Our Finest July Smallmouth Rivers

Here's a look at where to find the best river smallmouth bass fishing in New York this month.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By J. Michael Kelly

There's more to bass fishing than cranking spinnerbaits through shoreline weedbeds or gunning a 180-horsepower outboard to beat your best buddy back to the dock for the club tournament's weigh-in.

The other side of bass fishing manifests itself in moving water, where a surprise is always waiting around the next bend. It's about drifting with river currents, letting your legs dangle over the side of a beached canoe, and wading to beat the heat on a sultry summer day. Most of all, it's about a muscular bronze fish with barred sides leaping clear of the water with your hook in its jaw, slugging it out like a heavyweight with its welterweight body.

Yep, some of the finest bass fishing of all is for smallmouths in New York's rivers. Here are some examples of the bronzeback bounty that awaits anglers in New York waters this month:

SUSQUEHANNA RIVER

Access is a thorny issue on many New York streams, but not on the mighty Susquehanna.

From its origin at the outlet of Otsego Lake to where it makes its second and final exit from New York in southern Tioga County, major highways including interstates 88 and 86 parallel the Susquehanna.

Even more advantageous to fishermen, there are more than a dozen public boat launches providing access to the Empire State stretches of the river. Most of those sites were constructed with cartoppers in mind because canoes and other small craft are just right for exploring the Susquehanna.

Although the river is more than 200 feet wide in most places, most of its pools have gently sloping, gravel bottoms and can be safely fished by wading anglers as well as boaters.

The majority of Susquehanna River bass are spunky 1/2- to 1 1/2-pounders, but the river does hold some lunkers. A biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 7 office in Cortland confirmed a reported catch of a 7-pound smallmouth there several years ago, and a skilled fisherman stands a good chance of landing a 3-pounder any time he visits the river.

Although most of the Susquehanna lends itself to float trips, one of the more interesting stretches is the approximately 30-mile run between Oneonta and Sidney. There are half a dozen put-ins in this section of the river, which is shadowed on its south bank by Interstate 88 and on its north bank by state Route 7. The stretch has a classic pool-riffle-pool sequence, with plenty of good holding water for bass.

Farther west, the rocky stretch below the Rock Bottom dam in Binghamton is perfect for hip boots or even wading in the summer months. The water there is full of crayfish and hellgrammites, and visiting anglers can take a cue from local youngsters who catch their bait as needed by flipping over rocks along the shore.

Below Binghamton, the Susquehanna is deep enough to accommodate gas-powered bass boats. The most popular launch site for such craft is at Hickories Park in Owego.

Anglers can often get an update on conditions in the Binghamton to Owego stretch by calling the DEC's Region 7 fishing hotline at (607) 753-1551.

The Broome County Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 836-6740, is a logical contact for information about accommodations in or around the Binghamton section of the river.

UNADIILLA RIVER

A major tributary of the Susquehanna, the Unadilla River is a notable fishery in its own right. Loaded with smallmouths, it is particularly conducive to bank-casting, although it can also be explored by canoe in most places. Shaded here and there by giant willows and crossed periodically by small bridges, the river flows past a succession of dairy farms and rural villages that have a nostalgic, Norman Rockwell quality.

To find the Unadilla, go east from the Syracuse area or west from Albany on U.S. Route 20 to the village of Bridgewater in the southeastern comer of Madison County. From there, go south on state Route 8, which accompanies the river all the way to Sidney.

The Unadilla is visible from the winding highway, and you'll see one tempting bend pool and riffle after another. It's hard to choose an unproductive spot, but I especially like the sections around the hamlets of South Edmeston, New Berlin and Rockdale.

If the Unadilla has a shortcoming, it would be the comparatively small size of its fish. Bronzebacks of 9 to 14 inches are the general rule in this little river, but there are plenty of them.

As a bonus, Unadilla anglers can expect to encounter hordes of spunky rock bass, along with an occasional keeper-size walleye. Near tributary mouths, you might even find a brown trout or two.

Practical canoe floats on the Unadilla include drifts from South Edmeston to the Route 80 bridge in New Berlin, from that span down to the public fishing access north of South New Berlin and from Rockdale to the Route 2 bridge at East Guilford. Any of these trips can be accomplished in a long morning or be stretched out to a full day, depending on your fishing pace.

