Shallow River SmallmouthShallow River Smallmouth Enjoyable days can be had in shallow rivers and streams. These bodies of water can produce great fishing if you take the right measures. Here's how.
By Phillip Newby
When you think of typical smallmouth fishing hotspots, you’re almost certain to focus attention to places such as the Great Lakes in the northeast United States, or maybe a large river system in your locality that has been known to produce smallmouth. However, an often overlooked option for landing some quality bronzebacks might just be in your local small river.
Small rivers accommodate many kinds of aquatic animals ranging from microscopic phytoplankton to larger frogs, crayfish, and other fish. These abundant food sources present an opportunity for thriving and active numbers of smallmouth. Where the most challenge lies is deciphering these hard-fighting fish when the river rarely gets deeper than the knees. As bass anglers, we’re not usually accustomed to fishing in such shallow rivers, but let’s break down some points that might help you experience a great day wading a river.
Before we start, I want to point out the critical necessity of safety. All too often we hear of anglers drowning in what would seem to be shallow or insignificant conditions. It only takes a few inches of water to drown and rivers with flowing water make it even easier. A few close encounters have seen me purchase a fishing vest-lifejacket type hybrid. They’re much less bulky than a standard lifejacket, and since the inevitable slip into the water will be in your future at some point, you don’t have to worry as much about an automatically inflating PFD. No matter what you choose, please ensure you’re wearing some kind of personal floatation method.
Keep a sharp eye out for bottom contour changes and large rocks as these will cause slips and trip-ups. A good pair of polarized sunglasses will really allow you to see into the water and wade safer. Lastly, get a good pair of gloves, even if they’re half-finger gloves. Rivers tend to have an abundance of sharp rocks, broken glass, or rusty aluminum debris on the bottom. You can certainly save yourself a ruined fishing trip and subsequent trip to the emergency room if you have a good pair of gloves. Take a look at cycling or weightlifting gloves since they tend to be form fitted, breathable, and are half finger for effective casting.
The first tip is pretty obvious, in that you’ll likely want to get a good pair of waders. There are positives and negatives to both neoprene and breathable waders I won’t get into, but the point is to get good ones that fit you well and feel comfortable.
Additionally, having a good wading vest is helpful. The vests allow you to carry tackle in smaller packs which allow for better mobility in the water. Be sure to also consider good protection from the sun which includes a good hat to cover your face and neck, as well as sunscreen or a long-sleeved SPF rated fishing shirt. Also keep in mind changes in the weather. Be sure you’ve got the ability to slip off a sweatshirt if you get too warm, or put on a hat if it gets cold.
Keep an eye on your weather forecast and be prepared. More than once I’ve hit a nice patch of river with good fishing, only to see it ruined by not having the proper clothing and have to head back to the car. Now that you’re outfitted, let’s cover technique, presentation, and practical advice.
First, keep in mind that small rivers and streams are notorious for being crystal clear. Fishing clear water is a challenge, and here is where we should use a great lesson from our fly fishing friends in being stealthy. Approach the water with ease and take great care to not make a disturbance. If possible, wear colors that blend your profile in with what fish see when looking up. Think trees or blue skies.
Additionally, try to ease through the water. Take measures to ensure you’re not making large splashes and commotion in the water. Any disturbance will alert and spook the fish. Use rod and reel combinations that cast long distances. The farther you cast the lure will increase your odds of hooking a fish. Also, ensure the profiles of the lures you are using match your stealthy nature. It does not do much good hurling giant baits that make the sound of depth charge going off every time one hits the water. Lures with small profiles are unobtrusive and quiet.
Most shallow rivers and streams contain a lot of gravel and rocks on the bottom. Shallow water typically moves fast which does not give moss, algae, and debris a chance to form, so you’re usually left with rocky bottoms. For this reason I almost always use fluorocarbon line, or a leader if I’m using braid. Rocks, gravel, and shellbeds will slice braid easily and a good hard-coated fluorocarbon will likely save the day. As always though, be sure to inspect your line a bit more often than usual for frays and nicks.
Next, develop your ability to discern the bite of the fish. With so rocks, laydowns, and river debris present, your lure will bump into scores of objects. Learn to feel the difference between these objects and the tick of fish biting. They’re subtle in some cases, violent in others. A good lesson to perform is to stand in an elevated position and pull your lure through the water in a manner that it’s visible. Bump it into rocks, sticks, and drag it on the bottom, then memorize how it feels. Keep doing this and you’ll learn the difference between hitting a small rock and getting bit by a nice fish. Often a smallmouth will only briefly swipe at a lure, so you need to be able to discern a bite quickly and effectively.
Lastly, it’s imperative that you take a good look at surrounding structure and fish smart. Smallmouth in shallow water are notoriously finicky and will more strictly relate to structure and bottom composition changes than smallmouth found in lakes. In some extreme cases I’ve seen them even crowd up on the only shadow in the river for a hundred feet. In a nutshell, take all of the fish behavioral tendencies of our normal largemouth and smallmouth fishing knowledge and amplify it, there you’ll have the tendencies of shallow water smallmouth.
Beautiful and enjoyable days can be had in shallow rivers and streams. These bodies of water can produce great fishing if you take the right measures. Take a friend along and make some wonderful memories. Be sure to hang on, those little bronze fish sure can fight.
Phillip likes to fish in whatever water is wet and usually likes to catch anything with fins, scales, and eyes, but prefers bass. His greatest joy of fishing is teaching a child to fish. He strictly practices catch-and-release, but sometimes doesn’t have to worry about that after a particularly weak hookset.
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