August 04, 2021
It was middle of August, we hadn’t had rain in over a month, and the river was so clear you could count the snails on every rock. I was standing in the front of my drift boat with the anchor down, watching four smallmouth bass in the 18-inch range rise to size 14 Sulphurs as they floated down a soft seam of a small back eddy beside a small logjam on the bank. I made my first cast with a 14-foot leader built with a hard monofilament butt section tapered down to 6-pound fluorocarbon tippet, and I thought to myself: “Am I trout fishing or bass fishing?”
I made a long cast about 40 feet above the smallmouth, made a large upstream mend, and managed my line for a drag-free drift. I extended my arm to prolong the drift, and just as I did that, the fly sank into a toilet bowl flush where the bass had been sitting just under the surface. I lifted the rod tip to set the small hook (yes, a “trout set”) and when I had the fish safely in the net, I commented to my buddy that the experience reminded me of trout fishing on Cumberland Valley limestone creeks like Big Spring.
Smallmouth bass have a reputation of being easy fish to target on a fly rod. I think that’s because we have more than a century of literature extolling the challenges of catching trout on a fly rod. At the same time, largemouth bass can survive in a bucket of hot water and will eat anything you drop in front of them.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love fishing for largemouths, but float down a river in the middle of a dry, hot summer, and you will see firsthand just how particular smallmouths can be. Watch a smallmouth react to the shadow of your fly line, or jet away just as your fly hits the water with an unwanted splash. Notice where they are holding in the water, what they are eating, and how they are eating. You will quickly realize that smallmouths share many similarities with trout in big rivers.
I have spent the last decade of my guide career targeting both trout and smallmouth bass. Fishing for them on alternating days of the same weeks, I have recognized many common behaviors and traits, especially when the water levels are low, and smallmouths are on high alert. Many of the tactics I use fishing on my local spring creeks are also in my toolkit for smallmouth bass fishing.
Big smallmouth bass are not lazy; they are efficient. In a river with an abundance of food, they don’t have to chase or react quickly. They can cruise or meander through the water, slowly looking for their next meal. They may follow a popper or dry fly for 20 feet while deciding if it’s the right meal for them.
I have observed smallmouths falling backward many yards to eat a dead-drifted grasshopper, I have watched them slowly contemplate a streamer poised just in front of them, and I have watched them hold in faster water waiting for a meal to tumble straight into them. To me, these behaviors prove just how similar river smallmouths are to trout. So why not employ some of the same tactics and thinking to catch them?
One of my favorite tactics on a spring creek is a dry/dropper rig, and this is a killer way to get spooky summertime bass to eat as well. Popper/dropper is a popular and common way to fish for smallmouths, but when the water is low and clear, regular smallmouth poppers are often too heavy and create too large of a splash when they hit the water. When the water levels drop, I switch and start using all my favorite Western hoppers. Hopper patterns like the Streambank Hopper and Parachute Chernobyl Hopper are two great choices. They are just big enough to hold up a nymph or a small streamer.
But that’s not all that works well with this system. Dragonflies, damselflies, and cicadas are also great natural offerings that don’t create too much disturbance when properly laid out on the water, and dead-drifted with only occasional and subtle twitching.
Down below, stonefly nymphs, Mini Leech Jigs, or small hellgrammite patterns tend to work very well. Typically, I do not use much weight for these dropper flies. Lighter flies make less noise when they hit the water, and they don’t pull the dry fly underwater. The dry/dropper rig is a great technique to pull from your trout-fishing arsenal to help fool picky low-water smallmouths.
Another piece of the puzzle in low water is managing your shadows, not only your personal or boat shadow, but your fly line shadows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen smallmouths dart away from the shadow of a fly line crossing over their field of view, or when we get too close with the boat and the shadow intrudes on their space.
Make your casts just a little bit farther above a fish, or a spot you think may hold a fish. If you miss a cast, don’t just flail away with another haphazard cast. Let the fly drift past the target, quietly pick up the line or let it drag quietly downstream—out of the smallmouth’s field of vision. Pause for a second, collect your thoughts, and make the next cast count. Just as with trout, every cast is a strike against you because every cast has motion and shadows that the bass can potentially see.
