Fly Fishing For Smallmouth Bass
by James Marsh
Copyright 2018 James Marsh
September, 2018 Issue
Fly Fishing for smallmouth bass is right at the top of the list for many anglers. Pound for pound, they are
considered the strongest fighters of any freshwater fish by many anglers. Catching a five pound smallmouth
on a 5 or 6 weight fly rod is something you won't forget quickly, if ever. This particular category of fly fishing
is growing from year to year. There are still many very good smallmouth bass lakes and streams that are yet
to be discovered by anglers. Many of these are near the Smokies. These fish can be very aggressive and
very acrobatic. A large smallmouth will take a fly and skyrocket into the air on occasions.
Spring is probably the best time of the year to go fly fishing for smallmouth bass. Fall can be good, but
Spring is tops in most areas of the country. Much of this has to do with the spawn and the fact that the
smallmouth will get into water that is as shallow as one to three feet. It depends on the location, but in
general the smallmouth bass will start feeding in the shallows during April. Once the water temperatures
reach about fifty degrees, they will start moving shallow and feeding some. By May, you can expect most
shallow water in smallmouth territory to be occupied by aggressively feeding fish.
In some streams and lakes, smallmouth bass can be sight-fished. You can quietly move a small boat around
in the shallows and spot fish to cast to. In lakes, smallmouth are usually from three to six feet deep, but
again, it depends on the lake and clarity of the water. In clear water they can often be spotted cruising along
feeding on baitfish. This type of fishing is best done using an intermediate sinking fly line and a streamer.
Of course, the smallmouth come into the shallows to spawn as well as eat, and you can often catch them
during the pre-spawn time using sight-fishing tactics. During this time, the smallmouth are found mostly on
the flats of a lake. Smallmouth spawn in water ranging from four to six feet in most clear lakes, but
they can be found much shallower in lakes that have some color in the water. I have caught large, spawning
smallmouth bass in Pickwick Lake, in north Alabama, in water as shallow as two feet.
In most lakes, the smallmouth will continue to feed on the flats in relatively shallow water until near the end of
June. At that time they will move to deeper water varying from eight to thirty foot deep depending on the
location. Fly fishing can be tough during the hot summer when the smallmouth are deep. You can
use sinking lines and still catch them if you can find them, but it requires a lot more skill and effort.
During the Fall when the water begins to cool off in the shallows, they will return to the shallow flats of a lake
or shallow water in a river where they can again be caught on flies on or near the surface. This occurs more
on streams than it does in lakes but it depends on the lake. During these times they will take popping
bugs, the action can be very exciting. There are few things in fishing to compare with a four or five pound
smallmouth on a fly rod.
There are two things to keep in mind anytime you are fishing for smallmouth bass. One is rocks and the
other is crayfish. In a lake or river that ranges within the preferred temperature preferences of smallmouth
bass, these two things together are key. Broken rock and rubble are the ideal structure for them but don't
exclude flooded trees and bushes. In lakes where both are present, banks with a rather steep decline seem
to be preferred over gentle sloping banks.
As a general rule (which means there are exceptions) smallmouth don't cruise around looking for food. They
are predators that like to hide and attack their prey. The wait for their prey to come to them and they strike
with a short, sudden burst of speed.
The favorite food of a smallmouth bass is crayfish. Some call them craydads and some call them crawfish.
Smallmouth also eat baitfish, minnows, sculpin and other small fish.
Water temperature is an important consideration. The preferred range of water temperature for smallmouth
bass is between 65 and 75 degrees. Sixty eight to seventy degrees is perfect. They can remain active in
water as cold as forty degrees. They will normally start feeding when the ice has melted from a lake. They
are sluggish until it gets into the mid fifties but they can still be caught in water that cold.
The spawning season usually provides the best fishing opportunities. This can occur anywhere from the first
of May through the month of June depending on the exact location. The males build the nest or beds, and
become very aggressive during that time. They prefer gravel and rubble in shallower water than they
normally spend most of their time. As many as three or four females may use the same bed.
Although we generalized on the habitat of smallmouth bass at the beginning of this article, your will find there
are some differences in smallmouth that live in lakes and those that live in rivers and streams. Those
differences depend on the particular lake, reservoir or stream, but its mostly to do with the structure, water
depths, and food supply. You will find there is a variation in all of these things from one local to another.
