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.
Sight-casting. This technique works best when water and light conditions allow you to see bass, such as when the water is clear, not too deep, and smooth on the surface. Usually the sides of slow runs, big eddies, pools, and tailouts are good areas for spotting holding or cruising smallmouth.
The best way to visually locate a big bass is by walking slowly along high banks in the cover of trees while wearing polarized glasses and clothes that blend with the background. Standing on a quiet and slow-moving drift boat is also a good method.
When you spot a bass, use a weighted, swimming-nymph fly that’s tied with the hook-point up in a color that contrasts with the water and stream bottom so it’s easy for you to see in the water. Cast it far enough above the bass that it has time to sink to the depth of the bass before reaching it. Now watch for the take. If a natural drift does not get a response, animate the nymph a bit on the next presentation. If the bass still shows no interest after two or three accurate presentations, try a different nymph.
I use a floating line, long leader, and a heavy, highly visible nymph for sight-nymphing. A sinking-tip or full-sinking line also works but doesn’t provide the same finesse and control as a floating line. Sight-nymphing is one of the best ways to hunt, find, and hook up with selective, big smallmouth, especially if you want to avoid the numerous, less selective small bass, chubs, and pan fish.
Swimming nymphs. Because nymphing is generally the least chosen fly-fishing method for smallmouth, most stream bass are not wise to artificial nymph encounters and are somewhat easy to fool. In the same areas that you’d normally use deadly smallmouth streamers like Clouser Minnows, Woolly Buggers, crayfish, and Nearnuff Sculpins, you should give big nymphs, like the ones mentioned earlier, a try. (This swimming-nymph method can also be effective using crayfish, leeches, aquatic worms, and large scuds.)
This technique works nicely in streams as well as stillwaters. For shallow, fairly slow-moving water, use a floating line and 9-foot leader. Cast the nymph so it has time to sink to the level of the structure that you suspect is holding fish. Mend your line and strip erratically to make your nymph swim or crawl naturally. Point the rod tip low where the fly line enters the water so you’re in direct contact with the fly, and be ready to set the hook. Experiment with the action you give swimming nymphs because bass never seem to like the same thing two days in a row.
For deeper or swifter water, a type III or IV uniform sink, a sinking tip, or a type IV or V full-sinking fly line and 6-foot leader work well for swimming bass nymphs. Cast the weighted nymph and sinking-line combination up-and-across or across stream and allow it to sink near the bottom. With the rod tip low and pointed to where the fly line enters the water, slowly retrieve the nymph in the swimming manner of the natural. Effective swimming action is usually done with slow, erratic rod tip twitches, figure-eight line retrieve, or slow, short, irregular line strips. I often work my nymph until the leader is near the rod tip before I make the next cast because smallmouth sometimes follow the nymph for long distances or suddenly strike as the fly rises to the surface.
Usually bass strike swimming nymphs abruptly and violently. I use 1X, 2X, or 3X tippet and quickly strip-strike when I detect a bass. Because bass tend to bite down hard when capturing swimming food, I strip-strike the fish two or three times in one- to two-seconds intervals, if possible, to make sure the hook is set well. The times I don’t are often the times a big smallmouth leaps and spits the fly out! While my rod tip is still low after the strip-strikes, I’m always aware that the fish could take a leader-popping lunge, so I try to elevate the tip quickly after the hook set to avoid break-offs.
When smallmouth hold in fast, deep, pocketwater, I use extra-heavy swimming nymphs or a nymph and split-shot along with a form of high-stick nymphing to present and swim the nymph to the bass. Because the water moves the nymph so quickly downstream, I merely hold the rod high and slightly jiggle the tip to enticingly animate the fly. I watch and feel the tight line and leader for a sign that the nymph has stopped or has been grabbed by a waiting pocket bass, setting the hook each time there’s even a slight indication of a strike.
Smallmouth Nymphing Tackle
For smallmouth nymphing, I use a medium-fast, 6- or 7-weight, 9- to 91/2-foot rod with a short extension butt. This rod design provides the power and efficiency to cast, mend, and present heavy smallmouth nymphs and has the backbone to fight big, tough, bass. This is also plenty of rod to handle the occasional bonus monster drum, carp, or catfish that often inhabit the same rivers and lakes and eat the same foods as smallmouth.
Large-arbor reels (6- through 8-weight) are ideal for bass nymphing. I load one spool with a Scientific Anglers weight-forward, floating-nymph line and 9-foot, 1X knotless leader. I load a second spool with a type III or IV sinking tip or a type IV or V uniform-sink line. A knotless 6-foot, 1X leader works nicely for either of these sinking-line choices.
Don’t forget to first add 100 yards of 20-pound test braided backing. I also recommend 1X to 3X fluorocarbon tippet for smallmouth nymphing because it sinks faster, is less visible than nylon, and has more abrasion resistance to help cope with coarse habitat structure and the cunning fighting style of smallmouth. I usually use 24 to 30 inches of tippet and attach it to my leader with a triple surgeon’s knot coated with Zap-A-Gap cement. Trim the tag ends close to the knot to discourage hang ups and prevent algae or other aquatic vegetation from collecting on the knot while fighting a bass. The Zap-A-Gap finish makes the connection glassy smooth and the breaking strength nearly 100 percent of the labeled test.
Nymphing for smallmouth can be just as fascinating and exciting as it is for trout and adds a fun variety to stream and lake smallmouthing. I’ve found it especially productive where big smallmouth see lots of the traditional smallmouth surface bugs and streamers and have become cautious and selective feeders. Nymphing also extends your early-spring and late-fall opportunities to catch fish on a fly rod. Even for many of the most avid smallmouth addicts it’s a fresh approach to catching these tiger-striped beauties!
Smallmouth Nymph Patterns
Carry an assortment of size 4 to 12 weighted nymphs, with at least half of them tied so they ride hook up or fashioned with a weedguard. Smallmouth often hide and feed under rocks, rubble, ledges, boulders, aquatic vegetation, sunken tree roots, stumps, and limbs, so a snag-resistant nymph is required to get to them. For sight fishing, use highly visible patterns with white-, chartreuse-, or fluorescent-colored rubber legs or bright-colored bodies.
Dave Whitlock lives in Midway, Arkansas, where he and his wife Emily have a fly-fishing school (www.davewhitlock.com). Dave is an author, artist, photographer, fly designer, and lecturer.