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Adapting to Changing Conditions

Big rainbow release

After turning the page on my office calendar to August, I paused to reflect on where the time had gone. Notes on the last few pages confirm each month was a whirlwind of activity, mostly of the non-fishing variety. Not that there wasn’t some time to fish, but much of my spring and early summer seasons were filled with other time-consuming activities; more on that later. Furthermore, favored places to fish were limited this year. Another hot, dry spring reduced flow on local rivers so much that productive fishing for smallmouth bass was affected and repairs at a local dam transformed some of my favorite spring fishing waters so completely I was forced to search for new ones. Nonetheless, the search for good fishing led to the discovery of new opportunities and limited choices encouraged me to invest more time in spring patterns still available. The extra time spent pursing two of my favorite game fish, rainbow and brown trout, produced an exceptional season of spring and early-summer trout fishing.

I learned to fish for trout long ago, limited then to fishing small mountain streams and stock ponds for freshly stocked fish. Many years later after moving to Tennessee, my focus changed to catching holdover tail-water trout; those that had lived for years on a diet of abundant natural prey in cool, swift water. This spring has been a testament to what I’ve learned about fishing for larger tail-water trout. We caught many rainbows and browns above eighteen inches but some special fish and one exceptional encounter come to mind. My most memorable tail-water trout adventure so far in 2015 included my best fishing buddy Andy and his 12-year old son, Harrison. Harrison had already proved he could catch trout by trolling for them. On his best outing he was credited with catching twenty-eight rainbows, though Andy and I reeled in a few of them because we had several doubles hookups. However, this trip was Harrison’s first to cast for them so when we arrived on good water, casting practice began. Andy helped with the casting part but each time the lure hit the water, Harrison took control of the rod and the retrieve. Soon we were coaching him on ways he could vary his presentation by changing speed, pausing or adding subtle twitches.

Sixteen inch tailwater brook trout 1Not long into our second drift, Harrison’s rod bowed deeply and a big trout thrashed the surface. With a firm grip on his rod, he fought the big fish well while Andy coached and I controlled the boat in swift water. When Andy slipped the net under the struggling fish, shouts of victory filled the air. It wasn’t just a big trout; it was a huge brook trout. For those of you not familiar with brook trout, let me put the size of this fish in perspective. In the State of Tennessee, if you catch a brookie ten-inches or longer, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will award you with a colorful Trophy Fish Award, suitable for framing. The brook trout Harrison landed was sixteen-inches long. Before the day was over, he also landed a rainbow and brown trout above eighteen-inches. So on his first trip casting for them, Harrison landed the Eastern equivalent of the trout trifecta and did so with some remarkably nice fish.

My most exciting fishing experience this season came on a day when time to fish was limited. With but a few hours free and no fishing partner, I loaded my boat and headed for the closest tail-water. Local weather and water generation schedules were favorable for trout fishing, though it was midday under a sunny, blue sky. After making the first drift through prime water without so much as a follow, I changed to a larger lure, returned to my starting point and began again. A few casts into the second drift a big fish smashed my plug hard and began stripping line. The fish moved so fast and with such power, I was sure it was a big hybrid and quickly realized my hands were full.

I was adrift in fast water and approaching a shoal so shallow that hitting rocks with the trolling motor prop was a probability, but didn’t want to raise the motor and let the boat spin during the fight. With one hand on the trolling motor and the other controlling the surging fish, it became a very busy time. If I had a third hand, I’m sure it would have been equally busy. Suddenly, the fish charged the boat and did its best to tangle my line in the outboard. After a few tense seconds, it came free from the lower unit as the river bottom came up along the upstream face of the shoal. Then, out the corner of my eye I saw the big fish jump clear of the water. Even in my adrenalin-filled state I realized that hybrids don’t jump so my eyes Twenty nine inch eleven six tailwater brown edit 1strained for a clear view of my adversary as it approached the boat, then in less than two-feet of water. As we drifted over the shoal, the big fish swam closer and was soon swimming parallel to the boat in water so shallow it could clearly be seen. The light-brown color and big spots along the fish’s back confirmed it was a huge brown trout. After drifting into deeper water, it became a battle of patience and the big fish was in trouble. Finally, I led her into the net and lifted my largest brown trout ever into the boat; a beautifully marked twenty-nine-inch female. There was little time to set up and take pictures because my greatest concern was for the fish’s health. But after a few quick shots and gentle handling beside the boat, she recovered, surged from my grip and disappearing into the rushing water. I collapsed in my seat, took several deep breaths and talked to myself until my heart-rate slowed. Drained after the battle, I set out trolling rods and trolled back to the ramp. Several smaller fish up to sixteen inches came to the net on the relaxing cruise back that sunny afternoon. It was a brief though memorable outing and invigorating dose of outdoor therapy; one to remember for a very long time.

