When I started fly fishing I didn’t have a lot of gear. I didn’t have much money, and I didn’t have a driver’s license—let alone a car—to get me places that weren’t within a few hours’ walking distance. It was just me, a pair of boots, and a three- and five-weight with a handful of flies I’d built myself, not following the directions in the fly tying books.
Even when I earned a driver’s license and vehicle—a gas-guzzling half-ton whose trips were measured in dollars instead of miles—trips to my home state of Virginia’s productive trout waters were expensive endeavors, and were limited to about once a month, restricted by a high school student’s emaciated newspaper checks.
What I had in ample supply was smallmouth bass water—second- and third-order tributaries, as well as some of the state’s larger warmwater systems. I learned to fish these waters out of necessity, and consequently discovered their value. Through the gradual advancement of my fly angling career, I found that smallmouth fishing could be made as simple, or as complex and refined, as I wished. And I learned that smallmouth, though often underappreciated, are one of the gamest fish to fin freshwater, and are highly deserving of the fly fishing limelight seemingly permanently owned by the salmonids.
Consider these tips for taking advantage of the smallmouth waters, small and large, near you this spring and summer.
Rods and Reels
A six-weight is a solid do-all rod for the smallmouth angler. It’ll throw just about any fly reasonably tossed in the name of bass, and is by no means overkill for young, 8-inch creek specimens, while providing enough power to handle larger fish.
That said, river smallmouth are powerful fish with tough, cartilage-lined mouths that get thicker with age and that require a stiff blow to hook correctly. Thus, most serious smallmouth anglers in search of trophy fish (usually defined as anything over 18 or 20 inches), select a strong seven- or eight-weight rod, the latter of which is my choice for shouldered smalljaws.
Reels are, in most freshwater situations, merely line-holding tools. Even the biggest of river smallmouth are not vicious line-peelers, and so a state-of-the-art (read, expensive) drag system is not required.
Most casual—and a large proportion of serious—smallmouthing is done with floating lines with some variation on the standard weight-forward taper, and a line of this type should be the up-starting angler’s first purchase.
However, lines with an aggressive head and a smooth-shooting, non-tangling running line (similar to those used streamer fishing for large trout) are ideal, as they allow for powerful, long casts with minimal false casts, most advantageous while fishing from a boat drifting downriver. Moreover, anglers fishing in the off-season (generally early fall through early spring), and anglers fishing flies tied with buoyant materials like deer hair, may need to utilize heavy sinking or sink-tip lines to get flies down to the bottom of the river where fish hold in swollen, colder-than-ideal waters.
Much of my early smallmouth career was spent fishing flies on the end of level leaders of six- to 12-pound monofilament and nylon, and, because smallmouth flies generally have more weight than trout flies, I never had a problem turning my flies over.
Still, tapered leaders outperform level leaders, particularly when roll casting—a necessity on smaller waters—and particularly when casting light foam poppers. Nine-foot leaders are standard, though short, staunch leaders, sometimes as short as four feet, have their place in fishing with sinking lines, as they keep the fly closer to the depth achieved by the fly line.
Smallmouth are not notably leader shy. Leaders with tippet breaking strengths of six to 16 pounds all have their place in smallmouth fishing. Factors most important to me in determining my tippet strength are the largest fish I’m likely to have a shot at and fly size. Flies fished on too light of a tippet often tumble and spin at the mercy of currents, twisting, and thus weakening, your tippet. If you continually retrieve your fly only to notice your tippet untwisting, beef up your tippet.
Crayfish and hellgrammite flies intended to be bounced along the bottom of the river—much like nymphing for trout—are often used in smallmouth fishing. In this case, as most trout fishermen know, it is crucial to be aware of your leader length and how it relates to the water you’re fishing. A nine-foot leader in 12 feet of water will not allow you to fish effectively, and you should lengthen it accordingly.
The majority of my early smallmouth adventures were courtesy of Woolly Bugger-esque fly patterns in varying weights and colors, as well as poppers, in particular, Boogle Bugs and Sneaky Petes—and I took dozens of 18-inch-and-better bass on these flies.
However, flies that imitate baitfish, crayfish, and hellgrammites, as well as frogs, worms, mice, cicadas, dobsonflies—and just about any other organism that a smallmouth has likely ever seen and can fit in its mouth—all tempt the opportunistic bronzeback. Highly successful flies include the Clouser Minnow; Chuck Kraft’s Clawdad, CK Baitfish, and Crittermite; Galloup streamers; and Boogle Bugs.
As you are likely to snag wood and rock while smallmouthing, given the fish’s tough mouth, a using a hook-sharpening file will increase hookups that hold.
There is perhaps no greater joy than wet-wading a smallmouth river in the summertime casting poppers to aggressive, powerful fish. I could say the same for floating a large river in a raft in pursuit of trophy specimens. Whatever level you decide to pursue bronzebacks on, keep these tips in an open mind, and explore the sport that smallmouth have to offer.