Photography by Matt Shaw. Illustrations by Andrew Malok
The heaviest smallmouth I’ve ever caught—a 7-pounder—sucked a tube off the bottom of Lake Erie in 42 feet of water. I will never forget that fish, nor the effort my guide expended to put me on the bite in an onslaught of 5-foot waves. But at the end of the day, after getting soaked and pounded, I knew more than ever that my heart lies on the quiet summer streams where a handful of lures, a few hours of wet wading, and the ability to read water can produce bass just as memorable.
You may never catch a 7-pounder by wading in old sneakers, but a 3-pounder is still a trophy in this setting. If you’re looking to cool down with one of the most fun games of summer, these locations, baits, and approaches will help you mine big bronze from small streams.
Positions from left: The Hard Turn, The Tailout, The Tree-Lined Flat, The Broken-Water Run
1) The Hard Turn
Strike Times: Early morning and midday
Wherever a stream takes a hard bend, it offers one of the surest places to find smallmouths at the top of the system’s weight class. Water rushing around a turn digs a deep, cool, well-aerated hole that attracts the biggest summer bass. They typically hold in the soft spot just in from the fast outer current. But don’t assume bass will always be there during the hottest months. Smallmouths tend to roam into the shallows to feed and then retreat to turn holes in between. So hit the turns at first light before bass venture out, and come back in the heat of the day to give them another shot.
Strike King Bitsy Tube
$4 per pack, strikeking.com
You may be tempted to tie on a 4-inch tube, thinking big bait, big fish. But in my experience, small tubes that match the size of the average stream mudbug work better. In the morning, rig a 23⁄4- inch Bitsy Tube on a jighead and gently hop it through the seam where fast and slow current meet. At noon, plunk it into the slowest part of the hole, giving it an occasional twitch.
2) The Tailout
Strike Times: Early morning and evening
Wide, shallow pools below a fast-water turn or riffle aren’t exactly the money at noon on a bluebird day, but during low light, they can cough up some of the most explosive strikes of summer. Bass holding in tailouts are usually there for one reason—mealtime. In the early morning and late evening, bass slide out of upstream holes and post in feeding lanes, much like trout do. From there, they’ll peel off to grab a hatching insect, or take a shot at a jittery bait school clustered against the bank. Quite often, you’ll know there are fish in a tailout because they’ll give themselves away with splashes, wakes, dimples, or full-on, blitz-style attacks. Once in position, always watch for a bit before casting.
Heddon Tiny Torpedo
Tailout smallies are in attack mode, so forget subtlety and give them something loud that can’t slip by unnoticed. The body of the Tiny Torpedo has a baitfish silhouette, but it’s the little prop zipping across the current that prompts the slam. Cast upstream to the far bank, and then pick up the pace of the retrieve as the lure moves into the fastest current.
3) The Tree-Lined Flat
Strike Times: All day
You know that long, flat stretch of “junk water” you walk by on the way to juicier holes? Well, don’t be so fast to rule it out. If it’s knee-deep or better and features some overhanging tree limbs, you need to fish it. During the day, aim your casts at the shadows under sweeping branches. You’ll swear there’s nothing hiding in that bit of stagnant shade—until a chunky bronzeback sucks up your bait. In these spots, it only takes a single rock or shovel-size depression to house a big loner. Scope this stretch out again at low light, when fish that were hidden earlier move into the open to feed more aggressively.
Z-Man Finesse TRD
$4 per pack, zmanfishing.com
Measuring 23⁄4 inches, this short soft-plastic stickbait shines in slow stretches where a quiet presentation can mean everything. A TRD wacky-rigged on light line hits the surface with little fanfare, and its small size makes it a morsel as opposed to an intruder in a wary bass’s hidey hole. These baits also skip very well for getting way back under the lowest branches.
4) The Broken-Water Run
Strike Times: All day
Anything that breaks the current and creates an eddy behind—boulders, downed trees, tires—is apt to hold fish. You know that. But what you may not know is that a smallmouth’s location within such an eddy can change throughout the day. Early in the morning, I draw the most strikes by working my lure slowly and tight to the bottom in the softest water right up against whatever obstruction is breaking the current. As the sun climbs, I’ll get bit at mid-depth, along the edges where the fast and slow currents meet. In the evening, the fish drop back to the eddy’s tail, where they’ll crash a lure on or just below the surface. Don’t get in the habit of assuming a strike will come on the first pass; pick every eddy apart.
Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow
In broken water, where depth and current speed vary, I lean on a hard bait that can run shallow or deep. The 23⁄4-inch Pins has long been a favorite because it reaches depth quickly and requires only a subtle twitch to start dancing. This is important when you’re targeting short pockets, because you can otherwise work the lure out of the zone too fast.
If your best smallie river is a little too big to fish on foot, or if you’re just looking to cover more water, the Flycraft Stealth ($2,995; flycraftusa.com) might be your solution. This rig combines elements of a canoe, raft, and drift boat to create what I believe is the ultimate small-stream attack vessel. It’s rugged and stable, yet you can break it down quickly and stash it in the trunk of a Mini Cooper. No ramp? No problem. If you’ve got a machete and two guys capable of lifting 98 pounds, you can drop in anywhere.