Often I get messages , emails, calls, etc. from friends and customers about fly fishing problems…..they usually involve what flies to use….and how to best fish them. Of all the types of fishing I enjoy and guide for, I get a ton of questions about smallmouth bass. So many folks who fly fish for trout try their hands at smallmouth. Some do well, some don’t….and most of us, me included, will have days where things just aren’t going well. Take heart, and read on. Please…. As they say in the Appalachians, I am going to ‘learn’ you something.
Before I offer any suggestions on summer smallies, lets get a few things out there to think about because they will impact every thing you do in the way of fly fishing for these great fish.
One, water type is important. Fly fishermen who fish for trout primarily (me included, even though I have fished for all species ever since I began fly fishing) will normally make this mistake first. And it compounds all the others. The mistake? Fly fishing for smallmouth like they are trout. Well, simply put, they aren’t trout. For one look at the body of a bass and compare it to that of a trout. Trout flourish in streams that are fast….fast or slow and in all speeds in between. They can tilt up or down and go to the surface or return to the bottom with little more than tilting the head and moving a couple fins. A bass’ body is too wide and bulky to sit in really fast current for very long. The result? You won’t find bass very often in “trouty” water. Notice I said often. I didn’t say never. That means that you won’t find them in those fast riffs and boiling runs that you would find trout. Will you once in a while? Yes. But its more the exception than the rule. An exception might be a hatch of a large mayfly or caddis or stonefly…in which case the smallies will and do feed ….and sometimes in trouty water. But there again, that’s not MOST of the time.
Two, they like areas with slow to almost no current….MOST of the time. Where are these places? An eddy, a slow bank, behind a midstream ledge or protruding rock (stops the current, this is a great place for a popper), the shallowing tailout of a pool, the tail of a pool where there is grass or weed growth, a bankside tree lap, blowdown, or log jam (smallies love structure). Often, you find smallmouth where you’d find brown trout…s….l…o….w..e…r water. If you see water that has foam on it, and there are one or more distinct lines of moving foamy water…but a patch where the foam is either barely moving or not at all….smallies love this type of water. A patch of water where the foam isn’t moving (“Foam is Home”) is essentially a vertical column of water that isn’t moving. Smallies love this.
Three, some form of cover is important. If there’s cover around, and its either near slow water or in slow water, you can bet smallmouth will be utilizing it. Wood is great (“Wood is good”), and so are ledges, and large boulders (“Rocks rock!)…these are what I call high percentage targets. Wood and rocks and ledges all are somewhat permanent stable structure. Grass can be good, sometimes there’s two or three different grasses growing in the river….. grass that grows from bottom to top can be really good- – -especially if adjacent to deep water. Smallies can take advantage of the multitude of dragonflies and damselflies (a major summer food source, which is what our poppers imitate)…these flies crawl beneath the grass and lay their eggs there. But grass isn’t stable…isn’t always there. One high water event like a string of several days of thunderstorms, or a tropical system (tropical storm or hurricane) and the grass can break loose and wash away.
Four, bass don’t feed like trout. Look at a trout and the way they feed. They have a small mouth for the most part. The eat a lot of insects…it takes a lot of insects to get full. Bass on the other hand, have a larger mouth and feed on insects plus minnows, crayfish, hellgrammites, etc. Simply put, while both bass and trout are opportunistic, trout are more likely to feed all day long and bass aren’t.
Five, weather is a significant factor. It seems to affect bass in ways that trout seem to ignore. Not to say that fronts don’t affect trout, they no doubt do at times. But I find I can still catch trout consistently front or no, and I wouldn’t say that about smallmouth. River fish don’t seem to be as affected as lake fish, but it still affects them. I do very little post cold front smallmouth and largemouth fishing, as in the day of the front and the day after, for this reason.
Here are some suggestions on flies for smallies and how to fish them. We should begin this discussion with the three areas I feel are necessary to cover.
(1) One area, the bottom is important and during cold spells, weather changes, etc., I need to be prepared to ‘bottom bounce’ some of my flies.
