May 13, 2022
By Matt Crawford
Ken Capsey lives just 10 minutes from the northeastern arm of Lake Champlain. Every year, the big lake shows up on one list or another proclaiming it as one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the world.
And those lists are absolutely right—Capsey occasionally catches some world-class smallies on Champlain. But given his druthers, he’d rather bass fish in the tributaries that flow into the lake.
He’s a self-proclaimed river rat, and one of the best times to target smallmouths in rivers and streams is right now, when a certain percentage of the bass population migrates into tributaries to spawn.
"I fish river smallies because of the different types of structure they tend to inhabit," Capsey says. "Take your pick from rock piles to downed trees to riffles and runs. In May I like to keep it simple. Everything is waking up from a long winter’s rest, and the smallmouths can be aggressive during the spawn, so they’re not often real selective."
If you’re waiting for ideal bass fishing conditions to kick in on your favorite lake, consider changing tactics and heading to one of the rivers that flow into that body of water, where many smallmouth bass populations are undertaking spawning migrations long before the lake fishing even thinks of firing up. Tail-walking smallies can be found in smaller, often forgotten tributaries, where they can make for a memorable day with a minimal amount of tackle.
READY TO ROLL
Smallmouths move, no secret there. The old joke is that “smallmouths carry suitcases.” But what often gets overlooked is that in the spring, there is a percentage of smallmouths that pack their bags and move out of bigger lakes and ponds to head into small rivers and creeks as part of a planned spawning migration.
Sometimes, these migrations cover considerable distances. One study in southern Wisconsin indicated that smallmouth spawning migrations easily exceed 10 miles. Anglers will attest to even longer distances.
In big bass lakes throughout the East, there seems to be almost two distinct smallmouth populations. Some will stay in the lake to spawn, others will migrate. Fisheries biologists say there may not be one specific reason why parts of some smallmouth populations prefer to migrate to undertake spawning.
Perhaps the dispersal helps mitigate spawning failure that can plague one area of a lake and not another. Water temperatures seem to play a critical role, too, as smaller rivers warm up faster than the big lakes. Smallmouth spawning starts when water temperatures move into the 50s. A 55-degree reading is ideal.
There’s another school of thought that river spawners are also motivated to move out in an effort to get away from the myriad predators that inhabit the lakes. Use that bit of supposition to your advantage: Any bait that mimics those smaller river predators—think baitfish and crayfish—will do the trick.
The other reason rivers and streams are so attractive to spawning smallmouths? It’s about the real estate. Rivers are full of prime spawning habitat like rock and gravel substrate, usually with a healthy amount of pea gravel. The higher oxygen content that moving water carries may be an attractant, too.
“In May, I’m spending the bulk of my time looking for smallmouths around rock structure in shallower water,” says Capsey. “That’s where they are spawning.”
A word about fishing for nesting fish may be in order here. On some of these smaller rivers and streams, you’ll be sight-fishing bass as they guard their spawning bed. The ethics of casting to fish on beds is best debated among good friends with a good bourbon around a campfire, so we won’t get into it here. In the end, no matter where you stand, when you do take a fish off its bed, it’s imperative you release it as quickly and safely as possible.
TACKLE, FLIES AND LURES
An accomplished fly tyer, Capsey uses his own patterns and a fly rod to target smallmouths. Even though a 5- or 6-weight fly rod provides more than enough casting power for the small rivers he likes to fish, the possibility of tying into a 3-pound smallmouth necessitates the use of a larger rod with a little more backbone. He typically opts for a fiberglass rod in the 6- to 8-weight range.
“This is a great time for new fly anglers to catch a bass on a fly,” says Capsey. “You don’t need to make complicated casts, and spawning fish usually aren’t as spooky.”
Capsey says he’ll use top-water poppers and large dry flies later in the season, but early on his favorite patterns include Clouser minnows, cone-headed Woolly Buggers, Ray’s Fly, Ken’s Cray-Z and bigger Muddler Minnows.
Basically, any subsurface fly that imitates smaller baitfish should help provoke an aggressive, protective bite. Sometimes a bit of weight is needed, which is why cone-headed flies or those tied with sinking materials work best.
Anglers using spinning gear should take note of Capsey’s fly choices. To imitate smaller baitfish and crayfish, consider smaller floating or ultralight stickbaits like Rapala’s Ultra Light Minnow or a Yo-Zuri Surface Minnow. Small crayfish baits, like the Rebel Wee Crawfish (crankbait or topwater) will also do the trick. Because you’re mostly fishing in and around rocks, consider swapping out the treble hooks for single hooks to help reduce the frequency of getting hung up. Deep-diving baits need not apply for this game.
Conventional anglers should always have a few inline spinnerbaits in their arsenal as well. Any of the tried-and-true Mepps Aglia spinners are a solid choice. You can’t go wrong with a Blue Fox Classic Vibrax Spinner either.
Ultralight spinning gear is fun for small-river smallie chasing, but it’s hard to beat a simple 6-foot, light-action spinning rod equipped with 6- to 8-pound monofilament. You’re likely going to get hung up at some point, and despite your best efforts, breaking off may be the only way to keep on fishing. Clear or low-vis mono helps in the stealth department, too.
HEAD UP OR DOWN?
When the smallmouths move into small rivers to start spawning, they’ll often be found tight to the riverbank. As you walk by, you’re likely to scare fish out from the shallows—there’s almost no way around that. Wading upriver, when possible, is the preferred method. It slows you down and makes it a tad less likely you’ll bump fish as you splash your way through.
Most of the time, casting upstream works just fine. Simply cast and retrieve across the current. You can let the lure wash downstream past you, tumbling into what looks like a prime holding spot. Aggressive smallmouths will chase a bait, but often you’ll have to put your offering within a few inches of a fish. That’s when switching to a downstream approach can pay off handsomely.
Swinging a fly or a lure into the strike zone can be a two-person game. One person spots the fish and stays in position where he can see it and not spook it. The upstream angler, taking cues from the spotter, can vary the speed of the retrieve and the approach angle of the lure for a precise presentation.
If you spend a few seasons fishing one river or stream for smallmouths, you’ll notice there are a few spots where the fish consistently show up. Honey holes are a real thing this time of year since fish are keying more on location and spawning needs than they are food.
Fish that are fairly predictable to locate, don’t require a bunch of technical tackle and put up a solid fight in a fun environment? There’s a lot to like about river smallmouth fishing in spring.
Top spring bronzeback waters in the East.
There’s no question that the East’s biggest rivers, like New York’s St. Lawrence and West Virginia’s New, hold some of the region’s best smallmouth fishing. But this time of year, boat-less anglers have some great opportunities to find eager smallmouths in skinnier water. Many of these rivers tend be overlooked because they’re often not any wider than 15 feet and are relatively shallow. But smallmouths like them, and smart anglers do, too.
- Androscoggin River tribs, Maine: The mainstem of the Andy is full of trout and bass, but tribs like the Sunday River and Bear River also attract spawning smallies.
- Lewis Creek, Vermont: This creek flows into Lake Champlain and is just a few minutes’ drive south of Burlington. It’s great for fly fishing.
- Millers River tribs, Massachusetts: The Millers is a big river in northern Massachusetts, and the main stem has good bass populations, but many of its smaller tribs are also worth checking out.
- South Branch Raritan River, New Jersey: The Raritan offers good access and routinely has fish in the 3-pound class.
- Yellow Breeches Creek, Pennsylvania: Yes, there are trout in here, but the smallmouth fishing may make you think twice about targeting rainbows and browns.
This article originally published in the East edition of Game & Fish Magazine, May 2021. Click here to subscribe