A Common Sense Approach to River Smallies

As a river/creek fisherman, I primarily approach fishing a stretch of water essentially the same way. If it is a new flow to me I first start by using a topographic map to survey the general flow of the river. Where and how many bends are there in this flow? Where will the debris likely end up after a period of high water? Are there any commercial industries or large livestock farms in the drainage area? These are just a few considerations I look at when selecting a good starting point to fish.


The next step after site selection will be a recon of the flow itself. I drive over bridges that cross the flow and look for signs of siltation and the general make-up of the bottom. Is it a gravel bottom, heavily silted or somewhere in between? Stay away from area’s that contain heavy deposits of silt and/or a heavy clay bottom. It is a fact that Smallies reproduce in and prefer a slightly rocky to gravel bottom structure.


The size, shape and speed of the current have to be considered as well. Extremely fast current throughout the particular stretch you are evaluating could make for a long and disappointing day of fishing. Likewise, very slow, stagnant water can be just as unproductive. Don’t overlook these areas but keep in mind that they are not ideal areas for smallies. I look for a current that has a little of both. Current breaks, eddies and riffles tend to be the best structure for finding a flow that is highly favorable for both the wader as well as the smallmouth. Remember, smallies are opportunistic predators and want to expend the least amount of energy to catch their prey. Look for them on the downstream side of submerged rocks, log jams, deep outside bends in the flow, around cut banks, ox-bows, eddies and anywhere else the current dictates.


Once you learn what to look for in a particular flow it becomes second nature and you can eliminate a good chuck of undesirable areas and concentrate your efforts on those that favor the smallmouth.


Now that you know what to look for in a good smallie stream you may be wondering what equipment and bait/lures to use. I will say that this is too broad a topic to advise the use of “X” rod and “Y” reel with “Z” bait. A lot of the success of any fisherman depends on his or her confidence in what they are using. That being said, there are a few good and sound principles to start with. Rod length or lack there of can be a hindrance when fishing rivers/creeks. I tend to prefer a shorter rod in the 5’8” to 6’4” medium to medium light power with a fast taper. Since I usually wade, this makes casting a little easier and the shorter rod allows for fewer hang-up’s in tree limbs or weeds on the back cast. Reel selection is of lesser importance to the wade fisherman. Any decent spinning or casting reel will do nicely but if you’re looking to spend some money, spend it on a reel that has a good drag and smooth retrieve. Casting distance is usually less important than fish fighting and retrieval on a small to medium flow. Bait/lure selection typically comes down to personal preference. Any bait or lure that mimics a smallies natural forage has to be considered a “Go To” choice. Crayfish, Hellgrammites, Caddis fly larvae, frogs, crickets, minnows, a recent hatch or just about anything you can find in or around your flow will produce fish. Don’t forget about live locusts, leeches, worms and grubs. You can rig these baits any way you prefer whether it be on the end of a float, jigged off the bottom, weightless and left to tumble in the current or even just hook it and throw! There is really no “Wrong” way to rig bait. I won’t go into artificial lures since that should be a whole separate topic in and of itself. Line choice is another touchy feely subject but I will advise the use of the lightest line possible for the cover you plan on fishing. Generally, 6lb test is more than enough for even the biggest stream smallies unless you are fishing heavy cover like snaggy log jams or rock piles, in which case I would suggest the use of 10lb test or even a braided line. I could go on and on about the specifics of baits but I try to go with the acronym K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple Stupid! 


A final but very important word on being a good steward of our natural resources is a must. We smallie addicts as well as all fishermen should consider adopting a catch, photo, release policy when fishing for smallies. Only keep those fish that would obviously die if released. Use barbless hooks when feasible and return the fish to the water as quickly as possible. Avoid fishing during the spawning period as well as a few weeks of the post spawn. These guidelines ensure the resource will be protected and healthy for many generations to come!


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