The 5 best smallmouth rivers in the country

Great fishing and stunning scenery define these storied bronzeback fisheries

From the Columbia River in the west to the Susquehanna in the east, bass rivers abound. Some, of course, are better than others.

But which ones are best?

We asked resource managers, professional anglers, guides, outdoor media members and industry insiders to tell us their favorite rivers that typically are fishable by bass boat or, as in the case of some smallmouth fisheries, accessible by smaller craft, such as rafts and jet boats. From those selections, we compiled an unofficial list of the nation's top five rivers for smallmouth bass and top five for largemouth.

Smallmouth streams follow, while the largemouth rivers will be revealed in the next issue of Bassmaster.

New River

For those who like excitement with their world-class fishing for smallmouth bass, few rivers, if any, are better than the New.

"Many Class I to IV rapids daunt the New throughout its course. The chunk-rock banks; long, cobble riffles; and numerous mid-river ledges are prime habitat for big, mature bronzebacks," says Britt Stoudenmire of Canoe the New Outfitters & Guide Service.

Bruce Ingram, author of The New River Guide, adds, "Throughout its length across three states, the New has a strong undertow, the likes of which I have never seen in any other river. Always wear a life jacket while wade fishing and float fishing.

"The New also sports a number of major rapids, especially in the West Virginia Gorge, where Class III- to IV-plus rapids exist."

And then there's the weather.

"Like the fishing, weather on the New River can be very unpredictable," says Stoudenmire. "But for those who aren't afraid to battle cold weather, harsh winds, high water and even occasional snow, the late winter and early spring typically produce the best numbers of 4-pound-plus fish."

On the other hand, an angler can expect good numbers of 10- to 14-inch bass from late spring through summer, with an occasional tackle-tester of 17 to 20 inches joining the fray. A wide variety of baits will fool aggressive bass during this time.

"As the river begins to cool in the late fall and the river levels begin to rise, fishing in the midst of the vivid fall colors on the New River can be nothing short of sensational," says Stoudenmire, adding that quality bass of 2 pounds and more, likely will attack reaction baits, including spinnerbaits, crankbaits and topwaters.

For more information regarding seasonal patterns, as well as details about the river, check out Ingram's book. Signed copies are available for $15 from Bruce Ingram, P.O. Box 429, Fincastle, VA 24090.

Undercurrents: Despite its name, the New River has nothing "new" about it. In fact, the river is believed to be the oldest in the United States and second-oldest in the world. As the only river that originates at the Appalachians and does not empty into the Atlantic Ocean, the New begins in northwestern North Carolina, near the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock. It flows north through Virginia to merge with the Gauley River in West Virginia, forming the Kanawha, and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico. It is noted for its spectacular gorges and many rapids.

Susquehanna

The Susquehanna is one of the nation's most accommodating smallmouth rivers. As an example, anglers can wade portions of New York's North Branch, with its gently sloping gravel bottoms — and below Binghamton, they can fish from bass boats.

In Pennsylvania, anglers can run bass boats above Sunbury, while jet boats, kayaks, canoes and rafts are better choices downstream. That lower portion of the river features many ledges, and depths can fluctuate dramatically, with ledges, rocks, grassbeds and timber providing abundant cover for bronzebacks.

"The best stretches I have found are from Sunbury to City Island (Harrisburg)," says guide Pete Hanford.

"That's a lot of miles. You just have to pick a stretch and really fish it thoroughly."

Ken Schultz, author of the Fishing Encyclopedia, adds that an area of the North Branch in Bradford and Wyoming counties "is a delightful stretch for float fishing. Pools are short but can also produce walleye and muskies."

Spring and late fall are the best times to hook up with big smallies, Hanford says, adding that a typical day on the river will yield 30 to 40 bass, with sizes ranging from 12 to 17 inches, and larger fish are always a possibility.

The Susquehanna's trophy potential became evident several years ago, when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the catch of a 7-pound smallmouth in the North Branch.

Preferred baits include tubes, stickbaits, soft jerkbaits and 3/8- to 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits, with crankbaits also producing occasionally.

Undercurrents: At about 410 miles long, the Susquehanna is formed by two main branches. The North Branch rises in New York, and is regarded by some as an extension of the main river. The shorter West Branch rises in western Pennsylvania and joins the North Branch near Sunbury. On its way to the north end of Chesapeake Bay, the river drains a large watershed within the Allegheny Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains.

St. Lawrence

Possibly no other river yields more 20-pound limits of smallmouth bass than does the St. Lawrence. Such productivity, along with light fishing pressure, easy access and beautiful scenery makes this Canada-United States border river (for its first 114 miles) a favorite among tournament anglers.

"Fishing is good all summer and fall, with the edge going to the first two weeks of the season (last week of June and first week of July) and September," says Doug Amos of 1,000 Islands Guide Service.