(2) Area two is the middle of the water column, or mid-depth, and these are flies that are stripped back in……the cover water to within a foot of the bottom up to a foot from the surface.
(3) Area three is the surface, and this is where you fish poppers, divers, etc., anything that floats. Divers are included here because usually when you stop stripping them they come back to the surface.
These are some of my favorite Smallmouth flies …..
(1) Ernys Twisted Critter- a hybrid wooly bugger /crayfish tie created by Matt Erny , this is a good bottom bouncer as are most crayfish patterns.
(2) Murray’s Hellgrammite – a black and grizzly wooly bugger hybrid that incorporates ostrich herl for the tail, lead eyes, and a pair of white rubberleg tentacles, also a great bottom bouncing pattern.
(3) Clouser Deep Minnow. A size 4 or 6 chartreuse and white Clouser minnow, tied with Chartreuse on top, white on bottom, and mixed colors or pearlescent Krystal flash. I like to tie them with size medium prepainted red lead eyes. I make the overall fly about 2 to 2 1/2″ long. A lot of different colors will work but I seldom find that there is a need to carry any other but this one. It works that well. This fly is usually a mid depth or middle of the water column fly and is stripped.
3) A JJ Special. Brown and yellow tail with a few strands of flashabou or krystal flash (brown on top , yellow on bottom), wooly bugger body (brown chenille), and yellow legs off the body…(one set at the back, one in the middle, one at the front), Grizzly hackled palmered through the body and the rubber legs just like you do a wooly bugger, and tie this in size 8 and 10 and use a 5/32″ gold , black , or copper bead head (not sure color even matters). Versatile… Can be used as a bottom bouncer or a mid depth/middle of the water column pattern. Originally designed by James Jones of High Country Flies in Jackson Hole, WY…which is what JJ stands for. So far as I know, we were the first to bring it back East and promote its use for smallmouth and trout here. I got to know James and his partner in the business Howard Cole from my 25 yrs of going to the Jackson Hole area.
(4) RLD….A rubberleg dragon nymph olive (olive marabou tail, a sparse amount of krystal flash in tail, only one of two strands), tiny lead eyes, olive chenille body, yellow or white rubberlegs on the body like an ‘X’, grizzly or olive or brown hackle through the body. Tie these in size 8 and 10. Versatile… Can be used as a bottom bouncer or a mid depth/middle of the water column pattern. Originally designed by Carter Nelson, a guide and instructor at Callaway Gardens, GA.
4) Kreelex – a Chuck Kraft pattern, a flashy streamer you can fish slow or fast or any speed in between….. Great fly for off color water. A mid depth or middle of the water column fly, normally stripped back in . Created by Chuck Kraft, smallmouth and trout guide in VA. For the recipe click here .
(5) Popper- I carry a wide variety of poppers, from chartreuse to white to black, an occasionally an oddball one like black /yellow (bumble bee), blue (blue damsel), but I will say that I rarely find bass ‘selective ‘ to a particular color of popper. I like to carry sizes 2 through 10. Most of the time I use a 6. One note about poppers, don’t always pop the bug aggressively. Mix it up. Try an active presentation, then if that isn’t working, try casting the bug, letting it sit, pop it once, let it sit. If that doesn’t work, try a twitch. This works well on fish that you can see coming to the popper. Often a twitch does it, a pop spooks them away. And somedays, and I see this a lot when fish are pressured or toward the end of summer after they have been pounded for months, there will be days where an absolute dead drift will work best. I am shocked how many times I have made a cast, looked away or looked down, or maybe been trying to untangle fly line from my legs, pack, or in the boat…only to look up and see my bug gone. If you have that happen, maybe its a clue to try the “do nothing” presentation.
