By Alex McCrickard
Spring offers great opportunities to target smallmouth bass as rivers across the mountain states warm up. Water temperatures are the thermal cue that triggers increased metabolism and activity of smallmouth bass, creating excellent fishing conditions.
River Conditions and Smallmouth Biology
Smallmouth spawning typically begins when water temperatures reach into the 60s in late April and it continues through May. They are benthic spawners; males build nests in clean substrate including gravel, pebble and cobble bottom. These fish seek out softer currents in 2 to 6 feet of water behind boulders, logs or other obstructions when choosing spawning sites. Males dig a depression into the river bottom before spawning with a female.
After the spawn, males stick around and guard their nests from predators. Spawning success is highly dependent on spring flows. High, muddy water from heavy spring rain events can impact smallmouth bass recruitment and spawning success. High water can wash beds out or cover them up with sediment, impacting recruitment.
Make sure to exercise caution, and check flows before you head to the river. In high flows, smallmouth orient to cover, where they don’t have to fight strong currents to find food. Even in high, muddy water, smallmouth are looking for meals and can be caught with a little persistence as long as the river isn’t in flood stage.
Tactics and Techniques
Floating the larger rivers this time of the year is a great way to cover water, just remember to wear your personal flotation device. If you are wade-fishing smaller to medium-size rivers, don’t be afraid to do some hiking to cover ground on foot.
Make sure to have some crankbaits on hand in a variety of colors. Rattling lipless crankbaits or noisy lipped crankbaits can be productive when the water is high and stained. Soft plastic swimbaits like the Keitech Swing Impact Swimbait or Sassy Shads work well and sink deep quickly when fished on a jig head. Flashy spinnerbaits also entice strikes from spring smallmouth in stained water conditions.
When fly fishing our larger rivers, consider stripping streamers on a 250-grain full sinking line when the water is high and off color. In average flows, you will be able to get away with a sink tip on our larger rivers and a floating line on our small to medium-sized rivers. The Half & Half is my favorite pattern to fish this time of the year. Chartreuse and white, tan and white, or olive and white are good color combinations. This bulky pattern pushes a lot of water and draws strikes from big bass.
Clouser minnows and Chuck Kraft’s Kreelex are go-to patterns. The flashy profile of the Kreelex does a great job of attracting smallmouth in high, stained flows. Also consider carrying large articulated streamers in your fly box this time of the year.
Topwater flies and lures will become more productive as summer approaches. All in all, spring offers a welcome change from the slower fishing of winter.
Alex McCrickard is Aquatic Education Coordinator for Virginia DGIF.