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Smallmouths A La Carte: Understanding Forage to Fool More Fish

Match the hatch to land bigger bronzebacks on flies.

Smallmouths A La Carte: Understanding Forage to Fool More Fish

Smallmouth bass love to corral and feed on minnows and other small baitfish, but there are many other types of prey on the menu. Matching the hatch according to the local forage base will not only earn you more hookups—it’s the key to landing truly large bass. (Photo courtesy Jake Villwock)

When many anglers begin to target trout with fly rods, matching the hatch is one of the first things they learn. Understanding what trout are eating, and when, can be crucial to success on any stream. Sure, you can start with a standard Pheasant-tail Nymph or a Parachute Adams, and—without knowing the Latin names of any insects—still catch trout.

However, it’s often helpful to know that a Pheasant-tail imitates a generic mayfly nymph, and an Elk-hair Caddis resembles one of those “moth-looking” bugs the trout have been eating. The more you know about what’s going on in each stream or lake you are fishing, the more successful your fishing will undoubtedly be.

Matching the hatch makes our sport more complex, but also more fascinating. This is why many anglers carefully study the insects and other foods they see trout eat. They may never learn the Latin names, but most anglers who take the sport seriously at least understand the sizes, colors, and shapes of the foods the trout are eating.

So why is it that when it comes to smallmouth bass, many fly fishers just hit the river with a few flies and chuck them around, without paying much attention to what and when the smallmouths are eating?

I admit that when I first got into smallmouth bass fishing with a fly rod, I did the same thing myself. I took a few trout streamers and Clouser Minnows to the river, tossed them out, and stripped them back as fervently as I could. It had not yet dawned on me that bass, like trout, seek out specific food sources, and that each of those has unique characteristics and movements that smallmouths key in on.

Still, most of the time I was “successful”—if the measure of success was managing to catch a few bass—but I wasn’t catching many big ones. I would go out to the river, cast across the run, and burn my fly back toward me as fast as I could. Most of my warmwater and streamer fishing experience up to that point had been for striped bass and largemouth bass, which are accustomed to loud or fast-moving foods and generally don’t mind chasing down their prey. Poppers are designed to be loud and splashy for just this reason.

But as I spent more time studying and pursuing smallmouths, I became fascinated with what and how they eat, and when they choose to eat certain foods. I began thinking about what was going on behind the scenes and asking questions. I wondered why smallmouths seemed to prefer grasshoppers sometimes, and damselflies in other situations. I wanted to know whether they were choosing their prey based on preference, availability, or some other factor. What was influencing their moods, energy levels, and feeding behavior? How were the bass hunting, what were they hunting, and where?

In the spring, smallmouths move from cold, deep water and migrate into smaller waters to spawn. During this time, they seem to throw caution to the wind and become extremely aggressive toward large food items. Why is this? It turns out the answer is relatively simple. The creeks where the bass move—for just a short period in the spring—are, for most of the year, well-balanced ecosystems, meaning there is an ideal ratio of predators to prey.

However, early in the season, this balance tips to one side. Competition arrives—not only do the resident species have to compete for available food, but so do the migrating fish. What’s more, smallmouths are emerging from the winter, when their metabolism was very slow and they weren’t actively feeding—at least not nearly as much as in the summer months. In response to this competition and sudden surge in appetite, smallmouths become more aggressive.

We anglers can get away with casting big flies during this pre-spawn period. I typically throw baitfish imitations, but sometimes when the water temperatures are still cold, I choose weighted flies such as Circus Peanuts, articulated crayfish, weighted sculpins, and baby catfish imitations. Smallmouths are pretty slow-moving at water temperatures below 55 degrees F, so when water temps drop to the low to mid-40s, the weight helps keep those patterns moving slowly on the bottom.

The rest of the year, smallmouth bass feed on a wide variety of foods, from minnows and crayfish underwater to damselflies and frogs on the surface. Let’s take a look at the primary foods smallmouths eat, and discuss why their prey items change along with the seasons.


