Lay it on the Dinner Table!
Buzz and his buddy, Dan, had come up from Memphis and Little Rock for a couple of days of Smallmouth fishing. They were "pumped" about getting into Smallmouth on a stream! Good guys to the core and well into their 50's. They spent most of our introduction time telling me about hair-raising experiences in a canoe: being swamped in hairpin turns, two hundred dollar fishing reels lost under log jams, the whole ball of wax. Both knew about float fishing; but, hadn't been out there in years. Frankly, they were a little apprehensive about getting on the river in my canoe even if I did look like I knew a little about what I was doing. Reasonably so, their most vivid memories were of fighting for air under capsized canoes. It was all chuckling material now as most bad floating experiences turn out to be funny as you look at them in the rear view mirror. It didn't take them long to settle into my big canoe and concerns about "getting wet" began to fade. Despite their canoeing miscues, each had caught a few Smallmouth and by George, now they had hired an "expert". "How do we fish for these Smallmouth" comes as an honest question from new clients. As a guide, I'm expected to have near all the answers. Unfortunately, as with learning how to paddle a canoe, there are few magical, easy answers. Not least, I've also learned through the years that experts are a dime a dozen. I figured I'd start things off using my keep it simple stupid formula: "I'm always looking for feeding locations and once you learn where they are just lay it on the dinner table!" Naturally, light bulbs came on and they were immediately catching more and bigger fish! If I had one answer that's most relevant to catching Smallmouth on streams it would be to learn how to "read water". To the inexperienced eye, it would appear that all that's needed is to cast your lure out there and catch fish, after all, a day's float trip can cover as much as ten or more miles of stream and you sure can't catch fish, if you don't have a plug in the water, so just start casting and keep at it. That's exactly what Buzz and Dan were doing and sure enough they were catching some fish. When they finally brought up the question........I went on, trying to explain more about reading water. Creeks and rivers in a generic way can be divided into two parts: Eddy's (or holes) and Shoals. The neat thing, no two of either are the same, ever! And, from one year to the next, even through the seasons of the year, each shoal and eddy will also change. Floods make the most dramatic, and sudden changes. A Sycamore tree that's been growing since the Osage Indians owned the Ozarks will suddenly be a part of the river's cover. Flathead catfish will be spawning in the hollow of the tree trunk where a Barred owl once raised her young. Bass will be holding in the shade of a limb where before, there was no cover for a fish, whatsoever. Thus, there is constant change and yet, some things about Smallmouth behavior, never change. During the winter, bass will be staged in what I call "wintering holes" or eddy's. These holes will be the largest bodies of water; and therefore, the least subject to dramatic changes during the winter months. In other words, it's the best place for survival during harsh conditions. As water temperatures increase during the Spring, bass will move from these holding areas more freely to feed and spawn. The upper and lower end of eddy's can be depended upon for holding fish as Spring approaches and as water conditions allow. Once Spring provides more stable water temperatures, fish will be more consistently found in shoals. As Summer fades into the Fall, the trend goes into reverse as bass prepare for the return of winter. Yet, there are many more nuances about reading water and identifying the dinner tables. It's a matter of weighing the constants of bass behavior against the variables of the stream and the weather. I touch on a few keys points: Current Breaks: Learn to identify a break in the stream's current for what it is as a holding location for fish. Smallmouth bass are ambushers. They will be resting out of the brunt of the current's force ready to pounce. ANYTHING that breaks the flow of current is a resting place, logs, rocks, stumps, ledges, bridge piers, car bodies, the list is as varied as the items found in rivers. "Where could a bass be hiding" is a good question to be asking yourself when float fishing. Depth and Shade: Another constant here! Learn to see the deepest, darkest places as you float the stream and that's the dinner table! Throw in a good current break and you've hit pay dirt! Bass will often "stack up" in these locations and it's not uncommon to catch a dozen bass off one dinner table. If you find this combination at the lower end of shoals where the water is well oxygenated and food is being washed in from upstream, fishing can be phenomenal. Bass like to be in the shade, in the deepest spot they can find and just out of the way of the strongest current flow.......but, not too far away. Hitting the spot: Now that you've got some insight about reading river water, there's one more thing that takes the fisherman's skill to perfect. You've got to nail the cast. Often, miss hitting the right location by just a foot, and you've missed catching a fish. Coming from the Show-Me state, that's what I often do to drive the point home when out there guideing. And yes, I do fish when I'm guiding. Clients typically make twenty casts to my one; but, when I see a dinner table that's been over-looked, I'm apt to toss a bait in there. I've had more then one client say: "we've both been casting our lure, left and right and then you make one cast and catch a fish, how do you do that?" Trust me, it's nothing magic; just fish as many streams for as many years and you will be doing the same. I can show you dinner tables around the Ozarks on just about every stream out there where I've seldom, if ever, NOT caught a fish when floating through on a day's fishing trip. Buzz and Dan picked it up pretty quick that day. They didn't have to worry about maneuvering the tricky shoals and before long they were nailing the dinner tables. And, there were a lot of those tables that were hiding some dandy Smallmouth. There's a pretty good chance they will be back next year and we'll spend more time talking about the best lures to use, and how to make sure you've got a good hook set when a bass strikes. Both know me a little better now, and suspect that they may have qualified their definition for an "expert" a little; but, they didn't get wet or lose any expensive reels so that may have helped to balance the books.