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All I Want For Christmas Is Some Smallmouth Bass

Smallie on an RR Striker

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.

My test colors for river smallmouth bass in clear water.

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.

RR Striker in Green Pumpkin with Pearl on one-eighth-ounce headIn 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.

Smallmouth on a plastic crawfishAfter 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.

The Beginning of a Promising New Season!

Swimbait two pounder 2

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.

At the East Tennessee Fishing Show with my friends from R&S Bait Company, manufacturers of the best smallmouth bass jigs I’ve ever used.

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.

Pair of sixteen-inch rainbowsIn 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 Average river smallouthstill 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.

It isn’t necessary to wait for warm weather to catch smallmouth bass in rivers. Combine weedless soft-plastics that match the size, shape and color of native forage with slow presentations and you can catch them throughout winter. This fish and many others were caught on an overcast winter day with frequent sleet and snow squalls.

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!

Day and night summer smallmouth bass

It’s been a hot, dry spring in east Tennessee. Summer’s just begun yet local rivers and reservoirs are unusually clear with temperatures above seasonal averages. Water temperatures higher than eighty-degrees are above the preferred range of many popular game fish but bass, bream and several others offer good fishing in early summer. However, many anglers are still out in force on most reservoirs and high fishing pressure often has a negative effect on fishing success. Too many pleasure boaters have a similar effect. I don’t resent any of them enjoying themselves, but I prefer not to set in line waiting for a fishing spot while I bob and sway in churning boat wakes. Bless their hearts; I hope all of them have the very best time but I excuse myself and spend my time where conditions are more favorable for catching fish. So when my longtime fishing buddy, Rodger Davis, called and told me he was coming from Atlanta to fish through the new moon, I knew I had to find places we could fish with lower water temperatures, fishing pressure and boat traffic. Because he doesn’t visit often and is an accomplished angler, I wanted to take him where we could catch some good fish with a few eye poppers mixed in. After checking area water generation schedules,  I decided we should go see what the local smallmouth bass were up to.

The first afternoon we packed our tackle, plenty of bottled water and headed up a local river under overcast skies. It was the only day in the five-day forecast that called for mostly cloudy conditions so I knew it would be our best chance to catch some river smallmouths without suffering heatstroke. The water level was so low we had to walk my jet-drive boat upstream through one shoal, though the flowing current was cool and refreshing in the afternoon heat. Generation from an upstream dam was holding water temperatures in the mid-seventies, an ideal range, but as we continued up river I realized exploding weed growth and shallow, crystal-clear water were going to limit the type lures we could use. Subsurface lures with treble hooks were out of the question in most places so we started with small surface lures. We each tied a Rebel Pop-R on a medium action spinning combo and went to work. I had one good blow-up by an impressive fish but it soon became obvious the smallmouths wouldn’t take surface lures in the bright, clear conditions. We decided to make a change.

We needed a realistic, weedless lure we could fish quickly at various depths and through shallow, dense cover so I grabbed a box of soft-plastic stickbaits and began rigging a second rod. My second rod and reel, also a medium-action spinning combo, was spooled with Flame Green, four-pound diameter/ten-pound breaking strength Fireline. To keep the fish from seeing my bright primary line I added five feet of fluorocarbon line in a comparable breaking strength using a double uni-knot. With this combo and rigging, I could cast a mile, see the slightest line movement, and present the lure with an invisible, highly abrasion-resistant line attached. After Rodger rigged a similar combo we moved back upriver and began fishing the same water, this time with much better results. We discovered there were plenty of fish in the scattered grass beds and deeper pockets around rock shelves. Shallow shoals produced nice bass on the upstream face and in spots where the water began to slow downstream. In the low, clear water soft-plastic stickbaits attracted strikes from various sizes of smallmouths to nineteen inches with several weighing between one and three pounds.

