If you are reading this, you are already aware of how the northeast was inundated with rain in 2018, causing the rivers to run high and often muddy. These conditions did not stop us from catching fish however, rather it simply changed the lures, colors and techniques we used to fish for river smallmouth, albeit the list of lures was a little shorter than previous years. In fact, it was a great year of fishing, with an increased number of 20″+ fish caught. In no particular order, here is my MVP list of lures and other tools that helped make 2018 such a great success. If you caught my list already from the videos I posted on Instagram, please read on, with this blog I go into much more details on all of the products, colors and methods of fishing!
Adams Custom Lures ATAK crankbait
Admittedly I stopped fishing crankbaits on the rivers for several years due to the frustration of continual snags and the cost of lost crankbaits from these snags and broken bills from banging on the rocks. In late spring of 2017 John of Snagler Tackle gave me a few of the ATAK crankbaits to try out, which I reluctantly did….and so glad I did! This crankbait has been an absolute fish catching machine for me starting from water temps around 50 in spring, all the way til its back down around 45 in fall. I have found this crankbait to be very snag resistant, in fact I am still fishing some of the same baits from 2017, with only 1 lost to the bottom of the river. Despite the abuse the river can put on tackle the paint holds up remarkably well also. These crankbaits cast like a bullet so can be fished with either spinning gear or a baitcaster if you prefer, with either rod I fish these with 8lb mono or Seaguar Invisx. Using the 8lb test I have found they will dive from 3′-5′. Fishing these crankbaits is fairly simple, most times I am fishing it with a steady moderate retrieve but will experiment with a stop and go retrieve at times. With either retrieve it is important to make bottom contact occasionally, the erratic motion of a lure deflecting off a rock or other surface is what often triggers the “reaction bite”. I typically fish these crankbaits in areas of at 3′ or more of water and look for areas with chunk rock and ledges, a great technique for summer time when the sun is high and the fish have moved deeper. With most any lure I start my color selection with a basic process, dark or bright colors for stained to muddy water and more natural colors, fine tuning the color selection from there. Due to having muddy water much of the year the colors I fished most were Dirt Water Devil, Blue Mud Bug and Hot Shot. These are available for purchase at www.snaglertackle.com or www.adamscustomlurescom
Snagler Tackle Company swimbaits and heads
This was another great producer for 2018, and frankly saved the day on a number of trips at the end of June/ beginning of July. On these days I just could not get the bass to commit on any other bait, including tubes, but we caught numbers of quality fish on these swimbaits all day long. I would love to give you a clever explanation why this was the case, but I would be just blowing smoke! The STC swimbaits are 3 1/2″ long and come in 11 different colors, but the key colors in 2018 for me were watermelon red and green pumpkin. Although these are dark colors they were very effective during the period I mentioned above even though this was a period of lower, clear water. I fish these swimbaits on the STC 1/8oz ball head with a 3/0 black nickel sickle hook and used 8lb Seaguar Invisx on a “tube rod”. I really prefer the sickle hooks as I feel like I lose less fish and being black nickel they dont rust up from sitting out on my boat. Another simple lure to fish, a slow steady retrieve, again making sure to make bottom contact was all it took and not just at the beginning of summer. I fished these often while the water temps were above 50 degrees when the bass would not commit to other moving baits……the slow retrieve allowed me to cover more water and not have as many snags as fishing a tube. The key areas to fish swimbaits…..absolutely everywhere! I threw them in any area I would throw other baits, grass beds, wood, ledges and chunk rock, all in any water depth. As a little bonus the catfish really seemed dialed into these swimbaits, so we caught some nice channel and flathead cats while fishing them.
