Stepping Out For Smallmouths

You don't always need a boat to catch big smallmouth bass. These tips for fishing on foot will help you score bronze this season.

A small little-known stream produced this big smallmouth bass.
Photo by Tim Holschlag.

Sure, fishing can be frustrating on some days. This wasn't one of those days. The stream was perfect, the fish were eager and my smallmouth bass school students were happy. In fact, Tony and Craig, a father-and-son duo who were taking the school, were downright amazed. Used to noisy and congested lakes, they couldn't believe how beautiful and quiet this smallmouth-laden stream was. Perhaps 15-year-old Craig said it best when he kept repeating the word "awesome" throughout the day.

Actually, on-foot smallmouthing has a lot more going for it than just quiet, pretty streams. Foremost, there are the fish themselves. The power-packed smallie is great however you catch it, but put it in moving water where you get right in there with the fish, and then you have an absolutely spectacular angling experience. With this "feet-on-the-bottom-approach," you almost become one with the stream, as well as with the fish. In fact, standing in-stream on a quiet summer evening can be an almost mystical experience. You can feel the flow against your legs, and watch the water slip downstream as you cast. This puts the mind and body in touch with the natural world like few other outdoor experiences.

And because no boat or watercraft of any kind is needed, wade-fishing trips are inexpensive and easy to organize. You don't have to worry about organizing a shuttle as you would for a river canoe trip, nor do you need to round up a trip partner to help paddle. Just some basic tackle and sturdy legs are all an on-foot fisher needs to enjoy productive stream fishing. And another benefit of regularly stepping out for smallmouths is that it's healthy. While motorized boat-fishing does little to rid us of flab, fishing on foot is some of the most aerobic exercise there is. Getting a healthy workout while having a great time is a combo that's hard to beat.

But what about actually catching smallmouths without a boat? Is it really practical? Darn right it is! I've been wade-fishing for decades and have conducted on-foot schools for 15 years. I've seen thousands of fine smallies caught without the aid of a boat. In fact, wading allows you to fish larger rivers when the flows are low, plus the multitude of waterways that are too small for any sort of watercraft. These overlooked streams offer a wading angler a lifetime of exploration and enjoyment.

Right now is the perfect time to start this quest. Summer is the prime time for moving-water bronzebacks. As river levels fall and temperatures warm, smallmouth action will skyrocket. Here's what you need to know to get in on the fun.

ON-FOOT GEAR

While an expensive boat isn't needed, a few well-chosen gear items will make your time on the water much more enjoyable and productive.

One of the most important items is adequate footwear. This is something that shouldn't be overlooked. Trying to get by without decent wading boots means you're shackled to only fishing from one small section of bank, and you will still likely get your feet wet, cold or muddy. For bigger rivers and deeper waters, chest waders are a good option. Nowadays, there are many brands of reasonably priced breathable chest-high waders that are lightweight and cool, yet will keep you completely dry. Chest-high waders are especially useful where thick, brushy banks force you to stand in deeper water away from the shore.

Another option is hip boots. You can't wade as deep as with chest-highs, but "hippers" are very comfortable and easy to walk in, so they are excellent on smaller streams where you do a lot of hiking on the bank between spots. Hip boots come in various materials, including very inexpensive vinyl. But those made from high-quality latex, or rubber, will pay off in the long run since they will last far longer than cheap boots.

A third wading possibility is "wet wading." When the water is at least 70 degrees and the air is 75 or more, wading wet can be very nice. Wet wading is not comfortable if the water or air is cool, so it's mostly a mid- through late-summer affair. And only consider wading in shorts and sandals if you intend to confine your fishing to very short distances where there is no brush or other scratchy vegetation to walk through. For most situations, lightweight, fast-drying long pants -- forget the heavy denim jeans -- and good-grip wading shoes or boots are much more practical.

The next major component of the on-foot fisher's gear is a fishing vest or waist pack. If you plan to carry more than just the lure on your line and a couple of sinkers in your pocket, you need a vest or mini-pack. For decades, fly-fishers have realized the necessity of a fishing vest. On-foot spin- and bait-casting anglers should recognize its value, too. Vests with many pockets not only allow you to carry essentials such as plenty of lures, extra line or reel spools, line clippers, pliers, thermometer, etc., but also such crucial items like insect repellent, sunscreen, Band-aids, a small camera, drinking water and a piece of fruit or a snack.

