Essential lures for river smallmouth bass

When you’re chasing river smallmouth bass, you’ve got to have the right lures at your disposal. As I was developing this list, I challenged myself to come up with a handful of baits that would work for river smallmouth spring through fall. The result, a collection of lures that I would have complete confidence in no matter what the river condition or the fishes mood.

Top of Water Column

Poppers – A great top water bait for “calling in” smallies from a distance. A few pops and let it sit for as long as you can stand it and the smallies will hit it with reckless abandonment.

Prop Baits – Prop baits like the H.C. Baits Hubs Chub are excellent for smallmouth. The distinctive gurgling noise produced by the metal propeller and resulting surface disturbance has enticed more than one trophy smallmouth to inhale this strange combination of metal and plastic. A few sharp short snaps of the rod followed by a long pause will drive the smallies crazy.

Buzzbaits – When the top water bite is heating up, you’ll want to fish fast, cover water, and find the biters. A buzzbait is a great cast and wind bait. Make sure you start the retrieve as soon as your bait touches down. If you can deflect the bait of wood, rock, or your fishing buddies kayak on the retrieve you’ll trigger far more strikes!

Colors: Represented are a number of colors and patterns that can be effective for river smallmouth ranging from flashy baitfish colors to darker colors that provide high contrast.

Middle of Water Column

Soft Stickworms – Most often smallmouth will hit soft stickworms on the drop or on the drift so I consider it primarily a middle of the water column presentation. Nose hooked, texposed rigged, or wacky rigged this bait can be fished in a variety of situations. It’s truly a “do nothing” kind of bait. Cast it out and let it fall through the water column in a likely looking smallie haunt. I like to fish this bait on a bit of a slack line to maintain a more natural drift and parallel slow fall to the bottom.

Colors: Shades of browns, greens, black, and laminated with a  dark color and contrasting light typically work well. I’m also a big fan of chartreuse tipped soft stickworm. Baits below are all Winco’s Custom Lure baits ranging from 3″ to 4.5″

Soft Jerkbaits – Soft jerkbaits are one of the most effective baitfish imitating middle of the water column baits for smallmouth bass. Cast it out, let it sink to the desired depth, then add a few short jerks followed by a pause. When smallmouth are in a neutral or negative mood, you can cast it out and dead drift or dead stick the bait adding no action at all. This presentation is absolutely deadly for trophy sized smallmouth bass.

Colors: Colors matching baitfish in your local flow are a good place to start. I use an iridescent color called “electric blue” then just paint on custom color patterns with a scented “Spike-it” marker. Pictured below are solid body Creek and River Darters by Winco’s Custom Lures.

Spinnerbaits – One word comes to mind when  look at a spinnerbait…. “versatility”. A steady cast and crank retrieve,  a stop and go retrieve, or burning it back to the kayak,  very few lures can cover water as quickly and effectively as the spinnerbait. Don’t forget to bang it off those sub surface obstacles to trigger strikes that will darn near rip the rod out of your hand! Armed with a hand full of 3/16 oz. to 1/2 oz spinnerbaits you’ll be ready to do battle with a big chunk of river bronze!

Colors: Spinnerbaits pictured range from 3/16 oz to 1/2 oz. White skirts are typically fished in clear water, chartreuse skirts in slightly stained or green water, and black skirts for heavily stained water. Experiment with gold or silver blade color until you find what fish want.

Bottom of Water Column

Tubes – Yes, the classic tried and true tube makes the list!  Does it represent a minnow or a crawfish? We may never know but the lure has probably caught more river smallmouth than any other in the north east waters where I fish. Rigged on a 1/8 oz or 1/4 oz.  internal tube head jig and worked with a series of short drags and long pauses in between will draw the attention of smallmouth bass.

Colors: Match local crawfish and baifish color for best results. Shades of greens browns, and black will imitate crawfish nicely. Use dark colors in stained water. Laminated tubes with dark on top and light colors on bottom bottom will make good baitfish imitations. Tubes with various metallic fleck colors can also be good baitfish imitators.

Soft Plastic Crawfish Imitations -It’s no surprise that crawfish are a smallmouth’s preferred food source in most river systems so this bait is a must for the serious smallie hunter! Crawfish are one of my favorite baits for river smallmouth no matter what the season.  Crawl it slowly and meticulously on the bottom for 8-12 inches at a time with long pauses in between drags and you’ve got a great presentation.

Colors: Do some exploring in your local flows. Lift rocks and pay close attention to the colors of crawfish. You will likely find several different color variations. Use that research to select some colors and go from there. Below are pictured 3.25 inch Predator Craws rigged on a Flutter Head and the smaller 2.25 inch Baby Predator Craw rigged on a Rock Guarded Football Head by Winco’s Custom Lures. Adjust the size of your offering based on the fishes mood and the size of active crawfish you may observing while fishing.

Crankbaits – When fish are in the mood for a fast presentation low in the water column, it’s time to break out the crankbaits! Making bottom contact with your crankbait is important. Most often strikes will come as the bait deflects off rock on the river bottom so selecting a diving crankbait that will hit bottom is important. Experiment with fast, slow or stop and go retrieves to find what the fish want.

Colors: Match the coloration of baitfish and crawfish in your river system for most water conditions. When the water gets muddy, switch to crankbaits with red or very dark contrasting colors.

Honorable Mention

Suspending Jerkbaits – This bait shines in early spring and late fall. When the fish  want something hanging forever in the middle of the water column, tie on a suspending jerkbait. Jerk or crank it down to depth in a likely looking smallie haunt and just let it hang there. A typical cadence is two or three jerks and then a pause. In cold water let it hang for minutes.  In warmer water you can shorten the pause significantly. Smallies will usually crush the bait on the pause. Let them tell you how long they want the bait to hang.

 The Real Secret

In my Guided Kayak Fishing Classes, I often stress moving outside the “normal boundary” of a lures “perceived” usefulness to extend the situations that a lure can effective. My list above is actually built on the idea that lures can and should be used beyond the the loose boundaries I’ve outlined. For example, I’ve listed the soft jerkbait as a middle of the water column lure. This is in fact the most common use of this bait however it can be used effectively in other ways. For example,  dead sticking a soft jerkbait on the bottom has produced many citation class river smallmouth bass for me and many of my fishing buddies. The soft jerkbait can also be used for a top of the water column presentation by skittering the bait across the waters surface using a combination of short snaps of the rod while quickly reeling up slack. Bottom line, always consider how you can push the limits of a baits usefulness when chasing river smallmouth.