Stream smallmouth love may

Stream smallmouth love May  

By Lee McClellan

I have an old friend who was reluctant to go wading in streams for smallmouth bass for many years.

“The fish are too small,” he said.

One May a few years ago, I convinced him to wade a small creek in central Kentucky the weekend after the Kentucky Derby. From the time the water lapped over our ankles until nearly dark, we caught nice smallmouth after nice smallmouth. Many of those topped the 15-inch mark. I also hooked an unusual 22-inch largemouth bass on a 4-inch lizard that only had one eye.

We caught over two dozen smallmouth a piece that day. My friend caught one in the 17-inch range that gave him quite a tussle on a light action spinning rod. He’s been hooked on stream smallmouth fishing since.

It is that time of year again. The last round of rain this past weekend has streams up a bit, but when they recede, stream smallmouth bass will be hungry. It will be time to slip on some old tennis shoes, worn-out hiking boots or wade boots, grab a light to medium-light power spinning rod and hit the creek.

Fisheries biologists for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources say central Kentucky’s famed Elkhorn Creek is a good barometer of the present condition of stream smallmouth bass in our state. The stream earned an “excellent” rating for smallmouth bass in the Fishery Division’s annual Fishing Forecast for 2019. The creek has bountiful numbers in the protective slot limit from 12- to 16-inches long and good numbers of fish more than 16 inches long.

In May, anglers should concentrate on three areas of a stream: the bottom of stream drops, often called riffles, the top of stream drops and flowing shoals. The current-free areas in the deeper holes hold fish at rest; these areas are the living room, not the kitchen.

The feeding smallmouths are picking off disoriented crawfish, sculpins and baitfish in the flowing water. Toss a 4-inch black straight-tailed finesse worm rigged on a 1/8-ounce leadhead above or below a riffle along the seam where fast current meets slower. Let the worm tumble along the current seam, occasionally touching bottom. A green pumpkin skirted double-tailed grub worked in the same areas produces strikes as do smaller jig and trailer combinations in hues of brown, green and orange.

Work flowing shoals with a weightless albino shad-colored soft plastic jerkbait hooked through the nose with a wide gap finesse hook. Allow this presentation to slowly tumble toward bottom and gently jerk the rod tip every few feet to start the process again. This rig often sinks in a corkscrew death spiral. Smallmouth bass that ignored every offering in your vest will crush this.

In the early morning and dusk, topwater lures work well at times. On overcast or rainy days, they may hit topwaters all day. Chugger style topwaters and cigar-shaped lures designed for the walk-the-dog retrieve work extremely well. Use 3- to 4-inch versions of these lures, not the larger ones designed for largemouth bass in lakes. Cork and deer hair poppers cast on a fly rod also work well, as do white 1/8-ounce buzzbaits. 

The topwater bite can be sporadic. On some days, they hit them with abandon, while on other days, stream smallmouth ignore them completely. If you fish a topwater for 45 minutes or so without a strike during low light times, switch to sub-surface lures.

In addition to the Elkhorn Creek system in central Kentucky, anglers can enjoy high quality stream smallmouth fishing across the state. The following streams are all good for catching smallmouth bass: the Gasper River in Warren County, Russell Creek in Green and Adair counties, the Russell and Levisa Forks of Big Sandy River in Pike County and the Green River below Green River Lake to Mammoth Cave National Park. Other good streams are the South Fork of Licking River in Bourbon and Harrison counties, the South Fork of the Kentucky River in Clay and Owsley counties, the Cumberland River above the Falls in Bell and Whitley counties and the Barren River below Barren River Lake Dam in Allen, Barren and Warren counties.

Many overlooked smallmouth streams flow across Kentucky. If a local stream has good current with pools and riffles, a rocky bottom and water at least thigh deep, it likely holds smallmouths. Most of these small streams rarely get fished. Remember to get landowner permission before fishing.

Consult the Canoeing and Kayaking page under the “Boat” tab on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at This page contains links to the Stream Fisheries page detailing the access points, floating mileages, fishing tips and the populations of smallmouth bass and other game fish for 18 different streams or sections of rivers in the state. This page also contains a link to the Blue Water Trails​ series of articles, profiling 36 floats across Kentucky with a detailed map, along with an article describing the float, fishing tips and some historical background to boot.

Now is the best time of year to catch trophy stream smallmouth bass. This is the most exciting fishing you can find in Kentucky.