Reading a Smallmouth Bass River
Back to our typical smallmouth river. The middle part of the main pool runs from three to six feet deep and is about the size of a football field. Some of it is too deep to wade, but there are many ledges and shallower areas that enable us to cover almost the entire area.
Ledges provide excellent cover for bass, but keep in mind they prefer some slight overhead protection if they can get it. Ledges are often perfect for this but you should check each area closely to see just where the bass will be located. Ledges seldom have straight sides as they come up from the bottom. In most cases one side or the other will be undercut as much as a foot or two. Realizing that most mid-stream ledges run across the stream flow, this means that either the upstream or downstream edge will provide perfect overhead cover for the bass.
If you find you can get these smallmouth to take surface bugs, you can approach them from almost any angle. However, if you find that you have to go underwater for them, the approach is much more demanding.
If the ledges are undercut on the downstream side, it is awfully difficult to get a nymph or streamer down deep enough from an upstream angle. It is much better to approach these ledges from downstream and cast your fly almost straight upstream. If the topmost portion of the ledge is several feet under the water, you can cast your fly six or eight feet upstream beyond the ledge to let it sink a little more before it gets to the ledge. If, on the other hand, the ledge is only an inch or two under the surface, you must cast your fly right at the downstream edge of the ledge or you will hang your fly on it.
It is difficult to do justice to these ledges undercut on the downstream edge by trying to fish across stream below them. Just as the flies touch the water the force of the current on the line and leader pulls them out of the very spot we want to fish, and we must be satisfied with the small fish we pick up downstream in the less productive water. Straight upstream is the way to fish this type of ledge.
Now let's look at those ledges which have the undercut portion on the upstream side, perpendicular to the flow of the current. Again, if the fish will come to the surface by all means fish them that way. But sometimes we have to go under for them.
You have a choice on how to fish these ledges with underwater flies. You can approach them from below much like we did with the last ledge type but now, since many of these ledges are only several feet thick, you actually wade in right behind the downstream portion of the ledge and cast up or up and across.
Twenty or thirty-foot casts are best here, to give you maximum control of sinking, fishing, and striking.
If you prefer, you can fish these upstream undercut ledges from above. Not straight upstream, but off at about a 45-degree angle from the ledge and about thirty to forty feet upstream of it.
The idea is to cast your streamer or nymph across stream far enough above the ledge to allow the current to pull it close to the bottom as it approaches the front edge of the ledge. Up to this point you are not actually fishing your fly but should be mending your line and making any corrections necessary in the drift to assure your fly is deep and under control. One caution: too long a cast can result in a snap-the-whip action on the fly when the fast crossing current grabs the fly line and pulls the fly up off the bottom. Naturally, this robs us of the depth we need.
The fly is now drifting along the bottom about ten feet upstream of the ledge. At this point we want to bring it to life and fish it right across in front of the ledge, using care not to bring it too far up off of the bottom. If the ledge runs all the way across the river, I will often fish my way along its full length by wading a little further out after two or three casts into each undercut.
There is some slow deep water downstream of the ledges. It covers about 200 feet in length and is about 100 feet wideright in the middle of the river.
The bottom here is a mixture of sand, silt, and fine rubble, conducive to thick weed growth. This grass gets thick in late summer and provides excellent cover along the edge for smallmouth. It is loaded with dragonflies, damselflies, shiner-type minnows, and leeches.
This looks almost like a giant grass island and, although the center is too deep to wade, the upstream fifty to sixty feet and the water coming out from the bank can be negotiated. When the water gets low and the bass get spooky I often use this grass to conceal my approach.
I like to start at the upstream end of this 100-foot-wide grass island and wade down through it about ten to fifteen feet back inside from the edge. From this position it is easy to fish out across the edge into the open water.
Topwater bugs as well as streamers and nymphs work along these edges. Casting across and downstream and playing your flies back up along the edge of the grass will take a lot of nice fish.
I once had an angler in one of my schools who, due to a particular impairment, could not cast a very long line. The water was low and conditions were tough; I realized he was going to scare most of the bass at the range he could cover. After a little experimenting I put him into one of these grass islands and had him wade just inside the edge and fish a short line out into the open water. The grass hid his approach and he caught lots of nice smallmouth.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication