Shattering the River Smallmouth StigmaShattering the River Smallmouth Stigma For many anglers, river fishing is the bain of their bass fishing game. Never fear, VanDam and Zona teamed up to share their river fishing logic and help you put the odds in your favor.
By Jonathan LePera
For many anglers, river fishing is the bain of their bass fishing game. Despite having the rods, reels, and all the gear, there is something about river systems that psychologically unnerves the best anglers. Bassmaster Elite angler Jonathon VanDam is well known for his smallmouth bass fishing prowess as well as another fellow Michigan smallmouth bass guru, and host of “Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show,” Mark Zona. They teamed up to share their river fishing logic and help you put the odds in your favor.
VanDam focuses on small, isolated pieces of structure that are not like the rest. He uses his Humminbird Onyx units to scan up to 150 feet of each side of his boat using side imaging. He prefers the blue background as it best displays hard structure while using the amber background is best for graphing vegetation. Once he finds a sweet spot, he’ll punch use cursor overtop of the structure and punch a waypoint that he’ll further examine using 2D or down-imaging.
Finding spots that are outside the norm are key, especially if they are isolated. If you find a rocky edge and a piece appears to have broken off or is more pronounced, your better fish would always relate to the best piece of the structure. Finding key drop-offs can be productive also.
“These edges typically aren’t doing to drop off to 100 feet,” VanDam said. “Some of my best ones go from 55 to 30 feet over span of 40 to 50 yards. To key in on it, you get on that edge and you’ll find little sections where it makes points or high spots right on the edge. Depending on the mood of the fish, they’ll do a bit of everything. They’ll sit on top, down off it, they’ll suspend off it, it all depends how the current is that day.”
VanDam has found that the stronger the current, the shallower those fish are going to be, they just can’t hang in the swift currents of the deeper water for as long as one might think. “In the shallower water, there’s enough stuff to slow it down and once you get out deeper there isn’t as much,” VanDam reasoned.
“You want to throw some sort of search bait, a jerkbait or swimbait around shallower areas that have little to no current. Actually, the less current the better because that’s where those fish are going to pull up to spawn,” VanDam said. “Sometimes there’ll be a little current but they’ll get up in those little bays kind of off and get behind a rock where their nest is out of the current.”
This is one time of the year when you won’t need a deck full of rods. All you need is a dropshot rod and your favorite dropshot baits, preferably brightly colored. For VanDam, the only rod that works is the G-Loomis NRX 822S DSR paired with a 3000 series Shimano Sustain spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Power Pro Super 8 Slick. From there he’ll run a leader of 8-pound BPS XPS fluorocarbon. On the business side of things, he prefers to dropshot a Strike King Dream Shot worm Texas-rigged on a 1/0 Lazer Trokar TK-180 hook. He prefers the Siren color, an extremely bright chartreuse color, as it makes sight-fishing far too easy.
While some anglers will fish whichever size of Dream Shot is most convenient, VanDam is quite particular. While the Magnum size does cut down on the amount of small fish brought to the boat, he was quick to point out that he’s caught far more larger fish on the smaller size bait.
If he wants to cover water, he’ll opt for a Strike King Swim ‘n’ Shiner rigged on a ¼-ounce ball head that he’ll swim back to the boat with a straight retrieve. Blue glimmer, white, and ayu are colors that consistently produce.
Come summer time, VanDam continues to look for areas that break up the current like little points, edges, and rock piles. “That’s why rocks that are broken up is more important than a slab of sheet rock, it’s going to stop that current where the sheet rock won’t,” VanDam reasoned. The presence of bait is reason enough for VanDam to stop and take a closer look as well.
Being able to figure out how the fish are positioning on structure is equally important. “Most of the time, fish will position right behind the rock pile or right on the leading edge. I make short drifts and get a good cadence with the lure bouncing along the bottom through the area. If I catch one or mark one I’ll make another drift,” VanDam said.
