By Jeff Little
My home water is the largest river on the east coast. In many sections of the Susquehanna, paddling from one bank to the other is a one mile trip. I would never change that, but from time to time I prefer a change in venue to something smaller, much smaller. When the river or creek you are fishing is a cast across instead of a mile wide, a different skill set is needed.
The approach needed depends on the season. In spring, when higher flows fill the river basin, making it look bigger than it really is, fish move to rock gardens and other spawning habitat. The specific structure that bass build spawning nests downstream of depends on what’s available. Braided islands, ledge rocks jutting up from the river bottom like tombstones and well rooted grass islands can all serve to deflect current and protect fertilized eggs and the fry that soon hatch from them.
But fast forward to mid summer and most of these spots on small rivers have been vacated by the big fish that used the areas to procreate. Sure, you can see the numerous young of the year bass that hatched. There will be loads of minnows pulsing through the shallows. Aquatic insects will hatch from well oxygenated riffles. Crawfish, hellgrammites and madtoms will move freely in the crags and cavities between chunk rock shorelines. Panfish will dart into and out of root balls and lay downs. But where are the big predators who would benefit from feeding on all of this? Certain sections of small rivers are just devoid of any bass large enough to not be called a dink.
It’s probably a good thing for the health of the fishery that some pools are reserved for small bass. It allows the young of the year a good first season to get big enough feeding on aquatic insects and small minnows to provide tomorrows big fish. Shallow water, grass beds, root balls, chunk rock all provide cover for these fish to avoid being hunted and consumed by their big, hungry parents. But having certain sections of the river that just don’t have any big predators keeps the entire small river fishery strong. So why wouldn’t they be where the food is?
The answer lies in what the longer, deeper pools afford a big predator. It gives them a large range in which to hunt for food. It gives them enough oxygen to respirate. Shorter pools have finite food resources. The shallow water heats up too much in summer to have enough dissolved oxygen water to support big fish. Deeper water in the larger pools limits how much sunlight penetrates the water resulting in better oxygen saturation. So does bank shade and submerged vegetation, but depth coincides with the presence of big fish in summer and early fall.
Depth isn’t the only characteristic of a small river pool that holds big fish. Pool length is important too. Look at the river features that define the unbroken length of the pool. Make note of the distance between riffles that pinch off where a big bass can swim at normal summer low streamflow. Longer pools hold bigger fish. Longer pools with deep water hold the biggest concentrations of big fish.
In small rivers, you may have to cover ten or more miles to find a pool long enough and deep enough to be worth your time. You can do that float trip, and fish all the water as you drift through it, hoping that each next pool is the one that holds the big fish. Or you can do your research ahead of time.
My research on a recent trip to a small river consisted of two things: 1. Knowledge gained from a prior float trip on this river and 2. Carefully studying Google Maps. The prior trip in this case was a late November 2003 float trip with a friend. I had caught a 5 lb 4 oz largemouth that measured 21 inches and several others in the 4-pound range. This river has sections I could spit across and no section too wide for me to not throw a stone across.
Because that float trip was 13 years ago, I needed to consult an old trip report. Seeing the photo of that fish, looking at the background and cross referencing those memories with a good map of the area brought me closer to being confident that I could find that pool again. The problem was that I didn’t have the time to float an entire 11.5 mile section, only to hit that pool.
I went to Google Maps, found the pool, then started looking for roads or other ways to get as close to that pool as possible. If I had never been on that float trip before I might have predicted the effectiveness of the pool, just by looking at it on Google Maps.
Because the satellite photography was taken at a time of low flow in that river, I could see the gravel bars, rock gardens, riffles, braided islands, and shallow rocky structure of all the short, shallow pools that I didn’t want to waste my time on. I could also see the difference when I located that deep, long pool. It was a different color. It was wider. It had an unbroken depth that became apparent the longer I studied the imagery.
Try it on a section of river that you already know. Look at pools you know to be effective. It’s a skill to be developed by looking, doing float trips in low flow and seeing if your predictions were right. When they weren’t, go back and look at the pools that surprised you either way - with not being productive, or by finding a great pool that you overlooked.
If you find some great summer or early fall small river pools, know that it’s likely that those same pools are the same ones the big fish use in winter. That depth and width bring with it a slower flow that allows the fish to maintain position as the water cools, slowing their metabolism. In summer, fall and winter, these pools concentrate big fish.
Accessing them requires a plan. In the case of the pool I had been researching, I coordinated a trip with a friend to only fish that pool. I refer to this as "spot hitting" as opposed to completing a full float trip. The float trip would have put us on 10.5 out of 11.5 miles of marginal water to fish the one mile long pool that held the big fish. A float trip also eats up time on the water in the form of needing to run shuttle. Plus, I got to enjoy hanging out with my buddy on the long drive to and from this area. Running shuttle requires two vehicles.
I’m not anti-float trip. It’s just that spot hitting has advantages over float trips once you know the good spots to hit. You may need to complete the float trip to figure out where the good pools are. But once you do, start looking for short cuts to these spots. One short cut is doing the float trip and paddling through water that you know to be marginally productive in terms of big fish. Most people just don’t have the self control to bypass a cast where they could catch a 14 inch bass in order to have more time in a pool where they could catch a 21 inch bass.
The better plan is to find ways to access the river as close to that pool as possible. We were able to put in on a dirt road that came close to the river half a mile upstream of the beginning of that pool. I’ve utilized creek beds to hike into good pools, dragging the kayak in behind me. Having a light weight kayak helps.
My friend Brenden Terrill from Indiana is a master at this sort of "creative access point" fishing. He loads his Wilderness Systems Commander 120 with his rods, paddle and tackle. He then puts a drag strap on the front handle and strikes out through the woods to water he knows will produce big fish. He has mastered the skills of map reading, finding the best pools and maximizing his time on those productive pools. He may "spot hit" five or six pools in one day.
In the example of my recent trip, my buddy and I hit two spots in one day. One produced a number of fish between 3 and 4 pounds, and the other ended up being a dud. It’s not to say that the second one didn’t have big fish. We just didn’t find them in the rushed hour and a half we spent on the two mile long section.
The difference between the success of the two spots was how much research I had done on each. On the first, I consulted an old trip report with photos. I scrutinized Google Map images. I cross referenced those images with a topographical map and found a dirt road access. On the second one, I asked a buddy who had floated a different section earlier that spring. He caught many nice fish in that section, but they had likely moved on to another better, long unbroken pool with plenty of depth following the spawn. Word of mouth and networking with other trusted fishing buddies is research too. You just have to take that knowledge as it is: second hand knowledge, susceptible to erosion of memory and bending the truth.
However you find these productive pools, recognize them for what they are: treasures. They aren’t easy to find, but they are easy to destroy. Removing the big fish that reseed such a small fishery will have long lasting echoes on the strength of the fishery. Larger fisheries on larger rivers can withstand some harvest without a big effect on how well it fishes. Small fisheries can not. Be careful who you share these spots with. Catch and release of the biggest small-river bass ensures that it will continue to be a unique and productive experience each time you fish it.