There's Bronze in Our Streams

By Steve McCombs | May 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2000

I think 5:45 in the morning is a great time to be standing ankle deep in your favorite smallmouth stream. The fog clings to the water, the first morning bird songs echo through the trees, a bullfrog makes his last call to his mates.

Armed with my ultra-light rod and reel with a 1/8th ounce jig-n-pig I quietly whisper to myself, "my gosh, if God made anything better than smallmouth bass he kept it for himself."

You might call me a creek freak or a river rat, but I absolutely love to fish for smallmouth bass in small streams and creeks. There's nothing that compares to a subtle little tap on a jig-n-pig or an earth shattering explosion of water on a slowly worked buzzbait.

Fortunately, Missouri is rich in small streams, and it is easy to find them. County maps provide excellent information about rivers, creeks and streams in Missouri. You can buy individual county maps from the Department of Transportation, or purchase Missouri's Conservation Atlas from the Conservation Department.

On your maps, study and highlight major rivers and the streams that feed them. Next, get in your car and go what I call "creeking," which means looking for roads that lead to creeks and bridges that cross creeks with easy access to them. Remember, though, many of these streams meander through private land. It's best to check first with surrounding landowners to get permission to use their land.

Unless you're an early spring or late fall fisherman, you won't need any waders. All you need are old tennis shoes, a pair of cut-offs and a light colored short-sleeved shirt. Don't forget sun screen.

As far as tackle is concerned, go light. An ultra-light spinning reel with a 4 1/2- to 5-foot ultra-light rod is perfect. Tackle boxes are a no-no when it comes to creek fishing because you're going to need both hands to fight the smallmouth bass you hope will tear up your equipment. I prefer to use an around-the-waist, canvas fanny bag. It holds all of the lures and extra fishing line that I need for a day.

When it comes to lures, go light. Four inch plastic worms, crawdad-colored crankbaits, small in-line spinners, floating Rapalas, and my two all-time favorites--a 1/8th-ounce brown rubber skirted jig with a brown pig and a 1/4-ounce chartreuse buzz bait with a white grub trailer.

When fishing small rivers, creeks and streams, always fish upstream. The fish will have a harder time detecting your presence, and you won't be sending the debris that you disturb on the bottom of the creek into areas you are trying to fish.

Another reason to fish upstream is because smallmouth bass face into the current, so you can sneak up on them. Use stealth! Smallmouths are wary of their surroundings. If they hear you coming, you probably won't get a bite.

And don't forget that in the gin clear water of creeks and streams, if you can see them, they can see you. Try to blend into your surroundings by wearing light blues, greens and off whites. This will help to conceal you from the fish. There have been times when I have actually belly crawled down a shoreline to reach a likely looking hole to fish. If you can approach undetected by the fish, it can really pay off.

You should always cast upstream and let the current bring your lure downstream because it looks more natural to the fish. All stream fish relate in some way to current. Objects that lie directly in current, such as rocks, logs and even the shoreline, create current breaks that should be fished thoroughly.

A current break is anywhere that the water is deflected, slows down or changes direction. Smallmouth tend to lie just outside of the main current waiting for anything edible to come floating downstream to them. That is why the current plays such a major role in the survival of smallmouth bass and other stream fish. If you should happen upon a deep hole with large rocks at the end of a set of riffles, you could really be in for a bass bonanza.

Any lures that work on largemouth bass on lakes and large impoundments will work on stream smallmouths. Just remember to go light. If you use a 6- to 8-inch plastic worm for largemouth bass, use a 4-inch worm for smallmouth bass. Use light line, 4-to 6-pound test. I use a premium, green 6-pound test. It has superior strength and durability and is practically invisible in clear water.

There are a number of different lures, baits and rigs that will produce strikes from stream smallmouth bass, but for me one lure stands above and beyond the others. It accounts for over 75 percent of all the bass that I have caught over 4 pounds. It resembles the one culinary delight that Mr. Smallmouth just can't resist--a crawdad. The lure is a brown, 1/8-ounce, rubber skirted jig tipped with a small brown pork frog.

Fished around weed beds, rocks and logs near current, it stands alone. Adding a rattle and some crawdad scent to the lure bolsters its effectiveness. Just cast or flip the lure upstream past any of the cover that I have mentioned and let it sink to the bottom.

Work it back to you in short hops. If you feel a slight peck or any resistance at all, set the hook. It takes a lot of concentration and patience to successfully fish this lure but it's worth it.

Another way to fish this lure is called the "pump style." I have never seen any of the TV fishing celebrities fish a jig-n-pig in this manner. It's a little like buzzing a spinnerbait just under the surface of the water. In basically the same manner, you fish a jig-n-pig just under the surface in short pumping strokes. I think that bass strike the lure so savagely because they mistake it for a fleeing crawdad.

Another easy and productive lure to fish in creeks and small streams is a 1/4-ounce chartreuse or chartreuse and white buzzbait with a white, 3- inch grub trailer. You can sling this lure anywhere--upstream, downstream, across stream--it really doesn't matter. It is such an aggravating, agitating presence to the fish that they try to kill it rather than eat it.

I have seen fish dart from 20 feet away and savagely knock the lure a foot out of the water. The only draw-back to fishing a buzzbait is the lure's low hooking percentage. You'll tend to miss a lot of fish.

To improve your catch ratio percentage dramatically, use self-control. When you see the strike, wait. If you set the hook too soon you'll pull the lure right out of the fish's mouth. Wait until you feel the fish, then cross his eyes.

Another trick is to carry a back-up rod and reel rigged with--you guessed it--a jig-n-pig. I stick my backup rod and reel handle down inside my belt from behind with the tip sticking straight up in the air. It's out of the way and both my hands are free. You may look like a porcupine, but who cares--we're talking big bass.

Immediately after missing a strike on a buzzbait, set your rod and reel down, grab your backup rod and cast your jig-n-pig into the exact spot where you missed the fish. The smallmouth will almost always take the offering.

You also can catch stream smallmouth on a Carolina-rigged Rapala. Tie a 2-inch black and silver floating Rapala to one end of a 12- to 18-inch piece monofilament and tie a brass barrel swivel to the other. Thread a 1/4-ounce slip sinker up the main line and put a glass bead behind it before tying the line to the swivel.

I suggest you fish this rig in water deeper than 3 feet. Just cast it out and let it sink to the bottom. The floating Rapala will suspend a bit. Twitch it a few times. The strike should occur on the second or third twitch. I love to fish this rig in deep holes at the end of riffles with large rocks.

I would like to stress the importance of catch and release on the magnificent, battling bronze beauties that nature has so generously given to us. If we deplete the smallmouth bass in our moving waters today, we'll all be fishing for carp and gar tomorrow. Have fun catching them; but let them go. It's up to us.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer