When, where, and how to target big bronzebacks on their home turf.
[by David Paul Williams]
THE TAKE WAS SUBTLE, more soft resistance than hard grab. Not unusual for smallmouths despite their aggressive, pugnacious disposition. A good hook set, and the rod quickly adopted a nicely bowed attitude. It was when the fish cleared the water on the first of several leaps that things took a serious turn. Back underwater, the fish resisted as smallmouths do—regardless of size—nose down and tail toward the surface until it suddenly reversed course and again took to the air.
Thoughts of controlling the line, maintaining tension, avoiding slack took precedence over concerns of a broken tippet. More bulldogging, twisting, and turning. Finally I was able to wrestle the tired bass close enough to slip out the fly while offering it a few moments of rest before it swam away. It was thick as a brick and exactly where it should have been.
Most fly fishers cut their teeth on trout, and some become incredibly proficient at catching trout regardless of what water they fish. That’s because they, through study, repetition, experience, and perhaps a dose of intuition, have learned where trout live. Trout live in predictable places, and once an angler is able to recognize those places, the thinking fly fisher can apply the same information another day on another water.
So when I introduce someone to the wonderful world of smallmouth fishing, the first lesson is bass are not stout trout. It’s true that smallmouths, like trout, share three common needs: food, shelter, and security. But bass take a different road than trout to satisfy those needs. And big bass, the ones that bend the fly rod into a pretzel and make fly fishers’ forearms quiver, take a still different road than their smaller brethren. The more you know about big fish—what they eat and where they live—the more likely finding those fish goes from serendipitous occurrence to reliable expectation.
Smallies eat foods that are abundantly available. What fits that criterion depends on the size of the bass. The little guys eat zooplankton and tiny crustaceans. By the time smallmouths reach six inches in length, their diet turns to crayfish, forage fish, large aquatic insects, leeches, and lampreys. They stick to that diet until they’re large enough to stop being measured in inches and are best weighed in pounds. When that happens, another diet change occurs for the big fish. According to a study of Columbia River smallmouths, as fish grow bigger, crayfish become less important, while forage fish become a primary staple. At the same time, the number of prey items consumed drops to less than one per day.
The same study disclosed that there are four important feeding times in each 24-hour period. While the Columbia River study’s specific peak feeding times may have no relevance to other waters, the point gleaned is that fish do not feed uniformly throughout the day. To develop a reliable data set of what big fish eat and when they bite, focus on a specific body of water over a number of days.
The Columbia River study also confirms the adage of “big flies for big fish.” A different study on Washington’s Yakima River revealed some interesting data that, at first glance, appears contradictory. In late spring, smallmouths can select from a cornucopia of fall Chinook fry, spring Chinook smolts, and steelhead smolts. The smallies almost exclusively prefer the two-inch small fry. However, the most active bass are small to medium-sized fish. The big fish, and there are plenty of smallmouths in that river weighing several pounds, are much less active.
Small flies, like D-Dub’s Fry and D-Dub’s Marabou Minnow, take plenty of bass as the fry swim the Columbia River gauntlet to reach salt water. The five-inch-long prickly sculpin, the smallmouth’s favorite prey item in the Columbia River stomach survey, perfectly fits the “one large prey item per day” habit. It’s no coincidence that D-Dub’s Prickly Sculpin (See “The Northwest’s Smallmouth Triangle” in the May/June 2015 issue of American Angler), a large, robust pattern, will catch fewer, but bigger, fish.
Be the Predator
If your casting skill and fishing regulations allow, offer smallmouths a choice by fishing two flies at the same time. The easiest attachment method is to run a piece of tippet from the bend of the first fly to the eye of the trailer. Choices abound. You can fish two floating flies, two sinking flies, or a sinking fly behind a floater. Using a nonslip loop knot at the hook eye also allows the flies to move like real food.
Every fly fisher has thrown a tailing loop or dumped the whole cast into a pile, only to have the bungled cast result in a fish. Accidents do happen, but perfecting your casts can result in more big fish. Being able to deliver the fly to the sweet spot, the first time, is a skill worth acquiring. Long casts are rarely the rule of thumb, but accurate casts rule the day.
The life of a smallmouth is ruled by water temperature. It dictates when, what, and how much the fish eats, when it spawns, and where it lives in the water column. All too often, fly fishers stuff their vests with tons of flies and gizmos, only to neglect packing a thermometer. Carry one. Use it.
When you find a prime smallmouth lie, spend a few moments analyzing the situation instead of wading in and casting without a plan. What is the water temperature? Are any fish showing themselves? Is there any insect activity, especially adult damselflies and dragonflies? What is the direction of the current and wind in relation to all the visible structure? Providing answers to these pertinent questions will make the first cast your best chance to hook the biggest fish in the lie.