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.