Stream smallmouth bass love early fall

By Lee McClellan

This past spring and early summer was just like the one before it. It rained and rained until mid-summer, then it didn’t rain much at all. Streams ran low and hot during most of August. 

After heavy rains in early September across a significant chunk of Kentucky, the normally dry weather in September returned and streams are now low and clear. The smallmouth bass that live in them are hungry.

“It is the ideal situation right now on our Kentucky streams,” said David Baker, Central Fisheries District biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Streams are at their prime now. Stream smallmouths are feeding like crazy.”

Topwater lures draw incredibly savage strikes from stream smallmouths in September and into early October. The banana or cigar-shaped 3- to 4-inch long topwater lures worked with the “walk the dog” retrieve are deadly right now. The Whopper Plopper seems too big and heavy for stream smallmouth, but the ½-ounce size in hues of white, chartreuse and blue draws vicious strikes. Fish these lures across flowing shoals, beside undercut banks and in the tailout water above and below riffles.

“I could not believe how shallow they were and would still hit a Whopper Plopper,” said Louisville angler Aaron Boggs, who had a great day recently on central Kentucky’s famed Elkhorn Creek throwing the lure on a bright, warm day. “They were herding baitfish into the shallows and the smallmouths were ripping through them.”

He caught about a dozen in an afternoon of fishing the Whopper Plopper on a medium-power baitcasting outfit spooled with 15-pound braid. All but two were over 12 inches long, with a few considerably longer. It takes about five years for a stream smallmouth to reach 12 inches in Kentucky.

“This time of year, smallmouths are schooled up,” Baker said. “If you catch one, spend some time in that spot. The low water concentrates the smallmouths and you can catch several from the same pool.”

He also recommends covering water.

“Don’t spend too much time fishing soft-plastic lures really slow right now,” Baker said. He prefers searching for smallmouth schools by throwing lures such as 1/8-ounce white and silver spinnerbaits, floating/diving minnow-shaped jerkbaits in shad colors and smaller minnow-shaped crankbaits.
“The flat bedrock areas are holding fish,” Baker said. “I don’t usually fish flat, boring bedrock, but crayfish and minnows are holding on them right now.”
He said the minnows he’s witnessed in streams are roughly three to four inches long. Lures should match that size.

Stealth is important since streams are flowing air clear. “The fish can see you coming,” Baker said. “Make long casts and stay off the areas you plan to fish.”

Under-utilized smallmouth streams course all across Kentucky. If a local flow has water at least waist deep and a rocky bottom along with pools and riffles, it likely holds smallmouth bass. 

The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at has excellent resources for Kentucky anglers to locate and learn more about the smallmouth fishing streams in their area. Type “smallmouth streams” into the search bar on the top right of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s homepage to access a list of Kentucky’s smallmouth streams. 

The Canoeing and Kayaking page under the “Boat” tab at the top of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage is chock full of great information on stream fishing in Kentucky. The Stream Fisheries page provides incredible detail on stream access, including photos of the access spots, floating mileages, fishing tips, recommended flow levels and the result of fish population sampling on the stream.
You may also click on the Blue Water Trails tab on the Canoeing and Kayaking page and locate three dozen streams profiled that provide public access points, floating mileages, printable maps and fishing information. Many of the streams featured in the series contain good smallmouth bass populations.

The great stream smallmouth fishing continues well into fall. Once water temperatures fall below 50 degrees, usually by mid-November, the fishing slows drastically. 

There is long way to go before now and then. Get out in the next few weeks and enjoy the best stream smallmouth fishing of the year.