Western River Smallmouths

Despite the ravenous appetites of smallmouth bass, they don't always attack what's placed in front of them. Expand your arsenal of fish-catching weapons with these expert tips.

By Scott Haugen

As our drift boat made its way silently down the middle of the river, three of us casted to the far shore, working subsurface plugs in hopes of coaxing smallies from the shadowed depths. In a frenzied rush, water boiled in the shallows behind us. A school of salmon smolts had been corralled and forced to the shoreline by feeding smallmouth bass.

A trio of casts with the plugs yielded nothing. We then picked up the rods equipped with topwater jerk baits and slammed the smallies. The more stressed the smolts became, the more bass arrived on the scene. For the next several minutes we stayed on the school, hitting bass with nearly every cast. The smolts finally escaped the shallows, seeking refuge in deeper waters.

Though the smolts were gone, the majority of bass stayed tight to shore, tucking themselves under rocks and clumps of grass. Working that shoreline with our minnow imitations, we continued hammering smallies over the next several minutes.

By the end of the day, we'd released more than 100 bass, yet we found the action to be slow. It was mid-summer, water temperatures ran high, and though bass were plentiful, not every fish we saw attacked all that was thrown at them.

"I'm a firm believer in diversifying for these bass," offers veteran Umpqua River guide, Bob Cobb of Bob Cobb's Reel Fishing (1-877-552-5452). "What works well one day may not produce the next, and if you limit yourself to depending on one or two things, you may get a rude awakening."

On the day we fished together, Cobb's theory couldn't have rung more true. Between the three of us, we tossed over a dozen different plugs, worms, lures, flies and jigs. Had we not put our noses in the tackle box, we wouldn't have ended up catching the fish we did. On numerous occasions we sight-fished bass and observed as they often followed our attractant only to turn away at the last second. Tying on a different lure or plug, successive casts often picked up the same fish. Why they bit one style of plug and not another is a mystery, but it goes to show how important it is to diversify your arsenal when it comes to smallmouth bass.

Angler Paul Kirsch admires a healthy river-run smallmouth he caught on a jerkbait in shallow water. Photo by Scott Haugen

One of smallmouth bass fishing's most exciting approaches is enticing them to ascend from the depths and attack a topwater attractant. "My rule of thumb when selecting topwater plugs for smallies is to stay small," advises Cobb. "I've not found any benefit to using plugs over four inches in length. Anything longer may attract a fish's attention, but too often they only follow it without striking."

It's the small, attention-getting plugs bassers like - the stuff that will get out there and move with ease, make sounds and toss water when twitched. Any plug with a mini-propeller on the back end is ideal for smallies, such as the Baby Spook. Cobb especially likes these plugs - in the 2 1/2-inch, 3/8-ounce class, feeling that's the size that elicits most bites. "A plug this size seems to appeal to bass, and the fact you can work it aggressively as a popper, or bring it quickly or slowly across the surface adds to the ways it can be fished."

Jitterbugs and Hula Poppers in the 3/8-ounce class are ideal topwater choices, as are mini-poppers in the 1-inch size range. These smaller poppers are great fun when fished with ultralight spinning rods. You can even go smaller and have excellent success on poppers fished off fly rods. When working riverbanks, I've had excellent success whipping 1/2-inch poppers, especially ones with rubber legs. Fly fanatics can even draw strikes on dark dries, though the action can be spotty at times. Deer hair poppers can be red-hot when fished on the surface with a fly rod, and are a must have.

When talking plugs, search for colors that emulate the baitfish in the waters you choose to fish. It may be that salmon or steelhead smolts are a primary prey or that shad, perch and even other bass are on the menu. By correlating your plug color to the natural prey-species bass feed on, you may note a dramatic increase in catch rates, especially when the fishing is spotty.

In the waters Cobb fishes, he relies heavily on plugs finished in shad and rainbow patterns. "These are the natural prey the bass feed on, and I'm a firm believer these color patterns out-fish all others," Cobb shares.

Floating, one-piece plugs and broken backs have been favorites of generations of anglers, and they still produce incredible numbers of bass. Fished to simulate an injured baitfish, these plugs are especially effective on river-dwelling smallmouths.

Jigs and plastic and weighted worms are good bets when it comes to working artificials off the bottom. Lead-headed jigs with a grub tail carrying plenty of action are what you're after. A favorite among many anglers are the 2- and 3-inch grub tails made by Mr. Twister. These grubs have outstanding action when jigged off the bottom, fished beneath a float or casted and brought back with a slow retrieve.

While casting lures to a large bass I'd spotted in the fold of some rocks one morning, he expressed little interest in my black-bodied, gold-bladed invitation. He hung tight to the bottom, so I tied on a crawdad imitation and worked it along the bottom. The lunker couldn't resist, emerging from his hideaway to nail the imitation crustacean. Though working specialty plugs can be a bit tricky, they are worth having for times like this.

"Spinnerbaits and subsurface plugs 2 to 2 3/4 inches in length are great all around choices for smallmouth bass," shares Cobb. "Working plugs that run two to three feet beneath the surface are what I prefer. Bass really seem to attack at this depth, be it in the spring, summer or into the fall." One of Cobb's standbys is the 2 3/4-inch Yo-Zuri Minnow for the realistic color and action it presents in the water. He points out that this plug is great on fish all summer long - despite rising water temperatures - but that it's particularly dynamite in the spring.

Jerkbaits fished below the surface are another proven bass-getter. Cobb loves a Bass Assassin fished with no weight. Twitched just beneath the surface, these 4-inch solid plastic, wormlike imitations bare a strong resemblance to moving, injured smolts. Black and smoke colors with fleck, along with rainbow patterns, are exceptional producers.

Don't overlook simple spinners when talking smallmouth. One guide I know has his best luck on

fluorescent orange spinners. Both the bodies and blades are bright orange, and by varying the retrieve rate, he catches all the fish he wants.

A handful of Rooster Tails are worth having in the box as well. Brown bodies with brass blades are Cobb's favorite, though dark greens, blacks and even oranges and yellows are proven bass getters.

For fly anglers, a sinking tip line will allow you to work shorelines and quickly get down to where bass are holding. Dark leech patterns are great choices, as are bunny hair streamers. "Any time a client comes along and wants to fly-fish for bass, I encourage them to use a selection of Wooly Buggers with rubber legs," says Cobb. "Dead-drifting these patterns and letting the legs work their magic yields impressive results." He points out that Buggers with purple bodies and black legs are a favorite. That's what landed a 5-pound lunker on one of his last trips of the season in 2002.

Because many of the West's rivers holding, smallmouths carry a restricted bag limit, and the use of natural bait is discouraged. While night crawlers are likely the best bait around, it should be realized that bass inhale these, meaning many of the hookups can be fatal. Unless you're going to keep the bass, avoid using natural baits.

There are numerous artificial lures out there, and supplying your tackle box with a wide variety is important for success. Even more vital is using the right gear at the right time. If you're seeing fish, but they are not reacting to your popper, tie on a subsurface plug and run it by them. Smallmouth bass have the reputation of being an easy catch, but there are times when this simply isn't the case.

By concentrating your fishing efforts where bass lay, the odds of success obviously increase. But to realize even higher catch ratios, take a variety of plugs, lures, poppers and flies along and don't be afraid to put them to use. You may be surprised at what you discover.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Scott Haugen's latest books, Fastwater Summer Steelheading and Recreational Dungeness Crabbing are now available and can be ordered off his website, www.scotthaugen.com.)

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