River smallmouth

The winter raft trip down Virginia's James River was noteworthy for its cold rain, leaden sky, and the dozen-and-a-half or so 14- to 18-inch smallmouth that either Cap'n Jack West put in the boat himself or instructed a client and me how to do so. The following spring on Tennessee's Nolichucky River, West, though faced with a bluebird sky and a cold front, guided a friend and me to a similar number of 12- to 20-inch bass — my buddy dueling with a pair of 4-pound-plus bronzebacks.

And on our next trip, during a windswept day on the Holston River, I watched the Johnson City, Tenn., Bassmaster perform his magic again as we caught a number of 2- to 4-pound mossybacks. The common denominator in all these outings is that West employed the same tactic, what he calls BDSing (short for bigger, deeper and slower). The guide explained his three-pronged philosophy.

The bigger part

"I realized early on in my fishing career that big fish were like big people; they weren't usually the swiftest, but they had huge appetites," says West. "How many times have we seen a 12-inch smallie on the end of our line, yet saw a much larger fish under it. The smaller fish is simply a lot quicker.

"So, I experimented and tried to determine how large a lure I could use that would still catch big smallmouth, yet would be a deterrent for the smaller fish."

Interestingly, West discovered three things, only the second of which he was expecting. First, no matter how large a lure he went to, sub 12-inch river smallmouth would still occasionally hit it. River smallies are perhaps the most aggressive of all black bass, and the size of a bait does not matter to the smaller specimens. Second, truly large river brown bass, those over 18 inches, were strongly inclined to hit 4-inch-and-larger baits, and not at all likely to strike smaller offerings. Cap'n Jack theorized that these larger bass have instinctively learned that the energy expended to chase down and consume something pint-sized is a losing proposition in terms of energy gained. Thus, he could "select" to catch larger fish by employing larger lures.

And third, hefty-size stream smallies will rarely pass on a meal, no matter how full they are, provided that meal is easy to capture. "I can't tell you," he says, "how many 18-inch-plus smallmouth I've caught that had 6- to 7-inch shiners or chubs hanging out of their mouths, or crawfish peering out of and actually blocking their throats. Those fish couldn't have been hungry when I placed a bait in front of them, yet they hit it."

Keeping with the bigger aspect of his BDS philosophy, one of West's favorite baits for overgrown river bass is a 4 1/2-inch Lucky Craft Flash Minnow 110 in both the ghost minnow and laser rainbow patterns. The key to this bait's success, he says, is using the correct line and a stout rod. For his main line, the Tennessee angler prefers Berkley SpiderWire Stealth in the 20-pound-test/6-pound diameter size. He ties the hard plastic jerkbait to the leader with an improved clinch knot. The guide cautions against using leaders, since the nonstretch line tends to cause mono leaders of even 17-pound test to snap on the hook set.

"After the cast, I point the rod tip toward the lure, just to create a little slack, and then on the retrieve, I start to make these little snaps to the left and right," tutors West. "The effect created is that the Flash Minnow pops to the left, then pops to the right with a lot of commotion.

"Since I like to make long casts, I need a low stretch line like SpiderWire so that I can have a good hook set. The thing I like best about the Flash Minnow is that it has such great natural action built in, I don't have to snap it so hard that I wear myself out."

Other preferred baits are MizMo 4- and 5 1/2-inch tubes in Irish coffee and pumpkinseed, respectively, and Snoozer 4-inch and 5 3/4-inch tubes in a dark pumpkin hue. The big tube craze that has swept the lake largemouth fraternity is just as strong in stream smallmouth society, maintains the guide.

"Immediately when your tube hits the water, give it enough line so that it will sink directly to the bottom," explains West. "Then once you're sure it is on the bottom, reel down to where you are 'in touch' with it. Excess line is a recipe for failure.

"Slowly lift your rod tip to about the 10 o'clock position, being sure to feel for even the slightest bite. Reel back down to where your line is pointed at the tube, and repeat. Once you feel the strike, quickly reel down toward the bait and set the hook with authority."