The vest's hot-weather alternative is a waist pack. It won't hold nearly as many items as a good vest, but a small pack that fastens around your waist is easy to take on and off, and it won't make you hot even on those 90-degree days. Personally, I view the well-stocked vest as best for longer, more extensive outings, while the lighter pack is OK for short "quickie" trips.

TACKLE FOR STEPPING OUT

Many spin-anglers assume stream-fishing means ultralight, and they equate that with really short rods. In reality, a 6 1/2- or 7-foot-long rod is best for river fishing.

A long rod lets you cast light lures more easily, control your line better in current and set the hook better. Plus, it will give you more fight from the fish than a shorter rod will. For most stream smallmouthing, a good quality rod rated light-medium-action is best, but if you plan to primarily fish larger rivers with big crankbaits, then a medium-action rod is better.

Fly-fishing is also a superb way to catch smallies, and a 9-foot 7-weight rod is a great choice for all-around smallmouth fishing. Loaded with an 8-weight bass bug-tapered fly line, you can easily cast a large Woolly Bugger, a Clouser Minnow or other productive smallie fly.

Some spin- and bait-casting folks like the extra-strong braided Kevlar "superlines" for all their fishing, but I still prefer the controlled stretch of monofilament for many types of stream fishing. Nowadays, limp and small-diameter 8- and 6-pound-test lines are sensitive enough to detect soft strikes, light enough to cast even 1/16-ounce lures, yet strong enough to stand up

to the snagging and abrasions common to river angling. Use the 8-pound-test line in most situations since it's better for pulling free of snags. Go with 6-pound-test if the bottom is clean or if the water is unusually clear. Naturally, having two reel spools along allows you to switch lines quickly and easily.

STREAM LURES

A wide variety of lures and flies will catch river smallies, depending on the season, river conditions and fish activity level.

One of the most consistently productive lure categories for the summer season is crankbaits, both the thin-minnow and fat-bodied varieties. Thin-minnow crankbaits that run less than 2 feet deep are especially versatile. They can be worked quickly as a search bait to cover a lot of water, or they can be worked slowly with stop-and-go retrieves. Balsa models like Rapalas can even be twitched on the surface as topwaters. Several thin-minnow plugs ranging from 3 to 4 1/2 inches long should be in your lure box. A good rule of thumb is to use the smaller lures when the water is extra clear, and to try larger offerings when visibility is low and as the summer season progresses and forage gets larger. During the mid- and late-summer crayfish season, fat-bodied crankbaits with some crayfish hues -- browns, rusts, oranges and golds -- are also good producers.

Many stream neophytes have a bad attitude toward jigs because of difficult strike detection and snagging. But a jig is often the most productive enticement a smallmouth angler can tie on, especially when the fish are sluggish. So it really pays to become proficient with this bait. To minimize snagging, use slow-sinking jigs or jigs rigged to be snagless so you can effectively use them in even the shallowest and rockiest water. One-sixteenth-ounce heads with larger buoyant dressings -- like large plastic bodies -- are heavy enough to cast but are also slow sinking. Only go up to 1/8-ounce heads when the current is strong or depths are over 4 feet.

Plastic jig bodies and 4-inch finesse worms rigged Texas-style with the hook imbedded in the plastic is the best way to reduce snagging. Small plastic worms are particularly appealing to smallies during the summer. Worms in black, pumpkinseed and motor oil are very consistent. No matter what you add to the jighead, make sure you fish it slow and near the bottom to maximize its effectiveness.

Topwaters aren't used by many on-foot anglers, but at times, they can be the most effective and enjoyable bronzeback producers. On bigger rivers, topwaters can be terrific during the middle of the day. And on virtually all waters, the last two hours of daylight will see excellent surface action. In fact, I've often caught my biggest bronzeback of the day off the surface in the evening. Smaller propeller baits and popping plugs are two of the best types of topwaters. To keep the lure from drifting downstream too fast, always fish it from the upstream position, casting downstream toward likely bank targets.

