Panning for Bronze: The Summer River Smallmouth Guide

written by staff     




The waders and knit hats are stowed away – sandals and shorts make up the new river armor. No more finesse fishing, hatch-matching or precision casting – this is a full out war waged on the most ferocious inhabitant of the summer streams: the smallmouth bass. Why fish for smallmouth in rivers? For one, river smallmouth are pound-for-pound the hardest fighter in the stream, launching themselves into the air when hooked; something the lake-based smallies do not frequently do.  Two, smallmouth in rivers have a constant appetite from fighting current all day, making them a reliable target on any given trip. While an angler could spend a full day in a river during trout season and not coax one bite, a summer stream fisherman will find that 100 fish days are not only possible, they can be frequent. Generally it is fair to say that everything is easier in summer – locating fish, finding the right presentation, top-water success and even physical mobility from hole to hole. We’ll cover when, where and how to find river smallmouth in summer, the best presentations for putting high numbers and heavy fighters on your line, and what to do when the fishing is tough.




In the midst of summer, steady rain typically gives way to the seldom, quick storm that breaks up weeks of dry weather. River levels are low and warm during the day, which allows the angler to eliminate huge chunks of water quickly and easily. Fast currents are nothing more than a way to wash off your hands and feet, and large areas of sand and silt are just home to large schools of lazy carp. In most river systems, these two areas alone eliminate much of the water. So where are all the smallmouth?



Smallmouth are actually a cool water fish, which explains why many anglers may pick up a few smallmouth and trout on the same day during spring and fall. Smallmouth are most active though in temperatures between 60 and 75° Fahrenheit. Below 60°, smallmouth can still be quite active, but will sit tight to cover at the bottom of the water column as they feed. As the water temperature warms into the 60’s and 70’s, smallmouth begin to pay much more attention to what’s happening on the surface, which can make for some of the most fun anyone can have on a day in the river.


Smallmouth prefer hard, clean structure and will not congregate in, under or around soft vegetation like their largemouth siblings. In the dead heat of the summer day, smallmouth will move into shade in deeper pools and slower runs that are made up of large rocks, boulders and ledges, as well as deep banks protected by trees and fallen wood. During the twilight hours and low evening light they will feed actively, moving to the top of the pool where the riffle empties, as well as the backend tail out of the pool.


The key to finding smallmouth is to find the classic “riffle-pool” setup: deeper, hard-bottom pools and slow runs behind riffles, with a good amount of boulders and ledges. The larger the boulders the better – anything in the range of a beach ball to a 4-door sedan will be perfect. Also target man-made structure like dams, bridge pillars and docks. Smallmouth congregate in schools of a handful to dozens. When you find a smallmouth, there will always be others with it, so fish the area through.



A very effective way to find smallmouth is to “search fish” for them. This means fishing fast and covering a lot of water, using something like a spinner or streamer fly. Once you hook up, then slow down and work the area to find what the best lure/fly will be for the day.


The assumption by anglers and scientists alike has been that once smallmouth bass make their way to their summer hideouts, they remain in them throughout the summer, barring any unusual natural occurrence like severe drought or flood. Studies that tagged and tracked the movements of river smallmouth across the North have now shown us that this assumption is indeed true. In fact, not only do smallmouth stay in or within a half mile of their summer homes, they even return to the same pools every summer [Lyons and Kanehl, 92-95].




Fishing for smallmouth in rivers is a lot of fun, but they aren’t going to hit everything you throw.  To understand what presentation to throw, we have to understand what smallmouth eat. Just like humans, smallmouth will have a preference for different food at different times, and it is important to recognize and imitate what they are feeding on for a successful trip.


While insects, leeches, snails and other small aquatic items are always on the menu, smallmouth prefer large prey. They will violently ambush frogs, mice, lizards and just about any other large creature that breaks up the surface of the water. On the river bottom, the all-time favorite of smallmouth everywhere is the crayfish.


During feeding frenzies, packs of smallies will hunt and chase schooling minnows, balls of shad and other meaty baitfish. The key is to keep your eyes open to read how the fish are feeding, and then tying on the bait that best represents that prey.



Younger, smaller bass will feed on hatching and surface insects. The seasoned, larger smallmouth will lurk in the depths, spying smaller fish like sunfish, perch, chubs and large baitfish, as they feed on surface bugs and hatches. Once the smaller fish begin to slurp up the insects, the smallmouth ambush the feeding surface fish.


Sometimes, like during the heat of summer’s hottest days, smallmouth will be stubborn and watch cast after cast go by. If you know the spot has bass, or you can see them cruising around, try tying on a small grub or fly to hook a small fish like a sunfish, creek chub or even a naïve juvenile bass. Usually the frenzy created in the water by a hooked fish is enough to ignite a trigger in stubborn river smallies.






