April 18, 2022
By Jeff Knapp
My buddy climbed into the cab of my truck and we set off for our first river smallmouth excursion of the early spring.
“We might catch 50 fish today,” I told him. “We might catch none.”
The morning was balmy considering it was early March. Overnight cloud cover had prevented the mercury from taking a drastic dip, though the 40-plus-degree air temperature provided a slight sting to the 10-minute boat ride to our first spot. It was a bust, as was the second, but at the third we flirted with the 50-fish mark, coming up just shy. Nearly all the smallmouths were quality ones in the 2 1/2- to 4-pound-plus range.
That’s how it goes with early-spring river smallmouth bass. While the first hints of the season often inspire an increase in activity, the fish tend to be tightly concentrated—thus the feast-or-famine component. If you can find them, there’s a good chance you’ll catch them.
WHERE TO LOOK
Like all river-dwelling fish, the places where you find smallmouth bass are tightly connected with both river flow and water temperature. In general, as flows increase and water temperatures decrease, smallmouth bass will seek out areas of reduced current. From a seasonal standpoint, during fall, river smallmouths will migrate to deeper pools that provide the necessary habitat for them to survive the coming winter. If you’re a fall angler, pools where you last contacted river bass during late fall and early winter—often referred to as wintering holes—is likely where they’ll be the following spring and should be the first place to begin your search.
So, what constitutes a good wintering hole? As suggested, the primary requirements are depth and protection from strong current. Depth is relative. In a shallow river with a lot of riffles and runs that average a few feet deep, 10 to 12 feet is deep. On a larger, deeper river, depths of 20 to 30 feet might harbor wintering schools of big smallies.
Wintering holes are often located near major current-deflecting obstructions. In my experience, the most common is a rock/gravel bar washed out into the river. This typically occurs at the mouth of a small feeder stream where the aggregate is flushed out of the tributary, forming a wing dam of sorts as well as a protected pool below. If the rock bar is located on an inside turn in the river, so much the better, as the main brunt of the river naturally flows away from the slackwater pool.
Islands, bridge piers and manmade pilings can also impede the main brunt of a river’s current and should be investigated for early-season, bass-holding potential. In rivers with a history of dredging activity, the resulting deep holes can draw in smallmouth bass from miles around. So, too, with free-flowing rivers peppered with impounded sections. Come fall it’s common for smallmouth bass in free-flowing stretches to travel downriver and winter over in the reservoir. Tracking studies in the upper Midwest found that some bass migrated as much as thirty miles to reach impoundments that furnished the conditions that allowed them to winter over.
If a river isn’t riddled with too much suspended debris, quality electronics—traditional 2D sonar with chirp and high-definition down and side imaging units alike—can reveal the presence of smallmouth bass. Awakened by spring, river smallies will again start a movement on both a small and large scale. Initial shifts will be daily, basically from the depths of the pool to nearby shallow zones to feed. As spring commences, the migration will see the fish moving (typically upriver) to areas where they will eventually spawn. Along that travel route, they will often stack up—sometimes in huge numbers—in slower pools before proceeding through the next section of higher flow. Yesterday’s skunk spot can be today’s hotspot, so be willing to explore various areas as spring progresses.
Early-spring river smallmouth activity levels can range from downright sluggish to surprisingly aggressive, so you should be prepared to address both extremes. Since the former attitude is typically more common than the latter, let’s first focus on that.
As outlined earlier, early-spring river smallmouth bass can be found concentrated in small areas. So, even when they are lethargic, you can often catch them due to high numbers and perhaps an element of competition. Catch one and you can fire the others up.
Initial bait choices include jig-style finesse baits such as Z-Man’s Finesse TRD and its many Ned rig clones, finesse tube jigs, grubs and hair jigs. I tend to have all rigged and ready, as some days the fish show a decided preference for one over the other.
Jig weight can vary from 1/8 to 3/8 ounce, though I find 3/16 and 1/4 ounce appropriate in most situations. Mushroom heads and round heads both work well.
River smallies will move toward the shallows as they awaken, so first fish the water closest to the bank. I employ a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-power spinning rod with either a fast or extra-fast action, coupled with a 2000-size spinning reel. The reel is spooled with 15-pound braided line finished off with a three-foot section of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon as a leader.
Bites will be light, so short, accurate casts are required. After the jig settles to the bottom, work it back to the boat with a series of subtle hops and drags that move the bait a couple of feet forward and a few inches off the bottom. Sometimes you’ll feel a distinctive tick, but more often there will just be a mushy feel as you raise the rod in the jigging motion. Hook sets can be tricky, as the rod is often vertical by the time you realize you have a bass on the end. Lift and reel rapidly to successfully hook the bass.
As you work an area, pay particular attention to how the mild current plays out. Often there will be an identifiable current seam separating the slack water (close to the bank) with the main flow of the river. Bass will often sit right on this edge. Holding the boat on this seam and fishing vertically, right under the boat, can be the deal certain days. When they ignore a finesse jig and hair, they’ll often respond to a blade bait hovered right in their faces. I’ve had times when a dozen bass came from a select spot no bigger than my boat.
Then there are those special moments when brown bass activity level kicks up a notch. The fish move shallow, often over the top of nearby rock flats, seeking food. While deeper bites will likely be ones of opportunity (due to you putting an easy-to-eat bait right in front of them) these fish are actively seeking food. A suspending jerkbait like the classic Rapala Husky Jerk is a terrific way of taking them.
In general, I find the jerkbait bite best during the afternoon when the water has warmed up a couple of degrees. Using a 7-foot, medium-power, extra-fast-action baitcasting rod spooled with 10-pound-test fluorocarbon, casts over shallow (2- to 5-foot) flats are followed by a maddingly slow, twitch/pause retrieve. Pauses should be of at least 3 to 4 seconds in duration to give these cold-water bass a chance to eat the bait.
After a couple lunker smallies have risen and slammed a lure hovering a couple feet under the surface, you’ll attain the necessary discipline.
Cold Water, Hot Bites
The East’s best flows for early-spring bronzebacks.
The region provides a wide variety of river types that support river-dwelling smallmouth bass. Here are a few to consider this spring.
UPPER POTOMAC RIVER: The extensive Upper Potomac River provides a quality smallmouth bass venue for anglers from Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. The smallmouth water stretches from Cumberland, Md., (on the North Branch) to the tidewater mark upriver of Washington, D.C. The river’s flow is interrupted at various spots by numerous C&O canal dams.
JUNIATA RIVER: A major tributary to the Susquehanna River, the sometimes-overlooked Juniata supports a dense smallmouth bass fishery. Good habitat is found from Mapleton Depot, Pa.,—a few miles downriver of the merger with the Raystown Branch—to its merger with the Susqy near Duncannon.
SUSQUEHANNA RIVER: Though water quality issues continue to threaten this river’s nationally renowned smallmouth bass fishery, it continues to be a worthy destination from the upper stretches in New York down to the Harrisburg, Pa., section. The North Branch, upriver of Sunbury, Pa., is particularly productive.
DELAWARE RIVER: Better known for big stream-bred trout, the Delaware River supports a good population of smallmouth bass. The best bass water starts approximately twenty miles south of Hancock, N.Y., where the water has warmed up from reservoir water releases on both the East and West branches above.
PENOBSCOT RIVER: Spring comes late to New England, so anglers might have to wait until April to enjoy river smallmouth action here. But when it’s on, Maine’s Penobscot River from the Mattaseunk Dam downriver to Old Town is one of the best.