Targeting Trophy Smallmouth

Posted on May 21, 2003

Any smallmouth fisherman who spends enough time on the water will catch the occasional citation bass. Anglers who catch them consistently have a different approach. Concentration, persistence, willingness to catch fewer fish, and a dedication to pattern development are characteristics that set these trophy hunters apart from the average fisherman.

Cap’n Jack West guides on the James and New rivers in Virginia. He has a theory he uses to catch trophy smallies that addresses lure choice, presentation location, and presentation style. He calls it “BDS” which simply means, “Bigger, Deeper, Slower”. It has helped many of his clients successfully land oversized smallies from the James and New rivers in Virginia.

Larger offerings entice big fish while limiting the number of smaller bass caught. One way to look at it is that the meal size should be worth the effort required to chase it down. I have often caught smallmouth 20 inches or longer with a five inch crawfish or a seven inch bluegill protruding from the gullet. Three inch tube baits will catch lots of bass, and will occasionally attract a large fish, but a five inch bait will increase your big fish odds greatly. I often look for new baits to try in the saltwater section of the tackle shop. A 14 inch Rappahannock river smallmouth once managed to fit my nine inch Bass Assassin inside its mouth. Don’t be afraid to try soft baits up to 10 inches in length.

Along with a big meal, the granddaddy of all smallmouth prefers a big house. Deeper water affords fish the ability to hide from overhead predators. Certain features of a pool also add to the attractiveness of a home for pig smallies. Rich Coffman of Ashburn, VA has a great ability to locate and recognize trophy smallmouth water. When we fish together, he usually calls me on a two way radio and says, “I smell bacon!” Deep water is one major component. Structures such as deep boulders or submerged wood make for good ambush points for the pig smallie to feed.

“Anglers who feel the compulsion to impart action to their lures have a great hurdle to leap.”

Many river smallmouth anglers have roots in lake largemouth fishing. I can usually spot the lake largemouth fisherman when he presents a tube like he would fishing a jig ‘n pig for lake largemouth. Hopping a jig a foot off of the bottom in a regular cadence will catch river smallmouth. They will usually be small aggressive fish. The largest fish have the ability to eat whatever they want. Therefore, the presentation must closely match the speed and movement of natural prey to convince the fish to take the bait. Bottom dwelling prey such as crawfish and madtoms usually move very slowly and stick to the bottom. When fishing bottom bouncing baits, try to do the same. Let it sit. Have faith.

Anglers who feel the compulsion to impart action to their lures have a great hurdle to leap. I fell into the do nothing technique naturally, having catfishing roots. It was normal for me to let it sit like it was cut bait or chicken liver. The do nothing technique also works well in the middle of the water column.

Duane Richards of Roanoke, VA has mastered the art of suspending jerkbait presentation. He yanks the jerkbait down to the desired depth then lets it drift motionless through the target area. An occasional twitch lets the fish know that the prey is dying, but not yet dead. The twitch is made with a quick shake of the rod tip on a bowed line. The twitch is not intended to move the bait more than an inch. It is often when he twitches the jerkbait that he feels the signature “tick” of a big fish latching onto the lure.

Many fishermen have trouble sticking to the do nothing technique. It requires patience and most of all. concentration. One rule to follow with the do nothing technique is to not cast until you are ready to pay complete attention to what is happening at the end of your line. The largest fish often pick up a bait so gently that you won’t feel it. If you are busy repositioning your boat or looking for the next place to cast, you will certainly miss the subtle signs of a big fish hit.

Knowledge of previous locations of big fish can be helpful. It can also limit your chances of hooking a trophy bronzeback. If the location of a previous catch is all that you have to go on, you may overlook the location where that particular bass moved to. The most difficult part of developing a pattern is catching the first decent sized fish.

The author holds a 21 inch New River smallmouth

To find a pattern, I fish every different kind of structure that I come to. Once I catch one that is at least 16 inches, I go to the location where that fish hit. I look for the structure and current speed at that particular place. I ask myself, “Why was that big fish here?” The reason could be food, for rest, for spawning reasons, or for oxygenated water. Whatever the case, I form a set of characteristics that I am looking for. If the fish came from a slow current deep boulder filled outside bend in the river, I try to locate the next example of that. I pass over the shallow riffles in between this example and the next example of a slow current deep boulder filled outside bend in the river. The specifics will change daily, but the methodology will always serve you well.

Patterns usually come to you by accident. Being able to recognize a pattern is important. Here are a few examples of common patterns for citation river smallmouth. Ledges with deeper trenches in between provide good ambush points for big fish. Tumble a tube over the ledge and wait for the “thump” as it falls into the depths. In periods of low light such as dawn, dusk, or on overcast days, large topwater lures attract big bass. Full sized buzzbaits passed along the edges of weedbeds summon the bruisers. In summertime, areas where the current is either speeding up or slowing down hold fish. Corner pockets found to either side of a ledge chute fit this description. The area where the chute fills the deeper part of the following pool is another example of current transition. In spring and fall, eddies with swirling foam and well defined current seams harbor big fish. I already described my favorite winter pattern in the previous paragraph.

Trophy smallmouth differ from the average bass in what they eat and where they are usually found. Trophy anglers should also differ from the average fisherman. They need to be selective of the areas that they fish. They will have faith in their location choice and presentation style, and be able to fully concentrate on every cast.

by Jeff “Yakfish” Little
Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing LLC


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