VanDam suggests that anglers work on getting their presentation to tick along the bottom without getting snagged up. Developing a rhythm is key for anglers trying to learn when to lift their bait over a snag or how to quickly get it dislodged should it get hung up. When fishing a dropshot, a 3/8-ounce weight is plenty to maintain contact in less than 40 feet of water while a ½-ounce head works best with his Strike King Coffee tube.
When it comes to picking colors for his bait selection, JVD tries to match the hatch. “If you are fishing a pile and there is a bunch of bait suspended around it, shad patterns will work better. If you’re dragging your dropshot through there and feel gobies bite, green pumpkin and dark melon purple work best,” VanDam explained.
VanDam still looks for smallies to be shallow, even in the summer, especially in the St. Lawrence River, as smallmouth will head shallow to cruise around and feed. He’s found that once the sun disappears, interestingly, the smallmouth retreat to deeper water and unconventional colors like morning dawn and brown/purple are great options when throwing a Dream Shot.
“It really doesn’t make sense because you would think that if it’s sunny it will push them deeper because the baitfish go deeper because of the light penetration. But, those smallmouth can see so good, they get up shallow roam around and chase bait and eat crawfish, gobies or whatever they can find,” VanDam said.
Come fall, VanDam will look for smallmouth to set up in pockets as that is where bait typically gets pushed. Under the right situations, fall fishing can be nothing short of awesome. From 2- to 30- feet of water, smallmouth will gravitate to key structure.
Fishing the Great Lakes in fall can be frustrating at best due to unpredictable and vicious winds that will muddy up the lake and flow into nearby rivers. VanDam advises anglers to adjust to the changing conditions by going shallow, find the clearest pockets of water and fish with reaction baits.
Tricks of the Trade
VanDam focuses hard on finding the sweet spots in the river and doesn’t lose focus. After all, he found them for a reason. “I’m not going to make a two-mile drift and drag around and hope to catch one here and there. I’m focusing on those key spots, making a couple hundred yard drift, and most the time when I find those spots and I hit that waypoint I’m going to catch one,” he said.
He noted most anglers rarely go back to where they caught their fish. As soon as he hooks one, he’ll punch a waypoint, especially since he started toying with the Motorguide Xi5. He’ll use the anchor feature to hold him in place as he fights a fish, unhooks it, or wants to hold in a key area. “When I hook one I hit the spot-lock, and it would hold me right there, and I’d fight the fish. If I missed one, I could make a long cast and get it back down to where it was,” he said.
Northern Michigan River Mayhem
Mark Zona films Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show from one end of the country to the other. Few times of the year get him as jacked up about fishing as fall-time in his favorite northern Michigan rivers. Those are big words for a guy who can fish anywhere at anytime in waters that many anglers drive by but never consider fishing.
By the end of summer, Zona especially pays attention to the moon. “The end of August and into the beginning of September, when we get a full moon, that’s when the bait tends to make its move toward the rivers out of lakes,” he explained. No doubt, the smallmouth are quick to follow their food source.
“That’s the initial time that it is getting ready to start but that full moon puts them into the rivers out of lakes. I’m not big on watching temperature, except the spring and the fall but generally when water temps dip below 60 degrees is when there will be a major push of smallmouth into our river systems. But it only lasts until it gets down to 50 and then they are done with fighting that current,” Zona said.
“The prime water temp is generally mid-50’s and then the last blast is the end of September to mid-October. That is the prime time in the North generally. That's when the masses of bait are going to be there and the bulk of the schools of smallmouth also. You can catch them until the water dips into the 40’s but your numbers just drop off. This pattern is every single year.”
There’s something magical about the fall as it breathes life into the ecosystem. “Those river systems become a circle of life come the fall because I see musky fisherman, walleye fisherman, and a lot of that is dictated by the food coming thorough there,” Zona explained.
“I think you get emerald, alewife, and a movement of suckers from four inches up to a pound. It’s almost a funnel that life goes through come fall because that life is not there during August!” Zona knows from experience. He has graphed and idled the same rivers during August only to fine baron waters. This drives home the fact that those fish in the river during the fall are migratory fish and timing and location are the deal.
