Fly Fishing for Stream Smallmouth
May 14, 2012
Those of us who have experienced the excitement of hooking wild, stream smallmouth on a fly can't help but fantasize about catching trophy-sized smallmouth. And although a big smallie occasionally smashes a surface fly, most are taken on subsurface flies.
I once got a phone call from my dear friend and lifetime smallmouth purist, Jack Allen. He just returned from his annual August pilgrimage to Maine's magnificent Penobscot River. We talked before he left because he was puzzled about why he never caught smallmouth there over 18 inches when I have landed 19- to 22-inch fish in the same water. We discovered the reason was that most of my big bass were caught subsurface on my NearNuff Crayfish fly—and Jack only fishes surface bugs. This year I sent Jack a box of NearNuffs to experiment with on the Penobscot. He called excitedly to say they had indeed caught him much larger bass.
As you may know by now, smallmouth bass are my favorite fly-rod fish and I enjoy catching them most on surface flies. But, if I want to catch more and larger fish, I always go to swimming and bottom-crawling flies, especially if they imitate smallmouth favorites such as chubs, shad, shiners, darters, catfish, sculpins, and crayfish. In Part III of this series I'll discuss these flies and the techniques I use.
I classify my streamers as swimming flies or bottom flies. Swimming flies are streamers I fish from just under the surface to the bottom. Bottom flies are streamers designed to sink fast and crawl or hop over bottom structure at depths from three inches to thirty feet. Fish a fly that swims at the proper depth based on the natural smallmouth food in the water you fish. Both types of flies are effective most of the year when water temperatures range between 45 to 85 degrees F. Below that temperature range, smallmouth are nearly dormant, and above that they can be sluggish or more focused on surface flies.
Subsurface Natural Foods
Smallmouth bass are masters at surprise and pursuit and even the fastest or most erratically swimming foods are no match for their superb agility and speed. Therefore, actively swimming prey such as minnows, leeches, nymphs, frogs, and crayfish are always on the menu.
Minnows such as chubs, smelt, ciscoes, shiners, dace, suckers, sunfish, perch, and shad are smallmouth favorites best imitated with Clouser Minnows, Sheep Minnows, Marabou Muddlers, bucktails, Woolly Buggers, Lefty's Deceivers, and Matukas. Use patterns with the same color and the same size as the minnows in the waters you're fishing. In my experience, especially with selective, older, and wiser bass, matching the color, shape, size, and action of the real minnow is important when fishing in clear water and bright daylight. On the other hand, when water visibility is restricted, a streamer with high-contrast colors such as black, white, chartreuse, yellow, and fluorescent orange works better than natural minnow patterns.
These flies are more effective if equipped with vibration generators like rattles, bulky-head muddler-type profiles, Petitjean's Magic Heads, or revolving spinner blades. Like it or not, a revolving spinner blade in front of a streamer probably doubles its effectiveness. When I first began fly fishing for smallmouth, revolving-spinner flies were common. The spinner helps get the fly deep, gives it more action, and enhances low-frequency sound appeal. Today spinners are unpopular with most fly fishers, but there are times at night or when the water is stained that they are worth the extra trouble and weight. Hildebrandt still makes excellent straight-shafted spinners for straight, ring-eyed flies. Gold, black, and silver blades, in that order, are the best producers.
Smallmouth also key in on crayfish and small fish that live on or under bottom structure like sculpin, darters, suckers, and small catfish. In fact, most smallmouth fishers would probably vote crayfish as the number one smallmouth food, and I'd agree because my NearNuff Crayfish has enticed many nice smallmouth over the years and is my go-to fly. [See Stephen May's "Lobster Dinners for Freshwater Fish," March, 2006. The Editor] When tied in the correct color and size, this fast-sinking pattern also imitates streambottom fishes.
Swimming and bottom streamers have the best action in the water if they are made from marabou, soft hackles, rabbit strips, fox or Icelandic sheep hair, and silicone rubber legs. For flash I prefer Flashabou and Flashabou Accent. Each of these materials breathes and wiggles with life at the slightest movement.