Seaguar Invisx fluorocarbon
Since I have already mentioned this product twice in the MVP list I am sure it’s not surprising that it makes the list as well! Fishing line, I think is often overlooked, but could be the most important tool in your arsenal as it is the one connection between you and the fish. I use the Invisx (and Abrasx) year round, on a number of different techniques from tubes, jigs senkos, swimbaits, crankbaits and jerkbaits. Most applications I stick with 8lb test and will use 10lb for jerkbaits, jigs and other baits that have a heavier gauge hook. Invisx has a number of features that I like, but most importantly to me is the sensitivity of this line. Paired up with a quality rod I can detect the lightest bites, rocks and subtle differences on the bottom of the river with ease. Fluorocarbon is sinking line, so it can benefit you by helping to keep your soft plastics on or near the bottom, and will help those crankbaits and jerkbaits get just a little deeper. This line also has minimal spool memory, casts as well as mono and performs equally well in warm or cold temps. www.seaguar.com
Snagler Tackle Company spinnerbaits
So here is a spoiler alert, the spinnerbait will make every MVP list I ever make for river smallmouth….and not just because I love fishing them that much but because they put a lot of fish in the boat! I start throwing spinnerbaits when the water temps start hitting 40 degrees in the spring, but admittedly they become more effective around 50 degrees, and all the way back down to around 40 degrees in the fall. Because of the stained and muddy water we encountered most of the year, I am going to focus on the technique we used to catch most of the spinnerbait fish this year – slow rolling, which is also effective in colder water temps also. Slow rolling quite simply is a slow retrieve back to the boat, however there is a bit of an art to it. I prefer to fish these on a baitcaster with a slower gear ratio, such as a 6:1 on 12 lb mono. Just because the visibility is limited or the water is colder, it does not mean that river smallmouth will not still strike spinnerbaits viciously, and fishing on mono provides a little bit of stretch that acts as a shock absorber. For fishing the colder, stained water conditions STC has two spinnerbait lines that excel, the thin wire series and the thumper series. The thin wire series is exactly as it sounds, a lighter gauge wire that emits more vibration through the water and the thumper series are made with two turtleback blades, also to produce more vibration. A few of my favorite colors are Chartreuse Death Snag, Mega Death and Southside Slammer in the thin wire and Upper Sang Remover, Stonecat, and Gold Snag in the thumper series. It is these type of conditions when using a grub trailer, or a trailer hook can be helpful, particularly when you find the bass are striking at the spinnerbait but you are not hooking up. As mentioned fish with a slow retrieve, and at times it takes working the baits as slow as you can but still feel the blades thumping. Some days a very quick pause in the retrieve can help entice the bass to bite, but it should be very quick…..just enough to make the blades and skirt flare. The bite can vary from a jolting strike to feeling weight, to an absence of feeling the blades thumping…..if you feel any of these set the hook with a sweeping motion. There is not a more exciting way to fish for river smallmouth! You can go to my page on www.snaglertackle.com to see a full list of my recommended colors.
The “Biffle Bug”
That term is actually a brand name of a soft plastic craw/ trailer I use to describe this lure because I like to say “I’m Biffling Baby!” every time I catch a fish on this lure. Don’t ask….it seems fun to me while out on the boat! My Biffle is nothing more than a swing jig, or articulating hook on a football head that I pair with a variety of different soft plastics. I typically fish these on a baitcaster with 10lb Invisx or 12lb Abrasx and use weights varying from 3/16oz to 7/16oz, depending on water depth and current. Most prerigged Biffles come with larger hooks on weights above 3/16oz so I will use a Strike king tungsten head and add a Gamakatsu 1/0 or 2/0 EWG worm hook to fit the smaller baits sizes I use on the river. Some of those baits that I do like to use are the Case Zipper Grub, Yamamoto Flappin Hog, STC swimbaits and the Zman 4″ Diezel Minnow Z. As my usual color progression goes I start with natural or green pumpkin colors in clear water and graduate into darker colors like watermelon/ red and black/ blue for muddy water. This was a great search bait from water temps in the mid 40’s and up when the bass would short strike other moving baits like crankbaits and spinnerbaits. I fished this with a slow to moderate, steady retrieve and maintaining bottom contact, although this bait is fished on the bottom is fairly snag resistant. Snagler Tackle is working on a swing head designed for river fisherman which hopefully be for sale by the time this is published, I cant wait to get may hands on those!
St Croix Rods
One of the most common questions I am asked or see on social media is “what is the best rod/ action for (insert technique here) fishing?”. Well, the truth is there is no one right answer. It depends on your fishing style, what you find comfortable, and a number of variables such as lure weight, hook size, and line type you are using. Luckily St. Croix has it all covered with a number of different lines with different price points, split grips, cork handles, micro guides, you name it! In the era of social media and sponsorships it is not common to see fisherman quickly switch brands, sometimes yearly to “Get a deal”. I have used St. Croix rods for over 30 years, so when I started guiding one of my first goals was to get accepted on the St. Croix guide program. With any of the price points you get high quality rods backed by outstanding customer service. Spending so many days on the water each year I really depend on quality rods that last and perform. Having the sensitivity needed to feel a light mushy bite, or to feel the difference in the bottom substrate. Here are just a few of my favorite models.
Mojo Bass Rods – One of the lower price point rods but very sensitive and high quality. I like the split grip and keep quite a few of these in my boat!
Mojo Yak Rods – The same rods as the regular Mojos but with a shorter butt. As the name implies great for Kayak fisherman but I think it is going to be great for winter fishing as well. The shorter butt will not get tangled in your bulky winter clothing.
Premier series rods – Available in spinning, casting, crankbait and Musky rods with cork handles at a great price point.
Legend Tournament series – A “mid range” price point and amazing rods. The sensitivity of these rods in amazing, light weight and again with the split grips that I like.
