Canoes have always been an important source of transportation, but when recreational fishing blossomed into a national pastime, float-fishing quickly became a popular way to spend a day. There’s something to be said about a gentle canoe ride down a classic smallmouth river. Not only is it a relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon, it’s one of the most effective methods of fishing.
Whether it’s the Susquehanna, Columbia, Tennessee, Shenandoah or any other river that holds good numbers of bass, rivers all over the country are ideal destinations for a couple of anglers and a canoe. A float-fishing trip can take you to some of the most beautiful and productive water you’ve ever seen. Each set of riffles, every deep hole and all the bends in the river offer a new thrill, a new view and another shot at a big, feisty smallmouth.
Wading is still the easiest way to sneak up on a good spot, but a canoe is a great way get you to the next hole downstream.
“You can get to so much more water with a canoe than a guy who is limited to wading,” says former Shenandoah River guide Lou Guisto. The Woodstock, Va., resident still spends dozens of days on the water with friends or his children, often in a canoe. “There’s nothing wrong with wading, but float-fishing opens up so many possibilities and you can take a lot more tackle.”
Consider this: On a sweltering Saturday in August, Guisto and his 8-year-old son Nick, along with a friend and his two boys, canoed four miles of the Shenandoah River and caught nearly 150 smallmouth bass between the five of them. They passed a dozen anglers perched on rocks and in the water within a 200-yard section of river near the public access area.
“After we got away from the launch area, we saw two other guys all day. And they were in a johnboat in a section of deep, flat water, so they couldn’t get to all the places we could,” Guisto recalls.
Float-fishing not only allows you to get to prime water inaccessible to wading anglers, it gives you the opportunity to approach that water from various angles and it offers a relaxing way to spend a day with a fishing rod in hand. It’s just you and a friend, the river and the fish.
The Essential Gear
If you’ve spent most of your time in a full-size bass boat, you’ll be in for a bit of a shock. You’ll have to leave the dozens of rods, the suitcase full of tackle and all the other gear you can stow in a bass boat behind. There just isn’t much room in a 16-foot canoe. On the other hand, if you’ve become accustomed to the minimalist approach of a foot-bound fisherman, you’ll do just fine and you’ll actually wonder why you didn’t take more gear. Don’t worry. You don’t need much to have a productive and fun day on the water.
Canoes require that you keep your tackle arsenal to a minimum, but you don't need much for stream smallies anyway.
“I typically bring two or three rods and a medium-sized tacklebox. There are a couple of lures that always work for smallmouths and I make sure I take a good supply of them. Jigs, tubes, Yamamoto Senkos, Super Flukes, spinnerbaits and crankbaits are all good choices for river smallmouths,” Guisto says. “I always have some topwaters, as well. Pop-R’s, Tiny Torpedoes and buzzbaits work really well in the late spring, summer and fall.”
Of course, nothing is more important than a personal floatation device for you and your partner. Not only is it required by law, simple common sense, particularly when rough water lies ahead, dictates that you wear it. Sun block is equally important, and so is a good supply of water and food. Guisto typically carries an extra change of clothes in a dry-bag, and he puts car keys, wallet and other essential items in that bag, too. He also takes a spare paddle.
“Plan for the worst. Even if it’s hot and the weather forecast calls for sunshine, take a raincoat and an extra change of clothes. Remember, once you start down you are stuck on the river until you reach the take-out,” he says.
The most obvious piece of equipment, of course, is the canoe itself. Sure, you could try running a river in a johnboat, but a canoe made from a plastic-based material will slip through narrow riffles and slide over shallow ledges and gravel bars that would grab a metal boat or canoe. A canoe made from any type of synthetic material is so much easier to handle on a typical smallmouth river.
Safety, Of Course
This fine Shenendoah smallie represents the quality fish available to float-fishermen wherever a good bass river exists.
Whether or not you run a particular stretch of river depends entirely on your skill level and the nature of the water itself. Some rivers just aren’t tame enough to run in a canoe and others are best left to experienced paddlers. But for those rivers that have only a few tricky rapids, there is a simple solution: portage. Beach your canoe above the rapids and carry your craft and your gear around them and start back down the river. It can be a hassle, but it’s certainly better than swamping your canoe in a set of serious rapids and losing hundreds of dollars worth of equipment.
If you’ve never been in a canoe, it’s a good idea to take a basic course or spend some time with an experienced paddler on flat water. And remember, once you start down that river, there’s no turning back. Make sure you know what lies ahead either by consulting with someone experienced with that section of river, or by studying the pages of a detailed guidebook. To check the current conditions of just about any river, visit the United States Geological Survey’s web site that shows real-time stream flow data at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt. You can click on any state and link directly to actual river gauges that show water levels. New data is relayed every couple of hours, so you can determine if that recent spell of rain raised the river to a level unsafe for boating.
Tough to find a better way to spend a day on the water.
Guisto suggests beginning float-fishermen stick with shorter trips. That way, if you take your time and fish hard, you won’t find yourself scrambling to get off the river before darkness sets in. Canoeing an unfamiliar river in the dark can be dangerous.
“On the rivers I fish in Virginia, four to six miles is a good, full day if I’m fishing hard. Eight miles is about the most I would ever do and if I’m out with children, I keep it to four at the most. You have to consider all the circumstances when you plan a day,” he says. “If the water is low, which it might be this time of year, it will take you longer.”
Remember this: a float trip means you’ll end up several miles from where you started, and that means you’ll need a second vehicle to get back to the first one, or you’ll need to pay someone to get you back up to your truck. Most large rivers that have good fishing also have a canoe outfitter or two nearby. These businesses not only rent canoes, they offer shuttle services for a modest fee.
Float-fishing is not only an inexpensive way to have a great day on the water, it’s fun, relaxing and addictive.You’ll probably like it so much, that big bass boat that takes up half your driveway may not get much use anymore.