Spinnerbaiting river smallmouth bass

Two river guides explain why these big baits aren't just for reservoirs . . .

The strike was so vicious, Jeff Kelble recalls, he was certain a big Potomac River muskellunge had slammed his spinnerbait. It was April 1, April Fool's Day, and the Boyce, Va., smallmouth guide was slipping in a rare day on the river without a couple of clients in his raft. But when the fish raced for the surface, Kelble immediately knew whatever slammed his spinnerbait was no musky. His hope was confirmed when a huge bass broke the surface. After a spirited fight, the 33-year-old angler lipped the smallmouth and brought it into his raft. The bass weighed 5 pounds, 8 ounces. It was the biggest of Kelble's life up until that day, and one of several big fish that fell to his spinnerbait. Although he knew those lures were good choices for spring smallmouth, that day solidified his belief in spinnerbaits.

"It was the hardest hit I've ever experienced from a smallmouth," he recalls. "I'll never forget it."

Tournament anglers who target smallmouth in lakes have long known that full-size spinnerbaits originally designed for largemouth are deadly for brown bass, as well. They've accounted for some impressive stringers on such lakes as Champlain, Erie and St. Clair. But for many dedicated river anglers, the concept of chucking a 1/2-ounce, tandem-blade spinnerbait is akin to pulling a toaster through the water. However, the adage "big baits catch big fish" holds up for river smallmouth, as well.

"They are definitely a big fish lure. You won't catch a ton of bronzebacks on a spinnerbait, but you will catch big ones," says Kelble.

Two time CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifier George Acord agrees. With 24 years of experience on the famed Susquehanna River, Acord is well-versed in the ways of spinnerbaits and river smallies. He also guides on this smallmouth-rich river and owns Susquehanna Fishing Tackle, a shop in Lancaster, Penn., that caters to Susky smallmouth anglers.

"A spinnerbait accounts for probably 75 percent of my spring catch, and the fish are much bigger on average than the ones I catch on other lures," he says. "Even in the summer, I catch some of my biggest fish on spinnerbaits."

Prime time

Many anglers consider water temperature the most important factor in determining when a lure should or shouldn't be used. Not Kelble. He's convinced that smallmouth can be plenty aggressive in the dead of winter, and he'll throw a spinnerbait when other anglers wouldn't consider it. What's the wrong time?

"When the fish don't want it," he says. "I'll try it with different retrieves to determine the mood of the fish. If I don't get anything going on it, then it's not a good time to use it. I think the people who wait until the water gets to a certain temperature are missing out on the potential to have a very good day on spinnerbaits."

He uses blades all four seasons and he throws them in low, clear water and in high, muddy water and everything in between. As a general rule, however, Kelble will start bottom-bouncing spinnerbaits in his favorite mid-Atlantic rivers in early March, particularly after a two or three day warming trend. As a full-time guide and dedicated smallmouth angler, he's discovered that bass activity has little to do with water temperature and more with intangible factors that can't easily be defined.

Acord doesn't necessarily gauge the start of spinnerbait season with water temperature either, but he does wait until conditions are prime to start using them. For him, that means late April, when bass are feeding in earnest prior to the spawn.

"I'll try them earlier, but it can be tough to get something going. You can have a great day on spinnerbaits in early April after a couple of warm days," he says, "but I usually wait until the water is in the high 40s or low 50s."

Even more important is the water itself. Like Kelble, Acord will use spinnerbaits in all conditions, but he says it's almost too easy when the river comes up and floods the countless islands in the riverbed. Bass flock to the shoreline around those islands and use any available current break as a holding and feeding area. Drop a spinnerbait in the slack water behind the islands and right along the bank and you'll likely be rewarded by the powerful thump of a bass crushing the lure. On a typical day, his clients will average 40 to 50 bass on spinnerbaits.

"If the water is up, I spend more time on the banks of the islands and the banks of the river itself. If the river is low, I'll concentrate on the sandbars and grass islands in the middle of the river," explains Acord.

Burn it, stall it, jerk it

One of the most inviting aspects of spinnerbaiting for river smallies is the simplicity of these baits. Tie one on, chuck it as far as you can and crank it back to the boat. They are, in some ways, the ultimate idiot bait. Spinnerbaits cover lots of water in a hurry, allowing an angler drifting in a canoe or raft to hit plenty of likely spots

Kelble, however, says spinnerbaits are no different than tubes, jigs or Senkos: If one size, color or technique isn't working, another one might. There's more to these lures than casting and cranking. He uses several distinct methods when he's spinnerbaiting and gives each one a try until he either catches bass or determines a spinnerbait just isn't the ticket for that day.

