Fishing rivers can be one of the most challenging and, at the same time, fun days you can spend on the water. Whether wading a shallow river with a light spinning rod or fishing from a boat on the mighty Ohio , rivers are great places to fish for smallmouth bass. I grew up chasing river bass and it’s something of which I will never tire. I’ve fished rivers for smallmouth from Northern Wisconsin down into eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, and when it comes to rivers, there are five baits that, for me, get the job done.
1. Topwater- For me, a big brown bass crushing a topwater bait never gets old. Big
smallies will typically strike a surface plug with a vengeance. There are two main lures I like to throw on river systems- a walking bait and a popping bait. My specific “go to’s” are the Heddon Super Spook Jr for the walking bait, the Strike King KVD Splash for one that pops. I’ll throw the walking bait when I want to cover water on shallow flats or if I see fish busting on bait. It’s a great tool for finding active fish and can be productive all day long. The popping style is a great bait for targeting fish on rock points, stumps or in current breaks. When it comes to colors, I stick with black and white with the walker and shad patterns with the popper.
2. Tube- For me, nothing is more versatile than a tube. Like the jig, it can be made to
mimic any bait in the water just by changing size and color. Smallies love eating crawfish and shad in most rivers and a tube is a great way to mimic both. You can rig a tube a number of ways as well. I like to stick with natural colors like Green Pumpkin or Dark Watermelon when smallies are feeding on crawfish. I often dye the tips orange. When they are feeding on shad I like to use white. I will toss a tube just about anywhere. Shoals and current breaks are probably the biggest producers. My brands of choice are the Strike King Coffee Tube and the Bass Pro Shops Double Dipped Tube.
3. Crankbaits- Smallmouth Bass are curious by nature and it’s a lot of fun to catch them
on something moving. They often hit like a runaway freight train! I like to approach river smallmouth a little bit differently when it comes to crankbaits. Despite conventional wisdom, and often times because of the current, in clear water I use loud colors like chartreuse and pink. These are killer crankbait colors. I like the Rapala DT4 and the BX Brat which I throw when targeting wing dam and current break fish. Crawfish patterns such as Mule and Demon from the Rapala line also produce well, especially in the spring. Don’t be afraid to switch up your retrieve, sometimes I’ll catch them crawling the bait and other times the faster I rip it, the harder they crush it.
4. Spinnerbait- The spinnerbait has a special place in my heart, I caught my fist big
smallmouth on the Ohio River when I was a kid on a white one and have never left the
house without one since. To me, the spinnerbait really shines best in the spring. In East Tennessee, I have crushed big pre spawn fish on the Holston River using one when they wouldn’t touch anything else. I will throw a spinnerbait anywhere in a river system. It typically doesn’t get hung up so it’s a great search tool. You can fish it at varying speeds and even tick the bottom almost like a crankbait. I like to stick with baits that are white or white/chartreuse- sometimes I’ll put colored blades on them too. I’ve fished with War Eagle baits for a number of years but recently I’ve experimented with Nichols Lures and found the Elite Low Pro to be a killer river bait.
5. Finesse Jig- If you’ve followed my blogs, you knew I would throw a jig into the mix. A small ball- head finesse jig fished in current breaks can catch you one of the biggest smallmouth of your life- especially in colder water. You probably won’t get a ton of bites, but it will get you the right bites. I’ve been tying my own jigs mainly because I can get the exact color I want and get the right quality of a hand tied skirt with wire over the rubber band. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of colors on my local rivers and my success
keeps me returning to the same one- green pumpkin and brown with a green pumpkin Zoom Z Craw JR on the back. For some reason that color combo has really done well, even sealing a tournament win for me on Cherokee Lake.
Bottom line, pound for pound, the river smallmouth is the best fighting fish- even more feisty than its lake dwelling brothers and sisters. It is, without a doubt, my favorite fish to catch. Fishing river systems big and small is a skill I’ll keep trying to perfect over the next many years because nothing is more fun. These five baits aren’t the only baits I throw in rivers but they are, in the end, the baits that get things done for me most of the time. They also serve as a great starting point on places I haven’t fished before. Take these five to your favorite smallmouth and catch your new personal best, and as always, keep your lines tight and Live the Passion!
Bret Dawson, iBass360 Pro Staff, is originally from Carrollton KY, and now lives in Tennessee. He cut his teeth fishing his home waters- the Ohio River system. When not tempting big bass with soft plastics, buzzbaits and crankbaits, Bret represents Kistler Rods, and Xcite Baits as part of their Pro Staff teams. Bret has fished various regional tournaments in the mid-South and is a regular contributor to the iBass360 blog for which we are very grateful.