Small Stream Smallmouth
Posted on April 4, 1999
I’ve read posts on the message board of Riversmallies.com lamenting the TVA and the Corps of Engineers merciless assault on our beloved smallmouth rivers by blocking their natural flows with layer upon layer of concrete. The huge lakes created by these dams are a boon to anglers who pursue the other black basses, but to the lovers of stream bronze, thinking about the treasure under all of that water hurts like the loss of a loved one.
I feel your pain. The loss of so much good riverine smallie habitat makes the dwindling number of free flowing rivers meccas for stream smallie anglers. Unfortunately for many of us, those “name” rivers are usually a considerable drive away from where we live and increasingly pressured. During our drive to the Buffalo or the New, we often cross over little ribbons of water teeming with smallmouth that never see a lure.
Those creeks and streams that don’t get the press and the accompanying reputation are some of the last unspoiled smallmouth waters left. Some are listed by your state game and fish department or in the Atlas and Gazetteer, but many of the best ones are not.
One of my first stream smallie experiences occurred on a small stream not listed as holding smallmouth. My brother and I decided to try this stream early one summer and we got into some nice ones on a shoal in about a foot of water. This little shoal seemed barren until you cast a grub into it and nice smallmouth would appear from nowhere and crunch it.
The experience changed my life (for the worse if you ask my wife) and I’ve been a stream smallie addict since. That trip with my brother is the joy of creek fishing. Finding smallmouth water not listed anywhere and having a glory day is an awesome feeling.
However, creek fishing is different than river fishing. You cannot use the techniques of a river and apply them to a creek and have the same level of success.
Predators (humans included) have easier pickins on creeks and small streams because there are fewer places for prey to hide. Creek smallmouth are more wary and a little smarter from the lessons taught by a marauding raptor in their youth. Stealth is one of the most important aspects of creek fishing. Stealth is always important when pursuing bronzebacks, but is paramount in a creek. I’m not saying you have to deck out in $200 camo or crawl to every hole, but little common sense things really increase your catch in a stream or creek environment.
Creek fishing for smallies should be like fishing with your Grandfather. I wasn’t allowed to talk except in a low whisper and a bang of the tackle box lid was met with a glare. Many modern anglers seem to have forgotten why our elders were so paranoid about making noise. Unnatural sounds in an environment put animals on the alert that danger is near. This is magnified in a creek where you are much closer to your quarry.
Approach creek fishing like a hunter approachs prey. Speak to your partner in muted tones or whisper. Develop a chirp or hand signal to get your partner’s attention when they are away from you. Unless you are tired of catching fish, avoid yelling, “Hey man, look at this one.” Take your time wading to cut down on pressure waves and the kicking of rocks. If you get hung up in a productive area, let your partner cast a few times before retrieving the lure. Avoid wearing yellows, reds, pinks, or neons.
The stealthy approach extends to lure consideration as well. I prefer small soft plastics because they are natural in size, color, feel and action. The 5 inch fat bodied grubs with wide slapping tails popular for river smallmouth are not nearly as productive in creeks. Soft plastics for smaller waters should be 4 inches or less. The action of these soft plastics should be very, very subtle, almost “dead.” Straight tailed 4 inch finesse worms are deadly. One and one half inch to three inch grubs with a spear tail or boot tail are better than twist tails. If twist tails are all you have, clip off at least half of the tail. In the warmer months, 4 inch lizards work great, especially after a bluegill bites off the tail.
“Another misconception about creeks is they hold only little fish. Granted, you are not going to catch many 22 inchers out of a creek, but you are not going to catch many 22 inchers out of a river either. But, a good creek produces a few 19-21 inchers, some 17-19 inchers, a good amount of 14-17 inchers and scads of 12-14 inchers.”
In a stream or creek, deep water is 4-6 feet by and large. You don’t want your lure to go to the bottom like a rock and sit there. You want your lure to tick the bottom as it flows and tumbles with the current. My most productive weight is 1/16 ounce. This weight can still get down and root them out while being moved by the current and looks natural to smallmouth. I use an 1/8 ounce when the water is up or in a good flow area and a ¼ ounce when the water is very high or moving fast. In the low flow conditions of late summer and early fall, I drop to a 1/32 ounce or go weightless. Again, a creek angler is fishing shallow water. The productive water on my favorite creek is thigh deep or less.
Shallow water is another great benefit of creek fishing. People do not believe there are smallmouth in water that skinny. I’m glad they feel that way and hope it continues. I rarely see another person on my favorite creek except at the two easiest places on the creek to access, leaving about 60 miles of productive water for me.
Another misconception about creeks is they hold only little fish. Granted, you are not going to catch many 22 inchers out of a creek, but you are not going to catch many 22 inchers out of a river either. But, a good creek produces a few 19-21 inchers, some 17-19 inchers, a good amount of 14-17 inchers and scads of 12-14 inchers.
Productive spots on creeks for bigger fish are much different than productive spots on rivers. The big obvious stuff is not as good as subtle easy to overlook spots. Some of the best spots on creeks are in shoals, especially during the warmer months. A good shoal should have lots of pockets and gouge holes with rocks, logs, ledges and cracks all through it. Big smallmouth amaze with their ability to hide. I’ve caught gorgeous smallmouth out of small pocket in a shoal only a foot deep. Try and hide behind a bush, tree or large rock on the bank if possible to fish shoals. A good shoal will produce for many summers once found and will be overlooked if there are other anglers on the stream.
Deeper holes are important in creeks like they are in rivers, but again the obvious stuff in a deeper hole will not produce the bigger fish. Look for small subtle hides for the bigger bronze. A small ledge, the hidden edge of a rock where the current has gouged a hole or a large crack in the bottom of a flowing deep hole are all excellent spots. A small pocket that is a little deeper than the rest of the hole is a great spot as well.
Usually, hanging your lure on the bottom is maddening. It happens more often in a shallow creek than in a large river. In a creek, getting hung is a good thing. You are forced to wade through the hole or shoal to retrieve the lure. This will give you a ton of information about those little subtle structures that hold big fish. I’ve often found some great honey spots while retrieving hung lures that I would have never found any other way.
FISH SLOW. Whether it is a 50,000 acre reservoir, a river or a creek, most anglers fish too fast. You must fish slow for success in a creek. Creek fish are very attuned to their environment because it is little. Lures fished too fast will be ignored. Productive spots must be painstakingly probed along every nook and cranny. Make repeated casts to good spots. Big fish often hit on the fifth cast to the same spot. It requires a lot of patience to fish this way, but patience is one of the lessons fishing teaches us.
The next time driving to a big “name” river, prospect for bronze along the way by exploring the creeks you pass. Your co-workers will wonder why you are grinning all of the time.
Guest Article by Lee McClellan