Tackle for Smallmouth Streamers
Smallmouth streamers are usually bulky, heavy flies in sizes 8 to 1/0. Additional lead eyes, spinners, or material weight adds significantly to the line weight and rod power you need to cast them smoothly. I prefer an 81/2 foot 6- or 7-weight rod with a medium-fast action for this type of fishing. However, when I fish small, clear, shallow streams where fish are smaller, distances and depths are less, and food forms equally smaller, I enjoy using 4- or 5-weight rods.
I carry a floating weight-forward line; a type IV sinking tip; and a full-sinking type IV or V. If I walk and wade, I carry two extra spools so all three lines are with me. This way I can present flies in any part of the water column. When I use a kick boat, canoe, or bass boat, two or three rigged rods are easy to carry and changing lines and techniques as conditions require is convenient.
A floating, weight-forward or bass-taper line is ideal for flies that make a surface wake or swim just below the surface. Because it's easy to mend, this line is the best of the three when you need to control drag in flowing water. I usually use a 9-foot, 3X to 1X knotless leader and fluorocarbon tippet with these lines.
For presenting swimming and bottom-bouncing flies deep and briskly, I use a line with a short 5-foot type IV sinking-tip, especially in water two to four feet deep. Unlike the 10-, 12-, or 15-foot sinking tips, the shorter tips cast like a dream, mend fairly well in moving water, pick up easily, and get the fly to the depth quickly. In fact, a 5-foot sinking tip casts bass flies better than any other line I use.
The leader I use with this line is a 4-foot, knotless, sinking leader with 18 to 24 inches of 3X to 1X fluorocarbon tippet. If you can't find a sinking leader, cut 3 feet off the butt of a 71/2 foot, 1X knotless leader and add fluorocarbon tippet. This is a great leader for most bass and trout streamer fishing. It's also perfect for diving flies that sit on the surface and dive underwater when retrieved.
When fishing stream or lake water between 4 and 20 feet deep, a full-sinking, density compensated sinking line (type IV or V) with a 3- to 4-foot sinking leader is my favorite. In water deeper than four feet, you should get the fly down quickly and keep it deep while retrieving it over a considerable area to locate fish. I often get some of my biggest smallmouth when fishing swimming flies close to the bottom or crawling bottom flies slowly and erratically. This can only be done effectively with a uniform full-sinking line.
Fishing swimming flies on full-sinking lines is also productive and one of my favorite streamer techniques. Attach 24 to 30 inches of 1X fluorocarbon tippet to a full-sinking line and tie on a streamer with a buoyant head, like my Sheep-Minnow Waker or a Marabou Muddler.
As the sinking line descends to the bottom it pulls the fly after it. As you slowly strip, the buoyant fly momentarily dives toward the bottom then rises again when you pause between strips, suspending a foot or two above the bottom. This allows you to retrieve slowly without the fly snagging structure.
To detect a strike, keep the rod tip close to the water and watch the line for subtle movements or focus on feeling any delicate change in line tension while stripping. If the water temperature is cold or the bass are especially sluggish, give them an extra two seconds to get the whole fly into their mouths and then strip-strike slowly but deliberately.
No matter what line you choose to fish, animate the fly to simulate prey that is disabled, off guard, or in peril, retrieving at least half the length of your cast each time because bass often follow before they strike. Experiment with action as each stream and each day is different. Slow action is usually required in water colder than 60 degrees.
Where to Fish
Fish subsurface smallmouth flies across, under, or next to stream structure like big rocks, ledges, deadfalls, and weedbeds or in open, deep runs where specific structure is not apparent. Most of the time smallmouth hang near structure and ambush their meals. Sometimes bass also go on feeding prowls in open riffles and runs, along shorelines, and into pool tailouts where they intercept flushed minnows and crayfish.
