It's no wonder so much attention has been devoted to such classic smallmouth lakes as Champlain, St. Clair, Dale Hollow and Pickwick. Those big bodies of water surrender some truly monster-size bass. But when it comes to the overall quality of the experience, a day on a great smallmouth lake doesn't rank a close second to a day on a typical smallmouth river, big fish or not. Not only do rivers offer the serenity and scenic vistas that simply can't be found on a sprawling reservoir, they typically offer a shot at a heck of a lot more fish. And in some cases, they can produce smallmouth as large as any bass in those heavily fished reservoirs. So step into a canoe, shove off and see what lies around the next bend."A really good day on a typical smallmouth lake might produce eight or 10 bass. I've had countless hundred-fish days on rivers, even in the middle of the summer. There's simply no comparison," says Brian Hager, a guide on West Virginia's New River (304-574-9012).And despite the myth that river-bound smallmouth don't grow as large as their lake-bound cousins, plenty of big fish are available for the taking. Hager, a lifelong West Virginian, has caught bass over 6 pounds from the New, and he, his friends and clients catch lots of 3- and 4-pound fish every year, even in the middle of the summer, when those giant lake smallmouth are holding on some invisible hump in 30 feet of water. The typical river smallmouth measures around 12 inches, but in most cases the water will be full of them. Rivers are simply more fertile and productive than lakes. Fire a lure in just about any direction, and there's a great chance you'll be showing that lure to a couple of bass. Try that in your favorite lake."Don't get me wrong, I like to fish out of bass boats and I'll fish a few tournaments every year, but there's just no comparison. I'll take a float trip down a river any day," Hager says.Great smallmouth rivers are generously scattered throughout the country. From the world famous New, Shenandoah and Susquehanna to such rivers as the John Day in Oregon, the Connecticut on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, and Arkansas' Buffalo River, bass anglers throughout the United States have easy access to a great float trip.
Although Hager typically floats the New in a raft, canoes and kayaks are also good choices for a smallmouth float trip. In fact, canoes are by far the most popular type of river craft. However, it's vital to know what's in store before you shove off from the put-in point. Canoes can be fairly unstable, and inexperienced canoeists shouldn't attempt to run anything larger than a Class II rapid. Call a local outfitter or tackle shop before you try to float an unfamiliar river, and ask plenty of questions, such as: Is it suitable for beginners? What types of rapids will I encounter? Class I and Class II rapids are generally easy to run, but Class IIIs can be tricky, and Class IVs should be left to experts.Kayaks can handle rougher water than canoes, but they also have their limitations. They tend to be quite unstable, and anglers who have little or no experience with these boats should take a basic kayak course before attempting to tackle all but the gentlest river. They will, however, slip through chutes no wider than your shoulders, and they slide across gravel bars and rocks only a few inches under water. Anglers who fish from kayaks also have a lower profile than canoeists and rafters, so they can slip up on a big bass with less risk of spooking the fish. But try taking more than a few cursory items, and you'll quickly realize the limitations of kayaks.There simply isn't much room for gear.Modern canoes come in a variety of plastic-based materials, all of which withstand the rigors of a float-fishing trip. And unlike those heavy aluminum clunkers that used to be the staple of river runners before the advent of modern materials, plastic canoes are relatively quiet. Shuffle your foot or drop a jig on the bottom of an aluminum craft, and every bass in the river, particularly those big fish, knows you're on your way downriver. Bang into a rock, and you might as well paddle hard until you reach the next bend. Plastic canoes slide over rocks and gravel bars with relative ease, and they are much easier to maneuver than a heavy aluminum one. What you use should be determined not only on your personal needs — space requirements and comfort, for instance — but by the type of river you plan to float, and your skill level. A canoe can be strapped to the top of just about any car, and a good one will cost less than $700.Rafts are by far the most stable craft and can handle all but the angriest set of rapids. They can be equipped with stand-up platforms and swivel seats, and they can hold a lot more gear than a canoe. A fully rigged raft can run upward of $2,000, and unless you want to disassemble the frame and deflate the raft at the end of a day on the water, you'll need a trailer to haul it to the river and back.Bass boats, either aluminum or fiberglass, simply won't handle a float trip as will a canoe, raft or kayak. In fact, you'd be foolish to try to run a typical swift, rocky smallmouth river in anything but one of those three