use live shiners. Some anglers catch a very few during the winter on nightcrawlers.

Hunt a Lunker

It’s so easy, once you get the hang of it, that keeping one of these special fish—smallmouth bass over two pounds—is a disgrace. It’s not easy because lunkers are abundant, but simply because virtually any hole of about 6 feet deep or more will hold at least one bass two to 3 ½ pounds, and possibly better.  

Since depth charted maps aren’t available of streams and small rivers, get out, wade, and use polarized lenses during the day while catching eager smaller bass nine to 13 inches or so. Often big bass can be seen, but not caught, in the middle of the day. They need to eat more than the smaller do, and take larger meals near sunrise, sunset, and at night. Smaller bass feed on morsels throughout the day. Trout nymphs using a fly rod are effective for them during summer.

Once the whereabouts of a big bass is known, it’s usually easy to catch. But nature may dash a plan. My son and I once sighted a large bass in the North Branch Raritan. Some days later we learned of a bass the same size we had estimated that had been caught in the Lamington upstream perhaps a quarter mile from the confluence. The bass we had seen apparently was not in the same hole where we left it; we tried for it to no avail.

The surest method is to use a large shiner, or other soft-rayed baitfish—large killies work wonders—on a plain shank, size 6 hook, no weight, just the hook tied to 4-pound test mono. The first cast is most important near sunset or sunrise. The lunker will have awakened from its aloof mood to an aggression that may move it to the bait before a smaller bass. Large bait gives you two advantages: you can cast from a longer distance so as to not spook fish, and the smaller bass may hesitate to strike while the lunker will rush without hesitation and blast the bait on the surface.

Use ultralight tackle, and especially if a downed tree or other cover is in the hole, the lunker has a fighting chance. You will know the satisfaction of having found a fish that has made it to the top of the ecological chain—besides you. And if released, it’s possible perhaps to visit the same fish next year.

Lures, Situations and Techniques

Plastics, such as Sencos three to five inches, other plastic worms, Mister Twisters and tube grubs rigged on a jig head or a plain hook; Berkeley Gulp! Imitations; minnow imitation plugs; topwater plugs; small crankbaits, standard and lipless; small spinnerbaits; in-line spinners; and fly tackle—poppers, streamers, nymphs, and crayfish imitations, may each be chosen depending on the situation and your taste. Each selection is limited to what they can do in a small stream compared to other lures.

Diving crankbaits are effective in deep, faster moving water. To rip a crankbait, or for that matter retrieve it slowly through a slow, deep stretch is a waste of time, but may work in deep, fast water. I’ve noticed over the years that stream smallmouths of any size, small or large, are more wary than on the Delaware, for example. During the summer I never use minnow imitation plugs, although during the fall I find them effective. An eighth-ounce spinnerbait, or in-line spinner also works in deep, fast water, but is too noisy in peaceful situations.

A skilled fly fisherman may out fish spinning tackle. For the latter, nothing beats plastics for all round effectiveness, but fly fishermen have a special advantage. Smallmouths feed on insects throughout the summer, and certainly on small molting crayfish, too.  Naturally, fly imitations work—so long as the angler is skilled with fly tackle, he will hook more bass. Sometimes even 3-inch Mister Twisters present a problem, especially with smaller bass, with whether the hook point is in the mouth of the bass or not.

During summer you can fish all day with a Senco, if simplicity is your desire, and catch perhaps as many bass as you would carrying a tackle tote. The advantage of five-inch Senco-type plastics is great casting range. You can get the lure way ahead of your presence. Nine-inch bass will hit this big, fruity lure with ferocity as will larger, possibly even a rare lunker. The best rod for heavier lures is a 5 ½-foot medium power, fast action.

Topwaters are best near sunset and sunrise. And if you find lugging a bucket of bait down a trail somewhere a cumbersome chore, lures like the Gudebrod blabbermouth, Heddon Baby Torpedo, Rebel Pop-R, and Arbogast Hula Popper are all certainly possibilities for an aroused lunker. Don’t be afraid to spoil tranquility by casting a big quarter ounce plug from a distance right onto the calm over a deep hole. But let it sit. Let it sit a full minute if you have to. Once a surface lure is on the water, the situation is dicey because the cadence you impart will make or break your luck. You may not get a second chance with the next cast.

Smallmouths are caught in rain stained water too. Spinners are especially effective.

  This link will take you to an article on river and stream smallmouth bass migrations.


  1. Интересная статья, прочел с удовольствием. Успехов на рыбалке.

  2. I am used to fishing largemouth fish, but I am planning to catch smallmouth fish in my next fishing expedition. Of all the articles I have read about smallmouth/ river fish, yours is the one with the most resourceful info. Thanks for sharing. I also found useful tips from the following website:

  3. Best of fortune to your efforts. Thanks for the compliment and for the link to the other site.

    1. Oh yeah I forgot that last guy that went fishing out here got KILLED by the kikiwaka I would be very quiet and careful the last guy that died from being eaten was (James course) IM TELLING YOU don't close your eyes for a second.

    2. Yup he was fishing out there and he was GONE. When you see it just say goodbye

  4. Replies
    1. I'm john I'm getting a big tank i will add 3 flier sunfish,4 firemouth cichlids and rulers of the tank a pair of SMALLMOUTH BASS and 1 single male red texas cichlid.


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