River anglers can catch big smallmouth bass as soon as the ice clears. Here’s how one Allegheny River angler does it, but his advice works everywhere smallies live in moving water.

The initial spring smallmouth bass bite on the Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania usually coincides with the first week of official spring. Smallmouth bass begin moving from slow-current wintering holes towards shallower spawning flats.

During this two- or three-week period, bass stage at identifiable current breaks along the way to dine on baitfish and emerging crayfish. It’s a scenario that happens on smallmouth bass rivers across the northern tier.

The length of the bite-window is based on water conditions, with the optimal situation being slow, steady warming water temperature from about 40 to 50 degrees, a moderate-flow water volume and reasonably good water clarity. Conditions that will slow or stop the bite include cold snaps, exceptionally high or dirty flows. But, hit the mark correctly and you’ll enjoy fast action from increasingly aggressive bass.

Following months of cold, snowy and miserable gray winter days, smallmouth river guru Dale Black of Oil City, Pa., eagerly looks forward to getting his river boat on the water as soon as the Allegheny is free of ice sometime in March.

“Early spring on the Allegheny is my favorite time of the year,” he said. “Even though I’ve fished the river my entire life, for many years I thought it was too cold and dirty to catch them in the early spring. Then some river buddies spilled some secrets about how they stacked up smallmouth in the early spring and I learned what a great time this can be!”
In 40-degree water, you have got to fish the bottom with a slow, methodical presentation, according to Black. He has several rods rigged with different bottom-bumping baits, a skirted jig-and-craw, a tube jig and a hair jig, all intended to represent crayfish or bottom hugging minnows.  

Black says it’s vital that lure weight for each of these baits is matched to depth and current, allowing the lure to reach the bottom quickly and then bounce or swim slowly along the bottom.

“The jig-and-chunk should be a reasonably small-profile, not a huge flipping jig with flapping trailer typically used for largemouth,” he said. “I like either a Booyah Baby Boo Jig or Pro Boo Bug dressed with a Yum 2.5-inch CrawBug or Chunk. I usually go with a PB&J skirt and natural crayfish-colored trailer in either 3/16-ounce or 5/16-ounce jbased on the flow conditions – whichever weight allows me to drag, pop and shake the jig lightly along the bottom without becoming buried in the muck.”

For tubes, Black inserts a 1/8 or 1/4-ounce teardrop leadhead and retrieves it like he does the jig, gingerly bouncing it along bottom and letting the current push it along. He prefers watermelon or green pumpkin, but if the river has a lot of color to it he switches to darker color like Black Neon or Virgo Red or one with a chartreuse tail.

Hair jigs are a natural for every river smallmouth fisherman’s tackle bag, and Black likes colors that include black, olive green or brown – natural color patterns for clear waters and darker for muddy water. He’s also had success on one featuring a dark red hair, works them with a very slow swimming retrieve.

At this time of year with water temperatures climbing slowly through the 40s, bites are often light pecks or simply pressure bites. Black uses a sensitive rod and line combo featuring 7- or 8-pound fluorocarbon line on spinning equipment and 10-pound on baitcasting gear.

Black begins his early spring river trips checking the deepwater wintering sites in big eddy holes and extended river pools.

“The depth at which bass are located is relative to the section of river,” he explains. “In most areas of the undisturbed free-flow river, a deep hole is typically between 8 and 12 feet deep. But as late as the 1970s, sand-and-gravel dredges operated on the Middle Allegheny between Warren and Kittanning, creating extended pools ranging from 1/2 mile to 2 miles long with 20-foot depths. Fishing those extended pools is more like fishing a lake with a strong current.”

When he initially hits the water in March he is looking for very slow moving current with depth. Chunk rock bottom or sites where log and branch debris has settled to create current breaks unseen on the surface are real hotspots. It’s vital to locate something on the bottom – rock piles or sunken logs – that creates a bottom current-break for bass. Sometimes sonar readings can be helpful in seeing fish but with so much debris in slower, deeper sections of the river, there is no substitute for actually fishing to determine if smallmouths are there or not.

As the water gradually begins to warm into the mid 40s and smallmouths begin to leave winter holes, Black’s focus shifts to more current breaklines visible at the surface. Fish can be as deep as 15-feet or as shallow as just 6 or 7, relative to what’s available in that section of river. The key is deep water close to a bank, or an extended gravel flat

In low-flow situations with slow current, spots holding fish may not be as apparent as when the river is running high. A depthfinder is valuable in identifying these deeper, almost-slackwater pockets. However, with a good flow, it’s easier to spot the swirling eddies or slackwater pockets where the bass tend to stage.

“Staging bass are very competitive,” he said. “Now you are more likely to encounter bass smacking the jig harder, and the number of bass caught on back-to-back casts will increase substantially.”