Monday, May 28, 2012

North and South Branch Raritan Rivers are Hot for Smallmouths

North and South Branch Raritan Rivers are Hot for Smallmouths

         Two summers ago on our annual Delaware River float trip out of Barryville, New York, I felt appalled by green algae covering every rock, a result of low water and extreme heat. I had never witnessed this before. The North and South Branch Raritans are presently in fine shape; rocks should remain their brownish colors without hosting a green mess to foul lures and fish alike. I haven’t seen such a green reaction in these two rivers.

          Situated in Somerset and Hunterdon County, New Jersey, these rivers provide some of the best smallmouth fishing in the state. Many consider the South Branch below Clinton to be the finest smallmouth river besides the Delaware. Public evidence backs this claim. Two summers ago a 6.6- pound smallmouth reported by The Fisherman magazine got caught in the South Branch on a live crayfish. Had this bass been weighed in at Efinger Sporting Goods prior to 1990, it would have been the new state record. Big bass inhabit the North Branch from Bedminster and below as well, as evidenced by a 21-inch smallmouth my son and I witnessed caught five years ago. We have ourselves caught smallmouths as large as 19 inches on the North Branch, but in both rivers average size is closer to 10 inches. A 12-incher is a good fish and will fight harder than either a largemouth or trout of the same size.

          Smallmouths may be much more abundant in a given stretch than fishing results indicate. Last summer my son and I explored a few stretches of the North Branch within walking distance of home simply by wading, just out on an excursion for what specifically I don’t recall. I carried my digital camera to take pictures rather than fish, and my son carefully explored a 10-yard length of shallow undercut bank which, to my angler’s eye, seemed insignificant. The current running along overhanging brush had no more than a foot’s depth, the riffles leading in flowed even shallower, and the stretch below deepened to a foot-and-a-half at maximum. Suddenly, we became amazed at about two dozen smallmouths ranging from five to 12 inches darting away downstream as Matt scattered them out. A dozen of them would have been sporting on a fly rod.

          Summer stream smallmouths take nymph and crayfish fly patterns, as well as streamers and poppers, often unhesitatingly and in plain view. These bass feed on larval insects as well as emergers. They also feed on terrestrial insects that fall into the rivers, crayfish—especially small molting crayfish—as well as shiners, dace, killiefish, and immature fish of other species.

          The range of lures and bait to possibly choose is wide and beyond this article’s scope. But for light spinning with no more than six-pound test line, my current favorite is four-inch Senko-style plastic worms rigged Wacky, hooked through the middle so that both ends flutter on retrieve. Senkos are heavy enough to cast long distances and reach bass unaware of your approach. Big smallmouths are usually shy and reluctant to hit; Senkos give you this advantage of stealth.

          Otherwise, on occasion I like to haul a big bucket carrying a dozen large shiners into one of my favorite holes at sunset. I tie a size 6 plain shank hook directly to the line, no weight, no snap swivel, and hook a minnow through both lips. These holes deepen to at least six feet deep, but the shiner will swim at the surface. I cast directly onto the hole; the first cast is most important. Sometimes the biggest bass in the hole, which may be 16, 17, 19 inches, and could be larger, is aroused and on the feed at the end of the day, rushing to blast the shiner with full force of muscle and weight before another bass gets to it. That’s a thrill to experience!

          When using live bait or soft plastic lures, don’t let the bass take line for long to set the hook in the hard mouth tissues rather than gut hooking it and jeopardizing life. Most will measure under legal size, and if you’re like me, you release them all. They’re worth more in the water.


  1. There's much bigger smallies in the South Branch than just 12" averages. You don't have to use spinning tackle and light line. I use my casting rods and jigs up to 3/4 oz with 6" swimbait trailers, jig and pigs, some creature batis t-rigged, and the weightless plastics all on 40 lb braid w/ a 15lb fluro leader. It gives you the ass to pull out the big 3-5 lb smallies that are in there consistently if you know where to cast, and also there are big largremouth in the slower pond sections south of Wal-Mart in Clinton. Trust me, I've caught a 5.8 lb LM in a riffle section with one hole with a log on the outside bend in less than 3' of water and it was a moose. The light line will let you catch all the junk fish, beef it up, try buzzbaits in the spring and summer and frogs, and also throw the hell out of a Zoom Super Hog rigged Texas style with 3/8 oz tungsten on a 3/0 hook. That's the best lure on this river for some reason, they just go nuts and u can catch 50 12" plus in an afternoon float. There's numerous honey holes if you drift from Clinton to Flemington, it will take you 8 hours and a portage thru the water plant, and make sure that the water level at the STanton Bridge reads at least 2.5' or else you will be dragging ur boat/kayak/canoe over shoals every few hundred yards, especially near the stretch between rt. 31 and rt. 523. All in all, there's alot of great spots you can fish and many diff feeder creeks that are great to use in the late spring when the water is high, the fish are easy to find near the mouths of these feeders that have cover near em. Best kept secret out there, while all the other guys are elbow to elbow at the lakes and ponds, you can float down on something as big as a 12' flat bottom boat with 2 full sized adults and 4 rods with ice, water, and gear, not draw more than 9" and get thru most of the river with some experience in paddling and negotiating the rapids, chutes and boulders that make up all of the unique spurs of this awesome river. The NJ DEP just refurbished a half mile long section above Hamden Road in Clinton, NJ digging out the silted in channels and planting the banks with trees and shrubs, and also putting in huge granite boulders to make pools and riffles. THe only problem is they cut off the easiest way to get thru and you are best advised to get out and walk your boat thru so you don't put a hole in ur nice boat.

  2. That's incredible information. I guess we could do it in our inflatable or I could get Fred to bring his kayaks. Don't think he would want to risk his Mad River that far up. I know there are HUGE smallmouths AND largemouths in the South Branch--a 6.6 smallmouth and 7 pound largemouth weighed in, 2010. I knew when I finished fishing the South Branch in September for last season that I had barely scratched the surface. I still had the drive to explore more when it started to get cold. I wasn't aware of the holes between Clinton and Flemington besides the stretch along 523 and the old dam. You made me realize I can fish some of the water along 31 on my lunch breaks. I usually use 5 inch Senkos. They're beefy enough to cast a mile. Your heavy stuff is unheard of in my book, but interesting. I may do some experimentation. Have you fished the Delaware? We use light line & spinning on the Big river too.


Comments Encouraged and Answered