(6) Stealth Bomber- I put this one in there because there are times that you might want a fly that imitates a dragonfly or damselfly more closely. While those super sexy and anatomically correct damsel and dragonfly patterns look really cool, I find that they lack something when it comes to catching fish. Enter the Stealth bomber. This Kent Edmonds pattern is great for imitating these large bugs. Black in size 6, 8, and 10 is killer. White and chartreuse are great too, and blue isn’t bad either. These bugs glide and slide and in my opinion are a better imitation of a damsel or dragon than the more specific patterns. Check out Kent’s great website here
There are times in the past I liked using a light rod, because the fish feel great on it, but I think you miss and lose fish because of a lighter rod. I use 6 weight minimum, I like a 7 weight most of the time
, and use an 8 at times to throw heavy stuff, big poppers, or a heavier sink tip. A 5 weight lacks the rear end to set the hook at distances greater than 25 feet. If you are missing fish, or having them come off, and are using a 5 weight…..it may be the rod is too light. I’d bet on it.
I use two lines, a floating line
and a 10 to 12 foot factory sink tip
that I cut back to 6 feet. I would definitely recommend this if you are trying to wade and throw a sink tip. Easier to cast and get out of the water if the tip is less than 10ft. 6 feet is more than enough to fish most smallie rivers in our area. The only exception would be the lower New River below Claytor Lake, from Claytor Dam to Glen Lyn or Shanklins Ferry…..when Claytor is releasing water the flows are up and in that case a 200 to 250 gr sink tip works great. I’d make the tip higher density, not a longer sinking section, as the density is what gets the fly down.
I like our own leaders
for most applications, a 9ft 1x and 2x for heavy bugs, 9ft 3x for smaller stuff or when the water is low and clear or on bright sunny days with little wind. For sinking stuff, I’ll use the same leader but cut 4 feet off the butt making it a 5 foot leader. For sink tip, you don’t need more than 5 feet of leader and tippet. Any more than that and the fly planes up, never sinks at the same rate as the tip, and the line /tip is at the bottom and fly is several feet above it.
Here is the response I gave to a fellow guide and friend of mine, as we were discussing catching smallmouth on the New River in Ivanhoe, VA, during a weather change.
I watched the weather closely and it wasn’t a cold front, but the combination of a ‘wedge” (easterly wind flow) and a bermuda High running together, the result was some fairly heavy rains for about 3 to 4 hrs in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday. Some areas apparently got 1 to 2 inches of rain. Fairly impressive given there were no real strong ‘storms’ . Somehow the NC mtns have gotten rain and SW to Central VA has not. Although Kathy and I were up there over the weekend, and the river from Ivanhoe downstream had started to get really dingy. It had been gin clear, allowing some incredible sight fishing for smallies. You could see them coming from 50 feet away to find the popper. Not so today. No fish on poppers….not so much as a strike.
One thing I always defer to…..when you are in an area where you know there are fish, is find the deepest, slowest water….usually bank eddies, slicks, flat pools, tailouts (the best of all—-the last 20 to 30 % of a pool before it turns into another riffle or rapid) and target them and fish slowly and thoroughly with the flies I have described above. That approach drives me nuts if I have had good popper fishing, its hard for me to switch gears and slow down to match the patterns of the fish.
My experience is topwater flies only work in reasonably clear conditions. Severe stain calls for subsurface stuff for sure. I have also found that dark colors are better than bright and flashy, because dark creates stark contrast and directly addresses the low visibility problem stained water creates. The flashy stuff is only good if there’s light penetration sufficient to make it flash, and given low visibility at a depth of 2 to 3 feet in stained water the flash probably does you little good because it only flashes if there’s enough light to make it do that. Rattles are good too, incorporating a small rattle in the body of a fly is a great way to allow fish to ‘track’ it .
So there you have it, hopefully some of these tips will come in handy. Also, the summer is still young and plenty of days left for the smallies…..join us for a trip….you will find them a worthy adversary and deserving of just as much respect as any trout. I have often said you could tie a 3lb smallmouth tail to tail to a 3lb anything else and the smallmouth would drown it. I fully believe it. They are the best fighters inch for inch and pound for pound as you will ever catch on the long rod.
Yes I just said that…..