Small Mouth River Fishing in the Fall

Many of you reading this already know the fall can be a hot time to catch fish of all species, however, I’ll always opt for the elusive brownback smallmouth. As the days start to get shorter, the fishing starts to get better and better. It’s personally my favorite time to fish.

In the morning, the weather is cool and crisp while most are getting ready for hunting, I’m gearing up for cold weather fishing. Fall smallmouth fishing on the river is undoubtedly one of my favorite ways to fish, the waters are empty, the fish are aggressive and most importantly, they are big! For years I’ve tried, and I like to think successfully, learned a vast amount about them and have found myself puzzled and or astonished by their powerful runs and crazy airborne jumps.

Techniques & Set up

I have three go to lures Topwater, Crankbaits/Lipless cranks, and the old dependable Football jig. If I had 3 rods, these 3 lures would be exactly what I would have on. Fall time is known for explosive top water bites, because smallmouth will often feed on shad/baitfish on the surface on the river.

This is truly a great way to catch bigger and fatter fish. I’ll usually throw out a white spook, or fluke. This time of year I’m not afraid to go a little bigger with a spook or larger fluke. It’s important to use the correct hook size when throwing top water, I’ll usually never go smaller than a size 4 and opt to put fresh treble hooks on my top water baits.

My favorite way to catch them in the fall is on the crank bait. I’ve had luck with lipless, square bill, and deeper diving cranks and sometimes, you are bound to find them with one of those baits. Even though the areas on the river I fish are no deeper than 12 ft., I still consider the 10 ft. depth for the body of water I fish.

I love throwing square bills in shallow water, especially deflecting it off cover, getting that lure to bounce off wood, rocks, stumps or sand bottom may be the difference between getting bit or not. Smallmouth love a change in direction and square bills undoubtedly do that 90% of the time.

Color mostly depends on water clarity and what color the crawfish are that given time of year. Usually I’m using a brown craw color, but have experimented with other colors such as white, black/blue, or dark green/orange and have had luck, however, ever fishery is a little different.

The fish will tell you what they want, if you are getting a bunch of strikes but not hooking up, chances are the fish want a different color or cadence. Cadence is the kind of retrieve you use, such as a fast reel with no pauses or a constant stop and go retrieve.

I found that pausing your bait in the middle of a fast burning retrieve has led to some good bites. When cranking, I’m looking for a shorter rod somewhere around 7 ft. with a medium or maybe medium fast action tip. I really like to have a rod with a lot of give when cranking and let them fight the rod while using (8-10lb) fluorocarbon line.

Gear ratio can be very important, 6.4 when cranking and 7.3 when throwing the jig, I opt for faster reels to really move the bait. I personally like to slow my retrieve vs. buying a slower gear ratio reel.

My jigging rods vary from 7-7.6’, usually medium heavy and sometimes heavy action if I’m flipping/jigging heavy cover. I’ll use the same rod for top water, however, with 30lb braided line. Braided line floats allowing the lure to have some crazy good action, while keeping the bait nose up.


The rivers I’m fishing are smaller and have limited areas for backwater fishing or even dock fishing. I’m forced to fish in the current or finding some type of current break where the water goes slack.

In these areas, that’s where I love to throw a spook. Rivers will have areas where the water goes slack creating an eddy. Located extremely close to current, these are killer smallmouth hide outs. With no current, the bait should stay in the strike zone longer and the bait fish in the river will look for refuge in these slack water areas.

The morning and nights are when I focus on these hot spots and if I’m not seeing the bait fish busting I’ll throw a rattle trap or a shallow diving crank bait. If I’m not getting any bites in the eddies, I’ll move into the current. This is where boat position is very important.

I’m always casting UP stream while letting the lures swim with the current. I almost never swim a bait against the current, this is just how I fish rivers, I’m sure many of you fish rivers in a different way. When I’m bringing that lure down river, I want to almost always make bottom contact, especially with a crank bait.

Find areas with depth changes and a little current and force that crankbait off the bottom of the river. In the fall, smallmouth will usually go shallow for meals. I’ve found that they tend to stay shallow all-day long.

This will lead to smallmouth being in predictable areas, close to shore or on some type of flat. If you can find cover in the shallows or current, such as rocks, that will increase your odds greatly. Like I said earlier, I’m fishing smaller rivers that are relatively shallow and narrow.

I don’t have to take much advantage of my electronics, however, don’t overlook the power of side imaging this time of year. Find isolated rock piles or logs in shallow water and keep fishing them till you are certain no fish are there.

I’m able to fish all the way down the river, covering a ton of water in a short period of time. Study your maps and look for areas that will have current from the main river and possibly have a current break. If you know the area, use your electronics to find new underwater structure. Never shy away from areas that you haven’t caught fish or have never fished.

Handling Smallmouth

Once you hook a smallmouth in current, you need to have a loose drag and really be careful when fighting them. If you have a good strong trolling motor, you should be able to avoid cover and move with the smallmouth. However, if that’s not an option, this is where a good rod and fluorocarbon line are a must. These smallmouths will want to jump, and they are good at it. As much as I love seeing them dance on the water I have lost some smart old smallmouths from this.

Keep your rod tip down or do whatever you are comfortable with to stop them from jumping. Have a good quality net with you and make sure you keep your hands clear if handling them by hand. River fish seem to have a big attitude and will always fight more than a largemouth.

Don’t be too surprised if you hook into a Largemouth as they will sometimes be hiding with the smallmouth. Once you land the fish, take a quick picture and let ’em go. If it’s cold enough out, the water may still be warmer than the air temp, putting a bunch of stress on the fish. That’s why it’s very important to keep them in the water if possible while not totally exhausting them in the fight.

We control the fish population and let’s help these big brown backs by always practicing Catch and Release. Remember that in the fall, smallmouth will be in very predictable areas, but they are smart fish so don’t be afraid to adapt to your fishing surroundings.