The Christmas Holiday Season has arrived along with some snow, incredible food, shopping, and special time with family and friends. It’s a busy time filled with anticipation and excitement mixed with last-minute rushes, ill people in long lines and aching feet. I love it all and elbow my way in wherever I can. With so much going on time passes quickly but soon after the Holidays, dark days, cold weather and lack of college football starts feeling like imprisonment. Most days it’s too cold to fish on large reservoirs during winter, except on infrequent mild-weather days, but brief trips to fish smaller waters can produce fine fishing and welcome breaks from winter doldrums. I’m feeling good about my prospects this season because I recently had a chance to sample one of my favorite winter pastimes; fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to test and recommend new colors of one of my most productive cold-water lures for river smallmouth bass, slim-profile paddle-tailed swimbaits. It was a brand I’d tested in a sample color in the past, made of hand-poured plastic in an ideal size for river fishing; the River Rock Custom Baits RR Striker. On River Rock’s Web site, Strikers are listed under the jerk-bait category as 3.75-inch baits, though in a side-by-side comparison they’re the same length as most four-inch swimbaits I’ve tried with similar diameter bodies. However, when comparing RR Strikers to other swimbaits the similarity ends when the baits are seen in motion. The hand-poured plastic of the Strikers makes them come to life as they swim, including the tail and the undulating swimming action of the body. You can find a link to River Rocks Web site further down in the sidebar column of this blog. So with the test Strikers in hand, with a box of proven favorites and the necessary rigging components, I hooked-up my boat and headed for one of my favorite smallmouth rivers on a warm, sunny afternoon.
I was a little surprised when I reached the boat ramp because the river was low and clear, much like early-fall conditions, although my temperature gauge displayed water temperatures in the low-50’s. So I knew it would be a challenge to find active, feeding bass. I had chosen four colors to test; two clear-water patterns and two brighter colors for stained water. It was obvious the bright colors wouldn’t be needed so I stuffed them in my tackle bag, grabbed those I’d chosen for clear water and prepared to start fishing. On my primary rod, I rigged a Striker in Green Pumpkin w/Pearl on a 1/16-ounce Owner Ultra Head in the Bullet Style; a lighter head with a more subtle color of plastic for shallow work. On a second rod I rigged a Striker in Watermelon w/Pearl using a 1/8-ounce head; a slightly more visible color with increased weight for deeper areas. After searching several spots, I learned the smallmouths were still relating to shoals but were positioned along current breaks close to the deepest water available. On classic-looking shoals with no deep water close by, repeated casts drew blanks, even on spots that frequently hold good bass during warm weather. After narrowing my search and catching a few smaller fish, I moved upriver where a larger shoal swept into an extended area of deep water. As I moved into position to begin fishing, I found much of the area below the shoal ran from seven- to ten-feet deep so I backed away and changed to heavier heads on both rods; from 1/16- to 1/8-ounce on the first rod and from 1/8- to 3/16-ounce on the second rigged with the same two colors of Strikers. Where I fished the seam along the shallower edge of the drop I cast the 1/8-ounce, Green Pumpkin combo; along the deeper face and base of the drop I cast the 3/16-ounce, Watermelon combo. In the next hour-and-a-half, I caught several smallmouths including my largest of the day and finished with eight to ten fish landed for the afternoon. I’m often guilty of losing count of fish caught when the action gets hot and I get excited, though most times I guess to the low side. Also, I lost a couple bass and had several more strikes including a few tail bite-offs; not uncommon when fishing small swimbaits for river smallmouths.
In summary, I found the RR Strikers in both colors good choices for clear-water smallmouth bass in rivers though I can’t say either was best because each caught a nearly equal number of fish. Furthermore, considering water clarity and temperature during testing, I’m confident these baits will continue attracting strikes throughout the cold-water period and beyond. Strikers are a little more expensive than some swimbaits I use in rivers but their action is unmatched and they’re more durable than most. So in a day of fishing, it’s realistic to expect to catch more fish on the same number of baits used. If you haven’t tried fishing slim-profile swimbaits in rivers for smallmouth bass, the RR Strikers would be a good first choice for learning and building confidence in this method of catching fish. After my first day of testing them, they’ve earned permanent space in my river-fishing toolbox. With a couple baits left in each test color, I was determined to visit the river again soon under better conditions to see if I could fool some larger bass. So one afternoon when I found some free time, I grabbed a rod and reel, my river-fishing toolbox and ran for the river to fish from shore for a few hours. What I found when I arrived changed my plans completely.
