Summer Bite on a Smallmouth River
“You get a line and I’ll get a pole, we’ll go fishin’ in the crawdad hole, honey, baby mine.”
Every time I hear that line from the Crawdad Song, my mind immediately visualizes my favorite summer pastime.
Although smallmouth bass never comes up in the song, just the mere mention of an olive-colored crustacean stimulates an auto response in this Yankee that goes like this: Crayfish + Rod + Summer = River Smallmouth Bass Fishing.
Ironically, river smallmouths rarely inhabit the type of muddy creek hole described in the song. Instead, bronzebacks in the summer are found primarily in relatively shallow, relatively strong current sections of a river or large creek. The bottom substrate will be comprised of rock, gravel and sand rather than mud. It’s also the same environment that northern crayfish species inhabit.
While crayfish certainly comprise a portion of a river smallmouth’s diet, there are additional prey species which must also be considered. Without question, insect larvae of stoneflies and mayflies as well as winged adults are consumed by smallies. One particular bottom critter which smallmouths love to gulp down is the hellgrammite, the 3″ to 4″ leathery larvae of a dobsonfly.
In any river or major creek, there are a wide assortment of minnows, dace, darters, shiners, chubs and madtoms (stone cats) that are critically important. Depending on the bait species, they may be found along the shallow rocky bottom, suspended in current seams or milling around eddies just off the faster moving water. With the exception of shiner species, most river preyfish species are darker in color than the typical silver patterns most fishermen imagine for baitfish.
Throw in frogs or even the occasional small mammal that falls into the river and you have a good insight into a river smallmouth’s diet during the summer. As you can see, it is rather extensive – far beyond simple crayfish.
Now, don’t fret. To consistently catch summertime smallmouth’s does not require a specific, detailed lure to imitate each different prey. Unlike our fly-fishing friends who believe they must have precise bug representations of 50 or more insect species in order to catch trout, flowing-water smallmouths are not so discriminating.
Bronzebacks see food, and if hungry, they eat it. Sure, a lure must give the illusion of familiar prey in terms of size, action and perhaps color – but it does not need to be an exact replica. Heck, there are times when non-feeding smallmouth strikes the odd lure simply because they find it irritating.
How many readers remember the “Name That Tune” game show on television? Well, in my version of that game, I’ll state that: “I can catch summertime riverine smallmouth with only six lures.”
Here are My Choices ~ Plus Where and When to Fish Them
Tube Jig – The ultimate universal river bait is a 3″ to 4″ tube lure on an insert head. A dark colored tube with its multiple-strand tentacle tail represents a wide variety of bottom-dwelling creepy-crawlers and baitfish. Keep in mind there are more dark-colored preyfish in
a river smallmouth’s world than
Whereas an external jighead is likely to lodge in a rocky crevice on every other cast, by inserting a teardrop jighead into the body cavity, the thick, soft plastic head of the tube greatly reduces hang-ups. Select a jig weight (1/16, 1/8, 3/16 or 1/4 oz) that allows the bait to trickle along the bottom rather than becoming anchored.
Hop and drag a tube on hard substrate, swim it slowly like a minnow, or in certain instances streak a tube just under the surface – it is truly the most versatile lure in your river arsenal that can be fished in current seams, pocket eddies, tail-outs of pools, riffles and dredge holes.
In a river or creek, I fish tubes on 6 or 8lb test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line and 6.5′ to 7′ fast action spinning rod.
Stick worm – Touring bass pros sometimes refer to this bait as a heavy worm or sinking worm – but to me, this blunt-end worm is more appropriately named a stick worm. For river fishing, I use a weightless stick worm as drift-bait, relying on the lure’s own slow-sink design to meander to the bottom in the downstream flow.
In strong current situations, smallmouth typically set up an ambush point in a slackwater pocket waiting for a dislodged crayfish, hellgrammite or disoriented minnow to drift by. It’s the best way to secure a meal while conserving energy. I rig a 4″ Dinger (my favorite of the many stick worms on the market) Texposed on a 2/0 Mustad Mega Lite Hook.
I fish a stick worm on a spinning outfit spooled with 10lb Power Pro Braid and a 3′ leader of 8 or 10lb fluorocarbon. The braid helps to float the worm while also acting as a visible bite indicator, even when slack forms during the drift – i.e. a bobber built into the line!
Soft Jerkbait – These slow-sink 4″ to 6″ soft plastic lures feature a representative baitfish profile. This bait delivers the best return on rivers when fished in areas with current.
