Topwater action is addictive, but consistently catching smallies requires utilizing the entire water column.
[by Aaron Jasper]
Pound for pound, smallmouth bass are arguably the hardest-fighting freshwater game fish in North America. If you were to tie a smallmouth bass tail to tail with a trout of similar size, give or take a few ounces, the smallmouth would win the tug-of-war every time. In addition to their strength, smallies are leapers, and their topwater takes are vicious. Also, they are likely not far away. Their native range stretches from as far north as southern Ontario, south to Arkansas and western North Carolina, north toVermont and southern Quebec, and all areas encompassed therein, but populations have been established in nearly all other states, including Hawaii.
“Pound for pound, smallmouth bass are arguably the hardest-fighting freshwater game fish in North America.”
Among fly fishermen, bronzebacks are generally not as popular as trout, which translates into less pressure on smallmouth streams. They also are somewhat easier to catch than trout and require neither long thin leaders, drag-free drifts, nor tactics imported from Europe. Still, anglers need to be able to read the water and understand the fish’s habits, prey, and preferred habitats.
Due to their acrobatics and strength, smallmouths put up terrific fights. Even though your average river smallmouth bass is anywhere from 12 to 18 inches long, they will test your tackle and skills, and it’s not uncommon to catch them in the three and four-pound range. You’ll want tackle capable of handling the larger specimens. A fast-action 9- or 9½-foot-long 6- or 7-weight rod will handle the bruisers and do a better job of casting big streamers and poppers than the standard 5-weight.
HOOK: Tiemco 5262, size 4.
THREAD: Danville Fly Master Plus, orange.
SHELLBACK: Swiss Straw covered with mottled orange Thin Skin.
BODY: Davy Wotton SLF Dubbing, fiery brown.
LEGS: Orange rubber legs, palmered with fiery brown schlappen.
RIB: Medium black wire.
EYES: Black plastic beads.
CLAWS: Crayfish-orange Zonker, mottle orange hen feather.
ANTENNAE: Orange Angel Hair and black Krystal Flash.
And while catching these feisty bass with topwater presentations is fun, catching them at all is the objective, and there are times you’ll need to go subsurface. The 9-foot or longer rod will enable you to drift nymphs, which, along with presenting streamers and pitching popping bugs, is one of three primary tactics for river-dwelling smallies. Each method shines, but in certain situations and conditions.
The majority of smallmouth anglers favor streamers or topwater patterns, but smallmouths readily prey on robust nymphs, such as hellgramites and stoneflies, which hatch in May and early June. The heaviest hatches occur in streams with pocket water and riffles, which tend to have rocky bottoms, where these water and riffles,which tend to have rocky bottoms,where these insects find cover in their preferred habitat.
In addition to the aforementioned food sources, crayfish also inhabit rocky streambeds and are abundant in riffles and pockets. Patterns that imitate them work extremely well, not only when fished as streamers but also when fished like nymphs.
Crayfish are often available to bass during their movements from rock to rock. Hellgrammites and stoneflies are generally available during the hatch, when they leave the protection of the rocks and head to shore or the surface, making themselves vulnerable to hungry bass. It’s been my experience that spikes in water levels also place these three prey items in the current, as they either wash them from their holding places or make them active.
Stonefly patterns, such as a Bitch Creek Nymph, in sizes 4 and 6, the EZ Mite, which imitates a hellgrammite in size 8, and Keith’s Cray in sizes 1 through 6 are all good choices.
HOOK: 3XL nymph or streamer, sizes 4 through 8.
THREAD: Black, 6/0.
TAIL AND ANTENNAE: Rubber legs, white.
UNDERBODY: Lead wire covered by white poly yarn wire covered by white poly yarn.
THORAX: Black chenille.
ABDOMEN: Woven black and orange chenille with orange on belly.
HACKLE: Brown, palmered over thorax.
The setup for smallmouth nymphing is quite crude but extremely effective. In addition to the fly line, you’ll need 20-pound Red Amnesia, a ¾-inch Thingamabobber, and 1X and 2X tippet.
At the end of a weight-forward floating line, I tie a three-foot piece of 20-pound red Amnesia and add a one-inch perfection loop to its tag end. Insert most of the loop through the Thingamabobbber, leaving the knot on the fly-line side. Run the loop under the indicator and around to the top, and pull tight on the indicator. Then I add a perfection loop to a five-foot piece of 1X or 2X tippet and attach it to the indicator in the same fashion. Attach your fly to the other end of the tippet.
Try to avoid adding weight, but if it’s needed, place a split shot a foot above the fly. The weight of the streamer is often enough to get it down into the zone.
Fish this setup in the same water types in which you would catch trout. Look for current seams and slack water behind rocks. The heads of larger pools are another area where you will have success. Smallmouths will often take up the same lies that trout will, and it’s not uncommon to catch trout and smallies from the same stretch of water. Make your cast, allow the fly to sink, and twitch the rod tip every few feet to create a likeness of life and elicit strikes.
KEITH’S ARTICULATED SMALLMOUTH
FRONT HOOK: Gamakatsu B52 Stinger, size 1/0.
TAIL HOOK: Daiichi wet fly hook, size 4.
THREAD: Danville Fly Master Plus, olive.
HEAD: Olive sculpin wool on top and white EP Fibre bottom. Color with markers to desired hue.
BODY: Pearl Body Braid, palmered brown schlappen, yellow marabou.
FINS: Pheasant body feather over rubber legs
RUBBER LEGS: Brown or olive Brown or olive.
TAIL: Pearl Body Braid, Palmered brown schlappen, olive marabou
Streamers work under a multitude of conditions and are the bread and butter of many smallmouth fly fishermen. They are effective in low or high water, or clear or dirty. The important thing is to choose the right streamer and make the correct line choice. The rest is quite simple.
The color and size of your streamer are very important and depend largely on water clarity. When fishing in clear water, you’ll need a fly that closely resembles the color of the bottom, because many of the smallmouth’s prey species are camouflaged to blend in with the stream environment. Tan, olive, or brown streamers generally work best. Clouser Minnows, Dredge Minnows, and Skull Crawpins are all good choices. Match the fly size to the size of the baitfish. If the stream happens to receive a lot of pressure, opt for smaller, more realistic streamers such as the Double Bunny in natural over white and Keith’s Articulated Smallmouth.
When the water is stained, use large, bright flies or flies that create vibration. Patterns that employ colors such as chartreuse, fluorescent orange, and yellow are very effective. Red can be a trigger as well. Flies that have similar coloration to a fi re tiger– colored Rapala are deadly in stained water. Conversely, black patterns create silhouette, which can be extremely effective at all times.