In September, a time when most Hoosiers start thinking about school activities, fall festivals, football and hunting seasons. Fishing is a distant pleasant memory; something that we vow to give more attention in that vague destination known as “next year.”
Like any normal, red-blooded American afflicted with a desperate mania, I keep fishing steadily up until the hunting seasons are unavoidably in full swing. However, until that time, you can usually find me near any body of water large enough to support aquatic life.
As late summer ripens into fall, I’ll probably be wading a creek in search of smallmouth bass. Even though most anglers have already given up the pursuit due to other commitments and the challenging fishing conditions, we’re now entering the season when my love for stream fishing reaches a peak.
There are several reasons for this devotion. First is the fact that competition for prime water is virtually non-existent, though this year is a bit different because the season was so delayed due to high water. This summer I’m finding anglers at spots that are normally deserted by now but with a little prior research and scouting, there is always a back-up.
Ignoring people or the normal lack thereof, what I really enjoy is wading when the water is so low and clear. Normally, this is spells tough fishing but I’ve found through decades of trial and mostly-error, the fishing really isn’t too bad; it’s just different.
To me, low-water August creek fishing is a game of spot-and-stalk stealth married to long-distance precision casting. If you simply blunder up the creek and slap a lure at every rock, you might catch the occasional fish but it will generally be a less-than-productive day.
Instead, you need to approach the fishing like hunting, or to use another analogy, like sight-fishing the flats of Florida. In either case, the stalk is the biggest part of the equation and if you blow it, the game is over, at least for that place.
With the water low you need to wade exceptionally slowly, moving carefully to avoid excessive splash and commotion. As the smallmouth creeks are typically a mixture of hard bottom interspersed with rocks and gravel, planning each step is necessary as one stumble will send all the fish within 75 yards fleeing in every direction.
One important idea is to stay dry. By using sand and gravel bars for the majority of your movement, you avoid fish-alarming disturbances in the water. However, you still need to move stealthily as vibrations from heavy-footed tromping will easily transfer into the water.
You’ll need to plan your route. Use shallow water and bars to avoid deeper water where the fish will typically be located. Exploit stands of water weed or rocks to mask your outline. Fishing like you are hunting! While I don’t typically try to stay low while approaching smallmouth, I have been known use the “trout crouch” when sliding up to a shallow pool where I think bass might be cruising in the open.
Even with all this emphasis on careful wading, “sight fishing” is actually a misnomer. In my experience, any bass you can see is a fish already frightened into lockjaw. The goal of all this stealth is to approach likely holding areas without spooking fish rather than spying one bass and fruitlessly casting for a half-hour.
Once you’ve arrived unannounced at that prime spot, presentation is critical. Smaller lures usually catch more fish though I am undecided if bigger lures spook more fish or if they truly just aren’t hungry for a meatier meal. My belief is that it is they are ready to eat but larger lures crashing into the water are simply frightening.
I always use a thin-diameter braid line that is strong and non-stretch but it needs to be terminated with four or five feet of fluorocarbon leader. Fluorocarbon has the same density of water and literally disappears in the gin-clear creek, leading to more strikes.
Don’t make the mistake I did recently. As an experiment I used my normal set-up with a featherweight crappie rod that has virtually no “backbone.” The rod cast my ultralight spinners wonderfully but every single fish spit out the lure before it could be landed. After nearly a dozen “long line” releases, I left the creek demoralized. The lesson: your rod must be light and soft enough to cast well but have enough stiffness to sock hook points into the tough jaw of the smallmouth.
Right now is a great time to go wading for bass if you are careful and approach your prey like you are sneaking up on a sleeping grizzly bear. The fish are there and they’re actually hungry but you need to be creek-sneaky if you want to have a face-to-face meeting.