Fly Fishing for Smallies



by Jeff Currier


I grew up fly fishing for smallmouth bass. Every summer until I was twenty years old was spent at the family cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Five days a week, ten weeks a summer I could be found popping the shallows either from boatyard piers or our 16-foot canoe on a glassy-smooth lake surface before sunrise and again after sunset. Practicing catch-and-release at an early age, I had pet smallies, knew what fly they would eat, and most importantly, where to find them under all weather conditions throughout the year.

My smallmouth fly fishing season began about one month after ice-out, typical of all smallie regions. This is when water temperatures in the shallows reach the low sixties and smallmouth move there from winter depths to build nests and spawn. Incredibly protective of their eggs or fry, they will hit anything that threatens their nest from lures and flies to the toes of unwelcome swimmers. As a youngster, these easy-to-catch smallies were too much to resist. Every fly-concoction in my box worked, and as I kept catching fish, I developed my fly fishing skills.

Eventually I outgrew this act, learning that every time I removed a smallmouth from its nest, pumkinseed sunfish and yellow perch from under our dock pilings were gobbling up the precious eggs and fry. Today, I preach against antagonizing spawning bass and encourage anglers to simply wait two weeks until they are done protecting their nest and return to their normal feeding habits.

The feeding habits for smallmouth consist of searching close to their lairs, usually in 5 to 20 feet of water, for crayfish, minnows, hellgrammites, dragonfly larvae and other nymphs, depending upon where you live. They also devour surface foods including various insects as well as frogs and mice. Consistent weather patterns, good or bad, do not change these habits much, but cold fronts, heat waves, intense thunderstorms and unstable conditions send smallies to deep water and into a state of lockjaw.

An important strategy for smallmouth fly fishing is to be prepared to fish top to bottom. Smallies are perhaps the most aggressive top-water feeders, and if exciting strikes are what you live for, begin with a noisy popper. Work the shallows in 4 to 8 feet of water, and with a good pair of Polarized sunglasses, look for submerged boulders, logs and other debris. Explore around rocky points, moored boats and close to docks. A good sidearm cast that sneaks a couple feet under an overhanging tree or into a covered boathouse on a developed lake will surely draw a strike. Just don’t let the owner see you do it.

Smallies will often strike a fly the second it hits the water, but they also like to observe for many casts. Vary the idle time between pops, letting the popper sit dead for ten seconds, and if that's not enough, try fifteen. If an area looks particularly good, work it with heart, making up to ten casts to the same spot with altered gurgling pops on each cast. If you catch one, don’t leave, smallmouth rarely hunt alone and often times more attempts to the same spot will produce another fish of comparable size.

Early mornings, evenings, and overcast days provide ideal top-water action, but success can be found outside of this prime window of opportunity. Amidst the middle of a bright sunny day, look for smallmouth in deeper water. Shade producing drop-offs, shelves, humps, huge boulders, and hollow logs close within an area that produces smallies early in the day will provide action now. Try channels or other deep water near the shallows, and break out the sinking line and dredge with a conehead streamer or a weighted crayfish pattern. Don't hesitate to try large nymph patterns that imitate hellgrammites, damsels and dragonflies, or even stoneflies. Make repeated casts with varied stripping techniques like with poppers, before moving to a new location.