Six tips to catch more smallmouth bass in rivers

River smallmouth bass have predictable habits and behaviors which, if known and understood by the angler, can increase the odds of caching more of these magnificent fighters. Smallmouth bass are not unlike humans: they want to gain maximum benefits with the least amount of effort in the most comfortable way possible. Hence, learning to properly “read” a river in order to locate the places where bass like to congregate will yield more fish.

The flow below dams typically provides great smallmouth bass habitat

The strong and divergent flow below a hydropower dam typically provides great smallmouth bass habitat

Seek flowing water: River smallmouth bass prefer current over still or dead water, if given a choice. Flowing water increases oxygen content, sweeps in prey from further upstream, creates commotion and confuses those prey, and favors ambushing. So, avoid quiet waters and seek flowing waters instead. For example, focus your efforts right below a dam if such a structure is present, or fish in an area where current is created by the lay of the river, such as the flow downstream of a deep sluggish pool or over boulders.



Perfect smallmouth bass habitat: moderate current, non-linear flow, 4-8 ft depth, large boulders, current seams. Can't ask for better!

Perrrfect smallmouth bass habitat: moderate current, non-linear flow, 4-8 ft depth, large boulders, current seams. Can’t ask for better than this!

Target moderate and non-linear current: From the perspective of a smallmouth bass, a fine line exists between water that moves too little and water that moves too fast. The ideal current is moderate but also non-linear. The latter is created by the presence of submerged and emergent boulders which will direct and re-direct the water in multiple different directions, slowing it down here and speeding it up there, thereby creating numerous holding spots where bass can hide, rest, and ambush without wasting much energy.


This lunker smallmouth bass was caught along the seam between swift and quieter current. Note the water tumbling over the dam in the background.

Look for deeper water: Keep in mind that current for the sake of current is not enough to attract and hold bronzebacks. Everything else being equal, bass will seek out deeper flowing water (> 5 ft) over shallower flowing water (< 2 ft). The current in shallow water is typically fast which forces the bass to expend more effort to maintain its position. Also, shallow water (particularly if it lacks hiding spots) makes bass vulnerable to potential predation by bald eagles or osprey. Deeper water allow bass to hide from avian predators and to seek slower current close to the bottom.


Another example of great smallmouth bass habitat: boulders, current, depth, shadow.

Another example of great smallmouth bass habitat: boulders, current, depth, shadow.

Pinpoint the right habitat: Smallmouth bass are strongly attracted to structure that provides hiding, resting, and ambush places all at the same time, if possible! The type of river habitat favored by bronzebacks comes in many shapes and forms, and includes the following examples:

  • Submerged rock bars or boulder piles
  • Individual emergent large boulders that create a distinct current break
  • Eroded tree roots along the shoreline exposed by current wherein bass can rest and hide during high water
  • Trees that have fallen into the water and provide ambush spots around their trunks and branches
  • Long aquatic vegetation weaving back and forth into the current in between which bass can hide
  • A sharp drop-off from shallow to deep water to provide a convenient escape route, when needed

It is always better if two or more of these features combine in one area, such as a drop-off littered with large boulders, a 4 ft-deep stretch of flowing water strewn with sunken wood in between submerged aquatic vegetation, or exposed roots along a bouldery shoreline.

A key exception to this rule is when one of these habitats occur in an otherwise dull stretch of river. A classic example is a tree that has fallen in the water along a featureless muddy shoreline. The tree serves as a local bass magnet, particularly if other nearby holding habitat is missing. It is always a good idea to thoroughly fish these isolated structures because they will typically hold bass which have no other place to seek shelter.


A chunky smallmouth bass caught on a floating Rapala

Look for current seams: A current seam represents a unique smallmouth bass habitat created when flowing water bumps into an immovable object, such as a large emerged boulder, a rock wall, a bridge pillar, or similar structure. The seam is the break between flowing water and the calm water next to it. The bass love to hide in such seams and dart out into the nearby current to grab tasty morsels flowing by. It allows the fish to be right where the action is but without the need to expend much energy. Find the seams and make sure to make multiple casts into them to catch the bass which inevitably hide inside.


Always cast to rises: Sometimes, smallmouth bass will chase small baitfish up the water column and towards the surface before pouncing on them. It is always a good idea to cast your lure to a rise. Do not forget to cast it well upstream of the rise to account for the water current sweeping the lure down. In my experience, I have one chance in two of hooking a smallmouth bass if I can cast my lure to a rise at the right spot within 10 seconds of the rise. It’s well worth the effort of trying to meet this target!


Was the information in this blog useful? I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions. Also, feel free to discuss your fishing experiences at this location.

A nice river bronzeback caught by your blog author.


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2 thoughts on “Six tips to catch more smallmouth bass in rivers

  1. Stan – wanted to leave a quick message thanking you for your posts and insight. I first learned of your blog from a lifelong friend who moved out of state and wanted to hit waters other than those we’ve fished previously.

    Your attention to detail and willingness to share knowledge clearly accumulated through years of pursuing a passion for angling is much appreciated by the fishing community. Keep up the great work and perhaps we’ll cross paths on the water someday.


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