Soft jerks can be fished both aggressively and passively on the same retrieve. Following a cast, apply a series of sharp rod snaps to make the bait dart just under the surface. This gets the attention of nearby smallmouth. Then incorporate a long pause in the retrieve as the bait drifts freely, acting like an injured baitfish.
Using a rod and reel with braid helps insure long casts and positive hook-ups. In stained water, I typically go with 15lb braid on a baitcasting outfit and tie direct to 5″ soft jerk rigged Texposed on a 3/0 Mustad Mega Lite Hook.
But for low, clear water more typical of summer fishing, I use spinning gear with 10lb braid and a 3′ fluorocarbon leader. In this instance, I tie on a #1 VMC drop-shot hook and nose hook a 3″ to 5″ soft jerkbait.
Hard Minnow Bait – I would feel incomplete in my flowing-water tackle selection if I did not have Original Floating Rapala. I caught my first river smallmouth on this bait as a youngster, and I’ve continued to count on it over the next five decades. In particular, it is my go-to choice for the smaller waters – a smallmouth “creek” versus a “river”.
I can twitch the Rapala to make it dance on the surface in place of a topwater bait along a quiet water bank; fish it more aggressively with long pulls and pauses in faster moving riffle water; or use a steady retrieve. Forget all the fancy new colors – just use the original silver or gold pattern. A moderate action spinning rod with 6lb co-polymer line (rather than fluorocarbon) is the proper outfit for this bait.
Buzzbait – I’m willing to bet that few river anglers fish a buzzbait in the manner that I learned from Kevin Turner, famed Upper Mississippi River smallmouth angler and owner of River Pro jet boats. After one trip with Kevin, I became a believer.
Select a 3/8 or 1/2oz buzzbait, such as Booyah Buzz with the extra ‘clacker’ blade. Strip off the silicone skirt and substitute a 3″ or 4″ soft jerkbait or simply a piece of plastic worm. (Substituting soft plastic body for the skirt increases casting distance considerably.) Tie direct to 30lb Power Pro Braid on an outfit with a high-speed casting reel.
Select a river section featuring extremely fast flow with lots of current breaks (created by rocks, sunken logs, etc.) for smallmouth to hold. Make long casts to the shore and return bait with a steady retrieve at 90 degrees to water flow. Oh yes – hold on tight! Executed properly in fast flows and you’re catch rate for smallmouth will climb dramatically.
Crankbait – When the level rises and a normally clear-water river becomes dirty from heavy summer rains, established patterns will change. Most of the above baits become less effective. Fortunately, feeding bass tend to move shallow with the rising water and spread out more along somewhat slack water areas. It’s cranking time!
In the dingy water, the vibration and bolder colors of a crankbait will draw vicious strikes from bronzebacks that normally would find such a presentation unappealing. You should be targeting shorelines with slower moving water but with some type of cover – large rocks, logs, grass beds or eddies formed by inflowing tributary water.
In most instances I’ll select a crankbait which dives to no more than 4′, preferably with a square lip to deflect off submerged cover. However, if confronted with a particularly steep bank where water depth may be 6′ to 10′, a crank that dives into the 6′ plus depth is desired. Fish it on 10lb test co-polymer or fluorocarbon line.
I typically go with a crayfish pattern – something dark brown, black, red or with strong chartreuse in it. Bomber Model A, Cordell Big O, or Bandit Series are among my picks. Cast and retrieve, and keep moving to find the scattered bass.
Now Go Fish!
Here’s a recipe from long-time fishing buddy Worth Hammond, who is no longer with us. Normally, I would not keep bass to eat, but on this occasion we were on a fishing trip to the Ottawa River near Pembroke. Our menu called for fresh walleye each day for a week, but walleye were less than cooperative. So we found it necessary to substitute the plentiful 12″ to 14″ smallmouth from the river. When Worth and I went on an extended fishing trip, we packed all necessary ingredients to prepare meals from scratch.
Cover the bottom of a 4 quart pot with cooking oil. When the oil is hot, add fish chunks. Stir and break fish into smaller pieces as it cooks. Remove any remaining bones. Add onion and garlic, stir for one minute, then add bay leaf, basil, parsley and 2 cups water. Simmer 5 minutes. Add carrots and celery. Simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients, using only enough water to make a soupy-stew thickness. Salt and pepper to taste, Continue cooking until vegetables are all tender.
Have you fished smallmouth river bass? What was your experience?
Let us know, we’d love to hear from you!
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