The Smallmouth Game of Hi-Lo

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

The backup presentation for both anglers is similar: soft jerkbaits. “I make a Yum Houdini Shad dance, shimmy and shake like an injured baitfish,” Black says. “Rigged Tex-posed on a 4/0 Mega-Lite hook, this becomes my river search bait for shallow water. Sometimes bass eat it, but other times they just show their position with a half-hearted swipe, thereby allowing me to drift a Dinger to them. By fishing it on braid, I achieve solid hook sets even when drifting it in fast water.”

Knapp favors a Winco Custom 4.75-inch Solid Body River Darter. “I rely on this nose-hooked soft jerkbait to fish above shallow eelgrass beds bent over by the current, or in water that is too fast and too shallow to effectively work the hard jerkbait — places where an X-Rap would dig into the bottom. With the River Darter, I simply employ a twitch and drift presentation, thereby keeping the bait barely underwater.”


Although a spinnerbait is the go-to high-flow bait, keep a swimbait and finesse jig at the ready.Darl BlackAlthough a spinnerbait is the go-to high-flow bait, keep a swimbait and finesse jig at the ready.
When a river rises well above normal level, smallmouth will be forced to seek new feeding locations. During the initial rise, Knapp turns to gravel flats ­located along shorelines and on islands.

“At low to normal flows, these flats are exposed,” Knapp says. “But when the water comes up a couple of feet, these flats become feeding zones for bass. A flat on an inside turn has a fairly light current and will draw baitfish. As the water reaches shoreline grass, this adds further cover options.”

However, as water level continues to climb, Black is quick to point out that both baitfish and bass move tighter to the bank to escape forceful current. “I focus on shoreline pocket eddies formed by an irregular bank, gravel outwash bar or boulders. Also, I thoroughly fish the mouths of flooded tributary streams, which typically turn into an eddy as rising river water pushes against the inflowing creeks. However, it usually takes a day or possibly two of high water before bass and bait set up at these sites.”

Tributary creeks will begin receding while the main river remains high and murky. Now the stage is set for one of Knapp’s favorite situations. Bass that had moved into the flooded creek mouth now slide back into the river, positioning themselves in the plume of clearer tributary water along the downstream riverbank. The fish-holding potential of this kind of spot depends largely on the availability of shoreline cuts, embedded logs, submerged rocks or other cover on the downstream bank directly in the path of the clearer water.

Knapp and Black agree that high water during the summer increases the opportunity to catch bigger bass. Both anglers are in sync with their No. 1 weapon of choice: a spinnerbait.

Knapp’s tactic: Cast the spinnerbait next to a steeper section of bank and let it free-fall to the bottom. “My pick is a Terminator Short Arm Thump’r 5/8-ounce model, which is heavy enough to helicopter in the current. After it hits bottom, I’ll slow roll it a few feet. If I don’t get a hit, then I reel in quickly for the next cast. The money spot is close to the bank; that’s where you want your bait to spend the most time.”

Black’s tactic: Make a cast perpendicular to the bank and slow roll the spinnerbait as the boat drifts downstream, letting the current pull it along. “I favor a Strike King .38 Special Spinnerbait with both skirt and blades in either chartreuse or orange. It may seem a bit gaudy to some smallmouth purists who are stuck on muted, natural colors, but bold colors produce in dingy water. I particularly like to target flooded grass islands and boulder shorelines with a spinnerbait.”

If bass are unwilling to move on a spinnerbait, Black switches to a Booyah Baby Boo Jig with a Larew Biffle Bug Jr. The jig and bug combo is pitched to flooded shoreline cover, bounced once or twice when it hits bottom and then is swum slowly back to the boat.

With rising or slowly receding water, Knapp keeps a soft swimbait tied on one rod to fish the flatter shorelines, such as inside gravel flats. “It’s about employing a visible, realistic baitfish profile — big enough to be seen, but with subtle action. I fish it with a slow, steady swimming retrieve.” The nod usually goes to a Lake Fork Live Magic Shad rigged on a Gopher Tackle 3/16-ounce Mushroom Head Jig; the long-shank VMC Barbarian Hook in the mushroom head provides more consistent hookups.