September River SmallmouthBy Mike Mladenik - September 1, 2005
Being a full time guide I spend at least 170 days per year fishing open water. Through the years I have spend more time pursuing smallmouth bass than any other species. Like most bronzeback anglers I feel any day on the water is a good one. However it is even better when you catch and release a big smallmouth. The more I fish the more big smallmouth have become an obsession.
Experience has taught me that to catch big smallmouth you must fish the proper water at the right period. Pre-spawn smallmouth can offer fast action particularly on clear water natural lakes. Big fish leave deep water and are assessable to anglers. On many lakes this pre-spawn period is the only time when consistently catching big smallmouth is possible. The pre-spawn period can be unpredictable with changing weather patterns dictating the fishing. It is wise not to put to much pressure on the fishery prior to spawning.
In summer big smallmouth can be caught in rivers consistently but they can be scattered. Anglers have little trouble finding active river smallmouth in summer. On many rivers big smallmouth are caught consistently but often they are unpredictable. What happened is they will scatter and putting together a pattern can be difficult. You may do well one day and not find big smallmouth the next.
One of the most consistent patterns for big smallmouth that I have experienced is fall river smallmouth. Few anglers take advantage of this river action with lakes and reservoirs receiving the most pressure. In fall big smallmouth will stack up and can be easy to locate if the anglers know what to look for. Once smallmouth have made their fall movement they will remain there for long periods of time. A good river angler can catch big smallmouth on a daily basis as they put on the feed before winter.
Once the water temperature drops into the 50's there is a noticeable smallmouth migration in most rivers. This temperature triggers a change in the smallmouth forage. In summer smallmouth are feeding primarily on crayfish. As the water-cools, smallmouth become more dependent on minnow type forage. What type of fish becomes the main forage base will depend on your geographic location. In my area northern Wisconsin, river smallmouth will feed primarily on river shiners, chubs or perch. Find the preferred forage and you will find big smallmouth.
The edges of creek channels and sloughs can hold the bulk of the remaining forage fish. These baitfish migrate out of the sloughs and creek channels as the water cools. In early spring they will hold tight to the weed edges and any available shoreline cover. Later in fall they will hold tight to the main river channel at the base of the slough.
Start fishing the edges of the slough with spinnerbaits. Cast into the slough and bring the spinnerbait over the top of the weeds. Under stable weather conditions use a tandem spinnerbait but go to a single blade after a cold front. If you don't have a strike let the spinnerbait drop along the river channel. Many times this will trigger a strike from a hawg smallmouth.
After you have caught the active smallmouth with a spinnerbait move to the upstream edge of the slough and cast deep diving crankbaits tight to the edge of the river channel. Use crankbaits with wide lips that dive quickly. The longer the crankbait stays in the strike zone the greater your odds will be to catch fish. When fishing crankbaits I prefer to use a fiberglass crankbait rod like a Lamiglas XFC 665 or a XFC 705. By using a fiberglass rod you won't set the hook too quickly and loose a trophy.
Plastics can also be effective on fall river smallmouth especially when faced with a severe cold front. Fall cold fronts can drop the water temperature and slow down the action. Under these conditions I rely on Tin Jigs for both plastics and live bait. With tin being 40 percent lighter than lead the jig has a very slow fall rate that will trigger most neutral or even inactive smallmouth. It is important to work your baits as slow as possible keep them tight to the edge of the river channel and any shoreline wood cover. Tin man Jigs are also environmentally friendly. Berkley XT in eight pound test is ideal for this situation. Super lines are much too visible even in dark water for finesse presentations.
Once the temperature drops below 45 degrees smallmouth will move into their wintering holes. Look for deep water with steep rock drop offs to hold the largest smallmouth. Since smallmouth will stack up in these holes use your electronics to mark them. Unlike walleyes, which tend to hold tight to the bottom smallmouth will suspend off the bottom. On many occasions you will find both species using the same wintering area.
Look for deep holes with a minimal amount of current. In cold water smallmouth will avoid the current as much as possible. Deep holes above dams can be sleeper areas for big fish. The best deep water area above a dam will be just off the main river channel out of the main current flow. Look for isolated points and downed wood to hold the largest smallmouth.
The only consistent presentation in this cold water is live bait although plastics will catch their fair share of fish. Position your boat over the hole either by anchoring or using your electric trolling motor. Vertical jig with the largest shiners available. If vertical jigging fails to produce let the shiners sit on the bottom. Once you feel a strike wait a few seconds before setting the hook. If you set the hook too quickly you will lose both the smallmouth and shiner. On one day last November we only caught only 6 smallmouth in my favorite hole but they were all over five pounds. The largest one tipped the scales at 7 pounds.
Fall river smallmouth will not only supply plenty of fast action but also give you a shot at a fish of a lifetime. The weather may get nasty but besides catching fish you probably will have the river to yourself.