The riffle gradually smoothed into a foamy green run, except for several swirling breaks as the water flowed over a distinctive, arching ledge two feet below the surface. My Red Fox Squirrel Hair Nymph and small indicator landed across and upstream, about ten feet above the ledge in the riffle’s last chop. It immediately began to drift down toward me, quickly sinking until it reached the vertical length of the tippet, just a few inches from the stream bottom. Several line strips to control the oncoming slack and one big upstream mend prevented the uneven currents from interfering with the nymph’s downstream drift. I intently focused on the orange yarn indicator with the confidence that something good was about to happen. The indicator drifted closer and closer, reached the submerged ledge and then nervously slowed, and in the next blink it was gone!
The hookset was so solid that I first thought my nymph caught the rock ledge. The water exploded as a blurred bulk of olive and gold shot into the air with a heart-stopping leap, twisting and distorting its compact form and throwing water everywhere before diving back beneath the surface. The slack line I recovered during the nymph’s downstream drift disappeared with a slapping hiss through the stripping guide, burning my index finger in the process.
Over the next ten minutes, it took all my skill and strength to get that tiger-striped, red-eyed bass tired enough to land. It was a couple inches shorter than I’d estimated but still a rock-solid 2 pounds of stream-toughened, wild smallmouth that felt three times that size. The power, speed, and relentless stamina of these creatures makes me think that every smallmouth I hook with a fly rod is bigger than it actually is.
I love nymphing, and over the last few years I’ve discovered that stream smallmouth bass take nymphs as readily as a trout. In fact, in early spring and late fall they often prefer nymphs to dry flies. For me, watching and reacting to underwater strikes, transmitted through my indicator, provides much of the same satisfaction as surface strikes. I try to create a visual image in my mind of the nymph drifting into the territory of a big, waiting bass. The telltale reaction of the indicator followed by the weight at my hookset always gives me goose bumps.
Smallmouth feed on nymphs almost all year, but they are less aggressive when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees F. When the water is cold, concentrate on the deepest, slowest runs and pools.
They tend to prefer large, animated imitations of aquatic insect larvae and nymphs such as stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and dragonflies, and cranefly, fishfly, and Dobsonfly larvae (hellgrammites). Nymph imitations in sizes 2 to 12 are the most effective for adult smallmouth.
Unlike trout that often ignore a nymph unless it is perfectly dead-drifted, spurts of unnatural drag or unintended fly movement while mending often attracts smallmouth to a nymph. Overall, smallmouth tend to seize and bite down on nymphs more deliberately than trout, making it easier to detect strikes and set the hook. But because the larger fly size makes it more difficult to penetrate a fish’s mouth, I recommend setting the hook hard, and more than once with your rod tip and midsection to make sure it’s buried.
Stream Smallmouth Nymphing
Smallmouth are found in fast, slow, clear, and murky water and forage on nymphs crawling along the stream bottom, drifting with the current, swimming, or emerging near the surface. Each situation requires analysis to pick the technique that works best. The following should help with those decisions.
Drifting nymphs. When drifting nymphs to unseen bass, especially in riffles, runs, and pocketwater, I use a floating fly line, long leader, weighted nymph, and a buoyant strike indicator to control the depth I present the nymph. A strike indicator also allows me to monitor the speed and the direction of the drift, give the nymph a tantalizing, live action, and helps me detect strikes. Make as natural a drift as possible by using mends and line strips to adjust for changes in current, drag, or water depth.
In swift riffle water I set my indicator at two times the depth of the water, and in slow riffle or fast pools, at one and a half times the water depth. For slow runs and pools, set the indicator at the water depth. Expect the fly to bump the bottom occasionally—this means you’re in the right zone. If it bumps too often or never, then adjust the indicator accordingly. I usually cast upstream and slightly across so that my nymph drifts down and past me, 15 to 20 feet away, and below me until the line straightens. This presentation gives the longest natural, deep drift for each cast.
Another option is to cast your nymph and indicator down and slightly across stream. Then, by feeding slack line and mending, you can get a fairly long downstream drift. This is a less efficient method because strikes are harder to detect, hooking is less efficient, and a fish hooked downstream immediately has the advantage because you’re fighting the current, making it easier for the hook to dislodge. The advantage is that the fly line is less likely to alert the bass before it sees the fly. This down-and-across presentation is also the best position to animate the nymph or to imitate various emerging actions.