Fall Fishing for River Smallmouths
No other place Iíd rather be, and no other thing Iíd rather be doing, than fall fishing for river smallmouth on my old stompiní grounds along the Snake River near Homedale, Idaho. My bassiní career, such as it is, started on this wide stretch of easy flowing eddies and scattered islands.
by Dennis Udlinek
In my mindís eye I can still see that first three and a half pounder jumping and thrashing as I labored to land it 20 odd years ago. I caught and landed several more smallmouth on that late fall day and I will forever be influenced by that experience. In fact, I was hooked on fall bassiní for life on that fateful autumn day.
That evening, as I stood quietly fishing, the river was teeming with wildlife ranging from Canadian geese, to beavers and muskrats, all working the shorelines in search of food as they prepared for the winter ahead. The rustling trees and the thick undergrowth on the shore gave off a scent that filled the air with fall.
A passing flock of ducks clamored about, helping bring the rays of sunshine echoing down the river spreading shadows of solitude for the moment. Then without warning, another smallmouth burst into flight. It was almost magical as the fish leaped for the sky, scattering water droplets that glistened in the sunís long reflection on the river. It goes without saying, this is my favorite time of year for smallmouth fishing. I have always enjoyed the cooler temperatures and fresher air that fall fishing brings to the Snake River Valley.
The Snake, from central Idaho to its confluence with the Columbia River system, is a veritable smallmouth factory. The best time to land a lunker of a lifetime is during the fall. Growing up along the shores of the Snake, I witnessed firsthand the endless fishing opportunities and the miles of uninterrupted shoreline. My childhood home of Homedale is halfway between over 140 miles of smallmouth habitat, beginning with the tail-races of Swan Falls dam and ending with Brownlee Reservoir (dam), one of the Westís most popular smallmouth fisheries.
During the changing of the season, the smallmouth, instinctively predict the coming of the winter snows and dropping water temperatures that compromise their usual feeding habits. Schools of fish begin to move into the shallows with the cooling temperatures to forage on whatever they can. Being armed with only a few baits, and positioned in the right places, even the more novice of anglers can be rewarded with the "thrill of a lifetime."
Bill Pryor with 3 lb. smallmouth.
The hungry smallmouth seem to key on subtle drops behind gravel bars, eddies behind islands, and shoreline points, especially ones created by drainage water discharging into the river. The key is to position yourself so you can fish the length of the eddy from the deepest part of the downstream end to the very point at which the eddy begins to form. The only way you can fish too far up into the eddy is to cast onto the shore. I have seen smallmouth get so shallow into the headwater of the eddy that I could see their dorsal fins stick out. When you see bass doing this, they are always in a what I call a "fall feeding frenzy," because they are pushing small fry and minnows virtually up the bank.
Nearly any minnow imitation will work, especially if your bait is between two and five inches long in colors similar to local forage in the river. As my counterpart, the avid trout fisherman would say, the key is "matching the hatch." When youíre not sure what types of minnows are there, simple colors seem to work as well as any, such as white, yellow, brown, or black. By fall, numerous river inhabitantsí off-spring have grown to a delectable size. This, added to the ever present minnow population in a local crawdad hole and you have a bassiní bonanza! All you need to throw-in is the right rig.
I usually use an open jig in a quarter-ounce weight with a three or four inch curly tail worm. This seems to be heavy enough to drift at about the right speed, and has the action of a live minnow. The jig tends to ride with the hook open towards the surface, minimizing snags and maximizing hook-ups. Since their advent, I also use Texas-rigged tube baits in cawdad or minnow patters to catch a lot of fish. Finesse baits as theyíre called, have a lifelike presentation and their size and shape often imitate the natural forage. Occasional I will use shallow-diving crankbaits in both the minnow and crawdad pattern, but only to locate the school, then I will change to the slower moving plastic baits to entice the "big ones" to bite.
Controlling Your Drift
Make your cast into the current just past the upstream leading edge of the eddy break-line, and drift your bait, bouncing of the bottom, at an angle that allows the tender morsel to pass through the strike zone (inside edge of the eddy) where an awaiting smallie with likely be ready to pounce. Bass tend to hang just inside the current to wait on feed passing by. This allows them to expend a minimum of energy while posturing themselves for the attack.
Establishing the appropriate weight is key to proper presentation. It is important to maintain contact without being so heavy that they bait stops or hangs up, before it can be maneuvered into position. It is also important that the bait be heavy enough to keep contact with the bottom, otherwise, it is likely to drift too fast as it passes the strike-zone on its way down the river.
Bill Pryor with Snake River fall smallmouth.
Positioning Your Attack
If Iím fishing from my boat, I generally beach mid-way along the shoreline on the downstream side of any eddy or I anchor on the deep water side off the end of islands or gravel bars. When fishing from shore I usually start out positioning myself in the middle of the slack water in the eddy. I often wade the shoreline from one end to the other of the eddy to afford me the ability to work both ends. This way I can cast upstream allowing me to control my bait as it enters along any area of the eddy.
An often overlooked location along eddies is the upstream edges. I have caught some of the biggest smallmouth Iíve ever landed in the undercurrent of the upstream, leading edge of the eddy. The upstream location is often very swift and requires continuous contact with the bottom, and the bait, concentrating with the baits every movement. The take, or "hit" by the bass in these areas will often by subtle, as it often is with larger smallies, so stay especially alert.
My last fall fishing experience was during the heart of pheasant, duck, and goose season, and everyone seemed intent on jet boating up and down the river in pursuit of a weary fowl. I, on the other hand, had some sense about me and recognized the sudden rise in air temperature that signals the blue, sun-shine days of "Indian Summer." This phenomenon frequently happens in the West, and is as if the "fall feeding frenzy" were multiplied. Before noon I had shed my last layer of warm clothing and had already caught and released fall fishing for river smallmouths, with its colorful surroundings, scents and sounds of autumn, and its arm-busting action, seems the sensible thing to do. Actually, any bright blue sun-shiny day is a good excuse to dig out the old bassiní tackle and go fishing for a lifetime of lasting experiences.