Often, rowing quietly back upriver just a few extra feet can make a huge difference. Paying attention to the details of your presentation and your shadows will likely end in you going tight to that big smallmouth lurking in the shallows, instead of watching it swim in the other direction.
The final part of adapting spring creek tactics to your smallmouth game is through sight fishing. Low, clear water allows you to pick a target, study it, and watch how it reacts to everything passing by. I have spent hours, adding up to days, just watching trout on spring creeks. I observe how they feed, how they react to my distance, I watch for small indications of feeding, or even how they look when they are nervous about something.
Fish tense up when they are nervous. It’s hard to describe, but once you see it you will never mistake it. All of this observation helps with sight fishing. Low water gives you the opportunity to watch smallmouths the same way, and it will guide all your tactics. Choosing the right fly, for instance, is not just a matter of tying on a flashy smallmouth streamer. If you see a bass eat off the surface, you should probably toss a topwater fly. If they are chasing or herding bait, a streamer is in order. Especially watch for carp or mud from carp, or any other indication that smallmouths might be feeding on crayfish.
Watching and learning is important to being successful while sight fishing in clear water. Sometimes it’s important to notice how nervous a fish looks, because if they are nervous, they will likely spook if you throw a fly that is too big or heavy. Choose a smaller, slimmer baitfish imitation, or even a crayfish with beadchain eyes instead of lead eyes. I like to use smaller and lighter unweighted baitfish like Roamers or Micro Changers in the summer months—they are quiet when they hit the water, and they don’t make a lot of unneeded noise underwater. They swim well, and because they are weightless, you can slow down your retrieve, pausing as needed or even suspending it in front of a smallmouth to entice it to eat in tough conditions.
Crayfish are great patterns to use while sight fishing for bass. I really like the El Crawcito pattern by Fly Fish Food. I tie it a little differently for clear summer conditions, replacing the flashy Palmer Chenille with hen saddle feathers, and I use beadchain eyes instead of lead. These changes may not seem significant, but watching smallmouths swim away from flashy streamers makes you adapt and tweak your flies very quickly.
Dry-fly fishing for smallmouth bass is just throwing a popper at the bank and chugging it back to the boat, right? Nope, it’s much more than that. Skinny-water smallmouth fishing can be as technical as your hardest day of trout fishing.
Long leaders are a must. You can start with a standard 10' 12-pound-test or 16-pound-test bass leader. I tie on a tippet ring, and then add 4' of 8-pound-test fluorocarbon.
If I start from scratch, I start with 48" of 30-pound-test hard monofilament, then drop to 30" of 20-pound, then 18" of 16-pound, 12" of 12-pound to a tippet ring, then 3' or 4' of 8-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet. This will give you the soft drop you need to avoid spooking the fish.
Drag is another thing I am always concerned about. Yes, smallmouths are opportunistic, but they are very aware of their surroundings, and if the bug you are presenting doesn’t look right, they will likely ignore it, or worse, get spooked and leave you with nothing to look at but a cloud of mud. Use reach casts and small mends to manage your drift and prevent drag when presenting a dry fly to a smallmouth. There are too many things many fly fishers leave at home with their 9' 5-weights, but don’t forget your dry-fly skills!
Aside from long leaders and proper presentations, it is also important to pay attention to what the bass are actually eating and match the hatch. On the rivers I fish in Pennsylvania, we have tremendous mayfly hatches of Sulphurs, Blue-winged olives, Hexagenias, and White Flies. Both of the larger mayflies hatch in the late evening and into the night, and it gives smallmouths the chance to feed under the cover of darkness. Large mayfly patterns like White Wulffs or small, all-white poppers work well as the day fades into darkness.
Pay attention to how the smallmouths react to the drop of your fly. When larger insects like cicadas are around, a louder plop can be key to enticing a strike, but if they are softly sipping mayflies, or other insects stuck in the film, it is important to manage your soundprint. Cork and larger deer-hair bugs can make too much noise in low water conditions. Use smaller foam bugs like Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, a bug created by the Tight Lines crew in Wisconsin. It’s a perfect summer fly. It rides low in the film, and drops softly on the water.
Larger bugs produce more of a reaction bite—a strike based on aggression. They are fun to watch, but these are very few and far between when the water is low and clear. In these conditions, it’s best to entice confident feeding—slow, deliberate, and calculated.
