No matter what the advertisements might say, there is no official end to summer. Labor Day is the marker for most while the more meteorological types wait until the autumnal equinox. Whatever your definition, summer is on the decline but there’s still plenty of time to take advantage of a terrific late summer fishing pattern for smallmouth bass.
For some reason, a lot of anglers think summer fishing means hitting the lakes and ignoring the rivers. River fishing is great in the spring and fall it is also a great place to fish throughout the summer and especially in late summer when weather patterns are known to be unstable. Rivers just seem to have a more consistent bite and cold fronts don’t impact them as much.
The smallmouth bite can be hit or miss and the fish are very temperamental making it tough to get a bite some days—the bass are easier to find in the river or any reservoir system.
One of my favorite stretches of river is found close to my home in Elk River north to Monticello. I also really like the stretches around Sartell and the one between Royalton and Little Falls.
These are known as world-class smallmouth waters but are often devoid of fishing boats, even on the weekends. Pleasure boaters can be found on these stretches throughout the weekend but they receive very little fishing pressure for the quality of catch they produce. The patterns on these stretches for smallmouth bass can be applied to any similar body of water around the state such as the Rum and St. Louis.
The places to look are where you find the fastest current, big boulders and sporadic weeds. The river flow is like a continuous buffet line and the smallmouth sit in these stretches just waiting for food to come down the current into their mouth.
On the Mississippi River’s Sartell stretch, the water is the deepest and slowest of all the pools with steep banks, lots of shoreline with overhanging trees and slow moving water. River stretches like this are ripe for fishing weightless plastic lures with an oversized hook.
The reason for an oversized hook is because it acts as a weight for the plastic allowing an angler to twitch the lure under the surface of the water in a walk-the-dog retrieve.
Sometimes the fish on these stretches are not in an aggressive mood so a slower approach is best. A 1/4 to 3/16 ounce jig tipped with a plastic trailer such as a football jig and a crawfish style plastic like a crawpappy. You want something where the pinchers flutter really nicely whether you fish it fast or slow and I prefer solid plastics to the hollow ones in these situations.
Using a large piece of plastic on a smaller jighead is beneficial because it allows the angler to have more control over the lure and creates a more natural look because it allows the current to work it.
On a tough bite a slow retrieve works best with this presentation. When the bite is hot you can burn that same jig and plastic rig over the weeds and rocks. It’s tough to beat burning a jig in the heat and you can easily stall your retrieve in some areas and poke a fish that’s sitting there waiting for food to swim by its face.
The north end of the Sartell stretch features faster flowing water much like you’d find further south around St. Cloud and Elk River. In that skinnier water try dropshotting green-colored tubes with a 3/0 hook Texas-rigged on a drop shot with a quarter ounce weight and 12-inch dropper,
Cast the drop shot to the rock shelf and work the big boulders. Face the boat upstream if you can and run the trolling motor so you are just gaining on the current and covering new water as you most slowly upstream. Casting upstream, use a steady retrieve stopping to pop the lure off the rocks and maintain contact with the bottom. Crawfish style lures with a good pincher-flutter once again work great in these locations.
Fishing upstream is the best on the river because you are always bringing your lure down with the current, which is a more natural presentation because the fish are already facing upstream. If the fish are active they won’t care as much. When going upstream is not possible due to current or depth, consider quartering the river or going cross-current and focus in on corner breaks like gravel flats one to four feet deep.
Clam beds are easy to spot because you can see the open clams sitting on the bottom—this is a good place for a top water walk the dog lure because the smallmouth often feed here. Anybody who has spent some time on a river knows what eelgrass looks like. As the current flows over the eelgrass it pulsates in the current like wind flowing over a field of grass. You’ll see schools of minnows on the edges of these weeds and the smallmouth are close by hiding out in the pockets of the eelgrass.
If the topwater approach doesn’t catch them in those eelgrass locations just run a weightless plastic under the surface and get ready for a big hook set. Crankbaits are also great along that deep break most rivers have where the shallow bank drops into the river channel. Smallmouth bass often hang off the edge of the break and have a hard time resisting a crankbait swam their way.
Before the summer leaves us for a few months, get out to your nearest smallmouth river and try these techniques. Hit those upper stretches of the Mississippi if true tackle busting action is what you like.