Before leaving, I checked the water generation schedule on the primary river that flowed into the area I planned to fish and knew the volume of water would be greater. But as I drove over a large feeder river upstream of my planned fishing spot, I noticed that water was high and stained. When I arrived at my destination, the water level there was very high, moderately stained and the river was full of floating debris including trees large enough to create boating hazards. After having a good talk with myself about not thoroughly checking conditions, I realized I was well equipped to catch fish; just not with swimbaits. So I removed the Striker I had rigged, changed spools from braid to ten-pound-test monofilament and tied on a Texas-rigged plastic crawfish with a 1/8-ounce bullet weight pegged to the lure. My attitude changed quickly as I re-rigged because I knew it was an ideal setup for fishing eddies along shore; one of my favorite ways to catch good river smallmouth bass during winter. Further testing of the Strikers would have to wait for another day. Before I was much more than a cast length from my car, I caught my first smallmouth bass. In the next two hours, the action was nonstop and I finished the afternoon with nine good fish. My largest bass of the day weighed more than two-and-a-half-pounds with only two fish less than a pound; a good day anytime but especially so on a cold late-fall afternoon of fishing from shore.
After adjusting to the conditions, I enjoyed a productive afternoon of smallmouth fishing on a day most anglers wouldn’t consider good for catching fish. When the flow is high and swift, fish jigs, Texas-rigged soft plastics or similar weedless lures in eddies close to shore. When the flow is low to normal, try retrieving slim-profile paddle-tailed swimbaits in areas of reduced current, close to or through the deepest water in the area. And if you haven’t tried River Rocks RR Strikers, order a pack or two and give them a try in your favorite smallmouth river. I’m sure River Rock Custom Baits will appreciate your business, and I’m equally sure you’ll be impressed with these baits. Merry Christmas to all my angling friends and I hope you have a safe, enjoyable Holiday season. And don’t forget, stop by and see me in mid-January at the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville and let’s talk fishing. You can find me there at the R&S Bait Company booth and can check dates, times and the address by clicking the Book Signing Schedule tab at the top of this page. I hope to meet you there.
I’m not the type of person who complains much. I strive to keep a positive outlook and focus on the good things in life though occasionally I voice some dissatisfaction with politicians or personal hardships, but rarely in a public forum. That being said I’d like to go on record as saying this has been neither a good nor normal spring. Not that I’m complaining mind you, but May and October are my two favorite months of the year and the May I just lived through was anything but normal or favored. June was an evil twin sister. Excessively frequent and heavy rain, late cold-snaps and an endless procession of nasty thunderstorms trampled much of my normal spring activities and created more than a few personal hardships. The electrocution of a box full of bluebirds in the yard by lighting, the loss of my “Man Cave” surround sound system to same and the announcement by my mechanic that it was time to call in hospice for my pickup truck topped my list of unfortunate occurrences during Spring 2013. However, with all the rain and cool weather my lawn grew beautiful, lush and green. If only my mower hadn’t been in the shop for a month, waiting for back-ordered parts. C’est la vie.
I wouldn’t say fishing has been more difficult than normal this spring but I will say it’s been a challenge to find good fishing at times. Local highland reservoirs along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains received so much rain and runoff they quickly rose to full pool and soon exceeded record levels. In response, TVA opened dam flood gates and downstream rivers became almost continually heavy flows, some roaring floods, of often discolored water. Most free-flowing rivers and streams also ran high and stained much of the time. With many reservoir water levels well into surrounding woodlands and rivers running well above normal, places to enjoy traditional spring fishing were limited. The threat of lightning, high winds and yo-yoing barometric pressure caused by a steady stream of weather changes further complicated planning fishing time. If you’d like to try some challenging fishing that will test your patience and skill, try casting minnow lures into a flooded forest at night for walleyes with the wind blowing 20 mph. At one point, I considered taking up bowling.
