Early Smallmouths – Tricks, Lessons, Lore and Fun

  • Learning where and how to catch early-season smallmouth bass on the middle Gasconade River
  • We shoulda’ been there tomorrow!
All we caught the day we fished were smallish bronzebacks and bucketmouths like this one held by Will Rollins.

By Jim Low

April is, indeed, the cruelest month for those of us who live to wade-fish for smallmouth bass in skinny water.  Small streams that teem with bronzebacks in July are strangely empty this time of year.  That’s because smallmouths migrate downstream in the winter.  If they didn’t, they would be trapped in dwindling pools that freeze from top to bottom in the depths of winter.  They start returning when spring freshets pump warm water into the veins of Missouri’s headwater streams.  But wade-fishing is largely futile until late April and doesn’t fully measure up until the middle of May.

Most hard-core wade fishers grew up without access to boats.  The upside to this is that we learned to catch smallies in places where boat-bound anglers can’t go.  The downside is that we never learned how to catch smallmouths in larger streams.  So, I was genuinely excited when fellow smallmouth addict and Share the Outdoors reader, Dan Reiter, invited me on a guided smallmouth trip on the middle Gasconade last week.  I have paddled this water a few times but haven’t spent enough time there to figure out seasonal fishing patterns.  Will Rollins, who guides fishing trips out of Vienna, Mo., had called Dan and said conditions should be perfect for smallmouths to begin running.

That was enough to induce Dan to make the trip from his home in Afton, and he said I was welcome to tag along.  Our rendezvous was at mid-morning, March 24, at Moreland’s Catfish Patch and Steak House, where there is a private access just upstream from the Highway 63 bridge.  From there, we headed downstream to a series of creek mouths where Will said fat bronzebacks would be gathering for the next stage of their spring migration up into spawning areas.

Dan Reiter scanned the river from his “catbird seat” as we motored between widely separated smallmouth hot spots.

The sky was overcast and the temperature was in the low 50s, which was pleasant enough if you had a fleece jacket and a wind-proof shell.  There were a few sprinkles of rain early, but not enough to dampen our spirits.  The river was up five or six feet as a result of recent rain.  The water level was falling, which Will said was perfect, allowing the relatively clear water of feeder streams to mingle with muddy river water at creek mouths.  That interface, said Will, was where we would find the fish.

Action was slow at the first creek.  We threw scarlet-colored pot-bellied crankbaits and white, twin-tailed grubs all around the mouth of the creek, catching only a few small largemouth bass.  Thinking the fish might have moved on upstream, we pushed up into the creek as far as fallen timber would permit.  We found only more small largemouths hanging in pockets of cover, waiting to ambush passing prey.  Time passed quickly, though, with good-natured banter and the getting-acquainted conversation that naturally accompanies a fishing trip with new friends.

Will was perplexed.  Everything looked right to him, other than the apparent absence of fish.  We eventually caught one small bronzeback, but nothing like what Will had predicted.  He began to second-guess himself, wondering if we might be a day early.  We moved downstream a few miles to another creek that he knew was a proven producer, but the situation there was the same.  It was time to pull out all the stops.  We motored even farther downstream, practically to the Conservation Department’s Paydown Access.  Here another creek created a broad, shallow slough with a network of willow-lined channels.  The upstream edge between the slough and the Gasconade’s main channel featured a long, sloping gravel bank where fish could lie in clear creek water, just out of the river’s muddy current.  If we didn’t catch fish here, said Will, we wouldn’t catch them anywhere.

We didn’t.

We hit one more creek mouth on the 17-mile run back to where we put in, but the news there was the same.  By then Will was fully convinced that we had arrived 24 hours too soon.  The river needed to fall another foot or two before fish really moved into creeks.  He had another client the next day, and he planned for them to fish the same places we had fished.  He was sure the story would be very different.  “I’ll send you pictures,” he promised.

Did he ever.  Throughout the next day, I got texts from Will, each accompanied by a photo of progressively larger smallmouths, proudly displayed in the same spots Dan and I had fished.  It was a clear case of “You shoulda been here tomorrow.”

Will was correct in his prediction that fishing would improve the day after we fished. This is one of three fat bronzebacks he boated and sent me pictures of the next day (March 25).

What I got from the day actually was better than catching fish.  I got to see where and how Will catches late-winter smallies and learned his insights about where, when and how to fish for them.  “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day.  Show him how to fish, and he will go back and catch them on his own.”

I also got to visit Will’s base of operations, Vienna Marine.  It’s on the east side of Highway 63 right in the middle of town.  The place is absolutely jammed, not only with fishing gear, but archery and other hunting equipment, too.  Next time I want to catch smallmouth or goggle-eye on the middle Gasconade River, this is where I will to stop for the latest fishing information and stock up on whatever the fish are biting on.  I might even book a guided trip for another lesson in seasonal smallmouth tips.