During a high water event, fish are forced into predictable foam eddies. Cast a tube or jig just to the other side of a well defined eddy line, and it will likely get thumped. As the water recedes, these tight eddy lines blur and relax. Smallmouth are again able to venture mid river to eat. But when they want to just relax, look to find them in long shoreline lanes that my buddy Rich Coffman termed “soft wash”.
Rich does something that relatively few river smallmouth anglers do: he spends about 2/3rds of his time on the water not casting. He leans forward with his oars at the ready. His rods rest on the frame. He doesn’t even think of picking one up until he sees what he likes. It’s similar to the baseball phrase, “wait for your pitch”. He won’t swing at just anything.
All that drifting and looking has helped Rich develop the ability to spot something that the average constantly casting angler would miss. When the river is rising, aggressively feeding fish can be caught at the most upstream portion of each eddy. They hold tight to the eddy line, ready to pummel the first thing they see crossing the current gradient. But when the river is falling, they have full bellies. They fall back away from the tops of the eddies into a type of water that is not easily distinguishable.
Soft wash lanes form in the constantly migrating and poorly defined border between completely still water on the bank, and fairly swift water six to twenty feet out. The width of soft wash constantly changes as gusts of current billow into the non moving water. The billowing current loses strength before it can reach the bank. Some of the best examples of soft wash form on straight sections contained by steep clay banks.
To identify these areas, put your rod down, hold your boat in place, and look. Using the bank as a reference point, try to judge the speed of bubbles or floating leaves. If foam bubbles travel all the way to the bank, keep moving. If there are foam bubbles that are near shore, and are not moving, it may be soft wash.
Getting a better look, remove your polarized glasses and watch the surface of the water. Subtle patterns in the glare will show a lane of still water gently being broken by puffs of current that peter out short of the bank. At times, the lane of still water extends out away from shore as much as 15 feet. The lane can extend downstream the entire length of the pool.
Because soft wash forms in straight sections without large current breaking rock structure, wedging a boat to maintain position is not an option. Line up your boat with the current, break your downstream momentum, and flip a tube to the bank, dragging out through the still water. Take notice of how far out the hits are coming, so you can further concentrate your efforts.
Weightless soft plastics such as Zoom Super Flukes or Yamamoto Senkos can be deadsticked to work the middle of the water column. Cast downstream, leave your bail open as you pass, and gently gather slack once downstream. If you feel the weight, set the hook immediately. Again, breaking your momentum every so often with a few paddle strokes allows you to spend more time on each cast.
Once the bell curve on the river gauge graph tapers out, soft wash areas widen, and eventually dissipate into vast areas of deep slow water.
Jeff Little teaches kayak fishing skills through his DVD series available at Confidence Baits LLC.