By Jeff Little
In the first 25 minutes on the water, I had landed seven smallmouth, five of which were 18 inches or greater. Each one blasted a five-inch swim bait in current so fast, I was only guessing where the micro eddies might be. Actually, I was just straining water and getting lucky. The hook ups were automatic. As soon as they hit the soft plastic and leadhead combo, they turned down current and were hooked. There's nothing like a broad shouldered smallmouth that knows how to catch strong current and peel drag.
To see Jeff's fast start to that day, watch this video preview:
Then the sun cleared the top of Blue Mountain, overlooking the Susquehanna River. The bite died. I searched for a similar example of screaming fast current, but by the time I found one two miles downstream, the fast water morning bite dissipated.The fish spread out, and while I did get bites sporadically, delivering an effective hook set was far from automatic.
Fish would come up behind the bait, mouth it, feel the slight pressure of attachment, stop abruptly and open mouth. On more than one of these instances, I could see the white of the inside of a fish's mouth flash as I set the hook on nothing. Before too long, I was rattled. So I called up a friend who has taught swimbait tactics for river smallmouth to many of his clients.
Jedediah Plunkert of Martinsburg, West Virginia guides anglers on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers for smallmouth from a whitewater raft designed to accommodate two anglers, one fore, one aft. When he's not plying those waters with raft oars, he's paddling himself in a Wilderness Systems Ride 135. He's been one of a short list of fishing buddies that will show up no matter what. Last winter, we successfully caught largemouth to 19 inches from a spring fed creek on a day when the high temperature was 17 degrees. In other words, he's got it as bad as I do. Let's hear his advice on swim bait tactics for river smallmouth.
Little: I'll get right to the point of the reason I asked you to do this interview. I know swim baits catch big fish, but it seems that at times, they just bump it or briefly mouth it, making hook ups really difficult. What do you tell your clients when they struggle with this? Tell me what I need to change in order to set the hook on time.
Plunkert: It has been somewhat of a process to find a more consistent hook up ratio throwing the large swim baits.The first thing I ask clients to do is aim the rod tip directly at the lure during the retrieve. This allows you to be in great position with direct connection for a quick snapping hook set. As far as timing, I hold the rod with a soft grip on the handle. I feel that the looser feeling allows the fish the extra tenth of a second or so to take the whole lure. When you're burning swim baits back, you will see a lot of the action. Fish will cause a wake or boil, and some come blasting out like a rocket. Any time I get an indication that a smallmouth is around the bait I do a quick stutter or stop in my retrieve. This will usually result in a wrist crushing hit! If it doesn't, keep burning it back! I have had fish chase the length of the cast then not commit until they were boat side.
Little: What are some of the more memorable swim bait fish that your clients have caught this year?
Plunkert: The first that comes to mind is from a late spring trip. A husband and wife who I guided on the Shenandoah doubled up on two big smallmouth at the same time. His was 19 inches with the five-inch swim bait and hers went 21.25 inches with a smaller three inch swim bait.
Little: And your own memorable swimbait catches?
Plunkert: Last year my friend and I spent the whole day throwing large swimbaits. We fished ledges, grass beds, open water and everything in between. We caught 27 fish over 18 inches, three of which cleared 20. That was a special day.
Little: Tell me about your set up. What soft plastic, jighead, line, rod and reel do you prefer for this tactic? Give us a little on color selection too.
Plunkert: For the plastic, my go-to is the Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper. I rig these on an Owner 4/0 or 5/0, 1/8-ounce swimbait hook. I will cut a small incision on the the belly of the bait, just below where the tip of the hook rides. This allows the swimbait to hinge and expose the hook when the fish chomps down. I throw these swim baits on a 7’6″ medium action TFO Signature Series rod with a Pflueger size 35 Supreme reel. I prefer 30-pound Power Pro braided line because it does not stretch, which lends itself well for solid hook ups on a long cast. I will tie a four- to seven-foot section of 17-pound fluorocarbon leader which is especially important in clear water conditions. My favorite color for the five-inch swim bait is called Houdini. I prefer black or dark brown with copper flake for slow rolling or night time presentations.
Little: We are moving into fall soon. The bite has been good for a really fast sub surface retrieve this summer. Do you slow down the retrieve any as the water cools down?
Plunkert: I slow way down in the fall. I will switch over to the dark colors or smoke with purple flake and rig them on a 3/8-ounce Confidence Baits Draggin Head. I like fishing these on on the backside of deep ledges and other current breaks. A deadsticked or super slow retrieve has proven to be the most effective in the cooler months.
Little: Describe the perfect swimbait cast. What structure or cover do you want it to move past?
Plunkert: My favorite cast for the larger swimbaits, if I'm really moving it is a long parallel shot to the push water of ledges. Push water is the accelerating current on the upstream side of the ledge. I feel like this is where a lot of big aggressive fish stage. It's kind of like a hunter in a tree stand, looking over their killing grounds, waiting for whatever to move down below them in the deeper pool. A ton of baitfish stack up in these areas too, sometimes in very shallow water. So I will place the longest cast I can make and start my burning retrieve almost instantly.
Little: Now we've been out together on largemouth water and I've seen you nail some big fish with the same set up. Do you change anything with regard to your presentation or rigging with largemouth?
Plunkert: Not very much. I throw the same plastic and hardware more or less. I will sometimes throw a little heavier rod and braid though, especially if I'm in snakehead territory. I enjoy cranking down on the swimbaits in super heavy cover, mostly focusing on lily pads. The bait will dart erratically as it crashes into the pads and stalks. Largemouth can't resist. When the bite tapers off, I will also slow down here too. I look for a step drop off or rootball and fish it like a jig, reeling super slow, pause, reel, pause, WHAMO!!!
Little: Is there anything else you feel anglers need to know about this bait and tactic to be as successful as possible with it?
Plunkert: Go throw them, experiment with different sizes, styles, colors and rigging options. I feel like its just like most other lure presentations we learn to fish. We build confidence, then stick to one way of fishing them. Swimbaits are the most versatile tool in my arsenal. Don't be afraid of trying something completely different with one. I have rigged them on chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, even unweighted and finessed like a fluke. It's a productive and fun lure to fish.
Jedediah Plunkert guides for White Fly Outfitters in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.
Jeff Little is a Regional Pro Staff Director for Wilderness Systems Kayaks and produces instructional fishing video for his Tight Line Junkie’s Journal Pivotshare channel.