Springtime River Smallmouth

February 9, 2009 by  

By Nick Simonson


The author with a 17-inch April smallmouth caught and released on the Sheyenne River in the middle of Valley City.

The author with a 17-inch April smallmouth caught and released on the Sheyenne River in the middle of Valley City.

As the last few inches of ice fade from the shorelines of area rivers, it is next to impossible not to think about springtime fishing. It is even more difficult not to think of the hundreds of bronze flashes from springtime fishing trips in the past.

In the land where the walleye is king, many anglers often overlook the challenge and aggressiveness of the smallmouth bass, and that is their loss. The fighting ability, hardiness, and willingness to bite again and again throughout the warm water season make the smallie a sport fish worthy of pursuit and respect. Coupled with the general lack of pressure towards them, the opportunity to catch these incredible fighters is a welcome one. What follows is a basic tutorial on how and where to catch these great sport fish in a river setting, and how to preserve those opportunities for seasons to come.

The Basics – Gearing Up

To get started fishing river smallmouth, all it takes is a few dollars worth of tackle and a little exploration. A medium graphite spinning rod-and-reel combination rigged with 10-pound Berkley Fireline will provide a strong base for bronzeback fishing. The medium rod will allow for a good fight, and the superline will prevent most break offs when fishing snag-filled areas where monster bass lurk.

A selection of ballhead jigs in orange, pink, and black is an excellent all-around choice; adjust the weight of these lures according to the flow of the water. If the current is swift, upsize to a 1/4-ounce jig, if not, stick with a 1/8-ounce leadhead. To accent the jig, add bright-colored grub style bodies in three- or four-inch lengths. A standard that has worked well for many outings over the years has been three-inch Mister Twister curlytail grubs in yellow/black dot or white/black dot on the aforementioned jigs. If the fishing gets tough, add a fathead minnow or half of a night crawler to the presentation.

This set up is simple and inexpensive, and since the possibility of snagging up and losing lures is high, it is best that they aren’t expensive crankbaits or spinnerbaits that get stuck on a log or tangled in submerged brush.

There are a variety of other soft plastic lures that can be used to catch smallmouth bass. Lures such as tubes, worms, and other traditional bass baits are effective. However, at this time of year, a simple jig-and-grub combination is just as potent, simpler to use, and provides a variety of presentations at various depths. Twitch it on the bottom and it mimics a crayfish, dart it through the mid-level depths and it becomes a fleeing baitfish. Keeping the presentation simple and straightforward results in more fish being caught.

Spring Structure Specifics

Smallmouth bass thrive in many rivers thanks to the natural abundance of structure and varying depths. Check with Game and Fish or Natural Resources departments for information on nearby rivers that may be home to smallmouth.

Ben Simonson, the authors brother, with a 16-inch springtime smallmouth he fooled with the powerful jig-and-grub combo, and released back to fight another day.

Ben Simonson, the author's brother, with a 16-inch springtime smallmouth he fooled with the powerful jig-and-grub combo, and released back to fight another day.

Locating those areas of significant structure and food will eventually result in the location of hungry smallmouth bass. In springtime, when water temperatures are between 45 and 55 degrees, smallmouth move into the shallows to prepare for spawning. In late April and into May bass can often be a whole month away from spawning. Therefore, the fish will be eating regularly to make up for a winter of near-dormancy and to prepare for the annual mating ritual. Since there is little time for them to be picky, expect vicious hits on any cast. This strike is often more dramatic because it comes in shallow water nesting areas as the fish begin to defend their territory. Furthermore, hookups in the shallows make for exciting battles, as the acrobatic smallmouth will readily take to the air in a dazzling array of leaps and flips in an attempt to shake the hook.

Start in shallows near deeper holes, such as the mouth of an inflowing feeder creek or rainwater discharge culvert. These areas are definite hotspots in spring due to the influx of warmer water and the introduction of detritus, insects and other small particles which baitfish feed on. Those baitfish and the warmer water, in turn, attract smallmouth.

Other spots with potential, especially as spring progresses, include the various areas around dams. Check riprap shorelines for smallmouth feeding on insects, crayfish, and minnows that may be hiding in the crevasses. Flooded or downed timber should not be overlooked either. The timber attracts insects and crayfish and also provides an ambush point for opportunistic smallmouth.

