Gerald Almy: Time to head to the Shenandoah for late summer river smallmouths

Gerald Almy

On days when the sun bears down hot and relentlessly during summer, few types of fishing offer more soothing relief than casting to river smallmouths. You can use a kayak, canoe or johnboat to get into fresh, lightly-tapped stretches, but plan on wet wading at least part of the day to stay cool when temperatures rise into the 80s and 90s.

The Rappahannock, James, and Potomac are all great smallmouth rivers. But for convenience and abundance of fish, it’s hard to beat our own Shenandoah River, both the main stem and North and South Forks.

A modest selection of lures will serve you well on smallmouth waters throughout the state. But it’s important to use mostly small offerings to suit the tastes of these sometimes finicky bronze bass. Use 4-8 pound line, light rods and small- to medium-sized baits. Flies, of course, are also a good option.

The surface is the most enjoyable place to start with any gamefish. Bronzebacks often feed on top when waters are warm in summer and early fall, chasing damsel and dragonflies, nabbing grasshoppers, sipping in large mayflies, and slashing at baitfish. You don’t have to “match the hatch” for smallmouths, but rather simply find out if the fish are in the mood for topwater, and then present them with one of a few favorite offerings they seem to relish.

Two top picks include a prop lure such as the Heddon Tiny and Teeny Torpedos and a stick bait such as a small Zara Puppy or Pooch. Poppers sometimes work, too, and a small black Jitterbug can be deadly at night.

When you want to go a bit lower in the water column, bridging the gap between surface and shallow, try thin minnow plugs such as the Rapala. Cast to prime targets and twitch the lure gently, then let it rest. Twitch it again and wait. A slamming strike is likely. If that doesn’t produce, reel back slow and steady.

Soft plastic jerk baits work great for summer and fall smallmouths because of their erratic, life-like motion and pliable feel once a fish grabs them. Try them on top first, twitching and darting the lure chaotically like a minnow in its death throes. Pause next to rocks, ledges or logjams, so the lure sinks briefly. If this doesn’t produce, try the same tactic a few feet below the surface.

Next on the list come crankbaits. They bridge the gap from mid-level to the bottom. Try small versions of the same lures you use for largemouths as well as the mini-crankbaits made by Rebel and Yo-Zuri. Also, stock a few that specifically imitate crayfish–a prime smallmouth food. Cast to deep pools, runs, undercut banks, and ledges, bouncing the lures off rocks and logs to draw instinct-strikes from bronze bass waiting in ambush.

If smallmouths are hovering on or near the bottom, few lures can top a soft plastic offering rigged with enough weight to crawl right over the rocks and ledges found there. Grubs work best of all. Rig them on a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce round jighead or Carolina-style with the last 1/8 inch of the head impaled on a size 4-8 hook, 18 to 24 inches behind a split shot or ¼-ounce egg sinker and swivel. Top colors include pumpkinseed, smoke, watermelon, motor oil, and chartreuse. Four-inch plastic worms are another great choice — rigged either Texas-style or with multiple exposed hooks if snags aren’t a problem.

WHERE TO FISH: River smallmouths often seem to be everywhere, but you’ll draw more strikes and bigger fish by concentrating on these types of cover during summer and early fall: points, undercut banks, ledges, rock piles, fallen trees, stumps, docks, edges of weed beds, riprap, deep holes, eddies, riffles, and runs. Also be on the watch for fish swirling. It could be a single small fish nabbing a shiner or a school of two-pounders waiting to do battle.

EXTRAS:  For a successful and safe summer or fall smallmouth outing, bring these items along: polarizing sunglasses, hat with brim, sunscreen, drinks, insect repellent, line clippers and a small tackle box or vest to carry extra gear and lures in.

Finally, if you want to use flies instead of lures, stop in at Murray’s Fly Shop in Edinburg, or visit Harry’s website at murraysflyshop.com and order a few of his flies designed especially for the Shenandoah. He also offers informative schools on fly fishing and guided trips on the river.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.