Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Big River Bronze

 "I consider him, inch for inch, and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims!"
-Dr. James Henshall on smallmouth bass.

 Earlier I wrote about the huge amount of fun you can have on small streams.  But, sometimes bass anglers strive to chase the big sow smallmouth bass and one place you have a good chance at one is a big rocky river with the varying types of cover that they prefer.  I'm fortunate to live along the East Coast where just about every river within a four hour drive is a world class smallmouth fishery.  Those rivers include the mighty Susquehanna, Juniata, Potomac, Shenandoah, James, Rappahannock, and New.  There are others too, so I'm blessed.
Chunky smallies like this one keep me going back for more.

Popular lures to target big smallmouth bass include tubes, soft jerkbaits, hard jerkbaits, crankbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits, topwater plugs, buzzbaits and plastic worms.  Many anglers will rig multiple rods with a combination of these lures and switch from set ups until they establish a pattern of catching bronzebacks.  For many anglers in my neck of the woods, the go to baits are 4" tubes or 3/8 oz. tandem spinnerbaits to start with, then adapt from there.  Of course, if you can carry more rods you can rig different lures to offer.

What type of rods and reels do you need?  When fishing from a boat, I usually bring four or five rods.  For most soft plastics and jigs, I prefer a medium power fast action (or extra fast) 6'6" graphite spinning rod rigged with 8 pound test fluorocarbon line or light braid/fluorocarbon leader.  Reel preference is up to you, but a balanced set up is most important.  I like the 4000 series Shimano reels simply because I can get longer casts if I need to.  Some people prefer the next sizes down, but again, it's personal preference.  For crankbaits, jerkbaits and topwater plugs I like a medium power medium action rod, and team it with fluorocarbon line.  The only exception is that I'll use a quality monofilament line instead of fluorocarbon for topwater lures simply because fluorocarbon line sinks and monofilament lays on the surface longer aiding in the topwater presentation.  Sinking lines like fluorocarbon tend to inhibit the action of topwater plugs.  I have also used braid for topwater with a short stretch of fluorocarbon leader for topwater because braid is very slow sinking.  Also, on my spinning tackle, if the water is murky I will tie lures directly to the braided line in some cases, especially when fishing jigs and weighted soft plastics.  I usually carry two baitcasting set ups to chuck spinnerbaits and buzzbaits spooled with 14 pound fluorocarbon line.  However, if you are wading a river, you don't have the luxury of using multiple rods, so if I had to pick one, my choice would be the medium power fast or extra fast spinning rod/reel spooled with 8 lb. fluorocarbon line, or the braid/fluorocarbon leader combination.  It's the most versatile set up and you can work most types of lures.  The only thing I'd do differently with my wading rig is to fish smaller spinnerbaits and buzzbaits than I would while fishing from a boat to better match the action and power of the rod. 
A double!  This pair of bronzebacks attacked tandem willow leaf 3/8 oz. spinnerbaits.

How about more specifics on lures?  I could write many pages on this subject as many in the past have.  Basically, you want to try to match the hatch like fly anglers do (I'll save that for another blog post later).  Most smallmouth in rivers are creatures of opportunity, feeding on whatever the current provides them.  In my neck of the woods, the prominent prey are crawfish or minnows, with the former probably the smallies favorite food.  They also feed on various insects both flying and water nymphs like helgrammites, or anything that they can fit into their mouth and catch.  Probably the lure that most people should learn to use that best imitates crayfish is the tube jig.  These jigs are soft plastic tubes with cut tentacles that undulate in the river currents.   
Popular soft plastic lures, from the top, 4" tube exposed hook on a jig, Texas rigged 4" plastic worm, 4" Senko Texas rigged, 5" Zoom Super Fluke Texas rigged, 4" Bass Pro Shops Caterpillar Grub on a jighead 

When worked slowly across the bottom, tubes closely resemble the movements of crayfish.  You can rig them on jigheads (exposed hooks or weedless) or Texas rigged.  Experiment to see what works best for you.  When fishing a tube, you have to be a line watcher while at the same time be in tune with what you are feeling.  This is why graphite rods are so important, to feel the slightest bite.  Often that bite may feel like weeds, leaves or a spongy feeling.  Watching your line is important because you may not feel the bite, but see the line moving away as the fish tries to escape undetected with it's new found meal.  Other times, you may feel a tap or thump and then all of the above.  In all cases, set the hook!!!! 

 Tube jigs will put more smallies in your boat.

Other soft plastics include sinking soft stick baits that can be Texas rigged or nose hooked with a small circle hook, soft jerk baits like the Zoom Super Fluke Texas rigged or nose hooked with a circle hook, small 4" plastic worms Texas rigged or rigged on a jighead, or a twister tail or grub on a jighead.  There are many more soft plastic baits that will work.  Basically, choose colors, shapes, and sizes that mimic the primary forage of bass in your river, whether it be crayfish, minnows, juvenile bass, helgrammites or other forage.  Also, once you choose something to imitate the primary forage in your river, work the lure to best imitate that creatures movements.

Other effective lures are spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, topwater plugs, hard jerkbaits, minnow baits, and crankbaits.  Spinnerbaits and buzzbaits draw reaction strikes.  The vibrations, flash, and movements of these lures suggest prey but are not exact imitations of forage, but the flash or commotion of the lure tiggers a response from the bass to attack, either for feeding or territorial responses.  Crankbaits, jerkbaits and minnow baits can also draw reaction strikes when flashy or bright colors are used with erratic retrieves or actions imparted on the lure by the angler.  Most of the time, however, these lures work best when mimicking local forage species. 

