Ask a diehard river angler the best time of year to catch a 20 plus inch smallmouth, and they will likely talk about when the water temperature is closer to 50 degrees, not 90. Summer float trips on our local rivers typically yield an abundance of dinks. They seem to be behind every ledge rock, log, or grass patch, pecking away at any soft plastic lure that passes by. But what about that big fish signature thump at the end of your line? Where do these fish go when it’s hot, and how can we get them to eat?
Well they can’t exactly walk away from the confines of the shrunken summer low pools. They have to be there somewhere, possibly tucked under an overhanging ledge, trying to stay cool. Shade becomes important as water temperatures soar. The bruisers may be actively feeding at night, which is a wonderful option if your schedule allows such a trip. But non-nocturnal anglers need to realize how important shade is to smallmouth in the summer. If you have ever waded across a section of river from shade into an exposed flat, you know how much the suns radiation heats up the water. The current on your ankles immediately transitions from cool and refreshing to hot bath water. Just like you or me, the fish prefer to be in the shade of the sycamore tree canopy on a sunny day. Presenting your lures to bank shade will increase your catch.
But don’t assume that bank shade is the only shade available. Ledge rock trenches provide a long sliver of shelter from the sun. Big submerged logs are utilized the same way by bruiser smallmouth to keep cool. These linear refuges should be targeted with a retrieve that traces the narrow band of shade. Position your boat so that your cast lines up exactly with the shade line of the trench or log. A shade tracing cast will keep your bait in a high percentage spot more than a cast that briefly crosses the shade line at an angle. The extra effort of precise boat positioning will pay off in terms of the quality of fish caught. Dragging tubes, grinding crankbaits, or fluttering soft jerkbaits along this shade line are the effective presentations needed to tempt the monster out from its lair.
When areas of slim shade are not as prevalent, go deep. Even when the waters are crystal clear, the suns rays are greatly diminished with each additional foot of depth. Look for deeper chunk rock areas where the current from a major chute is slowing down.
The summer metabolism of a 20 plus inch river smallmouth demands a lot of input. Sure there are plenty of minnows and crawfish to gorge on when they need to, but they do not feed all of the time. Much of the day, they prefer to hold in one spot to conserve energy. The best locations to do this have little to do with structure or cover. Laminar flow is best described as current that is almost stopped as it passes over a relatively flat bottom. I have caught countless 20 plus inch smallmouth from shallow featureless flats of gravel, bedrock, or sand. At first these catches left me wondering why they would pick such a shallow and boring spot. These spots afforded them no cover to ambush forage. The current is just enough to have the oxygen containing waters pass over their gills, but not so strong that they have to work hard to maintain position. Anglers can best identify this “almost stopped” current by watching the drifting foam or leaves compared to the fixed background. Frequently these spots are in the corner pockets at the end of a long pool before a ledge or riffle.
Crash and Learn
If you still have trouble visualizing these big fish spots, try crashing into where you think they are. Crash and learn is a tactic that came to me by accident. While float fishing the Rappahannock River during the low clear summer conditions, I was employing a run and gun approach. I paddled at full speed from one big submerged log to the next. Along the way, I would catch a glimpse here and there of the dark tail of a big smallmouth leaving a flat for deeper waters. Trying to confirm the prevalence their holding on flats, I intentionally crashed a few spots while scanning the waters through a pair of polarized sunglasses. There was no hope of catching these fish after I spooked them. However, I confirmed that they were indeed holding in these locations. This knowledge allowed me to stealthily approach similar areas further downstream.
Night Time is the Right Time
An option that I mentioned earlier is night fishing. These trips should be planned on float trips that you know very well. Try to avoid trips that have technical rapids or other river hazards. Good topwater lures for night time river smallmouth include the buzzbait, jitterbug, and floating topwater frog or mouse lures. Dark colored jigs and spinnerbaits also perform well. Spinnerbaits with single large Colorado, Indiana, or Mag Willow blades provide plenty of thump to help the actively feeding smallmouth hone in on the baits location. Be sure to keep your retrieve at a constant speed, and set when you feel the building weight of the fish, not when you first hear the splash.
Actively feeding fish will always be near the food source. Next time you are on the river, stop and look into the current immediately upstream of a ledge drop or riffle. Remain still enough as you look into the accelerating water, and you will see why push water is so productive. Baitfish tuck into the crags of the ledge rock, and dart in and out of the current, feeding on larval insects and the smallest of fish. By twitching a soft jerkbait or chugging a buzzbait along the length of this accelerating water at the very end of the pool, you are putting your baitfish imitation right were the bass expect to find it.
Have You Heard the Buzz?