MOHAWK RIVER

Because it flows in full view of the New York State Thruway from Rome nearly to Albany, the Mohawk River is hardly a secret, and many dedicated bass fishermen work their way along its banks on summer weekends.

Along with easy access, one of the river's main attributes is its ability to grow sizable smallmouths. Until the mid-1990s, the Mohawk, which is part of the Barge Canal for much of its length, was known as a spot where a good bass fisherman might catch 20 or more 11- to 14-inch bronzebacks in a single outing, along with a few bigger ones. However, in recent seasons, DEC biologists reviewing angler diaries and exploring the river with nets and electroshocking gear have noted a decline in the numbers of smaller bass. It appears that relatively few of the bass hatched in the river since the late 1990s have managed to reach catchable size, for reasons as yet unclear. The good news is that the reduced number of small bass means less competition for the big boys at mealtime. These days, smallmouths of 15 to 19 inches and weighing 2 to 5 pounds are more abundant than ever in the Mohawk.

DEC research indicates the most productive smallmouth fishing in the Mohawk can be found between Lock 16 at St. Johnsville and Lock 8 west of Schenectady. Within that stretch are seven public boat launches and six privately o

wned fee ramps. Anglers can also find dozens of shore-casting spots, some officially designated and some not.

The easiest way to check out these locations is by driving along the north bank of the river on Route 5 between Johnsville and Schenectady with a copy of the Lower Mohawk River Fishing Guide in hand. Readers can obtain a free copy of the brochure from the DEC's Region 4 office by calling (607) 652-7366. Along with a list of launch locations, the document features a concise explanation of how to navigate the river's series of canal locks.

For assistance in finding lodging along the river, contact the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, (800) 743-7337 or the Fulton County Chamber of Commerce, (800) 676-3858.

GRASS RIVER

The DEC's Region 6 fisheries office in Watertown at (315) 785-2261 has a free, map-filled booklet called Fishing and Canoeing the Grass River. Anglers interested in exploring one of the Empire State's most underrated smallmouth waters should study the brochure thoroughly.

Although the Grass River is a fairly long stream, winding 115 miles through St. Lawrence County before spilling into the St. Lawrence River at Massena, many otherwise well-traveled New York bass fishermen have never heard of it. After all, it begins in a remote corner of the Adirondack Park Preserve and then flows north past a series of tiny villages, never to be crossed by a major highway until it slips under U.S. Route 11 at Canton. It is easy to overlook on the way to more famous North Country fishing holes, yet the Grass is worth a special trip.

Roughly two-thirds of the river is canoeable, including all but a few snippets of the 36-mile stretch from Canton to Massena. A fisherman who hits the Grass when it's "on" can expect to battle two- or three-dozen smallmouths, most of them in the 10- to 14-inch range, during a daylong float. That same outing may well yield a couple of keeper-sized walleyes and even a nice northern pike or muskellunge.

The Grass' tea-colored currents call for bucktail spinners, silver-finish crankbaits and other flashy lures, but if you're interested in keeping a few smallmouths or rockies to fillet, bring a can of night crawlers along just in case.

One productive float on the Grass begins in the town of Madrid at the dam just below the Route 345 crossing. You can put in at a town launch downstream from the dam and then float and paddle approximately five miles to another carry-in launch off Route 55 about a mile south of Chamberlain Corners. This is mostly flat water varying from 4 to 12 feet deep.

Another good trip, with shallower water and more riffles, begins farther up the river, about three miles downstream from Canton, at the Lower Lakes Wildlife Management Area. From that state launch it's about five miles to Morley. The first two miles of this voyage is all flat water. Then comes a sequence of rocky riffles that, at normal flows, are easily handled by experienced canoeists.

The St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at (315) 386-4000 can help traveling anglers plan their Grass River visit.

ST. LAWRENCE RIVER

There are rivers, and then there are rivers. Measuring up to 10 miles across in some spots and carrying the combined drainage of the Great Lakes toward the Atlantic, the St. Lawrence definitely belongs in the latter category. Anglers shouldn't be intimidated, however, for the Thousand Islands section of the river from Cape Vincent to Chippewa Bay has some of the friendliest bass fishing anywhere. Largemouths abound in every weedy bay, and the river's countless shoals and dropoffs are magnets for schools of hard-fighting smallmouths.

