Smallmouth Bass Love Leeches

There’s (thankfully) no need to hit the bait shop for a tub of bloodsuckers when you pack these leech imitations.

Smallmouth Bass Love Leaches

There’s (thankfully) no need to hit the bait shop for a tub of bloodsuckers when you pack these leech imitations.

I dropped the jig tipped with an artificial leech to the bottom as Fred Matero and I fished the North Branch of the Raritan River, his Mad River Canoe almost motionless in the slow stretch of water. I waited, slowly reeling up the slack, when I felt a tap after 20 seconds of dead-sticking. I set the hook into another smallmouth bass, making me more confident about the productivity of leech imitation baits.

Matt Litton jigged this smallmouth over rocky bottom on Lake Hopatcong.
Matt Litton jigged this smallmouth over rocky bottom on Lake Hopatcong.

Smallmouth bass are opportunists when it comes to feeding, especially during the summer months. They feed on a wide range of insects, crayfish, minnows, chubs and panfish. Though leeches are strong swimmers, they are no match for predatory fish like the smallmouth bass. A swimming leech makes an easy target for smallies, and they are one of the fish’s favorite meals.

Twister-tail grubs and paddle-tail baits create a lot of vibration in the water, sometimes too much. The subtle action of a leech imitation is closer to that of a live leech and draws strikes from fish that have refused other “louder” lures. Artificial leeches, when allowed to drop through the water column or retrieved with slow sweeps of the rod, are deadly baits for smallmouth bass.

Artificial leeches are 2 to 5 inches long and have tapered, flattened bodies. Scented leeches, like the Berkley Gulp Leech, Slimers Chum Juicy Bait and the Mann’s PROtein are the most popular.

The riprap of Round Valley Reservoir is prime smallmouth habitat.
The riprap of Round Valley Reservoir is prime smallmouth habitat.

Smallmouths eat leeches in the shallows of lakes and rivers, especially where vegetation edges up to rocks and brush, but jig-and-synthetic-leech combinations are effective to depths of 25 feet or more with heavier jig weights of 1/4 to 3/8 ounces. I mainly use unpainted 1/8-ounce jigheads on a 5½-foot medium-power spinning rod matched to a reel loaded with 6-pound test. In very shallow water, I use 1/16-ounce jigs.

Eighth-ounce and sixteenth-ounce jigheads, paired with 3- and 5-inch Berkley Gulp Leeches, are deadly smallmouth lures.
Eighth-ounce and sixteenth-ounce jigheads, paired with 3- and 5-inch Berkley Gulp Leeches, are deadly smallmouth lures.

Make sure the jigheads have needle-sharp, light-wire hooks. A heavier gauge hook tends to tear a hole in a smallie’s mouth, making the fish more likely to shake the hook. A hook with a wide gap helps make a more secure hookset.

Leeches are deep olive or black in coloration, so I use lures close to their natural color.

Locations and Techniques for Fishing Leeches

For smallmouth bass, a jig-and-leech-imitation combo can work on any structure, any time of day. During winter, leeches go dormant and are absent from the smallmouth diet, so artificial leeches are best used as a warm-water presentation.

The South Branch of the Raritan River below Clinton offers many spots to toss a jig and leech.
The South Branch of the Raritan River below Clinton offers many spots to toss a jig and leech.

I find the jig and leech to be especially effective on sunny summer days when bass are not feeding heavily. The jig and leech appears to be an easy meal, and the bass leisurely swim up to suck it down. I feel a tick on the line and rear back. A bass leaps moments later.

Bass hit the leeches plenty with clouds in the sky, but if they are feeding aggressively (triggered by an approaching front, perhaps) or the fish are feeding on the surface at dawn or dusk, other lures may produce more action.

LEECH IMITATORS
Berkley Gulp Leech
Berkley Gulp Leech
Mann’s PROtein Leech
Mann’s PROtein Leech
Slimers Chum Juicy Bait
Slimers Chum Juicy Bait

Minda Spear Worm
Minda Spear Worm

Whether you’re fishing a river, stream, reservoir or lake, smallmouths relate to rocky habitats, and often the bigger the rocks, the better. I believe that by tapping the jighead against rock, I can get the attention of a bass, whether I’m fishing a flat bottom made up of smaller stones or letting a jig tumble down a sheer face with rocky protrusions. Whether or not bass respond to the subtle taps of soft lead on rocks, or even the sharper clicks that tungsten jigheads produce—since tungsten is harder than lead—bouncing the jig off rock imparts additional action to the leech. Let the jig fall from a ledge or down the rounded side of a boulder, or slowly retrieve it through a crevice between rocks.

However, I never want to overdo it. The whole purpose of a lure is to draw attention, but anglers often give their artificials too much action. Make the leech act as if it is a part of nature, getting on its way without too much unnatural craziness.

Fishing tight to the nooks and crannies in rocks where the bass hide will occasionally result in the jig surprising a bass, and this element of surprise often results in a reaction strike. If you fish a jig carefully close to structure, you will increase the likelihood that it will just happen to drop over the lip of a flat rock, under which a bass is waiting to ambush an unsuspecting meal.

We usually think of drop-offs as sloping, and if a drop-off is more or less gradual but rocky, it’s great smallmouth habitat—provided deeper water is nearby. Spots like this exist on rivers, reservoirs, and lakes alike, and nothing beats letting a jig descend, slowed by the water resistance on the fluttering artificial leech. You can even try a flat-head jig to further slow the descent. The Delaware River and Pepacton Reservoir have long rock walls, so when fishing these areas, look for breaks—like jagged slate formations—to hold the most fish.

Matt Litton plays a nice bass in the Sportsman’s Pool on the Salmon River.

Matt Litton plays a nice bass in the Sportsman’s Pool on the Salmon River.
Matt Litton plays a nice bass in the Sportsman’s Pool on the Salmon River.

A river hole with faster water at the head is nearly always good during summer, especially if the flow passes through boulders that create eddies and calm water behind them. The small north branch of the Raritan River is no exception to the rule, and every smallmouth stream has its logic to decipher, with some of the rules shared by all.

Most of the summer action on smaller rivers is in long, slow stretches, not necessarily deep. If you find the deepest water, you may find the best pocket of bass and opportunity for the jig. If a stretch deepens to only three or four feet, the number of bass may surprise you, especially if combined with an undercut bank.

If I had to name the one best spot to fish for summer smallmouths on small rivers, undercut banks would have my vote. One afternoon, my son Matt and I were playing around with our fly rods. Matt got curious about an undercut bank with inches of water leading into it and not much more than that leading out. The water that was flowing into darkness underneath looked about a foot deep. He sauntered over, lifted away some bushes, and bass by the dozens began tearing downstream, splashing water as they went. I came over and examined the spot, finding that the water went pretty far back under, providing plenty of cover for the smallmouths.

Lakes like Hopatcong have points and ledges with big drop-offs where you can spend most of the afternoon searching for bass. The same is true at Round Valley Reservoir, where carefully fan-casting a range of rocks 15 to 25 feet deep can pinpoint the bass.

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