Topwater Smallmouth Fly Fishing
March 14, 2016
I was fortunate to discover fly fishing over 60 years ago and of all the techniques I've used and fish I've tackled, the two I enjoy the most are surface fishing and stream smallmouth bass. When I can do both at the same time, it just doesn't get any better for me. Fly Fisherman editor and publisher John Randolph and I were discussing this pleasurable combination early this winter and he suggested that more readers might want to discover how special it is and include smallmouth bass as part of their annual, freshwater fly fishing.
According to statistics, most Fly Fisherman readers favor stream fishing with dry flies for trout. However, in many waters, trout fishing is not what it was when I was in my teens and twenties when most streams weren't as crowded and were well-populated with wild trout. Today, if you want to find plentiful wild fish and uncrowded waters, your best chance is a smallmouth bass stream. Smallmouth, for the most part, are wild, abundant, and found in streams throughout the lower 48 states.
But that's just part of the attraction. These tough fish are stronger, more durable, much more prolific, and more intelligent than trout. They have an admirable and uncompromising personality of a true gamefish, eagerly attacking the fly and, once hooked, respond with wild, acrobatic jumps, hard runs, and a strong, stubborn fight that earned them the reputation of being pound-for-pound the hardest-fighting freshwater fish. In my opinion, only a wild brown trout, Great Lakes carp, or Argentine golden dorado approaches the smallmouth as the noblest freshwater, fly-fishing quarry. My granddad used to say that you could tie a 3-pound smallmouth tail-to-tail to a 5-pound trout and the smallmouth would drag that trout to death.
I've yet to see a smallmouth roll over and give up in exhaustion. They may eventually tire, but they'll never surrender to you like a trout. Because of that, it's easy to underestimate their strength. I've probably lost more big smallmouth than any other freshwater fish. They always seem to have one more run in them and often immediately dash away when released. The size of a smallmouth is probably the most exaggerated of any freshwater fish because, when you hook one, they feel bigger than they really are.
To fish for stream smallmouth on the surface you don't have to change flies, tactics, or tackle from what you normally use to fish for river trout. Smallmouth will eat anything a trout will and a lot more. It's even theorized they have split personalities. One day they'll act like trout — sipping spinners and emergers. The next they're all bass — attacking and swallowing a minnow, mouse, snake, or crayfish. I can honestly say that I've never been bored fly fishing for them.
A couple of summers ago I experienced an amazing smallmouth response to my yellow popper. I was floating a river in Maine with my wife Emily and our guide, Art Webster. A short 2 or 3 seconds after the popper hit the water, two 16-inch smallmouth launched themselves out of the water from opposite directions and then came down on my fly! Only one got it, but what an incredible surface display it was.
The native range of smallmouth was limited to the Ohio and Mississippi River drainages and the Great Lakes, but by the late 1800s they were well on their way to colonizing the Northeast. Since then, smallmouth have successfully been stocked in most states and in southern Canada and are now naturally reproducing. It may be surprising to note that three of the United States' best smallmouth states are Oregon, Washington, and Texas.
Smallmouth do well in clear, low-silt streams and lakes that are seasonally considered cool waters. Though they prefer water temperatures of 55 to 85 degrees F., they can live and are often caught in water systems that are much colder. The sleek, rare Neosho bass, the most troutlike of smallmouth, evolved in the 54-degree spring creeks of the western Ozarks.
It's not uncommon to find smallmouth in the lower sections of rivers known for their trout, steelhead, or salmon, and I've often caught both species out of the same stretches in rivers such as Grand Lake Stream in Maine, the White and Norfork in Missouri and Arkansas, the Guadalupe in Texas, and Oregon's Umpqua.
Smallmouth usually cope better with environmental and over-fishing problems than trout. The only drawback (if you can call it that) with these co-inhabitants is when a 17-inch smallmouth sips a dry fly that's intended for a trout, it will most likely own your fly before you realize it's not a monster trout.
One of my favorite dry-fly fishing experiences happened on a balmy spring morning near my home on the White River, just below the confluence of Crooked Creek. A friend and I were fishing for trout with caddis emergers. I presented a #14 caddis-pupa emerger and Elk-hair Caddis combo on 5X tippet with a 3-weight rod. A nice fish ate my offering and I hooked it. At first it looked like a golden-flanked brown trout, but as the fight continued, the fish repeatedly took line. I decided I either hooked two trout, had foul-hooked a fish, or maybe my first trout had been eaten by a larger one.