Though my time on the water this season has been limited, a few trips for other fish were also rewarding. During early spring, a couple night-fishing trips for river-run walleyes produced good results. In spring, walleyes in most southern reservoirs migrate into primary feeder-rivers to spawn. This concentrates them in sections where water depth and flow are favorable and prey species are present. Find walleyes and what they’re willing to strike and it can produce good catches of one of the best-tasting fish in fresh water. My preferred method of catching spring river-run walleyes is trolling at night so I scheduled a couple evenings free to go after them. Our priority on the first night was finding places on the river that held fish and we soon caught enough for a meal of fresh fillets. In just a few hours on the follow-up trip, under a star-studded sky, we stayed busy catching and culling fish. Repeated trolling passes along a sixty-yard stretch of water produced more than two-dozen walleyes including a few double hookups with a smallmouth bass and catfish or two mixed in. Trolling at night on a river may sound like a recipe for trouble but it’s an effective method of fishing if you follow a few simple safety rules and employ the correct lures and methods of presentation. To learn more about trolling for walleyes and other fish at night on rivers, refer to the chapter on “Winter Fishing” in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

Several outings for bass produced nice catches, including both river and reservoir trips. We fished at night for reservoir largemouths when fishing pressure was lowest and smallmouths during the day on a river where only kayaks disturbed the Five four Boone Lake largemouth bass on an R&S jigserenity. Our first bass-fishing trip of the season to search for largemouths was interesting; a rough start that bloomed into a rewarding finish. We arrived late at the ramp and had to wait in line until almost dark before launching. Then, as we prepared to take off down lake I noticed some nasty looking clouds coming our way. By the time we reached a nearby bridge for shelter, it was raining steadily. An hour later we started down the lake, one we’d not seen before, to find a place to fish in total darkness. Radar on a phone app, a depth finder and some blind luck led us to a shallow point with a distinct offshore break-line that merged with a shoreline filled with alternating layers of rock, red-clay and gravel. I was confident the diverse mixture of bottom types would attract some fish. In the next few hours we landed sixteen bass along a hundred-yard stretch, mostly smallmouths, with a five-pound, five-ounce largemouth taking top honors. Small finesse jigs with plastic pork-chunk trailers caught all our fish though we tried several soft-plastics. Regrettably, I haven’t had time to go back and fish that spot again.

A few half-day trips for river smallmouths produced good fish though larger bass were less than plentiful in the low, clear conditions. The realistic action of swimbaits and soft-plastic stickbaits caught the majority of our fish with Keitech Easy Shiners and Zoom Super Flukes catching the most. Various rigging methods worked well with the Flukes when matched to water flow and natural colors were consistently good choices. However, at times four-inch swimbaits caught more fish so we had to find the best lure and method of presentation on each trip. And I often mix in some variety when fishing so we did raise a few bass on other lures. One encounter that comes to mind didn’t end with a big smallmouth photo-op, but left a vivid memory. It was a day when water generation at an upstream dam was brisk. The water level was high and moving with scattered clumps of grass drifting on the surface. However, water clarity was good and the temperature was an inviting seventy-two degrees; ideal for active river smallmouth bass. In warm moving water, fast retrieves often work well when patterning river smallies so I grabbed a spinning combo rigged with a Pop-R and began quickly covering water. No more than a dozen casts later, a bruiser smallmouth crushed the lure. I set the hook and began reeling quickly, but then my line went slack. Before I could describe what had happened and add a closing expletive, my line suddenly started streaking up river. Panicked reeling soon pulled a bow in my rod and the battle was on. However, after a hard head-shake and short burst downstream the big fish spit the lure back toward me. I thought the bass had thrown the plug because of the poor hook-set but found it had violently removed the rear treble hook, split ring and all. It was a fast and memorable tail-whipping by a big, powerful river smallmouth bass. I hesitate to estimate the fish’s size but the boil it made on the strike must have weighed four-pounds.

Bass Pro Shop Bristol TNSo my spring and early summer excursions, though limited, included some exciting and memorable fishing. Furthermore, a recent development that kept me off the water during much of the season produced many opportunities to meet other anglers and learn more about catching fish. On April 1st, I accepted a Sales Associate position in the Fishing Department at the new Bass Pro Shop store at Exit 74 in Bristol, Tennessee. I’m working there part-time, including many weekends, and enjoying the interaction with other anglers immensely. So if your travels include a trip along the I-81 corridor through Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, take a few minutes to stop and ask for me there. I’d enjoy meeting you, swapping some fishing stories and helping you choose some lures and equipment for your next fishing adventure. Come by soon and let’s talk fishing! Hope to see you there.

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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.