Weedless soft-plastic stickbaits fished in river current offer realistic presentations. Four- and five-inch sticks rigged on weighted wide-gap hooks glide along bottom contours and through weeds with erratic, natural actions. To present these little fish-catchers, make a long cast, twitch the bait, let it drift a couple feet, then twitch it again. Vary the number of twitches and the time you let the lure drift. However, don’t let it drift too far or it may wash under something and hang. It’s best to work soft-plastic stickbaits close to bottom though dragging the lure on bottom is a good way to snag one. Increase the amount of drift time in slower, deeper water and increase the frequency of twitching in swifter water to make the lure run shallower. Keep the little minnow moving with a darting and drifting motion and it will slide through weeds and over rocks with a natural appearance and few snags. At times, a smallmouth will grab the lure and you’ll feel a distinct tap but it’s more common to see the line jump or begin moving without feeling the fish. If you feel a fish strike, see the line jump, begin to tighten or move to the side, point the rod at the fish, reel until the line begins to tighten and set the hook. If it’s not a bluegill or pip-squeak bass, the rod will bow and you’ll suddenly have your hands full.

Late in the day the clouds cleared and it became brutally hot so we moved to a shaded shoreline to take a water break. When the sun began to set, we headed back upriver to fish some spots that had produced fish. Stickbaits continued to catch good fish but as the sun touched the horizon and light faded, I had to try my little topwater lure again and found bass eager to strike it in the waning light. I caught several more bass on my Pop-R before darkness settled and we headed for the ramp, though most were smaller fish. On this day, under these conditions, soft-plastic stickbaits were top choices and by choosing the right tackle to present them, we enjoyed a productive afternoon of fishing under some tough conditions. Though the river was low and clear, water temperature was ideal and smallmouths were active and feeding. The heat and low water kept most anglers off the river because we saw only one other boat all afternoon. I’m not sure how many smallmouths we caught by day’s end but I’m certain between fifteen and twenty. With a nineteen-inch, dark-barred beauty topping the list we felt good about our first day on the water.

Late the following afternoon we headed for a highland reservoir along the mountainous western edge of Cherokee National Forest to try some night fishing for smallmouth bass. The eastern half of Tennessee is blessed with many highland reservoirs including Dale Hollow, Norris, Watauga, and South Holston and each offers good fishing. South Holston is closest to home, the most beautiful and has an excellent smallmouth bass population so we repacked the boat and headed for the nearest ramp. We arrived on the dam end of the lake as darkness fell, rigged a pair of blacklights, and eased toward the first in a series of points that had produced tournament winning bass for me. As we idled across open water in depths approaching 250 feet the cool night air felt refreshing, a much more pleasant environment than baking in the heat on a sunny, shallow river. Surface water temperature varied between the mid-seventies and eighty degrees, ideal considering temperatures in many local lowland lakes had already moved well into the eighties. In tackle, we chose the same spinning combos spooled with thin, bright-yellow line that we’d used for stickbaits on the river, but changed lures to tiny 1/8-ounce jigs with plastic trailers.  With thin line and light jigs, we could thoroughly explore the bottom down to twenty-five- or thirty-feet. Time to set back, relax, enjoy the beautiful night sky and slowly crawl a jig.

