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Memory: A Most Valuable Tool For Stream Smallmouth

I remember iBass360 Brand Manager Eric Evans telling me about a memorable big smallmouth bass catch from a stream in Virginia. Likewise, many years ago, I read in Bassmaster magazine about Rappahannock River smallmouths, the article making a timeless impression on me. During those years of my youth, I caught and released hundreds of smallmouths from Mercer County New Jersey’s Stony Brook, but the distant river in Virginia, portrayed in the glory of public appraisal, seemed to possess mythic proportion- and it still does. That’s the kind of magic we bestow on faraway places in this world.

But what about Stony Brook? The paradox of home waters involves secrets which make them a much deeper mystery than familiarity can ever expose. Home waters—the North and South Branch Raritan home waters to me now—will never tell you everything, even if you were to fish them an entire lifetime. Fish a river often enough, however, and your mind will log experiences, not only by emotional response that will put you on fish, but also by a rich and complex assortment of facts and abstract patterns. But I think less distance between your mind and an actual fishing situation tunes you to possible catches, not to mention a wholesome good time, just as the conversational nature of reflection between you and a buddy can also point the way.

Rivers and streams present smallmouth bass a smorgasbord of feeding opportunities after June 1st, and productive fishing may be expected all day long. In my home state, average stream bass behave as bulldogging nine-inchers that play well on light spinning outfits. Consider, however, the 6.6-pound smallmouth weighed in from the South Branch Raritan in 2010 at Bound Brook’s former Efinger Sporting Goods. Big bass inhabit all of New Jersey’s freestone, and the partially limestone, rivers. Catching them isn’t necessarily easy, but the effort may be pursued long term to achieve successes that become part of your own habitual character. The value of releasing these fish should be entirely clear to anyone privileged to their lordly acquaintance. Some time ago, I was informed by river veteran Andy Still how to properly hold such a bass to ensure no spinal damage. Either vertically with no bend in the neck. Or supported by hand on the belly or ventral region so no undo pressure on the spine results.

Rather than selecting a single river to seek out its stretches, holes, undercuts and other whereabouts for big bass, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with a variety of rivers in your region. After a few years of finding spots that yield a few nice bass in the three pound range, you may begin to feel how these rivers relate to your personal knowledge gained. Subtle clues in the present naturally key to a menu of possibilities that direct you where to go- because you’ve done the homework. Don’t give up thinking through each new outing. A river depends on you, not only for the safe release of bass and keeping it clean, but for your to favor it with a reply. There’s not a river on the planet that doesn’t invite an angler to catch fish.

Nothing is more rewarding than having a hunch days ahead of an outing, and following it through to a four-pound smallmouth on the end of the line. This happened to me some years ago. Hunches don’t happen unless the groundwork of knowledge has firmly taken root, so get to know your rivers and they will begin to prepare you for your outings in unexpected ways. For example, of all the variety of river structure, I judge long slow stretches as the best for warm water fishing. Deep holes may seem to hold the big bass, but don’t necessarily. I know a stretch of the South Branch Raritan with moderate current leading into 9-10 foot depths, a nice, big hole with sizeable rocks on the bottom that you might think would be loaded with bass. I fished this hole at least half a dozen times, and caught no bass from it until, finally, one September evening, I caught a bunch of them. But the same stretch extends downstream more than a hundred yards, water four feet deep close to the bank opposite to where I cast. Close to the tail out of this stretch, a modest tree with a trunk I can almost fit both hands around bends close to the surface of this depression where I’ve caught all my other bass in this area, including a two-pounder and four-pounder. Not what you expect, but what you learn.

A favorite stretch of the North Branch Raritan is very shallow for most of its length, panning out to four-foot depths, but always full of bass even shallower. Some we catch in a foot of water. Submerged flat-topped slate marks the bottom here and there. Bass hide under this cover, darting out to grab Senko-type worms cast near. Often we sight fish. It’s always favorable to see bass that don’t see us. Senko-type plastics cast a mile to visible bass. Average-size bass pounce on the five-inch size, so I never bother with smaller worms that don’t have the casting reach. Many swear by tube plastics rigged on plain shank hooks without lead head jigs. The plastic tentacles produce tantalizing action smallmouths don’t refuse. Twister tails work too, so long as the size 1 or 2 plain shank is positioned so the lure rides evenly upon retrieve. Whichever variety chosen, plastics are almost universally acknowledged as the best summer stream smallmouth lure.

