Stream Smallmouth Bass Migrations
Snorkeling the North Branch Raritan River in New Jersey with my son especially involved curiosity about smallmouth bass. We did it on occasion for a number of summers, sighting them through our diving masks in Bedminster at the AT&T stretch along U.S. Highway 206, and in general proximity to Burnt Mill’s Road near Bedminster’s border with Branchburg Township.
A few distinguishing characteristics of bass behavior interested us. For example, we experienced their boldness. Anglers know smallmouths are aggressive, but when they faced us directly a couple of feet from our eyes, we understood it’s not only about attacking prey. This standoffishness is different from the wary brown trout. That species whisked away quickly as we approached. We never had more than a split second to identify those fish. That’s not the way of the bass that caught our attention.
We mostly snorkeled before 2013 when brown trout still were stocked, and though not many remained in the river during summer months, we did sight a few. But we saw plenty of bass every time out. The second behavior trait we noticed was quasi-curiosity. I’m unwilling to call it curiosity outright, because it’s difficult for me to think of animals, other than mammals, possessing more developed brains to have any. But bass did offer signs of checking us out when we met them face to face. We focused on the eyes. They shifted, this way and that, as if focusing on patterns. The brains of these fish do judge the shape of lures we throw, so why not human faces as well? They were very direct about facing us down. Jealous of their own territory?
To me, the most interesting aspect of their behavior involves a question of the third
characteristic for which we tried to account. Apparently, they are less territorial than honey-hole well-wishers will want to believe. Spots exist on any of the rivers of my home state that form indelible memories for anglers who visit them time and again. The natural inclination is to think a big bass that throws the hook, say during the previous year, awaits the next- bigger yet. Trying for that fish again might result in catching a bass as willing to hang out in that beautiful place as you are. Maybe not.
The conviction my son and I have that stream bass migrate from hole to hole, stretch to stretch, took root in 2006. After hiking and wading upstream from far below Burnt Mills Road, Matt and I
encountered a smallmouth of at least 20 inches. The fish would not hit the worms we cast. Nor did it spook. It behaved like bass we would watch in front of our diving masks. It stayed in place, facing us down, watching our arms roll and our plastic worms sail its way.
I don’t mean to suggest a fish’s brain makes conscious inferences. It doesn’t. But can a bass respond to a human standing in front of it, with arms moving and objects (worms) splashing regularly in relation to these motions, by taking a later course of evasive action? Because our bodies and motions were at variance to what that bass perceived as normal and regular, maybe it had something to go on.
The next day we came back with a bucket of shiners, eagerly intending to feed that fish. Instead, an older man at our spot told us that upstream, in the Lamington River, he had caught a 21-inch smallmouth an hour ago. We stood about 50 yards downstream of that river’s confluence with the North Branch. There was no sign of the bass we had seen yesterday, and I felt certain the bass this man caught was the same. I don’t know, but likelihood existed. This made me think that not only was there a possibility that bass moved around a stream extensively, perhaps especially under cover of darkness, but also that maybe they’re not normally as prone to move as it might seem. Maybe the perceptual irregularity of a tall-standing human with rolling arms and things coming at the fish that evaded us one way or another, despite its bravery watching all this happen, prompted it to go elsewhere.
Fooled- by a bass. Who knows? In any event, I knew one such example of a bass on the move wasn’t very firm evidence. Fortunately, a year later, I snorkeled a small hole downstream of the
AT&T entry bridge, sighting half-a-dozen average-size stream smallmouths. They stayed there for the duration of my observation. Matt and I came back the next day, and before he could get in the same hole ahead of me, I went in and sighted absolutely none. A diving mask allows for perfectly clear vision in clear river water—they had moved. And again, the situation begged the question about whether or not they had moved because of my presence, although in this example, the scenario of a big human being in the water with them, the hole being rather small, makes for a more salient point about response to perceptual irregularity.
On yet another occasion, we found more than a dozen bass, some of them a foot long, along a shallow undercut further downstream of that entry bridge. This time, we weren’t snorkeling. We came to turn over rocks and otherwise involve ourselves with nature. The water was much too shallow to snorkel anyhow. The number of bass amazed us. Matt frightened them out from under bushes by forcing a long stick sideways. There were bass everywhere, zooming downstream. Had I been fishing, I wouldn’t have bothered with the spot, it seemed so insignificant.
But what we witnessed really sealed the deal about this idea of migrations. I felt certain that
when we would come back some other time, no way would a dozen or so bass go shooting away from where we would prod. We returned weeks later, nothing there. A year later—the same. After that long a time, the likelihood of perceptual irregularity as the motive for bass abandoning a lair is less likely, especially considering that they seem to forget having gotten hooked after being released. Plenty of us have caught bass with hook scars.
Nothing is proven by the events of these excursions and our reflections on them, although we did prove bass certainly will flee a tight little spot when prodded by a stick, and that bass inhabiting a large hole one day, may not the next, although nothing was determined about their motive in leaving. Even though it seems fairly likely my out-sized presence in their rather small spot made them flee, they didn’t leave while I was in it.
How freely bass migrate a river during summer, I don’t know. But it was surprising to find that many, and even big fish, were in the shallow undercut. High water probably means fish on the move. It is especially obvious when it comes to springtime trout, but the water wasn’t high that afternoon when we found them under the bushes.
Who knows what shallows they might forge in the darkness of early morning during summer? And, there is no doubt that wintertime means bass slip from shallows into the deepest holes. I’ll still have my favorite spots, but the mask has taught me that I’ll never know what and how many, if any, might be there.
Bruce Edward Litton is a outdoors writer and photographer. His work can readily be found on his blog site- Litton's Fishing Lines- where he connects readers, especially in New Jersey, to his experiences in the Highlands region and beyond. Bruce fishes the East Coast from the Florida Keys to Maine, but he's at home on New Jersey waters. He is a contributing writer at The Fisherman, and has been published as a columnist/writer for Recorder Newspapers,The New Jersey Monthly,The Drake, Eastern Fly Fishing, Salmon and Steelhead Journal, USA Today.com, Fishing World, On the Water, Fur-Fish-Game, Mid-Atlantic Game & Fish, iBass360.com, Pennsylvania Game & Fish, and many other outdoors publications. We are very pleased to have Bruce's insights featured at iBass360.