Since he is fishing shallow river systems, he’s only looking for the deepest pools. If the average depth of a shallow river is 5- to 6- feet, he’s going to look for 8- to 10- foot holes as smallmouth will mass congregate in those spots for two reasons. Primarily, they’ll sag in the bottom of those holes to avoid fighting current. Also, the fish are looking to ambush whatever bait is coming through there.
On a sunny day, smallmouth tend to group up hard in those holes and you’ll need to make the same cast repeatedly. “I like it more on the nastiest gnarliest days because they tend to get out of those holes and feed more aggressively,” Zona explained.
Zona’s studied these river systems for enough years to know that under rougher than normal conditions, smallmouth tend to get on the lips and front edges of those holes and will be far more aggressive. These rivers run no deeper than 10 feet. Where he might have only caught two fish under sunny and normal conditions, he’s fished the same spot days later to rack up two limits at 25 pounds each once the water got angry. “The fish that come in there are alphas,” Zona said. “These holes might only be a foot and a half or two feet deep, but smallmouth use every small transition.”
He’ll idle a whole river system looking for the deeper holes and will GPS all them only to fish every one of them after he gets his boat turned around and his game plan straight.
A lot of Zona’s best holes have an object in them, whether it is a stump or some object that flushed down that river and became an obstacle.
Zona sees no need for a whole bunch of rods and reels. In fact, a G-Loomis NRX JWR 873 S paired with a Sustain 3000 or the new Stradic is all he needs to get the job done. His lure choices are simple- a finesse jig or a dropshot rig.
The jig is an easy choice because come fall, those river fish are chewing on crawdads, and according to Zona, the jig is the “weapon of all weapons.” He’ll fish either a ¼ or 3/8-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Finesse Football jig on 10-pound Power Pro Super Slick with a 10-pound BPS XPS fluorocarbon leader. His jig trailer choice is less than conventional.
“I slice a tube jig body in half and use the bottom end much like you would a chunk. It slicks through the current much nicer than anything bigger,” Zona explained. He’d discovered it almost by mistake nine years ago when he was about to start taping a show on a skinny river and realized he’d left his jig trailers back home. The results were astounding leaving Zona in disbelief with how well the smallmouth ate the pairing.
Green pumpkin and watermelon jigs with matching tubes for trailers are all you’ll need making for a pretty affordable tackle box!
He’ll bat cleanup by using the same mentioned rod and reel paired with 6-pound BPS XPS fluorocarbon to dropshot a green pumpkin 4’ Strike King Ocho Texas-rigged on a Trokar TK 180, the same straight shank finesse hook that VanDam uses.
As current dictates the weight of his dropshot sinker and wind dictates current, the lightest he’ll opt for is 1/8-ounce for those times when a slack wind stalls the current and 3/8-ounce should the wind speed the current through the hole that he’s fishing. The benefit of the dropshot rig is that he can keep it stationary in current for those times that smallmouth will not chase the football jig tumbling along the bottom with the current.
Making the right cast is key, and once you catch a fish from a certain angle, don’t bother throwing anywhere else- you unlocked the code. “I don’t like fishing the usual position downstream- throw up current and let the bait come. I like to keep my boat at 7 o’clock and throw to 1 o’clock and I like to let the current flush it to my side,” Zona explained.
“For me, it’s a lot more natural where I don’t have to tight-line my bait much. I really want the current to be the action of my bait. That’s very hard for me if I’m fishing from down current to up current. What’s stunning to me is how overly aggressive the bites are in those rivers. Those fish will rip your gear out of your hand!” Just by watching your line you’ll be able to tell the instant your presentation has been bit.
Hit’em Fast and Hard
With age comes experience and Zona’s learned that river smallmouth, especially those that live in shallow rivers, get real hip to the gig once someone starts putting hooks into their buddies. “Fish become intelligent really fast. When I figure out the deeper pools that smallmouth are using, I know that I have usually two to three cracks at them during the fall before they get weary,” Zona said.
While Zona can go to certain rivers and get 100 fish a day, the quality won’t be there. Yet, if he selectively chooses rivers that are fed from the Great Lakes, he might only get 10-12 bites, but those fish will be in the 4- to 6-pound range.
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