Baits tend to find a way in and out of favor with bass anglers like coffee flavorings at a cappuccino stand; particularly with smallmouth fishermen.
Plastics like Slug-Go’s, tubebaits and even newer designed worms seemed to have really dominated many smallmouth anglers boxes and for good reason. In the 90s, tube baits raged across the country catching impressive numbers of big fish. Topwater floating plastics have also gained popularity in the last decade, and are truly fun to fish. Spinnerbaits in smaller sizes tend to be a popular choice, particularly for search baits.
But when you want to find what works on river smallmouth day in, day out, in all conditions, you need to talk to a guide who runs a lot of trips and fishes water that gets plenty of action.
On my annual trip to the New River, in West Virginia, my go-to guide is a gentleman that goes by the name of “Squirrel.” He works for Class IV River Runners out of Fayetteville. One June morning “Mr. Squirrel” and I had an all-day float scheduled with water at near normal conditions, with river temperatures on the high side in the low 70s. As we launched from Thurmond, the air was misty. It was a classic New River morning with the promise of a 50-plus day catch.
A river raft with fishing gear is always an exercise in organization. When I tied on my favorite spinnerbait, my guide asked if I had any crankbaits. I was surprised, because Squirrel is known locally as a tube bait pro. I have seen him work wonders delivering high catch rates and sizes constantly over 3 pounds.
He quickly glanced over at me with an intimidating smile. Did I mention that Squirrel is about 6-4, has a shaved head, and is strong enough to pick up a bus? Let’s face it, it’s Squirrel’s boat, and when he says, “You’ve have got to tie on a crankbait,” I’m betting that like me, you’ll stick with that all day.
I was tossed a reddish-craw-colored Bagley bait. With one cast, I had a 2-pound smallie dancing on the water, taking out line and running under the raft.
So, I said, “That was nice fish, have you gone tube free?” He explained that in the past year he had resorted to tying on a crankbait for one of his customers that just couldn’t work a tube properly.
“I was going nuts because fish were chasing this tube bait like crazy, and this poor guy just couldn’t set the hook. So, I gave in and thought, ‘OK…let’s try a crankbait.’ He cast and instantaneously slammed a nice 3-pounder, then a 4,” he said. The day finished with a number close to 70 fish, and that got Squirrel thinking. “No one around here throws these baits much anymore, and they’re just so easy for anyone to use.”
Squirrel fell off the crankbait wagon, reverted back to the tube bait habit, and checked off the crankbait day as a gift. Ten trips later when fishing was slow and another customer missed a best fish of the day, he went back to cranking.
“We put on a Bagley Big B, made a cast, and caught another nearly 3-pounder just like the first time,” he said.
That day instantly turned into a slugfest, and the client emerged successful from a potentially difficult day of fishing.
This set Squirrel on the investigative crankbait track. He started interspersing hard baits with both experienced anglers and some not so well adjusted casters. The results were remarkable.
Crankbaits out fished tubes, topwater and spinnerbaits by a wide margin. The classic baits were more effective in the middle of the day when fishing typically falls off because of the high sun and increased temperature.
Although color and size are clearly essential parts of the equation, depth and speed seem to be the keys that consistently unlock a response. Turbid water calls for brighter colors, whereas in higher visibility, anglers should consider more natural baits. Once the sun gets just a little too high in the sky, Squirrel likes to increase the speed and drop the depth.
“With these baits we’re fishing deeper pools than we used to. Besides the easier strike skill set that the crankbait can deliver, we simply cover a lot more water in the same amount of time,” he said.
Tube baits, spinnerbaits and topwater lures still grace Mr. Squirrel’s tackle bag. However, his selection of crankbaits has tripled from two years ago.
I don’t know if it’s the simplistic presentation or the increased coverage, or both, but as Mr. Squirrel said, “I’ll take a 3/8-oz. white Bagley Kill’r B any day.”
For more info, or a day with Squirrel showing you the New River ropes go to: