By John Tertuliani
Chasing smallmouth bass in streams is as good as fishing can get. Strong fish, they do their best to throw a hook, breaking through the surface if that is what it takes. Make each presentation your best because an adult is not apt to strike whatever comes near it. A successful presentation needs to wind through places offering a sense of security: the scour holes and runs, those deeper than the rest, places with just enough flow to keep the water fresh and the bottom clean.
Reading the water is learned by catching fish, not by being fluent in hydrology. Recognizing a high percentage location takes experience. Knowing where to pull a lure is half the requirement, knowing how to deal with the flow is the other half. Flowing water makes it more difficult to get some lures where they need to be. Once there, you then face the challenge of making your presentation look too good to refuse.
Anglers fishing from the bank may need to cast long distances, a cast accurate enough to hit the head of a scour hole or the boulders in a run. Sounds simple enough, until you realize the only way to cast is by swinging your rod among the standing trees and low-hanging canopy of a healthy riparian corridor. If the banks are not protected by a wide band of lush vegetation, the stream may not be a good one to find large fish on a regular basis.
Anglers in a boat use paddles or pedals to get around, at least in the smaller rivers and streams. Although you are not trying to maintain position in a torrent, boat control requires your constant attention. When you approach a promising place to cast, a direct hit is the best way to go. If you are not on target, the flow can pull you away before you are able to finish the retrieve. You may have one fleeting shot at a honey hole.
Wading is the way to go in terms of having more time to fish. You can stay at a location as long as you want. Better than being on the bank, the sky is the limit to making a cast, any cast. One setback to wading is depth – chest waders can only take you so far. Remember if you get out of the water to walk around places too deep to wade, you will need the landowner’s permission, if it is private property.
Something else to consider is the time and energy needed to move from one spot to the next. Choice locations take some walking through the water to get to them; few are clumped together within easy wading distance. You may find the sequence of riffle-run-pool no more than 5-7 per mile. It helps to have a plan for your trip, whether to start upstream or down. If you start by heading downstream, you will have to wade back against the flow. It is harder to wade upstream after a full day of fishing than it is to wade downstream. Going with a friend and two vehicles can eliminate the need to wade back.
No need to get fancy with tackle – carry what you use the most. Depending on how you will be fishing, a 6-7-foot medium-action rod should do. Braided line to an 8-pound test leader made of fluorocarbon or monofilament is sufficient for fishing in streams.
If you like crankbaits, look no further than a crayfish pattern. I have better luck with the 11⁄2-2-inch size. The same can be said for shad patterns. There are untold numbers of crankbaits you can use to imitate crayfish or shad.
Stickbaits, 4 inches or shorter, are worth having on hand. Longer baits certainly work, but pressured fish seem to go after the shorter ones; they look more like the minnows in a stream. If you do not have favorite colors, try a few offbeat color designs such as red or orange or yellow or pink. Trade names such as Clown, Hothead, and Perch contain one or more of these colors.
Soft plastics are just as effective, more so on some days. Your favorite crayfish or shad pattern will do. A crayfish pattern to try is a green pumpkin grub or tube, 21⁄2-31⁄2 inches in length. Green pumpkin is a common color of crayfish in the Midwest. Some anglers prefer creature baits or baits with claws. Consider a couple of color options for shad patterns – you may have to deal with turbidity or cloud cover.
In-line spinners and spinnerbaits are more favorites. The lure you use does not matter as much as how you use it. If a topwater bite is more your passion, there are many excellent baits from which to choose. Some make noise with rattles or have a prop to chop the surface, some have a scooped face to pop when retrieved, others simply walk back and forth on the surface. Topwater bites have been more the exception for me until the young-of-the-year shad start moving around in the late summer and early fall; the water has less turbidity from less frequent rainfall. Clarity can improve a topwater bite.