Smallmouth Bass Fishing for Beginners, a Complete Guide

Smallmouth Bass Fishing for Beginners, a Complete Guide

This article will focus on smallmouth bass fishing for beginners. Experienced anglers will find it useful as well. “Bronzebacks” are a very popular game fish in the cooler sections of North America. This guide will help anglers new to smallmouth bass fishing understand the tackle, baits, locations, and tactics that will help them catch more of these terrific game fish.

smallmouth bass fishing

Smallmouth bass, (Micropterus dolomieu), are actually quite different in habits from largemouth bass. Smallmouth bass behave a bit more like trout. They prefer cool, clear, and where possible flowing water. Smallmouth bass are found in creeks, rivers, and lakes throughout most of the United States and into Canada. They are a terrific game fish that puts up a great fight and leap often.

The smallmouth bass is native to the upper and middle Mississippi River basin, the St Lawrence and Great Lakes system, and up into the Hudson Bay basin. However, they have been stocked successfully throughout all but the warmer portions of the United States and up into Canada.

Smallmouth bass fishing for beginners

It is important to understand the habits of smallmouth bass in order to catch them. Smallmouth bass spawn in a similar manner to their cousins the largemouth bass. The male will build a nest, preferably in a shallow area with gravel or rocky bottom and a little bit of current. The female will then deposit the eggs and the male will fertilize them. Spawning usually occurs in late spring or early summer. The male then guards the nest until the fish are hatched. Like most fish species, only a tiny percentage of fry will grow to be mature fish.

fishing for smallmouth bass

Smallmouth Bass have an affinity for rocks. They are often times found along rip-rap, sloping points with gravel and rock, submerged humps with rocky bottoms, and rocky shorelines. In other words, anglers targeting smallmouth bass will do well to start fishing any type of structure that has a gravel or rocky bottom.

The reason for this is quite simple; crayfish. Crayfish, or crawdads, are a dietary staple of the smallmouth bass. This is true whether they are in rivers or lakes. Crayfish are high in protein and are relatively easy to catch, making them a very efficient meal. Smallmouth bass are well-suited to forage on these freshwater delicacies.

However, smallmouth bass are opportunistic feeders. They will feed heavily on small bait fish when they are present. Most river systems have a good population of some type of chub or flat head minnow. Lakes will have shad and other bait fish. Smallmouth bass will feed on these. Also, insects and larvae such as earthworms, helgramites, and small amphibians including tadpoles and small frogs will also fall prey to smallmouth bass.

Best smallmouth bass fishing tackle

The vast majority of anglers targeting smallmouth bass use light spinning tackle. It is the most versatile and practical outfit. Smallmouth bass feed on smaller sized bait than do largemouth bass. Therefore, the offerings used to entice them are smaller as well. Most lures and live baits are fairly light. Light spinning tackle is the best choice to present these baits in most situations.

smallmouth bass fishing

Anglers can read a detailed article on smallmouth bass fishing tackle and lures in this link

A 6 foot long light spinning rod matched to a 2000 series reel and 6 pound monofilament line or 10 pound braided line is a great all around combination. It will cast small lures and live baits easily. The angler will enjoy the fight of smaller bass on this light tackle while still having a decent chance to land a larger fish. In many instances, smallmouth bass are found in open water, resulting in light spinning tackle being a viable option.


smallmouth bass fishing for beginners

Anglers can certainly use light conventional tackle as well. This is best suited when casting heavier hard body plugs and larger spinnerbaits in search of trophy smallmouth bass. It can just be too difficult to try to cast light lures on this type of tackle. Of course, anglers using larger live baits will do well with conventional tackle as well.

Best baits for smallmouth bass fishing

Both live bait in artificial lures are extremely effective on smallmouth bass. Top live baits include nightcrawlers, minnows, crayfish, leeches, and helgramites. Anglers preferring to cast artificial lures do well with jigs, soft plastic baits, plugs, spinner baits, and in-line spinners. All can be effective, it really is just a matter of angler choice.

fishing for bass

Live bait for smallmouth bass

Anglers choosing to fish with live bait do well by keeping it simple. A #4 or #6 live bait hook is tied onto the end of the line. Depending on the situation, a split shot or two can be used to get the bait down in the water column. Conversely, a float can be used to suspend the bait up off the bottom.