Popping a popper versus dead-drifting a popper is another thing I battle as a guide. My guests just can’t stop the popping, so I cut off the poppers and tie on a hopper. You can’t pop a hopper! Twitching a popper can be effective, just like twitching a hopper for trout. When a bass comes up to inspect your fly, sometimes that slight movement is all you need to get them to eat. However, if they are being wary, that twitch can turn them off.
You should watch the bass closely as it inspects your fly. If a bass comes in quickly to inspect your fly, and slowly starts to fall back or even turn in the other direction, that is a good indication it is losing interest. If so, twitch it. Most of the time that will do it. As long as the fish is moving confidently toward the fly, don’t move it at all.
The final piece to the dry-fly puzzle is choosing the right fly line. Scientific Anglers, RIO, and Airflo all make
bass-specific fly lines that are almost always two line weights heavier that the AFFTA standard, and they always have an aggressive front taper. These are great for tossing poppers, deer-hair frogs, and other large bass flies. I use them for my early-season fishing. However, when it comes to delicate presentations with smaller foam flies or mayfly imitations in the middle of summer, they can be detrimental to your success. If you really like the way your bass line casts, go down a line size in low-water conditions. I use 7-weight Scientific Anglers Amplitude Bass Bug lines on my 8-weight rods. The other option is to go to a lighter multipurpose line with a longer front taper. Scientific Anglers Infinity or Anadro tapers will land your flies more softly than the more aggressive bass-specific lines.
In the world of fly fishing for trout, tight-line nymphing (also called Euro, Czech, or contact nymphing) has become a standard for catching trout. Smallmouth bass also eat nymphs and other bottom-dwelling bugs, so why not take that trout tactic to your favorite smallmouth fishery?
Many of our bass fisheries on the East Coast are large, and have riffle water that can be hundreds of yards long. In the summer, this faster water is more oxygenated, bringing lots of baitfish and various bugs with it. Where there is food, there are smallmouths. But getting your flies down and staying connected can sometimes be difficult with a standard sinking line and streamer. This is where tactics like tight-line nymphing are highly effective. Basically, you use a fly rod to do what spin fishermen have done for years with heavy jigs and tubes.
In the summer months, I almost always have a 10' 6-weight on my boat rigged up with a European-style leader with a sighter and either a single heavy jig-style fly imitating a crayfish or hellgrammite, or sometimes—just like trout fishing—a smaller nymph or streamer on a tag above a heavier fly. My Euro leader is typically 12' of 12-pound-test Maxima, with 3' of sighter material attached to a tippet ring or swivel. My final tippet is about 4' to 6' of 8-pound-test fluorocarbon attached to the tippet ring. The tippet length depends on the overall depth of the water. Fishing out of a boat can make tight-line nymphing easy because you are standing above the water. However, it can also be highly effective while wade fishing.
Two flies give the bass options. You can choose just about any nymphs you want, but I really like fishing stonefly nymphs like Pat’s Rubber Legs, Bear’s Hex Nymph, or Pat Cohen’s Damselfly nymphs.
Because those are lighter flies, I tie those to the upper dropper tag, and use a lower point fly weighted with lead eyes or a large tungsten bead. It is important to manage your weight and not be too heavy, so you aren’t spending most of your day getting unsnagged or retying flies on.
Another way to get to the bottom without rigging a complete tight-line setup is to slack-line bottom bounce. Cast upstream and retrieve slowly—just enough to remove slack line. The whole time you are retrieving, your flies should be constantly falling to the bottom, and you should be able to feel the strike when a fish eats.
This style of fishing is how I started to think more about dead-drifting flies closer to the bottom, and eventually tight-line nymphing. It’s a great way to experiment with different flies and water types.
Trout and smallmouths share a lot of the same feeding behaviors. Once you start to notice the similarities, it is important to take all that you know about being successful at trout fishing, and implement the same tactics for smallmouth bass.
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 coming from Stackpole Books in July, 2021.
How to Tie the 'Roamer'
In the following video, Jake Villwock, author and fly fishing guide from Pennsylvania, shows how to tie the "Roamer," a fly he likes to use during the summer. He also introduces his new book "Smallmouth Bass Flies."