Since zebra mussels spread downstream from Lake Ontario in the early and mid-1990s, the many guides who make nice summer incomes fishing out of Clayton and Alexandria Bay have noticed they have to fish their baits deeper than ever to make consistent catches. It's not unusual these days to find post-spawn smallmouths 25 feet down, and Thousand Islands bronzebacks may swim twice that deep from late July through August. The change is a result of increased water clarity, which in turn can be traced to voracious feeding on phytoplankton by mussels.

Along with heavier sinkers, St. Lawrence anglers now need lighter or at least finer-diameter lines than they formerly used to fool wary smallmouths.

Newcomers to the Thousand Islands need to be aware of two things, other than the multitude of fish, which distinguish the St. Lawrence from most other fisheries. First, the river really does curl around a thousand islands and more, some of which measure from a few feet to a few miles across. You'll need a good map and sound navigational equipment to find your way around them.

The 1000 Islands Bait stores in Clayton and Alexandria Bay have the necessary charts in stock.

Second, it's important to realize that the St. Lawrence River is shared by New York and Canada, and that conservation officers from both sides of the border take their responsibilities seriously. Before dropping a line north of the border, be sure to obtain a Canadian non-resident fishing license.

For a list of accommodations in the Thousand Islands region, call the Clayton 1000 Islands Chamber of Commerce at (800) 252-9806. Be sure to ask for copies of their excellent fishing brochures.

SENECA RIVER

Although Oneida Lake is the most popular after-work destination for Syracuse-area bass fishermen, the Seneca River is in second place and coming up fast.

First showing up on maps as the outlet of Seneca Lake, the Seneca River winds eastward for approximately 47 miles before joining the Oneida River to form the Oswego River south of Phoenix. Along the way it tumbles over a couple of dams, skirts the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge and passes through Cross Lake.

Like the Mohawk River, the Seneca River is part of the Barge Canal system, and boaters must negotiate locks east of Seneca Falls and in the Onondaga County village of Baldwinsville. Most of this varied water holds smallmouth bass, including some that weigh more than 4 pounds.

My favorite stretch of the Seneca River is the one closest to Syracuse, above and below the mouth of the Onondaga Lake outlet. It's dotted with deadfalls and tiny shoreline backwaters, all of which seem to hold at least one nice smallmouth. To reach it, my friends and I usually launch at the Onondaga Lake Park marina off the Onondaga Lake Parkway in the village of Liverpool. The outlet, which is less than a quarter of a mile long, is in sight of the marina. Don't forget to make a few casts around the Syracuse University crew team's boathouse on your way down to the river.

Another great spot is Cross Lake. Basically a wide spot in the river, it forms part of the border between Cayuga and Onondaga counties. You can get on it by launching a boat at the privately owned Cross Lake Marina, which is at the northwest end of the lake off Jordan R

oad in the town of Van Buren. Cross Lake holds plenty of largemouths and some toothy northern pike in addition to smallmouths.

The Cayuga County Tourism office at (800) 499-9615 or the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at (315) 470-1800 can help you find lodging close to the Seneca River.

CHEMUNG RIVER

Flowing just a few miles above the state's southern border, the Chemung River is often overlooked as a bass-fishing destination. However, the recent development of a network of boat launches along the river will undoubtedly help its popularity.

The Chemung Basin River Trail, a joint venture of regional planning agencies, local governments and state fisheries biologists, winds through parts of Steuben, Chemung and Tioga counties. It links 11 completed river-access sites (and several more in the planning stages) between Kinsella Park in Corning and White Wagon Road in South Waverly. That's 40 miles of mostly canoeable water, virtually all of which teems with smallmouth bass. You can get a map of the river trail from the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board in Painted Post by calling (607) 962-5092.

While the Chemung can be waded or covered from shore in most spots, it is ideal for canoeing. Expect to catch many 8- to 12-inch scrappers and a fair share of 13- to 15-inch smallmouths when you try it. Upstream from the Route 17 crossing just west of Corning, the minimum size limit for bass in the river is 10 inches. Downstream, the statewide minimum of 12 inches is in force.

The agency to question about Corning-area lodging alternatives is the Steuben County Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 284-3352.



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