choices.The bare necessitiesHager typically takes three rods, although if he has room in his raft, he'll take as many as six. He prefers medium to medium-heavy rods, and he'll even take a few baitcasters, which, he says, are ideal for controlling buzzbaits and crankbaits, two of his favorite river lures."The biggest mistake my clients make is bringing rods too light for the type of fishing I like to do. I think anglers new to float fishing for smallmouth expect small fish, and they think I'm going to be using small lures on ultralight rods. I never use line lighter than 8-pound test, and I'll even go up to 12-pound test if the water is stained," he explains. "There's a real good chance of hooking a 4- or 5-pound fish, and when you combine the pull of a big bass with the strong current, you need that heavy tackle. Rivers are also loaded with logs and sharp rocks, so 6-pound line will end up costing you some nice smallmouth."Hager and other hardcore river smallmouth anglers have learned that in order to catch quality fish, it's vital to use larger lures. There's nothing wrong with throwing tiny crankbaits, small inline spinners and 3-inch jerkbaits. They'll catch tons of smaller fish, which is ideal if you bring a kid along. But 3-, 4- and 5-pound river smallmouth prefer a larger meal. Three-eighths-ounce spinnerbaits, big buzzbaits, 4-inch tubes, 5-inch soft jerkbaits and a variety of other big lures will account for some impressive smallmouth.Hager also likes Bomber 5A and 6A crankbaits in either crawfish or standard baitfish patterns. The real key, he says, is to spend some time trying different lures until you hit the right one for that day. River and weather conditions change constantly, and so do the fish."I'd say day in and day out, a tube is probably the best all-around lure for river smallmouth. Spinnerbaits are great in the spring when the water is up and off-colored. I've caught some tremendous fish on big spinnerbaits," he says.More important than any rod, reel or lure, however, is essential safety equipment. Life preservers are required by law, but they won't do you any good if you don't wear them. Although many rivers are lined with cabins, some sections, even entire rivers, flow through undeveloped, wild lanOnce you head downriver, there's no turning back — no matter what kind of emergency arises.Hager always takes an emergency kit that consists of a cell phone (which may or may not pick up a signal), a weatherproof lighter and a small first-aid kit. He puts that into a floating dry bag, designed to keep gear dry on float trips, and he ties the bag to his raft. He also takes a dry bag stuffed with an extra change of clothes, a raincoat and a towel. Drinking water is important in the summer, and so is a good supply of food ."The key to a safe float is to know your limitations. If you are unsure about your ability to run a set of rapids, get out and portage your canoe or raft around them. It's better to be safe than sorry, especially when you're on some remote river. Even if you don't get hurt when you dump, you'll probably lose a lot of equipment, and that can ruin a fishing trip faster than anything," he says.
Planning a trip
Recreational paddlers, who don't spend any time fishing, typically cover about two miles of river per hour. That, of course, varies with the speed of current, wind, and the number of stops, planned and unplanned. Float fishermen, on the other hand, should expect to cover a mile per hour, or even less. To fish a river thoroughly, it's wise to plan on moving at a snail's pace. A half-mile per hour is an even better pace that allows you to work a specific spot thoroughly and to get out and wade if the water and weather conditions allow. Give yourself plenty of time, suggests Hager, because if the fish are biting, you won't want to rush downriver.
Canoes work best in twos; that is, one guy up front and one in the back — but no matter how hard you try to round up an even number of float fishermen, there's a pretty good chance someone is going to have to float solo. Paddling a 16- or 17-foot canoe from the back seat can be a chore. Throw in a steady breeze, and you'll spend more time fighting the canoe than fishing.If you do end up in a canoe by yourself, consider turning the craft around and sitting in the front seat. This puts your weight more toward the center of the boat, and keeps the bow from rising up and acting like a sail. It's simply easier to keep the canoe pointed in a straight line if you sit in the middle, as well. Consider putting some large items — coolers or other gear, or even some rocks — in the front. That helps keep the entire canoe flatter.
Check the river from home
The United States Geological Survey maintains thousands of river gauges on large and small streams alike. And thanks to modern technology, it's possible to take a look at the current water level from the warm glow of your computer screen. Simply log on to http://water.usgs.gov/real time.html.
With a few clicks, you can see the current stage of the river you want to float, the historic level and the trend (rising or falling). In most cases, the river's flood stage — unsafe for any type of watercraft — is also listed on each page.