Buzzbaits are staple items in the tackle boxes of river smallmouth anglers. While floating some of the larger rivers in the region, I see most anglers using them early and late in the day. These low light conditions shouldn’t be the only time you use them. During the heat of the day, especially in laminar flow with shade and push water areas, buzzbaits produce some of the best smallmouths of the summer. Often the smaller fish will erupt under a buzzbait, knocking it skyward. But if all you hear is a slurp, followed by your blades quieting, a big fish has suctioned your buzzbait into its mouth. Too often, anglers miss buzzbait fish in the excitement of the moment. They set the hook as soon as they see or hear something happen to the surface lure. This usually just pulls the hook free before it has a chance to bury beyond the barb. Waiting until the fish has turned away with it accomplishes two things. It pulls all the slack out of the line before you set the hook. Always keeping the rod pointed at the buzzbait during the retrieve helps this as well. The other advantage of waiting to set the hook is that if one misses it, you have not pulled it too far away for the fish to swipe at it again.
“Cat”fishing for Smallmouth
Have you ever used a string to play with a cat? Kittens in particular are easily amused, and have the energy to play for hours. But an older cat has mellowed. You may get an initial swat at the flailing string, but they usually turn away to find a nice place to curl up and take a cat nap. But if you wiggle it a little, drag it half way around the corner, then LET IT SIT, the mature feline looses it’s cool. It squats with its chest and head close to the ground, engaged in a staring contest with the string. With no apparent trigger, the cat bolts for the tip of the string, pouncing on it with fury. Big bass are the same way. They either strike immediately, or need their curiosity to build slowly to commit to an attack. Curiosity gets the best of them nine times out of ten if you placed the bait where they can detect its arrival. Give them plenty of time to build their curiosity. Most anglers loose the staring contest and move the bait.
Skip It and Rip It
Skipping tubes and other soft plastics up under shoreline foliage delivers the bait where no other cast can reach. This deadly tactic is best applied to scoured out areas under sycamore tree root balls. One way to improve upon this style of presentation is a quick change in direction. By skipping a lure up under the overhanging foliage, then ripping it back out a foot or two, the fish hears the commotion, and sees something that is trying to make an evasive maneuver. Be ready for an immediate hit. If one does not come, let the lure fall, starting the staring contest with a curious fish. Some of my best river smallmouth hammered the tube after pauses as up to three minutes in duration.
Deadsticking Soft Plastics
Soft plastic sticks produce from post spawn all the way through the summer. Twitching and fluttering them produces good numbers of smallmouth, but as with other baits, investing in a long pause will produce the big ones. Worn out from the spawn, the big fish often will not chase a larger meal. But present what looks like a dying minnow right in front of them, and they will sample the free lunch. Long casts with 8 or 10 lb fluorocarbon may be needed when water clarity maximizes.
Borrowing from fly fishermen, I employed two different techniques to visually detect the often subtle bites. Using high visibility yellow braided line and a 10 foot fluorocarbon leader, or using a strike indicator, my catch rate with these lures soared. After the spawners recover and start eating more aggressively, a larger offering such as a HawgHead Baits Jerk Shad should be used to tempt the largest smallmouth. When dead drifting these lures, make sure that they fall or drift in a natural way. A common beginner mistake is to cast into an area with current speed different than their boats drift speed. This will result in the bait being pulled by the nose diagonally cross current. Baitfish never move in this manner, and the smallmouth will know that it is bogus. Another pitfall is casting across a chute that pulls your line and therefore the bait. Assess your casting angles with two things in mind; the current speed where you are versus the current speed where your bait will land, and where your line will lay once you cast. Rigging options include weedless rigging with 3/0 to 5/0 EWG hooks, or nose hooking with size 2 circle hooks. Paying full attention is the best way to prevent gut hooking of fish, but if you still have this problem, circle hooks should be used with a slowly building sweep set. Signs of the fish taking the bait range from a noticeable line jump to the line slowly moving in one direction. The adhesive foam strike indicators or fluorescent line should help you see these usually subtle signs that you need to set the hook.
Most river smallmouth anglers started the obsession by catching numerous dink smallmouth when the water temperature was in the 80 degree range. While the larger fish seem more cooperative early and late in the season, the angler who is deliberate with the placement of each cast will find them. Features like shade, push water, depth, and laminar flow produce the pigs all summer long. Considerable patience with each deadsticked presentation will be needed if the fish do not hit immediately. Most anglers fail to make this leap of faith. Those who do so with accurate presentations will be rewarded with broad shouldered river bronze.
For more information on how to catch summertime smallmouth check out my Summer Patterns DVD