January 12, 2017
By Jerry Darkes
One of fly fishing's greatest thrills is spotting, stalking, and casting to a fish. The anticipation and suspense prior to the catch, not to mention the technical skills required to accurately present a fly when a gamefish is in a state of heightened alertness, make flats fishing a pinnacle of our sport. When most people think of flats fishing they think of saltwater fishing for species like tarpon, bonefish, and permit. Flats fishing is just now catching fire in fresh water—perhaps the perception has been that there are not enough extensive, freshwater shallows to warrant the attention of fly fishers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Great Lakes are at the doorstep of millions of people, and while fly fishers crowd themselves onto the tributary streams during the height of steelhead and salmon runs, the lakes themselves have been largely ignored by fly fishers. These ocean-size bodies of water contain 20 percent of the fresh water on earth and have a combined shoreline of around 11,000 miles. Sounds intimidating, right? But despite the overall large size, there are wadable flats where you can park your car, walk into the cool, clear waters, and come eye-to-eye with hard-hitting smallmouth flats bass.
Smallmouth are the most widely distributed and accessible of all Great Lakes gamefish. Smallmouth have an ever-increasing fan base among fly fishers and it would be hard to design a better fly-rod fish.
Smallies eat flies across a wide range of water temperatures, and they feed from the bottom to the top. They are arguably one of the toughest-fighting fish in fresh water, making numerous jumps when hooked, and using their broad bodies and stamina for stubborn, rod-bending finishes. Great Lakes smallmouth frequently grow to 5 or 6 pounds, and even an "average" Great Lakes smallmouth would be a trophy elsewhere.
Best of all, smallmouth use the shallows extensively to travel, spawn, and feed, and there are flats fishing opportunities on the coasts of every Great Lake, with many areas close to major metropolitan centers. Some spots like Lake Erie's Presque Isle Bay and Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior already have a cult following but there are many other less-known or undiscovered areas that have received little or no attention from fly fishers.
Just consider Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, which contains over 30,000 islands and has a shoreline of around 1,200 miles. The number of shoals, reefs, and shallow rock piles that should hold fish there is mind-boggling. With barely a handful of guides paying attention to fly fishing in the region, the flats fishing here is wide open for exploration.
Scoping for Flats
Smallmouth flats all have one thing in common—a hard-bottom component. This can be a hard, flat bottom with broken-up areas of rock and gravel, or hard sand with intermittent patches of gravel or scattered rock. There may also be some scattered vegetation present, or some mud shallows, but broken rock and gravel provide a key component for smallmouth bass spawning habitat.
Smallies may feed across a sandy area with vegetation, but will not spawn there or gravitate to the surrounding areas without some sort of gravel in the area.
Great Lakes flats vary greatly in size. Some spots may be the size of a football field, while others may spread across dozens of square miles. There are many flats you can wade from shore, but using some sort of watercraft really opens up a lot of additional fishing areas. Kayak fishing is finally beginning to gain traction across the Great Lakes, and it gives you the ability to cover water quickly and efficiently from any unimproved public access point. As in saltwater fishing, a true motorboat gives you greater access to more areas, but it's really not required.
A Seasonal Look
Shallow-water opportunities begin in the spring when the water temperature approaches 50 degrees F. and smallmouth move from their deep wintering areas toward shallow spawning grounds.
Depending on your location, this can happen anywhere from mid-April to early June. In shallow, southern Lake Erie, this happens in mid to late April. In deeper, colder lakes to the north, May and early June is the magic time when smallmouth move to the warmer shallows and feed heavily on baitfish—usually emerald and spottail shiners. Gobies, a sculpinlike exotic species, are often in the mix along with smelt and shad in some areas.
The earliest fishing during the first few warm days of spring often entails working likely fish-holding areas and pathways to and from the shallows using a sinking-tip line. A sharp drop to deeper water will often be more productive than a gradual slope. Look for points, sharp turns, and corners leading off the shallows, as these create perfect ambush spots for predators like smallmouth bass.
