July 12, 2021
Among bass anglers, smallmouths have a reputation for fighting with a never-say-quit pugnacity. River smallmouths, in particular, are among the hardest fighters, and once you figure out the pattern, it’s possible to catch dozens of fish in a day on many Western rivers. Whether it’s 10-inch fish on light tackle in a scenic creek or 4-pounders on big rivers, smallies provide a great change of pace from trout or lake-bound largemouths.
River smallmouth anglers don’t have to haul tackle boxes the size of bathtubs, either. If you select the right baits, everything you need can fit in an inflatable kayak or even the pouch pockets of your favorite waders. Here’s how to get dialed in this summer.
While their mouths are smaller than those of largemouth bass, that does not preclude smallmouths from eating larger forage. For instance, rainbow trout tend to start feeding on baitfish and larger prey when they reach about 16 inches. Smallmouths turn from insects to bigger bites far earlier, and as they grow older, the size and scope of their diet increases based on availability of forage.
Smallmouth bass inhabit waters that are generally clear and well oxygenated. Therefore, rivers with consistent flow and the highly oxygenated waters below dams are often prime areas. But smallmouths are more heat tolerant than trout, so even in summer, when temperatures climb, smallmouths thrive provided the forage and oxygen levels are conducive to survival. They typically seek darker, cooler waters in summer, often around structure and cover such as rocks, wood and vegetation, to offset the higher temperatures of the upper levels of the waterway.
FORAGE AND HABITAT
Smallmouths are opportunistic feeders. Similar to the largemouth and spotted bass, the smallmouth won’t necessarily ignore a big bait just because we anglers think it might intimidate the average fish.
That doesn’t mean we should be throwing 12-inch swimbaits for river bronzebacks. But a big Super Spook or Whopper Plopper topwater, a Rapala Shadow Rap jerkbait or a big tube dragged on the bottom isn’t necessarily going to scare them away. The upside is if you go big to start with and don’t get any results, downsizing to smaller offerings may yield the results you’re looking for. Again, you don’t need the kitchen sink in your boat, but don’t always think ‘smallmouth, small baits," either.
Smallmouths in moving water love sand, rock and hard bottoms more than silty, mucky or muddy areas. Like trout, they hold in places that let them ambush food the river current brings them—but in places where they don’t have to fight the current. Traditional targets for smallmouth anglers to hit in flowing waterways include current breaks created by rocks, trees, shoreline cover and seams between fast water and slow water. Vegetation plays a role as well. Smallmouths will use the edges of submerged vegetation as ambush points or will cruise them to follow or find forage.
Smallmouths also may be around emergent vegetation such as rushes, cattails or other coarse shore brush. This flooded vegetation holds insects and sub-surface forage such as crayfish. June rivers that have cleared after snow run-off but are still high enough to submerge some shoreline vegetation also present another good opportunity. Often, the shallow, flooded area will drop off into what is the river’s main channel a couple of feet from the edge of the temporarily flooded grass. Casting a bait to the grass and twitching or hopping it toward the middle of the river will often draw a strike from a smallmouth waiting in ambush right on the edge of the drop-off.
The crayfish is an important part of the smallmouth’s diet. Just like smallie, these crustaceans prefer clean, flowing water and become more active when water temperatures reach the lower 60s. They are a powerful food source for smallmouths throughout their range.
Smallmouths spawn soon after rivers are in shape to fish in the spring. In most rivers, that’s trophy season. By summer, you’ll be more likely to catch large numbers of smaller smallmouth bass. You may still latch onto a big brute in summer, but if you’re really dialed in on the spot, double-digit days and raw thumbs from lipping fish are more in order.
My summer bait color preferences are based on shad or crayfish colorations. That means topwaters, swimbaits and skirts on spinnerbaits or blade baits in white-black, pearl-black, shad and white-chartreuse. For plastics, jigs and crankbaits, I use olive, black, brown and greenish shades to resemble crayfish. Here are five go-to bait categories with top options for each.
These are arguably the most fun lures for catching smallmouths because the strikes are aggressive and visual to the angler. Rarely have I seen a smallmouth gently take a topwater bait, especially in smaller creeks or rivers. Sharp hooks and secure knots make a difference.
