I must admit, covering professional bass fishing often fosters an undeniable envy, particularly when limits include those brown bullies known as smallmouth bass. From southern reservoirs like Pickwick and Cherokee to northern gems like Oneida, Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, watching bag after hefty bag of bronzeback beauties cross the stage is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
While those hefty limits of whopper smallies will almost exclusively come from a boat, there’s no question anglers afoot can also enjoy solid smallmouth opportunity.
Legitimate heavyweights can occasionally fall to shore-bound anglers, but even those of lesser girth still pack that smallmouth punch. This makes a fun target for kid trips or just a casual addition to a picnic, family hike or a brief window of opportunity during work travel.
Smallmouth scenarios vary greatly, but the key element for bank fishing opportunities is moving water. While a lazy largemouth likes to park its backside in a quiet corner most of the day, the high-strung smallmouth craves current — it’s the DoorDash of the fish’s world.
During his college years at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Elite angler Brandon Lester caught quite a few Tennessee River smallies from shore. His advice: Target current breaks such as bridge columns, barge tie-ups, big boulders or laydowns and play the hand you’re dealt.
“When you’re fishing from shore, you don’t have the option of running five miles down the river and hit different spots,” he said. “You have to learn to make the most of what’s in front of you.
“If I’m fishing a tournament, I may fish a dock, catch one and roll on to the next dock 10 miles down the lake. If I’m fishing off the bank, I may sit there and fish a (current break) for 30 minutes and try to catch every fish on it.”
Bridges with fishing decks offer golden opportunities, as they provide a front-row seat to the combination of current and constricting structure (aka “choke point” or “neck down”).
Tackle ’em in the tailrace
Generally, the recipe for smallmouth consistency includes swift water, baitfish and current breaks. Nothing embodies this like a tailrace — the downstream side of a dam. While major hydro-electric structures offer greater quantity, don’t overlook the more modest dams controlling small rivers and streams.
I recently exploited such a scenario in the charming hamlet of Madrid, N.Y. where the Highway 345 Bridge crosses the Grasse River. An overflow dam just west of the bridge creates a small but vibrant tailrace sandwiched between the drop and the bridge.
From a small fishing platform at the bridge’s northwest corner, I tempted a handful of spunky rock bass and a limit of smallies. Certainly not a competitive limit but a limit nonetheless.
Despite the river’s rambling pace, the overflow dam’s tailrace maintained a low roar of white water turbulence. I nabbed a mixed bag by fishing a drop shot with a 4-inch straight tail Roboworm in current seams between the dam’s water control structures.
My better fish came from behind a large subsurface rock pile that bulged the water and created a backside eddy. Firing a 3.5-inch swimbait parallel to the dam, I let the rushing water sweep my bait past this sweet spot and consistently connected as it reached the kill zone.
Air travel limited my tackle options, but a Daiwa Travel Combo spinning outfit proved functionally effective and conveniently mobile. The 7-2 medium telescoping rod comes in a canvas case with plenty of room for several soft plastic containers. I packed swimbaits, as well as drop-shot and Ned rig baits, into a Ziploc bag and packed it all inside the rod case.
Smallmouth often spawn in deep water, but it’s not uncommon for river fish to use shallow, downcurrent coves off the main run. Anglers walking riprap banks can easily reach the fish pulling into calm, protected waters.
For example, Waddington, New York’s Whitaker Park at the mouth of Little Sucker Brook, where B.A.S.S. Nation and past Elite events have launched, offers the ideal habitat. Same goes for the next little cove downstream — on the east side of Clark Point in Little Sucker Brook Park.
A dream in a stream: Bassmaster Elite rookie Cody Huff grew up around countless Ozark streams flowing through the hills and into local lakes. Far less pressured than major rivers and highland reservoirs, these streams hold a largely untapped brown fish bounty.
“These streams flow all the time, and they’re loaded with smallmouth,” Huff said. “They don’t get really big — they’ll get up to 2 to 2 1/2 pounds. Ever since I was a little kid, we’d walk the creeks for them.
“There’s quite a bit of current, so we always threw small baits and let the current wash them behind rocks. We’d catch those smallmouth on light line and ultralight spinning outfits and always had a big time.”
Small crankbaits, swimbaits and Ned rigs are Huff’s choice for creek smallies.
“These creeks are the same every single day, but you can do this anytime the water has warmed up enough so you don’t freeze when you walk in the water,” Huff said. “It’s a great way to cool off in the hot summertime and have fun.”
Captive audience: Elite pro Mark Menendez describes a seasonal occurrence with big-time smallmouth potential.
“When the Ohio River floods, it fills up a lot of little creeks that aren’t a boat length wide. Then when the water falls, Kentucky (spotted) bass and smallmouth will get trapped in small pools.
“That’s when you put on an old pair of tennis shoes and go wading. The ones that you’ll catch are good ones.”
Menendez suggests tiny crankbaits like the Strike King Bitsy Pond Minnow or a 1/16-ounce jig head with a 3- to 4-inch finesse worm.
Food required: With the exception of spawning movements, smallmouth presence is predicated on baitfish. Smallies aren’t window shoppers; they come to eat, and if there’s no food, there’s not smallmouth.
Consider where baitfish and other forage comes from and fish accordingly. Specifically, look for your inflows. In addition to dam outfalls and lock canals, creeks and rivers bring food, so expect the mouths — particularly those crossed by bridges — to attract plenty of smallmouth attention.
These gluttonous predators also eat plenty of crawfish, and if you can reach a bank where overhanging willows are dark with mayflies, you can bet the smallies are in there chewing. Topwater poppers are hard to beat, but Bassmaster Opens pro Harvey Hornes takes a different approach by throwing a Ned rig to target bottom-oriented smallmouth preying on the emerging mayflies.
However you target smallmouth from shore, the most important element is perspective. If you find a few chunks, great, but this is casual stuff — a nice break from the sport’s more demanding side.
Best part about smallmouth: Even the little guys bring plenty of attitude, so even if you don’t catch anything Instagram-worthy, it’s time well spent.