Tactics for hitting summer smallies in high, dark river conditions.
The Delaware River is a world class smallmouth bass fishery. While the spring and fall are great times to target them, the summer months can be extremely productive as well. The stretch of river from around Lambertville and upriver from there provides excellent smallmouth bass fishing throughout the summer. For many (this angler included) putting in a canoe and fishing a long stretch of the river is an exciting and productive summer tradition.
The dog days of summer can come with frequent rain, which has a tremendous effect on the river conditions. Part of what makes the Delaware so pleasurable (and productive) to fish is its amazing clarity. That clarity reveals some beautiful structure below and sometimes the fish themselves. Summer rains can seemingly turn all of this upside down. Big summer rains mean high water, fast water, and close to zero water clarity.
So what do you do when this happens? Perhaps you have planned a summer Delaware River fishing trip that you have been looking forward to for weeks. Your work schedule has been adjusted, family plans are in place and you have a small window to make the trip. You are clear to go! Then Mother Nature throws a curveball. Torrential summer rains come the day before and the river runs high and looks like chocolate milk. If you think you need to skip this trip, think again!
With the right tactics and by focusing on certain areas of the river, you can use these conditions to your advantage, just as the fish do themselves!
Location, Location, Location
Look for calmer water and eddies that are adjacent to the shoreline. The current is reduced in these areas. Fish get a break from the stronger mainstream current here and are willing to feed. When water clarity is an issue, it is more likely for a bronzeback to be able to see your presentation in 3 to 5 feet of water as opposed to 10 or more in the main current. You will likely find more fish in these areas when the water is high, cloudy, and fast. Cast directly at the bank and run the lure back toward the canoe/boat. Fish about 50 feet or so away from the bank and be ready for strikes as soon as the lure hits the water.
The upper Delaware has many islands that split the river in two. While calm water areas are a great place to target, smallies will also use the increased water flow to their advantage when they are actively in feeding mode. Find areas upstream of splits/forks in the river. This is a great time to actually get out of your boat or canoe and wade (safety permitting!) to the upstream point of the island. Cast directly upstream, and methodically work your casts from your far left to your far right – a full 180 degrees.
Keep in mind that smallmouth stage in these types of areas – in front of and to the sides of the upstream fork (island point) in the river. They stage here because the fork and increased water flow delivers food right to them. When the water is high and cloudy, it does not mean that smallies will be in any fast water. However they will consistently stage and stack in good numbers on the upstream point of a fork in the river at the head of an island. They will be there specifically to feed. You should be there too!
Another powerful tactic is to focus on feeder creeks that empty into the main river. While feeder creeks also swell with heavy rain, they will generally remain clearer than the main river. They create awesome feeding opportunities for smallies because they flush food items into the main river and the fish can see those offerings. The “hot zone” for feeder creek fishing is where the clarity of the creek meets the murky water of the main river. Cast upstream into the feeder creek, not directly where the creek meets the main river. Let your lure be propelled by the current into the transition zone, the murky zone, and into the main river. Expect a strike anywhere from where clear water meets murky water and downstream from there.
Last summer I caught what was by far the largest smallmouth of my career by tossing an unweighted Senko worm up a tiny feeder creek and letting it drift into the main current. We later repeated this pattern on other feeder creeks with good results. Those fish staged in the murky zone between clearwater and the main river. Seek out and fish these feeder creeks.
Choosing the Right Gear
A canoe is ideal for fishing fast and dark water using these techniques. As safety permits, don’t be afraid to get out and wade fish. To get the most out of island point fishing, it is necessary to wade fish. The same holds true for feeder creeks. If you are able to get out of the boat to put several well placed casts upstream into the feeder creek, all the better.
In terms of what to bring, a medium action spinning outfit is a great choice for summer smallmouth fishing. You can go lighter, but be warned, you never know what species you might hook into on the Delaware and you want to be well prepared. An effective “go to” setup is a medium action 6-foot rod (1/4- to 5/8-ounce) and matched spinning reel with a 6- to 12-pound pound test rating. My personal preference is a Cabelas Tourney Trail IM8 rod paired with a Pflueger President Reel – a quality yet budget conscious combination that gets the job done nicely.
It can be a challenge for fish to see lures in dark water, so going big and flashy is definitely the way to go when targeting summer smallmouth in dark water on the Delaware. Think traditional oldies but goodies on the flashy end. A Mepps Aglia 2 Spinner in gold simply can’t be beat. Bring a dozen of them because you won’t need another lure in the “flash” category. Cast them directly toward banks when targeting slower water adjacent to the shore line. Cast them upcurrent and across current in a 180-degree arc at the upstream points of islands and forks in the river. No lure will outproduce this one.
Large soft plastics are the way to go when casting up feeder creeks. Just think natural presentation; do what a big worm would do, go with the flow. A 4-inch Yamasenko rigged Texas style paired with a 1/0 Gamakatsu offset shank worm hook is a deadly setup. Two tone watermelon/white and pumpkin/sparkle really get the attention of the fish. Cast into the feeder creek and gently twitch the rod tip as the current brings your offering into where the clear zone meets the murky zone. The hit will not be subtle; it’s a powerful strike.
I almost cancelled a smallie trip last summer because of the “bad conditions” that this article describes. As anglers we never stop learning. With persistence and trial and error, my son Paul and I were able to dial into these fish and have successfully used these tactics on other days as well.
Don’t let high and murky water get in the way of a summer smallmouth trip; use these tactics and you just might catch your largest smallmouth bass!