No place says “fish me” like a smallmouth river in July. When many fish become lethargic in the heat of summer, smallmouths and their rivers come alive. This was a big deal before the age of reservoirs and outboard engines. In 1941, when the editors of Life magazine planned a summer photo feature of some attractive (single) ladies, they used a float trip down a smallmouth river as the setting. It was an early Beach Blanket Bingo in the Ozarks.
Many of the Ozark rivers have disappeared, but elsewhere you’ll find excellent smallmouth fishing in lower stretches of trout streams, in waterways that form international borders, in rivers that course through state and national capitals. You can fish from a boat, from shore, or by wading. Or you can simply climb in a canoe, float downstream, and see an entire river without doing much more than lifting a paddle. In the days past, this was the classic way to fish for bass. For many of us, it still is. Here are a dozen ways to do it smartly.
**1 Find the Feeders **
The challenge in river fishing for smallmouths is not so much to find the bass but to find the feeding bass. Deep, black holes look sexiest, but active fish tend to be near forage-either crayfish or baitfish. Try to identify gravel and rocky bottoms for the former and weedbeds for the latter. Tick the stony bottoms with a jig, or work the edges of vegetation with a stickbait or a topwater lure.
2 Follow the Season
You can’t use the calendar to pinpoint smallmouth whereabouts in navigable rivers, but it does help to know that their location follows a general pattern. As they recuperate from the exertions of spawning, smallmouths scatter along the shorelines in early summer to feed upon baitfish and small panfish. During midsummer, they school and move offshore to gravel or rubble shoals, where they seek out crayfish. Depending on the size and fertility of the water, bass will travel to find crayfish, working from shoal to shoal, always on the hunt. By late summer, smallmouths begin to add weedbeds to their itinerary because this habitat holds young-of-the-year baitfish, which become increasingly appetizing as they grow.
3 Stay a Little Longer
Smallmouths in wadable and floatable rivers move with the light. During the day, they tend to remain close to dropoffs, boulders, and weeds. They favor patches of slow water-current breaks, bridge abutments, plunge pools, and the heads and feet of islands. Glassy mid-river slicks surrounded by quick water are particularly good spots when rivers are low and temperatures high. Evening finds smallies hunting more aggressively, dropping back into the tails of pools, on the edges of quick water, or even in mid-current. River bass shut down at full dark, but the last hour of light can bring exceptional fishing-often in the same riffle that turned up nothing at noon. [NEXT “Fish the Bank”]
**4 Fish the Bank **
A midsummer deluge that cools the water can turn trout on, but it has the opposite effect on smallmouths. High water pushes smallies out of the current and closer to deep shorelines, where they sulk on the bottom until the flows stabilize and clear. A vertical presentation with a jig-and-minnow or jig-and-crawler can be a good strategy. Live bait fished tight to cover on the bottom is probably the best of all. Focus on deep, slack water near shore.
5 Go to Hellgrammites
River smallmouths bite any number of baits but show the most enthusiasm for hellgrammites, the larvae of dobsonflies. Imitations of them even work in rivers where they don’t exist. You can collect your own by wading out into knee-deep, medium-fast current and holding a screen to the bottom, while a partner shuffles along upstream, dislodging hellgrammites that in turn drift into the screen. The best presentation is to hook one through the collar and, using as little weight as nessary, cast upstream and let it drift naturally with the current. During midday, live bait can be especially effective in a slow pool, at the base of a waterfall, on the edge of a dropoff, or in a mid-river slick.
**6 Double Pump **
Your main challenge when floating a river is to be ready for whatever situation materializes in front of your boat or canoe, so it makes sense to keep two rods rigged and set to go. Have one rod loaded with a floater-a jerkbait, a popper, or a floating Rapala (my favorite), which can be twitched on top, ripped, or steadily retrieved; and the other with a tube jig or a twister-tail. If you miss a bass on the floater, you can often pick up the soft plastic and take the same fish on the next cast.