Anglers can read an article on the best live bait for smallmouth bass.

Nightcrawlers are best hooked in the head. This allows them to wiggle enticingly in the water. Most anglers hook live minnows through both lips up from the bottom. Again, this allows the bait to swim naturally in the water. Leeches are also hooked in the head. Crawfish are usually hooked in the tail. Helgramites are hooked under the collar just behind the head.

fishing for bass

Anglers using live baits are subject to availability. Just about every freshwater tackle shop in North America stocks nightcrawlers. These are universal and effective baits for just about every freshwater species. Many shops will have live minnows as well. This changes a bit with the more exotic live baits such as leeches, crayfish, and helgramites. Serious anglers must often catch these on their own.

Smallmouth bass fishing with artificial lures

Many anglers opt to use artificial lures when fishing for smallmouth bass. Lures can be extremely effective and they are much more convenient. They also allow anglers to cover more water then does live bait. The list of effective artificial lures when smallmouth bass fishing is long, but we will try to narrow the focus here.

Here is a link to the Best 7 River Smallmouth Fishing Lures. Anglers can get more info as well as shop and purchase these baits.

Soft plastic baits for smallmouth bass

Soft plastic baits are extremely effective on smallmouth bass, as they are on just about every other species. They come in a myriad of shapes, colors, sizes, and styles and can be fished on a jig head, on specially designed hooks, and on drop shot rigs. Most effective smallmouth bass soft plastic lures are generally 2 inches to 4 inches in size and imitate crawfish or bait fish.

fishing for smallmouth bass

While color combinations are endless, there are a few standard colors that have proven to be effective over time. A 1/8 ounce black jig head with an orange and black or olive and black 2” grub is a proven smallmouth bass lure. It is especially effective in rivers. Anglers can choose from a twister tail, shad tail, paddle tail, or crawfish tail. All of them can be effective. A 4″ Senko in green is another terrific smallmouth bass bait.

Read more about the top smallmouth bass fishing lures

Tubes are another very effective soft plastic bait for smallmouth bass and other species. They are available in several sizes and many different colors. Tubes can mimic bait fish, crayfish, leeches, and other forage species. They put out terrific action with very little movement, this is the key to their effectiveness. Tubes are a good choice when bass are a bit less active.

Soft plastic baits are versatile

Lighter colors such as white and pearl can be effective when smallmouth are known to be feeding on shad and other bait fish. The great thing about these baits is their versatility. With a small selection of jig heads and grub bodies, and angler can mimic just about any freshwater forage available to smallmouth bass and other species.

bass fishing

Tube baits are extremely effective smallmouth bass lures. For many anglers, a tube is their top bait. Tube lures can mimic both bait fish and crayfish. These are the top two species that smallmouth feed on. In most cases, the bait is worked very slowly or with short hops. The many tentacles will wave in the water even with very little movement by the angler. Tubes are a great choice on bright, sunny days when smallmouth bass are less active.

Soft plastic baits can also be fished on special hooks. These can be very effective as they present the bait and more of a horizontal manner. Hooks come in various sizes and weights and can in most instances be rigged weedless. There are very effective when using larger 4 inch to 5 inch soft plastic baits.

smallmouth bass fishing

Drop shot rigs have become very popular of late. It is a vertical presentation. A special hook is tied in line a short distance above a weight. The bait is dropped to the bottom and jigged seductively. This is extremely effective when smallmouth bass are schooled up in deeper water. It is also an effective way to target suspended bass.

Spinners and spinnerbaits for smallmouth bass

Spinner baits and inline spinners are effective smallmouth bass lures. Spinnerbaits are often times used in conjunction with the above-mentioned jig and grub combination. A spinner bait is basically a safety pin type spinner with a blade at the top and a small lure on the bottom. The combination of the flash of the spinner blade and the action of the lure is very effective. It is also an easy bait to use as it is generally just cast in and then retrieved back steadily.

fishing with spinnerbaits

In-line spinners have been around a long time and are very effective as well. Most freshwater anglers have used a Mepps or Roostertail spinner at one point or another in their angling adventures. For the most part, they imitate bait fish. The blade rotates around the lure, putting out flash and vibration. Like the spinner bait, it is very easy to use as it is just cast out and reeled back and slowly. An added benefit is that hey also catch a wide variety of fish species.