Baitfish for Smallmouth Bass

By baitfish, I mean any fish small enough for smallmouths to eat. Most freshwater systems that support smallmouth bass hold more than 20 species of minnows or baitfish. Among the most common are the blacknose dace, creek chubs, fallfish, darters, emerald shiners, and juvenile smallmouths. Each of these has distinctive markings and size ranges. Being able to key in on these species’ features, just as smallmouths do, can help you in matching them.

school of smallmouth bass corraling minnows
Most freshwater systems that support smallmouth bass hold more than 20 species of minnows or baitfish, including blacknose dace, creek chubs, fallfish, darters, emerald shiners, and juvenile smallmouths. (Jay Nichols photo)

One of the interesting things about the relationship between baitfish and smallmouths is their seasonal movements. Like smallmouths, many baitfish migrate with water temperatures and sunlight. They make similar migrations and spawn around the same time as smallmouths do. Many baitfish tend to let down their guard when the spawning cycle begins, making them easier-than-usual prey for hungry bass. During the summer months, you can find baitfish spread throughout a river system, seeking shelter near shorelines or near structures such as fallen trees, submerged timber, and in and around grass beds.

Baitfish also change locations as the water level drops, looking for cover in the deepest parts of the river. You are likely to find smallmouths in the same locations, which means baitfish are often readily available to the bass. However, as spring gives way to summer, smallmouths start to become distracted by other food offerings. And because the summer months offer so many options, baitfish are reduced to a small portion of the smallmouths’ diet. It is in the spring and fall—when there aren’t as many insects, and the crayfish are not very active—that baitfish make up a large fraction of the smallmouth diet.

Fly patterns commonly used to imitate baitfish vary in size, depending on water levels and time of year. In the spring, when the bass are typically hungry and quite aggressive, I cast larger flies until the water levels begin to drop and the water clears. That’s when it’s time to begin downsizing, often with the same fly patterns, just tied smaller and sparser. Some of my favorite baitfish patterns are Clouser Minnows, Swingin’ Ds, Game Changers, Double Deceivers, Lafkas Deceivers, Chosen Ones, Flash Monkeys, and a fly of my own design called the Roamer. One thing that all these flies have in common is that you can change the species of baitfish you are trying to imitate by merely changing the size and color of one or two materials.

Sculpins and Catfish for Smallmouth Bass

Sculpins and small catfish—including madtoms and baby channel catfish—also fall under the baitfish umbrella, but deserve some special consideration. They are separate species, but to fly fishers there is a connection.

Sculpins are found in cold and well-oxygenated water, which means they do not live in river systems where water temperatures commonly exceed 80 degrees in the summer. Still, many of the creeks where smallmouths migrate in the spring hold viable populations of sculpins, making them regular prey items at certain times of the year. Sculpins also mate in the spring in very similar locations, and they have been known to prey on both smallmouth and trout eggs, making them threats and therefore also possible meals.

Madtoms and stonecats, on the other hand, are very common in all locations wherever smallmouths roam. They are soft-bodied and found under rocks in all the same places you find crayfish and bottom-dwelling insects. During the fall, baby channel catfish and blue catfish are also common in many of the same locations, making small catfish a large part of the smallmouths’ diet.

Sculpin patterns have always been fruitful year-round smallmouth flies for me. But knowing there are few sculpins in most of our major warmwater fisheries made me wonder why they always work so well. And here is that connection I promised: If you look at the profile of a sculpin relative to that of a baby catfish, you will likely notice the similarities. I am convinced that some, if not most, of the smallmouths that eat a sculpin pattern are taking it not only as a sculpin, but as a small catfish.

