How To Catch Small Mouth on a River

Catching Small Mouth Bass on a River:

I have spent years fishing for small mouth bass on local rivers and creeks. So I have a good deal of experience in this area and feel I could offer a lot of valuable information to you angling guys and gals. First thing I would advise is to find a creek or river that is populated with smallies. And this should not be very hard to do.

Little Juniata River

Little Juniata River (see video)

First thing I would do is make some calls to your local fish and wildlife wardens and start by asking them if they could help with naming a

few local rivers that contain small mouth. I am sure they can offer you some very valuable information. This can be done with all species of fish. Muskie, Walleye, Perch etc. They can also help you zero in on some specific hot spots. So its definately worth your effort to do this. They are actually a treasure trove of information and give this information up rather easily.

Best Fishing Gear:

Raystown River small mouth
Raystown River small mouth (see video)


I always liked light and ultra light rods when fishing for smallies. They are a heck of a lot of fun to catch on ultra light equipment. Smallies tend to hit hard and fight hard for sure. They like to jump to! So if you like a show, smallies can certainly entertain you all day with their acrobatics!! I also like to use a light line. Usually any where from 6 to 8 # test. Me personally, I like to use 8# test. I never had much luck with 6# test. It is more of a challenge and certainly can be done. Many anglers just prefer 6# test and swear by it. I just got broke off way to many times that I prefer the insurance of 8# test. Any small sturdy reel will suffice, but I do prefer a reel with a trigger release.

Most of my small mouth experience has been on smaller more lazy river types of bodies of water. Most of all the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River in Bedford County in Pa.  I also have some experience fishing on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pa., of which I will touch on later on in this post. One big bonus to fishing a good river is the benefit of catching other species of fish also. Aside from catching a lot of smallies, you also have the opportunities of catching all kinds of of pan fish and rock bass. Rock bass tend to hit hard but give up easy, so there’ not much of a fight with them. But they are fun to catch. It should not be uncommon to go to a good river that holds plenty of these fish and catch at least 40 to 50 fish in a day!! I have had plenty of these days and some great memories as well. The first thing I look at when choosing a river to fish that I know holds plenty of small mouth bass, is the movement of the river or creek. I like to isolate the fast water from the slower waters that hold deep holes which should never be overlooked. The fast current will hold more small mouth because I believe it is more oxygenated. I usually head straight to the fast current with live bait or lures because I know it always hold smallies. It is not uncommon at all to catch fish on the first cast. That is always encouraging to say the least!!! Always be trying to read the river. What I mean by that is watching the surface of the water for fish jumping, birds feeding off the water surface. Look for minnies jumping above the surface as this could be an indication of activity below the surface. Watching birds feeding off the bugs on the surface. Everything can be of importance, so it pays to pay attention.

Little Juniata River (sse video)
Little Juniata River

Best Baits and Lures:

The best baits or lures I have found to be the most effective is by far LIVE BAIT!! A healthy river will harbor a vast amount of aquatic life such as crawdads and helgramites, which can be seined right from the river with the proper net. One of the first things I do when entering a river, is to pick up a few rocks that have been submerged and turn them over. This can be a clear sign on how healthy a river is. You should be able to see  a plethora of insect and larva on the under side of these rocks. Don’t get me wrong, I have caught plenty of fish on lures and soft baits. But it has been my experience that live baits produce the larger fish by far, especially crawdads vs. helgramites. One afternoon a friend of mine and caught 3 18″ small mouth on helgramites. And believe me when you have an 18″ smallie on the end of your line, you know it!!!! Even good old fashion nite crawlers will produce a lot of fish but not much in size on these types of rivers. When seining for crawdads I tend to keep crawfish that have just shed their outer shell and will feel “soft” when gently squeezing them. Another plus to fishing with these types of bait is you can catch as many as half a dozen fish with one bait. Another plus to fishing these types of rivers is the fact that in warm weather you can fish in your shorts and a pair of old tennis shoes. No need to fish in any type of wader. That’s my favorite kind of fishing!. I would never recommend fishing any stream or river in your bare feet. There far to many rusty shards and barbs from previous fisherman, so it pays to protect your feet. When fishing with either live bait or lures always casting towards the fast water should always have productive results. When fishing during the spawning season which here in Pa. is usually May. It pays to stand in the middle of the river and cast towards shore as the small mouth bass will be protecting their beds. So there is high probability that you will get a strike just from the fact that the small mouth are indeed protecting their beds. This is an extremely effective method of fishing using small surface lures by just twitching the lure every couple of inches. I have caught many small mouth bass with this one technique alone!! I used to take my son fishing when he was very young, like maybe 4 or 5 years old. I would bait him up with a nite crawler with a bobber about 12 ” above the bait. This method always kept him from getting snagged so I could get “more fishing in”. Problem being, I ended up removing all his fish he was catching and I was not getting “more fishing in”. But it was certainly fun watching him getting “more fishing in.” LOL. As far as muddy waters go, stay home or go fish a lake. I have never had any luck at all catching small mouth bass in muddy waters. So when the rivers are muddy, I would actually rather stay home or go fish a lake to be honest with you. Fishing any river in Pennsylvania should be very productive from April when the waters start to warm well into November, With May being extremely productive due to the spawning season. August and September are also extremely good months.