Anglers can read Capt Jim’s article on fishing with spinners

Fishing for smallmouth bass with plugs

Hard body plugs, known to some as jerk baits, are another extremely effective smallmouth bass lure. They come in many different sizes and shapes and can be used to imitate both crawfish and bait fish. Long, slender plugs tend to be the favorite of smallmouth bass anglers.

The lip on the bait along with the size will determine the depth that the lure will run. Plugs can be purchased that will imitate just about every type of forage as well as covering the entire water column. Wide-bodied plugs with a large slip will dive down deep and bounce off the bottom structure, imitating crawfish. Slender plugs with a smaller lip suspend in the mid-depths, wobbling erratically and imitating a wounded bait fish.

9 essential smallmouth bass fishing lures

Some plugs float on the surface. These are called top water plugs. It is great fun to see a smallmouth bass explode on a surface lure. There are several different designs including poppers, walk the dog baits, and prop lures. All are designed to create a commotion on the water which will draw a smallmouth bass to the surface. Many anglers consider this the most exciting form of fishing. Two top crankbaits for smallmouth bass are the #8 Rapala X-Rap in olive or white and the Rebel Wee Crawfish.

Fly fishing tackle for smallmouth bass

Anglers who enjoy fly fishing are certainly not to be left out! Smallmouth bass are an excellent fish to target on fly. A simple outfit consisting of a 6wt rod and reel with a matching floating line and 9 foot tapered leader will work well in most applications. Anglers can certainly go up or down a size or two, depending on conditions. Breezy conditions with a heavy weighted fly may dictate the use of a 7wt outfit. Conversely, anglers fishing small creeks may opt for a 5wt fly rod and reel.

Fly selection is pretty basic. Bob Clouser designed the Clouser Deep Minnow specifically for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. It remains a great fly to this day. Wooly Buggers in brown or black are also effective and universally productive flies. Both patterns work very well when cast across streams and worked back in the current. Poppers will produce on the surface.

Ice fishing for smallmouth bass

ice fishing for bass


Smallmouth bass can be caught by anglers ice fishing as well. Smallmouth bass feed in cold water, so they naturally can be caught through the ice. The same spots that hold bass in the cooler months will produce fish through the ice. Points, bars, channel edges, and other spots in 10′ to 30′ of water will be good spots to try. Jigging spoons and plugs work well, but a live minnow on a jig head is tough to beat.

Anglers can read about ice fishing for bass in this article

Fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers

Smallmouth bass love rivers. Clear, cool streams and small rivers are excellent spots to target smallmouth bass. One advantage that anglers have when fishing in these rivers is that fish are much easier to locate. There simply is less water in which to look. Furthermore, smallmouth bass will tend to be found in the same types of spots in most rivers. This makes it easier to achieve success smallmouth bass fishing in unfamiliar waters.

Current is the main factor which will dictate where smallmouth bass will be found in rivers. They will place themselves in positions where the current will bring food to them while expending as little energy as possible. Anything that breaks the current can hold fish. Boulders in the middle of the river or stream will create a pocket of calm water behind it. This is a prime spot for smallmouth bass to ambush its prey.

Depth changes and holes in the river bottom will also create a bit of slack water. Smallmouth bass will also stage in the spots and dart out into the current to feed. Many rivers that hold smallmouth bass have limestone and other types of rock ledges. These are terrific spots to catch a a fish or two. They will hold in the deeper water right on the ledge in most cases.

Top river fishing spots for smallmouth bass

The heads and tails of riffles will also hold fish. These are natural feeding stations as water velocity increases. Generally, the head of a riffle coincides with the tail end of a pool. As the deeper water transitions to shallower water, it speeds up. This results in a good situation for fish to feed.

As in all river fishing, outside bends can be terrific spots to catch fish. These outside bends will generally be the deepest spots in the river. Most will have undercut banks. Also, debris from storms or during high water conditions will collect in these areas. The combination of depth and cover make them natural fish holding spots.

Anglers have two options when it comes to fishing rivers; by boat or by foot. While fish locations do not change, angling tactics and techniques are just a bit different depending on whether an angler is in a boat or wading. Of course, the size of the river will play a factor in this.

River fishing techniques

Anglers wade fishing in rivers generally cast upstream and then work the lure or bait with the current. As it passes parallel to them, it will then swing back towards them in the current. Fish will often hit at this point. This is very efficient and effective as the bait or lure is moving naturally with the water flow. Also, anglers can thoroughly work high percentage areas slowly and methodically.

