FRANKFORT - Stream smallmouth fishing season is in full bloom.
A late spring following a brutally cold winter caused some hit and miss stream smallmouth fishing this past spring. With the warm winds of June now here, stream smallmouth are settling into their summer patterns with water temperatures stabilizing in the mid 70s.
Years of perfect flow conditions for reproduction bequeathed a quality cohort of smallmouth bass 14 inches and longer in Kentucky streams.
“We saw good numbers of 14-, 15- and 16-inch smallmouth this spring in our Elkhorn Creek population sampling,” said Jeff Crosby, central fisheries district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We saw fish up to 18 inches and the overall catch rate was the highest since the mid-2000s.”
Those who love to catch stream smallmouth bass are blessed to live in Kentucky. Many flowing ribbons of smallmouth water course through our state. If a local stream has a rocky bottom, pools and riffles and water at least waist deep in some holes, it likely holds smallmouths. You can jump across many productive smallmouth streams in Kentucky in spots. Most get little fishing pressure.
Stream smallmouth fishing boils the pursuit down to its essence and that is the beauty of it. No electronic sonar units, GPS maps nor expensive boats needed. Just a handful of lures, a light to medium-light power spinning outfit spooled with 6-pound line and an ability to read flowing water is all you need. Choose a rod with a forgiving tip and a strong butt section. Noodle rods don’t cut it for stream smallmouth.
Wading is a cheap and highly productive way to fish these streams. Wading boots or a worn out pair of hiking boots protect the feet while wading. Avoid open-toe sandals or flip flops as your feet need a buffer from sharp rocks, glass or pieces of barbed wire deposited in the stream bed during the last flood.
Stream smallmouth bass reside in three main places in summer: the flowing areas upstream and downstream of a riffle and in the flowing shoals. The tranquil areas in deep holes hold fish at rest, not those actively feeding.
The seam water where fast water meets slow just downstream of a riffle is one of the highest percentage spots to try in summer. Smallmouth bass will hang behind a rock, log or undercut bank near these spots and scarf any disoriented baitfish, crawfish or sculpin that comes tumbling downstream.
Work a black 4-inch finesse worm in this seam water by simply letting the current move the worm. Use enough weight so the worm gently strikes bottom occasionally. A 1/8-ounce leadhead is a good start, but switch to a 1/16-ounce if the current isn’t moving the worm and imparting a natural presentation.
A smoke-colored 3-inch curly-tailed grub worked in the same fashion draws strikes as well as Beaver-style creature baits in the green pumpkin color. After working the seam water below the riffle, wade upstream above the riffle and cast these lures. Current breaks created by rocks, logs and stumps should be probed as well as any small pocket holes.
Flowing shoals pocked with rocks, cracks in the bottom and scour holes hold stream smallmouth all summer long. Shoals with a good undercut bank running along one or both sides of the stream is all the better. Rapala-style floating/diving crankbaits are deadly in flowing shoals.
Work them with a steady retrieve or with an aggressive pause and jerk. In low water, a gentle twitch followed by a long pause works best. This lure draws them out from behind in-stream rocks and undercut banks.
Topwaters worked along undercut banks in flowing shoals make the most exciting stream smallmouth fishing. The Rapala-style lures work well in this situation, but chuggers and the cigar-shaped lures designed for the walk-the-dog retrieve work better. Yellow and red colored deer hair poppers cast on a fly rod along these banks also brings great sport.
Wade with stealth in the low and clear conditions of summer. Wear drab clothing and move slowly. Don’t create pressure waves from your body moving through the water too quickly as these can spook smallmouths. Slide your feet along the bottom to avoid lifting rocks with your toe that might slam the bottom when you wade.
For a list of productive smallmouth streams and access spots, visit the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage at fw.ky.gov and click on the “Fishing” tab.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.