How to Catch Smallmouth Bass on Topwater Flies
Gamefish come equipped with a variety of different jaw structures, each of which tells a different story about how these fish evolved to hunt prey. Some species, like the channel catfish, have an obvious overbite—useful in pinning prey on the bottom. The brook trout has a jaw that occupies much of its face, a testament to how it evolved to eat during the relatively short growing season of northern latitudes and high-country streams (that is to say, all the time). Then there’s the smallmouth bass. A look at its jaw structure shows a lower jaw that extends beyond the upper. The biology tells the story of a fish that evolved to feed up top.
The surface might look to the angler like an easy nut to crack, but in fact the opposite is true. Perhaps nowhere else in the water column does the how, and why, and when of smallmouth fishing have so many different nuances and possibilities. First off, to Micropterus dolomieu the surface is a place of food—and danger. Imagine a restaurant where the food was easy to get but where each excursion brought with it the threat of annihilation. Simply put, the surface is where a fish negotiates its willingness to eat with its wariness of death from above. And so we’ve classified topwater flies according to the sound they make. In fact, you might think of them as musical instruments producing a variety of different sounds, from the pianissimo of the wiggly to the fortissimo of a banging Boogle Bug to the deep baritone of a hair bug trapping large quantities of air in its spun body. In short, perhaps even more so than silhouette, what distinguishes topwaters is their sonic profile. For current purposes, we’ll divide topwater flies into two basic categories: wigglies and poppers.
To tell the story of the wiggly we first have to tell the story of an elderly Southern gentleman by the name of Jack Allen. Jack was a longtime largemouth bass guide from the Florida Everglades, and when we met him at the boat launch one early summer day, we saw nothing more than a guy with a bad elbow and a box of tiny hand-tied flies with foam bodies and wiggly legs—“bluegill spiders on steroids,” we called them. When we launched the boat that first day with Jack the winds were ripping the flags straight out and there were standing waves and whitecaps on the river—not the sort of conditions in which any of the guides would have suggested throwing something as small and delicate as one of Jack’s foam and rubber creations. In the standing waves and whitecaps, it would have been hard to spot a big bright blockhead popper, let alone a small dark bluegill fly—jacked up on steroids or not.
Then Jack caught a 19-inch smallmouth. And another. The third fish we netted was a solid 20 inches. Afterward Jack flopped back down, wincing and rubbing his casting elbow. Shaking out his arm and getting back in the casting perch, he clarified to both us and the fish: “I prefer the 14-inchers.”
In a way, fishing wigglies is not new. As far back as the 1880s, Dr. James Henshall was imploring the smallmouth angler “not to forget the spiders.” But as we started fishing wigglies systematically on our Wisconsin rivers, we noticed different behaviors in the bass that we’d been catching for decades on poppers and hair bugs. There was a difference between the eats we got on the wiggly and the eats we got on the popper. Oftentimes the popper eat is aggressive, a toilet bowl woosh or topwater explosion of sorts—which suggests a fish could be scared or confused (or both) when it whacks a popper. But wiggly fish were a different story. There was never unnecessary commotion in the eat. A full ten times out of ten, a smallmouth bass simply sipped it out of the film. They were confident it was food.
Though the above anecdotes demonstrate a fish’s willingness to eat the wiggly in a variety of weather conditions and forage situations, the real problem the wiggly solves is presenting to fish in shallow, calm water. This might refer to 1) the first shelf when there is “just enough” water to bring fish onto it, 2) shallow feeding flats in the evening, and 3) mid-river rock gardens and weed beds in the middle of the day. For these reasons the wiggly typically becomes an especially important fly in the smallmouth angler’s arsenal once water levels drop a bit in early summer.
Fishing the Wiggly
The wiggly is not a popping bug, so the most important rule to remember when fishing one is simple: Don’t pop it. That’s because the power of the wiggly lies in its seductive subtlety—aka, the wiggle—which goes out the window when you yank it across the surface. Having fished these flies with hundreds of clients, we’ve settled on a single verbal instruction that accurately communicates how subtle of a motion the fishing of these flies requires: “Bend its legs. Don’t move the bug, just bend its legs.” How much line manipulation is needed to bend legs made of one-millimeter silicone? Not much. For anglers accustomed to micromanaging the actions of their streamers, fishing the wiggly can require a Zen-like patience and detachment. In addition, the true wiggly artist will master mending in such a way where you exaggerate your stack mend slightly to come into contact with a fly and give it the subtlest nudge—the exact opposite of what you’d be looking to do when dry-fly fishing for trout. We like to call this “touch mending.”
Before we get started about poppers, which have been around in either deer hair, balsa wood, or foam forms since time immemorial, it might be worth asking an obvious question: Why on earth does a smallmouth bass eat a chartreuse popper in the first place? Our years on the water have led us to believe that a big part of the reason that smallmouth eat things like gaudy fluorescent poppers is due to “the curse of no opposable thumbs.” We have seen bass sip a spindly leaf with the same confidence as they would an adult dragonfly, only to kick it out once they recognize the mistake. The actionable difference is that the mistakes we throw their way have a hook at the end of them.
When and How to Pop
If there’s a basic recipe for popper fishing, one that we might tweak based on the conditions at hand, it’s this:
1) Land the fly as gently as you can. The sound of the fly hitting the water is the first possible cue to bring a fish in.
2) Let the bug drift at least until the rings of water clear. Or longer (because less is more, longer is better).
3) Mend if need be (ideally a “pop mend,” like a “touch mend” but with more force).
4) Let the rings of water clear again.
5) Pop, and then repeat steps 2-4.
With that basic recipe established, there are several other factors that affect the way we fish popping bugs. The first is the depth of the water. The key with any popping bug is as follows: Shallow water gets a little pop, deep water gets a big pop. In situations where you’re fishing a popper all the way back to the boat over water steadily increasing in depth, this means that the intensity of pops should increase commensurately.