"Some days they just don't want blades, even though you think it would be the hot bait. You never know what's going to work until you try," he notes.

During the prespawn phase, Kelble likes a slower retrieve and says it's important to keep the lure right on the bottom. That's how he caught that 5-8 on the Potomac River four years ago. Kelble was using a lift-wind retrieve, moving the bait more by raising and lowering his rod tip than by turning the reel handle. It's a hard technique to get used to, he says, since most anglers are more comfortable working a spinnerbait with the reel than with the rod itself.

"I'll let the current take it over ledges, and then I'll let it flutter to the bottom behind those ledges. The key is to have bottom contact without letting it actually lay on the bottom," he explains. "The fish tend to pick it up on the drop as it's falling into a hole behind a ledge, but it seems like the strikes are always real hard, much more so than when they pick up a tube or jig."

Acord also employs a unique retrieve, one that he and his brother, who also guides, have had fantastic success with over the years. Instead of casting and reeling the lure back to the boat with a steady retrieve, he snaps the rod with his wrist after every two or three cranks of the reel handle, almost like he was fishing a hard jerkbait.

"It can wear you out, but the smallmouth go nuts for it. By snapping your wrist, you really make those blades flare. All the strikes seem to come right as you pop your wrist," he says. "I call it force-feeding, because they can't seem to resist it."

Kelble will burn a spinnerbait during the spawn and postspawn period, particularly in clearer water. He tries to pull his lure over and around cover such as logs, boulders and ledges so the fish have little time to examine the bait. They see it and either immediately eat it or ignore it. If he's pulling the bait across an open flat, however, he uses a standard straight retrieve, varying the speed until the bass tell him what they want.

"You never really know what's going to work until you try it. If it's the right thing, you'll know pretty quickly, because you'll catch fish on it," he says.

Size, color considerations

Each expert has a few favorite baits, but Kelble tends to keep his lure selection simple, no matter what the conditions. Most of the time, he'll throw a 3/8-ounce double-blade lure with a white/chartreuse skirt, a gold Colorado blade and a nickel willow blade.

"A spinnerbait with some red in the skirt can be good closer to the spawn, but I pretty much stick with the same blade colors all the time," he adds. "I'll go with a heavier lure if the current is moving fast, and a lighter lure in low, clear water. A 1/4 ounce is as light as I'll go."
 

Acord gets only a little more creative in his spinnerbait selection, but both anglers agree that river smallies can be finicky creatures that shun one spinnerbait while they can't resist another that's different in the slightest way.

"Sometimes I'll have three or four rods on the deck of my boat, all with different spinnerbaits; or I'll have a dozen or more different lures lying around. I go through them until I find the combination they want," says Acord. "They are much more picky in the summer, though, and you can usually do well with one of any of three or four combinations in the spring."

Most of the time, he's going to throw a 1/2-ounce white/chartreuse Terminator Custom Tungsten Series spinnerbait with one gold blade and one silver blade. If the water is real dirty, he might use a lure with painted blades, but like Kelble, he doesn't get too carried away with a variety of blade and skirt color combinations in the spring. He will use Terminator's blue glimmer skirt in ultraclear water, and he sometimes uses a golden shiner pattern, but he echoes Kelble when he says the color doesn't make a huge difference when the fish are interested in a spinnerbait.

Both anglers will utilize baitcasters and spinning rods if their clients are more comfortable with those outfits, but surprisingly, Kelble sticks with light line, at least by most anglers' standards, for all his spinnerbait applications.

"When I'm using it on a baitcasting rod, I'll go with either 10- or 12-pound mono and either 8 or 10 on a spinning outfit," he says. "You do need to be careful about checking your line for frays if you go that light."

While that light line may seem like a recipe for disaster, Kelble explains that current can have a detrimental effect on not only the action of the lure, but the depth that it runs. Lighter line helps reduce the drag created by current pushing on heavier mono. Acord, however, favors heavier line. He typically uses 15-pound fluorocarbon in clearer water and 17-pound mono in dirty water.

More important than line choice this time of year is the lure itself. Pick up a spinnerbait, try a few different retrieves, and odds are you'll be rewarded with some pretty memorable fish. And that's no April Fool's joke.

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