There’s a reason former Field & Stream Fishing Editor, A.J. McClane called the river smallmouth “the greatest freshwater gamefish of all.” If you’ve come under this fish’s spell in its river environment, you know why. You may not be able to explain it. But you feel it.
Whether you fish the Snake, Potomac, John Day, New, Niagara, Susquehanna, Shenandoah, or lesser known streams that only locals visit, these seven lures will catch smallmouths from summer through fall. They’ll cover any situation from fish sulking on the bottom to aggressive topwater feeders chasing minnows and damselflies.
Top Spots for River Smallmouths
Some days you can cast just about anywhere and catch a bronzeback. But you’ll score on more fish and bigger ones by trying these types of cover:
- Undercut banks.
- Points and ledges.
- Natural structure like stumps, boulders, rock piles, and fallen trees.
- Man-made structure like docks, riprap, and bridge pilings.
- Weed bed edges.
- Deep holes and pools below dams.
- Eddies, riffles, and runs.
Also keep an eye peeled for fish slashing damselflies or minnows skipping across the surface. Get a cast to that surface swirl quickly and a strike is almost guaranteed.
The Best Lures for River Smallmouths
1. Topwater Plug
Bigmouths are famous for their surface feeding, and river smallmouths will smash a prop lure with just as much crushing power. Models with either one or two propellers that spray water when you twitch the bait are perfect. The Heddon Tiny Torpedo is a terrific choice.
Wobblers like the Jitterbug and small poppers like the Rebel Pop-R can also produce frenzied surface action.
Bronzebacks might chase down a damselfly one minute, grab a cricket, or nail a skittering shiner the next. Like trout, they’re not very selective in their feeding. When they inhale these plugs they are simply viewing them as something that looks alive and tasty. Look for models that are 2 to 3 inches long in frog, silver, fire tiger, yellow, chartreuse, or black.
How to Fish Topwater Plugs
Poppers and prop lures can be fished the same way. Deliver the lure to a likely spot and let the ripples settle. Twitch it once, pause, repeat. After two or three twitches, bring the lure back at a faster pace, experimenting with smooth and erratic retrieves.
Wobblers, on the other hand, should be reeled in slowly and steadily so they gurgle and sputter across the surface. These are fabulous lures to use at night for probing deep, slow pools.
2. Thin-Minnow Lure
A skinny minnow plug is ideal for fishing on the surface or down to mid-depths. Twitch or slow-crawl it on the surface as a topwater lure. Reel steadily to probe mid-levels, or work it erratically to fool fish through both levels of the water column.
The Original Floating Rapala is the classic thin-minnow plug. Two to 4½-inch models are best. But when large fish are present, a 5-inch version can score big. Gold, blue, chartreuse, and orange are also top colors.
How to Fish a Thin-Minnow Lure
Manipulate these lures as subtle topwater offerings first. Cast to prime smallmouth hangouts such as eddies, logs near shore, lone rocks, or limestone ledges. Twitch lightly, pause, and then reel back super-slowly so the lure creates a v-wake on the surface.
If there are no takers, try reeling the lure steadily so it dives 12 to 18 inches. It may sound boring, but some of the biggest river smallmouths fall for this simple, basic presentation because of the incredibly lifelike wiggle of this lure.
As a variation, reel steadily part way back, then pause and let the lure float up to the surface. Then start cranking again. That pause sometimes incites following fish to strike. These lures are terrific on big waters like the James and Susquehanna.
3. Soft-Plastic Jerkbait
The Lunker City Slug-Go was one of the first offerings of this type of bait. They’re basically a soft version of a thin-minnow plug. The Berkley PowerBait Minnow is another good one along with the Zoom Tiny Fluke. Compared to hard baits they offer two advantages: soft, lifelike feel in the fish’s mouth, and more erratic action. Two to 4-inch models can be effective, with pearl, shad, chartreuse, and smoke being the best colors.
How to Fish a Soft-Plastic Jerkbait
These lures shine for surface and mid-level active bass. Dance and skitter them erratically on top first. If that doesn’t work, or only attracts small fish, let the lure sink from a few inches to a few feet, then begin a jerking retrieve.
