Professional guides don’t have the option of sitting out a day on the water due to tough conditions. Also, days without fish in the boat are not good for business. So, I took the opportunity to ask professional guide Scott Johnson about how he fishes through tough conditions. Scott guides on two amazing fisheries, Susquehanna River and Upper Potomac. Both are known for their clear shallow water and their amazing smallmouth bass fishing. In this interview, Scott teaches us how to get it done no matter what the conditions.
Lets start though by talking about the two waters that you guide on, the Upper Potomac River and Susquehanna River. What makes these two fisheries so good for smallmouth bass fishing?
Easy answer when it comes to the Susquehanna, and the Juniata for that matter, as in my opinion they have to be two of the top smallmouth fisheries in the country. The shallow water and rocky bottom provides excellent habitat and food sources for these bass and they at times feed there in an aggressive manner that I have never experienced on another body of water. Bass in the 3 lb range can be quite common, and fish over 5 lb and even 6 lb are possible!
The Upper Potomac is a highly undervalued smallmouth fishery that I often hear is “nothing but dinks”. I assure you this is not the case. This is also another shallow bodied water that is full of rock, standing and submerged ledges providing excellent habitat and food sources for the bass.
Granted it does not support the number of trophy size fish that the Susquehanna does, but they are certainly there. In fact, my largest Smallmouth of 2016 was caught on the Upper, and so far my largest of 2017 has been as well. Both fish were over 20″ and 5 lbs. I almost want to hold back on touting this river because I have to admit I enjoy the limited number of fishermen that I often see on the water. The Upper Potomac also provides a great place to get the kids out fishing during warmer months and is really quite scenic and full of wildlife.
What do you consider your ideal conditions on these waters?
I try not to start any fishing trip with any preconceived ideas on how the fishing will be. I have had days that I thought would be ideal conditions, yet the fishing was quite tough. Conversely, I have gone out on days that I thought would be tough conditions and had some of my best days of fishing. You just never know what the fish are going to give you that day.
I do find consistent water and weather conditions to be favorable for fishing, river Smallmouth can be finicky in ever changing conditions. Plus fluctuating water levels can cause the fish to move locations, putting some fish in high water areas, some in low water areas and some in between.
Another condition on the river I look for is the start of a rise after a period of stable water levels and warmer water temps, which I know is contrary to what I just said. Providing the rise is not too drastic, this can often put the fish into an aggressive feeding pattern. The higher levels and changing water clarity can disorientate baitfish, dislodge food sources and provide access to areas and food sources the fish previously did not have.
Just last fall, I fished with fellow guide and owner of Snagler Tackle Company, John Stygler on the Susquehanna during a 1′ bump in river level. We absolutely crushed them on Snagler Tackle spinnerbaits, boating well into triple digits and many large fish. Makes for a sore arm at the end of the day.
One other condition I favor is high and stained/ muddy waters, providing it has been consistently that way. Last May and into June the upper Potomac had consistently above average water levels with stained and muddy water and it was some of the best fishing I have had on the upper. We boated tons of fish, and again lots of big fish as well.
Now let’s throw some challenges at you. What happens when these usually shallow waters get high and dirty?
Obviously this changes a lot with the season and water temps at the time. Regardless of season though, the first thing I will do is search for more favorable conditions, with both rivers it is possible to find cleaner water in some section of the river.
By example, the Susquehanna above Harrisburg can have three distinct water colors and temps depending on the flow coming out of the North Branch, West Branch or Juniata river. Just recently the Susquehanna rose almost 4′ in a 24 hour period turning the river the color of chocolate milk, while the Juniata remained fairly clear. For spring trips, I launch from River Front campground which is located at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers. My clients had an amazing day of fishing despite the poor conditions on the main river by simply fishing cleaner water. We focused on the Juniata and the shoreline below the mouth of the Juniata and found lots of eager fish.
Similarly, the upper Potomac below Harpers Ferry can provide similar conditions with either the Shenandoah or Potomac providing better water conditions.
