Stream Smallmouths For Beginners

By Bryan Hendricks | February 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2002

Of America's freshwater game fish, the smallmouth bass is one of our toughest fighters. Hook one, and you'll probably agree that smallmouths are a moody mixture of muscle and rage, driven by an incurably bad attitude. Researchers observing smallmouth report that they often harass other fish, such as stripers, walleyes and hybrid striped bass, two and three times their size.

For all their wonderful fighting qualities, smallmouth bass are easy to catch, even for beginners. All you have to do is put the right lure in the right place.

Where to Find Them

In Missouri, our best smallmouth habitat is in the vast array of mountain streams that lace the southern half of the state. Rivers like the Niangua, Current, Jacks Fork, Big Piney and Gasconade, as well as many small streams and creeks, offer some of the nation's finest smallmouth fishing. Our major smallmouth streams are easily accessible to the public, as are many smaller waters.

When Should I Go?

The best fishing for smallmouths usually occurs in spring, summer and early fall. In spring, smallies are coming out of their winter torpor and are preparing to spawn, so they eat whatever they can catch. In the fall, they feed voraciously to fatten up for the winter. Excellent fishing also occurs in the molten heart of summer, but many anglers take a break during the Dog Days, cheating themselves out of some memorable experiences.

Get the Right Tackle!

For creeks and small rivers, I recommend an ultralight spinning rig with a rod between 5-6 feet long. In my opinion, the best length is 5 feet, 6 inches. This is long enough to provide the necessary leverage to handle big smallies, but short enough to allow precision casting in close quarters.

Basically, you want a rod with enough backbone to allow you to cast and control jigs up to 1/4 ounce, as well as small crankbaits, spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. At the same time, it should be sensitive enough to feel subtle strikes, and limber enough to allow the fish to exert its own strength.

After you find the right rod, you'll need a suitable reel. I'd suggest staying away from tiny ultralight or microlight reels; they won't hold up under heavy use. Also, the spools on those reels are designed to hold line, not to cast and retrieve it, so they twist line unmercifully. Instead, get a beefier model designed to hold line between 4-pound and 8-pound test. Select one with a tapered spool for long, easy casts and fill it with a quality brand of 6-pound test monofilament.

When fishing in streams, frequent encounters with rocks, sticks and vegetation will eventually weaken the line to the point that a strong surge by even a bantamweight smallmouth will snap it. Frequently check your line by running the foot or two nearest the lure between your thumb and index finger. If you feel a nick or a kink, cut off the damaged portion and retie.

Basic Lures

Smallmouth bass eat everything from bugs and nymphs to crawdads and minnows, lizards, snakes and frogs. Your lures should mimic their natural food items. To consistently catch smallmouths, you need only a simple selection of crankbaits, topwater plugs and soft plastic baits like worms and grubs.

Floating Minnow (Jerkbaits) - For me, the best floating minnow lures are made of balsa wood.

For stream smallmouths, choose a lure about three inches long, colored silver with a black back and white belly. Gold with a black back and white belly is often more effective in stained water and on cloudy days.

Small Plastics - Nothing catches smallmouth bass as consistently as soft plastic lures. Variants include the ever-dependable worm, lizard and grub, among others. They come in many colors, but you can't go wrong with black or blue. In streams, I prefer olive green or pumpkinseed. Use small sizes, between 3 and 6 inches long.

Another consideration is that soft plastic lures bond to any foreign substance they touch, some of which contain scents which may repel fish, such as sunscreen. If you apply sunscreen while fishing, wash your hands before handling your soft plastic baits.

Topwater Lures -There are many types of topwater plugs, but they're all designed to provoke a fish to strike by disturbing the water surface. Examples include "chuggers" or "poppers," which have a concave face designed to pop and throw water, and "prop baits," which have small propellers on the front and/or back that sputter when you pull them through the water.

Another excellent topwater lure is the buzzbait. Similar to a spinnerbait, the buzzbait has a lead body with a colored skirt and a wide blade that churns the water with a chirping sound when retrieved.

Crankbaits - A crankbait is basically a tapered, teardrop-shaped lure with two treble hooks attached underneath. The lure wobbles when you retrieve it, sending vibrations through the water. Many crankbaits have rattles inside to help attract fish.

Small crankbaits most closely resemble the size of a smallmouth's preferred prey in streams. Choose lures that dive to mid-range depths, as well as a few deep divers to reach deeper structure. A deep-diving crankbait has a long, straight bill on the front, and a medium-diver has a short, steep-pitched bill.

In the summer and fall, brown and red can be very effective. White, blue/white, chartreuse and firetiger patterns work well in the winter and spring.

Time to Fish!

