Saturday, June 19th, marked the opening day of Bass Season in Pennsylvania. We are fortunate in this area to live close to some of the best bass fishing in the state. Lake Arthur and Kahle Lake both contain good largemouth populations. Both the Allegheny and Clarion rivers offer excellent angling opportunities for the smallmouth or “bronzeback.” This week, let’s focus on the smallmouth. Pound for pound, it could be argued that the smallmouth bass is the most sporting and best fighting of all gamefish.
Just like their lake-dwelling cousins, river bass are very structure oriented. The rocky shorelines of the Allegheny offer lots of great places for smallmouths to hide and ambush prey. Boat docks can be very productive, too, although they usually can’t equal the rocky areas. The best times to fish are early morning, late evening and night. When the sun gets bright, the fish head for the deep water in the middle of the river, where they’re much harder to find and catch. During these times, however, you can still pick up some fish around such structures as mid-river bridge piers, where the water is fairly deep.
There are a number of artificial lures which will do a number on river smallmouths. Of all these, small to medium sized Mepps and other such spinners are probably the best, followed by spoons, especially the red and white Dardevle and the Johnson Weedless. Deep running minnow imitations, such as the Rapala can’t be counted out either. There is a serious problem, however, and that’s snags. An old fellow I knew always said that you had to lose some lures to catch fish, but the situation on the river can get ridiculous. You could, literally, lose a couple dozen lures in a morning’s fishing. Lure retrievers are often useless, as the lures are hung up in the rocks. Besides, it’s often too shallow and rocky to get your boat over the lure anyway. For that reason, many anglers lean toward surface lures. You won’t get as many strikes, but you’ll still get some, and you won’t put yourself broke in the process.
At certain times, fly fishing for smallmouths can be fantastic. Several times each summer, there will be huge hatches of White Millers along the river. During these times, especially at night, casting a White Miller pattern can produce unbelievable action. A bronzeback, even a small one, on a fly rod is always a handful.
As kids, my friends and I did virtually all of our fishing, for any species, with live bait, and it’s still my favorite today. Small to medium-sizd minnows are great. So are nightcrawlers. Hook the minnows through the lips. With crawlers, bunch them up on the hook with a trailer left behind. Use as little added weight as possible for adequate casting. When I can, I fish with no sinker at all. That way, when you cast into the rocky shallows, you don’t spook the fish, and you don’t have the problem of your sinker getting hung up on the rocks.
As anyone who has ever used them can attest, the softshelled crayfish is probably the best bait there is for taking river smallies. For some reason, fish just can’t seem to resist these. Unfortunately, they’re rather hard to catch and expensive to buy, and every other fish in the river likes them, too. It’s pretty frustrating to feed such bait to rock bass and small catfish.
Here’s something that’s always been a mystery to me. I’ve read many times that hard-shelled crabs are also good bass bait. In fact, I’ve cleaned fish with hard-shells still in their stomachs, complete with pinchers. Although I’ve tried it many times, I’ve never even been able to get a strike with a hard shell. If somebody knows a secret method, I’d love to hear it.