Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass
May 15, 2015
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.
Locating Stillwater Smallmouth
Smallmouth prefer clear, cool water with adjacent, hard-structure materials. Coarse rock boulders, hard gravel, firm sandy bottoms, tree stumps, logs and rock bluffs, or ledges are ideal. They are sometimes attracted to deeper aquatic vegetation beds if minnows are present as well as some form of current caused by inflows, wind, or dam turbine releases. Reeds and cattails along the shoreline are excellent areas to find shallow-water smallmouth, especially when aquatic insects are hatching nearby. Silty-bottom areas with lots of surface aquatic vegetation such as lilies, cattails, and milfoil attract largemouth bass, pike, pickerel, and sunfish, but seldom hold smallmouth.
Sea walls, jetties, riprap, bridge pilings, artificial and natural reefs, long rocky points, steep sides of flooded creek channels, sheer rock bluffs, small rocky islands, or tributary mouths are also places where smallmouth congregate. On a lake in Maine I once found a floating, cabled log boom across the lake outlet, which was always good for three or four big smallmouth.
For locating underwater smallmouth structure and concentrations of bass, I recommend a fish locator mounted on your boat's bow. I prefer the type that also searches horizontally and shows what's in the casting area. Many stillwaters can have extensive barren areas, so using locators saves you time and keeps you focused where bass or schools of bait are concentrated. When smallmouth are suspended near the thermocline in the summer, or deep in the summer or winter, locators are especially useful. At these depths I have my best results with bass located next to bottom structure or bluffs and sunken islands. Smallmouth suspended in deep, open water seem much less aggressive toward flies.
There are two types of smallmouth stillwaters—natural lakes and man-made reservoirs. Most natural lakes were formed during the Ice Age. They have stable levels; shorelines of rock, trees, and aquatic vegetation; and plentiful food. Smallmouth are frequently near the shores and islands. These lakes are best fished in late spring, summer, and early fall. In the winter, the lakes usually freeze over.
Man-made reservoirs are formed by damming rivers to provide flood control, irrigation water, and hydroelectric power generation. Lake levels frequently fluctuate, so shoreline structure and food sources vary. Smallmouth live along the shorelines far less often than they do in natural lakes. Instead they commonly inhabit deeper, offshore river channels, reefs, and river channel bluffs. Southern and West Coast reservoirs often fish better in the early spring, late fall, and winter than in the summer.
Stillwater smallmouth appear to prefer crayfish, minnows, and aquatic insects—in that order—when they're available. Crayfish and some aquatic insects are seldom active in colder months, and when crayfish are dormant or in short supply, stillwater smallmouth feed on darters, suckers, bullhead catfish, and sculpins dwelling along the lake bottoms. I use my NearNuff or Matuka Sculpin, Hare Grub, or Scorpion Fly to imitate them and retrieve them slowly where these forage fish live.
Frogs, leeches, mice, terrestrial insects, and certain salamanders are also favorite seasonal foods. However, minnows, small sunfish, and perch normally parallel smallmouth activity all year, so they are consistent food forms that are important to imitate during all the seasons. Alewife, shad, smelt, and ciscoes form large schools, and flies imitating the local species are successful when smallmouth are intercepting the spawning and feeding migrations of these small fish.
When smallmouth are chasing schools of baitfish or feeding at the surface, they can also be taken with poppers and sliders, even over deep, open water. Look for this surface activity on calm days in the early morning and at sundown. If white bass, stripers, or hybrids are present, smallmouth frequently join them in herding and chasing bait schools. Keep your eye out for circling, diving gulls or sudden surface splashing, as both are tip-offs of this open-water feeding bonanza.
My friend John Hahn made an amazing discovery that allowed him to catch large smallmouth on his home lake. Through the lake's biologist, he learned that 4- to 8-pound fish lived in deep water along the bluffs of the lake's flooded river channel. It was difficult to consistently catch them on flies until he discovered a feeding frenzy that occurred after a school of stripers fed on shad in the waters near where he was fishing. John used a Waker Sheep Shad on a Type V sinking line and short leader to mimic the dying shad and over several seasons landed nearly 100 of these giant smallmouth.
Smallmouth love aquatic insects, especially emergers. The best ones to imitate are dragonflies and damselflies, large caddis, and big, burrowing mayflies. Smallmouth can't resist feeding on stillwater hatches of Hexagenia and Brown Drakes. Imitations of nymphs, emergers, duns, and spinners all work well during hatches. As a bonus you can also catch lake whitefish, carp, catfish, white and yellow perch, walleye, bluegill, and crappie on these flies. The best hatches occur over soft, silty or sandy bottoms or in shallow bays at sundown and at night.
Stillwater Smallmouth Techniques
When you fish any stillwater for smallmouth I recommend using a straight-line technique to animate and retrieve the fly, detect strikes, and hook fsh. Begin by casting your fly to where you think bass are holding. Once the fly hits the water, remove the slack between the rod and fly, and lower the rod tip so it's just above or under the surface. Keep the rod in this position throughout the retrieve to prevent line drag, and to be in position for a solid hookset when a fish strikes.
If you're fishing with an elevated rod tip, there is a lot of slack line between you and the fly. This not only prevents efficient hooksets, it also pulls the fly away from your target area. Also, try to avoid rod-twitch retrieves, especially when fishing subsurface patterns where it's important to feel the strike. Twitches create small amounts of slack line between strips, making it tough to set the hook and detect fish.