Despite the extremes in weather, the fish were still out there doing what they always do during spring. Fish move, feed, spawn and otherwise go about their normal routines based on time of year and water temperature. However, fish move or change their activity during adverse conditions and knowledgeable anglers who want to continue to catch fish change with them. I use two approaches to find good fishing during periods of high, stained water; targeting species that are unaffected by or predictably active in stained conditions or searching for water clarity that is closer to normal. Spring spawners like crappie, bream, large and smallmouth bass are drawn to shallow shorelines when water temperatures approach spawning temps despite water clarity. Anglers who remain confident and make the necessary adjustments in location, lure selection and presentation can continue to enjoy good fishing for these species. Also, catfish, carp and a few others remain active and thrive in high stained conditions. However, my preference is to find places to fish where water levels, flow and clarity are closer to normal. In reservoirs, that means fishing the dam end where conditions are most stable and least affected by heavy runoff. In rivers, it means fishing tail-waters close to a dam where water runs clearest.
Trout fishing in local tail-waters has been an on-again, off-again challenge this spring. Much of the time, generation rates were so high and water so swift that tail-waters were unfishable. However, my friends and I caught some nice rainbows, browns, brookies and a few lake trout by moving further downstream and fishing channel bends, islands and shoreline structures that held eddies or spots with slower current. On those infrequent occasions when generation slowed or stopped, trout became so cooperative it seemed that they’d missed us as much as we’d missed them. Fishing for river smallmouth bass has been much the same. Further down rivers, feeder streams and other sources injected heavy runoff, creating poor and sometimes hazardous conditions. But during those infrequent periods when the water dropped and cleared, smallmouths were active and offered great fishing. So I’ve spent the last two months camped on weather reports and water generation schedules while making frequent scouting trips to local fishing holes to check water condition. When conditions developed that offered good tail-water or river fishing, we did our best to get there and reap the bounty.
Because tail-waters and rivers weren’t often fishable, reservoirs have been my most frequent fishing destination this spring. The lower one-third of most lakes in this area remained clear to moderately clear most of the time although excessive surface debris caused by above-full-pool water levels created hazardous expanses of surface litter in some sections. However, with an ever-watchful eye on wind direction we avoided the worst-affected areas. Where water clarity was acceptable and surface debris light the greatest hindrance to finding good fishing most days was fishing pressure because an army of anxious anglers were pushed into the same limited “fishable” water. So we made one more adjustment and changed our focus to reservoir night fishing. As I said before, it’s been a challenge at times to find good fishing this spring.
Several trips to local highland reservoirs produced limited success for walleyes. If you’ve read my book, you know I’m a big fan of nighttime walleye fishing in spring and early summer. But water levels in highland reservoirs in this region remained above full pool so the waterline along which walleyes cruise for spawning baitfish in spring was well into shoreline undergrowth. Dense surface debris and frequent high winds another thousand feet higher in elevation made night-walleye fishing on these lakes difficult work. So, fresh walleye dinners have been infrequent at my house so far this year. However, our search for good fishing produced some exciting encounters with one of my favorite fish; the hybrid striped bass. Hybrids, like striped and white bass, are open-water wanderers that follow alewives, shad and other baitfish throughout reservoirs. In spring, when surface temperatures reach 60-degrees, alewives move to shallow shorelines at night to spawn. As water temperature rises further, shad also begin spawning, producing an extended period of plentiful food along shallow shorelines for hybrids and other game fish. So when reservoir surface temperature reached 60-degrees and rising, we scheduled our first nighttime trip to check on the hybrids.
The first place we found fish was on a steep bluff along a main-lake river channel. Small Red Fins and Jointed ThunderSticks produced jolting surface strikes from hungry hybrids when lures were cast close to the bluff face and retrieved parallel to the edge. Then, one night when the fish didn’t show along the bluff, we moved and found a hybrid mother-load. In each of the next half-dozen trips to this spot, a friend and I caught more than a double limit of hybrids. The fish were mixed sizes ranging from three to seven pounds with an occasional small striped bass mixed in. The times the hybrids arrived and began feeding each night varied between about 10:30 p.m. and midnight depending on when baitfish started surfacing and moving into shallow water. However, there was never any question when the hybrids arrived because baitfish schools would suddenly surface everywhere, accompanied by scattered surface swirls and an occasional explosion. The hungry predators would charge in, feed aggressively for a brief time, scatter the schools of minnows, then everything would become still. Soon after, the hybrids would again push the baitfish into tight schools, herd them back into the shallows and the feeding binge would resume. So when the hybrids first decided it was time to hit the supper table, action became hot for several hours, interspersed with occasional lulls; good times to check line condition, retie or change lures.
