Aggressive Techniques for River Smallmouths

Posted on October 14, 2000

Regardless of what species of fish we go after and the type of water to be fished, whether it be pond, lake, or river, we usually have a game plan to at least get us started toward success. Confidence is the best bait and the anticipation we all experience before going is just a lot of confidence building up to some well thought out planning. I’ve fished for years and many of my best trips have came after an anticipating drive to whatever location for whatever type of fish. I also have to admit that many of my worst trips have come after some well thought out planning. Why? Because the conditions of water or the mood of the fish was not what I expected and I stayed with plan A. Now I don’t know if fish feel different moods, but they definitely feed in different moods that can change rather quickly. For my own purpose, I have labeled all gamefish in three different categories: non-aggressive, semi-aggressive, and very aggressive.

River smallmouths are one of the most aggressive fish that swim and anticipating minnow-chasing, surface-feeding, smallmouths on an early morning fog-covered river is about as good as it gets for this ole boy, but in reality we do not find them this way often enough. Let me briefly define the three moods I mentioned. First, “non-aggressive”, which really is an insult to the smallie since he seldom falls into this category, but for reasons beyond his control does, due to cold water temps (below 50 degrees for river smallies) or heavy fishing pressure during clear water conditions. That is all the insult you’ll get from me towards Mr. Majestic.

Now lets jump to “very aggressive”, the mood of the smallie in which dreams are made of and if you’ve ever fished for them then you know what I mean. There is lots of surface activity such as minnow-chasing, or the fish shooting three feet in the air to catch a damselfly, or busting crickets along a grassy shoreline. This is the type of behavior that has given the Smallmouth the well deserved reputation he has today.

However, I believe it is “semi-aggressive” that best describes Mr. Majestic 75% of the time. He lays in ambush just out of the current, watching the current for prey to present itself within a reasonable striking distance so that the amount of energy used to catch it does not exceed the value of the food to be eaten. That is something mother nature has programmed into the fish and the reason they are such a challenge to master or at least try to do so. On any given day we have to deal with what mother nature has presented us as far as water conditions, there is nothing we can do to change this, however, the mood of the fish, or at least a small portion of them, can be a different story if we do the right thing at the right time. In all of God’s creatures there are certain sights, sounds, or smells that can trigger an abrupt change in behavior and the smallie is no exception. We can use this to our advantage to bring out the aggressive attitude the smallie is famous for, all we have to do is trigger it. This can often be done with just a faster turn of the reel handle or a few well timed jerks of the rod tip.

Almost always when we hear a report of another angler who had better than average success the first question that pops in our head and out of our mouth is, “What did you catch them on?”, but the chosen bait is often just the beginning of the story. Often we find out that he caught them on a bait that we had been using all along, but with little success. So what made the difference? The answer is most always the angler made the right presentation in the right place, and the presentation being not just the placement of the cast, but also the correct retrieve. Of the numerous times that I had good results from something I did a little different to draw strikes, regardless of the chosen bait or the type of water the fish was holding in, one thing was most often the same, at least in the summer thru fall period….the strikes came on or near the surface.

A good example of this is an experience I had on the Clinch River in S.W. Virginia. I was fishing a grass covered mid-stream island that had a three feet deep pocket on one side about the size of a car that was adjacent to a shallow riffle, a big fish hole if ever there was one. Well, it was late morning and I was using a topwater Tiny Torpedo and I had already made one cast to the center of the pocket. On my second presentation I made a good cast that almost touched the grass and on about the 3rd or 4th jerk I saw in the clear water a small Rockbass swim up and hit the bait. By instinct, I rather halfway set the hook and naturally missed the small fish with the rather large bait, thus bringing the Torpedo forward about 2ft with the propel spraying water, when suddenly the water exploded! That large smallie witnessed the small fish feeding and could not stand the thought of letting a Rockbass get first pick. He turned out to be a 20 1/2 inch beauty that I’m sure would have pushed 4 lbs., but he taught me a valuable lesson about the nature of these fish. I’m positive the fish was not originally in the mood to feed because it had already been an unproductive morning for me, but the site of the small fish actively feeding and the minnow buzzing the surface to escape was more than he could stand. The Mother Nature-installed predator instinct was triggered. River smallies and topwaters go together like peachs and cream.

A “run and gun”, “chunk and wind” style of fishing is not always the best ticket. Sometimes the trout anglers “match the hatch” approach is more suited to the smallie and I find this true often in the spring thru early summer period. Working a grub, crankbait, or even a topwater at a slow to medium pace is best, or a jig or worm worked on or near the bottom can be deadly. At this time of year we often find stained or dirty water that make it easier to fool the eyes of the fish into seeing an easy meal. Also the food chain is not as plentiful after a hard winter and the perfect water temps found now put the fish into the mood to feed on whatever is available. Later in the season, from about early to mid-summer, the food source continues to grow and the water on most rivers begin to drop and become very clear, sometimes making the fishing rather tough. A lot of fishing pressure has taught the fish the difference between a shiner minnow and a #9 Rapala. Many anglers have trouble being consistently successful this time of the year, myself included, but since changing to a more persistent aggressive approach my success has doubled. Even with the plentiful food supply the smallie must feed more often due to a higher metabolism from high water temps. This is the time when aggressive tactics can pay big dividends, both in numbers and size of fish. Most anglers who like to fish a grub or crankbait, for example, would downsize. The reason being that it is easier to fool the eyes of the fish with a smaller more realistic looking bait, and this can be a good tactic for more numbers of fish caught, but for me it usually means just more small fish.

