High-Water Smallmouths

Sometimes when you go to the river, do you find that the water conditions are difficult to fish? Here's how to tackle the situation.

by Tim Holschlag

Naturally, every river rat loves fishing when conditions are ideal. What's not to savor about those golden days when river levels are low, current slow and the smallmouth bass eager to be caught? But of course, the real world isn't always so kind. At times, strong rains can turn our dream stream into a nightmare of high, murky water.

So, what to do? Stay home and mow the lawn? Or go fishing, even if the conditions are tough? Because I'm a hard-core river man and smallmouth guide, it's really no contest with me. Instead of giving up everytime Mother Nature rains on my parade, here's how I've learned to beat the "high-water blues."

First, always keep in mind a couple of basic facts. One, smallmouth bass, just like people, are adaptable critters. Certainly the initial shock of rapidly rising or quickly muddying water may turn them off, but once the high water or turbidity has been around a little while, smallmouths adjust and develop a feeding pattern.

Two, high water conditions make it especially imperative that you identify and target the best fish-holding water. During low flows, as much as 25 percent of the river can hold fish, but now only 1 percent of the water may be fishable and productive.

Here's where to look when your favorite river gets hit by a heavy rain that pushes levels up at least 15 to 18 inches. Forget the previously placid pools, outside bends and boulders, since most will be buried under stiff current that makes them tough to fish or seemingly devoid of smallies. Instead, key in on bank eddies, including those that didn't even exist when the river levels were normal. Many smallies will slide into these slackwater refuges to escape the stiff current.

Photo by Lyn Verthein

Naturally, the largest and deepest eddies will yield the most smallies. But even kitchen-sink-sized eddies only 18 inches deep can hold a fish or two, especially on river sections where calm water is in short supply. Other high-water possibilities are the slow waters below islands. During high flows, fish can really stack up behind islands, even though many island eddies are shallow, sandy and fishless during normal flows.

Dams and creek mouths are two more high-water sweet spots. While the plunge pools below dams often have high numbers of smallies, dams are uncommon on many rivers. Creek mouths, on the other hand, are widespread. In fact, even normally dry drainage ditches, culverts and tile outlets, if they have running water, can see a concentration of high-water bronzebacks. Forage fish drawn to feed on incoming nutrients from these tributaries act as a powerful draw to smallmouths and other predators.

When rivers get really high and spill over their banks, flooded grass, bushes and trees can become new smallmouth housing. However, fishing this temporary cover is seldom as easy as targeting small, more obvious locations like creek mouths. Only a minority of flooded banks will be productive, so anglers must keep moving. And when you do find fish, look for other spots with similar characteristics.

Productively fishing these high-water locations requires a sharp eye to spot them, good anchors to maintain proper position and common sense to stay safe. Never forget that high water invariably means strong current, so both boating and bank-fishing must be done cautiously. Wear a life jacket and always make sure to tie the anchor(s) off directly to the bow or stern, never to the side of the craft. And never anchor in current so strong your craft is in danger of being swamped by the heavy flow. If the flow is extra strong next to a large eddy, quietly anchor inside the eddy, right along the bank.

Fish in strong-current environments often hug the bottom, so it's important to get your offering down close to them. Working a deep-diving crankbait against the current is one way to bang the bottom and also fish slowly enough that the bass will be interested. Bring the crankbait back very slowly with occasional pauses, so that the lure simply wobbles in place. Not all cranks will perform properly when worked against strong current. Make sure any you use will run true.

Jigs are also high-water workhorses. You'll likely need heavier head weights than for normal flows. I've found 3/16-ounce jigheads (instead of 1/8) to be good for many strong-current situations.

Other productive high-water baits are 1/4- and 1/8-ounce spinnerbaits. I mostly use these lures around flooded creek mouths and inundated bank cover. Flooded banks are especially snag-prone, plus you need to cover water. A willowleaf spinnerbait is just the ticket for both of these conditions.

While high water can make wade-fishing impractical in some places, on other river sections an on-foot angler can still score. By targeting a mile of river that has several large bank eddies on the same side of the stream, a walking angler can thoroughly fish each. Another situation where this "gun and run" approach works is at creek mouths. The tributaries may be several miles apart, but a combination of driving and walking allows you to hit several in a day.

Dirty water is the second challenge river anglers have to contend with. In our agricultural regions, many streams have the look of coffee with cream after a hard rain. And while these nasty conditions can mean frustrating fishing, some smallies can be suckered in even the dirtiest water.

If water levels aren't significantly higher than normal, the fish's locations in a turbid river are generally similar to their usual haunts. The same pools, current breaks, eddies, boulders and wood where feeding or resting fish hold in clearer conditions also support dirty-water fish.

During the first day or two of turbidity, smallmouths will invariably be in a reduced level of activity. However, as the low visibility continues, the fish's feeding increases.

The most effective dirty-water strategy is to cover prime areas thoroughly and meticulously with slow-moving lures. This is a highly focused strategy that calls for repeatedly bringing the lure slowly along the bottom through the same area. Jigs, both tube and grub-bodied varieties, are excellent for this dirty-water technique. Slowly hop and drag the jig along the bottom, hitting each spot with three or four casts. And since you're fishing dead on the bottom, snag-guard-equipped jigs are best, either the heads you can rig Texas-style or those with wire guards.

Scented plastics are the rage right now, and they do cause smallmouths and other species to hold onto the artificials longer. However, in river current, I'm convinced that jig color and siz

e are more important factors than scent in determining the number of strikes you get. Two of my favorite muddy-water colors are black and chartreuse, either separately or combined. Three-inch single-tail grubs are excellent during early summer, while large-profiled double-tail grubs are often better in July and August. Tube jig size can also be hefty. Three-and-a-half-inch or 4-inch tube bodies are the ticket for dirty water.

Spinnerbaits worked slow and deep also interest low-visibility bronzebacks. In these conditions, I like lures that can be worked super-slowly and give off maximum flash and vibration. Quarter-ounce spinnerbaits with brass-colored Indiana or Colorado blades and chartreuse skirts often entice fish from even the murkiest of water.

OK, enough of this probing the depths stuff. Here's a technique for all you visually oriented types: take your dirty-water smallies off the top! Though not many people seem to realize it, once low-visibility conditions have been present for several days, noisy topwaters can be surprisingly effective. Working popping plugs or fly-rod poppers along deep-water banks and wood cover is one of my favorite techniques in these conditions. A noisy topwater is easily noticed, and by working it slowly you'll give the fish plenty of time to eat.

When I guide, I position the craft so my clients can cast across and downstream toward bank eddies or shoreline cover. At this against-the-current angle they can keep the lure over the target zone for several seconds. I call it "popping in place." This produces strikes when faster topwater retrieves draw a blank.

On-foot folks can also use this hold-it-against-the-current technique with jigs when clarity is poor. In fact, when the water visibility is only a few inches, a wading angler can often creep to within 20 feet of a spot without spooking the fish. From this close range you can drop a jig precisely on a target and be able to detect the lightest of bites with your tight line. Watch closely for strikes when the lure is falling, and if there are no takers on the drop, pull the jig slowly toward you. Repeat the process several times for each likely spot.

These are some high-water strategies that have served me well over the years. They can keep you, too, from singing the blues the next time you encounter less-than-optimum water conditions.

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