Monday, June 24, 2013

Smallmouth Bass Lures and Techniques: Rivers and Streams Summer

Summer Smorgasbord

River Smallmouth Eat it up

          River summers offer gamefish a plethora of forage 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, all are forage for smallmouths, so a wide range of lures proves effective. Most anglers use light or medium-power spinning outfits, although quite a few use baitcasting gear, while others 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 hold, some lures 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 eighth-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 will rush them in shallows to make distended efforts at swallowing the total length of the worm. Three-inch Berkeley leeches are a light touch by comparison, but possibly more 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 to 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. That's why they like Omega 3 in the fall, gives them energy and health.  

          An eighth-ounce jig may be effective in the same spots plugs work, 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 plough 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 place where the bass lie 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 aquatic vegetation common to these areas. On very rare occasions—pickerel are probably at least as rare as muskies on the Delaware—teeth will threaten your surface lure. More likely a largemouth will engulf it, but not as likely as will a smallmouth, because they're not nearly as common, and during this magic hour topwater plugs prove 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 all day,
even at trout-size edibles, a big smallmouth over two pounds, possibly four, needs to consume more each day (and 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 it and we will never be close to omniscient. Or you could say that chaos is order too subtle for immediate mental reflection to recognize. A lot more is going on in a river than you recognize, so fine-tuning senses and fishing subtly may bring results. The point of fishing is to beat the odds. So count on original moves to get a fish to strike—break retrieve cadences, especially 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 to sun rays, but the old standbys of silver or gold 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 eighth-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 eighth 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) always prove more important 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, though lure choice will be more a matter of personal preference than you might think. 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 exist 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 cast further, but accuracy on a river is important. The shorter, not too short, rods have tips closer to your wrist. Stick with six-pound test monofilament and you’ll enjoy all the casting distance you need.




Sunday, June 23, 2013

Small Streams for Highlands and Ridge Trout

Small Streams for Highlands and Ridge Trout

          The pool was green toned aqua-marine, deep and inviting. Many years ago, my brother Rick and I fished it thoroughly. Water fell over huge, glacial boulders more than several yards high. We had to walk through half a foot of snow up and around hulking rocks to access the next hole, not really a hole at all, but a fairly shallow stretch with strong current and undercut stone on the opposite side to where we stood. We cast baby nightcrawlers upstream, letting them drift tight against the stone. The results included a wild brown trout for me, and a native brook trout for Rick.

          This situation on Warren County’s Dunnfield Creek demonstrated that the likely spot to fish may yield nothing, but noticing subtle possibility can lead to a catch. Small, spring fed streams like the Dunnfield, Van Campens Brook, and Bear Creek in Warren County, and the Passaic River headwaters and Jackson Creek in Morris County, have wild and native trout, offering a special appeal during the winter when at times it isn’t too cold to fish comfortably. Many such streams--including the Dunnfield Creek, which was stocked many years ago--are state designated Wild Trout Streams for artificial lure use only.  During the summer it's best to leave them alone unless you're certain water temperature is below 68 degrees on a cool morning. Lactic acid kills trout as a result of the fight in water too warm.

          When I was younger, catching fish during winter made a deadened season come to life. We backpacked up Kittatiny Ridge on the Appalachian Trail from the Delaware Watergap and ate fresh trout from the Dunnfield boiled in a pot over warming fire. Those were some of the best trout I’ve ever eaten, boiled whole, just gutted, a little butter added to the steaming water, the white, flaking flesh picked by fingers.

           I developed my stream fishing habits fishing Mercer County’s Stony Brook during my boyhood and teens, tramping as far as a mile or so between bridges, desirous of exploring new water. I came to think that the chief principle is timing, but never measured this in a self-conscious, calculated way. My approach to a stream was and is unsystematic, but my thinking connects with essential ideas that guide what I do. I’ve learned over the years to know when it's time to give up on a pool or range of a stretch, and move on. How much of this is subjective, I can only suppose I don't know, but to fish without second guessing makes the outing whole. The worst thing you can do, if you want to fish enjoyably and catch a few, is allow yourself to be at the mercy of the stream: If you feel nothing’s doing, you can always look elsewhere. Fishing is more than luck. And while catching fish is the objective—otherwise it wouldn’t be fishing—more than pulls on the rod is involved.

          My best advice, if you plan to fish any one of the streams mentioned or another, is to get lost by hiking the stream a long distance. Ply every nook and cranny of stream structure that looks likely. Whether you fish with a two weight fly rod with hare’s ear or small stonefly nymphs, midges, or Wooly Buggers; or use a super-ultralight spinning rod with baby nightcrawlers and minimal weight or Trout Magnet jigs--you can pursue trout for miles or just between bridges.

          Two-pound test monofilament line for spinning and a light tippet for fly rodding are manageable and least visible to the trout. When you decide to make your way back to your vehicle, you can try for any trout that struck and missed. Most of these streams will have a few nice holes six feet deep or better, but most of the trout I have caught were from little nooks like the undercut stone my brother and I fished.

          A native brook trout over 10 inches long is a rarity, but wild brown trout, especially, in these streams may rarely reach 17 inches. All of these fish are worth releasing, but the desire to try a wild or native trout at the table or beside a campfire is something I would recommend anyone try at least once. The curiosity involved in dressing and eating a rare, native trout is just as wild as these fish. The colors you will encounter—startling red spots, deep rainbow patterns, yellow bellies—may astonish you more than the pink flesh from a stream so pure you could probably drink from it without getting sick.