June 17, 2020
From an angling perspective, the smallmouth bass boasts many qualities, its size-to-fight ratio being at the top of the list. Its generally aggressive nature, especially apparent in river-dwelling smallies, appeals to legions of fishermen. However, brown bass have a stubborn, finicky side, and this trait is often on full display during early summer.
Consider what a river smallmouth deals with during the months preceding summer. Early spring finds bronzebacks awakening from months of relative inactivity. Rapidly warming water triggers an early-spring bite, and a migration from wintering spots to pre-spawn staging areas follows. When river levels are right and water temperatures reach the upper 50s to low 60s, the bass move shallow and nest, hopefully producing prodigy to help fuel the system in the coming years.
Typically by early summer, river smallies will have completed spawning, wrapping up a period—one often interrupted by high-water events and cold snaps—during which a lot has transpired. While summer fishing often means the best action of the year, with scores of aggressive smallies willing to chase down moving baits, the transition from post-spawn to that time of high action can be challenging for fish and angler alike.
As a full-time guide (keystoneconnection.com) who specializes in river smallmouths, I don't have the luxury of waiting for smallmouth bass to get over their post-spawn doldrums. Summer's here and folks want to get on the water and catch smallmouth bass. I've learned two basic approaches that help them do so.
The first tactic is to fish aggressively. Bass don't spawn all at the same time, so it follows that they don't all communally recover from spawning stress. Targeting classic summertime habitat with moving baits puts you in position to catch early spawners whose feeding instinct is already reactivating.
Tail-out areas of pools, tight-to-the-bank pocket water adjacent to heavy riffles and "runs" where riffles transition into deeper pools are all examples of habitat that hold smallmouth bass from summer to early fall. Such places are rich in food fish and crayfish and are proximate to current. Smallmouth bass like current, especially when the water is warm.
Soft jerkbaits, often referred to colloquially as "flukes," are perhaps the most versatile bait for these situations. When rigged on a 3/0 to 4/0 wide-gap worm hook, a fluke can be fired back into a tight shoreline pocket where an aggressive smallie will intercept it. Seductively twitched through a tail-out, the gentle rise and fall of a fluke will often inspire a strike.
Hard jerkbaits, such as Rapala’s original X-Rap, can be even more effective than flukes since their aggressive action can elicit reaction strikes (as opposed to feeding strikes). I tell my clients to work the bait in an erratic, fast-paced manner—including hard snaps of the rod tip while reeling in the resulting slack—combined with an occasion pause of several seconds. Like a cat being teased with a ball of string, a fired-up smallie will use this window of perceived vulnerability to pounce on the lure.
Soft swimbaits, like Lake Fork Tackle’s Live Magic Shad, often excel when smallies turn a blind eye to the stop-and-go antics of soft and hard jerkbaits. Retrieved steadily, with just an occasional pause of the reel to create a momentary stutter, soft swimmers are preferred by river smallies on some days, particularly during early summer. Note that smallmouths will often track behind a soft swimbait, latch onto it and continue swimming toward you. The bite can feel like nothing more than a sudden added weight on the lure. When this happens, reel rapidly to catch up to the fish and then set the hook.
When aggressive tactics fail to produce, slow down and present finesse-style baits to finicky bass. Crayfish imitations like Zoom’s Speed Craw, Ned Rig-type profiles like Z-Man’s TRD and TRD Tubez and Senko-style soft stickbaits all are good options to slowly crawl/jig across or near the bottom. Worm jigs in the 1/8- to 3/16-ounce range couple well with the craw, tube and worm profiles.
I prefer to fish soft stickbaits either without any additional weight or Texas-rigged with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce bullet weight, the choice dictated by depth and wind conditions. Deeper pockets of water near spawning flats—the same basic areas where bass staged prior to spawning—are likely to hold fish most apt to respond to these finesse offerings. Bites can be quite subtle, like just a spongy weight, so be particularly attentive—deep-hooking can be a problem with this style of bait, particularly when fished weightless.
Rivers being rivers, you’ll likely encounter off-color water after a summer rainstorm. While not as pretty to look at as a clear, free-flowing river, dingy water can be beneficial to the river smallmouth angler. Bass tend to be more aggressive in dirty water, and that' particularly welcome during the post-spawn. Such conditions scream "spinnerbait." Since dingy water is often accompanied with higher flows, expect to find river smallies pushed up tight to the bank. A thumping, flashy spinnerbait worked within inches of shore under these condition often produces the biggest river smallmouths of early summer.