Once I have finished trying to find cleaner water, in water temps below 50 degrees, finding areas that are current protected are a must. This could be in a confluence, behind standing ledges and islands or in shoreline eddy’s by example. Not much different then any cold water fishing, tubes are an absolute must for a Smallmouth fisherman. I use a brand called Campground Special tubes, from River Front Campground, and they account for many of the fish my clients and I catch each year.
Although river Smallmouth do like to sight feed do not under estimate their ability to locate food and lures in muddy water. I do like to change my color for these conditions and favor bright or dark colored lures. Plastic swimbaits such as Case Magic Lil Swimmer and Keitech Swing Impact can also be very effective. Adding scent can also be beneficial with products such as Smelly Jelly or MegaStrike. Jerkbaits fished slowly can also be invaluable in these conditions, the loud rattles and again in dark or bright colors can really call in the fish.
In warmer temps the lure selection really opens up, and Campground Special tubes, Case Magic Stiks and River Rock baits stick worms are a must for when the fish are in a negative mood. At the warmer temps the fish will be in, or relating to current allowing us to work even soft plastics faster then we would at colder temps. Another must have lure are spinnerbaits, models with larger blades and bright or dark colors are again key to fishing waters with low visibility, along with a slower retrieve.
Another lure that I fish with great success are lipless crankbaits, typically using a stop and go retrieve and using brighter and darker colors. I find Anglers Express tackle shop in Cockeysville MD. has a great pricing, service and selection of Lucky Craft and Spro lipless baits, as well as a lot of other great tackle for bass fishing.
I experiment with these different baits along shorelines, current seams caused by obstructions in the flow, and in areas of full current. I think people often under estimate how much bass will prowl in areas of current that we think is to heavy for the fish.
I find the ultra shallow clear summer conditions of the section of the Suskie I fish really tough. Small fish aren’t hard to come by in these conditions but bigger fish can be tough. What do you advise to anglers to catch big smallies in hot shallow clear conditions?
Sometimes it can be tough to weed through the smaller fish who seem to be more eager to bite, but there are some things that I look for in these conditions. First is low light levels, and preferably the morning when the water temps are at it’s lowest.
Second is current, and the faster the better. Current for a Smallmouth is just like a breeze for us in summer, it helps keep them cool. Topwaters and spinnerbaits are great lures for targeting larger fish while in these scenarios, they really are big fish baits.
A third thing I look for as the sun gets higher is shade, it could be on the banks from overhanging trees, bridges, or even shade caused by submerged large rock or ledges. As it approaches mid day, assuming the bite has died down on the other targeted areas I will shift my focus to submerged ledges and large chunk rock in deeper water. Keeping in mind deep is a relative term and on these shallow rocky rivers this is typically water that is 3′-7′ deep, I avoid the deepest sections as they are typically the local hang out for carp and suckers.
I like to always continue to try using moving baits such as topwaters and spinnerbaits, and some days have success using topwaters all afternoon long in bright sun, but sometimes it does require moving to finesse fishing. This is where the Campground Special tubes, Case Magic Stiks and River Rock stick worms come back into play. Even though its the heat of summer, deadsticking can be a key to coaxing the larger fish into biting.
I know people were reporting success burning spinnerbaits throughout the summer clear water. If you use this technique, can you describe the keys to success with this technique?
There is a real art to spinnerbait fishing, and this technique in particular. If any of the readers have not experienced a spinnerbait bite on the Susquehanna they just don’t know what they are missing. There is nothing more exciting than when these bass slam a spinnerbait. And I mean slam it to the point they will rip off blades, break the wire and almost rip the rod out of your hands!
I am an avid user of Snagler Tackle spinnerbaits as they are designed for fishing in current and river smallmouth. They have a light wire that helps with added vibration and a smaller profile and skirt to help keep them near the surface and unaffected by river current. The key is to work these baits fast enough to keep them just under the surface of the water with slight pauses in the retrieve.
