It’s been a hot, dry spring across the southeast. Summer’s just begun yet most 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, catfish 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 and fellow BHS graduate Rodger Davis called and told me he was coming to Tennessee 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 water generation schedules on the closest river, 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 smallmouth bass 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 enjoyed our early-summer day on the water.
Editor's Note: Pictured above is 1971 Bridgeport High School graduate Rodger Davis with a 19-inch river smallmouth bass. Bottom photo is of soft-plastic stickbaits rigged weedless on weighted hooks are top choices for river smallmouth bass. Match the hook size to the size plastic you use to ensure good hook penetration; vary hook weight to match the water depth you want to fish. The key to proper rigging is making sure the bait is perfectly straight on the hook and the hook is centered in the plastic minnow’s body. Rigged properly, the lure will dart and glide erratically, much like an injured minnow. After rigging and testing the lure to check proper action, add a drop of super glue below the eye of the hook and along the shank where it passes through the lure’s body to hold the minnow in place. You’ll use fewer lures and present more realistic actions if each is super-glued to the hook before use. Lure color and brand isn’t important if the lure is properly rigged and weighted because we’ve caught plenty of fish on all these lures and colors the last few weeks. From the top, the Zoom Super Fluke in Blue Glimmer and Trigger X Minnow in Smelt have thinner bodies and match best with size 3/0 EWG (Extra Wide Gap) hooks. The Strike King Z Too in Arkansas Shiner and Castaic Jerky J5 in Bluegill at the bottom have larger circumference bodies and match best with larger 5/0 EWG hooks. I use 1/16-ounce Gamakatsu Weighted Superline EWG hooks in depths from one to four feet deep and 1/8-ounce models in slightly deeper water. Bartlett, a 1971 graduate of Bridgeport High School, is a published author with the book “The Weekend Angler’s Guide to Good Fishing.” Follow his fishing exploits on his Blog at http://theweekendanglersguidetogoodfishing.wordpress.com/ or contact him at email@example.com.