Legend Xtreme series – One of top of the line rods St. Croix makes and the most sensitive rod I have ever felt. Ever heard the expression “I can feel a fish fart”? Try one of these rods and you will know what that means! Go to the St. Croix website to see the technology and care put into building these rods. www.stcroixrods.com
Once again this year the jerkbait was a big producer for us, specifically the Rapala XRAP 08. Although this is an effective lure most of the year I primarily fish it in water temps between 38 and 50 degrees, perhaps because river smallmouth tend to be a little more active at lower temps than lake fish. Despite the smaller size the 08 casts like a bullet so can easily be fished on a baitcaster on a spinning rod, either way I prefer to fish it on 8lb or 10lb Invisx. Since the bite tends to come on the pause/ slack line the Invisx makes it easier to feel those pick ups. There are a couple of keys to successfully fishing jerkbaits, the first is the pause. The pause can vary from one to 30 seconds or more, but I typically do not fish them if it takes more than a 10 second pause. I start by aggressively working the Xrap and slow down to longer pauses until I find the length the fish want that day. Sometimes it is surprising how quickly you can work these baits when the water temps are in the upper 30’s. The second key is leaving some slack line after the “jerk”, this allows the bait to dart side to side while remaining in the intended area. I like to fish these on a medium power, fast action rod to really get it to dance, and with a stiffer rod I loosen my drag slightly to prevent from ripping the hooks from the fish’s mouth. The Xrap has internal rattles. lots of fish catching colors and what I think was key this past year, the feathered rear treble. Although cold water does clear up more quickly, we often dealt with stained water in 2018 and I feel like that rear treble added an important visual to give the bass something to key on. Some of my favorite colors are Gold, Hot Steel, Moss Back Shiner, Purple Gold and Olive Green but I think it would be hard to go wrong with any of the colors. And hey….if these baits are good enough for Al Linder they are good enough for me! www.rapala.com
Have you noticed the weather always seems to be great all week-long, and then sucks when the weekend comes and it is time to fish? I can not wait for better weather so I spend many days a year on the water fishing in freezing temps, blazing heat, wind, and rain and do so comfortably wearing Under Armour. The technology of their clothing really is that good, to be able to fish all day in brutal conditions and stay comfortable is amazing. I won’t even claim to fully understand and tell you how it works, it just does, instead I will focus more some UA products that I could not go without again. Such as the UA base layers, they come in several different “degrees of warmth” and are absolutely key to staying warm during the colder days. In fact I typically wear the 4.0 base layer with pants, a UA hoodie, and my rain suit and stay warm. Another key item for the cold days is the UA charged wool socks, just a single layer of socks is all that is needed with these. A final item for cold weather fishing I could not do without is the ColdGear Infared Balaclava. So everyone knows that most of your body heat is lost from your head but not while wearing this, and its perfect or keeping the wind off your face and avoiding that wind burnt feeling for the next two days. It’s not just about the cold either, Under Armour has a number of different long-sleeved shirts for dealing with the summer heat. I admit I was skeptical at first that I would stay cool during the heat of the summer wear long sleeves but it truly works, the design of the fabric almost feels like air conditioning with any air movement. And spending the day outside and not getting sun burnt is a nice plus! If you are having troubles navigating the amount of product available, Under Amour breaks it down on the website by sport, just start by browsing the fishing section and for some great buys check out the outlet sections. www.underarmour.com
STC Signature series tubes
The tube may be the best year round producer for river smallmouth and it certainly produced for us. It’s not just a numbers bait either, I caught as many 20″ plus smallmouth on a tube as I did on spinnerbaits, or any other bait in 2018. Often we will catch fish that will spit up crayfish, or have them sticking out of their gullet and the majority of those crayfish are small, 1″ -3″ in length. These tubes are the perfect size, 2 3/4″, and fished properly look just like a crayfish moving across the bottom of the river. I pair these tubes up with the STC tube heads, mostly in 1/8oz but will go up to 3/16oz if it is very windy. These tube heads have black nickel sickle hooks, and a tear drop shaped lead head. To me the shape of this head makes a more distinctive “thump” when a bass sucks them in and I find I lose less fish with the sickle hooks. I like to fish these on 8lb Invisx and of course on a spinning rod…..the Invisx paired up with a St.Croix Legend Tournament or Legend Xtreme is insanely sensitive. Fishing a tube is fairly simple, but takes concentration and patience. I prefer to fish tubes by casting perpendicular to the current or slightly downstream, casting upstream will result in getting snagged much quicker. After the cast, keep your rod tip high and let the current move the tube, moving it with your rod tip only when the tube stops moving or starts to become stuck. There are other techniques that I use at different times such as swimming it, snap jigging or simply deadsticking that I will go into another time. When you feel the “thump”, set the hook! Many times it will be a rock or log, but better to set the hook on a rock than miss what could be a big fish! Because I am a hooksetter, and use a non-stretch line, I find a medium light rod with an extra fast tip is perfect for me, I tend to pull the hook out of the fish with a stiffer rod. Rocky, shallow rivers like the Susquehanna and upper Potomac rivers will devour tubes like Joey Chestnut at a hot dog eating contest, so finding tubes that produce and are economical is key for me, I don’t think you can find quality tubes and heads at a better price. www.snaglertackle.com
Feel free to leave your comments, or share what some of your top baits for 2018 were! Check out the video page on this site to see some of the trip videos from this past year.