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Top Fall Baits For River Smallmouths

August 28th, 2013
By: Corky Cramer
Fall is an exciting time to fish northern rivers for smallmouth bass. Numbers of trophy smallmouth bass can be pretty slim from July to September, but when the water temperature begins a downward slide, big brown bass begin to magically appear.

“On a river with the potential for big smallmouths, I scratch my head wondering where the heck they go during summer,” says Steve Hughes, a long-time angler on western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River. “But being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I realize a summer drought of big fish makes the fall that much sweeter!”

Hughes defines the start of fall on a northern river as when the water temperature drops into the mid-60s. The seasonal cooling triggers baitfish to begin migrating from shallow riffle areas to slower moving water. It’s also the time when smallmouths switch from their summer smorgasbord (insect larva, crustaceans, mad toms and small riffle minnows) to a diet of larger minnows, chubs and shiners.

“Smallmouth bass initiate their fall feeding binge in the shallower, flowing sections,” Hughes said. “Some of the best sites during early fall are 3- to 4-foot eddies adjacent riffle areas. As the water temperature continues to drop through the 50s, smallies follow preyfish into areas of less current. The fall bite on the Allegheny continues until water temperature nears 40 degrees, at which point practically all smallmouths have arrived at wintering holes and eddies where the current is very slow.”

Hughes says three main lures (and one alternative) catch smallmouth bass throughout the fall on the Allegheny and other rivers in the North and Northeast.

“Experimenting is part of the fishing game, but if your time is limited, a handful of lures is all you need to cover the river from surface to bottom in both current and still-water situations,” he said.

Without hesitation, Hughes says his No. 1 pick for fall smallmouth bass is the YUM 2ube.

“I like plain old green pumpkin – no other color is needed,” he said. “Most river anglers rig a tube on an insert jighead. However, I rig the tube with a 1/8-ounce internal weight and a wide gap worm hook – Tex-posed like many anglers do when flipping a tube.”

His smart rigging offers excellent snag-resistance for dragging along the chunk rock and wood debris on the bottom of river eddies and holes.

To rig the tube, he takes a 1/8-ounce bell sinker (with ring wire line-tie), inserts it into the hollow tube body and pushes it to the head of the lure. Then, he inserts the point of a 4/0 wide gap hook into the head of the tube and feeds it through the wire eye on the bell sinker, bringing the hook point out of the side of the tube about ¼-inch behind the head. Then he measures the hook along the tube, pushes the hook point back through the body and out the other side. The last step is to lightly bury the tip of the point under the skin of the tube.

Hughes casts the weighted tube upstream at a 45-degree angle, allowing it to sink to the bottom and tumble with the current. The 2ube is his most-versatile rig, and he throws it in fast-moving shallow water and slack areas of deeper holes, and anywhere in between.

His No. 2 pick for fall is a Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue in a pattern that mimics the natural baitfish of the river. The new color patterns of Table Rock Gold, Golden Shiner and Emerald Shiner are especially good representations of indigenous bait species.

 “I fish a hard jerkbait at the head and tail of river pools or holes, so it isn’t necessary to drive the bait down deeper than 4 or 5 feet,” he said. “But I do like one that has an erratic action when I jerk it.”

Hughes is fishing for aggressive, feeding fish in these areas, so there’s no need for slow-motion retrieves. A quick retrieve with lots of erratic twitches usually is most effective. It’s also important to consider that smallmouth bass in these spots are positioned facing into the current, so casts upstream working with the current flow are best.

His No. 3 lure pick comes with a caveat. If the water is fairly clear, he opts for a soft plastic jerkbait like the Houdini Shad in Pearl White, Blue Glimmer or Arkansas Shiner.

“Rig the soft jerkbait on a slightly weighted 4/0 wide-gap hook,” explains Hughes. “Using either spinning or casting tackle, throw it across current and work it quickly with a series of short snaps just under the surface for several feet, then pause and let it drift with the current. It’s a page out of the fly-fishing manual – a dead drift. Let it drift downstream as it sinks very, very slowly. Most strikes occur at the point where the line begins to tighten and the bait swings in an arch.”

Moderate to heavy rains are common across Pennsylvania in early fall. The strong current associated with a high river level creates a disruption in the deeper mid-river holes and pools, and this pushes bass into the newly developing shoreline eddies and pockets. When faced with this situation, Hughes ties on a spinnerbait and pounds the shoreline.

“In the dirty water I want a blade combination that puts out good vibrations,” he said. “The Booyah Vibra-FLX is about as good as it gets. A white skirt and gold blade completes the dirty water package for river smallmouths.”

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