It's hard not to get excited about smallmouth bass. They're abundant—nearly every state in the lower 48 has at least one public smallmouth resource. They're structure-orientated fish that are easy to locate. Textbook hangouts like weed lines, rocky outcroppings, logjams, and other rip-rap typically hold fish.
Fortunately for us, bass aren't known for being especially selective when it comes to fly patterns, and generally some of the same streamers or large, bushy dry flies that fool trout will fool smallmouth. But some patterns do work better than others. Here is a brief list of best smallmouth bass flies available today with some insight on pattern design, presentation, and other motives for carrying a few the next time you get the itch for bronzebacks on the fly.
Barr's Meat Whistle
John Barr created this pattern for bass fishing in his home state of Colorado. Its upturned jig hook helps prevent snags and allows anglers to retrieve it slowly, along the bottom, like a leech, slow-moving baitfish or crawdad.
While this fly uses a small cone weight for the head, it's a relatively light pattern until water saturates the rabbit strip. When this happens, widen the loop of your cast or move the rod tip in more of an elliptical motion to prevent the heavy fly from smacking the back of your head (or worse).
While fly anglers sometimes get lost in hatch matching and replicating every minutia of the natural world, we forget that occasionally simple is better. The Black Magic, tied in colors to represent cicadas, hoppers or crickets, is proof that you don't need to tie patterns with a lot of details in order to catch fish.
Smallmouths are like any other bass — they're big fans of terrestrial meals. That's exactly what the Black Magic represents, without really representing anything at all. Cast it along high banks where natural hoppers might fall in, along cattails to imitate a small frog, or near fallen timber to mimic a large beetle that toppled in. Add small twitches to move the rubber legs and simulate a struggle. Because the fly is largely comprised of foam, it's fairly durable and should stay on the water's surface even after fooling several fish.
Without question, Bob Clouser's idea to create a minnow imitation that retrieved with a jigging motion raised the bar for smallmouth fly anglers. Since then, it's not only been one of the most popular go-to patterns for bronzebacks, it has fooled hundreds of fish species worldwide, and even helped some anglers break line-class world records.
The key to its success is its slender profile and weight distribution. Because the weighted dumbbell sit on top of the hook shank, the fly rides inverted and darts up and down like and injured baitfish — easy prey for bass. And though it's available in a variety of color patterns, it's hard to beat chartreuse and yellow.
Blados' Crease Fly
Originally designed to catch subsurface striped bass, smallmouth anglers fish Blados' Crease Fly under the same logic as a traditional popper — create a disturbance and the fish will come. The appeal, depending on the size and color combination, is that the fly presents a realistic baitfish profile to a marauding smallmouth. Anglers in the Heartland, for example, where shad are common, commonly use Crease Flies with a white, glossy, basic color pattern as an imitation of the baitfish.
Aside from possibly the Clouser Minnow, there's no other fly that's fooled more species of fish than the Woolly Bugger. Smallmouth are no exception — they love 'em. Tied in different colors and with sparse or full hackle wraps, a bugger can imitate any number of natural foods favored by smallies including leeches, hellgrammites, baitfish, and crayfish.
A Crystal Bugger is just one of many Woolly Bugger variations and incorporates a few small strands of flash to the tail, though some tiers continue the flash up the sides of the fly to the head and then wrap the hackle overtop. While it may not seem like much, it can help the fly be more distinctive underwater, especially if there's other flotsam contending for a bronzeback's attention.
One of the reasons bass are such popular game fish is because they're aggressive feeders willing to engulf easy meals from the surface. At no time is that more apparent than when retrieving a popper along a weed line or rocky outcrop and watching a smallmouth pounce on top. What's more, poppers are easy to use — the object is to strip, jerk and 'pop ' the fly so it looks like fleeing or injured food.
While available in a variety of designs and colors — balsa wood heads and hard-foam heads, for example — it never hurts to have an array of styles and colors in your box to see what triggers bass best. Remember that motion is often the key. Patterns with rubber legs and wispy tails often continue pulsating in the water when the fly is at rest and can entice strikes between line strips.
If you've ever fished any of the famous smallmouth fisheries in the Eastern U.S., like Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, you've probably heard of mad tom catfish — they're a favorite live bait among area anglers. Mad toms are only a few inches long, with a bulbous head and tapered body, making the Kiwi Muddler, with its deer-spun head and wispy marabou body, a perfect imitation. However, Kiwi Muddlers also look like scuplin minnows, another smallmouth favorite, so it's like getting a two-for-one deal.
Because of the spun deer-hair head, this fly typically wants to float more than it wants to sink, so to present it properly, you may need to add split shot to your leader, or fish it on a short leader looped into a sink-tip line.
The Sneaky Pete is the less-noisy cousin of a Cupped-mouth Popper and while it's great at getting the attention of lurking smallmouth, it does so by 'sliding ' over the water's surface as opposed to pushing it.
This is a good fly for when the bass seem willing to come to the surface, but don't commit to striking because a fly like a popper is making more commotion than the fish is comfortable approaching.
Bass love baitfish, and what looks more like a baitfish than a Zonker? This pattern is simple to tie, extremely durable, and a great imitation for common bass menu items like shad, shiners or chubs.
Because this pattern is lightly weighted, retrieve it slowly fly slowly along log jams, rock outcroppings, weed lines, or anywhere else smallmouth might be taking refuge. If the water is clear, there's a solid chance you can see the fly's white hue several feet under which can add an element of sight-fishing to your game plan. You can also have success using it as a dropper in tandem with a surface pattern like a popper. The commotion of a popper will get the fish's attention, and for those fish unwilling to strike on the surface, the Zonker represents an underwater option.
Tullis Wiggle Bug
If a fly looks real and acts real, it will trigger a fish to strike. Nowhere is that more true than Larry Tullis' Wiggle Bug. Tied with a foam shellback and head, this fly's initial impulse is to float. But once you begin retrieving it with long, steady line strips, the angled foam lip acts like the plastic scoop on a conventional crankbait, causing the fly to dive and wiggle from side to side, like a fish trying to swim.
Tied in natural colors, the Wiggle Bug is great for imitating fleeing baitfish. However, tied in earth tones line tan, brown, olive or black — the Wiggle Bug makes for a great crayfish imitation, especially in shallow water with rocky streambed where mud bugs like to root.