For More and Better Smallmouths, Read the Water


For many of us who live in the upper parts of the Midwest, the smallmouth fishing will begin during the month of March, gradually will improve in April and will continue to heat up right along with the temperature during summer and fall. Though I enjoy ice fishing for any species of fish, warm water fishing for smallies has become my passion.

Half the fun of catching these bronze-backed battlers is discovering their watery lairs and then figuring out how to get them to strike. To quote my late uncle, who was my best fishin’ buddy ever: “If we can find ‘em, we can get ‘em to bite.” Truer words were never spoken.

So where do you find the smallmouths? Remember that above all else, a smallmouth lives and dies by the current. I have caught them in very fast, muddy water by casting a wide-wobbling Rebel Wee-R into the fast moving water until it ran right in front of a fish’s nose and he pounced on it. This may be an exception to the rule but it does show that the fish will bite if the water is running.

If you watch a smallmouth in the water and compare it to a largemouth in the same water, you will see that a smallmouth’s rate of gill flaring is quite a bit faster than its big, green cousin. This indicates that the smallie needs the super-oxygenated water of a faster current.

This is not to say that the smallmouths will spend most of its time holding right in the midst of the current. Rather, it lies right on the edge of the current, waiting for a morsel of food to swim by or to get washed by in the fast water. Then it will dart into the current and dart right back to the edge. Time after time I have cast a small Storm Wee-Wart within an inch or two of the current seam and experienced the arm-jolting strike of an aggressive bass.

Will just any old current in a river or stream hold fish? Not likely. This is where learning to read the water really comes into the equation. Smallmouths usually hold at the base of a riffle or an area of rapids, holding in the eddies and pools of the rushing water. Find such an area with a gravel bottom, some weed growth, some downed timber or some shale rocks and you have exponentially increased your odds of catching some fish.

Why? Because the rushing water upsets the natural movement of baitfish, crawdads, bugs that have landed on the water, or any invertebrates, such as nightcrawlers or earthworms that have fallen into or have been washed into the water. The fish instinctively know that such morsels will be washed downstream and into their holding areas.

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For that reason, 100 percent of your casts, whether with live bait or artificial baits, should be made either directly upstream or quartering upstream and retrieved clear back to the boat or to your side if you are wading. Many times I have had a smallmouth follow and strike at the lure just as I was lifting it from the water. Vigilance is paramount in this situation.

No takers at the bottom of the riffle? Then switch to the top! Surely one or two, or maybe a whole school of fish will be waiting in ambush just where the water begins to tumble over the rocks. The reason? Smaller fish, crawdads and other tasty morsels instinctively know that the current has increased and that they are subject to being swept away. Consequently, they will struggle to avoid the rocks and, their obvious distress will signal to the predatory bass that an easy meal is there for the taking.

In such a scenario, keep your casts in an upstream direction, or make a few parallel casts to the riffle itself. If there are boulders present, cast small, square-billed crankbaits, jigs, blade baits (such as the dynamite little Road Runners) or floating/diving Rapalas on both sides of the rocks and you should pick a few additional fish.

Never overlook a bridge piling. Most have debris that has accumulated on the upstream side, as well as waste chunks of concrete and metal objects that were left from the bridge construction. These types of cover are like magnets for the likes of crawdads and baitfish. Once again, make your casts upstream and expect a quick strike. The chances are good that a fish will not follow for any distance since the pickings are pretty good at the base of the bridge. Use Road Runners, blade baits, lipless crankbaits, and, of course, the Rapala minnows that will catch just about anything, anywhere.

If you still are not catching fish, switch to a 2- to 3-inch hard-nosed tube lure, Texas-rigged behind a 1/8-ounce bullet weight. Hop it, crawl it, jig it or just crawl it across the bottom. Peg the sinker 1/4-inch above the tube in order to hop it down the riffle itself to prevent snags and be ready for a vicious strike.

Now that March is here and the water is beginning to warm in your favorite river or stream, give these techniques a try. Remember to read the river, and good luck to you throughout the fishing season.