The Smallmouth Game of Hi-Lo

River goes up, river goes down — smallmouth bass adapt … and so must anglers

Illustration by Jonathan H. Milo, Photo by Darl Black

Born into current, riverine brown bass are aggressive strikers, powerful fighters and explosive acrobats. Every angler wants in on that action. But to be a successful river fisherman, you must learn to adapt. Free-flowing rivers are in a constant state of flux, which leads to shifting fish locations — along with necessary adjustments in fishing approach.

Granted, mid- to late-summer flows are generally less than the other three seasons, but even during this time of year, river levels can vary from extreme highs to extreme lows. A localized thundershower can increase the flow and color of the river in a matter of hours. Then, as quickly as it went up, the river will come down.

Or runoff from heavy rains in a distant part of the ­watershed may send the river to bank-full over a 24- to 48-hour period and remain that way for days.

At the other end of the spectrum, a prolonged summer dry spell will slowly decrease river flow; this scenario is becoming common as more areas are facing ongoing drought conditions.

Jeff Knapp, veteran smallmouth guide on the free-flow section of the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania, must produce river bass for his clients under a wide range of conditions. “Some anglers complain they cannot catch smallmouth when the water is low and clear, while others lodge similar complaints about high and dingy conditions. So, they end up fishing only when the river is at a certain stage. However, low or high, smallmouth bass are catchable as long as the river is not at flood stage, which I define as over the banks and puking mud.

“I can’t say that I prefer a summer high flow or low flow condition more; each has its challenges and rewards,” Knapp says. “In general, I catch more smallies during low and clear conditions … but the average size of bass I catch during high and stained water conditions is better than the average size of bass in extremely low water.”


Low flow go-to baits include stickbaits and soft jerkbaits. Let the slow current move them through deep spots.Low flow go-to baits include stickbaits and soft jerkbaits. Let the slow current move them through deep spots.

Low water during the summer allows bass to scatter into various niches, including shallow midriver areas — areas many anglers bypass. “This isn’t to say you won’t find fish near shore in low flows, but rather that bass don’t have to be there, as they do when the water is higher,” Knapp explains.

Dale Black, president of Gamma Fishing Lines, is a confirmed river rat who spends his angling time pursuing smallmouth bass. “While I catch bass during high flows, I prefer extremely low water because I can target feeding fish with pinpoint accuracy.”

During the lowest flows, Black focuses his efforts on very shallow, fast-moving riffles and runs, targeting wash-out holes, which are small areas of slightly deeper water. “With water being low and clear, wash-out holes are relatively easy to spot as you drift by. Each site may hold several smallmouth even if you cannot see them against the rocky bottom due to their brown camouflage pattern.