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Skip the Lake for Great Summer Bass Fishing

Head to the river to catch moving-water smallies, largemouths.

Skip the Lake for Great Summer Bass Fishing

Photo by Bruce Ingram

Editor’s Note: This story is featured in the South edition of the June-July issue of Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale. Get a great deal on an annual subscription here.

Fishing a lake for largemouths and smallmouths certainly has its appeal for many anglers. The number of bass boats dotting nearly any southern impoundment on a summer day will attest to that. However, some fishermen, myself included, prefer the thrills of fishing moving water for smallies and bucketmouths. What’s more, because of the moving water factor and how it makes bass more active even when the water temp is warm, the summer months are often the best time to fish a river.


You don’t even have to own a boat to catch quality fish on a river. Scott Barrett, marketing manager for Nikko, favors wade fishing for bass, and often catches quality largemouths and smallmouths while waist-deep in a flowing stream.

“While wading, I like to target deep pocket water behind rock or wood breaks,” he says. “Also good are sheltered areas like eddies that are out of the main current but very near it. All these target areas should have rock or wood along the bottom. If they don’t, they won’t hold bass no matter how good these places look above the water.

“Another summer hot spot is a deep-water ledge with lots of cuts and variations,” continues Barrett. “Ledges that don’t have any variations in them are not as good. Ledges that have steep drop-offs below them can be fantastic.”

How can we tell if a ledge possesses a drop-off? Barrett explains these spots often have darker water than surrounding places, thus giving bass better opportunities to ambush baitfish, crayfish and any terrestrials that blunder into the area.

River Bass
The lure color that is best at any given time is the one that is most visible to the bass. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

For these holding grounds, Barrett primarily relies on three baits. The first is a Texas-rigged 3-inch Nikko hellgrammite on a 1/0 Gamakatsu G-lock worm hook with a 1/16-ounce sliding bullet sinker.

“The hellgrammite sinks, but not super-fast,” he says. “I twitch it up and down just over the substrate, and the bass don’t have any trouble chasing it down. If the water is higher or swifter than normal, I’ll Texas-rig a Nikko minnow on a 1/8-ounce jighead, bouncing it off the bottom. For surface action, I’ll go with an ultra-light crankbait and swim it slowly across the surface or just a little under it.”


Ken Trail, who operates Rock On Charters and guides anglers in Virginia and North Carolina, employs a raft to fish for river smallmouths. He maintains that a key to summertime success is playing the current.

“Typically, while the boat is running through a rapid’s heavy current on our way toward, say, an eddy, I’ll have my clients throw a fast-moving spinnerbait or hard-plastic jerkbait to the outer edges of that eddy,” he says. “My goal is for both clients to get in two casts before we reach the eddy. Any fish inside it will likely be actively feeding. Once we’re within the eddy, I’ll have them work the far sides of it, again trying to catch active bass.

“Then we quickly move to the middle of the eddy and cast toward the current seams bordering it,” he continues. “Next, we move to the tail end of the pool, working all sides of it. Before we leave that particular area, I’ll have my clients work the main channel and even the swift current to see if there are any super-active bass there willing to bite. Then it’s on to the next spot.”

That next spot is typically the push water above the oncoming rapid. Push water, which Trail defines as the 75 yards or so of river where the water accelerates on its way to spilling over the drop where a rapid begins, is an often-overlooked hot spot. The guide believes that many anglers forego push water because they are in a hurry to work the rapid itself. He also feels that the biggest and most aggressively feeding smallmouths are often drawn to this type of spot.


River Bass
Work a topwater, such as the Rebel Pop-R, to draw explosive strikes from river smallmouths actively feeding on forage fish. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

Regarding lures, Trail prefers Snagler Tackle Company’s 3/8-ounce Booster spinnerbaits. He explains that these “stocky” blade baits have the profile of 1/4-ounce ones and descend quickly in heavy current. He relies on a 7.3:1 reel to burn these willowleaf-adorned baits. Trail’s favorite jerkbaits are Rapala X-Raps and Shadow Raps. With regard to color choices, the guide generally isn’t all that interested in the hues of a river’s minnows.

“The majority of the time it really doesn’t matter whether a lure matches the color of a river’s baitfish,” he says. “I think the lure color that is best at any given time is the one that is most visible to the bass. The two factors that make a bait more or less visible are the color of the water and the way the sunlight shines upon the water at different times of the day. One color might be more visible to bass at noon and another color might be more visible at 5 p.m.”

Spinnerbaits and jerkbaits are Trail’s go-to lures for active smallmouths, but many times fish are in a neutral mode and not aggressively feeding. At these times he turns to a Snagler 3 1/2-inch Small Jaw tube rigged on either a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce jighead (depending on the current’s strength) with the hook exposed. These baits are hopped just above the substrate.