Finally, if structure is scarce, locate any object that may disrupt the flow of current. Old tires, overhanging trees, a solitary boulder, bridge pilings and stumps all provide eddy areas where prey are easily picked off by smallmouth and other fish.

Prime smallmouth areas often include two or three structural elements. Finding structure is the first step to locating smallies. Examine a map of a local smallmouth river to find creeks and runoff areas. Presence of structure is the primary focus when looking for springtime smallies and the sacrifice of a few jigs to snags is a given. Finding the spot-on-a-spot with timber, rocks or other structure requires some foot or boat work; so let the adventure begin! Through the system of trial and error, the prime areas that hold smallmouth will be revealed. Make note of these areas on a GPS, in a journal or on the map itself. Return to these structured spots throughout the spring for consistent action.

The adage “if you ain’t snaggin’ you ain’t braggin’” is definitely the truth when targeting spring smallmouth. The more snags and snarls encountered in an area, the better the chance of hooking up with a monster bronzeback.

Bounce, swim and maneuver a jig through snags and along rocklines to locate where smallmouth are holding. Oftentimes in early spring, smallmouth will be loosely grouped in an area as they stage for spawning. Since these fish are very competitive and aggressive, several smallmouth may follow a hooked fish towards the boat looking for what that fish was feeding on. Keeping your attention to the fish in the water can reveal more opportunities for another bronze battle.

A Reusable Resource – Catch, Photo, Release

Smallmouth are notorious for hanging out in the same spot day after day. In fact, it is not unusual to return to a hot spot several times in a week and hook up with the same big smallmouth. Since these bass are very territorial, it is no surprise that the same one or two bass often occupy the best areas with the most cover and prey. In defense of their home area, smallmouth will chase would-be challengers back into the depths, or to other areas further down the shore.

Josh Holm, of Valley City, with a nice 18 inch bronzeback. Thanks to catch and release, Josh caught this fish 3 times over the spring and summer of 2003.

Josh Holm, of Valley City, with a nice 18 inch bronzeback. Thanks to catch and release, Josh caught this fish 3 times over the spring and summer of 2003.

However, the only way to keep these dominant smallmouth in prime areas is through catch-and-release. It almost seems absurd that anglers would keep these great sport fish when they are known for their repeat attacks on lures time and again. Yet it does happen. Many anglers will readily keep large smallmouth for the wall. However, these big bass, especially in spring, should be released.

Most large smallmouth landed in the months of April and early May in this region of the country have not yet spawned. They represent the near future and the next brood class for that fishery. Removing those big fish removes the next generation from the river. Especially in the early part of the season, release those big bass so they can breed and be caught again throughout the summer.

Even later in the season, many anglers consider smallmouth bass of 18 inches or more to be a trophy, and do not hesitate to keep them. However, that large smallmouth was a major work for the river, and obviously possesses sufficient genetics that helped it survive thus far. Recent studies have shown that, especially in northern states such as North Dakota, it may take 12 to 15 years for a smallmouth to reach 18 inches in length. By removing that fish from the water, it will take over a decade for it to be replaced.

If filling the freezer or the frying pan is the goal of a fishing trip, efforts are better spent targeting other species such as walleye, pike or panfish. The smallmouth has a distinctively oily fillet, and provides more excitement on the end of the line than on the dinner table. Oftentimes, in spring, walleye and pike can be found prowling the same areas of the river that smallmouth are staging in. These bonus fish will make a better meal than any bronzeback would. So practice CPR (catch, photo, and release) with smallmouth bass, and preserve the memory, and the opportunity to catch that whopper, for another day.

Always A Work In Progress

Fluctuations in water, changes in weather, and varying levels of clarity in a river will change where smallmouth hold and how they feed. With this basic grasp of smallmouth angling however, any angler will be able to locate and land these powerful bass. Do not be afraid to experiment with colors, presentation and other variables. Smallmouth, as aggressive as they are, rarely turn down an easy meal.

It only takes a season or two of smallmouth bass fishing to begin to understand the beast. And it only takes a fish or two to hook most anglers on the exciting and acrobatic brown bass. Give smallmouth fishing a try this spring for the greatest fight in the river.


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