My friend stopped fishing to help land the fish. Eventually, with half of my backing stripped from the reel, the fish jumped twice. It was a magnificent Crooked Creek smallmouth! Finally, after a long battle ending 50 yards below the spot he was hooked, my friend netted the stubborn bass and we saw that the red-eyed brute had taken both my flies. I was worn out but the bass apparently wasn't. When I released the 17-incher, it splashed me with several tail sweeps as it dashed out of sight.
In streams, smallmouth prefer slower water than trout. They are similar to browns in that they like large gravel and coarse structure and, when they're not out on the prowl, will hang out and ambush their prey from behind large boulders, ledges, logs, and stumps. The most consistent spots to find holding smallmouth are in runs that have better habitat than riffles and the top and tailouts of pools. However, at low-light periods, especially at sunrise, sundown, and at night, they prowl for minnows and crayfish in every part of the stream, even the shallows.
When there are big hatches of larger (#2-14) aquatic insects, such as Hexagenia, Brown or Green Drakes, White Flies, dragon and damselflies, big caddis, and stoneflies, smallmouth rise to the occasion in grand manner. John Randolph and his Harrisburg-area friends get breathless when they talk about evening dry-fly fishing to pods of big smallmouth on the Susquehanna when White Flies are hatching or falling spent.
On the Susquehanna River, the White Fly hatch (Ephoron leukon) begins in the lower river around July 5 and progresses upriver to the Harrisburg area over the next three weeks. Anglers can fish either by boat, or if the river stage is at or near three feet, by wading. The hatch begins about one hour before dark and grows in intensity as the light fades. Fishing is worth the effort until you cannot see your fly among the blanket of naturals. Bob Clouser has guided and fished this hatch extensively over the past four decades and recommends a #10 White Wulff or #8 white popper.
Even though smallmouth happily tip and sip floating insects with the best of brown-trout risers, their true nature is to be attracted by animation. A dry fly that's dragging slightly, twitching, or skittering on the surface gets their attention, especially when there's nothing hatching. Otherwise, use the same drag-free drifts you would if presenting a dry fly to trout.
Smallmouth surface activity is best when the water temperature is in the middle to upper range of their comfort zone, somewhere between 59 to 85 degrees. The warmer it is (up to 85 degrees), the more aggressive they become. Depending on the area of the country, stream surface fishing is effective from late spring until early to mid fall. Be aware that sometimes smallmouth rise so subtly that you might mistake them for something insignificant like chubs or big minnows.
Midsummer to early fall is often the best time to take larger smallmouth on the surface with terrestrial patterns like hoppers, crickets, spiders, beetles, flying ants, moths, and cicadas. Deliver the pattern so it hits the water with force and makes a splash. This is easily done with an across-and-downstream presentation. Wait a moment and then give it an erratic kick or flutter action to trigger a response. The combination of warm water and big, juicy, struggling terrestrial insects seems truly irresistible to stream smallmouth, and they strike with breathtaking rises and spectacular leaps — sometimes before the fly hits the water!
Because the predator side of these fish is fond of large, surface-swimming food like mice, frogs, topwater minnows, small birds, snakes, and lizards, throwing attractor patterns is another great way to entice them to the surface. Flies like poppers, hair bugs, divers, wakers, and sliders fall into a category I call bass bugs and are fantastic flies for these wonderfully-aggressive beauties. Sliders and wakers closely resemble surface-feeding minnows or frogs and don't make much commotion when retrieved. These are good flies when the water is clear and calm.
Poppers have a cupped or flat face that pushes water and makes a large disturbance when retrieved. They are intended to imitate crippled fish, frogs, small birds, or any other large, struggling food item. These are good patterns when the water is murky because the bass hone in on the splashing and popping noises.
Many bass bugs are made with foam or hard plastic. However, I feel many of these patterns are bulky, heavy, and generally difficult to cast. I prefer poppers and diving bugs made of spun deer hair because they are easier to cast, and I think they make a more realistic entry sound on the water than hard-head bass bugs. They also create an irresistible popping, gurgling, bubble-chain noise when animated, and I've found bass tend to hold on to a soft-bodied fly longer because it feels like a live organism. I love casting bass bugs like these close to river structure and "puppeteering" them to look and act like living creatures.