There are not many “modern” small catfish imitations out there today, and really only a few from the good ol’ days—but as I said, sculpins and small cats have very similar profiles. You can use any of your favorite sculpin patterns to imitate catfish. If you really want a perfect match, add some rubber legs to the front of any sculpin pattern and you (unofficially) have a catfish pattern. A few of my favorite flies for sculpins and catfish alike are Over Easy Sculpins, Circus Peanuts, Freeze Dried Sculpins, Headbanger Sculpins, and Game Changers. All these patterns can also be modified to fit the water conditions by varying the color and size.

Crayfish (Crawdads) for Smallmouth Bass

Crayfish, also called crawdads, make up arguably the most abundant food source for smallmouth bass. Some anglers profess that 80 percent of a smallmouth’s diet consists of crayfish. Based on the number of times I have caught a smallmouth on a crayfish (or any fly for that matter) and found a natural crayfish sticking out of its mouth, or seen the bass regurgitate multiple crayfish during the fight, I’m inclined to believe that percentage.

Crayfish can mate in both fall and spring, but females lay eggs only between May and June. This is crucial information for fly fishers, for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that when crayfish are mating, the males become extremely distracted trying to get the attention of a female, making them easy meals for smallmouths. The other important reason is that the crayfish hatchlings emerge in July and grow to about an inch by late summer or early fall. These bite-sized crayfish are easy snacks for smallmouths.

collage of different smallmouth bass forage foods; stonefly, crayfish, small catfish, cicada, sculpin, bass with fish tail hanging out of mouth
Sculpins and catfish (top row) are important food sources for smallmouth bass, but you don’t need special flies to imitate them. Sculpins and baby cats have the same body shape and size, so use sculpin imitations like Circus Peanuts and Headbanger Sculpins in various sizes and colors. Smallmouths also love cicadas, crayfish, and hellgrammites (bottom row) so carry flies to imitate these food sources as well. (Jake Villwock photos)

About the time the hatchlings are moving around, many other summertime food sources diminish. The mayflies, damselflies, cicadas, and hellgrammites have completed their spring and early summer life cycles and are now gone. Sure, there are still immature nymphs around, but the adults have died off, and as a result crayfish become hugely important. No wonder some studies have shown that the greatest consumption of crayfish tends to be in the late summer and fall months.

Crayfish are very wary and cautious critters, spending most of their time under rocks and feeding only at night. But smallmouths have amazing eyesight, and they can get extremely close to a crayfish before it realizes it’s in trouble. By the time they do, it’s too late—the smallmouth makes one kick of its tail and closes the short distance, quickly pinning the crayfish to the bottom and sucking it down tail first.

Crawdad patterns vary in size and color, just like baitfish. Crayfish do not dive quickly to the bottom. They swim and flutter over the rocks, so weight is important to keep them close to the bottom. When water levels are high, weighting your fly to get it down and keep it down is a must. When the water is low and slow, a light fly that falls and flutters along the bottom without getting hung up is an advantage. Some of my favorite crayfish patterns include Clawdads, El Crawcitos, Chocklett’s Changer Craws, Hole Hoppers, Low Water Craws, Single Fly Cray 2.0s, Fleein’ Crays, and Nine-Pound Hammers.

Crayfish flies, in my opinion, are the toughest flies to fish because you must rely 100 percent on feel, and you must keep your fly moving slowly enough to entice a strike without getting constantly hung up on the bottom. One technique I use to fish these flies is with a floating line and a thin fluorocarbon leader. A sinking or intermediate line can work, but a thick fly line below the surface creates a lot of drag and resistance, making your fly swim too fast. It also reduces your overall feel and connection with the fly. Using a floating line and a thinner-diameter leader keeps you more connected and allows you to manage and mend your fly line more easily, slowing the fly down to a crawl and giving you a nice sighter to detect the strike.

I use a fluorocarbon leader because it sinks ever so slightly, helping drop your fly to the bottom. I usually build my own leaders, starting with 30 inches of 20-pound-test Scientific Anglers Absolute Fluorocarbon, then 16-pound for 24 inches, then 16 inches of 12-pound, then a 25-pound-test Scientific Anglers Micro Swivel, then your desired tippet length of 8- or 10-pound-test tippet.

