The month of June means the start of some of the best river smallmouth bass action all year.
And what is so rare as a day in June, then, if ever, come perfect days.” So said 19th century New England poet James Russell Lowell. I’m not sure if Lowell was a river smallmouth enthusiast, but June definitely does usher in some of the premier stream smallie action of the year because of warmer water and more consistent weather patterns. Let’s look at some of the most productive patterns for catching these fish.
SMALLIES IN A CHASING MODE
Tommy Cundiff, who operates River Monster Guide Service, relishes this time of year.
“At some point during this month, the smallmouths will usually move into a full-blown chasing mode,” he said. “And that means crankbaits and grubs.”
For the former, the guide prefers Rapala DT4 crankbaits in either dark brown/craw or red crawdad. He explains that a crankbait running four feet deep is ideal for these active smallies, as the fish are not holding near the bottom and are ready to chase down their prey. When he fishes a grub, Cundiff opts for 4-inch Yamamoto hula grubs that match the color of the predominant baitfish in a waterway. As is true with the crankbaits, the guide rapidly retrieves these grubs rigged on a jighead through the water column.
“I’ll work both baits on the downstream side of mid-river humps, below current breaks caused by wood or rocks, and parallel to banks in 6 or so feet of water,” Cundiff notes. “Any place along those banks that has shoreline cover or visible underwater cover is worth several casts with grubs or crankbaits. Another really great spot is push water right above a rapid or riffle.”
Cundiff confirms that these push-water bass are among the most active in the river and are often most prone to chasing after a lure. These fish have to be aggressive as the water above a rapid flows faster and faster as it nears the actual drop. Finally, the guide maintains that one of the most important aspects of this pattern is employing a reel that has a 7:1 gear ratio so the lure will clip quickly along.
THE FIRST TOPWATER BITE
On certain occasions, surface action can obviously occur in May. But June brings the beginning of the most consistent topwater action of the year to date. Dale Black, who operates Gamma Technologies (fishing lines, gammafishing.com), regularly plies premier smallmouth rivers.
“June is a time when the smallmouths are moving away or have moved away from their spawning areas,” he says. “A great topwater strategy is to target where the bass go next. It might be any kind of mid-river current break, a rock pile or downed tree along the bank, or a swift water run with visible cover. One of the best places, especially for casting buzzbaits, is a really ‘heavy’ riffle in 2 feet of water. Any smallmouth in that kind of swift water is going to be extremely aggressive and will absolutely crush a buzzbait.”
For buzzers, Black prefers a medium or medium heavy baitcaster with 40-pound Gamma Torque Braid. Just pull back on the smallmouth when it hits, he instructs; no need exists to set the hook. For other surface lures (a Rebel Pop-R, Arbogast Jitterbug, or River2Sea Whopper Plopper), Black opts for the same baitcaster, this time spooled with 12-pound Gamma Polyflex copolymer, which offers plenty of stretch and strength.
“The Whopper Plopper is one of the most exciting and effective baits I’ve ever seen for river smallmouths,” says Black. “It’s sort of like a buzzbait that won’t sink, but it also has elements of a Jitterbug and a Zara Spook. When the smallmouths are in an ambush-type holding area and keying on baitfish, the Whopper Plopper can be phenomenal.”
Professional anger Ott DeFoe says that active early summer smallmouths prefer moving water.
“River smallmouths during warm-water periods are going to be focused on areas with a lot of current,” he said. “Main river spots that speed current up or where current hits the hardest are going to be the areas you want to focus on. The smallmouths will be shallow a lot of times, staging at around 3 to 6 feet in this current. Any kind of cover is good. Rock, shell, wood, grass and even clean sand can be good. Again, current is much more important than bottom composition.”
Family Fishing Tips
DeFoe’s lure of choice for these current concentrating bronzebacks is a jerkbait. However, he emphasizes that the same retrieves that work well in the winter are not necessarily the choice now. For example, stream smallie fishermen often employ suspending jerkbaits when the water temperature is in the low 40s or upper 30s. These baits are cranked down, then left to hover before slowly rising upward. That’s not the type of action we want now.
“Now, you want more extreme action so the Rapala X-Rap comes into play,” he said. “The size 10 in Olive Green is my favorite. Even though the Rapala Shadow Rap line is focused on cold water, it is also a very effective bait in warm water when fished with an aggressive retrieve. Elite blue is my favorite finish for that lure, and I’ll downsize to a smaller Shadow Rap Shad if needed.”
Guide Marcel Veenstra (810-923-5035) emphasizes that early summer smallmouths are not always on the prowl. Indeed, sometimes we need to slow down our retrieves and probe deeper environs with a tube.
“I like to target isolated sandspots that contain grass around them, areas of isolated boulders, and hard bottom areas of either shells or gravel,” he says.
Anglers often overlook these types of spots because they don’t stand out as much as such obvious targets as current breaks or bank cover do. Another advantage of focusing on these places is that the brown bass there receive much less pressure.
Veenstra prefers Case Salty Tubes in smoke purple when he wants to imitate baitfish or watermelon with purple/gold flake and green pumpkin when the goal is to imitate crawfish. For most applications, he rigs tubes with a 60-degree flat-eyed 3/0 hook, which goes through rocks easier. He uses hooks with a 90-degree turn when he desires a larger spiral and slower fall. These are all wide gapped hooks. The guide only relies on a Texas rig when rocks are so abundant that hang-ups are unavoidable.
SOFT PLASTIC OPTIONS
Just as is true in fall and spring, summer smallmouths are not immune to cold front conditions. Then it’s often best to opt for fool-em baits worked across and around bottom cover. For example, a 3.5-inch Case Mad Tom or a 3-inch Venom Mad Tom are options for when the mossybacks are holding tight to cover and not prone to moving far or fast. Rigged Texas style with a 1/8-ounce bullet sinker and 1/0 hook, these baits offer excellent realism as they are crawled along the substrate.
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Another effective cold front option is a 3.75-inch Case Sinkin Salty Minnow or a 4-inch Venom Skip Shad Jr. Rigged Texas style with no weights. These soft plastic baits look like dying baitfish as they slowly sink through the water column. During this descent, give them soft, weak jerks every now and then. These “death shudders” are extremely attractive even to a cold front brown bass.
One of my most consistent river lures over the years has been a 6-inch Mister Twister Phenom. Curly-tail worms were all the rage during the 1960s and 1970s, but both lake and river bass fishermen moved away from them decades ago as trendier soft plastic baits took over the stage. However, river smallmouths never stopped hitting plastic worms, and they remain an overlooked option today. Rig them with a 2/0 wide gapped hook and 1/8-ounce bullet sinker and work them tight to bottom cover.
Although I’m an English major and teacher, I’ve never been much interested in poetry. But James Russell Lowell had it right several centuries ago when proclaiming June is the perfect month — the perfect month, that is, to experience some of the best smallmouth action of the year.