Bass Master Magazine
Used by permission of BASS/ESPN Productions, Inc
by Darl Black
A river is an unfriendly place. From the moment you hook a fish until you take it off the hook, nothing good can happen."
That may sound harsh, but it's exactly what Kevin Turner tells anyone who climbs into his jet boat to go smallmouth fishing. Turner is owner of River Pro Jet Boats and one of the most dedicated river anglers you'll ever encounter.
"I fish shallow, fast flowing rock-infested rivers. It's different than lakes," explains Turner. "I'm standing on the trolling motor, bow pointed upstream as I slip downstream in a 3- to 7-mph current with water rushing over and around boulders, rock ledges, deadheads and other obstacles that I'm doing my best to avoid, while at the same time casting to enticing spots and retrieving a lure.
"Because the boat is constantly moving, everything is happening fast - there is no time to take a break. You get snagged. You get a strike. You miss a fish. You connect with a fish. A wild smallmouth on your line is jumping all over the place as the boat continues being swept downstream. You are working the fish, while watching all around the boat to avoid a collision. You land the fish, still standing on the trolling motor, fighting to maneuver the boat away from potential disaster. Now you've got to get it unhooked - without getting yourself hooked should the boat bang into a rock.
"This isn't fishing a placid backwater for largemouth. This is taking place in strong current where everything has the potential of going wrong. It's a rush! I love it!"
Turner has been fishing rivers for 37 years - ever since his father took him on an outing at age eight. Turner won't fish lakes, and he does not fish for any species other than smallmouth bass.
His home and business are located onthe outskirts of St. Louis, Mo. But he spends his summers on the Upper Mississippi in central Minnesota. "It's the absolute best river for my style of angling. I've sampled the smallmouth fishing in many rivers around the country. Some are pretty good, but none can hold a candle to bass habitat in the Upper Mississippi."
But what really sets Turner apart from other equally hardcore river smallmouth anglers is his devotion to the buzzbait. "Through an entire season of bass fishing, I throw only three lures - a spinnerbait, a tube and a buzzbait. The buzzer is the primary bait, fished almost exclusively from late spring through early fall."
When quizzed about his limited lure selection, Turner refers back to his statement about nothing good can happen. "There are many potential problems when fishing fast water. I've learned to eliminate as many as possible. The first one is to get rid of treble hook lures; they are accidents waiting to happen. Singlehook baits fish easier with a lot less chance of fouling or snagging.
"Usually you get only one cast at a target as you drift downstream. That cast has got to count. I don't want a lure that is easily tangled or can become misaligned. I choose simple lures that have large, single hooks. When I hook a smallmouth on one of these, it's unlikely they will come unbuttoned."
When he goes fishing in the early spring or late fall, Turner throws a double willow spinnerbait. "I go with a white skirt, and either gold or painted white blades. Mostly I throw a 3/8-ounce model although I'll drop down to 3/16 ounce on occasion. That's it, period.
“But as soon as the water reaches 55 degrees, I break out a buzzbait. I have so much confidence in a buzzbait that once I tie it on in the spring, I never take it off until the water drops into the low 50s again in the fall. I throw it daylight to dark — under overcast as well as bluebird skies.”
Turner has precise buzzbait specifications. First, it must be a 3/8-ounce model. That’s a size and weight that he is comfortable with. “I know exactly what to expect cast, after cast, after cast. No adjustment needed.”
He goes with aluminum or painted blades, and a white or chartreuse/white skirt. A fellow angler in the boat with a different colored buzzbait skirt must outfish Turner before he’ll consider changing skirt color.
“I don’t have any particular reason for choosing plain or painted blades on any given day. It’s not based on cloud cover or water clarity. It’s just that one or the other will work for me.”
Recently, Turner switched to Booyah Buzzbaits and Booyah Blades because their painted blades are more durable than others he has used. “Also, they use a quality Mustad Ultra Point Hook. A strong, sharp hook is extremely important to me.”
Turner is most adamant about not using trailer hooks or soft plastic trailers on his buzzers, explaining it’s just one more potential entanglement. Furthermore, he points out that any extraneous “stuff” on the buzzbait may cause a cast to go off target.
