Summer River Smallies

by Chris Gorsuch

No, I am not referring to summertime weather patterns, this is quite different. In football, the term ‘Thunder and Lightning’ refers to tandem running backs on the same team. Thunder is the one with raw power. They charge straight through defenders leaving a wake in their path. The other, Lightning, is generally quick and agile enough to juke left then right leaving the defender standing flat footed. Whether brute force or finesse, both have very different but effective styles of play and when used in tandem the results are significant and seemingly unstoppable. River anglers can use such a metaphor in their approach to targeting late spring and summer bass. 

  Bass, especially smallmouth in the summer months, can get so aggressive that they will miss lures on the first or second attempt. If you throw top water plugs, you know this all too well. Often, they will miss a bait, multiple times and seemingly ignore a second cast with the exact same bait. It can be frustrating but there is a great solution. 

  Teaming up two very different lures can turn that missed strike into a second chance in the matter of seconds. Having a primary lure tied on, with a follow up bait on another rod, ready to go is a the key. Generally, the “Thunder” lure is something that makes a lot of commotion, sound or vibration. Something that gets their attention. On the “Lightning” side, it is more finesse with maybe a little flash or something to catch their eye. Here are just a few examples of my favorites.

Topwater Plug/Weightless Soft Jerkbait

  Pick your favorite top water plug. It could be a Sammy or Spook, a Popping baits like Pop-R, Skitter-Pop, J-Pop or prop types like the Torpedo or a Whopper Plopper. Regardless of what the favorite plug is, the sound, splash and surface activity is the Thunder.  I have seen bass destroy them and come up empty on a hook set. Likewise, had bass blow up on them two, three even four times without a hook up.  My #1 “Lightning” follow up bait is a 4.75” River Darter. Tossed within the ring of the last blow up, twitch it once and just let it die. Watch your line carefully, the pick-up is not always a strong bite.  Often it is so subtle that all you notice is a small twitch in the line or it starts to move off. If this happens, reel down until you feel resistance and sweep set. 

  Other Soft Jerkbaits such as the Zoom Super Fluke or Case Sinking Salty Shad will work as well. What makes the Fitt product so versatile is that it comes in both a split body (for offset hooks) and a solid body (for nose hooking). I use both methods depending on wind conditions and how bass are striking the lure on a given day. The Fitt River Darter is loaded with salt and while the sink rate is amazing, they cast a country mile, even when weightless. For an especially finicky bite, Fitt offers a smaller 3.75” version as well. This angler will admit that my go-to 90% of the time is the larger version. 

ZMan’s Jackhammer Chatterbait and Fitt Lure’s Predator Craw

  No question, the Jackhammer is my favorite vibrating bait. I have tried every version and brand on the market, and this is by far the most effective one for both myself and clients. The price is a tad salty, but the results are hard to argue with.  The Mini-Max is a solid second but there is a difference. This is not to say the Slobberknocker and other imitations do not work, because I am sure they do. The consistency and my success rate on this lure is just tough to beat.  Throw it one time and you will understand why it falls under the “Thunder” classification.  

   No matter where I fish the Susquehanna, it is full of crayfish. Whether I am down home near Harrisburg or 120 miles upriver on the North Branch, these mini lobsters are a main source of forage for bass and other game fish. Rock piles, ledges, current funnels and especially grass islands all hold large populations of crayfish.  Locate these and you will locate bass. Grass islands or patches can be particularly tough to fish. Those here have a root system like few other aquatic grass I have fished. With the right fishing line, casting the chatterbait a few inches into the edge and ripping it out simply works. This technique is nothing new and on other waterways and impoundments I can throw a rattle-trap or wake-bait into grass and rip them out. Try either one here on the Susquehanna and the root system will make you wish you had not tried. It is no place for treble hooks. 

 The chatterbait comes through rocks and grass well and usually hook-up with bass easily. But even with my confidence high on the Jackhammer, there are days when bass will simply bump or knock the bait sideways instead of eating it. When this happens, a quick switch to a soft plastic craw imitation works great as a “Lightning” follow up. My choice is the Fitt Preditor Craw in both the Regular and Baby size. I rig mine weedless on a Flutter Jig, also a Fitt Product. In the summer my choice in size and weight vary depending on water levels, the lower the lighter and smaller. For 2023, with the low water, it is the 3+ inch Baby Predator Craw and a 1/8oz Flutter Jig. The coil keeper holds the bait firmly and the point of their keel weighted offset hook can be left just under the skin if the lure. This allows it to come through rocks and grass better for me than a tube or other craw imitations. 

  For me, the angling fun is all in presenting a lure and getting them to bite.  Making good on one you missed with the right follow-up lure, is icing on the cake. Experiment a little this summer and create your own go-to Thunder and Lightning combination.

Author Chris Gorsuch is a licensed charter guide in the state of Pennsylvania. He started the Reel River Adventures guide service in ‘07 and spends 225-250 days on the water annually. His home base is on the Susquehanna River where he operates 20’ jetboats. Chasing smallmouth is his specialty, however he enjoys catching walleye and other freshwater gamefish on the upper North Branch. He has written 100’s of articles. You can follow his daily fishing reports on Facebook ‘Reel River Adventures-RRA’ & Instagram @Chris_Gorsuch

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