Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass
If you’ve ever fly fished for Smallmouth bass, you can attest to the fact that they deliver a relentless fight on a fly rod. A three pound smallmouth on the end of your leader will make you think you’ve accidentally wandered onto a marlin fishing charter. They’re downright mean fish.
Fly Fishing for bronze backs is wildly entertaining and we are big fans of smallmouth bass here at Fly Fishing Atlas. It’s tough to beat watching the water explode around surface flies like poppers and foam bodied bugs. And sub-surface flies like Woolly Buggers and Clouser Minnows can take such hard hits that even mid-size smallmouth bass can break off your fly if you’re not careful about setting the hook.
Read on for the best tips to improve your smallmouth game on the fly rod. And If you are looking for a great bass rod take a look at our review of the TFO Lefty Kreh Pro Series II.
Smallmouth Fishing During the Early Season
Early Smallmouth fishing starts when water temperatures rise to the low to mid 50’s. They’ll move from deep winter holding water to structures close to a potential spawning area. Anglers refer to this period as the pre-spawn or will refer to the bass as “staging bass” immediately before the spawning season. In calm weather pre-spawn smallmouth bass usually stay near the bottom around big structures like boulders and stumps. Bronze backs will sometimes move to shallower water when the weather brings in a good strong wind. But even in shallow water these fish aren’t often going to be interested in any surface flies this early in the season.
Weighted sub-surface flies like bead head Wooly Buggers and Clousers are going to be essential. Smallmouth will destroy big flies with a lot of flash and sparkle tied into them. Try jigging these flies and fishing them slow through the suspected holding structures. Staging smallmouth bass will congregate near spawning areas in places where lakes bottleneck and shallow. In rivers, large slack water areas behind islands and curves will attract staging bass. A heavy bucktail Clouser Minnow bounced off the bottom drives them wild and will result in hard-hitting strikes if presented correctly.
When do smallmouth spawn?
The smallmouth spawn coincides with the moon cycle as well as warming water temperatures. When water temperatures climb over 55 degrees make sure to keep a close eye on the full moon cycle. If the water has not warmed enough then the bass will wait for the next full moon. Water temperatures during the spawning period can be anywhere from the mid 50’s up to 70 degrees. But smallmouth bass typically are able to spawn between 59-64 degrees.
As with many other creatures in nature, the biggest fish lay claim to prime spawning areas. The largest smallmouth make their move first. A few days before the full moon they move up from the deeper holding structures and take up aggressive postures toward intruders.
If you want to find the biggest hogs of the bunch you’ll need good timing and a stream thermometer. Keep an eye on the moon cycle and the water temperature. Hit the water hard for the few days immediately before the first full moon and hold on to your fly rod! For clear water try big 4-5 inch Clouser Minnows tied with white bucktail and translucent flash materials in blue and pink. In stained or cloudy water we recommend trying chartreuse and red.
Where Do Smallmouth Spawn?
Bronze backs make spawning beds in a good number of places. They’ll bed on points, flats, humps and in small gravel, hard clay, and chipped shale. In very clear water they’ll spawn in deeper ranges down to 15-20 feet for safety. Smallmouth bass will feel safer spawning in ranges from 4-6 feet if the water is stained with tannins, or clouded from rain. Most smallmouth beds don’t seem to associate with structure. In moving waters with current smallmouth will use solitary rocks, stumps, humps and even sparse weed beds as current breaks for forming their beds.
Smallmouth bass have very different spawning behavior than largemouth bass. Largemouth will aggressively attack a fly that bounces into their territory. This is not the case with smallmouth bass. Once they get settled onto their nest they are almost impossible to coax into striking. On rare occasions they’ll take a fly, but its very few and far between. However, when big smallmouth bass first move into their territory they are highly aggressive and will do their best to take the rod from your hands.
Bedding Smallmouth Behavior
Its important to realize that you are taking advantage of the breeding cycle of smallmouth bass. Some states ban fishing over bass beds to protect their reproduction cycles. In other states bass have been introduced and are seen as an invasive species. Spawning time is something to be targeted, interrupted, and sabotaged in any way possible. In those states some fishing regulations even require a mandatory kill on invasive bass.
Bedding smallmouth will often leave the nest permanently after being caught and can leave just from having heavy fishing pressure. But smallmouth don’t all spawn at once, and if you are fishing a large body of water you can usually find both pre-spawn and post-spawn bass. Bigger bodies of water can help you to avoid targeting spawning bass if that’s the goal. If you are trying to avoid disrupting spawning bass then any suspicious smallmouth should be released very quickly.
How Long Do Smallmouth Stay On Their Bed?
