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.