Southern smallmouth bass can be tough to figure out. One day they’re here, the next they’re gone, but there’s one area where you can count on finding them almost year-round, the current-laden water that rushes through the dams of riverine impoundments.

I’ve been guiding on Tennessee River impoundments for quite a while now, and have seen new lures and techniques come and go. One that’s here to stay for this moving water is a swimbait. I’ve never caught so many trophy smallmouth bass like the ones in the accompanying pictures as I have on a soft plastic swimbait.

Specifically, I most often use a 5-inch Yum Money Minnow in Foxy Shad color. It perfectly imitates our native forage, the threadfin shad. It is a simple lure and technique, but really catches bass in the kind of current we have in the Tennessee River and the upper reaches of my home waters, Pickwick and Wilson Lakes.

I prefer fishing the swimbait on a ¾-ounce jighead with a weedguard to keep it from snagging. In fact, I’ve been using a Booyah Boo Jig and just removing the skirt. We’ve had abnormally cold water this winter and bass can’t fight heavy current in those temperatures, so they often sit in eddies behind boulders. I bring the swimbait right to the front of the boulder and pop it over, making it sink right on the fish’s nose.

Sure, soft plastic swimbaits have been around for five or six years, but you don’t hear anglers talk much about fishing them in current. Even though it sounds simple, there’s more to being successful than meets the eye.

Smallmouth on the Tennessee River or any big river or tailwaters often scatter out over broad boulder-laden riverbeds.  When I’m fishing swimbaits over these areas, I’m not fishing a specific spot. I’m letting the current carry the boat downriver and fishing multiple boulders or the bottom of the run-of-the-river section of the lake. You are fishing multiple low spots, high spots…anything that breaks the current, anything that these fish can pull in behind and set up in a current break.

Current can undermine your presentation if you let it. I like to cast out and, much like I do when I am fishing an umbrella rig, let it “parachute” to the bottom. By that I mean I want to execute a controlled fall. To do this I turn my reel handle only slightly after the bait hits the water. I want that bait nose-down but under control as it falls to the bottom.

As soon as I make bottom contact, I speed up my retrieve. I want to keep it just off the bottom. During the retrieve itself, I want to feel the bait bump bottom three or four times. I don’t want to bang bottom constantly, but I don’t want my bait to swim too far up either, because the fish are using the boulders and pockets for protection from the strong current. Feeling the bait bump three or four times lets me know that I am within a foot of the bottom as we drift.

Boat control

When I’m fishing these areas, I point the boat directly into the current and let it drift while I cast straight out. Keeping the bait in the strike zone during the retrieve is very important, and by casting directly in front of the boat and drifting straight downstream I’m able to fish the swimbait more effectively.

Drifting in this manner, I can pretty much keep my foot off the trolling motor except to adjust the boat position. The objective is to keep the nose of the boat forward, pointed into the current.

I want my bait and my boat moving backwards at the same speed. My casts are all perpendicular to the boat – at a straight 90-degree angle with the craft. I am not throwing upstream. I am not throwing downstream. I want to cast straight out so that my retrieve brings the bait straight back to the boat.

High waters and weighty matters

As I said, my go-to bait for fishing in the current is the 5-inch YUM Money Minnow, more often than not, in the Foxy Shad color on a ¾-ounce jighead. This past December, however, I fished in heavy current following three or four inches of rain, and conditions forced me to adjust.

Heavier-than-normal current calls for a heavier presentation. In situations like that, I will take a lead slip sinker – say a 5/16-ounce bullet-nose sinker, and put it ahead of the lure. The water is dirty after a heavy rain, and in that faster current the fish get just a quick glimpse of the bait as it rushes past them. The weight and extra bulk doesn’t hurt the presentation at all. It does, however, help me get that swimbait down and working in the fast current.

Gearing up

Fishing across large flats on big rivers and below dams calls for long casts. It requires equipment that not only enables you to make those casts but to set the hook successfully even with all that line and current between you and the fish.

I use a long rod with muscle, a 7’-4” Dobyns DX in heavy action. It has a good flexible tip that helps you make long casts, but at the same time it has the backbone to drive the hook home even with the heavy diameter wire on my jigheads.

My line choice is 15- to 17-lb fluorocarbon. That fluorocarbon helps me get down in the current better because it sinks, and the low stretch helps me get a good hookset. My reel is a Lew’s Tournament Pro with a 6.4:1 gear ratio. It also aids in casting long distance and the high-speed gear ratio helps me stay in contact with the swimbait.

The Tennessee River and its fabled impoundments have a lot of challenging current areas that are loaded with big smallmouth. Try these tips for rigging and working the Yum Money Minnow for the fast water. When it comes to big smallmouth, I probably catch more 5- and 6-pounders on this bait than on anything else!