Written by Richard Hines
A few months back I was working on a smallmouth bass story and talking to one of the fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“What are your better smallmouth streams in southeastern Kentucky? “
After naming a couple of rivers, he ended with, “and the Tug Fork.” I was blank for a second, “Did you say the Tug?”
I told the biologist about floating the Tug back in 1974. All I remembered were junk cars and refrigerators. The biologist laughed and said, “I know, I grew up nearby, but you should see the Tug now!”
He immediately put me in touch with Pete Runyon who has taken up the cause for the Tug Fork River by heading up “Friends of the Tug Fork River.”
Runyon said, “I want you to come up and fish with us and tell me how you like it now!” The newly formed Friends of Tug Fork River have been coordinating cleanups, monitoring the river and doing what they can to bring this beautiful river back to its original production as it flows between Kentucky and West Virginia until it meets the Russell Fork which form the Big Sandy River.
What a difference forty-five years make because residents are now realizing what a valuable resource the Tug Fork has become!
Last week, longtime fishing partner Mac Bray and I traveled to Matewan, WV to meet Peter Runyon and his brother Charles for a float fishing trip.
If you think you have heard the name Matewan, you probably have. This small town was right in the mix of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the town has been featured in documentaries on the sometimes violent coal strikes that occurred during the 1920s.
Today, things are calmer, and the name Hatfield-McCoy is now attached to the series of off-road areas traversing hundreds of miles of trails through the West Virginia and Kentucky Mountains.
Runyon told me, “everyone comes to Matewan for the ATV riding, but few are aware of the opportunities for kayakers.”
As daylight was beginning, the four of us had smallmouth bass in our sights when we launched our kayaks beginning a 12-hour float trip.
At the start, we were almost in Virginia and during the day we had West Virginia on the right descending bank and Kentucky on the left descending bank during the float. Don’t worry about two licenses because there is a reciprocal agreement between states, so either license works.
On one of our stops downstream, Runyon described floating this same stretch where he caught around fifty smallmouth ranging from 10-inches to 20-inches long.
While water conditions were good, it appeared the spawn was over, and fish were moving into a post-spawn pattern. This is a tough time to catch fish because bass that have wrapped up the spawn are more interested in finding a spot to sit and rest for a while.
As we floated through the alternating pools and shoals, we were seeing bass as they followed lures. Sometimes, we would get short strikes. All of which is generally a symptom for post spawn patterns or just not using the right bait.
The only cure is casting and running through a wide range of baits. Days like this, I will fish dozens of baits and patterns trying to break into what bass are wanting.
Both the Runyon Brothers swear by Ned Rigs and they were having good luck with these. I also went through a wide range of baits that I use on most smallmouth streams. Even when someone says they are really biting on a certain bait, I still run through my list just to see if I can do better.
Everything seemed slow on this day and each of us were picking up a smallmouth here and there. I was casting into great looking eddies and along foam lines which mark current locations.
In most cases, smallmouth bass were non-cooperative until I put on a Road Runner ¼ ounce Randy’s Swim-N-Runner Bluegill. The response was immediate, and the others looked on as I boated several nice bass at least until the plastic bodies on the bait finally fell apart.
For consistency, Ned Rigs with earth colored worms and this Road Runner Swim bait were the top choices.
When fishing for smallmouth remember that their position can potentially change throughout the day. Smallmouth always spend time on the edge of the current. When you see the foam line moving down the stream that is a giveaway to where bass might be laying.
Even if no structures are visible, the edge of the current will be marked with leaves or foam.
If the water levels are fluctuating, then you better prepare for bass to start shifting their positions since bass will relocate. In most cases, they should be within five to nine feet of the foam line.
One general trend I see, which is backed up by fisheries research, is the change in bass distribution in their “home pool.” During early mornings, smallmouth will stay along the edge of the current lines which explains why some of my surface baits like the Rebel Popper were productive early.
How you fish a post-spawn pattern will vary among streams, but one item is consistent, spawning is strenuous to smallmouth bass. Male smallmouth bass provide sole care and defense of the brood. During this time, males are increasing their activity continually guarding the nest but rarely foraging for food.
This pattern quickly depletes reserves bass have built up prior to spawn. When foraging does pick back up, smallmouth only increase feeding gradually over time. In other words, it’s not immediate which explains early summer slowdowns on otherwise productive streams.
A good way to wind up your fishing trip is spending the night in downtown Matewan. The town is really geared up for outdoor recreation by providing lodging and a nice selection of restaurants.
After this float trip, it’s obvious that what we used to call the “Dirty Tug” is now quickly turning into a smallmouth bass fishing destination that up until now has been overlooked.
For more information, check out Friends of Tug Fork River and the town of Matewan, WV for local accommodations.