Fly Fishing for Spring Smallmouth: Part 4
Finding Spring Smallmouth Bass
Smallmouth bass in large river systems tend to move quite a bit in a given year based on their needs. During early spring, smallmouth bass are coming out of their deep wintering holes and transitioning to the areas where they will eventually spawn in late April-early June. Drainages like the Potomac, Susquehanna, Delaware, Shenandoah, Rappahannock, James, and New Rivers all have the opportunity to produce outstanding smallmouth fishing during this time frame.
Wade fishing these large rivers in the spring can be intimidating, but it can also be very productive. Usually I am not actually wading, but rather fishing from on or near the bank. During the spring, many bass seek areas of the rivers that are slow and out of the current both to conserve energy and eventually spawn. These spots are often slack water along the banks where they are well within reach of wade and bank fisherman.
If the larger rivers are blown out, a good alternative is fishing the lesser known and often very productive tributaries to these rivers. Some of my favorite small rivers, streams, and creeks are direct tributaries to the bigger and better known rivers. During the spring, many of these tributaries have bass move into the mouths and lower sections, adding to the populations of resident bass and creating excellent fishing. It takes some trial and error to find the most productive locations, but once you do, the bass will often use these same locations every year around the same times.
Where to Look
The Mouth of Tributaries
The mouths of tributaries on larger rivers are a great place to find smallmouth bass in the spring. The mouth of the creek provides a staging area where the fish will congregate before pushing upstream. Another good time to target creek mouths is when flows in the main river are extremely high. In these situations the main river can back-up into the creek and raise the water level. This creates a pond like eddy out of the main river current that the smallmouth are drawn to.
During the spring, smallmouth bass tend to be on the move, often pushing upriver or up tributary streams to find suitable spawning habitat. Dams are productive places to find bass in the spring because they stop fish movement and congregate large groups. While bridges don't stop fish movement, they do provide excellent current breaks which the bass can use to hold and feed out of the strongest current. The downstream side of bridge pilings are always worth fishing. In addition to being a current break they are also great structure which can attract bait.
Similar to bridge pilings, the soft spot on the downstream side of islands is great spot to find smallmouth bass in the spring. These areas are also a suitable place for the bass to spawn, so fish can be found there at any point during the spring. On the larger rivers, islands can be difficult to reach, but on smaller rivers and creeks the divided flow created by the island is more manageable to wade. Always use caution while wading and don't take chances. If you're unsure about a crossing, do not attempt it.
Peninsulas act in a similar way to islands, they provide a current break which creates slow currents or an eddy where bass can feed and spawn. In the graphic below you can see the area I would target in yellow. During the summer I am more likely to fish the faster, rocky water in the main current; but in the spring I find much more success in backwater areas.
Featureless Flats and Inside Bends
Features flats and inside bends are two places where I would rarely look for smallmouth bass in the summer, but I often catch them there in the spring. These flats really aren't "featureless", but may appear that way at a glance. I have been surprised many times by a few large bass spooking from small depression that was only a foot deeper than the surrounding area. Don't overlook stream section that may seem too shallow, slow, or featureless as these are the places where bass will make redds and eventually spawn. Before the spawning happens, the bass will stage in these areas and feed heavily.
Another good place to find slow water and suitable spawning habitat is the inside of a bend in the river or stream. This is often some of the slowest water in a section of stream because the main force of the current is pushed towards the outside of the bend. These areas often have a bottom of gravel and smaller material that the bass look for to dig redds.
I hope this series of articles has provided some insight into catching pre-spawn smallmouth bass in the spring. The rest of April and May in the Mid-Atlantic provides some of the best smallmouth fishing of the year. Get out on the water and give it a try!