Bass bugs should land just past, on, beside, or over structure. If possible, let the bug sit a few seconds after it hits the water before moving it. It has been my experience that the sound of the fly hitting the water announces to lurking bass that something edible has just come into killing range, and they will come to investigate. Start animating the bug with slow, erratic moves first. On the next cast, retrieve it a little faster. If that's not effective, try a fast, panicked retrieve. There's seldom a whole day or consecutive days when smallmouth want the same type of retrieve, so if one doesn't work, experiment. The right pattern and retrieve will light a fast-burning fuse on these dynamite surface blasters.
One common problem anglers have when fishing poppers is the loud, popping explosion on the water when they pick up to cast. This is especially common with cup-faced poppers and puts fish down. To avoid it, don't apply power to your backcast too soon or abruptly when picking up. Make sure the end of the fly line and the leader is lifted off the water's surface before applying power to the backcast. Also check the connection to the bug. A waterlogged fly-line tip or large braided loop-to-loop line to leader connection can sink and cause the bug to dive and explode out of the water. I suggest cutting off a loop-to-loop connection and reconnecting the leader with a small knot or, better yet, a knotless connection. Grease the leader butt and line tip with Dave's Bug Flote for smooth, quiet pick-ups.
Surface Smallmouth Tackle
An ideal tackle setup for stream dry-fly fishing is a 9-foot, fast-action, 5- or 6-weight rod, a weight-forward floating line, and a 9-foot knotless, tapered leader with 3X or 4X tippet. This combination will cast and fish larger mayfly and stonefly patterns and is strong enough to handle aggressive strikes and fights.
For fishing larger terrestrial patterns, try a 6-weight, medium-fast action, 81/2- or 9-foot rod and a floating weight-forward 6- or 7-weight bass-bug-taper line (like Jim Teeny's Professional Series or Rio's and Scientific Anglers' bass tapers) with a 71/2- to 9-foot bass leader (like those from Umpqua and Rio) and 2X or 3X tippet. The bass-bugging outfit I recommend is a 6- or 7-weight, medium-fast action, 81/2- or 9-foot rod, a floating bass- bug-taper line, and a 9-foot, 2X to 0X leader. You will need and enjoy the extra rod power, and the heavier weight-forward line design and stout leader makes casting and presenting these air-resistant bass bugs more efficient.
While smallmouth usually prefer larger aquatic insects and terrestrials than trout, they generally go for smaller bass bugs (#4-12) than largemouth bass. The exception is trophy smallmouth between 4 and 6 pounds. These monsters can attack a huge pike-caliber diver (#1/0-5/0) that looks like a frog, yellow perch, sucker, or sunfish. Barbless hooks are best for smallmouth surface flies. They penetrate better than barbed hooks, and each smallmouth is too special a prize to kill by removing a barbed hook from a tender area.
Smallmouth dry flies are usually fished on the surface in open riffles, runs, eddies, and pool tailouts, so weedguards are not necessary. But terrestrials and bass bugs are most effective when presented close to or on shoreline structures or protruding objects in the stream, so I recommend tying or buying them with weedguards.
There's an eternal argument that weedguards cause missed fish. In reality, good ones don't and they allow you to get more strikes because you can confidently present them closer to where the biggest bass lie in wait. Weedguards also prevent those incessant little sunfish from getting hooked as often.
I like to use monofilament-loop-style weedguards on my flies. If you don't want to tie a loop into your pattern, or want to fix a weedguard to any bass bug, another favorite of mine is to cut a piece of monofilament — approximately the same diameter as the hook shank — a little longer than the bend of the hook. Flatten the last 1/8" with pliers or hemostats and bend it back so it looks like a foot. Angle the mono so it points towards the hook point and use Zap-A-Gap to glue the flattened area to the bottom of the bass bug. This type of weedguard makes the fly slide over objects and doesn't obstruct the hook point as much as a mono loop.
After you read this, it should be just about the right time to get out your tackle and dry flies and discover our amazing, stream smallmouth bass. When you do, plan on your fly-fishing pleasures reaching a new dimension. In the next part of this series, I'll cover nymph and streamer fishing for stream smallmouth.
Dave Whitlock lives in Midway, Arkansas, where he and his wife, Emily, have a fly-fishing school. Dave is an author, artist, photographer, fly designer, and lecturer.