An 8-weight rod gets the nod for Great Lakes smallmouth, as you'll often have wind to contend with. A size 2 chartreuse/white Deep Minnow or Half and Half are good starting patterns for working the edges of the flats. Other color combinations to try are olive/white, olive/chartreuse, gray/white, and all white. A size 2 olive Zoo Cougar is a very usable goby imitation, although there are more exacting imitations out there, such as the Moby Goby.
When the water temperature hits 55 degrees, smallmouth move into their spawning areas. The males fan silt and debris from their spawning nests while the females continue to feed. This is the prime time for sight-fishing to the largest fish of the year in depths from 2 to 6 feet. You'll see individuals and small clusters of fish cruising the shallows, and some stationing just off spawning beds.
The fish that have just moved up from deeper water are often dark, and easy to spot over a light-colored bottom. Within hours they can take on the color of the surrounding bottom, turning pale olive, which makes them more difficult to spot. Some develop dramatic tiger stripes when they are excited and feeding. This often acts as camouflage on a mottled bottom when they are ambushing prey species.
As in saltwater angling, wear polarized glasses to cut glare on the water and try to focus on movement, or shadows that betray the presence of fish overhead. A sunny day with little wind gives the best opportunity.
In water less than 5 feet deep, use a floating line. In deeper water, either switch to an intermediate line or switch your location—there is likely shallower water nearby.
When sight fishing, I often trust a visible, slow-sinking fly that lands softly and stays in the strike zone longer without snagging bottom. You are trying to get a curious or aggressive response here, not necessarily imitating a specific bait item, and my favorite pattern for this is a size 4 Tequilly. The brown/yellow color makes it highly visible to both you and the bass. Carry several color combinations of this fly in case the original is not working. Other productive combinations are olive/orange and black/pink.
Cast the fly inside a fish's cone of vision, let it slowly sink, twitch it with a few short strips to tighten the line and move the fly, then allow the fly to continue sinking. The strikes will be very deliberate, with the smallmouth cruising to the fly and inhaling it—often while the fly is dropping. When the fly disappears into the fish's mouth, strip-strike crisply, and the fun begins. The fish are not leader shy so you can use 10- to 12-pound test leaders (0X or 1X diameter tippet) to work the fish quickly to your hand.
When the water temperature hits 60 degrees, actual spawning takes place. Females lay their eggs in the nest a large male has already prepared, and then the eggs are fertilized by the dominant male, or interlopers who are lingering nearby. The male smallmouth continues to guard the fertilized eggs for around 10 days until the fry hatch and then immediately swim off.
Controls to protect smallmouth bass during the spawn vary depending on location. Ontario has a strict closed season on its Great Lakes waters, but all the states bordering the lakes allow catch-and-release smallmouth fishing during this period. Most recent research shows that as long as smallmouth are landed and released quickly, there is little detrimental effect on the resource. A male guarding a bed of fertilized eggs goes right back to his duties if you land the fish quickly and release the fish quickly. Studies have also shown than the number of nesting sites has little correlation to the resulting young of the year. Suitable nesting sites and weather are the most important factors, as males will abandon the nests completely if the water temperatures in the shallows drop dramatically.
I normally don't target pairs of bass actively engaged in spawning, or males cleaning or sitting on nests. Usually you can find other pre-spawn fish that are a little more "sporting" because they are feeding and moving. However, some rare days it seems like all you can find are fish on nests and on those days you'll need to make a philosophical (not a biological) decision based on how you want to fish.
Post-spawn females slowly move to the edges of the flats where you can still sight-cast to them. The males follow the same pattern when they move off the spawning beds, lingering in the shallower warm water for a week or two before moving off into deeper summer feeding grounds.
Although logic tells you that the fish should be hungry, it's a common observation that "bass don't feed after the spawn." In fact, Great Lakes smallmouths often become selective feeders as they target schools of just-hatched baitfish, and it may be necessary to downsize flies considerably so they are around 2 inches in length.
Great Lakes smallmouth fishing continues well into the July and even August. Ontario guide Paul Castellano often finds schools of Lake Erie smallmouth chasing bait on rocky flats in 3 to 6 feet of water. Though they are not the size of fish found on deeper offshore structure, these fish are often in the 3-pound range, a pretty good smallie by anyone's measure.