Keep in mind when fishing around underwater stream structure that the current moves the fly downstream as it sinks. Therefore, depending on the speed of the current, cast well above where you expect the fly to encounter a waiting smallmouth. Fishing flies close to structure is the most effective presentation, and I often pull my flies right over structures or let them sink and drift beneath boulders, roots, ledges, or logs. This requires flies that drift hook up or have weedguards to discourage snagging. Otherwise you can lose a lot of flies, spoil good spots while dislodging snags, or you'll refrain from casting a fly where it fishes best.
Open water in streams is the water offshore that appears relatively smooth at the surface and has no apparent structure in it. Bass may be there but probably don't stay long before moving to where structure is plentiful. Look for them in riffles, runs, pools, and tailouts, especially if you see bass forage foods. Open water from one to four feet deep will have bass in it when the light is low and water temperature is 60 to 75 degrees F. If the water has a cold, slow current, fish will likely congregate in four- to ten-foot-deep pools.
The easiest way to fish smallmouth streamers in these areas is to cast across and downstream. The current provides swimming action for the fly and a strike is obvious on a taut line. However, in faster water it's harder to get the fly deep or on the bottom and mending is required to slow the speed of the fly.
Casting and fishing in these areas requires much more slack-line control. Keep your rod tip low, right next to the water's surface or even under it, to heighten your strike detection and ability to quickly react to the bite. When trying to crawl a bottom fly with a full-sinking line in a current, poke your rod tip toward the stream bottom to avoid drag on the belly of the line caused by the faster upper currents as the fly sinks and during retrieval.
To efficiently set the hook, strip-strike and lift the rod tip at the same time. Strike this way two or three times, about one to two seconds apart, until the bass relaxes its bite pressure enough so the hook can stick. Bass use lots of jaw pressure to hold and crush prey and its difficult to hook them on a single hook until they relax their grip—which they'll do as they begin to feel pressure.
When I'm after big bass, I prefer hooking them from a downstream position, which pulls the hook deeper into the jaw. An upstream hook-set tends to pull the hook out of the mouth, plus it's much easier to exert the rod's power against an upstream bass during the hook-set and fight.
A smallmouth's response to subsurface flies changes through the year as variables like temperature, water levels, food availability, spawning, and light levels change. Here's a basic guide to the seasons.
Spring. As soon as winter loses its grip on water temperatures, smallmouth move out of deep pools and start feeding on swimming food, especially minnows. Once spring brings warmer, higher water levels, the best subsurface fishing locations are in lower riffles and deep runs where there's lots of coarse rock or submerged roots and trunks. Deep runs along cut-banks are also excellent.
Flies fished slowly just above or on the bottom are the most consistent producers. Smallmouth spawn from mid to late spring in shallow, current-sheltered water. If you see a nest, avoid fishing there if you want good fishing in the future. Catching bass off the nest fatigues them too much to spawn and guard their eggs. If eggs are already laid, removing the parent bass leaves the eggs or fry unguarded from sunfish or other predators.
Summer. Look for smallmouth hiding everywhere in the stream, but runs and pool perimeters are the most likely spots, especially those that have coarse structures and shaded areas. Late-summer bass often congregate in deep, rocky riffles where the water is cooler and aerated. This is the season and time when smallmouth can be caught on swimming flies at all levels of the water column, particularly early mornings, sundown, and at night. If the summer flows are low and clear, use smaller flies and lighter tippets.
Fall. Before frost, smallmouth actively feed on minnows and crayfish, but as soon as water temperatures drop abruptly and the waters clear, smallmouth get moody. I feel they've fattened up for winter and are beginning to move to their deep wintering pools. I usually have better success squirrel, quail, grouse, or duck hunting during this time.
Winter. Although smallmouth are coldwater fish, they do not seem nearly as active in winter water as largemouth bass. They spend the season in the deepest slow water, lying near the bottom and striking slowly. Most crayfish are dormant in winter, so crayfish flies aren't particularly effective. Minnow imitations, fly and spinner combos, and grub-type flies like my Scorpion Fly and Hare Jig in white or fluorescent yellow can often entice them.
