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Recently, while giving a river smallmouth seminar, I asked the attendees which lures every stream smallie fanatic should own. I set no restrictions on the number of lures that could be listed, the only stipulation being that participants would list lures until all present were satisfied that they had enough choices to be able to fish successfully throughout the year. Once the list was created, I asked some of the best river smallmouth anglers I know how, when and where they fish these baits. Here’s how these guides, experts and the seminar audience as a whole ranked the lures from No. 13 to No. 1.
All captions: Bruce Ingram
Photo: Bruce Ingram
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No. 13 - Bomber Model A
Tommy Cundiff operates River Monster Guide Service in Virginia and West Virginia.
“The Bomber Model A is at its best from prespawn when water temperatures are in the upper 50s to late summer until the water becomes really low and clear,” he says. “I’ll retrieve a Model A pretty slowly around humps and spawning banks early on. But after the spawn, and the lower and clearer the water gets, I’ll retrieve it as fast as I can through the slicks and runs below rapids and past or through any kind of current break.”
Lure Specifics: prespawn, a Model 7A in any crawfish pattern, especially brown postspawn, a Model 7A in any shad or baitfish color.
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No. 12 - Mister Twister Phenom
“The Mister Twister Phenom is an old bait that’s rarely fished in rivers anymore,” says Cundiff. “But that curly-tail action is still really effective, especially in the summer. Wood cover and deadfalls along banks, deep-water ledges and boulder fields, slack-water eddies and dropoffs along the main channel are all great places to fish the Phenom.”
The standard “lift-pause-flutter to the bottom” retrieve remains effective, adds Cundiff.
Lure Specifics: Texas rig with a 1/0 wide gap hook and a sliding 1/8- or 1/4-ounce bullet sinker; color: pumpkin pepper.
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No. 11 - Heddon Tiny Torpedo
“The Heddon Tiny Torpedo is probably the most versatile topwater lure ever,” says Cundiff. “I start fishing it when the water temperature hits 52 degrees and never stop using one until the water temperature falls below 52 in the fall.”
The guide emphasizes that the Torpedo can be dead drifted when bronzebacks are lethargic, retrieved moderately with lots of pauses when smallmouth become active and ripped across the surface almost like a buzzbait when fish chase minnows. Shade pockets along the bank, current breaks midriver, slack water below rapids and aquatic vegetation are all targets.
Lure Specifics: Top colors include leopard frog and baby bass.
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No. 10 - 1/4-ounce buzzbait
Virginia’s Ken Trail, who operates Rock On Charters, boosts the buzzbait for big bronzebacks, saying that this is one of the top choices for active, summertime smallmouth.
“Two keys: Cast beyond the target, and make sure a buzzer is churning the moment it hits the water,” he says. “When the water temp reaches about 65 degrees, I’ll throw a 1/4-ounce Cavitron buzzbait parallel to grassbeds and banks with any kind of cover. Current breaks and eddy pockets are just as good.”
One caveat, continues Trail, is that for whatever reason, summertime days exist when smallmouth won’t chase a buzzer. It’s best then to select other topwaters.
Lure Specifics: Skirt and blade colors really don’t matter during the day, Trail says, but go with all black buzzers at night.
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No. 9 - Rapala X-Rap
While the buzzbait is strictly a warm season lure, Trail thinks the Rapala X-Rap rates as an all-season artificial.
“In the winter, retrieve an X-Rap with a ‘pop-pop-three-second-pause’ retrieve,” he says. “In the spring and fall, [use] a pop-pop-one-second-pause; and in the summer, just keep popping it,” he says. “Deep-water ledges are a great place to work an X-Rap year-round, especially in the winter. Fall and spring, current seams between swift water are the best choices; in the summer, slicks below rapids and riffles.”
Lure Specifics: Trail prefers a Size 8 X-Rap in olive green.
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No. 8 - 4-inch grub on a jighead
North Carolina guide Ben Lucas (540-520-9629) rates highly the simple 3- or 4-inch grub.
“A Mister Twister Twister Tail or a Zoom Fat Albert is about the simplest bait you could ever use, but it’s an extremely effective bait from spring through fall,” he says. “Burn it right under the surface in riffles and slicks on a 1/8-ounce jighead in the summer. In the winter, hop one on a 1/4-ounce head right above a rocky bottom. Experiment with retrieves and jighead sizes the rest of the year, and you’re set.”