Capt. Brian Meszaros loves to target summertime smallmouth cruising sandy flats in Lake St. Clair. These fish are on the prowl and willing to hit both minnow and crayfish patterns. Scattered rocks, logs, and storm debris attract and hold groups of fish. One year a sunken lawn chair, victim of a wind storm, held bass for weeks until it was eventually pulled from the water. Any abnormality in the bottom is worth a cast or two.
When the water goes flat, surface patterns become viable choices. Foam poppers and Deer-hair Dahlberg Divers make surface noise, pulling smallies from a distance and generating explosive strikes. In the early morning and again in the evening, shallow areas adjacent to drop-offs often hold fish that have moved up from deeper water to feed. Anglers should throw to any visible rocks or cover and also watch for any swirls or bait activity on the surface and throw as close to these as possible. These locations are often localized around piers, docks, and other man-made structures.
As fall approaches, most smallmouth migrate to deeper offshore structure for the winter. They feed heavily as winter approaches, but this activity takes place deeper than the practical limits of fly fishing. However, they have given us a span of around four months where we can target them in shallow waters. For that we should be grateful.
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.
Presque Isle Bay, PA. A 7-mile peninsula shelters the bayside flats and makes up Presque Isle State Park. The shallow bay warms quickly in the spring and usually offers the first Great Lakes flats fishing of the year. There are numerous parking and pull-off areas that give quick and easy access to the water. Most of the flats are reachable by wading, but a kayak opens up additional areas.
- Karl Weixlmann 814-836-8013
- Steve Brugger 814-833-4040
- Jim Sharpe 814-881-8515
Lake St. Clair
Harsens Island, MI. Although not technically one of the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair may be the best smallmouth bass fishery on the planet. Take the ferry from Algonac to Harsens Island and wade the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area and Little Muscamoot Bay.
- Brian Meszaros 734-904-3474
Tawas Bay, MI. Park at the lighthouse at Tawas Point State Park and wade the extensive flats around the peninsula. You will also see carp on the flats, and depending on time of year, maybe even a brown or lake trout.
Beaver Island Archipelago, MI. Accessible only by water or air, this has become one of the top carping areas in the Great Lakes. Though there are not large numbers of smallies here, their huge average size makes up for it. Look for the bass to follow behind large carp much like permit follow stingrays on the saltwater flats.
- Indigo Guide Service 231-898-4320
Door County Peninsula, WI.
Door County has more miles of shoreline (over 300) than any other county in the U.S. The best wading flats are toward the tip of the peninsula on the main Lake Michigan side. Concentrate on the area between Newport State Park and Bailey's Harbor.
- Pat Ehlers 414-259-8100
- Nate Sipple 920-336-4106
Grand Traverse Bay, MI.
Traverse City has been called one of the "Top 10" fly-fishing towns in the U.S. and historically, the focus there has been on trout, steelhead, and salmon. Carp on the bay flats have been receiving some attention, and smallmouth are just coming on the radar. Try the Mission Point area and around the town of Elk Rapids.
- Hawkins Fly Fishing 231-228-7135
- Jon Kestner 877-636-5063
- The Northern Angler 231-933-4730
Waugoshance Point/Wilderness State Park, MI.
This park has over 26 miles of shoreline with launching facilities for both kayaks and larger boats. The best wading is from the end of the park road to the end of the point. Trails go to both the south and north sides of the point. Use the ramp in Big Stone Bay for motorized boats.
Mouth of Niagara River, NY. Both sides of the river mouth and the Niagara Bar attract big numbers of smallmouth. You need a motorboat here—launch it at Ft. Niagara State Park. Pay close attention to the New York/Ontario boundary, as the fishing seasons are different.
- Paul Castellano 888-512-8127
Chequamegon Bay, WI. Special regulations here have created an outstanding smallmouth bass fishery. There is some shoreline access at the town of Ashland, but the better flats are accessible only by boat in both Kakagon Slough and Sand Cut Slough.
- Roger & Jake Lapenter 715-682-5754