Rat-L-Traps are among my most dependable tools for hybrid fishing at night but we caught fish on several others. Topwaters are personal favorites so we tried minnow lures, walk-the-dog baits and surface poppers. Red Fins and Thundersticks continued to attract an occasional strike but larger surface poppers produced best when the hybrids were up and feeding. I always keep a popping lure rigged and ready when fishing for schooling game fish because I believe the sound they make often attracts feeding fish or encourages continued feeding. But without question, the most productive lure we used was one I tried this spring for the first time. I had learned from several good anglers that it was a deadly choice for hybrids and other game fish and knew it was the hottest lure on the bass tournament scene, so hot it had raised much controversy among tournament organizations and state fisheries agencies. Technically, it’s not a lure but an array of lures called the Alabama Rig, aka the A-Rig.
A-Rigs have been around for a long time but until recently were best known by anglers as umbrella rigs; trolling tools for open-water fishing in fresh and saltwater. But when tournament professional Paul Elias used a casting version to win a major FLW event on Lake Guntersville, Alabama it turned the bass fishing world, and traditional perceptions of the umbrella rig, upside down. Anyone who fishes much for large and smallmouth bass knows about the A-Rig. Most have used them, have friends who use them, have read about them or have seen them on television fishing shows. Through many sources, I also had learned about them and become convinced of their effectiveness. After we found that large concentration of hybrids, I remembered a friend had given me a locally made version of an unrigged A-Rig so I decided to dig it out, load it with soft plastics and do some testing.
The A-Rig I’d been given had five wire arms so the first thing I had to decide was how and where to attach two attractors. In the State of Tennessee, A-Rigs may have only three hooks of any type, though five-arm A-Rigs are legal if two of the arms hold only attractors. A drawing in the state fishing regulations booklet shows a five-arm A-rig in which two arms hold willow-leaf spinner blades. I considered adding blades to my test version but decided it would be easier, and less expensive, to cut the hooks off a couple soft-plastic rigs. So I grabbed a pair of needle-nosed pliers, my tool box of curly-tailed grubs, some jig heads and went to work on my newest fishing tool. I bent the longest arm on my A-Rig at a downward angle and added my primary lure; a heavy-duty, 3/16-ounce pearl/glitter-colored jighead with chartreuse eyes. To the jighead, I added a four-inch pearl-colored curly-tailed grub with a chartreuse tail. Because predators often attack schools of baitfish from behind or below, I wanted this bright-colored bait to be slightly larger, below and behind the “school” I was presenting. This lure was also heaviest, acted as a keel and helped keep the light-weight A-Rig from turning or spinning during the retrieve. I bent the next two arms in opposite directions angled outward, added unpainted 1/8-ounce jigheads and three-inch pearl curly-tailed grubs. I bent the remaining two arms up and outward and added small unpainted 1/16-ounce jigheads to hold my attractors. To these I added white two-inch curly-tailed grubs; slightly more visible in the limited light but smaller. Before mounting these two, I cut the hook points off at the center of the bend then super-glued the grubs in place on the remaining portion of the shank. The first time I pulled the A-Rig through the water at boat-side, I was impressed with what I saw.
The awkward looking A-Rig casts surprising well using a heavy flipping stick, baitcasting reel, and braided line so after a few casts I was comfortable with my newest fishing tool and settled into a routine of long casts followed by a slow, steady retrieve. After less than a dozen casts, a nice hybrid struck hard. When a much larger fish smashed the rig on the next cast and began ripping line from my reel, I was hooked for good on the Alabama Rig. After catching another fish or two, I cut the rig off and handed it to my fishing partner so he could do some testing with his heavy spinning combo. His first hybrid on the A-Rig was a line-screamer that weighed more than six pounds. On several follow-up trips together, we used the same A-rigs and continued to enjoy some productive fishing for one of my favorite fish. Though I missed the great spring night fishing for walleyes this year, and those fabulous walleye dinners, hybrids provided plenty of exciting action and some fine fillets for a few of my favorite fish recipes. Many anglers don’t eat hybrids but they’re missing some fine dining. Bleed the fish you intend to keep as you catch them, then throw them in a cooler or livewell and cover them with ice. Remove all the red flesh from the fillets during cleaning and you’ll be impressed with the firm, beautiful meat. Hybrid fillets are mild-tasting and good choices for grilling, in sauces or any recipe calling for mild, white-fleshed fish.