7 foot, medium fast action spinning rod (St. Croix’s Triumph TRS70MF2)

8 lb. spinning reel, 5.2:1 or faster (Quantum Energy PTi 30 is a great example)

6 – 8 lb. monofilament


Come prepared with the right lure for the bite of the day. Start with a fast “search bait” to find fish and learn what their mood is. A good lure to do this is a top water propeller bait or popper, jerked violently on the surface to kick up water and generate a ton of noise. If top water isn’t producing, go subsurface with a skinny 4 – 5 inch Rapala or a size 2 Mepp’s Aglia Spinner. Baitfish in rivers tend to be long and skinny, so pack lures that match this size. Chances are you may not have to change up after testing either of these two routes, but if the bite is subtle or slow, or the fish are looking but not chasing, it’s time to size down, slow down and weight down. Sometimes downsizing the lure to something like a little 2” swimming grub can make all the difference for picky bass. When the bass are not aggressively attacking, a bottom rig like a drop shot worm, crayfish, jig or tube dragged over rocks is the way to go. Smallmouth will rarely pass on a crayfish on the bottom.


Have the following ready to go in your box:

Heddon Torpedo – THE BEST! Quick, hard rip and one second pause – repeated

Heddon Zara Spook – rhythmic “walk-the-dog” retrieve

Rebel Pop R

Zoom Horny Toads – a soft plastic frog, fished like a buzz bait on top

Small buzz baits, spinner baits – white, chartreuse, green

Rebel Crickhopper

Mepp’s Aglia Spinners Size 2 (3 for targeting larger fish): white, natural

Plenty of Rapala’s, both floating and countdown, from 3 – 5” in sizes

2” and 3 – 5” Mister Twister grubs, white, silver, green, pink (try two in tandem!)

Zoom Super Fluke’s, 3 – 4″ length, natural silver, white, metallic blues (swim two in tandem!)

Rebel Craw, 3″, natural color

3″ Strike King or Venom tube jigs in a variety of natural and bright colors

YUM Dinger straight worms (jig head), 3 – 5″ length, natural green, brown, orange, black

YUM Crawbug (2.5”, 3.5”)

Senko Green Pumpkin, 4”

4 – 5” Purple/Firetail worms

Small brown/orange jig with rattle





8 1/2-foot, medium-fast-action rod

100 yards of 20-pound Dacron backing

Floating 6- or 7-wt. bass-bug line

Type 3 Sinking tip line, 5 foot sinking tip or 6 – 8 lb. Stren fluorocarbon as a leader


You’ll want to be well-armed with four basic types of fly: surface, diving, swimming and crawling. Have both natural and bright attractor colors ready, so that you are prepared for the lighting and clarity conditions when you hit the river. Dark or fluorescents will work best in dirty water, while the naturally colored flies will produce best in clearer conditions. In normal conditions, the best color you can throw for smallmouth is a rusty orange or brown, which is the color of their meal of choice, the crayfish. Since smallmouth have a limited field of vision because of where they hide, try to choose flies that produce sound in the water, especially those that make both high and low frequency noise, such as spinner flies or Zonker streamers.


Remember that the smallmouth bass is a relentless attacker, so it is beneficial to have an erratic, water-disturbing retrieve, both on and subsurface. Smallmouth see this as wounded prey, and will jump at the chance to pick it off.


When times are tough and bass are not falling for the larger offerings, it is time to shrink down and slow down. This is when nymphs can really produce. Use simple trout techniques, dead drifting a nymph under an indicator in the quicker water. If you can see the bass around the nymph, offer a few little twitches to liven up the fly. In slow pools, get the nymph down to the floor, and then slowly drag it across the bottom. For smallmouth, dragging along the bottom (as opposed to hopping or bouncing the bottom) is the most effective way to pick up fish off the river floor.


The following flies should make up the bulk of your box:

Muddler Minnows

Dahlberg Divers

Chocklett’s Gummy Minnow

Whitlock’s Sheep Shad

Clouser Minnow

Any crayfish imitation (#10 or larger)

Woolly Worms, Large Woolly Buggers

Zonker Streamers




Matuka Streamers


Any and all popping/splashing top water bass bugs and frogs will do

Nymphs: selection of various sizes and colors






New Brunswick, Canada

St. Croix River, Wisconsin



Texas hill country streams

Ozarks, Arkansas/Missouri



Umpqua River, Oregon

John Day River, Oregon



Rocky River, Ohio

Big Darby Creek, Ohio

Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania

Cumberland River, Kentucky

Potomac River, West Virginia/Virginia

Shenandoah River, Virginia






Summer stream fishing for smallmouth offers some of the most exciting, consistent fishing of the year. Eliminate big areas of water immediately, avoiding sandy/silty areas and fast, shallow water. Target deep riffle-pool sections of the river littered with hard structure – large rocks, boulders, sharp ledges, fallen wood, concrete dams and bridge pillars. Fish fast for a strike using a streamer or spinner, then settle down and find the right pattern for the situation, whether it be top water, swimming a bait around rocks and ledges, or slowly dragging and shaking the river floor. Pay attention to the water around you, looking for fish and what they are eating, and matching the prey with the right lure or fly. Smallmouth live in groups of 3 to 25 or more, so when you find a fish, assume they have friends close by. If you take the time to understand what the fish are eating, and save time by recognizing and eliminating unproductive water, summer river 

fishing can easily put 100 high-flying smallmouth on

your line in a single trip.




Special thanks to Alex Cerveniak (Cerveniak @ Flickr), Angie Shyrigh, Dennis Nazarenko and Rob McCarron for contributing their beautiful photography to this article.