My largest smallmouth ever, a 22.5” Rappahannock River fish, came on a day when the canoe livery refused to run the shuttle for me. Steve stood on the porch and watched me drive up the dusty road to his campground. His head was shaking as I stepped out of my truck. He hollered down the hill to me, “Too low to float!” After twenty minutes of haggling with him, and telling him that I was going to be out there with or without his shuttle, he agreed to run me up to Kelly’s Ford.
As he helped me lift my kayak off of his trailer, he said “You know that this is going to be a twelve mile HIKE, not a twelve mile float trip, right?!” I just smiled at him. I ended the day with three smallmouth over twenty inches, including the 22.5 incher, and countless others in the upper teens. The pattern? That day it was all about the end of the longer pools, specifically the “push water”. Either a 1/4 oz white buzzbait, or a 4”green tube, heaved to the last piece of smooth water in the pool before it transitioned to a rock garden or riffle, brought on a ferocious attack. I giggled before even feeling the hit - I could see the reverse wake rocket toward my bait.
In other watersheds, the key structure is boulder shade in the deeper parts of a pool. Standing up and seeing shade lines in deep water is a major advantage. Shade in any form affords the fish cooler water temperatures. The cooler water holds more oxygen, an important requirement for larger fish. Deep water does the same thing - it filters the light as you go deeper, so it’s cooler. Some shallow water can produce, but it needs the shade to be consistently effective. Think in terms of overhanging foliage, the shade under a submerged log, shade under aquatic vegetation, or shade from a bridge. Big smallmouth will hold on to that shade and move with it as the sun travels across the sky.
Low light periods of dawn and dusk afford the fish prime hunting opportunities, but don’t limit yourself to daylight fishing. Nighttime on the river can be the most productive. Use lures that maximize a smallmouth’s ability to find and track the lure’s path. A big black buzzbait or Arbogast “Jitterbug” traveling across the pool at a slow speed might bring your best smallmouth of the year to thumb.
Most people’s schedules don’t allow for all-night fishing trips, so let’s focus on daytime shade. Four shade-based presentations exist when the water is ultra-clear:
1. Casting to big, obvious examples of shade - such as tree shade or bridge shade - from a distance.
2. Making short casts from a seated position to smaller shade lines, like those caused by a submerged log or boulder.
3. Shade associated with submerged vegetation.
4. The same targets already mentioned, while standing up and hitting them from a distance.
Of the four the hardest to do, but often the most effective, is to stand up and cast to boulder or wood shade from afar. A good pair of polarized sunglasses is mandatory.
The act of standing up in a kayak is one hurdle, and most people can accomplish it in a kayak designed for standing. But to do so with a degree of confidence takes practice. I've seen those new to standing shut down an entire pool of smallmouth bass because of the shakey wakes they send out, spooking fish in all directions.
In this low, clear water scenario, stealth is of utmost importance. You will likely approach the fish in a pool that has little to no turbulence to visually mask your profile and movement. Drift motionless until you cast. An angler who waves his arms like he's walking the tight rope at the circus is going to send the bass further under their shady rocks. If the wake of shifting your weight from one side of the kayak to the other turns the placid pool into something like a wave pool at a water park, you aren't going to catch many fish. They feel those waves moving though the pool and change mindset from predator to prey.
Stand up and take the long shot at distant boulder shade targets only if you are practiced at maintaining steady balance on your drift through the pool. If you aren't steady, practice not sending waves out. The second drill in the video below should help you gain the confidence in your boats standing stability enough to not send out the shakey wakes.
Many kayaks now offer a variety of seating options: low for efficient paddling, and high for a stable higher vantage point between seated and standing. This elevated-but-still- seated position is a great compromise for many anglers to sight cast to shade lines. The new Wilderness Systems “Air Pro Max” seat is one that can adjust to three different positions: low, high, and reclined. Its highest position makes the transition from seated to standing smooth and steady. This translates to minimal shakey wakes sent across the pool.
Another way to identify deeper shade from a seated position is to scan the surface for boils. Even in slow-moving pools, a deep boulder will send a gentle push of turbulence to the surface. Seeing these boils from a distance is something that only works when the wind isn't ruffling the surface. When you identify a boil, be sure to cast well enough upstream to let your tube, jig, or fluke tumble downstream and intercept the shade cast by the boil causing object. Casting right on top of where the turbulence hits the surface means that your bait will fall somewhere downstream of the object, missing its opportunity to tempt a shade-hugging fish to bite.
Lure choice should be something that can be easily dragged and paused on the bottom of a snaggy conglomeration of rocks, wood, or brush. An internally-weighted tube bait rigged on a 5/0 extra wide gap hook can be easily skipped far back into the shady overgrowth on the bank. A swimbait rigged on a snag-resistant head, like the Confidence Baits “Draggin' Head” excels with a bottom dragging presentation. Weightless options like soft stick baits or flukes do well, too, if you can place the bait so that the drift intercepts the often narrow area of shade that a log or boulder casts.
If regional thunderstorms do temporarily muddy your waters, switch to reaction style baits like spinnerbaits or crank baits. Finesse presentations may not be as easily noticed in the reduced visibility water. The good news of having some muddy water is that it will pull the fish out from the shade, moving about the pool in search of food. Take advantage of this situation while you can. In very muddy waters, use lures that make a lot of noise, such as rattle traps or buzzbaits. Shallow diving wide-bodied crank baits, like a Kopper's LIVETARGET “Crawfish Crankbait” or Mann's “Baby One Minus”, are also good options because they push a lot of water. Incorporating a momentary pause in retrieve (something less than a second) will force fish that follow the crankbait without hitting to commit to the attack or turn away. They usually crush it and turn on the brief pause.
Enjoy having the river to yourself this late summer. You might be pleasantly surprised by the size of fish you catch!
Jeff Little, producer of Tight Line Junkies Journal, teaches seasonal patterns for river smallmouth, tidal largemouth, and many other species. His DVD on Summer Patterns for River Smallmouth can be found at ConfidenceBaits.net.