Low Water Bass
by Joe Reynolds
River smallmouth can be pushovers if conditions are ideal but it takes plenty of brain power, experience and special tactics to be successful as water flows are reduced when drought conditions plague rivers in late summer.
Hot, humid weather - the "dog days" - can be a frustrating time for river smallmouth fishermen. Spring's sweet freshness is only a memory; trees and plants look exhausted; topsoil drys and cracks. Rivers are in no better shape, with flows reduced to a comparative trickle and water temperatures soar. Smallmouth bass must survive in this shrinking, overheated environment, and fishing becomes a challenge.
Unfortunately, too many anglers continue using the same lures and techniques, in the same places that produced during spring and early summer, then blame their lack of success on the heat. Hot weather requires adjustments.
I remember one summer evening on the Susquehanna River below Harrisburg. It was August and an unrelenting sun had beat down on the water through the humid haze of a windless day. Pools and riffles seemed devoid of life. Hours of casting had produced only a few runts. Then, as the searing source of the day's sweltering heat dipped below the trees on the western edge of the river, a transformation took place.
Like a snow storm that begins with a light flurry, White Millers slowly filled the darkening sky. At the day's last glimmer, they came in a blizzard of fluttering flakes, covering the surface of the Susquehanna with a quivering carpet of white.
Breathing drew flies into my nose and mouth; it was difficult to keep them out of my eyes and I was forced to squint even though it was nearly dark. Hundreds of Millers collected on my pants legs as I wet waded in the crotch deep water.
At the height of the hatch the adult smallmouth began to feed. Now the strikes weren't coming as often as during the earlier flurry stage of the hatch, but I wasn't unhappy - these fish were larger, deep-bodied smallies that pounced ferociously on the popping bug, their jumps were barely visible in the near darkness.
Then, just as suddenly, it was over. The summer blizzard abated and the pools once again became smooth, now reflecting the cool light of a rising full moon. For a few minutes I stood there, feeling the push of the river against my legs, and reflecting on the hours of useless casting earlier in the day compared with the incredible action of the past half hour.
This was a popular section of the Susquehanna, yet I was the only fisherman there when the action began. Other anglers had called it quits just before sunset, dog-tired after long hours in nature's oven. If they had known what was about to happen, most would not have left so soon. Rising smallmouth can breathe new life into any fisherman.
Those fishermen missed the best that day offered because they were not knowledgeable about the hatch. Most of them had good tackle and all the right flies or lures - important, to be sure, but the critical factor will always be that biological computer located behind the eyes and between the ears.
I knew from experience that there was an excellent chance for a White Miller hatch just after sunset during that time of year. Trout addicts often arrange their life style around the major fly hatches, but smallmouth fishermen don't give the flies proper attention. Hatches are important, even for those who don't happen to be fly fishermen. Quite often the bass will strike anything that moves during a heavy hatch; the massive quantity of food sets off a feeding binge.
Anticipating the major hatches is even more important when river waters are low and warm. Oxygen levels are depleted and the bass don't expend energy during periods when food is scarce and requires too much effort to obtain.
As oxygen levels become extremely low during an extended period of hot, dry weather, bass will also leave their normal haunts. Humans do the same on muggy, humid days, retreating to the comfort of air conditioned spaces. And, also like humans, the smallmouth tend to eat less at those times.
When water levels are low and temperatures high, look for smallmouth just below the heaviest riffle waters. Turbulent flow oxygenates the water and bass may gather in great numbers. Areas below low dams are also good, for the same reason.
Hydro-electric dam tailwaters are another area worth investigating when river flow is below normal. You can just about forget these spots when flow is cut off at the dam, but action can pick up during times the turbines are in operation. Again, it is the oxygen-rich water that turns on the smallmouth.
During the low-water, high-temperature days of summer a river smallmouth fisherman's best bet is to fish very early or very late in the day. A flurry of activity is nearly guaranteed around first light; many times it will be the only productive period until just before dark.
