For many it happens out of necessity. For others, like myself, it's by choice. But time spent fishing skinny water can be some of the most fun and productive time ever. With light tackle, the right techniques, and a little bit of knowledge, skinny water smallmouths can have you salivating like a Doberman over a Chihuahua.
In many states, the countryside is littered with small, cold-water creeks full of insatiable smallmouths ready to pounce on anything that moves. The key is getting to the right place, at the right time, with the right offering.
Banks along creeks are usually grown up with vegetation, which can make for difficult casting from shore. The best technique is to take the plunge. However, unless you own a significant amount of frontage along a stream, you'll need to get permission from landowners to get wet. In many states, floating a stream is perfectly legal, even through private property since no one can “own” the water. However, if your feet touch the bottom at any point you are walking on private land, so be sure you ask the property owner before doing so. Once you get the go-ahead, jump in and hold on tight.
Banks clogged with shoreline vegetation provide much needed shade for ambush predators, while providing the creek with organic matter and prey for small fish. Small streams are also prone to high-water events that redistribute fish on a regular basis, so even the smallest stream can offer new opportunities each time out. Fallen trees and large rocks create pools where predatory fish can hide from unsuspecting prey while creating target points for well-placed casts.
Stick to one side of the creek and target the opposite edge and structures. This will keep you from spooking every fish along the way and makes for a great comparison; fish from the other side your next time out and compare catch rates. You’ll soon figure out which side of the stream tends to hold more fish while discovering all the nooks and crannies along each edge.
The streams in my neck of the woods, south-central Kentucky, hold fish all year. I've been in them during the dog-days of summer, and on 30 degree bone-chillers in December. For summer fishing, when the water levels are low and slimy, algae covers every rock, you’ll want a pair of wading boots with neoprene socks. This keeps your feet safe and saves you from crashing down on your tailbone like Tebow during the Detroit Lions game. An old pair of tenny’s would work as well, as long as they have some good tread. A stiff pair of pants saves your legs from hidden rocks and laydowns too. When the water gets cold, a pair of insulated waders is a must, unless you like frost-bit toes and locked-up knees. Just be careful, rubber-soled boots provide little in the way of secure footing and a set of chest-waders full of ice-cold water can be life-threatening, especially if the current is rolling.
To get the most enjoyment out of each fish, ultralight spinning gear is the only way to go. A nimble rod makes even a little bass feel like a goliath grouper. A 2-pounder will have you bowing to the bronze king as he tailwalks upstream. The shorter rod makes for easier casting in tight quarters allowing forehand and backhand casts under overlying limbs and shoreline weeds. It also makes landing fish easier as one-handed operation of a shorter rod allows you to position fish for the correct scoop out of the water without snagging over-hanging limbs.
Like every other predator on the planet, the element of surprise is always helpful to a marauding smallmouth. In skinny water, striking from the depths is not an option. Instead, smallies in a stream count on rocks, laydowns, tree roots, and any other structure they can find to launch attacks on their prey. Keep your eyes peeled for these exposed features and pay attention to changes in the water surface that could indicate a submerged bit of structure. Take your time and target cast these features from multiple angles – a smallmouth bass will wait until he feels the element of surprise is on his side, so you may need to present your bait a couple times from different angles.
In situations where the current speed may be running faster than you’d like, add a little weight to your line and use the swing-cast technique. Here, you walk along one side of the stream, cast your lure to the other shore directly across from you, slowly draw the bait into the current, then allow it to be swung down and across the creek by the flow of water. With the right amount of weight you’ll bounce the bottom just as prey might when swimming across the current. Plus, having come directly from the opposite shore, you’ll look just like food that has fallen in the shallows and swam for deeper water. Bass positioned along the bank will blast out from cover and nail your bait as it careens across the bottom.
In slow water, downstream and across stream casts are just as effective, but you get to fish them even slower. This is a good thing and is certainly not the time to be in a hurry. Slow water keeps your bait taunting a hungry smallie for a longer period of time, while giving you time to analyze your surroundings for the next cast. And, if you’ve been certain to be quiet while wading through the area, you likely walked right past a couple fish hidden behind some cover. Don’t be afraid to cast back upstream where you just walked. Your lure swimming with the current is too pretty to ignore and the sediment you might have stirred-up will have baitfish ravishing the area as soon as you walk away. Where there’s baitfish, there’s predators. An upstream cast lets you approach a smallmouths hide-out from a more natural angle since your offering is now flowing with the current. Be sure to keep that line tight because strikes will be coming right at you and often you don’t feel the hit.
Light line—such as 4-pound test—is the only way to do it right. You’re pitting the power of the fish against your angling skills and anything heavier than 4-pound test gives you an unfair advantage. Remember, you’re in the water, with the fish, enjoying nature up to your family jewels – why not make it a true test of your abilities. Plus, lighter line will help get small tackle down in the water when the current might be running fast. Low-vis flouro is my first choice.
My favorite pick for morsels is the 3-inch Berkley Bungee Leech; the curly tail brings it to life even when it’s resting on the bottom. It’s small enough to fit in the mouth of a 6 incher, while appetizing enough to tempt a 2-plus pounder. I rig it on a 1/8 ounce jighead with the hook exposed. This leads to a few more snags, but who cares; you’re in the water and can walk right up to just about any snag to free it. The exposed hook ensures you nab even the smallest tail-biter. In fast current, don’t be afraid to add some weight to your line. Just be sure to place it at least a foot in front of your jig so it doesn’t affect the action of your offering. Other good options when the water is running fast include heavier jigs, sinking jerkbaits, tiny crankbaits, and weighted crawdads.
In slow current, Beetle Spins, small spinnerbaits and spoons are great choices. A downstream cast with one of these can be retrieved at an ultra-low speed because the spinner helps keep the lure up in the water column. Also, try casting back upstream and use a burst-and-pause retrieve – water flowing toward you will keep the bait moving even when you pause your reel. Quick bursts of reeling bring it back to life and often trigger an attack from water you were just standing in. Slow current usually means low sediment load too, so sunlight is penetrating even the deepest holes making that spinner sparkle like diamonds.
Small Stream Fun
Whether it’s the only place you can fish, or it’s a place you choose to fish, small streams, creeks, and rivers can be very productive waters. It’s a great place to get away from fast boats and fast-paced life. Slow down, enjoy the beauty that they offer, and feel your soul get cleansed as you wade through skinny water in search of stealthy smallmouths. I promise, you won’t regret it.