Small, Clear, Low Summer Smallies, for Creek Wader and Others

Posted by Al Agnew on August 17th, 2009
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Creekwader is experimenting with spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and topwaters, trying to develop a liking for something besides soft plastics, on the small waters he fishes, and so far has had mediocre results. Others have stated that they think soft plastics rule in shallow creeks in the summer. I pretty much disagree, so I thought I’d write a bit about the way I fish such waters.

No matter whether you’re talking about streams big enough to be floatable by canoe, or tiny creeks with riffles you can step across in three strides without getting your ankles wet, I pretty much fish them all the same way with the same stuff, and of that stuff, I almost never use soft plastics and jigs if the water is really clear. I grew up fishing some fairly murky waters for smallies, and learned early to use bigger lures. When I’d stray from my home waters to fish some of the air-clear streams of the Ozarks, I let such waters intimidate me. I thought I HAD to use small, “natural” looking, soft plastic lures to fool the fish in those creeks. But that approach never worked all that well for me, so finally I gave it all some serious thought, and decided to go in a different direction. Instead of going small and natural, I’d go a little bigger and try for pure reaction strikes. THAT worked. I think it works because smallmouth and other bass are naturally aggressive, and as long as they feel secure (meaning they don’t know you’re there or you’re not close enough to bother them) they’ll act like bass. They’ll react to things going by them that look alive by putting them in their mouths!

Here’s the thing, though. In clear water, they can see extremely well. If something is moving slowly or sitting still, they are probably going to look it over before trying it. In clear water, that sometimes gives them too many negative cues. They see the line (no matter how thin it is…you can’t tell me they can see 10 pound mono and not 4 pound mono). They see the profile, and it doesn’t look quite like what they are used to eating. They see the color and it doesn’t look quite right, either. Face it, very few lures we use look EXACTLY like the creatures they are supposed to be imitating. Sometimes, bass being bass, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, though, it does.

But if something lands 10 feet away (trust me, they KNOW when something lands 10-15 feet away, sometimes before it even hits the water), and moves swiftly across the surface or moves quickly and erratically with lots of splash and commotion, they just can’t examine it closely. They don’t have time to notice the negatives. The splash or speed obscures it. It’s moving, though, so it must be alive, and it’s small enough to swallow. THAT triggers the predatory response. Often, not always. Nothing is ever absolute in fishing.

“The dog days of summer.” That is something else that intimidates fishermen more than it bothers fish. They gotta eat. In fact, with higher water temps, they have to eat MORE to feed their increased metabolism. The bigger fish may feed a lot at night, but they also feed sometime during the day. And even more importantly, the low water concentrates them. Living in close proximity, they have to compete with each other for food. This works very much in the angler’s favor, especially with reaction style baits. It’s a race to the “food”.

So…here’s how I approach it. First, be quiet. Don’t wade noisily. Second, make long casts. They don’t have to be accurate. In fact, you don’t want to land lures right on the fish’s head, so make your casts land a few feet away from where you think the fish will be. To do this, you have to have tackle that will make long, effortless casts with the lures you’re using. I use light baitcasting tackle almost exclusively. My creek wading rod is a 5.2 ft. medium light casting rod with a light reel (I’m currently using BPS’s Prolite Finesse reel), and 8 pound test co-poly line. With it, I can make long, easy casts and start retrieving the instant the lure hits the water. That’s important. I don’t want the lure sitting in one place.

My lures?

1. Walk the dog topwaters–3.5 to 4.5 inch long bodies. Sammy 85 and 100. Dog-X.

2. Popper types–Lucky Craft G-Splash is my current favorite.

3. smallish buzzbaits–1/4 ounce and fairly compact.

4. My homemade Subwalk, a 3.5 to 4 inch walk the dog sinking lure.

5. My homemade twin spin, bucktail spinnerbait much like the old Shannon Twin Spin, with a 3/4 inch curly tail grub trailer.

6. Soft plastic jerkbaits, like Zoom Superflukes, the only fast-moving soft plastic I like.

And that’s about it.

To fish the walk-the-dog and popper type topwaters, I start the retrieve the instant the lure hits the water. I twitch it at a cadence of about two twitches per second. No pauses, keep it moving. I make the poppers walk-the-dog as well, and spit…you DON’T want them to go BLOOMP, just spit water and zig zag. The regular walkers should do it splashily, so I give them pretty hard twitches on slackish line. If a fish hits, pause to make sure it has the lure…either you feel it or the lure is gone. You’ll get lots of missed strikes, so if the fish misses, keep it moving. They’ll usually hit it again. My Subwalk works the same way, same cadence, same starting it as soon as it hits the water. Strikes on it are often very soft.

The buzzbait is, of course, simple, just cast it out and reel it in, fast enough to make plenty of bubbles. The twin spin also needs to start moving the very instant it hits the water, and reel it fast enough that it bulges the surface on the retrieve. I give it a twitch about every three feet or so while continuing to reel, just something to break the whir of the blades. This often triggers following fish.

The fluke-type baits are rigged weightless, and like the other lures, you start them moving when they hit the water and you keep them moving.

I think color is important in this kind of fishing, and it should further your aims of not giving the fish a good look. In surface lures, I’ll go with light, minnow-imitating colors, often translucent. In the buzzbait and spinnerbait…chartreuse! Why chartreuse, a “highly visible” color? Because from the fish’s vantage point, it is NOT highly visible. The fish are looking UP at it. They are seeing it against a bright sky, sunlight filtering through leaves (yellow green). Against that background chartreuse blends in very well.