A simple white or white-chartreuse buzzbait in 1/8- to 1/2-ounce is a great way to cover water and find out how aggressive the fish are on a given day. The drawback to buzzbaits is they sink when you pause the retrieve, and pausing a bait or imparting a stop-and-start motion often triggers a strike from smallmouths. That’s why I prefer a floating bait like a Whopper Plopper 75, 90 or 110 model that can be retrieved quickly, slowly or paused and twitched. Likewise, a walking bait such as the Heddon Super Spook or Spook Jr., or chugging baits such as a classic Rebel Pop-R or Berkley Bullet Pop are effective. My standard procedure is to start with larger versions of these baits and use aggressive retrieves. I’ll downsize and slow down if necessary.
A crankbait banging along a rocky riverbed imitates an injured forage fish and is hard for a smallmouth to resist.
Thanks to the smallmouth’s preference for forage and crayfish, crankbaits are a great option for smallies in moving water and rocky situations. I’m a fan of the Strike King Series 5 or similar crankbaits for deeper situations, along with the Rapala DT series that covers 4 to 20 feet.
Jerkbaits are never a bad option for smallmouth anglers, even in summer. Go with something like a Rapala Shadow Rap, Megabass Vision OneTen or SPRO McStick 110. Be sure to have Storm SuspendDots or lead wire in the boat to add weight should you want the jerkbait to get deeper or suspend. I’ve found that shad or dominant forage colors work best with jerkbaits. With crankbaits, try minnow- and crayfish-based colors to see which is most effective that day.
Jigs are a top lure for imitating crayfish, and I’ve long been of the mind that given the chance to eat a bunch of 2- to 3-inch crayfish or a few 4- or 5-inchers, smallmouth will gorge on the former. Small crawdads are more numerous than large ones and their thinner shells make them easier to digest. For anglers, downsizing could yield more numbers. I recommend a 3/8- , 1/3- or even 1/4-ounce jig with an olive, black/blue or brown skirt with orange or purple strands, and a matching craw trailer. I’ve fished for smallmouths throughout the country with these colors, and they work everywhere. Have a hook file handy to touch up the tip after catching fish and banging around rocks.
As for plastics, tube lures resemble small minnows or crayfish, depending on your color selection, and can be fished with jig heads or Texas-rigged. The former is better for dragging and hopping off a rocky or sandy bottom or around humps. For fishing through cover, I prefer a Texas rig.
Myriad options exist for tubes; my preference is a 3.7-inch Secret Lures Stupid Tube in Money, Green Pumpkin with Purple Flake or Shad BG. These are smooth tubes; for something with texture, consider the Yum Vibra King tube in Snot Rocket and Smoke Red Pepper. One of the hottest baits in the country for smallmouths right now is the Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm. Rigged on a drop-shot or Neko rig, this lure nicely imitates the action of forage fish. The Yamamoto Shape Shad is another good option for drop-shot rigs.
The spinnerbait may as well be at the top of this list. It’s easy to use; offers multiple possibilities for weight, blade configuration and skirt colors; and can be fished in skinny or deep water. You can cover water with it to find the fish and then slow down once you pattern the feeding bass. If need be, you can switch a skirt color in less than a minute or tie on a different bait with different blades. Anywhere I chase smallmouths, I’ll start with a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with a chartreuse-white skirt and double willow leaf blades. Similar to the jig setup, that’s a simple starting point that often yields results, or at least provides clues so you can make other changes.
Another great option is inline spinners like Blue Foxes, Rooster Tails and Mepps. Inlines are available in many color schemes and, similar to spinnerbaits, are fun and easy to fish. If you’re fishing around rocky cover, moving water or where smallmouths have gathered on structure, these traditional baits should be in your arsenal. Don’t forget to add a swivel to avoid the line twist these lures tend to produce.
June is prime time for smallmouths because water temperatures are warm enough for the fish and their forage, but not so warm that oxygen levels have decreased. And rivers are in good shape for rafting, canoeing, kayaking or wade fishing. Go now and get into some of the best smallmouth fishing of the year.