As the angler enters the river, he or she “reads” the water, searching for likely fish holding spots. Once those are determined, the angler can then envision the best approach for the lure or bait to be presented to the fish. Again, an upstream quartering cast is generally the best approach. The offering drifts naturally with the current while allowing the angler to keep a fairly tight line and feel any strike.

Anglers drift fishing smallmouth bass rivers and streams in small boats, kayaks, and canoes generally present their baits horizontally. Then, as the craft eases downriver, they work the lure or bait back to the boat. It really just is not practical to try and cast upstream from a boat that is drifting downstream. Otherwise, the same basic principles apply.

Many anglers use small boats to drift the river and then get out and wade the prime spots. This is the best of both worlds, as anglers can cover a lot of water fairly easily. Then, when approaching high percentage spots such as ripples and small rapids, they can get out of the boat and thoroughly wade fish the area. Also, this gives anglers the chance to access some more remote portions of a river that are not easily accessible by road.

Best baits for river fishing smallmouth bass

The best live baits to use when smallmouth bass fishing and rivers are crawfish, helgramites, and nightcrawlers. These all are found naturally in rivers. Live minnows can also be used, but it is a bit more difficult to present them naturally.

Minnesota smallmouth bass

In most cases, the best rig is a simple #4 or #6 short shank live bait hook. Anglers can choose to add a split shot or two to get the bait down in deeper water. Also, a bobber or float can be used to suspend the bait up off the bottom. Bobbers also serve as casting weight along with giving anglers a visual reference when a fish takes the bait. Finally, using a bobber can reduce snags.

There is probably no better bait for a trophy river smallmouth bass then a large live crayfish. While they can be difficult to obtain, they are usually worth the trouble. Anglers will not get as many bites, but they will almost always be larger fish. The same goes for large helgramites. Nightcrawlers are great live baits as well. They are an excellent choice for anglers seeking action, as it will catch fish of all sizes.

Catching river bass with lures

Anglers choosing to cast artificial lures catch a lot of fish as well. Lures have several advantages over live bait. They allow anglers to cover more water than do live baits. Also, lures can trigger strikes from fish that are not in a mood to feed. Lures can elicit a reflex strike as well as anger and irritate smallmouth bass into attacking the lure.

Tailwater fishing tips and techniques

Small jigs are terrific lures to use when targeting smallmouth bass. There are many different colors and styles to choose from. However, any small jig in the 2 inch range that imitates a crawfish will work well. A 1/8 ounce black jig head with a 2 inch orange and black or olive and black grub tail is a great choice in just about any smallmouth River.

The jig is cast 45° up current and allowed to sink a couple of seconds. It is then worked subtly off the bottom using short hops as it drifts with the current. This action, as the jig head kicks up a small puff of dirt or sand, mimics a crawfish fleeing. It is deadly on smallmouth bass. Anglers will lose some baits to the rocks. However, when purchased in bulk, these are relatively inexpensive lures to use.

Plug fishing in rivers

Small plugs can be very effective in rivers and streams as well. They will often times catch larger fish than some other baits. This is particularly true if the angler chooses a larger bait, in the 4 inch range. Productive colors vary, with white, olive, and firetiger being top patterns. Basically, any plug that resembles the bait fish that inhabit that river should produce fish.

best 7 river smallmouth fishing lures

Plugs are the one bait that most anglers do not cast up current. The most effective presentation in most cases is to cast the lure directly across and then work it back with short, sharp twitches as it drifts with the current. Smallmouth bass will dart out from their hiding spot to inhale the lure. One advantage it these plugs have is that they tend to snag less as they float on the surface at rest and dive down when being retrieved.

In-line spinners are another very effective smallmouth bass lure, particularly in rivers. They are very easy to use. The lure is once again cast at 45° upstream and then simply worked back in using a steady retrieve. Many suggest reeling the spinner at the slowest possible speed at which the blades will turn.

Once again, spinners are available in many different sizes and colors. However, color is less of a factor with spinners than it is with other lures. Blades come in bronze and silver finishes. Silver is best in clear water while bronze works well in stained water. Anglers should match the size of the spinner to the size of the bait available. Size #1 and #2 spinners will cover most fishing situations.