Time of day is another important factor in the guide’s daily summertime game plan. “I prefer morning fishing and try to get on the water about an hour before sunrise,” Trail says. “That hour and the first two or three hours after dawn can be outstanding for larger bass during the summer. I’ll usually take a break around noon, unless the client wants to stay out all day. I’ll go back around 2 o’clock and fish until about an hour before sunset. For some reason, the bite really slows down right before sundown.”


Tommy Cundiff runs River Monster Guide Service, which operates in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, and specializes in catching jumbo bass. His go-to artificials are surface lures.

“I like to target summer bass that are feeding on forage fish and frogs,” he says. “Those fish are willing to explode on baits fished on the surface. Smallmouth bass in a river system are strong and aggressive, and if you haven’t had the privilege of having a big smallie erupt on top, then tie on a surface bait. If you have experienced these surface explosions, you know they never get old.

“There are many baits designed to be fished on the surface that mimic wounded baitfish, frogs and terrestrials,” he continues. “I suggest having several options to employ in your quest for a monster. More often than not, the bass will let you know rather quickly what tactic is going to be most effective. Sometimes they are super aggressive and hit big, loud lures that create a ton of commotion.”

Among these types of brash lures is Cundiff’s personal favorite, the River2Sea Whopper Plopper, which can be fished fast and aggressive like a buzzbait or other prop baits. Other times, the bass prefer subtlety, and Cundiff employs a more deliberate retrieve to elicit strikes on the river. His preferred baits for this scenario include Rapala Original Minnows, Heddon Tiny Torpedoes, Rebel Pop-Rs, Zara Spooks and soft plastics such as frog imitations. The guide says to try different retrieves until the fish react to a certain one, then hammer them with that particular style.

River Bass
Photo by Bruce Ingram

Appalachia Bassing

Tommy Cundiff of River Monster Guide Service believes Tennessee and North Carolina offer some of the best river bass fishing in the South.

“From our location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, we have access to some tremendous river smallmouth bass fishing,” he says. “Within a 45-minute drive, there are four river fisheries—the Little Pigeon, French Broad, Holston and Pigeon rivers—that all hold trophy smallmouths and offer scenic floats and terrific angling opportunities.”

Among that quartet, Cundiff says one of his favorite excursions is on the Holston River from Indian Cave to Nance’s Ferry (7 miles). This float is perfect for anglers wishing to spend at least six to eight hours on the water. Generally speaking, anglers can expect to cover one mile for every hour they float-fish. As is true with all Tennessee Valley Authority-controlled rivers, the guide urges anglers to check the generation schedules regularly prior to embarking on a float. If possible, plan your trip during times of minimal discharge. Or, if there is a scheduled discharge, time your trip so that it occurs on the second half of the junket and provides current through some of the still water. Twenty-inch smallmouths are a real possibility.

“There is excellent habitat on this section of river, which offers great fishing through riffles and runs, deep water pools and the many ledges, lay downs and docks along the way,” Cundiff says.

For those wanting to spend a little less time on the water, the 5-mile float on the French Broad River from Douglas Dam to the boat ramp off Highway 66 across from Smoky Mountain Knife Works is an excellent choice.

“On this float, I had a client hook one of the biggest smallmouths that I have ever seen,” Cundiff says. “Unfortunately, the bass threw the wacky-rigged Senko before my client could land it, but it’s great to know that this fishery produces such good opportunities for lunker bronzebacks.

“This section offers fast, skinny water; islands; deep pools; and lots of grass in the summer months,” Cundiff continues. “This is a favorite float trip among visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of its proximity to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.”

Cundiff also guides on the New River, which flows through North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and is generally regarded as the premier smallmouth hot spot in the Mid-Atlantic. The Tarheel State features four of the best floats on the entire river: the confluence of the North and South Forks to Mouth of Wilson (5 miles), Mouth of Wilson to Bridle Creek (6 miles), Bridle Creek to Independence (10 miles), and Independence to Baywood (12 miles). All these trips offer the potential to catch 20-inch brown bass, but, as is true on any Southern river, most “keeper” size fish are between 12 and 15 inches.

All of these junkets course through both Virginia and North Carolina, but the two states have a reciprocal license agreement, so North Carolina anglers won’t have to purchase an out-of-state license. Most rapids are in the Class I–II range, and those rocky places typically concentrate the best smallies. However, anglers should know that the Bridle Creek excursion includes some very serious drops, including the Class III Penitentiary Falls, three Class IIs and numerous Class Is. If you’re looking for a more sedate excursion that still provides quality action, consider the Independence float. It features only one Class I-II rapid and riffles.

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