An article I wrote a few years ago for Recorder Newspapers.
Catch Smallmouth Bass Now and Later
Thanks to Interstate 78, the Delaware River in Warren County is little more than a half hour away from the Bedminster area. My son, Matt, and I have done well for smallmouths from the bank and wading within city limits of Phillipsburg, and The Fisherman magazine has on occasion reported walleyes, muskies, channel catfish, and late at night—striped bass over 20 pounds. If you want to get away to quieter stretches, River Road from Carpentersville south to the Hunterdon County line at Riegelsville and the mouth of the Musconetcong River has many access points along its length.
Smallmouth bass are the Delaware’s main attraction from the confluence of the East and West branches in Hancock, NY, to the tidal zone in Trenton. My family enjoyed our annual float trip from Sparrowbush, NY, to Port Jervis, NY, last year, and despite off-color water we caught plenty of bass on Rat-L-Trap plugs. Tomorrow we may enjoy better water. These rattling lures are effective anywhere fish are in the river if water is stained, and are great for walleyes as well. I managed to get a typical walleye—about 18 inches—alongside our raft last year and was about to net it when hooks of the chrome Rat-L-Trap threw. The trick is to retrieve the plug near the bottom without snagging. Rat-L-Traps sink at a rate of about a foot per second. Since you won’t always know how deep the water is, let the lure sink as you count until line slackens only on the first cast. If you’re lucky, it won’t snag almost as soon as it takes bottom.
Diving crankbaits are also great for smallmouths and walleyes, so long as you feel the diving lip trip on rocks every so often. You can modify retrieve speed so that you don’t dig the lure directly into bottom (you’ll feel it!) and get snagged, but stay very close. Crankbaits come in varieties that run three to six, six to 10, even 12 to 15 feet deep, but the deepest diving crankbaits give great deal of resistance and are meant to be retrieved on heavier baitcasting tackle.
The best way to try the depths—some holes in the Warren County stretches are as deep as 35 feet—is with quarter-ounce jigs tipped with Berkeley Gulp! synthetic bait or live nightcrawlers. You’ll lose jigs to snags, but buy them in quantity wherever you can get a good price and you won’t feel the loss as snapping the line on an expensive plug stings. Soft plastic Mister Twisters, etc., work well on jigs and are less messy than synthetic leeches, for example, but synthetic bait does put a powerful fish attracting odor in the water--in dark depths that may be slight advantage.
However, smallmouths in particular like shallow water: pockets of calm water near fast moving currents, eddies behind boulders, edges of shoreline calm, prove reliable, and in fast water smallmouths benefit from increased oxygen levels in warm late summer temperatures. My personal favorite for such spots is the #9 Rapala floating minnow plug, but all sorts of minnow imitations work, as well as small spinnerbaits and in-line spinners like Mepps and C.P. Swings. Spinners work best by a straight, moderate, steady retrieve, close to bottom if some depth is encountered. Minnow plugs come alive by erratic twitching of the rod tip, and are virtually lifeless without this action.
We are nearing the annual tail end of the river season when the food chain is based on insect life. Until late September, fly fishermen catch smallmouths on nymph imitations otherwise suited to trout, and the bass do feed on larval as well as hatched and terrestrial insects, as well as small, molting crayfish and a smorgasbord of immature fish species. But shad fry will soon descend downriver on their seasonal trek to the Atlantic, and smallmouths school and herd these Omega acid-rich forage for their greatest boost in yearly health.
I’ve never seen it happen, but reputable writers have reported that sometimes the bass attack the fry on the surface in sudden blitzes the way hybrid stripers go after alewives in Spruce Run Reservoir or Lake Hopatcong in June. A half-ounce chrome Rat-L-Trap casts forever with a medium power spinning rod and six-pound test line, and resembles a small shad very closely. If you spend a late September or October afternoon scouting the scenes along River Road and catch sight of such action, don’t be without a few of these plugs!