**7 Pack Smart **
You can’t bring a suitcase full of lures when you’re floating or wading a river, but you do need to accommodate a range of fishing situations. Think lure type instead of model and bring a few of each-jigs, spinners, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and floaters. Color is easier. In tannic or murky waters, stock up with gold flash and yellows, oranges, browns, and black. Clear water calls for silver flash and naturally imitative colors like white, dun, tan, olive, and gray. Chartreuse or moss green is good in any water. And a splash of red never hurt. [NEXT “Gain Some Weight”]
8 Gain Some Weight
Feather and bucktail jigs work great in rivers, as do plastics such as twister-tails or shad, or even miniature jigs-and-pigs. Tubes, however, may be best. Nearly all the smallmouth forage in rivers-crayfish, sculpins, darters, dace, chubs, and aquatic nymphs-have a cylindrical form, and tubes copy that shape perfectly. Carry jigs and tubes in the 1/4- to 1/32-ounce range, and one of them will be the perfect match for the current. Try fishing upstream, letting the lure tumble back to you along the edges of mid-river slicks, as you reel to keep the line taut. In deeper, slower water, work the jig or tube around rock piles and dropoffs. On weedy edges, try twitching a minnow-imitating plastic through the middle depths.
**9 Draw Them Up **
In general, the clearer and weedier the water, the more bass will chase schools of minnows-and the more they’ll be inclined to take topwater plugs and poppers-even in fairly deep water. (On the St. Lawrence River, recently clarified from the invasion of zebra mussels, bass will rocket up from 25 feet or more.) Morning and evening are peak times, but you can sometimes bring up bass during the day by fishing close to cover or in mid-river slicks. You may find that fish in current and over dropoffs like the noise that comes from a Pop-R or a chugger, whereas those in shallow water near weeds prefer the lighter twitch of a stickbait.
**10 Let Your Fly Hang **
You can tease smallmouths into striking by letting your fly ride in the current below you. Twitch it now and then, let it swing in and out of a current seam, but let it hang there for a few minutes at a time. In the old days, before the advent of spinning, anglers used the very popular spinner and fly for this sort of fishing. A spinner and fly is still a great choice, but a beadhead Woolly Bugger in olive, brown, or black does a pretty good job on its own. At twilight, ease down to the foot of the pool and let a Marabou Muddler (with a dark wing) drift below you so that it bulges just beneath the surface. You’ll be surprised at the size of the smallies that will move into a foot of water and develop a sudden interest in the fat little chub holding overhead.
**11 Think Trout **
The more a river reminds you of a trout stream, the more you should fish it like one. Like their speckled cousins, smallmouths hold in the shade of boulders-just off, but not in, the main stream. The best way to fish these bass is by dead-drifting a size 6 or 8 nymph. Any takes will be subtle; the line will just stop. As evening approaches, and aquatic insect activity picks up, bass will move into the current and up in the water column, particularly when the rivers are at their midsummer lows. White Wulffs or White Irresistibles make good imitations of the light-colored flies that tend to hatch at this time of year.
12 Go Lightly
A gimmick in some bass fishing circumstances, ultralight tackle becomes a most useful tool on a summer smallmouth river. The challenge is not hauling a hog out of the brush. It’s trying to convince a nervous-finned 2-pounder that your inch-long tube jig is really a crayfish. This involves casting a light lure some distance, or drifting a live bait without weight-approaches best handled with line in the 2- to 4-pound-test range or a 5- to 6-weight fly rod. Unlike their largemouth cousins, smallmouths are less inclined to head to cover when hooked. They tend to use the current and jump into the air, fitting for a fish so much a part of summertime. will just stop. As evening approaches, and aquatic insect activity picks up, bass will move into the current and up in the water column, particularly when the rivers are at their midsummer lows. White Wulffs or White Irresistibles make good imitations of the light-colored flies that tend to hatch at this time of year.
12 Go Lightly
A gimmick in some bass fishing circumstances, ultralight tackle becomes a most useful tool on a summer smallmouth river. The challenge is not hauling a hog out of the brush. It’s trying to convince a nervous-finned 2-pounder that your inch-long tube jig is really a crayfish. This involves casting a light lure some distance, or drifting a live bait without weight-approaches best handled with line in the 2- to 4-pound-test range or a 5- to 6-weight fly rod. Unlike their largemouth cousins, smallmouths are less inclined to head to cover when hooked. They tend to use the current and jump into the air, fitting for a fish so much a part of summertime.