Whether summer or fall, an angler not familiar with the fishery should make certain that he has a good navigation system and an accurate map before setting off in pursuit of these big smallies. A portion of the broad river between Canada and the U.S. really does have 1,000 islands, with sizes ranging from a few feet to several miles across and, if not properly prepared, a novice can become lost. Tackle shops in towns such as Clayton and Alexandria Bay sell charts, while the Clayton 1,000 Islands Chamber of Commerce (800-252-9806) offers free fishing brochures.

Rocky shoals and points around those islands are among the best places to find bass, Amos says, adding that sandy bays with pencil reeds also can be productive, especially during spawning season.

In this river that averages two miles wide, the following rank among his favorite locations: the entrance to the river between Cape Vincent, N.Y., and Kingston, Ontario; the areas east and west of the 1,000 Islands bridge, in the sandy bays and mid-river shoals; and from Cornwall, Ontario, west to Ogdensburg, N.Y., fishing points with current and isolated rocks in the bays.

Green pumpkin tubes, camo and melon/red flake Senkos, white soft jerkbaits, chartreuse spinnerbaits, and hard jerkbaits in firetiger and shad are preferred lures here.

Undercurrents: The mighty St. Lawrence begins at the outflow of Lake Ontario, surging 775 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Measuring up to 10 miles wide in places, it is the drain for the greatest source of freshwater on the planet — the Great Lakes. While the St. Lawrence is steeped in history throughout its length, the 52-mile-long section known as the 1,000 Islands is probably the most famous for bass fishing.

Snake River

The long, rugged Snake offers anglers a variety of smallmouth habitat, ranging from reservoirs such as Brownlee, to moderate and free-flowing waters, to rapids raging through Hells Canyon.

"The most unique feature of this river is the versatility created by the different types of water and cover throughout its length," says Pat Long of Snake River Guide Service (509-751-0410, www.snakeriverguides.com).

Long fishes mostly the lower river and recommends a 10-mile stretch near Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Wash.

"This area produces large fish, good numbers and has less impact from runoff and fluctuations from the upriver dams. It also presents a variety of cover and overall more consistent water conditions," he says.

On the other hand, Long adds, "The entire stretch from Lower Granite Dam to a little above the mouth of the Grande Ronde (about 65 miles) will produce consistent catches of good fish."

Meanwhile, Hal Zimmerman prefers upper sections of the river in southern Idaho. "Most of the river is shallow, and you need a jet sled to navigate these areas, as a prop will not last long," he says.

And using a sled is well worth the effort.

"Last fall, my fishing partner and I sat in one hole and caught 30-plus fish with 20 in the 3-pound range and 10 at 4 pounds or better," he says.

Zimmerman prefers late October into December for both quality and numbers of fish. "The fish will really begin to feed after the first week of frost," he says.

Long prefers mid-March through May for big smallies, and the summer months for numbers.

Undercurrents: Home to Hells Canyon, one of the world's deepest gorges (7,900 feet), the Snake originates in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, before swinging in a wide arc through southern Idaho. It flows north along the border with Oregon and Washington, before joining the Columbia River near Pasco, Wash. Its impoundments are important sources of water for irrigation and hydroelectric power.

Columbia River

With shoreline ranging from pastoral to rugged and wildlife abounding, few places look as spectacular under a bright blue sky as the Columbia. But this also is the river of 100-fish days, and the river where rumors of double-digit bass persist. In short, this is heaven on earth for smallmouth anglers.

"On a good day in April through May, it is not uncommon to catch 50 or more fish a day in the 2- to 4 1/2-pound range," says pro Renaud Pelletier. "Five-pounders are not uncommon, with fish over 6 caught quite often.

"Fifty- to 100-fish days can be had at the peak of the spawn."

And while an angler catches smallmouth, he can relax to enjoy the scenery as well. That's because the Columbia, unlike other smallmouth rivers, generally is easy to navigate, with water fluctuations rarely more than 1 to 3 feet.

Some of the Columbia's best fishing can be found in the pools above Bonneville Dam, including The Dalles, John Day, and McNary, Pelletier says, adding that the 45 miles of free-flowing river from the dam to Portland also boast an excellent fishery.

With the Columbia containing little brush or woody cover, bass typically are found along ledges, points, bluffs, submerged islands and humps. During the prespawn and spawn, flatter bays, backwaters out of current, and persistent westerly winds will produce.

"In summer and fall, most fish relate strongly to the current in 5- to 20-foot depths," the Washington pro says. "They will be found in typical holding places behind and along current breaks, on submerged humps and along the outer edges of flats and weed lines."

Good baits for Columbia River smallmouth include tubes, grubs, lizards and critter baits, in green pumpkin and watermelon. Lipless cranks, Speed Traps, Wiggle Warts, and spinnerbaits also will produce, as will topwaters early and late.

Undercurrents: Beginning as a trickle from an ice field in the mountains of Canada, the Columbia is one of the nation's most visually stunning rivers, highlighted by the Columbia River Gorge. It flows 1,200 miles through Washington and then along Oregon's border, before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Along its lower stretches, dams provide about 40 percent of the nation's hydropower.

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