The Smallmouth Game of Hi-Lo

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

When the river is low, target "scour holes." These depressions will hold enough water to hold fish.Illustrations by Jonathan H. MiloWhen the river is low, target "scour holes." These depressions will hold enough water to hold fish.
“Usually anglers take a passing shot at such a spot as they drift by,” Black explains. “If you attempt to use the electric motor in this very shallow, very rocky and very fast water, the prop will not last very long. To effectively fish these spots, I’ll drop an anchor in a 4- to 5-mile-per-hour current in order to make accurate casts to wash-out holes, as well as the pocket eddy behind large midstream rocks.”

“Scour hole” is the name Knapp applies to the smallest midstream pockets. “These places are very subtle, with depth measured in inches rather than feet. Yet they are deep enough to provide a comfortable holding site for a single bass to shoot out and grab prey as it passes by. Scour holes at the head of a riffle are particularly productive and are likely to hold larger than average size bass.”

Another of Knapp’s favorite summer low water areas is the run located below a fast-water riffle or rapid where forceful current begins to slow, also referred to as a riffle tailing. During low water, these sites are typically 3 to 5 feet deep. Unlike a scour hole, which holds a single fish, these larger areas are capable of hosting many bass if the bottom contains numerous basketball-size rocks to break the current.

When it comes to lure presentations for extreme low flows, these experts employ a limited number of baits.

“I’ve been told that I’m a one-trick pony for summer low water,” Black says. “I throw — or more appropriately, dead drift — a 4-inch stickworm probably 90 percent of the time. It’s going to be a Yum Dinger in green pumpkin rigged Tex-posed on a Mustad 4/0 Mega-Lite Hook with a 1/16-ounce bullet weight on 8-pound fluorocarbon. I’ll cast upstream of a shallow-water, fish-holding location and let the current carry it into the pocket. If it settles to the bottom before reaching the pocket, I’ll gently hop it along the bottom. This soft bait presentation is a representation of hellgrammites, crawfish, stone cats, darters, dace, log perch and a host of other bottom-hugging smallmouth prey found in riffles and runs during the summer.”

As the river rises and current starts ripping, baitfish will move to the banks and the bass will follow.As the river rises and current starts ripping, baitfish will move to the banks and the bass will follow.
Knapp takes a different approach for a low-water presentation. His No. 1 pick is a suspending hard jerkbait presented with an erratic ripping retrieve. “My money bait for clients during low and clear water is the No. 8 Rapala X-Rap. In clear water, bass can be finicky, so it’s often necessary to go for a reaction bite rather than a feeding bite. That’s where the slash bait action of the X-Rap comes into play. Fishing it on braided line with a fluorocarbon leader lets me transfer a lot of action into the lure. That’s what is needed to trigger smallies: an aggressive, erratic retrieve with lots of head sway imparted to the lure but interspersed with pauses.

“It’s important to incorporate the pauses,” Knapp continues. “When ripping a suspending lure, a bass might be trying to eat it but misses it because of the lure’s sudden unexpected movements. Periodic stopping of the X-Rap gives bass a chance to zero in and grab the bait. The ripping gets their attention; the pause lets them nail it.”