So it’s been a challenging 2013 fishing season so far but I can’t complain because I’ve caught some nice fish, enjoyed a bounty of fresh fish fillets and added an exciting new tool to my fishing toolbox. And I did finally get my lawnmower repaired and the grass under control so if it stops raining at least one day each week I should be able to keep it looking beautiful. Furthermore, after an extended trial of patience I bought a new boat-hauling vehicle, though it took the dealer two tries to get the correct one brought in from a distant location. It could happen to anyone. I’m convinced the rainfall will moderate soon since we’re already more than 14.75 inches above average on rainfall and approaching the all-time record. When the weather finally returns to normal, tail-water and river fishing will become very good so I’m going to remain patient, retain my positive outlook, repair the rest of my broken fishing equipment and chip away at my Honey-Do list. And I should have plenty of time to get ‘er done because it’s supposed to rain four of the next five days.
I enjoyed a busy holiday season filled with good food and time spent with family and friends. Shopping, book signing events and travel filled most of my remaining time and the heart of winter passed quickly, though a nasty battle with that new strain of flu could have passed more quickly. Here in East Tennessee, we had frequent snow with record rainfall during January and February followed with much of the same. My friends and I enjoyed fine fishing for trout and bass in local rivers and reservoirs before the rain and snow began. But as my schedule filled with Holiday activities, book signings, then midwinter weather restrictions, my time on the water became all too limited. Nevertheless, the many signing events I scheduled kept me from lapsing into fishing withdrawal and provided opportunities to meet many new friends who share my passion for our sport. I enjoyed meeting and talking with them all, from newcomers to seasoned veterans and industry business professionals to fishing celebrities. Also, I was intrigued by many new products I saw including electronics, an array of new lures, other tackle and creative local artwork. However, some people I met left the most memorable impressions.
Before the doors opened at the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville one morning, I bumped into Hank Parker on the show floor as he stood admiring a new boat. I enjoyed the most pleasant, relaxed conversation with him and confirmed he is the likeable down-to-earth gentleman I’d always thought him to be. My most surprising encounter began when I got into a lively discussion with a young man, a tournament angler who I did not recognize, about smallmouth bass. He had an obvious out-of-town accent, from Michigan I learned, as we discussed the differences between longer Tennessee smallmouths and the thick-bodied smallmouths found throughout the great lakes. I’m sure he enjoyed our conversation as much as I did, a discussion born from shared admiration for one of North America’s greatest game fish. We talked until he was called away and I was drawn to others waiting to chat. Later, I learned he was Jonathan VanDam, the hottest rising star in professional bass fishing and nephew of all-time money winner and legendary tournament angler Kevin VanDam. I was most entertained by a fellow fishing fanatic I met less than two weeks ago at a boat dealer open house in Morristown, TN. I recognized him immediately because I’d read about his past tournament success with BASS and enjoyed his humorous antics on television. During our conversations that day, I learned that Fish Fishburne and I share a special interest in catching smallmouth bass in rivers. We once cut up like ten-year-olds as we laughed and talked about setting up a trip to run up a local river we’ve both long wanted to fish in my jet-drive G3 boat; a model similar to one he’d recently sold. I hope we make that trip sometime because anyone with that much energy and such a great sense of humor would make an entertaining companion for a day on the water. So it’s not been a boring winter because I’ve been very busy, studied a variety of new angling tools and talked with many experienced anglers. But with the earliest spring flowers blooming and average air temperatures beginning to rise, my mind has shifted back to the sound of water lapping along a shoreline, cool clean air, and the thought of a sudden bend in a fine graphite rod. It’s time to get back on the water and enjoy some good fishing.