Fish from a stable, nonmoving position. Most stillwater smallmouth fishing is done from a float-tube, kick-boat, canoe, or bass boat. Your craft should not drift with the wind or move under paddle or motor power: If it's moving, your fly will drag and you'll lose the precise fly control you need. It is as defeating as drag in a stream when you need a natural drift.
Like stream-inhabiting smallmouth, stillwater bass are structure-oriented fish. When searching for fish, my favorite technique is to cast toward shore from a boat and slowly retrieve flies around structures that are above and below the water's surface. Present poppers and sliders over underwater structure to simulate the surface feeding activity that entices smallmouth to rise from the depths.
If fish are seeking deeper water, look for underwater points, humps, weedbeds, and reefs for activity and use the appropriate line system to reach them. Lastly, keep an eye out for offshore surface activity. Smallmouth chase and attack baitfish on the surface where there's seemingly no structure present and feed with the ferocity of striped bass blitzing bunker.
Every stillwater bass fly I tie, whether a surface fly, diver, swimmer, or bottom-crawler, has two characteristics. First, the fly has innate action, so when it is at rest or sinking, it still has lifelike movements. Second, each fly, when animated by line strips or rod-tip movement, comes to life and moves like its natural counterpart. The many moods and feeding activities of stillwater bass require both actions for best results.
Here are four retrieves that you should know and experiment with when fly fishing your favorite pond, lake, or reservoir. Remember, a retrieve that works well at one time may not suit the fish's mood later, so it's important to experiment.
Extra-slow retrieve. After casting, let the fly float, or sink and sit, for as long as you have patience to let it. Then animate it slowly for a short distance. Pick it up and cast again to the same or different area, and repeat the retrieve. This works well when bass are holding tight to structure and is one of the best retrieves to catch large smallmouth in especially clear water or where the fish are heavily pressured.
Pause, go, and stop. Cast the fly toward structure, pause five or six seconds, and then move it with a few one-inch to one-foot strips, and pause again. Each time you move it, increase the number of strips by one or two. If you're using a popper, try a combination of heavy pops and subtle twitches and vary the tempo of your strips to find a combination that interests fish. This is probably the most consistent technique for producing smallmouth strikes.
Continuous stripping. After the fly settles on the water or sinks to the desired depth, begin a series of continuous line strips without pausing. Vary the speed of the retrieves, or strip with an irregular rhythm to imitate an injured food item until you get the results you want. This is a great technique for imitating minnows, leeches, and nymphs.
Panic retrieve. Present the fly so it makes a loud, splashy impact on the surface, followed by an immediate fast-line strip to give the impression that the fly is panicking. If possible, make the fly change directions every 8 to 10 feet with hard line mends to the right and left. I like this retrieve coupled with a popper or slider over deep, bass-holding structures like flooded cedar trees or reefs. Sometimes 10 to 20 casts over the same structure will entice a school of smallmouth to streak up and smash the fly.
Stillwater Smallmouth Tackle
I advise using 6-, 7-, and 8-weight rods in stillwater to make it easier to deal with strong winds, larger fish and flies, longer casts, and deeper water. I use 81/2- to 9-foot, medium to medium-fast rods. The 81/2-footer is perfect for accurate shoreline structure presentations, and the 9-footer works best for open-water and long-distance casting.
Since smallmouth are found at so many depths, and feed on such a variety of foods, I recommend four fly-line designs.
Floating bass taper. This is best for fishing surface flies, divers, nymphs, and streamers along shorelines, down to 5 or 6 feet deep. I recommend pairing it with a 9-foot, 2X or 1X knotless bass taper leader (available from Umpqua).
Scientific Angler's Stillwater intermediate Type I. This clear, slow-sinking line (1 to 2 inches per second) is my secret weapon when I need to make long casts and slow retrieves using nymphs and streamers in clear water or on windy days. Use a 71/2-foot, 3X or 1X leader.
Type IV sinking tip, with 5-foot tip. An outstanding line to fish surface divers, Woolly Buggers, crayfish, and streamer patterns along shorelines in 1- to 10-foot water.
Type V weight-forward uniform-sink. This line is for fishing buoyant and swimming flies over long distances near the bottom in 10 to 40 feet of water. Use a 4-foot leader so the line gets the fly down quickly and keeps it close to the bottom. For best results, be sure your boat stays in a fixed position, and use slow, subtle, deep retrieves.
If pike, musky, or chain pickerel cohabit with smallmouth, it's a good idea to use 6 or 8 inches of heavy, 30- to 60- pound nylon or Tyger Wire bite tippet. Without this, you lose flies as well as the thrill from these fine game fish. Their sharp teeth sever most 20-pound and lighter tippet material.
An ideal setup, if you fish from a tube or boat, is to rig a rod with each line you'll need to cover the various situations in that particular water. This saves you from re-rigging on the water.
Stillwater smallmouth areas are far more abundant and produce larger bass than flowing waters. When you take to the water in your tube, canoe, or boat; match the local natural foods; and use the straight-line technique for precise fly control and effective hooksets, I predict you'll enjoy these wonderful stillwater bass just as much as you do our wonderful stream smallmouth, but in different ways. I love both equally.
For the future of the quality stillwater smallmouth, refrain from fishing to smallmouth on their nests in the spring. Smallmouth are environmentally and stress sensitive, and even temporarily removing them traumatizes the adults and any eggs or sac fry in the nest are immediately consumed by sunfish or other nest robbers. There's plenty of incredible fishing elsewhere on the lake or pond and the rest of the year to enjoy, and I hope this four-part series will help you do just that!