Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Easing gently downstream with the flow of the current, I tossed the tiny prop bait toward a mid-river rock, waited until the ripples disappeared, twitched it once, then again. A loud whoosh filled the air and a visible swirl cracked the Shenandoah River’s smooth surface as a smallmouth grabbed the lure.

A two-pound bronze bass was soon airborne, sending a spray of silver droplets glistening in the sun. Working the fish in gingerly with the light spinning tackle, I carefully twisted the hooks free and watched him dart back into the emerald river. It was a spectacular start to another day on my home smallmouth river, and the favorite fishing spot of many Northern Virginia Daily readers.

When I first began fishing the Shenandoah many years ago, there were days when the Tiny Torpedo that took the 2-pounder might stay on the end of my line all day long.

In addition to that small topwater bait, two other vital river smallmouth lures for any tacklebox or wading vest include a thin-minnow plug and simple lead-headed grub. But even this arsenal of three lures isn’t always up to the river smallmouth challenge.

Add some small crankbaits, soft plastic jerkbaits, mini plastic worms and compact spinnerbaits and you’ll be ready for bronzeback rivers anywhere across Virginia and nearby Mid-Atlantic waters. Those, in a nutshell, are the seven best lures you can use for river smallmouths.

The reason these lures are so effective is that they allow you to probe all three levels of the water column—top, middle and bottom.

Sometimes when a river is full from rains or after a cold front blows through, smallmouths hug tight to bottom rocks. Here they’ll just occasionally nip at a hellgrammite or grab a small, bottom-scuttling catfish or crawdad.

Other times they may feed slightly more aggressively, slashing at baitfish such as shiners and dace higher up or nabbing nymphs emerging from the river floor. Finally, at their most aggressive, on those warm fall days when damsel flies are in the air, caddis are hatching and crickets are tumbling in from shore, they’ll slash at these insects on top and chase minnows right up to the surface.

Starting from the top, let’s look at the seven best river smallmouth lures and tips on fishing them. We’ll cover several here and the remainder in next week’s column, profiling each lure and giving tips on how to fish it effectively.

One. Topwater plug. Lures with one or two propellers that spit a small spray of water as the offering is twitched are perfect for river bass. The Tiny Torpedo is perhaps the most famous one.

Other good surface lure choices are wobblers like the Jitterbug, mini versions of the Zara Spook, and small poppers like the Rebel Pop-R.

When feeding on the surface, bronzebacks might chase down a damsel fly one minute, grab a grasshopper or fleeing shiner the next. They aren’t selective like a wary trout might be.

They’ll nab these plugs because they look alive and tasty to them. Choose versions 2-3 inches long in silver, frog, fire tiger, black or yellow.

For prop lures and poppers, toss the plug to your target and let the ripples settle. Twitch it once and repeat. Then work the lure back at a faster pace, trying both smooth and erratic presentations. Wobblers like the Jitterbug are best reeled in slowly and steadily so they chug across the surface.

Two. Thin-minnow lure. This offering is perfect for bridging the gap between top and middle levels of the water column. It can be presented completely on the surface as a topwater lure, reeled hard to probe mid-levels, or worked erratically to tempt fish at both levels.

The Rapala is the classic thin-minnow plug. A 2-4 ½-inch model is best, but when large fish are present, 5-inch versions can score big. Silver, gold, chartreuse and orange are top colors.

Try these lures as subtle topwater offerings first. Cast to enticing looking smallmouth hangouts such as eddies, logs near shore, lone rocks or limestone ledges. Twitch lightly, pause, and then try an ultra-slow retrieve that creates a v-wake, keeping the lure on top.

If this surface presentation doesn’t score, try reeling the lure steadily. It may sound boring, but some of my biggest river smallmouths (up to 5 pounds-plus) have come to this simple, basic presentation. There is so much natural realistic shimmy built into these lures that it’s enough to provoke attacks from normally wary lunker smallmouths.

If smooth and steady doesn’t produce, try reeling part way back, then pausing to let the lure bob up to the surface. Then resume your retrieve. That extra pause sometimes incites following fish to strike.

Three. Soft-plastic jerkbait. These are basically soft versions of the thin-minnow plug. The Slug-O was one of the first. The main two attractions of these lures are their pliable feel in a fish’s mouth and their erratic, life-like action. Two- to four-inch models can be effective, with shad, pearl, chartreuse and smoke good colors.

Like thin-minnow plugs, they can be fished on the surface or at mid-levels. Try dancing them erratically on top first. If that doesn’t score, let the lure sink anywhere from a few inches to a few feet, then begin a jerking retrieve.

When your soft plastic jerkbait approaches a rock or log, pause briefly. A fish might nail it as it slowly settles.

Next Week: Four more top smallmouth lures

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