True Confessions of a River Rat

Craig boats a lunker.I remember the way it used to be, beautiful scenery, wildlife, unique scents and sounds. The fishing was easy, fast paced and fun. I learned something every time I went out on the water. Those days have pretty much given way to tournament and club responsibilities. Although those days are not long gone, I see myself heading back to them at a rapid pace. Back to a time when I could target some bigger fish and not be worried about a clock. Back to a time where my next turn could have me spying a deer taking a quick drink or a Hawk or Egret spying the waters edge. Back to a time where I was almost assured solitude and frantic bass action. The fact is, I am a River Junkie….a River Rat. I always was.

I know what you are thinking….”Earthy is the last guy who I would consider a River Rat”. Despite fishing the tournament and club outings these last few seasons, I cut my teeth fishing for river bass many years ago. My Summers were spent on the tributaries off the Hudson, wading for miles to catch Smallmouth bass. When I was back on Long Island, I plodded small streams for largemouth. I’ve been successful as a river fisherman and I’ve taken some truly impressive bass doing it. Most of all, I’ve based almost every one of my philosophies on things I learned while on the river. Using that knowledge, I’ve applied the tricks to lake and pond fishing.

These days, the realm of bass boats, big water and business responsibilities take most of my time up. What went wrong? I long to go back and re-examine some of my past, the part where I did the most growing as an angler and surely the time where I had the most fun. I also wanted to break down the elements that helped me to be successful.

The Transformation
I slipped out of my power fishing phase long ago. Thanks to a 13.9lb largemouth on 6lb test in the Ocala National Forest. This one fish prompted me to explore the realm of light tackle, something I’ve really prided myself in learning. I got started simply by scaling down my tackle and using it on the same big waters I frequented. This worked well as my catches increased dramatically. I accidentally discovered a gold mine with a side trip to a small flowing stop off on the roadside. This stop led me to explore many of the small rivers and streams here on Long Island. It was also the water that forced me to realize that I needed to make new baits to become consistent.

In the Spring of 1995, my river fishing had become a priority as I looked for new baits that would give me success. The places I fished were full of overhangs and snags. There were plenty of areas that were so thick, the fish never saw a bait before. I set out on a quest to find a good river bait. Something that could penetrate deep into cover yet not hang up. Something that I wouldn’t be upset over if I lost it. I decided the bait would be a jig. My quest now began as I needed to develop a working bait quickly so as not to miss an entire season on the water without it.

I got hooked up with Charlie Nuckols of Float N Fly fame and the rest is history. Together, we designed a great little jig which I tipped with a compact skirt. The next step was a small twin tail curly trailer. Even though the first baits lacked the high tech improvements I’ve since made, they were good. They were also the first true light tackle jig and pigs anywhere. The Bitsy series would not show up until several years later. My first outings proved that this bait was the answer. In fact “The Answer” was the jigs name for a little while.

The little jig was great for skipping into the snags and it was equally great in hooking the big bass that those snags held. My first two weeks with the jig saw three fish over 6lbs. I took a 9 several weeks later. Most impressive was the extreme increase in my catch ratio. I had several days where I took in excess of 75 bass to over 100 fish on water that had never given up those numbers. I quickly realized that I was targeting a whole new group of fish that lived in a different area than my past quarry. By now I was sold on river fishing, this was what I wanted to do. Every time I got out on the rivers, I learned something new. I still do.

Putting It Together
I moved to establish a tackle box based solely on river fishing needs. I needed something small, as space was at a premium. I put together an assortment of baits that I felt would be effective on smallmouth and largemouth alike. I coupled this with the notion that I wanted to have the most fun as possible. Light tackle was an obvious choice. The following list is what I carry all the time on my local rivers:

20-4” handpoured worms- bruised watermelon -pumpkin/chart weenie
12- 1/16oz and 1/8oz micro munch jigs -Blk/Blue -Brown
3- 1/8oz Hailey’s Komet Spinnerbaits -Firetiger, chart/white -chart
1- 1/4oz Hooked Solid Buzz Beast -White
40-4” Slam Dunk SD worms -Watermelon Magic -Blk/Blue/purple
20- 2 ¾” Wicked Tubes -Blk/Red flk -Watermelon
10-1/16oz and 1/8oz tube heads
20- 2/0 EWG hooks
1-Rapala 3” floater
1-Sammy 65
10- size 4 Gamakatsu split shot hooks
2-1/6oz Roostertail spinners
6- 1/16oz and 1/8oz hair jigs

By now you’ve noticed my fondness for small baits. It is not a mistake. I feel that by decreasing the size of my baits, I increase their appeal to more fish. For just plain overall fun, Ultra Light is the way to go. Now if I was trying to win a tournament, my lure choices would be upgraded. In truth, none of the gear I use is what most would consider Ultra Light. I do not use those cheesy whippy style rods that lack backbone. I use rods from Kistler Custom Rods exclusively. I’ve built several split Tennessee handle rods that are about 6-6 in length. If overhead dangers are a concern, go with a smaller stick.  I mainly opt for the Tica SB500 spinning reels which has been flawless for me for 2 full seasons. On longer rods I switch to a Sustain 1000. As far a as line is concerned, I’m a Yo Zuri guy. I love the 4 and 6lb Hybrid Soft. I’ve experimented with Berkley’s Iron Silk and it is gouging a small place in my heart as well. For hooks, I’m sold on Gamakatsu.  I also have a fondness for TTi hooks from Daiichi. The sharper the better. Especially when dealing with light tackle. I’ve applied this to my tournament fishing and although my gear is upsized, I rely solely on 6 and 8lb test. I’ve only lost two fish in two years of tournament fishing due to break offs. One was small, one was big. But I don’t let it bother me. The gains far out weigh the losses.

For getting back to nature, a quick lesson learned or to simply go out and catch a bunch of fish, you would be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable enviroment than a shallow river filled with smallies.

Craig DeFronzo

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.