ON-FOOT TECHNIQUES

Rivers are very dynamic systems. Learning to "read the river" --visually recognize its depths, bottom types and current speeds -- is very important, and it's one of the things I teach in my stream schools.

One way to spot likely fish locations, and avoid spooking the fish, is to approach slowly and take the time to carefully study the river ahead of you. Likely smallmouth locations are rocky pools (especially the head-of-pool area), outside bends (where the current scours the bottom), bank eddies (slow-flow areas) and current breaks (where two currents collide). To approach any of these spots, you should wade quietly by using the "wader's shuffle" (sliding your feet along the bottom).

One way to effectively fish a mile or so stretch of stream is to use what I call the "Top-Down, Bottom-Up" method. This means first heading downstream and fishing on or near the surface. By fishing against the current with a topwater or shallow-running crankbait, you can quickly cover water and hook the most active smallies. Then when you head back upstream to your vehicle, you can fish slower for the less-active bronzebacks. Casting upstream, you work a jig with the current and near bottom. These are two very different techniques and often you'll find you will catch smallies going both directions in the same stretch of river.

A more unorthodox against-the-current trick is the "in-their-face technique." This is a very focused technique where you keep your offering right in front of or next to a specific target. The idea is to keep the lure in a small zone for as long as 30 seconds. You do this when there is a high probability of a nice fish being in a spot, but it won't hit. A 1/16-ounce jig dressed with a 3-inch grub, or a 1/32-ounce head if the water is shallow, works well. If the current is moderate, a thin-minnow crankbait is also good. Using rod-tip twitches, you make the lure hover and dart forward and back, while it remains nearly stationary. For reasons known only to the smallmouths, sometimes they love this non-retrieve. Some good places to use the in-their-face technique are near logjams and big boulders and in the tail end of pools. Sometimes I've twitched a lure in the same place for what seemed like an eternity, and just when I was ready to cast to another spot -- bingo! -- a smallie whacked it.

These and other techniques and tricks are thoroughly covered in my Stream Smallmouth Schools. You can find more about them by going to www.smallmouthangler.com.

A FEW MORE TIPS

Here are a few more tips to make your on-foot fishing more productive.

If possible, fish during lower river levels. Fish are more concentrated at this time, walking and wading is much easier, and identifying likely fish-holding spots is simpler. This means the upcoming mid- and late-summer season is generally the most productive time of the year.

Another tip is to cover a lot of water! Don't spend all day pounding the water to a froth under the bridge. By working a mile of river or stream, instead of only a couple hundred yards, you'll fish over many times more active smallmouths.

There are many places to fish on foot. Even big rivers are candidates if you exercise common sense and if you have adequate wading skills. Don't try to wade when flow levels are high and currents are strong, which they often are early in the season. Instead, target the big water when flows are low and slow. But even in low water, a wading staff is quite helpful if you feel at all unsteady wading. You can make your own or purchase a collapsible one.

Naturally, smaller and midsized streams are the easiest places to step out for smallies, and many of these gems receive very little angling pressure. One way to find these less-known streams is check with a local state fisheries office, or covertly ask around at the local bait and tackle shops. Since small streams are so overlooked, you may not receive detailed nor totally accurate information, but even vague tips can help.

Of course, another time-tested way to uncover some secret honeyholes is to do "field research" -- get out there and try 'em. When checking a possible stream, try to look at it from several different bridge or road accesses to get an accurate idea of its size, depth and substrates. And when actua

lly fishing a new stream, do it when conditions are optimum. This means going when water clarity is good, and flow rates are normal or less. It's also best not to fish when there has been a recent sudden drop in temperatures. Falling temperatures really turn off the smallies, so even if the stream has plenty of fish, you probably won't catch many of them during these "cool-front" conditions.

My last tip is to release the smallmouth bass you catch! Better-sized smallies are exciting catches, but these fish are very slow growing and easily depleted by anglers. Carefully releasing them so you can catch them again is the only way to preserve and improve our future fishing.

(Editor's Note: Those of you interested in learning more about fly-rodding for smallies should check out the author's new book, Smallmouth Fly-Fishing, which is available at www.smallmouthangler.com.)

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