Finding and Catching River Smallmouth Bass

By Ben Mitchell

© 2023 by Wild M Brands, LLC.  All rights reserved.


What are smallmouth bass?

Smallmouth bass are a black bass member of the sunfish family, joining America’s favorite freshwater gamefish, the largemouth bass.  What is the difference between a smallmouth and a largemouth?  As the name suggests, smallmouth bass do have a smaller mouth compared to its popular cousin, but there are many other noticeable traits that make this beautiful fish stand out.

Smallmouth bass can showcase some incredibly beautiful patterns, from a golden gradient (typical for juveniles) to stark tiger stripes.

Juvenile Smallmouth Bass

Adult Smallmouth








Another striking feature that can be found in most smallmouth is the deep, red eye color of these fish.

Smallmouth are also known to be extremely aggressive and powerful fish.  When fighting a fisherman on the other end of a line, they relentlessly dig down and away from the fisherman and usually dart from side-to-side, similar to the red drum in saltwater.  Even a modest smallmouth bass will have an angler feeling like they’ve hooked a monster.

Smallmouth bass are endemic to eastern North America and can be found from the Midwestern plains up to the southern reaches of Canada.  Smallmouth can be found in many types of water systems, but river smallmouth are a special breed.

Born and raised in tight waterways, undulating topography, strong currents, and a competitive food chain, the smallmouth bass that can be found in rivers are some of the heartiest freshwater fish in America.

How can I find smallmouth bass in a river?

Smallmouth can be found in a variety of spots in a river’s ecosystem but focusing on a few key locations will greatly increase the chances of hooking up to a nice fish.

Eddy Currents

An eddy is a specific type of current in the water that flows in the opposite direction of the main current, causing a slow swirling effect.  This change is caused by a structure inhibiting the flow of water; usually a large rock, downed tree, or bridge pilings.  The water is quickly pushed outward from the obstruction as it passes by, and then returns back to the middle directly behind the object.  This quick return causes the swirling motion and creates a calmer pool just behind the object.  Smallmouth bass will sit in the pool just on the edge of the eddy current, waiting to ambush bugs, baitfish, and various other food sources.

Eddy Current


Pools are deep pockets of water on or near the bank of the river.  They can be formed by water levels rising and falling, sharp turns in the river, or natural ecological formations.  Pools can always be trusted to hold many aquatic animals, especially the smallmouth bass.  The still water and structural cover acts as a homesite to many of the smallmouth bass’ food sources.

River Pool


A drop-off is exactly how it sounds – a steep drop under the water’s surface.  Smallmouth bass will cruise the walls to trap and ambush food, whether that’s a bug that fell into the water or a school of minnows cruising down the stream.  A fish-finder is not needed to find drop-offs under water.  Aside from the obvious drop-off on a bluff’s edge, the shape of the river will likely make it clear.  A sharp turn in the river will force the water to accelerate around the outer edge of the turn, causing that surface to erode at a faster rate than the inside edge.  Over time, that erosion creates a deeper pocket of water on that outside edge which, in turn, creates a shallower shelf on the inside edge.  Throw a weighted lure onto the shelf and slowly drag it back to feel for the drop-off.

Drop Off

How can I catch them?

Smallmouth bass, as mentioned, are ambush predators and will eat just about any living thing.  Whether using artificial lures or live bait, casting into eddy currents, pools, and drop-offs will nearly guarantee an encounter with a smallmouth.

Crickets, crawfish, earthworms, and minnows are the best live bait for hooking a smallmouth bass.  These are best to use in light currents, such as a pool.  Use a 1/0 hook with an indicator, such as a bobber, set 18-36 inches from the bait.  Cast upstream of your target spot and let the water float the bait down.  This will almost guarantee a bite, but if you want access to those spots that a hook and bobber can’t reach, use artificial lures.

If fishing with artificial lures, you will want to have a 6’6” or 7’ medium to medium-light action rod lined with 2-6 pound-test monofilament.  This will provide the angler with the best maneuverability, feel, and stealth required to put the lure in front of the bass.

When trying to locate the bass, try using a Ned rig, which is a 3” plastic worm on a 1/16-ounce mushroom head jig.  Some say this rig looks like nothing in particular, but in reality, it looks like everything the bass eats.  It can be used to mimic a crawfish, a bug, a worm, a minnow, or any other delectable meal.  Since it is so visually ambiguous, bass cannot resist a strike.  Once you find where the bass are piled up on the river, try some other lures and methods.  A swimbait, tube, Texas-rig, spinner, or even topwater lure can all get the job done and provide an amazing time on the river.


Texas Rig









Now what?

Put on your water shoes, find a local stream known to hold smallmouth bass, pack some snacks and cold drinks, and get to fishing!

Author Ben Mitchell with a trophy smallmouth

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