Knapp 5-19

Soft stickbaits like the Yum Dinger can fool early summer smallmouth bass, such as this upper Mississippi River fish taken by Steve DeZurik. 

Rated by many anglers as one of their favorite freshwater gamefish, the smallmouth bass boasts many qualities, perhaps its size-to-fight ratio being most often noted. Its generally aggressive nature is another, particularly for river-dwelling fish, though I must remark that the brown bass has a stubborn, finicky side. On a seasonal basis, this fastidious quality is often observed during the early summer.

Consider what a river smallmouth deals with during the months preceding summer. Early spring finds bronzebacks awakening from months of relative wintertime inactivity. Rapidly warming water triggers an early spring bite. A migration from wintering spots to prespawn staging areas follows. When river levels are right and water temperatures reach the upper 50s to low 60s, the bass move shallow and nest, hopefully producing prodigy to help fuel the system in the coming years.

Typically, by early summer river smallies will have completed spawning, wrapping up a period — one often interrupted with high-water events and cold snaps — during which a lot has transpired. Though summer fishing often means the best action of the year — aggressive smallies willing to chase down moving baits — the transition from post-spawn to that time can be challenging. I’ve learned that two basic approaches can help them do so.

The first is to fish aggressively. All bass don’t spawn at the same time, so it follows that they don’t all communally recover from spawning stress. Targeting classic summertime habitat with moving baits puts you in position to catch early spawners whose feeding instinct is reactivating.

Tail-out areas of pools, tight-to-the-bank pocket water adjacent to heavy riffles, “runs” where riffles transition into deeper pools — these are all habitat examples that hold smallmouth bass from summer to early fall. Such places are rich in food fish and crayfish and are proximate to current. And smallmouth bass like current, especially when the water is warm.

Soft jerkbaits, often described colloquially as “flukes,” are perhaps the most versatile bait profile to present in these situations. When rigged on a 3/0- to 4/0-wide gap worm hook, a fluke can be fired back into a tight shoreline pocket where an aggressive smallie will intercept it. Seductively twitched through a tail-out, the gentle rise and fall of a fluke will often inspire a strike.

Hard jerkbaits such as Rapala’s original X-Rap can be even more effective than flukes in that the aggressive action in which they can be presented can conjure up reaction strikes (as opposed to feeding strikes).

I tell my clients to work the bait in an erratic, fast-paced manner — hard snaps of the rod tip while reeling in the resulting slack — seasoned with an occasional pause of several seconds. Like a cat being teased with a ball of string, the pause gives a fired-up smallie a vulnerable window during which to pounce on the lure.

Soft swimbaits like Lake Fork Tackle’s Live Magic Shad often excel when smallies turn a blind eye to the stop-and-go antics of soft and hard jerkbaits. Retrieved steadily, with just an occasional pause of the reel handle to create a momentary stutter, soft swimmers are preferred by river smallies some days, particularly during early summer. Note that smallmouth will often track behind a soft swimbait, latch onto it and continue swimming toward you. The bite can be just an odd weight that suddenly appears. When this happens rapidly reel to catch up to the fish and then set the hook.

When aggressive tactics fail to produce, one must slow down and present finesse-style baits to finicky bass. Crayfish imitations like Zoom’s Speed Craw, Ned Rig-type profiles like Z-Man’s TRD and TRD Tubez, and Senko-style soft stickbaits, are all options to slowly crawl/jig across or near the bottom. One-eighth- and 3/16-ounce worm head jigs couple well with the craw, tube and worm profiles.

I prefer to fish soft stickbaits either without any additional weight or Texas-rigged with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce  bullet weight, the choice dictated by depth and wind conditions. Deeper pockets of water near spawning flats — the same basic areas where bass staged prior to spawning — are likely to hold fish most apt to respond to these finesse offerings. Bites can be quite subtle, just spongy weight.

Be particularly attentive to any odd weight on a soft stickbait as deep hooked bass can be a problem with this style of bait, particularly when fished weightless.