One bright, cold winter day on Missouri's upper North Fork of the White River, using a full-sinking line and #6 NearNuff Sculpin, I hooked what I first thought was the bottom, but then it moved like a 12-pound brown. Twenty minutes later a long, carp-shaped golden outline appeared. Thinking it was indeed a carp, I changed my tactics and horsed it to the surface and nearly fainted. It was the largest smallmouth I'd ever hooked. The big fish lunged deep while adrenaline shot through my body. I broke the 2X tippet and the fish disappeared from sight, but never from my memory.
1. Sheep Minnow Waker. This pattern is an excellent choice when paired with a floating line and fished just under the surface, along shorelines, or where you see bass chasing minnows.
2. Sheep Minnow Swimmer. This can be tied in a variety of colors to match the naturals when smallmouth are feeding on mid-depth minnows. It works equally well with floating and 5-foot sinking-tip fly lines. Because it's almost 100 percent snag-proof, it's ideal for fishing over, through, or under structure.
3. Matuka Minnow Streamer. No streamer imitates minnow shapes better than the Matuka. Tied with a straight-eye hook and spinner this is a deadly mid-depth swimming fly. Because of its realistic minnow shape and hackle color, it is one of the best patterns for imitating nearly every species of minnow.
4. Woolly Bugger. Excellent swimming fly when you don't know what naturals smallmouth want at lower depths. The color, size, and action may imitate swimming minnows, leeches, or bottom fishes. Have an assortment of white, chartreuse, black, brown, and olive Woolly Buggers in sizes 2-10.
5. Matuka Sculpin. For a precise sculpin, sucker, or mad-tom imitation, this fly is the best. It can be tied hook-point up or hook-point down and equipped with a nylon monofilament snag guard. Tie it in colors that match the stream bottom or solid black.
6. Hare Grub. The Hare Grub fishes similar to the Scorpion Fly, except it resembles a minnow a bit more. It also is nearly 100 percent snag-proof. My favorite color is brown and black with a fluorescent-orange rabbit-hair belly.
7. NearNuff Crayfish. This is my favorite fly when crayfish are present, especially during summer during their soft-shell phases. It hops and crawls over the bottom nicely with the hook point up. Orange, dirty brown, and dirty olive are the best three colors. Fish it slowly with a stop-pause or slow-crawl retrieve.
8. Scorpion Fly. I designed the Scorpion Fly to catch smallmouth that like those curly-tail plastic grubs that spin fishermen use so effectively. Because they have a two-system weedguard design—upturned hook point and double monofilament snag guard—you can hop, crawl, or jig them on the bottom. White, fluorescent yellow, root beer, and black patterns are most effective.
9. NearNuff Sculpin. This fly beautifully simulates most bottom fish, especially small sculpins, darters, and mad-tom catfish. I tie it in only two colors, olive and black and golden brown and black. Its up-turned hook point avoids snags and helps hook bass that strike from above. Fish it the same as a NearNuff Crayfish.
10. Clouser Minnow. I like the fast-sinking Clouser Minnows to get close to the bottom in swift water. The jigging action looks like a feeding or injured minnow. White and silver, chartreuse and white, olive and yellow, brown and orange, and black are excellent colors for smallmouth.
11. Zonker. Zonkers are deadly swimming streamers. They have all the tantalizing action, shape, and flash of live minnows. Have a few with a gold braided body and yellow or olive rabbit strips and a few with a silver or pearl-braid body with white, yellow, gray, or black rabbit-strip backs. Zonkers are also even more effective with a small gold or silver spinner attached.
12. Marabou Muddler Minnow. This fly has an excellent swimming action. It's an especially good low-frequency sound generator for murky water or low light. Patterns tied with white, yellow, and black marabou work best.
Dave Whitlock is a Fly Fisherman editor-at-large and an author, artist, photographer, fly designer, and lecturer.