It happened, as many things do, by accident. One minute I’m skipping a 3-inch, white twistertail across the water in what I could best describe as an “I’m bored – let’s water-ski this thing” sort of retrieve, and the next, a hole, not a foot from the bank, appears where the grub had been. Instantly, the ultralight graphite rod in my hands became a living thing, a lightning rod super-charged with electricity. The line hummed like a guitar string. The drag, set unintentionally tight, slipped a bit. Soon, however, I emerged victorious, and the greatly slowed shape eased toward the rocky shoreline. I lifted the rod tip high, delighted and a bit surprised to see the olive-and-brown countenance and red eye of a river smallmouth break the surface. Gently, I worked the jig out of the smallie’s jaw, and slipped it back. With a defiant flip of her tail, the fish rocketed into the darkness beyond the current seam, leaving me with a slight case of the shakes and an ear-to-ear “I meant to do that” grin. What I nor my angling partner-wife, Julia Carol, realized was that we were standing directly on the leading edge of one of our most fantastic smallmouth bass fishing experiences. Over the course of the next two days, the two of us would catch and release more than 100 smallies ranging from one to four pounds—and each weighing a ton in terms of pure, unadulterated, knock down-drag out fight. Twistertails, small crankbaits, inline spinners, topwater plugs, it really didn’t matter what we threw, just as long as the hardware did two things: one, it was made to look either alive or having an awfully bad go of things, and two, it landed in the water of eastern Iowa’s Wapsipinicon River. By Thursday, the action had slowed to a trickle. And then, as quickly as they had started, the fish vanished. Still, we considered ourselves fortunate to have enjoyed a front row seat to what many would consider the angling adventure of a lifetime, and all thanks to that bronzeback bruiser known as the smallmouth bass.
River Tips and Tactics
It’s been our experience that river smallmouth have yet to include the word finicky in their underwater vocabulary. Simply said, if you put it in front of a river smallie’s nose and it has a twitch that even remotely resembles anything alive, he’s going to pounce on it. And, my, do they know how to pounce.
Hardware for stream smallies is elemental. One of the most consistent lures we’ve found over the years has been the aforementioned light, leadhead jig and a 3-inch twistertail. Color, I believe, can make a difference, the most important variable being that whatever the color, the fish need to see it. For us, chartreuse always has a place in the tackle pouch, as do white and yellow. Under clear water conditions, we’ll slip a pumpkinseed or motor oil tail on the jig, either one of which does an excellent job of imitating a crawdad—which is, as everyone knows, one of the smallie’s favorite snacks.
Small crankbaits, too, can be awfully effective on stream smallmouth. An angling friend’s favorite crankbait—twistertails are his first choice of armament—is a No. 7 Rapala Shad Rap in either crawdad, black, or silver. Rebel’s crawdad-shaped cranks also work well, as do small Rat-L-Traps and flashy inline, can you say Mepps?, spinners.
Live bait such as minnows, soft craws, or nightcrawlers can also be deadly on stream smallmouth. However, such baits, while certainly legal, should be used with care as fish caught on such offerings often take hooks exceptionally deep, making successful releases difficult, if not impossible. In live bait situations, barbless hooks can make releasing fish unharmed much easier.