In the last few weeks, area lakes and streams have started clearing and water generation rates have decreased. Trout are one of my preferred target species throughout the cold-water period and a couple visits to the closest tail-water confirmed they’re adapting well to the clearing conditions. Both rainbow and brown trout remain active in cold winter water though the lowest temperatures of the season reduce movement and feeding. Browns have recently finished spawning and should be feeding more frequently to regain strength and body weight. Rainbows are active, will spawn soon and should be at their heaviest weights of the year. However, I found trout fishing a little too slow in the tail-water I checked. There’s no question the recent flooding affected fish location and cold, snow runoff slowed their metabolism but I quickly discovered why they weren’t hitting as well as expected. The winter shad die-off must be peaking because the water I fished was littered with dead and dying shad in various sizes. With so much nutritious food available, trout feed less often because they can quickly fill their stomachs with little effort or movement. I don’t consider that a problem, but a promise of things to come. As the shad kill diminishes and the water begins to warm, the trout will continue to focus on that limited but easy to catch source of protein. So, tail-water fishing will soon be excellent for some beautiful pot-bellied trout using shad-imitating lures and I’ll be there to enjoy it.
A check of the local smallmouth bass population produced better results. A single trip to a highland reservoir confirmed most smallies there were still deep and suspended. After many hours on classic winter structure I caught only one nice bass on a silver buddy and inquiries at the ramp later confirmed fishing was poor with several zeros reported, though one boat reported a few fish caught on Damiki Rigs in fifty-feet of water. However, the river smallmouths I checked were much more cooperative. I fish for river smallmouths throughout winter, focusing on periods of high flow when they’re pushed to shoreline eddies and easier to find. But with the recent drop in water generation and little rainfall the last two weeks, many of my most productive eddy areas were so shallow I could see bottom. I caught a few bass but concluded they were scattered and holding behind larger scattered structure or in deeper holes, sheltered from the cold, swift current. So I replaced my Texas-rigged soft plastics with something I could fish horizontally to cover water; swimbaits.
If you’ve read my book, you know I’m a match-the-hatch kind of angler. Therefore, when fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers I prefer long, slender swimbaits that mimic shiner, chub or darter minnows. So I grabbed several packs of skinny swimbaits, hooks and other gear and went to my favorite local river do some testing on a cold, breezy afternoon. Thirteen smallmouths later, I was convinced I’d found the right formula. A few days later, a friend and I caught sixteen more including several two-pound-plus beauties. I’ve tried several brands, sizes and colors of swimbaits in the last two weeks and found the best choices share some common traits.
Slender plastics in three-and-three-quarter to four-inch lengths have been equally attractive to smallmouths. Natural minnow colors with grey, light-brown or green backs and white or pearl bellies have all caught fish. Silver, gold or other colors of fleck in the plastic added flash to the bait’s lifelike appearance though I’m not convinced the fish showed a preference. Also, I’ve tried various rigging methods including Owner Ultrahead Bullet Rigs and weighted EWG hooks in 1/16 and 1/8 ounce models and found all equally effective, and weedless, when properly matched to the size plastic used and water depth. I’m sure screw-lock or other similar weighted, weedless hook designs will also work well; I simply haven’t tried them. Finally, I always use an attractant or masking scent when presenting slow-moving plastic lures. When my friend and I went, he used Yum F2 Spray in Shad and I used Berkley Gulp Attractant in Shad, and we each caught eight nice bass. But the most crucial variable common to all the lures we tried and places we fished was the need for a painfully slow, steady retrieve. Get a little excited over the chunky fish you’d just released, increase retrieve speed and you’d quickly go from hero to zero. With the proper choice in hook weight, the lure should tap bottom frequently during the retrieve. When the lure starts dragging bottom, lift the rod tip to raise the bait but continue the same slow, steady rate of retrieve. If you live close to a river that offers good smallmouth bass fishing during summer, don’t wait, grab some skinny swimbaits and weedless hooks and go catch some nice fish. But remember; use a slow and steady retrieve speed to catch river smallmouth bass in cold water.
Soon, good fishing will be available everywhere. As longer periods of daylight begin warming the shallows, bass and crappie will move to sheltered shorelines to begin their prespawn ritual and offer good fishing. And rivers will soon fill with white, striped bass and other river spawners; walleyes are already there and scheduled next on my list for a visit. So if you haven’t prepared for early-spring fishing, it’s time to get your boat out of storage, spool up with fresh line and get tackle ready to go because we’re about to begin another promising new fishing season!