Kim Stilson holding a French River Smallmouth Bass

Hooked on the River: Smallmouth Bass Fishing Secrets

Looking for a thrilling and rewarding fishing experience? Fishing rivers for Smallmouth Bass will have you experience some of the most beautiful and diverse rivers in the world! 

Image fishing places with picturesque clear cool water falling and tumbling over ancient granite rocks. Swirls and eddies over rock rubble bottom provide an excellent habit for Smallmouth Bass. The French River is among many majestic rivers these fish call home in Ontario. 

Kim Stilson holding a French River Smallmouth Bass
One of many Smallmouth Bass that can be found in the French River Provincial Park. Photo Credit: Kim & Tim Stilson

People love Smallmouth for being strong fighters and acrobatic jumpers. They are unique from Largemouth as they actively hunt in open water. They also have an appetite to match their athletic talent. Bass are willing to strike a variety of baits and lures you present. 

In this guide, you will learn how to find, catch, and enjoy river fishing for Smallies! 

Smallmouth Bass Fishing Equipment & Gear 

There are many factors when it comes to bass fishing. An important part is the right equipment for river fishing. From having a good selection of: 

  • Bass Rods and Reels
  • Lures for Various Depths and Seasons
  • Maps 
  • Depth Finder (Situational/Optional)   

Recommended Bass Rods & Reels:

The most important tool not in the Angler’s tacklebox is their rod and reel. Every bass fishing rod should be treated like shoes or golf clubs. In short, every rod should be fitted to the preferences and situations you will be river fishing.

So how do we select a good bass fishing rod? That’s a good question and one I have answered more thoroughly. Below are two brief and good general recommendations for Spinning Rods and Baitcasting Rods. Yet, be sure to ask your local bait shop if you are unsure. 

Spinning Rods & Reels:

For spinning rods, a medium-power, fast-action rod of 6 to 7 feet long is flexible for most Smallmouth situations. Pair this with a 2500 or 3000-size spinning reel and a smooth drag system.

Image of a spinning rod and reel with a man holding a French River Smallmouth Bass.
Example of a Spinning Rod & Reel for bass fishing

The drag controls the action in a fight and how much line is unwound. It also protects your line from breaking during the fight. An optimum drag should not exceed 25 percent of your line strength.

Quick Tip: To calculate your drag, divide the line strength by 4 and use a scale to quickly dial it in.

Baitcasting Rods & Reels:

For baitcasting rods, a medium-heavy-power, fast-action rod of 6.5 to 7.5 feet long is suitable for heavier lures and bigger fish. Then match the rod with a low-profile baitcasting reel with a high gear ratio and a strong drag system.

Low profile bass baitcasting rod & reel combo with an assortment of bass lures.
Image of a Baitcasting Rod & Reel with a varied choice of bass lures.

Hint: A good strength would be 100 – 200 range for low-profile baitcasters.

What Are Some Baits & Lures for Smallmouth Bass?

With Smallmouth Bass fishing, there are many different baits and lures to choose from! Some of the most popular and effective choices are:

Swimbaits: Smallmouths have little difficulty hunting long distances for this style of bait. Swimbaits are soft plastic lures that mimic the shape and movement of baitfish, such as shad, minnows, or herring. They can be fished with a jig head, weighted hook, or swimbait rig.
Spinnerbaits: They are a loud and flashy type of bait creating a high-frequency vibration for fish to locate. These baits are another type of lead head bait with either a single hook or a treble hook with a skirt. Often, Spinnerbaits have a blade or pair of blades to spin in tandem and mimic traveling baitfish.   
Crankbaits: These are hard plastic lures that have a lip that makes them dive and wobble when retrieved. They can cover a lot of water and are meant to trigger reaction strikes from Smallmouths. 
Jigs: They come in two varieties, weighted and floating head jigs. For Smallmouth fishing, many anglers choose weighted jig heads that have a skirt or a soft plastic trailer. It is like a swimbait as it creates a juicy presentation. The lure can be fished along bottoms or around cover imitating crawfish, leeches, or other prey. 

Understanding Techniques for River Smallmouth 

The most important secret you can learn about bass fishing in a particular river is the seasonal “pattern”. This pattern affects the fish’s behaviour and the types of structures that will attract Smallmouths at different times.

How Current Affects Smallmouth Locations 

Young bass will be scattered throughout parts of any good river, though this can be misleading for trophy hunters. The older Smallmouth travel in smaller packs and become more territorial.

While river smallmouths do not make extensive migrations, they do travel short distances. From shallow to deep riffles or from pools to pockets of water. They will even travel into backwaters and sloughs looking for shelter and food through the season. 

Image listing 10 different types of Pools found in Rivers and Streams. Features different structures, possible angles, natural barriers, and more to create different types of natural pools.
10 Different types of Pools found in Rivers and Streams. Photo credit to Wildland Hydrology and their “River Assessment Field Guide” that contains more fantastic illustrations and details.

In essence, fish go with the flow and changing temperatures. What makes river fishing unique from other bodies of water is the challenge of changing water levels. For instance, the French River Provincial Park averages a 13-foot change from spring to fall.

