How to fool more bronzebacks with something other than crayfish imitations.
[by Nathan Perkinson]
IT’S NO SECRET smallmouth bass like rocky structure and love to eat crayfish, but there’s more to the bronzeback equation than simply pounding rocks with heavy, rear-facing, crab-clawed patterns. Like their largemouth cousins, or even trout, smallmouth bass are adaptable ambush predators anglers can take on an assortment of flies.
The fact is, smallies take advantage of any available cover and eat a wide variety of foods, including minnows, nymphs, and bottom-hugging baitfish, and if you’re brave enough to forget about fishing crayfish flies over rocks for a while, and look at some other ways you can catch smallies in your favorite stream, you just might be surprised about how many more fish you catch.
There are plenty of spots where you’ll catch smallmouth bass besides the obvious rocky cover that gets fished by every passing angler. One of the most productive, and overlooked, areas in a smallmouth stream are riffle-runs. A riffle is an area of the stream that is broad, rocky, and shallow, like a small set of rapids. A run is the stream section immediately following a riffle, where the river deepens again. Trout anglers are very familiar with these structures, though bass anglers typically target more obvious lies.
The difference between a riffle-run and more prominent rocky structure like mid-stream boulders and shale shelves is that the large, rocky structures hold smallmouths around the rocks themselves, while the attraction to a riffle-run lies in the fact that the riffle holds aquatic insects like caddis, stoneflies, mayflies, hellgrammites, dragonflies, and damselflies. When insects enter the current, either by swimming or becoming dislodged from the rocks, they drift into the deeper run below, where smallmouths are waiting to pick them off. The riffle attracts insects, while the run provides deepwater cover and funnels food right to the bass. Think of a riffle as the kitchen; a run is the dinner table.
Plunge pools, waterfalls, and dams act in much the same way. The water is invariably deeper below these features because the falling water scours out a depression in the stream bottom. Bass like to hold in the deep water because it offers protection from predators, while the falling water carries baitfish and drifting nymphs right into their mouths.
Woody cover is another often-neglected feature that holds smallmouth bass. Bass like to have some sort of concealment over their backs, be it wood, brush, or simply deep water. Add to this the fact that woody cover like fallen trees is a great substrate for dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, and you’ve got a prime smallmouth lie.
I think that a lot of anglers focus on rocky structure rather than fallen trees or sunken logs because woody cover is more closely associated with largemouth, rather than smallmouth, bass. While water temperature and clarity preferences differ a bit between the two species, there is really not much difference between the habits of smallmouth and largemouth bass. The reality is bronzebacks will certainly hold in woody cover, waiting to ambush a wounded baitfish or drifting insect, and anglers who pass by a fallen tree or sunken log are missing out on a golden opportunity.
A less obvious, but nonetheless productive, smallmouth lie is a current seam. A current seam may be where two conflicting currents meet, forming an area of slack water. A seam may also indicate some sort of unseen underwater structure or cover, like a slot in the streambed or a drop-off into deep water. Either way, the relative slack water of a current seam makes an ideal spot for bass and baitfish to hold simply because it is easier than fighting the main current.
Current seams aren’t the most obvious bass lie, but they are easy to pick out. Look for slick spots on the surface or obvious lines in the current where the fast water meets the slow. Know that something is going on underneath, and it’s well worth swinging a streamer through to see if a nice bass is hanging out in the seam.
We already know that smallmouth bass like to eat crayfish, but what else is on the menu? Hellgrammites, the wormlike larvae of a dobsonfly, are a very popular smallmouth bait, probably only second to worms and crayfish. They live in rocky riffles and are nasty little critters that grow up to three inches long and sporting a vicious set of pincers. Hellgrammites are mostly active at night, so one of the best ways to catch smallmouth bass in riffle-runs is to drift a hellgrammite imitation like a black Woolly Bugger or a Murray’s Hellgrammite down a riffle and through the run at dusk when the naturals are becoming active.
Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are important food sources for smallmouth bass as well. These large nymphs live primarily around aquatic vegetation. However, dragon and damsel nymphs are active hunters and may be found anywhere in a stream when pursuing food. Dragonfly nymphs have a thicker body than slender damselfly nymphs, but both are strong swimmers and anglers can actively retrieve imitations to mimic the naturals.