Chasing smallmouth bass on the Russian River

Mention angling on the Russian River, and the default subject is steelhead. That’s as it should be; the Russian made its reputation on big sea-run rainbows. Up to the 1960s, it supported as many as 50,000 returning steelhead yearly, ranking only behind the Klamath and Sacramento rivers.

Then came the dams, the water diversions, the gravel mining and, well, anyone who has ever bounced a wad of roe or cast a streamer knows the rest of the story. Russian River steelhead tanked. By the 1990s, fewer than a thousand fish were making the annual migration up the river.

Thanks to habitat restoration efforts and an ambitious hatchery program, the runs have been resuscitated to a degree. Close to 7,000 fish returned in 2012, the last year before the drought. Still, given the unrelenting demands on the river and the probable effects of climate change, it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to the glory years.

For steelhead, anyway. But there’s another doughty game fish in the Russian that’s doing just fine. The smallmouth bass isn’t as big as its rapacious cousin, the largemouth, but it compensates for its size deficit with beauty and energy.

Smallmouths are the most trout-like of the black basses. They need colder, cleaner water than largemouths, and their lines are leaner and far more elegant. They have a lovely coppery coloration, hence their nickname: bronzebacks. When hooked, they become dervishes, soaring out of the water like Nijinski dancing Giselle.

The best thing about Russian River smallmouths is that the river practically teems with them. Smallmouths aren’t native to the Russian River (it’s unclear when they were introduced), but they’ve prospered and multiplied with a vengeance.

Admittedly, Russian River smallmouths aren’t the pot-bellied “hogs” that bass fishermen typically dream of and scheme on.

“A good-sized one is 15 or 16 inches,” says Scott Heemstra, the manager of King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville. “That’s not huge, but the sheer number of fish make up for it. I’ve had days where it’s just one hook-up after another.”

Heemstra says the stretch of the river between Alexander Valley and Healdsburg is especially popular with smallmouth anglers, but confirms the fish are found throughout the drainage.

“You’ll get them right down to Duncans Mills, where the water starts getting brackish,” he says.

The best season to fish?

“You should be out there right now,” Heemstra says. “They’re spawning, and they’re very active and aggressive. Mid- to late fall is also good. They’re feeding really heavily then, putting on weight in preparation for winter.”

Smallmouth like “structure”: cliff faces, rock piles, log snags, over-hanging vegetation. Any place, in short, that draws small fish, crayfish and other bite-sized aquatic critters.

“They’re ambush predators,” Heemstra says. “Structure not only attracts the kind of prey they like, but it gives them places to hide. I like to fish the bends in the river, where the water cuts in close to the banks. A lot of crayfish and young fish hang around there, and where there’s food, you usually find the bass.”

But smallmouths aren’t sedentary and gluttonous catfish. You can’t just lob a chunk of bait into a likely spot, prop your rod on a stick, sit back in a lawn chair, crack a microbrew and expect to reel in a bucket of bass. Nor is it fruitful to flail a single hole or riffle for an hour with artificial lures. If smallmouth bass can’t be enticed to bite after several casts, it means two things: there’s no fish there, or the fish that are there are disinclined to bite. Move on.

Because anglers have to cover a lot of water for Russian River smallmouths, it’s tough to fish effectively from the shore. Public access points are relatively few, and banks are often rocky, steep and heavily vegetated. A boat is essential.

Canoes are adequate, but Heemstra prefers a drift boat, given they are highly maneuverable, stable, hold two or more people and all their gear, and allow the rower to maintain the craft in a specific place while anglers cast precisely to likely spots.

“I’d avoid kayaks, though,” Heemstra says. “They’re not really stable enough, they don’t have much room for your stuff, and it’s hard to cast and deal with your paddle at the same time.”

If you’re using spinning or baitcasting gear, Heemstra recommends soft baits such as Senko plastic worms or Brush Hogs. Both should be fished on a Carolina rig: Put a sliding sinker on your line, followed by a glass bead, and tie on a swivel. An 18- to 48-inch leader goes on the opposite end of the swivel, with a hook for your soft bait tied to the terminal end.

“Rooster tail spinners like Panther Martins and crankbaits like Rebel crayfish also work well,” says Heemstra. “Flatfish, though, aren’t the best choice. You want lures that have kind of an oval body.”

For fly casting, Heemstra prefers a five-weight rod, weight-forward floating line with a heavy sinking tip and streamers in sizes 2 to 6. Sculpin and leech imitations, zonkers and wooly buggers are all good pattern choices.

“You want to get the fly down into the water column quickly,” he says, “and then use a jerk-stripping retrieve to imitate a fleeing baitfish.”

Regardless of gear, there’s no reason to get up at the crack of dawn to fish for Russian River smallmouths. Some direct sunlight on the water actually works to the angler’s favor.

“The light drives the fish to the structure and cover so they’re more concentrated,” Heemstra says. “It makes for easier fishing.”

Only barbless hooks are allowed on the Russian River, and only artificial lures may be used from April 1 through the end of October. Also, all angling is prohibited when flows are below 300 cubic feet a second from Oct. 1 to March 31.

King’s Sport & Tackle offers guided drift boat trips for smallmouths. Call 869-2156 for details and reservations.

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