This setup provides superior management of your whole presentation. No longer must you retrieve your fly in relation to how fast your fly line is sinking—now you can retrieve your fly in relation to how the fish is hunting. Typically, a smallmouth does not move quickly for long distances to chase a crayfish. They hunt slowly and approach as close as they can to their prey, then close the small distance quickly. This rig also gives you the ability to manage the weight of the fly for different conditions. In low, clear summer flows, you can use a lightly weighted fly, and in higher flows a heavier fly.

Hellgrammites for Smallmouth Bass

Hellgrammites (dobsonfly larvae) are among the nastiest-looking bugs I have ever laid eyes on—but to smallmouths, they are candy. Hellgrammites can grow up to 4 inches in length. They are found in fast, well-oxygenated water, and in the late spring and early summer they migrate to the riverbanks and crawl out to begin pupation. During this time, they become exposed and more vulnerable than at other seasons. Hellgrammites are not great swimmers, so when they get knocked into the current, they tumble downriver, squirming and wiggling as they try to get back under a rock or latch onto a piece of submerged debris. They also move around by crawling under and over rocks on the bottom.

When fishing a hellgrammite fly, you can dead-drift it at mid-depth or right on the bottom. Because they are large bugs, you can also fish them like streamers and strip them slowly or swing them through fast water. A hellgrammite pattern is a great fly to fish the riffles in the hot summer months, because many smallmouths migrate to the fast water to access more oxygen. A few of my preferred hellgrammite patters are Devil’s Doorstops, Hellgrammite Game Changers, Crittermites, Sure Thing Hellgrammites, and Bunnymites.

Frogs, Mice, and Toads for Smallmouth Bass

Frogs, mice, and toads are what I categorize as bank-dwelling foods. They are protein-packed rarities that smallmouths generally won’t pass up when they encounter them. Frogs are common topwater offerings for smallmouth bass in the summer, especially in early summer when the water is typically still on the high side. Most anglers do not think about frogs or toads being common food sources for smallmouths in the spring—but one awesome phenomenon that happens in the spring is that frogs and toads mate on the banks of many creeks where smallmouths are migrating to spawn. So, while the water temperatures may not be favorable for topwater fishing when the “hatch” is going on, it can still be a worthwhile strategy. Once the water hits 60 to 65 degrees, smallmouth activity increases, and the likelihood that they will chase surface flies is high—especially if you offer a large meal like a frog or toad pattern.

In the end, smallmouth bass are opportunistic predators, and they will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths, from baby ducks to even the occasional baby turtle, to worms and snakes.

looking into the mouth of a smallmouth bass, baby snapping turtle in fish's mouth
Smallmouths feed on almost anything that swims or falls in the water, including small snakes, mice, frogs, toads, dragonflies, damselflies, and of course mayflies. Here, a smallmouth had a baby snapping turtle in its gullet, and still smashed a surface fly. (Jake Villwock photo)

Mice tend to be poor swimmers, stopping often when they do end up in the water. I have personally never witnessed a mouse or other rodent on the water, but based on what I’ve seen a smallmouth do to a mouse fly, I’m pretty sure they recognize them as meals. Again, these large offerings are typically best fished when the water is high and slightly off-colored, or fished very slowly and quietly in clear water conditions.

My top choices for frog and mouse patterns include Blane Chocklett’s Frogs, Umpqua Swimming Frogs, Cohen’s Deerhair Sliders, Ginger River Rats, King Rat Mouse Flies, Hemorrhoidal Mouse Flies, Marble Top Poppers, and BoogleBugs.

Insects for Smallmouth Bass

When most fly fishers think about topwater fishing for smallmouths, they think primarily of cork poppers and deer-hair bugs. However, the insect category covers a wide variety of species, and therefore techniques for matching and fishing them. Damselflies and dragonflies, both of the order Odonata, thrive across a considerable variety of habitats and aquatic systems, and they are favorites of smallmouth bass.

