Three summers ago on our annual Delaware River float trip out of Barryville, New York, I was appalled by green algae covering every rock resulting from 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, or the Paulinskill and Musconetcong, although I did see a lot of green in the Pequest in March.
Situated in Somerset and Hunterdon County, New Jersey, the Raritan 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. Three summers ago a 6.6 pound smallmouth was reported by The Fisherman magazine to have been caught in the South Branch on a live crayfish. Had this bass been weighed in 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 six 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 stocked trout of the same size. I won't venture to compare them against steelheads since I haven't caught enough to be certain. But I once caught a 13 inch steelhead with little account for itself.
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 into the cut flowed even shallower, and the stretch below deepened to a foot and a half at maximum. But we were 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, they love these and sense their presence like food in a kitchen—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 and no more than six pound test line, my current favorite is five 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 that are unaware of your approach. Big smallmouths are usually shy and reluctant to hit; Senkos give you advantage.
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 six, plain shank hook directly to the line, no weight, no snap swivel, and hook a minnow through both lips. These holes are 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, and will rush to blast the shiner with full force of muscle and weight before another bass gets to it. That’s a thrill to experience! This summer a smallmouth nearly three pounds blasted a fleeing shiner four times, the fourth time it leapt clear out and crashed down on top of the escaping fish! I had no time at all to let that bass run with it as it tore under and upstream full force, hooking itself and fighting like a full grown bulldog.
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. You'll lose plenty fish but it's playing fair. Most will be under legal size, and if you’re like me, you release them all. They’re worth more in the water.