Thursday, May 12, 2016

Smallmouth Bass: How to Catch Them in Streams

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.        


Monday, May 9, 2016

Favorite Bass Pond Visit

Got to my favorite bass pond of about 15 acres, surface wind-chopped, so I began with a spinnerbait. With sun breaking through clouds, I guess I should have brought along a few more in chartreuse and fire-red, but absent mindedness is a trait I just have to live with. I caught three on a black quarter-ounce, all of them well over two pounds, one of them about three.

This pond always fishes slowly, except once in June last year, my son and I caught nine, five of my seven bass over three pounds, and one of his just making that mark. Almost always the bass weigh more than two pounds, many of them in the three pound class, which makes the fishing good for the rate of return. I fished less than two hours this afternoon, and then beat the traffic down to Morris County Library, looking for back issues of the Boston Globe Magazine. The world-class newspaper has a personal essay opportunity, and I need to read a about two dozen before I make the attempt.

One of these three bass I caught struck about 20 yards straight out from the bank. Two years ago, the sunlight hit the water just right so I could see a different shade of color hue, so I inferred shallows. I cast my Chompers far out and got a take. Every time I've fished towards the pond's back, I've done the same to no avail, until today.

When I arrived today, no one else fished, but as I got all the way into the pond's rear, I noticed two pickups had come in, and two guys fished where I hoped to finish. I fished the front anyhow where they had pounded the water with whatever, finally switching to my favorite Chompers, getting a take, but missing the hit.   

Natirar Hike and Photography: Mother's Day Special

Usually I make the suggestion on where to go, although sometimes an offhand reference to someplace I speak of gets tackled by Patricia. More often than not, a place she picks from my brain becomes a family tradition. Such as Hot Dog Johnny's on Route 46 near Buttzville, NJ. My idea to bring her along with Matt and me to fly fish the Flatbrook on Memorial Day weekend years ago, we've headed up there every one of those weekends since, and a few years ago, I mentioned Johnny's and she riveted upon the idea. I felt she would, once I thought of it, but I also wondered why I hadn't thought of going there with her three years before. Well, go figure. A guy in the habit of selecting spaces that fulfill his own interests...can be a little slow about thinking of those that suit others.

Not today. Mother's Day, my wife reserved full rights on where to go. She didn't want to go far, but she did want to go someplace she feels is special. When she told me this will be Natirar, immediately I thought of getting some river photography and whole-heartedly agreed on her idea. I admit I'm selfish. If I don't see some advantage in whatever I do, I'm just not inclined to be there, and very often when things aren't going my way, I find out how to turn events in my favor--in others' interest too. Best of all, things mutually work out for two or more of us together, and while--as you can see--I shot some pictures today, I knew I couldn't spend a whole lot of time at it, and although I went into my closet and reached to get the waders, I told myself, "What am I doing?" I let them be. It wouldn't have been appropriate to put them on for better river position with my tripod on her day, and even when we recently visited the Ken Lockwood Gorge, I didn't go that far.

Natirar used to be the famous Walter Ladd estate, named in 1905 after the river--actually the North Branch Raritan--that flows through near the Far Hills/Peapack, New Jersey, border. Natirar is Raritan spelled in reverse. Originally, the estate comprised about 1000 acres, and today it's a Somerset County Park of 491 acres, which seemed to draw about that many people today. It's a thriving, very popular park that includes an expensive restaurant. Situated in the Highlands, just three miles to the east and a little south, our home is on the Piedmont.

We came to hike, and I suppose we walked as many as three miles, perhaps not quite more than two, but we walked for nearly an hour-a-half, though we stopped to sit on one of the benches provided along the way, relax and talk. As we set out beyond the river, I got to thinking that my favorite hikes entail regions of the Highlands wilder and less crowded. In fact, I usually pick spots where we might see two other people during our entire outing. More than once, we've seen no one else. When we hiked Marble Mountain recently, we spoke as freely as the space around us existed entirely as our own, but as we began arduous walking today, I felt put off by so many others.

And then we reached the belly of the hike, the midway regions, and I paid peculiar attention to a group of people ahead of us; they obviously enjoyed a very nice time, speaking just as freely as we had on Marble Mountain. I felt like a suck, groping for some way out of my silent discomfort. All of a sudden, I began to talk. I can't recall what about and that doesn't matter.

Two or three minutes into conversation, I realized I'd done it again. I had dug myself a little hole on a bad premise, as if a place full of people out-of-doors isn't as good as a place that doesn't attract many, a place that doesn't have the same sort of prestige, but about which I am a snob because I know wilderness quality trumps the sort of trails grassed over with mown sod.

And now? Once again, I had taken a wrong turn and reversed the polarity. I guess that means I'm bipolar, but then that's a good thing, because I can always find my way to a better place.

We came home just in time to meet Matt after he came home from work, and Patricia looked into movie possibilities. The latest movie about Ernest Hemingway seems too cheap to bother with at all. We don't like a Nobel Prize winning novelist getting made into some sort of superficial action figure. So she decided on Sing Street, an independent film showing in Montgomery about teenagers starting up a rock band, really about the same principle poet Rainer Maria Rilke challenged artists to take up. Going all the way, never settling on halfway. The 15-year-old takes his 16-year-old girlfriend and they leave home for good, crossing from Ireland to Wales, England, in a little boat of about 17 feet and 50 horsepower to start life anew.