Location of the fish during mid-summer has changed from where we had been catching them a month earlier, with those beautiful calm water holes adjacent to riffles that had stained water where a haven earlier, but now they provide little in terms of overhead cover due to lower clear water. This change is little in terms of distance, but important to recognize. The riffles, both shallow and deep, that where uncomfortable for the fish to hold in during high water are now the key area. Current breaks such as large rocks are always plentiful here for the fish to rest behind and wait in ambush for food and these riffles contain most of the rivers food anyway. Swimming a large 5″ grub just under the surface in the riffles next to choice current breaks would be a productive tactic. A fast retrieve would likely be most effective, giving the fish no time to think, thus getting a quick reaction strike which is the natural way the fish feed in the fast water anyway. Your bait selection might be different at this time, and by all means use what you have the most confidence in, but be sure to be aggressive in the retrieve when fishing slows.

As Summer begins to turn to Fall, most rivers will continue to drop to their lowest level and have water that is very clear, but for reasons not really clear to me the fish seem to move back more to the same spots they left in the early summer, or at least many of the bigger fish that we are after. I suppose because the shallow riffles are slow-moving and so shallow they provide little in protection. The deeper riffles will still sometimes produce, but the calm water holes below and adjacent to riffles and ledges that have any depth whatsoever will produce some quality fish. The best spots consistently hold the big fish year after year, but these fish are extremely nervous and spooky so stealth in wading and good presentations are imperative. Plop a big crankbait or spinnerbait on his head here and all you’ll see is a brown streak heading down river, but let me also tell you that if you present something near that accidentally pulls his trigger, well you have not seen aggressive until you do battle with a big autumn smallmouth!

The best triggering mechanism I’ve found for this season is a soft-plastic jerkbait such as a Sluggo or my favorite, the 5″ Zoom Superfluke. Recently, I have been using Mustad’s Needle Power-Lock Hook with the l/32oz weight on the insert in the 310 or 410 size or by adding soft wrap on lead strips to the insert myself. This bait can be worked many ways from top to bottom and most anglers just give it a slow methodical jerk-pause-jerk retrieve just under the surface which is a productive retrieve, but when dealing with Mr. Majestic this time of year you want to do something to kick him in the butt and make him mad. This bait does just that and also fools his eyes into thinking “big minnow”, and when accidentally cast right on his head in shallow clear water seldom spooks the fish because of the soft splat of soft-plastic. The best presentation is to cast just beyond where you suspect the fish to be holding. Fishing upstream is imperative this time of the year, you will spook many more fish when fishing downstream. I usually start working the bait actually before it enters the water by reeling fast and jerking the rod tip fast almost skittering the bait across the surface. Long cast are often better and the extra weight assist you here plus keeping the bait in the surface film when working it fast, and believe me, there isn’t a fisherman alive with the fastest reel made that can outrun an aggressive smallie, so just experiment with retrieve speeds to see what they want.

A frequent fishing companion of mine, Don Haynes, showed me the light one mid-October day on the Clinch River in Eastern TN. He had caught many smallies in the 12″ to 17″ range a few days before on a slow water flat that lay between two good shoals that always produced fish for us. This two-hundred yard stretch of boulder bottom with various depths to five feet also has plentiful grass, below the surface, on the banks, on one large mid-stream island in the upper 1/3 of the flat. All in all a smallmouth paradise for the Fall season. He reported also about how he witnessed several large smallies come to the surface and make barely a ripple when they took what appeared to be some type of fly or rising nymph. We have seen this behavior before, but not to the extent he described. Usually you do not even see the fish that come up so I usually put it off to be a chub minnow or small fish, which is often the case, or one of the few trout that are in the river.

Anyway, this picture did not interest the blind man, me! All I was interested in was the bait he used, which turned out to be a Tiny Torpedo. He also told me that the only way to catch them, “them” being the bigger fish, was to watch in the distance because fish on this type of slow moving clear water are the spookiest of all. Watch for the ripple and cast close to it as soon as possible and quickly jerk the bait 3 or 4 times. If you didn’t get a hit by then you may as well reel in and wait for another. Well, the blind man is also deaf and after a couple of hours of conventional jerk-pause-jerk with the topwater which later turned into a slow grub close to the bottom for a few 12 to 14″ fish, I still had no trophy which I know this stretch always holds in the Fall. Even after fishing side by side and watching him catch several in the 14 to 16″ range and one 20″ beauty he caught about twenty feet in front of me. After calling his shot by saying there’s one, did you see it, right there, cast, splash, jerk-jerk, KABLAM, He,He! Maybe this doesn’t sound all that aggressive, but I know my methods didn’t work and his little bit different did.

I guess the moral of the story is different baits can make a difference, but it’s the man turning the handle that makes the big difference, and aggressive fishing means more than just fishing fast. So when you see a big bronzeback come completely out of the water three feet from your bait and turn his head and go down on it, well, it’s too late, you done gone and pulled his trigger.

Article by: DW Harris


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