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Big River Smallmouth Tactics

Lane Olson

The wide expanse of open water can be a puzzling mystery to smallmouth bass anglers often drawn to the crutch of heavy cover and weedless plastics.

Smallmouth rest in rock crevices and caves for long periods of time, and suspend in schools when actively feeding. When current comes into play, smallmouth occupy the same kind of obstacles, eddies and the edges of riffles that most other northwestern salmonids are drawn to.

One unique and exciting thing about fishing crankbaits for smallmouth in Pacific Northwestern Rivers is the occasional by-catch of salmon and steelhead. Warmwater smallies tend to hold closer and longer in shallow flat areas where most of these salmonids tend to travel through very quickly.

Smallmouth will stage in various depths over the course of the day based upon water temperatures determined by the weather. On a clear, sunny day, the shadows of these crevices, rockpiles, ledges and boulders will hold fish until later in the afternoon when they move higher in the water column late into the evening when they begin to rise to the surface.

Julie Anderson Jackson with her personal best Smallmouth from Daroga State Park
Julie Anderson Jackson with her personal best Smallmouth from Daroga State Park

Reading the water is essential to understanding what application fits best for each situation. Current, depth, water clarity, food sources, and structure should be considered while shuffling through your tackle box. Crankbaiting is not exclusive to boat anglers, but because these lures are designed for covering a lot of water efficiently, fishing from a boat is more practical and productive.

While having a depth finder isn’t necessary, it will help you develop an idea of where ledges, trenches and weedbeds lie without using the treble hooks on your crankbaits to find them by accident. Learning the potential diving depth of your crankbaits is crucial to keeping your baits in the strike zone.

Understanding how to read the water will aid in finding good water clarity. If there’s a bend in the river, the bank that the current pushes against will likely clear out sediment and debris, while the opposite bank will get murky, especially if there’s traffic from recreational boaters creating wake that laps against the eroding shoreline.

Fishing the most realistic patterns that fit the coloration of the local food sources is productive. However, if you’re fishing poor water clarity, adjusting the color of your baits to the water clarity will also make your baits more visible.

Before moving from natural to bright colors, find a good, happy medium with a louder rattle to help the fish locate the target.

Michael Patton shows off his happy face and a couple fish caught near Cascade Locks.
Michael Patton shows off his happy face and a couple fish caught near Cascade Locks.

During the heat of the day, hunt the depths of 10-25 feet of water with deep diving crankbaits like the Bomber Model-A or Luhr Jensen Hotlips. If you are tapping bottom once in a while, you’re knocking on their door.

Dragging the bottom will likely result in a lot of snags and bringing up more debris than fish. Ideally, you want the lure to ride a couple feet off the bottom, as fish tucked into crevices are going to be looking up, and something invading their territory is more likely to spook them than to appear like a possible meal trying to scurry through their gauntlet.

As the fish start to school and suspend off the bottom, your lure will continue to be in the thick of the action.

Isolated weedbeds, tucked to the bottom by current, will hold fish in the same fashion as rock crevices, but keeping your bait above the weeds and in the strike zone may take some trial and error to achieve the proper depth.

Squarebills have become a popular solution to covering the same water efficiently without digging into the bottom. They have the same wiggle action and presentation as deep diving crankbaits with about half the depth, which can easily be adjusted by the speed of your retrieve.

Willamette Weapon Lures "Tualatin Craw" pattern squarebill
Willamette Weapon Lures “Tualatin Craw” pattern squarebill

While many anglers will vary the speed of their retrieve, a constant, steady pace is a deadly presentation that mimics an isolated baitfish that has strayed from its school, making an easy target for a meal. Retrieving with the current is not nearly as effective due to the relative speed of the retrieve to make the bait dive to the proper depth. You’re also pulling the bait quickly away from the direction the fish are likely to be facing.

If your options are limited, a deeper diving bait will get down faster, but a lipless crankbait can give the angler the ability to sink to the proper depth before you begin your retrieve.

Lane Olson from Forest Grove with a pair of smallmouth caught dropshotting a perks custom bait dshad deep purple flash color, which earned the young angler a win in his first tournament ever.
Lane Olson from Forest Grove with a pair of smallmouth caught dropshotting a perks custom bait dshad deep purple flash color, which earned the young angler a win in his first tournament ever.

If you’re missing strikes or not getting bites, try changing the angle of your retrieve by positioning the boat so that you’re casting across the current. Casting perpendicular to the current will cover lots of water very efficiently and draw strikes from aggressive fish willing to follow the bait for long distances. While you may not notice it being stationary, the bait will travel in a curved line covering a lot more water. Make these casts parallel to ledges and drift from the top of the flat, diving deeper along the ledge.

If the bite is slow, cast at 30-45 degree angle with the current and swing the bait with the current, slowing the pace of your retrieve as you get closer to the boat. As you drift downstream during your retrieve, the current will do most of the work, and you’ll get a lot of exciting bites as the crankbait changes depths when you begin to pull it up towards the boat.

Make no mistake about it, crankbait strikes are violent, unlike the slow inhale and nibble of soft plastics. Casting directly downstream, almost like you’re backtrolling a plug, will efficiently get the bait to dive quickly into the strike zone and hunt efficiently with a slow retrieve that provides the fish plenty of opportunity to strike when the bite is slow.

NEXT: 5 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN BOOKING A BUOY 10 GUIDE

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Big River Smallmouth Tactics