Bedding smallmouth can really put a damper on the fishing. Thankfully bronze backs don’t stay on their nest very long. The female bass leaves the nest shortly after dropping her eggs while the male stays behind and guards the nest. Fishing will be noticeably slow for close to 10 days until the males also leave the nest. The fry are then left to fend for themselves, and the adult bass go back to feeding.
Females will move to ledges, feeding lanes, and drop-offs adjacent to their spawning grounds where they can ambush prey easily. But its the males who are particularly voracious due to the period of fasting they’ve endured while guarding the nest. In rivers, look to the sides where banks drop sharply to form steep ledges. Current breaks like boulders and sandbars will hold feeding bass. In lakes, start working the rocks, drop-offs and fallen trees. Immediately following the spawn, bronzebacks will remain somewhat deep while patrolling structure. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they’ll only whack subsurface flies. After smallmouth leave their beds is when the top water fishing explodes.
What Flies Do Smallmouth Take Post-Spawn?
Smallmouth will take both subsurface and top-water flies immediately following the spawn. Hungry smallies will smash a Gartside’s floating minnow or a Wiggle Minnow. Vary your surface retrieves and don’t be afraid to pause your retrieve, and even twitch the fly over ledges and big boulders and rocks. Smallmouth will rise from even 8-10 feet down to take flies with authority, and often a pause in the retrieve will entice those aggressive strikes. The deeper the water, the longer the pause should be.
Beadhead Wooly Buggers in olive and brown work wonderfully for subsurface action. Weighted crawfish patterns work well through the rocks and shorelines. Short and jerky retrieves will accurately imitate a retreating crawfish and will coerce hard whacks from bronzebacks.
Heavier leaders or tippet material comes highly recommended, and be careful how you set the hook. Hard hitting smallmouth can break off a fly if you raise the rod too aggressively. Many experienced smallmouth fly anglers will recommend keeping the rod tip low, or even in the water while retrieving. And when a big bass takes your fly, setting the hook to the side can help avoid break-offs.
Fishing Smallmouth Bass in the Dog Days of Summer
Summertime smallmouth fishing will bring some changes in behavior. As the surface temperatures in lakes rise close to 70 degrees fish will move to deeper waters that are cooler. Fish have a harder time digesting their prey in water over 70 degrees so deeper water helps them in that. Feeding will noticeably slow down during the hottest parts of the day. If the sun is directly above and beating the water then the fishing will be a bust. But hitting the water early before the temperatures rise, or later around sunset is going to provide the best fishing opportunities.
Summer River Fishing
Even during the dog days of summer, smallmouth fishing in rivers can be amazing if you know a few tricks. The struggle on large rivers is finding where to fish, and understanding why to fish there. With that in mind, here is an important tip: Colder water can retain more dissolved oxygen than warm water. As water temperatures rise above 70 degrees smallmouth bass will seek colder water due to the need for oxygen and the ability to better digest their foods. Find cold, oxygenated water, and you’ll find lots of smallmouth bass.
1.) Find Tributaries
Small streams and tributaries that join with larger rivers typically will be significantly colder than the rivers they pour into. The cold water tributaries attract more than just smallmouth bass. Baitfish that smallmouth feed on will seek the oxygen rich water as well, and the smallmouth bass will be ready and waiting to ambush their prey in these locations.
The mouth of the tributaries is an obvious hot spot. But don’t neglect the areas immediately downstream of these locations as well. The effect that the tributary has on water temperature and oxygen content will depending on the size of the tributary. But even fairly small streams are like a ringing dinner bell to hungry smallmouth bass. Try baitfish patterns like Thunder Creek streamers with flashy mylar tube bodies. Flashy flies can really be attractive on sunny days.
2.) Find Rapids
Smallmouth also congregate downstream from sections of rapid water or rocky riffles. These areas add oxygen into the water by agitation and churning of the water. If you see rippled areas that introduce bubbles into the water then there is a strong chance that smallmouth will be holding immediately downstream. These areas need not be large either. Even a few solitary rocks that introduce oxygen into the water could be providing refuge for a hog on a hot day.
3.) Find Shade
Fly anglers can look to overhanging trees, weed beds, and man made structures like docks to provide shade to waiting smallmouth. Gently presenting floating deerhair bugs, small Muddler Minnows and foam grasshoppers near overhanging limbs and grasses can be very effective. Many times waiting smallmouth will suck down a fly almost the instant it hits the surface. But don’t neglect the appeal of underwater structures like undercut banks, boulders, and drop-offs. Often times these sub-surface structures have much more appeal since they provide more than one benefit. For example, undercut banks provide shade, protection, and act as a conveyor belt that delivers food with very limited expense in energy. Boulders and drop-offs provide a similar benefit, as well as a welcome break from the current. When in doubt which fly pattern might appeal to the smallmouth patrolling these underwater structures, we suggest the beadhead olive Wooly Bugger.