Those with a masochistic bent may want to try night fishing. I wouldn't advise it unless you are already very familiar with a river. Float fishing on a dark night is like playing Russian roulette. Wading a big river isn't much safer.
Nighttime smallmouth success usually entails a good deal of daylight exploring to locate potential haunts of larger bass. Experts pick their spots, working one or two areas during the course of an evening, without too much moving around. It takes a special breed to work the midnight smallmouth shift, but the rewards are often worth the effort.
If you must fish low summer water during the heat of the day, be prepared for a more than moderate amount of frustration. Some days nothing seems to work but there are a few techniques which have produced bass for me in the past.
You will take more smallmouth if you treat one small part of a big river as though it were a twenty foot wide stream. Scratch the notion that the biggest bass are always a hundred feet from where you stand. Don't look for bass across the river; look for them at the end of your rod tip.
If popping bugs or streamers fished on a long line don't produce in a hurry, I'll switch to short casts and fish nymphs or wets upstream. Spin fishermen can do the same with tiny, plastic-tailed jigs. Pick your spots for this short lining. You can spray long casts around at random, but with the short casts you want to pick a specific spot where bass are likely to be holding. Work quietly and keep a low profile. Remember, you are expecting strikes from bass only fifteen feet or less away.
This system is especially productive when fishing a weighted nymph or jig right on the bottom. Each likely area should be worked carefully before moving on. Often the strikes are barely perceptible. At ten feet you can see the slight line or leader movement when a bass takes; at fifty or sixty feet it's nearly impossible to detect a strike.
Any time the smallmouth are feeding right on the bottom, which seems to be nearly always, a short line expert will take more bass than the picture-book caster. This holds true for both fly and spin fishermen.
Casts across current can be effective with a sinking fly line, but problems develop if the line goes too deep. In this case it is not the fly which snags on the bottom, rather the fast sinking line hangs up on rocks. If this is a problem, make casts downstream, allow the line to sink, then retrieve with slow, short jerks of the line.
When water levels drop close to the river bed and clarity is at a maximum, smallmouth become paranoid. Their world is shrinking, they feel exposed and are less likely to move about during daylight hours.
Select fly lines and rods with the water conditions and the fish's paranoia in mind. Most times I'll use an eight weight line, but for low water conditions I switch to a six weight outfit.
With anything less than a six line it becomes difficult to cast many of the larger smallmouth poppers and streamers. Fishermen with older fiberglass rods will even have difficulty with the six line. Best bet is a graphite rod in the eight to nine foot lengths.
Leaders do not need to be excessively long. For low water smallmouth I tend to go with a leader about nine feet long, tapered down to a four pound test tippet. Remember, however, to keep sinking line leaders short. This helps keep flies closer to the bottom. Spin fishermen should be using ultra-light outfits and reels spooled with 4-pound test line.
Rain is scarce during the dog days. At best we can hope for the occasional thunderstorm to provide cooling relief. Lightning is scary and dangerous, but a little cool rain and a short respite from sunlight can work miracles on river bass, often touching off a brief period of serious feeding. In any case, be safe and stay away from the water while an electrical storm is in the immediate vicinity.
Low-water success quite often depends on a knowledge of the river environment more than specific fishing techniques. In general, dark, drab colored flies and jigs seem to be better low water producers than rainbow-hued designs. Some anglers claim success with exact imitations of hellgrammites and such, but I'm not one of them.
Low water indeed presents challenges, but meeting and overcoming those challenges can provide a real sense of accomplishment. Strange as it may seem, there is still much room for experimentation and development of flies for specific smallmouth fishing situations. With more and more good fly fishermen concentrating on smallmouth, we can expect to see a variety of new flies and techniques that will increase our success ratio, especially under low water conditions.
Dog-day smallmouths may be contrary and frustrating at times, but wet wading for river bass is an important yearly ritual. I'd sooner pass up fireworks, apples-on-a-stick, chocolate flavored snowballs, opening day of trout season, mom's apple pie, and six episodes of "Cheers." As my fishing partner Chuck Edghill likes to say, "It's the most fun you can have standing up."