Fly Fishing Smallmouth Bass on Big Water

angler shows his catch while fly fishing smallmouth bass

Fly Fishing Smallmouth Bass

Fly anglers, for the most part, spend the bulk of their time chasing cold-water species like trout and salmon.  Sure, they dabble in other species, but many anglers regularly spend their fishing time on other species of fish, with one notable exception—fly fishing smallmouth bass.  Smallmouths are made for fly fishing, given their propensity for hitting flies on both the water’s surface and down in the deep water, and their pit bull style of fighting when hooked.

Finding the Smallies

The bulk of the smallmouth fly fishing activity takes place on smaller waters, ponds or streams that can be easily waded.  Yet, if you look at the areas where smallmouths are found, going to the easiest places to access only scratches the surface.  What about fly fishing smallmouth bass on big waters, like a large river, or maybe even a Great Lake?

Narrowing the Search

Smallmouth bass living in big water behave exactly the same as they do in small water.  Their spawning cycle is the same, their feeding habits are the same, it’s just a matter of narrowing down the search.  Find the right structure and make the right presentation, and you can catch smallmouths just about anywhere.  Better yet, on our larger waters like Lake Ontario, you have a better chance at a real monster because smallmouths reach much larger sizes than they do on smaller inland waters.  

Summer Feeding and Spawning Patterns

Smallmouth bass are very accessible to fishermen during their spawning cycle because they head for the shallows and seek out gravel to spawn on.  Once the spawning period is over things change rapidly.  For about a week after the spawn, smallmouth bass typically go into post-spawn shutdown mode and feed very little.  After they get over the post-spawn blues, bass start feeding again.

Water Temperature and Smallmouth Fly Fishing

As summer comes and the weather typically starts warming up, smallmouth bass move to deeper water.  Part of this has to do with their eyes and how they react to light.  Smallmouth bass are not fans of bright, sunny days.  Typically, they move deep enough to get out of bright sunlight, and if the water that has been cleared up by billions of zebra mussels filtering it, deeper becomes a lot deeper than it used to be.  

Timing is Everything

In the summer months, fly fishing smallmouth bass is much tougher because they go so deep in order to find cool water, but it is not impossible.  You just have to play the light.  The river I live near (the Mohawk) has been infested with zebra mussels, like a lot of navigable waters, and it has cleared the water up considerably.  If you are on the water at the right time, the smallmouths will come up from the bottom of the channel for a surface popper, but this only happens during low light conditions.

Understanding Smallmouth Feeding Habits

Smallmouths are opportunists, and for them there is usually an overabundance of food.  When the summer months hit, they tend to switch over to the most available food source, which on a lot of waters will be the crayfish.  Crawling a crayfish pattern on the bottom while fly fishing for smallmouths usually produces strikes if you can find fish.  As fall approaches, the millions of small fish that have hatched out from various spawning baitfish species become the primary prey and it is time to switch to streamers.

Smallies Seek Structure

Regardless of the size of the water body, smallmouth bass tend to orient themselves to structure.  Typically, any rocky bottom substrate that stands out from the rest of a lake or river is where they will be found.  During the dog days of summer, these locations will be deep, but there is always some area that is different than the surrounding bottom conditions, you just have to find it.

Underwater humps where rock and boulder piles stick up from the bottom are a good place to try.  Island points, especially where there is a steep drop off are also good.  Don’t forget manmade structures either, like dock pilings, bridge pilings or jettys.  Rocky points that extend out into a lake or river are also bass magnets.  

One of the best ways to narrow down the search for these underwater havens is to use a decent fish finder or get a lake map to key in on the best areas for fishing for bass.

Presentation and Equipment for Fly Fishing Smallmouth Bass

Morning Fly Presentation

If you are out early for fly fishing smallmouth bass in the morning, taking a top-to-bottom approach to fly presentation works best.  When fly fishing smallmouth bass, I always start out with topwater poppers when the sun is low in the sky.  My favorite pattern for this time of day is based on a Gartside Gurgler.  The fly is easy to cast, won’t pick up water, and catches a lot of fish.  

Daytime Techniques for Fly Fishing Smallmouth Bass

Once the bass start refusing to hit on the surface as the sun gets higher in the sky, it is time to go deeper.  When the bass are in the interim phase and are still feeding on the deep edges of a shallow flat, you can get away with fly fishing for smallmouths with a sink-tip and using either a streamer, or better yet, a crayfish pattern fished right on the bottom.  

As the sun rises higher and the smallmouth bass move deeper, you may have to fish flies in over 20 feet of water.  At times like this, the only way to get a fly down to the fish is with a fully sinking fly line or a shooting head.  I prefer the shooting head because of the versatility it offers. 

A shooting head is an interchangeable sinking line, with a thin diameter running line behind it. Shooting heads are heavy and sink fast, and they are usually less than thirty feet long but will quickly load the rod.  It takes a little bit to get used to casting them, but for going deep, they get a fly down to the bottom quickly and keep it there through the retrieve.

When the sun is bright, I dredge the bottom with a crayfish pattern and can usually come up with a fish or two, even after the morning feeding frenzy dies down.

The top-to-bottom approach obviously reverses itself when you are smallmouth fly fishing in the evening.  Some of the best action at this time comes just before dark when the fish start feeding on the surface.  Weather has a lot to do with surface activity, though.  On really hot days the surface bite may not take place until after dark.

The Best Fly Rod for Smallmouth Bass

For fly fishing smallmouth bass, I use the same gear that I use on steelhead.  There is always some debate about the best fly rod for smallmouth bass, but I prefer a 7-weight fly rod, preferably over 9 feet long for casting from a boat.  I rig one fly rod with a floating bass-taper fly line, and the other is rigged up for either a sink-tip line (an interchangeable sink tip, like the Rio multi-tip lines), or a fully sinking shooting head system.  

Putting it all in Perspective

If you are a die-hard trout or salmon angler, fly fishing smallmouth bass is going to be a lot different than what you are used to, but it has its rewards.  For example, on the Mohawk River near my home where I spend a lot of time fishing, I have never seen another fly angler on the water.  When was the last time you had the Salmon River or the West Branch of the Ausable to yourself?

Smallmouths are made for fly fishing, and if you learn to adapt to the conditions, you’ll be catching smallmouth bass before you know it, even on a huge lake or river!

Original Article By Robert W. Streeter

About the Author

Rob Streeter is an outdoor columnist for several newspapers and magazines, including “”  He is a freelance writer and photographer who especially enjoys fly fishing for steelhead, trout, and bass.

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