In my own experience, nothing beats the thick-bodied worm. I can cast further than I see into the water, but the drawback to taking hits from far away involves hookset. Especially where current bows the line, driving the hook home may prove impossible in some instances, not all. In any event, don’t let a bass take plastic for more than a few seconds before setting. You will miss some hits but kill fewer fish. Instead of using a flimsy ultra-light rod, employ a medium power, five-and-a-half-foot spinning rod. I tried an ultra-light just once and returned to the heavier. The hooks get set and bass fight hard.

On these rivers and streams I have come to know so well, I’ve also tried fly-fishing. From late May into September, smallmouths feed voraciously on a variety of larval and winged insects, nematodes, molting crayfish and other stream denizens as their preferences before forage fish. Before you think streamer or popping bug, try nymph. Doesn’t have to be outsized, although big black size 4 Stonefly patterns and the like with lots of attractive appendages catch bass. Casting little size 12 nymphs of any variety—brown, black and gold or any combination of color—with five or six-weight floating line can be devastating on a smallmouth bass’ peace in the afternoon. Gets them riled up in a partying mood quick sometimes.

Unlike lake largemouths typically feeding early and late, stream smallmouths strike any time during the day throughout the summer, but the big ones allow better approach around dawn and sunset. Big bass have subtler feeding habits than newbies over-wound and pouncing like kittens. Big bass will take big baits. I know of a guy who is successful with baitcasting gear here on the South Branch in New Jersey, gear you would expect on Lake Moultrie in South Carolina. He targets the biggest bass exclusively and scores. But cast a half-ounce Hula Popper at noon and nothing big or little may take it. At dusk, something just might happen. If you specialize in big bass or just want to catch bass, the five-inch Senko-type worms are plenty suitable. Not restricted to long, slow stretches’ opportunities for arching casts, they work in every situation a river presents. Always, I rig Wacky with hook attached to the worm’s middle by a plastic O ring. Slip that on using a Case Plastics Wacky Tool. Place the worm inside the device, pull the O ring onto the middle. Rigging Wacky better ensures hookset, and in some situations, flutter action draws strikes, although most often bass rush the worm on initial descent.

I’ve caught bass on these worms everywhere, including riffles with strong current, at the bottom of deep holes by lift-drop retrieves and by flutter retrieves through the wide V’s of tail outs. Not every stretch has a tail out suitable to hold bass. Some end in inches of diaphanous riffles that tend to bore the eye of any angler, but others have one to three-foot depths with strong current and a noticeable V formation produced by that current pulled downstream. That is a classic structure to revere. Food gets sucked towards the middle of the V. Big bass hold there—especially at dawn and dusk—as if serving as the gatekeepers of something too mysterious to imagine quite accurately. A three-pounder once nailed a Senko-type worm retrieved right into dead center, wrenching my arms. A fish I’ll never forget.

The summer smorgasbord lasts into September, when smallmouths begin to feed especially on soft-rayed fish forage. It’s no coincidence that in the Delaware River, bass gorge on shad fry headed to the Atlantic. Inland rivers don’t offer the same situation, but in October I cast silver-sided Rapalas and do best in fast-moving water. When winter comes it’s not impossible to catch bass on lures, if you want to try dead-sticking a weighted tube-plastic deep, letting current do the work on tentacles. Those deep holes are the end of my story.

Bruce Edward Litton first got published at 16 in The New Jersey Fisherman, adding numerous others by the time he was 18. Despite a long hiatus to broaden his experiences, Litton never lost his passion for fishing. In 2005, armed with deeper knowledge, he began to cover subjects as varied as trout fishing on New Jersey streams and wrangling Outer Banks bluefish. Litton caught the notice of  New Jersey outdoor writer Jim Stabile who praised his writing. Jim Hutchinson, The Fisherman’s managing editor requested Litton’s photography and his quality articles which provide advice on fishing places, techniques and tackle. Litton has a solid reputation as an outdoor journalist and maintains high-caliber relationships with editors of other publications. Articles on bass fishing caught the eye of iBass360’s Rob Zorn, a fellow Lawrence High graduate, and Litton was asked to join the team. The iBass360 family values his vast fishing knowledge, his journalistic contributions, and his friendship.

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