Small Rivers Smallmouth Bass
After springtime crowds of trout fishermen thin out to a few persistent fly casters, small New Jersey rivers and rivers elsewhere present smallmouth bass a smorgasbord of feeding opportunities, and great fishing can be expected all day long. From Mercer County’s Stony Brook and Beden’s Brook to Somerset, Morris, Warren, Sussex and Passaic County rivers, smallmouth bass appear surprisingly plentiful in part because most who fish practice catch and release. Average stream bass bulldogging nine-inchers that play well on light spinning outfits, consider the 6.6-pound smallmouth weighed in from the South Branch Raritan in 2010 at Efinger Sporting Goods. Big bass inhabit all of New Jersey’s freestone rivers. Catching them isn’t necessarily easy, but the effort may be enjoyed as a long term pursuit.
Rather than selecting a single river to seek out stretches, holes, undercuts and other whereabouts of big bass, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with many rivers in your region. After a few years of finding spots and perhaps catching a few nice bass in the three pound range, you may begin to feel the rivers you fish bear relation according to personal knowledge gained. Subtle clues learned along the way key into possibilities directing where to go. Nothing is more rewarding than having a distant hunch and following it through to a four-pound smallmouth on the end of the line, which happened to me two years ago. Hunches don’t happen unless the groundwork of basic knowledge firmly takes root first, so get to know your rivers and they will begin to inform your outings in unexpected ways.
I’ve fished small rivers for smallmouth bass since the mid 1970’s. Of all the variety of river structure, I judge long slow stretches best for warmwater fishing. Deep holes may seem to hold the big bass, but don’t necessarily. I know a stretch of the South Branch Raritan with moderate current leading into nine or 10-foot depths. A nice, big hole with sizeable rocks on bottom you might think loaded with bass. I fished this hole at least half a dozen times, and caught no bass from it until, finally, one September evening, I caught a bunch of them. But the same stretch extends downstream more than a hundred yards, water four feet deep close to the bank opposite from where I cast. Close to the stretch’s tailout, a modest tree with a trunk I can almost fit both hands around bends close to surface. This is where I’ve caught all of the other bass, including a two-pounder and four-pounder.
A favorite stretch of the North Branch Raritan is very shallow for most of its length, panning out to four-foot depths, but always full of bass. Some we catch in a foot of water. Submerged flat-topped slate marks the bottom here and there. Bass hide under this cover, darting out to grab Senko-type worms cast near. Often we sight fish. It’s always in our favor to see bass that don’t see us.
Senko-type plastics cast a mile to visible bass. Average-size bass pounce on the five-inch size, so I never bother with smaller worms that don’t have the casting reach. Many swear by tube plastics rigged on plain shank hooks without leadhead jigs. The plastic tentacles produce tantalizing action smallmouths don’t refuse. Twister tails work too, so long as the size 1 or 2 plain shank is positioned so the lure rides evenly upon retrieve. Whichever variety chosen, plastics are almost universally acknowledged as the best summer stream smallmouth lure. Other lures work, and I believe I've discussed a diversity of methods in an earlier article, but if you want to keep it simple--and a lot of anglers prefer to try all sorts of snazzy things instead--go with a soft plastic lure and relax.
In my own experience, nothing beats the thick-bodied worms I can cast further than see into the water, but the drawback to taking hits from far away involves hookset. Especially where current bows the line, driving the hook home may prove impossible in some instances, not all. In any event, don’t let a bass take plastic for more than a few seconds before setting. You will miss some hits but kill fewer fish. Instead of using a flimsy ultra-light rod, employ a medium power, five-and-a-half-foot spinning rod. I tried an ultra-light just once and returned to the heavier I have much more fun with. The hooks get set and bass fight hard.
I’ve also tried fly-fishing. From late May into September, smallmouths feed voraciously on a variety of larval and winged insects, nematodes, molting crayfish and other stream denizens besides forage fish. Before you think streamer or popping bug, try nymph. Doesn’t have to be outsized, although big black size 4 Stonefly patterns and the like with lots of attractive appendages catch bass. Casting little size 12 nymphs of any variety—brown, black and gold or any combination of color—with five or six-weight floating line can be devastating on smallmouth bass’s peace in the afternoon.
Unlike largemouths typically feeding early and late in lakes and reservoirs, stream smallmouths strike any time during the day throughout summer, the big ones better approached around dawn and sunset. Big bass have subtler feeding habits than newbies over-wound and pouncing like kittens. Big bass will take big baits, but cast a half-ounce Hula Popper at noon and nothing big or little may take it. At dusk, something might happen.
If you specialize in the big ones or just want to catch bass, the five-inch Senko-type worms are plenty suitable. Not restricted to long, slow stretches’ opportunities for arching casts, they work in every situation a river presents. Always, I rig Wacky with hook attached to the worm’s middle by a plastic O ring. Slip that on using a Case Plastics Wacky Tool. Place the worm inside the device, pull the O ring onto the middle. Rigging Wacky better ensures hookset, and in some situations, flutter action draws strikes, although most often bass rush the worm on initial descent.
I’ve caught bass on these worms everywhere, including riffles with strong current, at the bottoms of deep holes by lift-drop retrieves and by flutter retrieves through the wide V’s of tailouts. Not every stretch has a tailout suitable to hold bass. Some end in inches of water, but others have one to three-foot depths with strong current and a noticeable V formation produced by current sucked downstream. Food gets sucked into the V as well. A three-pounder once nailed a worm retrieved right into dead center with force enough to wrench my arms. A fish I’ll never forget.
The summer smorgasbord lasts into September, when smallmouths begin to feed especially on soft-rayed forage. It’s no coincidence that in the Delaware River, bass gorge on shad fry headed to the Atlantic. Inland rivers don’t offer the same situation, but in October I cast a silver-sided Rapala and do better in fast moving water. When winter comes it’s not impossible to catch bass on lures, if you want to try dead-sticking a weighted tube plastic, letting current do the work on tentacles. Those deep holes are the end of story.