Lure Specifics: It’s hard to beat a grub in smoke flake.
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No. 7 - Original Floating Rapala Minnow
Tennessee’s Ott DeFoe maintains that the Original Floating Rapala ranks as a top spring bait.
“Smallmouth are very aggressive toward a topwater bait hovering over their heads during this period, so a bait that can stay close to the surface is extra effective,” he says. “In the spring, the Original is most effective when fished with long pauses between short rod twitches around logs and fallen trees near spawning areas.
“As the summer warms up, I speed up my retrieve with faster twitching and only short pauses. In the fall, I employ a combination of both methods. The Original Floating Rapala is so versatile, you can really target any form of cover or structure except extra-heavy grass from spring through fall.”
Lure Specifics: Go with the classic Model 9 Rapala Original Minnow in silver.
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No. 6 - Soft-Plastic Jerkbait
Soft plastic fan Ben Lucas often opts for 5-inch Zoom Super Flukes or Case Salty Sinkin Shads.
“In the spring, I’ll rig a jerkbait with a weighted 3/0 wide gap hook so that it will sink slowly, with soft twitches, down into current seams or boulder fields,” he says. “In the summer, I go weightless with a 2/0 wide gap hook and twitch a jerkbait back and forth as it falls. Eddies during the day and shallow, rocky riffles in low light are great areas to try.”
Lure Specifics: Any minnow hue will do; Tex-posing is the norm.
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No. 5 - Storm Wiggle Wart
DeFoe relates that Storm Wiggle Warts can produce throughout the warm-water period and during early spring and late fall, as well. In short, any place with current and rocks, from boulders to substrate, are target areas. For jumbo smallies, try this pattern.
“The Wiggle Wart is great on steep banks with rock,” he says. “Fish it at a slow to medium pace, keeping contact with the bottom.”
Lure Specifics: 2-inch, 3/4-ounce Wart in any crawfish pattern.
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No. 4 - Cordell Big O
Britt Stoudenmire, owner of the New River Outdoor Co., raves about the Cordell Big O.
“It’s one of the oldest crankbaits, and it just might be the best one for river smallmouth,” says the Virginia guide. “The Big O’s wide wobble is key. Some days, the smallmouth want a crankbait with a wide wobble, and sometimes they want one with a tight wobble like the Wiggle Wart. When it’s a wide-wobble day, tie on the Big O.”
Stoudenmire says wide-wobble cranks perform best from prespawn well into autumn, especially in stained water and around any kind of rocks-and-current scenario.
Lure Specifics: A Cordell Big O in a crawfish pattern — enough said.
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No. 3 - Rebel Pop-R
Stoudenmire describes the Pop-R as the most versatile and the premier surface lure for summertime action. “You can fish a Pop-R through a current break, dead drift it next through shade pockets, then pop-pop-pause across a ledge,” he says. “And catch big smallmouth in all those places.”
Lure Specifics: Rebel Pop-R Plus in red eye perch.
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No. 2 - 3 1/2- or 4-inch Tube
Michigan guide Marcel Veenstra says that a tube is a superb year-round bait, but in autumn it is especially productive.
“Any current breaks, isolated boulders, wood or any irregular structure that are on flats near deeper water or the river channel will hold fish,” he says. “I’ll use 3 3/4-inch Case Salty Tubes then, starting off with a slower retrieve and keeping contact with the bottom. If that’s not working, I will snap my tube with quick pops and then allow it to rest.
Lure Specifics: Case tubes in green pumpkin, watermelon gold/purple flake and smoke purple flake on jigheads between 1/4 and 5/8 ounce, depending on current.
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No. 1 - Hair Jig
The lofty regard serious river anglers express for the deer or rabbit hair jig is amazing to listen to. Like many smallmouth experts, Stoudenmire makes his own jig, which he calls the Undulator.
“People do fish a hair jig year-round for trophy smallmouth, but I mostly fish it when the water temperature is under 50 degrees to as low as the upper 30s, when smallmouth are in their winter holes,” he says. “Those are deep, rocky pools protected from the current. Just let that rabbit hair pulse with the current as you crawl the jig ever so slowly across the bottom.”
Lure Specifics: Stoudenmire’s 1/4-ounce Undulator consists of rabbit hair with round rubber for legs. It works great with or without a trailer.