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Summer Smallmouth in Shallow Rivers

During the late summer to fall transition, many anglers start switching over from fishing to football as their fishing season begins to wind down. This is often due to lakes being slow during some of the hottest days of the year. While lakes may be difficult during this time, rivers with fast moving water can be a great place to get off the beaten path and catch a ton of fish. 

One of my favorite places to do river fishing is some of our local rivers here in Knoxville, Tennessee. These rivers are loaded with smallmouth and can be an absolute blast to fish when the main lake is slow. While there are a ton of fish in these bodies of water, getting bit can be difficult without a basic understanding of where to fish, reading the water level and choosing the right bait.


Understanding where to fish is arguably the most crucial piece in having a successful day on the water. This is especially true in regards to river smallmouth. There are often days where you only get bit in certain areas during certain times, so it Is important to understand when these bite windows open. To start, I like to look for rivers with shoals, moving water and lots of cover. This is the general recipe for a river that holds a ton of bass. 

I also like to look for river systems that historically hold quality sized bass. When exploring a new river system, I like to do some research before showing up sight unseen. Once you’ve located a river system with quality fish, you must then understand when and where they like to feed. This is where understanding the water level becomes critical.


Understanding when fish feed based on water level is crucial for having a productive day on these types of river systems. This is especially true on our local smallmouth rivers. I have experienced numerous days where fish only eat during a certain water level. Water levels can fluctuate by the minute depending on what river you’re on, especially if it is controlled by a dam. Dams will often release generation schedules depicting when, and how much water they will be releasing on any given day. This is a great way to plan your trip based on productive water levels.

On my local smallmouth fishery, it seems that fish tend to bite best during a changing water level. This causes fish to reposition on cover due to the change in water level. This can often position fish to feed leading to more bites. This is true for both rising and falling water levels. Once you locate your preferred water level, you can drift with the current and maintain that same water level throughout the course of the day. Patterning the water level is a great way to consistently stay on fish that only feed during windows.


Once you understand what water level fish prefer, you can then start breaking down what types of areas these fish prefer. The three main areas that are present in my local rivers are shoals, bluff walls and laydowns. These are all high percentage locations when looking for a big smallmouth bite. 

One of my favorite types of cover to fish in these rivers are shoals. Shoals are great for holding a ton of fish regardless of the conditions. It is important to cast your bait up river from the shoal and let it wash down the rocks naturally with the current. My favorite time to fish this type of area is during a low water period. This low water often forces fish off the bank and out to the shoals.

Another great area to fish is a bluff wall. These are typically areas where the current hits the hardest. This positions fish to feed in the fast moving water. I start in this area flipping a jig. It is important to flip the jig onto the bluff wall and let it wash down the rocks with the current. Bluff walls are often best during a changing or low water level.

Lastly, laydowns always present a great option for catching trophy smallmouth during changing water conditions. This type of cover is great during high or changing water when the majority of cover is in the water. During low water conditions most of this cover is on dry land, however during a high water level fish are able to push up shallow and hold on cover they weren’t previously able to.


You can catch smallmouth on a plethora or different baits in rivers, however, a few that have always been productive for me are the Ned rig, jig and a glide bait. The most constant lure out of these three is by far the Ned rig. This bait will catch fish regardless of the conditions while still generating some quality bites. This is a great option when fishing during slack water conditions or whenever fish are more reluctant to bite. The Duo Realis Wriggle ND Slim has been a great option for me recently in the majority of these Ned rig applications.

I also prefer a jig on these types of rivers. A jig offers versatility for various types of structure and cover. It also does a great job of staying weedless when being drug through cover in heavy current. Flipping a jig into shallow laydowns or along bluff walls is a great way to catch a trophy smallmouth when the water in moving. My go to river fishing jig is the D & L 1/2-ounce casting jig.

Lastly, one of my all time favorite baits to throw in these shallow water rivers areas are a glide bait. This is by far the most fun bait to throw in these locations, and can often lead to some insane bites. This can be a great option when sight fishing or targeting any kind of shallow cover. In my local river fish tend to react very positively to a glide bait, resulting in lots of follows and visual eats. This is the perfect bait for targeting aggressive bass in shallow water.



Fishing these rivers can be an absolute blast, especially since you often have it to yourself. This is mainly due to the presence of giant rock shoals that prohibit the majority of boats from navigating the river. Along with dangerous rock formations, many of these rivers have limited boat ramps. This can make accessing these rivers more difficult. The three best ways I’ve found to fish these types of rivers is with a jet boat, kayak or wading. A jet boat is ideal because it allows you to quickly move from one shoal to the other, however you can properly fish these rivers regardless of your vessel.

Kayaking is a great way to fish these rivers because it allows you to fish all over the body of water without having a motor operated vessel. By launching at an up stream ramp and floating to another down stream location, you are able to fish a large portion of the river without ever firing up an engine. Wading is also a super fun way to fish these river systems. Wade fishing allows you to slowly pick apart a specific area in the river, often leading to a few fish others might have passed over too quickly.

Fishing for smallmouth in shallow rivers offers an optimal way to catch some quality fish during the heat of summer. Once you understand the changing water levels, what they eat and when they feed, chasing these river fish can be a super fun and productive time on the water. If your looking for a fun new way to catch some trophy sized smallmouth, shallow water river fishing is a great place to start.