An interesting detail about these bugs is that the adults don’t normally land on the water—rather, they perch on debris and submerged and emergent vegetation that they encounter on or near the surface. When laying eggs on or around similar structures, the females either land on vegetation or hover over the water while tapping the surface with their abdomens to release eggs. When smallmouths are feeding on these insects, they must act quickly. During a damselfly hatch, it is common to see smallmouths making the full commitment and jumping out of the water to feed. When it comes to fooling a smallmouth with a topwater insect—especially in the summer when the water is low and clear, and bass have a long time to inspect a fly—try switching to a smaller bug in blue or green to persuade a faster eat.

Cicadas are other common topwater bugs that smallmouths love. Cicadas are large and not particularly graceful—once they hit the water, they have a challenging time getting off the surface. I’ll suggest therefore that larger bugs typically get inspected longer before a smallmouth will eat them in low, clear water. Smallmouths likely view these large surface objects as meals that won’t easily get away, so when they do decide to bite it is a slow and deliberate eat. In this case, be sure to read the rise or you may pull the fly right out of their mouths.

Mayflies are normally associated with trout fishing, but smallmouths are opportunistic and have no problem sipping down a size 18 Blue-winged Olive. It can be a sight to experience in the summer when you have a good hatch of Sulphurs or Isonychia mayflies coming off, and you look downriver to see smallmouths rising from bank to bank. While I do want to emphasize that bass are just as picky as trout—and you must truly match the hatch when they are eating mayflies—if you get the color right and present a nice drift they will eat. Bigger mayflies such as White Flies and Hexagenia are very important smallmouth foods, and flies to imitate them should be in every bass angler’s fly box.

A fourth and final category to consider under insects are the terrestrials: ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets. You may not see these on a regular basis, but you never know when they might be the catch of the day, so it’s helpful to always be prepared with a few Amy’s Ants, Ol’ Mr. Wiggly flies, BoogleBugs, Excalibur Cork Bugs, Parachute Chernobyl Hoppers, Streambank Hoppers, White Wulffs, Rubber Leg Stimulators, and Japanese Beetle Bugs.

Tackle for Smallies

I try to keep it simple when it comes to gear. However, you must have the ability to fish multi-ple techniques on any given day. For my swimming flies and baitfish patterns, I use a 9-foot 8-weight rod. Shorter rods are also nice to have in the boat, such the Scott Sector 8-foot, 4-inch 8-weight. But 9 feet is the sweet spot—powerful, with lots of feel. In the summer when I’m more likely to be throwing small topwater bugs, a 9-foot 6-weight is great. You still have the power, but with a lighter rod, you can lay down the fly more softly to deal with spooky low-water fish.

four smallmouth bass flies on white background
Clockwise from top: The Roamer; Flank Back Craw; The Variant; Circus Peanut. (Dennis Pastucha photos)

Fly lines are very important as well. For most of my streamer fishing, I use a Sonar Titan Full Intermediate with a 30-foot head. This line breaks the surface tension and drops the fly slowly into the strike zone. For floating lines, any line with a bass bug taper is great for large poppers and deer-hair bugs. In the summer, for throwing smaller flies, a lighter trout line is better. Something like the Scientific Anglers Infinity Taper drops softly and delicately, but has plenty of power to carry flies such as Amy’s Ants, White Wulffs, and BoogleBugs.

It is important to pay attention to what is going on around you when fishing for any species. Most of the time you can go out and luck yourself into some fish, but the more you know about the ecosystem, the available forage, and the fish you are targeting, the more successful you will be.

Jake Villwock is the owner and head guide of Relentless Fly Fishing, a contract guide service that works in partnership with TCO Fly Shop in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the new book Smallmouth Bass Flies: Top to Bottom (Stackpole Books, 2021.)

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