Slowly crawling a tiny jig across bottom may sound boring to those used to fishing faster moving lures but set your mind to focus on what the jig’s telling you and it’ll hold your attention like a vice. With four-pound diameter braided line and a jig that weighs little more than an eighth ounce the lure will float along bottom, climb everything in its path and telegraph a steady stream of information about the lake bottom. Occasionally a jig will hang and be lost so it’s wise to bring a few extras; however, match the right line diameter with the weight of the lure and the system is surprising weedless. You’ll feel the jig strike and crawl over a rock, the bottom change from mud to gravel, and weightlessness as the lure falls down a steep incline. Line watching is equally important because you can learn to read water depth based on the time it takes the lure to hit bottom after a cast and when it falls along drop-offs. Water depth is an important detail to track because most fish will feed at a particular depth during the night and the key to success is finding and fishing that depth. If that isn’t enough to keep your mind busy, occasionally a nice bass will come along and attack your lure. Many times when a smallmouth bass strikes a jig, you’ll feel a distinct tap through the rod and the line will jump, though it’s equally common to see the line twitch without feeling anything. Then of course there are the sneaky ones, often larger fish, which simply pick up the jig and start swimming away. If you let your mind drift, you’ll suddenly notice your line has started moving to the side, or is mysteriously under the boat. After that happens a time or two you won’t be able to close your eyes for hours. So there’s nothing boring about this method of fishing. Learn to do it well and you’ll be hooked and so will some nice smallmouth bass.

In the first hour or so, we couldn’t buy a strike though we fished some of my most reliable spots. But soon baitfish started coming up, flipping along the surface over shallow points and along shorelines. Then I started hearing walleyes popping along shore, feeding on the baitfish. One point was so full of walleyes we changed tackle and lures and started casting to them. But that’s another story; we’ll talk about walleyes in highland reservoirs another time. After we fished my favorite series of points with little success on bass we decided to move, give the area a rest, and try another place. I was confident the bass would move shallow and feed soon because baitfish were now up and plentiful. On the next series of points, some nice smallmouths were also up and feeding. After the action began we caught bass on most points we fished, including some we had worked earlier with no success. Action remained steady the rest of the night with some nice smallmouths coming to the net. We were so busy and had such a good time we didn’t notice when the sky starting to lighten, but as I unhooked a good bass I looked up and saw the eastern sky glowing. We were shocked; we’d been there all night without checking the time once.

The following two nights we returned to the same creek arm on the lower end of South Holston Lake. We didn’t catch any of the giant smallmouths this lake has a reputation of producing but we caught many nice bass and our time on the water was packed with excitement. With few exceptions, the fish fought like cornered tigers displaying frequent airborne bursts and drag-screaming runs. I vividly remember one three-pound bully who tried to eat the trolling motor prop. I’m still not sure how I got the fish untangled but I distinctly remember collapsing in my seat, hands trembling, when Rodger laid the net full of struggling bass at my feet. And it wasn’t an isolated incident because several smallmouths shocked us by fighting like much larger fish. Then there was the double we caught on the last point we fished on our last night. We were talking some smack as we stood in the dim blue light with bowed rods. If you’ve never night fished with jigs and florescent line under a black light, it’s an otherworldly kind of experience. The dim light illuminates shorelines and overhanging trees just enough to help navigate as you quietly ease about. But the glowing florescent lines look like one-inch well rope, making it easy to watch your partner’s line out the corner of your eye. So when either angler sees line movement or feels something unusual, the response often becomes a shared process. The angler who thinks he had a strike begins a commentary that not only describes what he’s feeling and seeing, but begs for confirmation from the supporting audience. Though the dialogue may be brief, it’s oftentimes punctuated with laughter and an exciting ending. So night fishing with black lights is an entertaining as well as productive way to catch fish.

About half the smallmouths we caught weighed from one-half to two pounds with several pushing or exceeding three. We didn’t weigh any of the bass we caught because we wanted to release them quickly in the warm water, but our largest measured from seventeen-and-a-half to more than nineteen inches. Most were caught in depths between fifteen and twenty-five feet with a few striking in shallower water. And under stable weather, the bass moved up and started hitting around the same time each night. We saw few other boats in three nights so we had the lake to ourselves and our choice of places to fish. Not a bad way to spend time during an early summer heat wave and drought.

If you’d like to learn more about fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers and reservoirs, pick up a copy of my book and refer to the chapter on summer fishing. You’ll find plenty of useful information that will help you catch these great game fish in waters close to you including tips on finding fish, night fishing safety, choosing tackle, smallmouth color preferences and more. Be safe and great fishing!