Big Fish in Small Streams

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Published on: May. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

you can catch 3-pound-plus smallmouth on 6-pound test line or lighter, to do so you must play them until they are exhausted, reducing their chance of survival after release. Heavier line also enables you to turn a fish that's swimming hard for cover.


Over the years I've used a variety of crayfish species to catch stream smallmouth, and all work well as bait, but I have found one, the spot-handed crayfish, to be unmatched for catching trophy smallmouth.

This species, distinguished by spots occurring at the angle of its pincers, is common throughout Missouri's central and southeastern Ozarks and is typically found along creek banks under larger rocks in water that supports water willow. Hooked through the lower side of the abdomen with a size-4 hook, point up and barbs pressed down, large spot-handed crayfish, 4 to 5 inches long, are hard for bass to pass up.

A large crayfish is simply a big mouthful for a smallmouth bass. So, casting only when a smallmouth is in sight and using only big crayfish for bait, the chances of hurting a fish during hook set and the ensuing fight is minimized.

There's another plus to this technique. Not only do you get to feel the fight, you get to see it. Even with 10-pound test line and medium weight gear, a 3-pound or better smallmouth will bull you.

I'm always amazed at the power that these fish possess. You feel it down to your elbows. And their beauty when brought to hand, glistening golden brown with mottled markings and ruby-red eyes, make smallmouth bass one of the Ozark's finest creatures.

This summer, consider looking for trophy smallmouth in Missouri's smaller streams. Though a challenge to find, the fish are there - living in some of the most beautiful and least disturbed areas of the Missouri Ozarks.

Crayfish: Catching and Care

I have experimented with 11 crayfish species as bait for catching trophy smallmouth bass, and the spot handed crayfish is the best. If you can't find this species of crayfish in your region, perhaps there are other species that will work as well.

Crayfish species that excel as bait for trophy smallmouth bass are often the most active. Unfortunately, this also makes these crayfish the most difficult to catch.

Your best chance at catching a darting, active crayfish is the two-handed approach, closing in from in front and behind with both hands. Forget about the pincers. Though sometimes a crayfish will find a place on your hand where a pinch really smarts, typically their pinch results in little discomfort. If, out of fear, you hesitate in grabbing crayfish that are rapid swimmers, you will catch few.

Regardless of your skill at catching crayfish, species that are the most active will test your reflexes and determination. Once you have captured several you will want to ensure that they remain healthy and vigorous until you are ready to use them as bait. Crayfish, like all aquatic organisms, get their oxygen from the water. If left in a bait bucket, particularly if the bucket is crowded, crayfish will quickly deplete the oxygen in the water and die.

To avoid this problem put enough grass in your bait bucket so the crayfish can crawl above the water level. As long as a crayfish's gills remain moist it can respire. Using this method, captured crayfish will remain vigorous for many hours.

Learn to Identify Missouri Crayfish

Anglers and other nature lovers can learn about the habits, habitats and home range of the 32 species of crayfish found in Missouri in a new book, The Crayfishes of Missouri.

Written by well-known fisheries biologist William L. Pflieger, the 152-page book features color photos and drawings to aid even the amateur in identifying these interesting and important aquatic animals. The book can be purchased for $7 plus $2 shipping (Missouri residents add 44 cents for sales tax), by writing to: Missouri Department of Conservation, Fiscal Division, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102-0180.

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