Best Lures to Catch Small Mouth Bass:

Best small mouth lures
Best small mouth lures

What are the best lures to catch small mouth bass. That is the million dollar question. Actually the real secret to catching small mouth is that they are really easy to catch. They will hit just about any live bait or lure and fight really hard. That is what makes it so much fun catching them. As I said before, I prefer to fish with Live bait as they seem to catch the larger fish, but have caught just as many or more fish on lures and rubber bait, just not as big.

The average size fish on these smaller rivers ranges in the area of 9″ to about 12″. Average size fish in the larger rivers like the Susquehanna River or the main Raystown River is usually in the range of about 14″ to 16″ with 18″ to 20-21″ range very common. I have had a phenomenal amount of success on rubber baits such as Mr. Twisters. My favorite colors are purple, black, and a motor oil colored twisters. Just jig it with a small lead jig head and your all set. The trick to fishing Mr. Twisters is to keep them off the bottom so you do not snag the bottom. This is the best part of fishing in shorts and old tennis shoes. When you do get snagged, you can just walk over to your snag and and free it by hand or just free it with your foot. Another favorite lure I like to use are very small floating lures like Rapalas or small shallow crank baits. Cotton Cordell use to make a variety of very effective lures. Just reel and retrieve, experimenting what works best all the while. I have never caught a small mouth bass on a spinner bait (maybe because I just have never fished with them very much.) But in the same breath I seen the largest smallie (about 25″) hooked for a short while before breaking the line. Spinner baits can be very effective, especially with an added trailer hook tipped with a minnow or any live bait. I have used this method very successfully while fishing for northern pike in Northern Ontario many years ago. But we are not talking about northern pike in Northern Ontario, so I will get back on track here with small mouth bass. Twitching any small floating lure in slow to semi slow water is also a great method.

Catching Small Mouth Bass on a Larger River:

Now this is where the fun begins. Fishing larger rivers such as the Susquehanna River can produce many large small mouth. We fish the section of river between Marysville and City Island In the heart of Harrisburg, Pa. Always a float fish and it is about a 2 to 3 mile float. This river is an absolute mecca for fishing. On a good day it is non stop fishing catching 40-50 fish in a day !!! These bigger rivers hold fish just about any where. By instituting the methods I have described above, an angler can do very well. On one trip I was actually getting a little tired of casting and was taking a little break. I was bouncing a black Mr. Twister (remember one of my favorite lures) on the surface of the water, just sort of messing around and a 15″ small mouth broke the surface and hook himself!! This is a true story!!!


4 thoughts on “How To Catch Small Mouth on a River

  1. After reading your article on river fishing for small mouth bass, I want to get out my fishing poles and head on out!

    You offer some great tips, Mike. I’m a lake fisherman at heart and, I’ve taken my share of small mouth and large mouth bass, as well as a healthy number of panfish.

    The only river fishing I have done has been during trout season when I would tromp down the middle throwing a corn tipped hook tied to 6# line in front of me and let it drift with the current until a wiley trout snatched it. Oh what fun!

    As far as spinners, my only success was fishing Lake Erie with, you guessed it, an Erie Dearie…tipped with a big fat nightcrawler. Those big ole Walleye would just barely bump the bait so, I had to be really sensitive to that soft bump by keeping a finger on the line. And, when I set the hook, I was in for the fight of my life!

    Seriously though, you have gotten me all worked up to try some small mouth river fishing! Now how do I convince the wife that this is a good thing?


    1. Hey Jim how you doing. I was always a river fisherman as opposed to a lake fisherman. That is where my passion lies. Sounds like you know your stuff. I have caught my share of justabout everything. Trout too!!  Only ever caught 2 muskie tho. Gonna be fishing for them more this year. If you ever wanna fish up here I would love to take you along. As far as the wife thing goes, when you figure that one out please let me know hahahaha. Mike

      1. I just may take you up on that fishing invite if I’m ever in your neighborhood.

        As far as the wife thing goes…Mike…I don’t think we will EVER figure that out!



        1. Hahaha thats funny Jim, I know what you are saying. I am gonna make my bnest effort this fishing season to teach my wife. Wish me luck!!!!

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