In clear water color can be critical to this technique, subtle changes in the blade or skirt color can make the difference between an ok and an outstanding day of fishing. Monofilament line is also an important factor with it’s neutral buoyancy, and trust me you are going to want the line stretch they way these bass will strike.
How about the dreaded cold front blue bird skies?
Cold fronts and high barometers can reek havoc on a day of fishing, those bluebird skies can be a good indicator of a tough day. Watching the herons can also be another indication of what’s happening, high barometers can push baitfish into deeper water and inaccessible to the herons. If you see them perched in the trees and not fishing its a great indication that has happened, so that’s when I go to my deeper water spots and slow down my approach.
Again keep in mind, deep is a relative term when it comes to river smallmouth. Fishing tubes, stick worms and swimbaits slowly through the submerged ledges, deeper water with chunk rock can save your day. The Upper Potomac has a lot of “canopy” type rock ledges that overhang on the upriver side, if you can find one of these with current then you have found fish.
As mentioned in muddy water conditions I prefer a dark or very bright color, but in clear water I shift to more natural or even translucent color plastic. Deadsticking again is a key technique, many of my big fish under tough conditions come from putting one of these baits in a fish’s home and just letting it sit. It’s not the most glorious technique but if your goal is target and catch quality bass it is a must.
It’s not easy either, trying throwing a bait in the water and count out to 60 seconds, it can be excruciating! I find that a lot of people think they are fishing a bait slowly but constantly move the bait so its out of the target area. Times like this it is also important to approach quietly and make long casts, particularly in clear water. If you can see the fish, she saw you long before.
Last one for you is strong winds. These are conditions that can make fishing tubes and jigs very challenging. What are your keys to success when the wind is blowing?
Strong winds do not necessarily affect the fish, but it certainly does the angler and it tops my list for least favorite condition. This adds a whole new element to navigating these shallow rivers when often I have to run through sections of water that may only be inches deep. Beyond that boat control can be another struggle, casting is more difficult, it can be draining!
There are ways to try and combat the wind however, like dealing with high muddy water I try to find better conditions. It could be switching ramps to an area where the river is running perpendicular to the wind, where it is more sheltered. Tributaries, islands and high banks can also provide some relief and improve conditions. The Upper Potomac in many sections winds and turns allowing me to find areas with less wind.
In warmer water temps moving baits such as spinnerbaits, chatterbaits, and jerkbaits can still be effective and positioning if possible so the wind is at your back. With any bait you use, staying in contact with your lure is key so these heavier moving baits can help with that.
If I am not successful fishing with a moving bait I will switch to a finesse approach but increase head sizes from 1/8oz to 3/16 or even a 1/4oz head. At these times getting stationary is important so I will often anchor on the up wind side of a targeted area. A quality, sensitive rod like the St.Croix lines is a must, and a sensitive line such as Fluorocarbon can be a huge help in detecting bites.
Although conventionally while fishing soft plastics I like to keep my rod tip around 10 o’clock in heavy wind I will drop the tip to help minimize how much of a bow is blown into my line. I may also use a slow reeling retrieve, where I can feel my bait drag across the bottom.
Although the wind can be difficult, it some ways it may actually be beneficial. Already this year I have caught some big fish on very windy days, I think it is because it causes me to slow down and thoroughly fish key areas of the river.
What can anglers expect during a day on the water with you?
A client can expect someone that is passionate about fishing, enjoys people and teaching about fishing at any level. I work hard on every trip to try to make sure my clients have a great experience on the water, have fun, and to be safe. My hope is that every client has the best day of fishing they have ever had, and will travel the river as needed and try any technique to put them on fish.
I spend around 100 days a year on the water to stay on up on current fishing conditions and guide from a custom built 18′ aluminum boat built by RockProof boats. Anyone interested in a trip can check out my site SJ-Fishing.com, email me firstname.lastname@example.org, or call or text 240-625-2550.
Wow! I keep reading this one over and over and pick up new things each time. So much great information. Thank you Scott! I will be following Scott on Facebook and Instagram to see how he continues to catch fish through all conditions.