He does make two possible alterations to a buzzbait to improve castability. “If there is a light breeze, I’ll trim the skirt way back to reduce air resistance. If it’s a stiff breeze, I remove the skirt completely. It’s more important to have a straight, long cast than to have a skirt on the bait. In current, smallmouth bass come to the commotion, not the color.”
Firm conviction is the way to describe Turner’s belief in how a buzzbait should be presented in current. “In almost all instances, I feel you should be retrieving across the current, at 90 degrees to the flow. With the bow pointed upstream, I square my shoulders to the shore, throw directly to the bank and bring the buzzer straight back.”
This retrieve angle is more likely to surprise a smallmouth that is sitting head-into-current and watching for something coming downstream. “If you make 45-degree casts upstream and bring the bait with the flow, it gives bass a chance to look it over, deciding perhaps it isn’t real food. By coming at 90 degrees to the current, that smallmouth does not have time to view the lure, only to react — which in most instances means it will fight rather than take flight.”
At times during the summer, some river smallmouth may be shallow enough that their backs stick out of the water as they forage on crawfish. Therefore, Turner insists that casts should land within inches of the shore rather than a couple feet away from shore. If there is emergent grass at the water’s edge or if the bank has a low taper with rock cobble, Turner will intentionally land his casts on the shore and drag his buzzbait into the water.
“There may be something about the blades clinking on rocks that trigger strikes as soon as the buzzer enters the water. I’ve also had strikes occur after climbing over mid-stream boulders with a buzzbait.”
Turner will vary his speed of retrieve to entice bass. His basic presentation is to chunk the buzzbait out and reel it back fast enough to keep the blades churning on the surface. He’ll experiment by speeding up or slowing down, trying to determine the speed that draws the most strikes on a given day. Sometimes, however, he slows the bait enough that it slips below the surface, and he continues the retrieve as if it were a spinnerbait.
“Some guys may laugh, but I catch bass with a buzzbait under water. Not only with a spinnerbait-like retrieve but sometimes when fished as a jig, too. I hold the rod tip up and let the current pull the buzzer downstream over rocks — sort of like swimming a jig. Some will call me crazy, but it catches fish.”
The tube bait is his back-up for a missed fish. Actually, it may be considered his secondary backup plan.
“If I have a blow-up strike on the buzzer but the fish isn’t hooked, I immediately drop the rod tip, keeping line tight as the buzzbait slides beneath the surface,” explains Turner. “Many times that smallmouth will turn around and hit the buzzer on the fall. If that doesn’t work, I reel in quickly and pick up the tube rod, throw back to the exact spot and let it settle to the bottom. The majority of the time, the tube will draw a strike.”
Turner rigs a dark-colored Yum Mega Tube on a 4/0 Mustad Ultra Point Impact Soft Plastic Bait- Gripper Hook (Model 91768KH) with a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce steel slip sinker. “Steel, not lead,” stresses Turner. “Lead is easily deformed by hitting rocks, which can result in line being pinched, thereby leading to an eventual break-off.”
Turner attributes much of what he is able to accomplish with lure presentations to using nonstretch braided line. No-stretch contributes to sure hookups on long casts. Should his bait become snagged, in most instances, he will simply lower the rod tip and point it at the snagged lure as the boat continues sliding downstream. With 50-pound test, the bait pulls loose. Since there is no stretch, the lure is not propelled back at the boat as would happen with monofilament.
Should he break a rod or strip gears on a reel, he replaces it with the very same model, thereby maintaining the “comfort zone” for him. His longtime favorites are G. Loomis IMX rods from the Classic series — a 6-foot CR722 for buzzbaits and spinnerbaits, and a 6-6 MBR783C for tubes. All rods are outfitted with Shimano Curado reels and braided line — 50-pound test for buzzbaits/spinnerbaits and 20-pound test for tubes.
“From my viewpoint, river smallmouth are very predictable in terms of location and behavior,” says Turner. “On rare occasions when I can’t draw strikes with my modest lure selection, I realize another angler may find that special crankbait or topwater presentation that will drive smallies crazy on a particular day. But I’ve been at this long enough to know that later in the day or perhaps the next day, those smallies are going to be back on the buzzbait. I’m not about to change my approach that has worked so successfully for so long. As long as I keep throwing a buzzbait on the river, I’ll catch smallmouth.”