Off the Grid Smallies

The author landing a smallmouth on a tributary of the Hudson River in eastern
        NY
The author landing a smallmouth on a tributary of the Hudson River in eastern NY; photo by Brian Baulsir

For a lot of anglers, kayaks are becoming more and more like miniature bass boats. There are motors, trailers, and designs that keep getting bigger and bigger. But for many others, including myself, the allure of kayak fishing stems from adventure - being able to explore waterways that other anglers just can’t get to, including many that are way off the beaten path. That anticipation of what lies around the next corner is irreplaceable, and that feeling is epitomized by creek fishing for smallmouth bass. The next stretch of water may be a rapid or riffle with current seams and eddies, a deep hole, or a fallen tree. In these shallow, clear streams, the bass are typically smart and finicky, so it is important to have the right selection of gear for covering the entire water column. In this article, we will break down some tried and true strategies for hooking and landing smallmouths from a kayak in any small flow.

Brian Baulsir preparing to run a long set or rapids in his kayak
Brian Baulsir preparing to run a long set or rapids in his kayak; photo by Drew Haerer

Creeks and small rivers generally transition from the upper to lower reaches, and these transitions generally occur over a few miles to tens of miles. In the upper reaches, rivers are generally characterized by a larger gradient, which means more rapids and higher flow velocities. Fish use these features to their advantage. Current, current seams, and eddies provide easy access to bait and plenty of oxygen in the warm summer months. It is important to work your boat downstream, which often means floating past a shoal then turning around to fish it. Under natural conditions, bait will rarely swim upstream toward a bass, so neutral (cross-river) and upstream casts make for the best presentations.

Baulsir hooked up on a drag-pulling smallmouth
Baulsir hooked up on a drag-pulling smallmouth; photo by Drew Haerer

Brian Baulsir, a member of the Wilderness Systems kayak fishing pro team and president of Adirondack Kayak Bass Fishing, notes that for anglers with trout, steelhead, and salmon experience, the approach is similar. Notably, a lot of time is spent reading the water to find the best drift and the optimal angles to garner strikes.

In eddies behind shoals and in slow pools, Baulsir will throw a 3”-4” straight worm on a mushroom head. For him, one of the keys is getting the right rod that is sensitive enough to feel the bait in contact with the bottom and that has the right action to get good hook sets with the relatively small jig hook. Generally, he uses a 7’ or 7’3” medium power Veracity to achieve that perfect balance, and he’ll pair it with a Revo SX 30. At 6.2:1, the SX can retrieve line quickly and has a drag that easily handles angry smallies. Brian prefers rods that are at least 7’ for kayak fishing, mainly because of how close you are to the water. The long rod allows you to get a good hook set and leverage fish to the boat.

A creek giant that fell for a spinnerbait
A creek giant that fell for a spinnerbait; photo by Brian Baulsir

I prefer to power fish near current and often rotate between a spinnerbait and a crankbait that dives in the 3’-5’ range. I prefer to throw 3/8 oz thin-wire spinnerbaits on 12 lb fluorocarbon or fluorocarbon coated line. I will vary my reel speed between 6.6:1 and 7.3:1 and almost always reach for my Revo X or X-HS rigged on a 7’ Veritas LTD in a medium to medium heavy power. In fast water, it is best to have a high reel speed to keep your bait moving, and a long rod allows you to make long casts and control fish that are hooked in strong current. Additionally, the fast action and relatively soft tip on the Veritas and Veritas LTD are perfect for throwing moving baits, allowing you to cover a lot of water and establish a pattern. More often than not, your bites will come along current seams, in small pockets of slower water, near isolated cover, or near depth changes. Don’t be afraid to beach your kayak and wade some as well, as this approach can allow you to dissect key areas.

Releasing a gorgeous smallie in western Massachusetts
Releasing a gorgeous smallie in western Massachusetts; photo by Drew Haerer

In any river stretch, bladed jigs can be productive, but Baulsir particularly loves throwing them in the lower stretches of rivers. He will target isolated targets, such as boulders and wood cover, and work the bait across channel bends, down depth contours, and along the bottom of deep pools. Selecting the right gear is crucial to getting bites. Too heavy of gear my result in poor action and an unrealistic presentation, and too light of gear can often lead to missed bites and lack of backbone to fight fish to the kayak. Baulsir prefers a slow to moderate reel speed, often opting for the Revo AL-F with a 6.4:1 ratio. He fishes the reel on a medium heavy rod with a moderate to fast action but notes that even a crankbait rod, such as the Veritas Winch, checks all the boxes for him.

A prime isolated target in a slow stretch of a small river
A prime isolated target in a slow stretch of a small river; photo by Drew Haerer

Small-water smallmouths can be spooky, smart, and stubborn, but with the right approach, these fish can often be patterned and provide hours of hard fights and fun. Selecting the optimal gear is crucial for maximizing your chances of landing these acrobatic fish, and the strategies above have allowed Brian and I to cash some checks and catch a ton of fish while getting away from the crowds.

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