This selection of lure types enables you to fish every layer of water in any stream. Topwaters cover the surface, and soft plastics probe the bottom. Floating minnows allow you to work up to a foot or two below the surface, and crankbaits cover deeper depths.

Fish slowly, and break down every pool into sections. Notice every rock, every eddy and current break, every log and every bush or plant. Use your lures to isolate or eliminate productive and non-productive water. When you finally hit the right spot, the shock of a smallmouth strike will jangle every nerve in your body.

Gettin' Cranky

Because it relies entirely on motion, the crankbait is the easiest lure to use.

Instead of using a constant, steady retrieve, vary the speeds of return. Reel one cast slowly, and then rip the next one. Also, alternate between fast and slow on the same retrieve. Jerk your rod tip up, down and to the sides as you crank. This will make the lure dart, dive and roll.

You can also provoke strikes by bouncing crankbaits off rocks and logs. The crankbait's big lip usually hits the object and bounces free before the hooks can make contact. When the lure hits something, it makes a loud click underwater. Stop your retrieve immediately. This makes it appear that the lure is stunned and vulnerable, and a smallmouth will often try to eat it.

(Soft) Plastic Makes Perfect!

Soft plastic lures are designed to invade tight places where fish hide, so they're most effective when presented to a specific target.

In streams, the standard way to rig a worm is Texas style. For Texas rigging, slip a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce bullet weight to your line, and then tie on a size 1/0 or 2/0 worm hook. Insert the hook into the head of the worm and thread it through the body about one-half inch. Exit the hook point through the body and thread the head of the worm all the way to the knot. Bury the hook point in the thorax of the plastic worm to make it snagless.

Instead of the bullet weight, you could simply attach split shot above the hook.

Plastic grubs can be fished the same way, but they are most effective when attached to a standup or "rocker" style jighead. This keeps the lure on the bottom while tilting its tail upward so that it looks like a skittering crawfish.

Fishing a Floating Minnow

By mastering the floating minnow - or jerkbait - you'll be able to catch smallmouths on almost every outing.

As you work a pool, look for root balls in the water, brushpiles, stickups, fallen logs or any other natural cover. Flick your jerkbait in front of the cover, to the sides and behind. Wait until the ripples from the splashdown disappear, and then gently twitch the lure on the surface.

In moving water, cast the minnow downstream. When it floats past the first major break in the current, close your bail and retrieve it upstream with a series of sharp, downward jerks. This makes the lure dart, dive and flash its sides, mimicking a minnow in distress. This can can attract fish from considerable distances.

Surface Combat

Topwater plugs are most effective in the mornings, before the water gets direct sunlight, and also in the evening.

They're also most effective when a slight chop on the surface distorts the bait's profile. A natural surface disturbance makes fish a little bolder and more willing to leave protective cover.

The most reliable place to get a topwater strike is at the outer edges of weedbeds. Cast to any major break in underwater topography, as well as around any kind of woody cover.

When using chuggers and prop baits, cast to a likely spot and wait until the ripples disappear. Then, pop the lure with an abrupt snap of your rod tip, and then let it sit until the ripples subside. Sometimes a fish will hit the lure in motion, but strikes usually come while it is motionless.

Buzzbaits, in contrast, must remain on the surface to be effective, so you must retrieve them quickly.

What's the Cost?

A high-quality, ultralight rod-and-reel combo runs between $75-$100. You can buy cheaper rigs, but expect to pay a little more for quality. A small upgrade in quality makes a big difference in your enjoyment.

For about $50, you can get a full selection of worms, grubs, jigheads, hooks and bullet sinkers, as well as all the floating minnows, crankbaits and topwater lures you need. For stream fishing, you only need what you can carry in a flat worm box. You can transport more tackle if you fish from a canoe or kayak, but you'll quickly learn that that the same few lures catch fish 90 percent of the time.

Attire for streamside smallmouth fishing is casual. In warm weather, all you need is a pair of shorts and a pair of old sneakers.

If you fish in cold weather, you'll need a pair of waders. Waders usually cost between $35 and $75.

You might also pick up a copy of "Missouri Ozark Waterways Guide." Published by the Conservation Department, this 115-page booklet highlights the floatable sections of 30 major streams. It includes public access points and mileage between landmarks. The book is available at Conservation Nature Centers and many service centers and costs $5, plus 32 cents tax.

You can also order the book from the Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180 or by calling, toll-free, (877) 521-8632. Missouri residents should include tax and $4.95 for shipping.

Finally, you'll need a Missouri fishing permit. It costs $11 for residents, $35 for non-residents. Purchasing a permit also serves as in investment in the continued excellence of Missouri's fishing.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
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