In addition to depth, temperature is another factor that affects our approach to popping. Cool-water popping and warmer-water popping should be approached differently in terms of attitude and expectation.
How long it takes a fish to react to a topwater fly depends on a number of factors, with water temperature being foremost. The colder the water, the longer you should work a topwater fly before giving up on a cast. When the water heats up, be prepared for near-instant strikes.
Early in the season when bass metabolic rates are slow, you might get hit eight seconds into the drift because that’s how long it takes for that lethargic fish to hone in. That’s a time to stay focused on the fly throughout the drift, and not to lose your attention even after the fly has been sitting out there for some time. Later in the season, when bass metabolic rates are at their peak, the angler must be ready for the opposite: an instantaneous eat. When water temps are high, you don’t want to be adjusting your sunglasses or unwrapping a line from around your reel seat when the fly lands. You want to be ready to strike.
So depth and temperature of the water are two things that we take into account when determining the intensity of our approach, but in clear water when we can see our quarry there’s another dimension the thoughtful topwater angler must think about: the proximity of the fish. With a fish at distance you might have needed to shout to get his attention, but you don’t want to keep shouting after you have his ear. In many cases, the fish will charge the fly and eat it after a single pop. But then there are other times when a fish will charge toward a fly several yards away and not eat but pause beneath it, laid up beneath your bug like a seal with a ball on its nose. In such circumstances, if you give your fly a normal pop, that bass will be gone. At times like this it’s a whisper, not a shout, that will seal the deal.
Skating flies has a time and place, but it is certainly not all times and it is not every place. This technique works best on small to midsize rivers where it’s possible to cover most, if not all, of the river in a single swing. That’s because skating flies requires “players” to work, and players of the type that chase skated flies can be few and far between. In this sense, skating flies is similar to fishing large, flashy streamers from a boat in an attempt to elicit territorial strikes. In both cases you are covering a lot of water, accepting that passive and neutral fish are going to ignore your offering but feeling confident that you’re covering enough water efficiently enough to entice aggressive fish into eating. Though you can definitely skate flies with a single-handed rod, this technique is most satisfying to fish with a six-weight switch rod coupled with a Skagit head of a grain weight appropriate for the rod’s action and the caster’s style.
The same poppers and wigglies we’ve been discussing also make great skating flies, provided they are not too big. Because this technique is most successful when you can cover significant water, you need a fly that can be cast a considerable distance with relative ease. We’ve found that smaller foam terrestrial patterns in the size six neighborhood are ideal. Remember that the overall impression of the bug will seem larger given the fact that it is creating a wake on the surface.
There are two important components to this technique, the first and most important being the length of the cast. The skated-fly approach is most successful when you can cover most of the river in a single cast. If you can stand on the first shelf of one bank, cast to the first shelf of the far bank, and skate across the entire length of the river, you have found yourself skatable water. Using this technique, it is quite possible to present to every single fish in a given beat of water.
The second important part of this technique is the speed of the fly. Too slow and fish have too much time to think—we want them to simply respond. Too fast, on the other hand, and it just doesn’t feel like food. So how do you know the right speed? One way to think about speed is by the size of your wake. When skating flies for smallmouth, you should aspire to a wake that is about the size of a slice of pizza. A too-fast retrieve will create too large a wake, a too-slow retrieve generally too small. Aim for a healthy pizza slice, and you’re on your way to garnering reaction strikes up top.
The Topwater Hook-set
The best hook-set when fishing topwaters is not a strip-set or side-sweep. Instead, come straight up with the rod and at the same time make one long, strong strip until the rod has a good bend in it. Setting straight up and with a strip when fishing topwaters is tremendously important toward achieving consistent quality hook-sets. That said, setting to the side can also work if the rod set follows the current in a downstream direction, but unless you know which direction the fish ate the fly from, a low side set runs the risk of pulling the fly out of a fish’s mouth.
With any popping bugs or wigglies, if we lose a fish it is usually within the first three seconds. Even if it’s on the second, deeper shelf, a fish typically eats and heads for even deeper water—right at you, in other words. It can be very hard to catch up to these charging fish. What we tell our clients is this: “Strip aggressively as if you were trying to break the fish off—until you come tight to them again.” This command puts into their heads that they have to be aggressive with the fish to make up all that slack line that a charging fish introduces. Practice a stripping motion that is large and all the way past your belt line—and don’t stop. Oftentimes an angler might stop stripping because the lines goes slack and they think the fish is gone. Keep stripping with the biggest, longest strips you can muster. Odds are that bass is still there.
Be Ready for Anything
Fishing the surface for smallmouth bass is not simply for the pleasure of a visual eat. It’s also for the thrill of your biggest fish of the season. We have a theory that certain much-larger-than-average smallmouth are not full-time crayfish eaters. That’s because crayfish are not the most efficient food source when it comes to digestion. There’s a lot of wasted energy produced while digesting these large crustaceans (think of how hard a bass’s body has to work to process and expel all those exoskeletons). Higher up in the water column, however, bass can find many things that are denser in quality nutrients: damselflies, mice, voles, and frogs. The quality of the protein found in preystuffs that live at the surface is one way to explain the observation that all—not “some” or “most” but all—of the 22-inch fish we’ve caught over the course of our careers have come on topwaters. Follow these tips and you, too, might just score the best bass of your lifetime this year.
*Writer and photographer Dave Karczynski is a Robert Traver Award winner and writing instructor at the University of Michigan. Tim Landwehr owns and operates Tight Lines Fly Shop and has been guiding for smallmouth bass for the majority of his adult life. He lives in De Pere, Wisconsin.