Understanding the Role of Current
In order to locate smallmouth bass and effectively catch them, you must first understand current and its intricacies. Moving water creates a conveyor belt of food, washing everything downstream to the fish without them having to travel for it. This means that the bass will set up in areas that provide an ambush point. An ideal position is in a current break (slack water) immediately alongside the swift current. Bass will target baitfish, crawfish, or any other forage that is not strong enough to swim in the current. This can be viewed as a disorientated baitfish coming straight to the bass, thus creating an optimal feeding opportunity because the bass doesn’t have to work to find its food. Fish caught in these areas are frequently fat from gorging on the ample supply of food while expending very little energy.
Where to Locate River Smallmouth
Previously I spoke of locating bass in prime ambush positions, but now I will be specific on what targets to look for. When analyzing a body of swiftly moving water, you will recognize areas with rushing current, and then areas scattered between the current with slack water. These slack areas are the pockets fish will position in when feeding, and are always caused by an upstream obstruction, typically called an “eddie”.
Eddies are often large boulders, stumps, laydowns, or islands that break the steady stream of the current.
Targeting Fish Throughout the Eddie
Before I ever start fishing, I stop and take a moment to read the current. This is the most crucial step to catching fish because to catch them, you must understand how to present your bait naturally. This means casting upstream of your target so your bait has time to sink before it drifts downstream into the strike zone. A good way to tell if your drift is too fast is if you cannot feel your bait bouncing off the bottom. You should feel your bait rolling over the rocks slower than the current would be moving it. If you cannot feel the bottom, try casting further upstream to give the bait more time to sink, or increase the amount of weight you’re using.
I fish two types of high percentage areas and in a specific order: the top of a run and then behind the eddie. The first area, at the top of a run, often holds more aggressive and actively feeding fish. They sit here, ahead of all the other bass, so they get the first shot at prey being washed downstream. For this reason, fish at the top of a run are often easier to catch so I tend to target them first. In order to connect on these bass, it may take multiple casts based on speed of the current. Your bait could drift by before the fish even realizes it’s there. Often, I will use a heavy bottom bait in this situation to slow down my drift, or a moving bait with a lot of flash or vibration to grab their attention. Some go to baits for this strategy are a football jig, a tube, a spinnerbait, crankbait, or buzzbait.
After exhausting the first area, I like to transition lower to fish behind the boulder or laydown.This type of area often holds numerous fish so it is important to have multiple presentations ready so you can adapt if the bites get slow. I like to start with a moving bait; throwing it beyond slack and then retrieving into it. My favorites are a buzzbait, crankbait, or spinnerbait again. After trying the moving bait, I switch to a bottom bait again and try to replicate what I did at the top of a run. I cast into the upstream portion of the current seam and use it to drift my bait between the slack and fast water. In addition to this, I will cast straight into the slack portion right alongside the eddie, let the bait sink, and then I’ll drag it out. Bottom presentations are similar to before, but here you can get away with using less weight which opens up options such as a NED rig, a Neko rig, or even a dropshot.
I fish two types of high percentage areas and in a specific order: the top of a run and then behind the eddie.
River Smallmouth Fishing… Getting Snagged on Purpose
Yes, you read that correctly. This may seem a little counter-intuitive to most, but it’s a great way to slow your presentation and give the smallmouth ample time to look at your bait. This takes some practice and I don’t want you cursing me if you lose your favorite lure to a rock (I’ve been there). To give yourself the best chance of getting your bait unhung once you want it to continue drifting, keep your rod tip high throughout the drift with your line fairly taught. When you feel the bait stop drifting, let it sit their for about 10 seconds, if nothing hits it, lift your rod tip again to move the bait off the rock. If the bait gets buried into the bottom your best option will be to use the bow and arrow method to dislodge the bait, or you will have to snap it off. I have noticed this method will catch some of the more skittish or lethargic fish because it gives the bait an opportunity to sit in front of the fish for a longer period of time.
Many anglers find fishing rivers with heavy current to be intimidating due to the sheer power of water flowing past them. However, by following the tips above, you’ll be able to target some football sized smallmouth. Using the current when river smallmouth fishing is key to a great day on the water!