Fishing for smallmouth bass in lakes

Smallmouth bass flourish in lakes. Lakes that have good populations of smallmouth bass tend to be deeper, cooler, and clearer than those preferred by largemouth bass. However, there are certainly countless lakes in the United States and Canada that have good populations of both species. Smallmouth bass are less tolerant of polluted waters, therefore there are a good indication of a healthy environment.

Oklahoma smallmouth bass

Like most fishing situations, anglers targeting smallmouth bass in lakes will find advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage in fishing lakes is that there is so much more area in which to search for fish. However, smallmouth bass found in lakes tend to be larger as there is more food and they do not have to fight the current.

While fishing lakes for smallmouth bass can be overwhelming, there are certain areas that will consistently hold fish. The top spots in lakes are sloping points, underwater humps, steep bluffs, flats, river channels, and rip-rap. Anglers targeting these types of areas should achieve success, even in unfamiliar waters.

Locating smallmouth bass in lakes

Sloping points are natural spots to find the fish of all species. The perfect point would be narrow with several distinct brakes at around 10 feet and then at 20 feet. The best approach is often to cast a lure up shallow than work it back into deeper water. Soft plastic baits and jigs that can be worked right on the bottom can be very effective.

Anglers should thoroughly work all sides of the point as well. Plugs are great option as they allow anglers to cover multiple depths and thoroughly work the area in a relatively short amount of time. They will also elicit reflex bites. Deep diving crank baits that dig into the bottom when retrieved will imitate crawfish and draw strikes as well.

Anglers choosing to fish a point with live bait will do best by free lining it with just a split shot or two. This will allow the bait to slowly sink and have a natural appearance. All live baits can be effective in this situation. A minnow hooked through the lips with a light jig head is another excellent combination.

Submerged islands and humps

Underwater humps or islands are smallmouth bass magnets. An underwater hump that rises to 15 or 20 feet from the surface and is surrounded by water that is significantly deeper will almost certainly hold smallmouth bass at one time or another. If rocks or boulders are present, a smallmouth bass hot spot exists!

Depending on the size of this underwater hump, anglers have several approaches that can be effective. Smaller humps are best fish using a vertical presentation. A drop shot rig is deadly in this situation. The bait is lowered to the bottom and then danced seductively in a small area, enticing fish to bite. Similarly, a live bait drop to the bottom will produce as well.

Larger islands and humps are best fish using artificial lures. A crank bait that dives down to the depth of the hump is an efficient way to thoroughly cover the structure. Soft plastic baits worked on a jig head or on a rigging hook work well also. One approach that some anglers choose is to use the plugs to locate the school and then the soft plastic bait or drop shot to catch as many fish as possible.

River channel edges are fished very similarly as are underwater islands or humps. Flats in 10 feet of water to 20 feet of water that drop off sharply into the river channel can be excellent spots to find a school of smallmouth bass. Curves in the channel as well as any structure such as boulders or fallen timber certainly increase the chances of success.

Steep bluffs

Many productive smallmouth bass lakes exist in hilly areas. This results in areas of the lakes having steep, almost vertical banks. These are terrific spots to locate schools of fish, particularly in fall and winter. Rocky ledges and outcroppings will hold crayfish and bait fish. Fish can also move up and down n the water column until they find a comfortable zone.

In most instances, the best approach when fishing bluffs is to put the boat right up against the shore and fish parallel to the bank. Crankbaits are a great lure that will cover the water column effectively. Soft plastic bait that fall slowly and seductively will draw strikes as well. They do cover less water.

Rip Rap

Rip rap holds smallmouth bass! These are great spots to target all species of game fish. However, with smallmouth bass having such an affinity for rocks, it is a natural spot to try. Rip rap almost always exists around bridges. Bridges are usually built in narrow spots. This results in increased current flow, which only enhances rip rap as a good fishing spot.

All lures and baits can produce around rip rap. The rocks will hold crayfish, of course. However, shad and other bait fish will gravitate to the rocks. As the sun shines, rocks will absorb the heat and thus warm up the water. This will attract both bait fish and game fish, especially on cool, sunny days. Again, the best approach is usually to work the structure close to shore and in a parallel manner.

In conclusion, this article on smallmouth bass fishing will help anglers catch more of these fantastic freshwater game fish!



Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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