It’s only on rare occasions that this approach doesn’t work. I carry a box of tubes for those rare occasions, but they rarely get used unless I decide to try them on the way back to the car. Color of tube? Look at the bottom of the creek, and pick out a tube color that matches it as closely as possible. After all, that’s what the color is of most of the bottom organisms the bass feed upon.

That’s about it. It’s actually pretty simple. Keep yourself moving, keep the lures moving up close to the surface, and cherry pick the active fish. This time of year on smaller waters, there are usually plenty of active fish, unless the creek is being pounded by a lot of other people.

A little more about why my methods work, and why they might NOT work for you…

The fish I caught on Friday was in a spot that, chances are, the guy fishing soft plastics on the bottom wouldn’t have bothered to fish. Thing is, when you fish slowly, you have a lot more time and effort devoted to each cast. So you tend to make your casts all to places you think will be holding fish. You thoroughly fish the good-looking water and ignore the rest, because if you tried to fish every possible spot, you’d feel you were wasting a lot of time in unproductive water. But the fish aren’t always in the best piece of cover or the best looking spot in the pool. If they are active, they may be roaming around, cruising the banks, making forays into shallow water. That fish Friday was on a bank with nothing but a few straggly little limbs and a few small rocks right on the edge, nothing but gravel off the edge, the nearest water that was any deeper about 20 feet away, and it wasn’t much deeper. But the fish was in the shade, probably lying in wait for schools of minnows to go cruising past. Minnows tend to avoid deeper water. Fish feed where the food is, and big fish like to have just a bit of security when they do so. The shade and the bank itself provided the security, the spot was a good one to lie in waiting for the minnows. But it sure didn’t look like much, and I would NOT have predicted that fish to be there. If I was spending a minute or more on each cast, I’d have gone to the next place downstream that was deeper or had some real cover.

But when you’re only investing 15-20 seconds on each cast, you can make a lot of casts to spots that have just a SLIGHT possibility of holding a good fish. You can, in effect, put a lure in front of every fish in the stream. It’s up to them to decide whether they hit it or not, but at least you’re not skipping any of them, you’re giving them all a chance. Fact is, I’ve probably caught as many big fish from spots that somewhat surprised me than I have from spots that I just KNEW had to have a big one.

One more thing about this type of fishing. It’s run and gun completely. You have to be able to cover lots of water. You very seldom make more than one cast to a spot, no matter how good it looks, unless you get a fish to hit there and think there might be more. You’re fishing strictly for active fish, and if they don’t hit on the first cast, they usually won’t hit on the next one UNLESS you show them something completely different. As for the covering lots of water, if you’re wading you have to be physically able to wade long distances up and down the creek. I’ll wade and fish the smaller creeks at a rate of about a mile every two hours, which means if I’m spending much of the day at it I’ll wade three or four miles of creek, and then have to wade or hike the same distance back to the car. Covering 6 to 8 miles a day on a creek with deep gravel, big rocks, heavy brush, slick bottoms, etc. requires being in shape to do so. If floating these small streams in a canoe, you are doing a lot of getting in and out of the canoe, dragging it over obstructions, and still being very careful to be as quiet as possible. It’s not for everyone, but anyone can do at least some of it in combination with the usual slow and careful tactics.

But…and this is important…as well as being in shape, you must have the tackle for it, and you must have the proficiency. Yesterday I took a guy from Virginia on one of my Bataan Death March “floats”, 7 miles of stream where we had to drag the canoe over every riffle. First of all, he wasn’t equipped with felt-soled shoes and wasn’t used to getting in and out of a canoe all the time, so it was very difficult for him. Second, he had brought one spinning rod. Spinning is inherently not as good for these tactics as casting tackle…you CAN get proficient enough with spinning tackle to do everything, especially the never letting the lure sit still thing, but if you’re not very much accustomed to fishing this way it will seem almost impossible with spinning tackle. I was getting non-stop action on topwater lures and my spinnerbait. He tried topwater but couldn’t seem to master the quick tempo of fishing this way. He tried spinnerbaits but couldn’t seem to get them moving as soon as they hit the water. The weight of the topwaters and spinnerbaits wasn’t matched well to his tackle, so he wasn’t accurate. His rod was too long and he couldn’t fish in the close-in, brushy, overhanging spots. So he ended up going back to what he was used to fishing…soft plastics, slow. He ended up catching some nice fish with the soft plastics, but I think that under the circumstances he could have done better. I got a whole lot more action fishing from the back of the canoe than he did from the front, only fishing spots where I could make a long cast without messing up his fishing.

Question: Mr. Agnew has clearly stated the run and gun method that has helped a number of good fishermen win big deal tournaments. Other fishermen use the thorough, slow entice method. Both work, and both are right.

Al: do you make your own twin spins? I do and would be glad to share/trade with you. Anyone else still fish twin spins?

Agreed, both methods work. But often one works when the other isn’t working. So it’s nice to be confident and proficient at both. To be honest, I’m probably far from the best angler at fishing the slow entice methods, but I do use them when I have to. The thing I’ve found for myself at least, is that I can almost always do okay with fishing fast in the summer, but often when I try fishing slow I don’t do as well. Your results may vary. If you’re wading, it’s easy to switch from one method to the other, but if you’re floating, you need about twice as much time to fish the same mileage of river with the slow method, so you almost have to decide beforehand which method you’re going to use that day.

Yep, I make my own. I’d be interested in seeing some of yours, so a trade might be in the offing. Warning, though…mine are not exactly works of art…they just work well for me.


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