Cap'n Jack rigs tubes by inserting 1/8- to 1/4-ounce bullet head sinkers about halfway inside them. He then rigs them Texas style with a wide gap 1/0 (for the 4-incher) or 4/0 Daiichi Bleeding Hook (for the 5-incher). The point and the barb end up lying along the back of the tube. This rigging looks completely natural, plus you can easily skip it under overhanging branches. Skipping baits needs to be second nature to trophy smallmouth fishermen, West emphasizes.

Another go-to bait is a 6-inch Case Magic Stick (soft plastic stickbait) in the natural color. West rigs this bait the same way he does a tube, except the bullet sinker is replaced with a split shot crimped 12 inches above the lure. He prefers to deadstick the Magic Stick, or as he says, "throw it out there and forget about it." Strikes often occur when he raises the lure a few inches off the bottom.

A final favorite is a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce single blade (Colorado) spinnerbait with the concave side of the blade painted black and the skirt chartreuse-and-white. The blade color scheme, explains West, puts forth an "alternating flash," instead of a steady one, which is more likely to attract a smallmouth. The guide slow rolls the spinnerbait across the substrate.

The deeper part

Although what constitutes deep water is relative depending on the characteristics of a particular river system, Jack West follows a basic guideline.

"Any time I can find a deep hole — 5 feet or more — following several shoals positioned close together, I know I'm about to get into big smallmouth," he said. "Because of the shoals, the water is well-oxygenated, so that hole offers a welcoming comfort zone. The depth is a security zone for smallmouth, and the conditions attract baitfish and crawfish, so the area is also a feeding zone."

Of course, locating such a hole does not mean that West has for sure found fish. He looks for the dark shadows of boulders within the depths and explains why such objects are major draws for hefty brown bass.

"Picture a huge boulder in the water. And behind that rock, imagine a depression that the current has carved out," said West. "Then imagine that sidewalks run along both sides of that rock.

"For much of the day, a big smallmouth will hold in that depression, but he will also periodically roam up and down those 'sidewalks.' To thoroughly work this area, you basically only have to make three casts. On the first cast, retrieve the bait so that it swings around behind the boulder. On the next two casts, fish the sidewalks. Then either change lures and work that same area again or move on to another boulder or some other form of deep water cover."

West says that huge bronzebacks lurk in these deep water haunts year-round. Indeed, I have fished with him in all four seasons, and we have probed the same boulder-laden pools in the winter that we did in the spring, summer and fall. The only difference in boat positioning was that the Volunteer State guide fished closer to the shoals in the summer (15 to 20 feet downstream) than he did in the winter (80 to 85 feet downstream), and somewhere in between in the spring and fall.

The slower part

Cap'n Jack considers a wintertime outing with Barry Loupe of Saltville, Va., a perfect example of the "slower part."

"That day, the air temperature was 23 degrees and the water temperature was 36 degrees, and all we fished were deep holes below shoals," recalls West. "Yet, Barry caught some huge smallmouth, while mine were of average size. At the beginning of the day, I couldn't believe how long Barry was taking to retrieve his tubes, so I started to time him.

"On this one cast, the time of the retrieve was just at the 9 minute mark when he had a hit, but that hit came from a 21-inch smallmouth that Barry caught and released. From then on, I realized that there was no such thing as fishing too slowly in the winter, or any other time of the year for that matter."

Jack West sums up his BDS philosophy by explaining that there are two types of river anglers.

"As a guide, I always ask my clients if they are more interested in numbers of bass or size," he says. "Each category requires a different mind-set. True trophy fishermen will be happy with one strike from a 5-pound river smallie over an eight hour day on the water. These fishermen enjoy the 'journey.'

"Others will quickly tire of the slow fishing and then want to throw small lures ... and then enjoy catching smaller fish and much better numbers of them, as well. I like it better when my clients want to try out my BDS philosophy."

Author's note

Sadly, Jack West suffered a stroke in May 2004 and passed away. His longtime fiancée, Raymonde, and son, Jason, asked that Bassmaster run this article as a remembrance both to Jack and his BDS philosophy. Jack was not only one of the best river smallmouth anglers I have ever met, but he was also an advocate of clean water and rivers — and my very good friend. — Bruce Ingram