One of my great fly-fishing pleasures is bugging for smallmouth along the shores of a beautiful lake. I don’t have to travel far because they inhabit a wide range of ponds, lakes, and reservoirs across North America. Smallmouth in stillwaters are the same species as those in flowing waters, but they tend to grow larger and require different (but just as exciting) methods to find and catch consistently. In fact, if I had just one week left to fish, I’d spend it with my wife, Emily, canoeing, camping, and fly fishing for smallmouth on the peaceful lakes of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, during late July or August. That would be my preview of heaven.
Whether 50 or 5,000 acres in size, the best stillwaters are where bass can consistently find abundant food in water temperatures 55 to 85 degrees F. In North America, anglers are most likely to find the best fishing from late March to mid-October. As the chill of late fall and winter sets in, smallmouth head to deeper water, feed less, and are less aggressive. Some warmer, southern reservoirs provide the exception, where smallmouth remain active through the winter.
Before they spawn in the spring, smallmouth move near sun-warmed northern shorelines as water temperatures rise to around 55 degrees. They feed there until shoreline water temperatures reach 65 to 70 degrees, and then they begin spawning in two to six feet of water. After spawning, the females move to deeper water and the males remain to guard the nest and young fry for a week or two before also moving to deeper water. After resting and recovering from spawn stresses, both males and females resume feeding and seek areas where food and temperatures are ideal. Consistent prespawn fly fishing is best with subsurface imitations of minnows, leeches, and aquatic insects. The best topwater action is around late spring, after fish recuperate from spawning.
As water temperatures warm in the summer, surface fly fishing can be excellent in the mornings, late afternoons, and at night along shallow shorelines. But during the hottest hours of the day smallmouth usually retreat to cooler water, 20 to 30 feet deep or wherever the thermocline occurs.
As fall temperatures cool the shallows, smallmouth again prowl the shorelines. As the water temperatures drop below the fish’s comfort zone, they move to deep water again to find the warmest temperatures for wintering, usually offshore in 20 to 100 feet of water. Spin fishermen using bottom-bouncing (pig and jig) type rigs or lead-headed plastic grubs can find some smallmouth action all winter, but, practically speaking, it’s cold and tough for fly fishers. Reservoirs in the southern states offer some potential winter fly fishing, but even in those areas, fast-sinking lines and subsurface flies are usually required.