These jerkbaits, from the top, are the Rattlin' Super Rogue, Rapala Husky Jerk, Lucky Craft Pointer 65, Rapala X-Rap, and Rapala Floating Minnow

From the top, crankbaits include the Rebel Wee Crawfish, Rapala Clackin Crank, Bagley's Killer B1, and topwater plug Heddon Tiny Torpedo

Spinnerbaits (top) are very effective big smallmouth baits that draw savage reaction strikes.  Buzzbaits (pictured below) create a wake and noise that call in big smallmouth for explosive topwater strikes.  Both are effective in a variety of river conditions. 

Retrieves of these lures vary depending on river conditions such as water clarity, temperature, time of year, and water levels.  Good rules of thumb would be to slow down presentations and work deeper pools in the colder months, and work more aggressively during warmer months.  Vary your retrieves until you get strikes, then try to remember what you did and try it again.  If your continued approach draws strikes consistently, then you've established a pattern of catching bass.

Now that we know what types of lures work well, where do you find big smallmouth bass?  River bronzebacks are opportunistic feeders.  They lie in wait to ambush prey just like their largemouth cousins.  The biggest difference is the habitat and cover that's available to them.  How smallmouth bass relate to the different types of cover available to them depends on the affect of river currents and depth around that cover.  Smallies tend to sit on current seams behind any type of cover that breaks the current.  It could be a mid river boulder, a weed covered gravel shoal, a rock wing dam, bedrock river bottom ledges and shelves, islands, deadfall trees, creek mouths or chunk rock river bottoms.  Big smallies feel comfortable with deep water nearby, just like their largemouth cousins, and love shade to hide in.  They may hold in deep water, or in shallow cover near deep water where they can retreat.  They may hold tight to structure or cruise slack water rocky flats in search of prey.  You can see that with a good pair of polarized sunglasses.  Often a well placed cast ahead of a cruising smallmouth will draw a strike.  Also, look for surface activity.  Signs of activity include minnows skittering across the surface that are probably being chased by a bass, or rings of displaced surface water indicating a bass sipping mayflies off the surface, or the visual sight of a smallmouth bass launching itself airborne in an attempt to catch a dragonfly or damselfly in mid-flight.  Cast just up current to where you noticed the activity that gave the bass away let the current carry your lure to the fish, or with more active baits cast beyond the activity and bring your retrieve across the area.  Soft jerkbaits or topwater plugs are extremely effective at drawing strikes from these feeding smallmouth.

My fishing buddy Bob Barber caught this smallmouth on a soft Texas Rigged Zoom Super Fluke in a shallow water likely holding spot.

Many anglers know that, when fishing small streams for smallies or trout, fish hold in areas at the heads and tails of pools, or any current break in between.  The same can be said for rivers, the heads of pools and tails of pools are also likely holding spots.  Even deep water pools with rocky cover below will hold big smallmouth most of the time.  They may not be active when holding there, so finesse presentations work well by placing the lure on their front door.  Tube jigs are very effective for this.

Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, crankbaits and grubs are effective in covering a lot of water quickly to get a feel where the fish are holding.  You can catch a lot of smallmouth in a hurry on these lures.  However, if that bite shuts down, at least you've located them and can easily adapt to a slower finesse presentation.

How can I get to these fish holding areas?  Many anglers use jet drive bass boats to quickly move from spot to spot and navigate through waters where boats with props can't go.  They draft very shallow while on plane when moving between fishing holes.  And, the weight distribution of the equipment and set up of the boat allows the boat to drift over shallow areas with minimal draft. 

Canoes and Kayaks are very effective at reaching prime fish holding waters even when the rivers are too shallow for the jet boats.  In addition, you can approach these fish in a very stealthy manner,  and even get out and wade if you so choose.  The key to fishing out of a kayak is to position your kayak such that you don't spook fish while at the same time being able to present your lure effectively.

And, finally, you can also wade out to prime locations.  Sometimes, by wading, assuming you've chosen a spot with a healthy population of bass, you can catch more fish by working the area more thoroughly.  Before going fishing, make sure that the water levels are safe to wade.  The USGS website shows river levels across the country.  Here's the link, just change the geographic area in the drop down box on the upper right hand corner of the page:

One piece of important equipment when wading warm water is a good pair of wading shoes that grip the river bottom.  Wading staffs can also be helpful when wading in strong currents.  Know your limitations and avoid crossing areas that are too strong for you to handle.  If you happen to get pulled into deeper water and strong currents, kick your feet up and drift until you reach a section of river that you can easily get to your feet.  Plan ahead before you move your feet.  Shuffle them one step at a time to make sure that you have a good foothold on the bottom.  When in strong current, turn sideways so that you present a smaller profile to the current and you'll find crossing those sections earlier.  I'll post an article devoted to wading rivers in the future because there is so much information that I can't cover in one post.

In closing, find a way to get to a smallmouth river and see if you can get a trophy.  There's nothing like hooking a big smallmouth bass and seeing it launch itself into the air two feet out of the water in an attempt to throw the hook!  After that, you'll be hooked!

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