Another thing to consider for Smallmouth fishing is water temperature. They begin active feeding around 15.6°C (60°F) with their preferred range at 21°C – 26.7°C (70°F – 80°F). Smallmouths will continue to feed actively until water temperatures drop to 10°C (50°F).

How Do You Find Productive Spots?

Rivers are like people, each unique with their histories and personalities. Becoming a skilled angler takes experience to “read” a river since there is no universal rule.

Yet, there are similar traits for finding success. 

Man holding a French River Smallmouth Bass.
Example of a River Smallmouth Bass in open water near drop offs and shoals. Photo Credit: Mark Musky

Smallmouth hunt in open water, unlike Largemouth which ambushes from cover. In essence, they work for their meals by hunting for baitfish. Finding areas with baitfish will most certainly attract bass. 

  • Look for rocky rubble bottoms that can shelter baitfish. 
  • Find drop-offs and current that gives the fish an advantage over traveling prey.
  • Avoid areas of flat bedrock and sandy bottoms in current. Aquatic life will not thrive there because of strong currents scrubbing everything away.    
  • Grassy banks also attract Smallmouth regardless of bottom composition.

Smallmouth Lairs

Remember, river bass are just like their lake counterparts. They are cover-conscious and seek shelter in rock crevices when not actively feeding. This is their lair and something that should be considered when trophy fishing.

Unlike fishing in open water, where you cast fast and repeatedly, fishing a Smallmouth lair is methodical. Your first cast should land in the holding water and retrieve slowly with a lot of finesse. 

Sometimes they strike instantly and other times it may be a few passes. Cast the lair 3 – 5 times then let it rest. Fish other sections of the river near the lair and return for another attempt. You can even try switching baits to entice the bass. 

After landing your first laired Smallmouth, continue targeting the area making casts within a few feet of the initial strike. They are rarely alone.

Seasonal Techniques & Strategies


In Ontario, for many of its bodies of water, bass season starts after the fish have finished spawning. Like Largemouth, Smallmouths will also be targeting baitfish in shallow water. 

Fishing areas with down-fall, weed beds and current. Jigs with minnows are a great choice in the early spring. Swimbaits and Spinnerbaits are also good choices for spring river bass fishing. 


After the granite shield finally warms for summertime in Ontario, Smallmouth will return to deeper water. While baitfish will still be their main food source, crayfish will also become more active. 

Crayfish are valuable to bass as a tasty snack similar to bacon for people. Crayfish are calcium and protein-rich among other nutrients and vitamins. And like the sounds of cooking bacon, the pitter-pattering of traveling crayfish across rocks also attracts bass. 

Another important factor for smallmouths is their sense of smell. Crayfish have a unique scent while they molt. They have an earthy scent like nightcrawlers, making worms a good choice for summer bass fishing.

During the summer, target places with rock rubble and drop points. Fish along stream banks with places where crayfish would inhabit. Also, keep an eye out in the muddy banks for crayfish holes where they lurk.


Once the nights become longer and cooler the fish begin to transition. Often rivers in Ontario are at their lowest until late fall. Smallmouths will start feeding longer in the shallows of the shoals in the morning. Then, move to deeper holes and sections throughout the day.

Smallmouths’ attitudes will change too. From the early fall of fish aggressively crashing spinnerbaits and herding baitfish to a laxer temperament. One that requires subtle presentations. They will begin to congregate in larger schools and hang off deep shoals and structures.  

Using Spinnerbaits and Crankbaits in the early fall are best to cover large areas of the river quickly. Once water temperatures fall below 17°C (62.6°F) slow your retrieve.

After water temperatures fall below 14°C (57.2°F), Smallmouths begin transitioning to their winter lairs. It is also the time to switch from horizontal fishing to vertical fishing.

How to Fish in Fast-Moving Water?

Smallmouths in moving water love sand, rock and hard bottoms more than silty, mucky or muddy areas. 

Here are five quick tips on how to fish in fast-moving current:

  1. Cast your line above where you think the smallmouth bass are hiding and let the current bring your bait or lure to them. This is better than casting right at them.
  2. Use a spinning rod that is seven feet long and medium-action, and a spinning reel that is fast and has a 7:1 ratio. Use a six-pound braid for your line. This will help you make long and accurate casts and move your lure quickly.
  3. Choose baits and lures that can deal with the current and catch the attention of the fish. Some examples are:
    • Spinnerbaits
    • Crankbaits
    • Ned rigs
    • Finesse jigs
    • Shaky heads
    • Flukes
    • Wacky rigs 
    • Drop shots
  4. Find places where the water speed changes, like where fast and slow water meet. These are spots where Smallies often feed or rest. Cast your lure along the edge of the water speed change and let it drift with the current.
  5. Speed up your crank to keep the swim action of the lure.


To catch Smallmouth Bass from rivers, you have to learn how to read the water and fish the current. As discussed in this article, many factors influence their behaviour.

Depending on the season, Smallmouth Bass may hold at different depths and require different baits. They prefer cool, oxygen-rich water, and cover. They are seldom alone so when you catch one there’s usually at least another nearby.  

Finally, having a good rod and reel combo is important. The right equipment and lures will help you to make long, accurate casts and fast presentations to fishing current. 

Article by Joe Barefoot, M.B., Outdoor Writer of Canada and Nationally Published Author & Photographer

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