Hesitate when the lure works up to a rock or log. A fish will likely hammer it as it slowly settles.
When I first started smallmouth fishing, my “spinner” choice would have been a plain in-line model such as a Mepps or Panther Martin. You still can’t go wrong with those.
A small spinnerbait, though, now gets the nod with its plastic grub on one arm and spinner on the other. The reasons: fewer hang-ups, more strikes, and it’s easier to unhook fish.
Black, brown, chartreuse, purple, smoke, and white are good colors in sizes from 1/32 to 1/8 ounce. The Beetle Spin is a classic, and scaled-down versions of those made primarily for largemouths will also score.
How to Fish a Spinnerbait
You can fish these lures from just below the surface down to the bottom. I use them mostly when fish are hanging out at mid-depth levels—active, but not frantically feeding.
Try a slow, crawling retrieve first. Stopping occasionally also draws sharp takes as the lure tumbles down like a wounded minnow running out of gas. Use this sudden pause near rocks, logs, limestone ledges, and drop-offs. Be ready for a thumping strike as the lure flutters towards the bottom.
5. Mini Crankbait
Small versions of largemouth crankbaits and also crayfish-shaped models are terrific mid-level smallmouth lures. Stick with crankbaits measuring 1¼ to 2 inches for most situations. The Bass Pro Micro Light Mini-Crankbait is a prime example. In murky or muddy water, even lures up to 3 inches long may fool some hawgs. For color go with fire-tiger, silver with a black or blue back, natural crayfish, and shad.
How to Fish a Mini Crankbait
I like using crankbaits for float-fishing, when you’re drifting through water swiftly and need a lure that you can reel back at a moderate to fast retrieve. Stock some cranks that run at 3 to 5 feet deep and others that dig deeper and ricochet off rocks and logs to incite instinct strikes.
6. Plastic Worm
For probing the deepest water levels, it’s hard to beat the classic plastic worm. Go with either Texas-rigging if hang-ups are a problem or Carolina-rigged versions, with either single or multiple hooks.
Worms that are three to five inches long work best. Purple, black, brown, watermelon, motor oil, blue, and red are all good colors.
How to Fish a Plastic Worm
Use as little weight as you can with Carolina-rigged worms. At times simply a split shot or two will do. In deeper water or swifter current, a ⅛- to ¼-ounce egg sinker 18 to 36 inches ahead of a swivel or split shot is the rig of choice. Experiment with deliveries, ranging from a slow, steady crawl, to a short lift-and-drop, a crisp upward sweep, or a slow descent presentation.
This is one of the simplest, cheapest lures ever invented—but also one of the most deadly for smallmouths. Grubs are great for bottom-bouncing and a good choice when worms don’t score.
Their compact size imitates many natural foods and they work particularly well if fish are in a sulking mood. They’re go-to lures when conditions are challenging such as after a cold front or when waters are super-clear from a lack of rain.
Stubby-tailed plastic dressings produce good results at times. Usually, though, grubs with fluttering twister-type tails are best. Stock them in lengths from 1 to 3 inches. Top colors are pumpkinseed, smoke, purple, black, motor oil, and chartreuse. Use jig heads from 1/32 to 3/8 ounce, depending on water depth and current.
How to Fish Grubs
Retrieve grubs with a slow smooth crawling motion across the bottom or with short hops. Most strikes will come as the lure falls back after the hop. At times simply swimming these lures back at a moderate pace will elicit slamming strikes when fish are feeding aggressively.
If bronzebacks are in a fussy mood, try this Carolina rig: Thread the last ⅛ inch of the grub head on a size 4 to 8 octopus or bait-style hook tied 18 to 24 inches below a large split shot or ⅛ to ¼ ounce egg sinker and swivel.
The grub flutters naturally when rigged this way and draws strikes from fish attracted by the sinker banging along on bottom rocks. When all else fails, this grub presentation will usually save the day, especially on clear or heavily-pounded waters.