The smallies in the lakes of Canada are generally different than those of the western lakes in Montana, Utah
and Oregon, for example. Those that live in the St. Lawrence River in New York are quite different from
those in the Tennessee River and the tributary streams that originate in the Appalachian Mountains. You
have to learn the particulars about the water you plan to fish.
In some lakes weed lines are the key structures. In others, it is rock outcroppings in deep water. Generally,
the clearer the lake, the deeper the smallmouth will reside. Lakes that have some tint or color to the water
will have smallmouth that tend to stay in relatively shallow water.
You should learn as much as you possible can about where the smallmouth reside during the different
seasons if you want to consistently catch them on the fly.
The gear you use fly fishing for smallmouth bass isn't that sophisticated. You normally use anywhere from a
5 to a 7 weight fly line. They can be a lot of fun on a 5 weight rod but that is a tad small for large
smallmouth. A 6 weight is the most commonly used fly line and rod. Seven weight lines and rods are often
used in large lakes where the average size smallmouth ranges from two to six pounds or more. Some
anglers even use an 8 weight fly line and rod when they are using large streamers or fishing deep water for
larger smallmouth bass but that's rather unusual. The larger rods make it easier to handle large and bulky
flies, especially if there's any wind.
You will want a weight-forward, floating fly line for surface flies and flies that you will be fishing in shallow
water or water less than three feet deep. This will help you control the fly line much better than using a
sinking line or sinking tip.
For deeper water, ranging from three to six feet deep, you can use intermediate sinking fly lines or sinking
tip fly lines. These will greatly assist your getting the flies down deeper. When the smallmouth are in very
deep water a sinking fly line will work best.
You will need leaders that are heavier than you are use to using for trout. They should range from six to ten
feet long, depending on the particular flies you are using. Tapered leaders work the best. A non-tapered
leader won't straighten out near as well as a tapered leader with small, light flies. Monofilament leaders work
best. The size of the leader depends on the particular fly use are using. Generally, a ten pound test tippet is
about the average size for smallmouth. You will need some larger and some much lighter down to a size 3X
for light nymphs and flies. We have Perfect Fly leaders especially designed for bass.
You should also carry plenty of spare mono tippet. You will need it the same size of the tippet on the leader.
We do not think fluorocarbon leaders are any better than mono for smallmouth surface or subsurface wise
We have several smallmouth bass flies that work in streams and lakes. The most popular one is our Brown
Crayfish fly. We also have one that imitates a spawning crayfish called the Brown and White Crayfish fly.
These imitate the most common food that smallmouth bass eat.
We also have several of our own baitfish, sculpin and minnow imitations. Our Slider Baitfish and Swimming
Shad are two of our most popular flies. We also have several flies that imitate sculpin - the Brown Sculpin,
White Belly Sculpin, the Yellow Marabou, Black Marabou and White Marabou are all great flies for
smallmouth bass. One of our most popular is the Perfect Fly Shad which, of course, imitates a threadfin
shad, a very common baitfish that smallmouth bass eat when available.
Successful fly fishing strategies for smallmouth bass requires a knowledge of where the fish live and the
types of habitat they prefer. In general, this is clear, clean water, but of course, that's only a starting
requirement. They live in both streams and lakes, but you won't find them in small ponds unless they are very
deep. Even lakes that are shallower than 25 feet rarely hold smallmouth bass.
In the northern part of the United States, smallmouth bass prefer water ranging from 67 to 71 degrees F.
You will rarely find them in water over 80. In the southern states, smallmouth are known to live in water
ranging as high as 78 to 84 degrees F. The reason this is common is that the deep, cool water in most
southern lakes doesn't have enough oxygen for the smallmouth. Many of the lakes do not have
thermoclines. Smallmouth bass will feed very little in water temperatures below 50 degrees. At 40 degrees,
you will find them almost inactive.
Oxygen plays a role with the smallmouth bass that's different from largemouth. The largemouth can tolerate
an oxygen content of 2.0 parts per million but the smallmouth can't. It needs at least 2.5. Both feeding and
the growth of smallmouth bass is reduced in water of less than 5.0 parts per million.
One thing that's different in smallmouth and largemouth bass is their preference for current. Smallmouth
prefer moderate current. It is a little slower than that preferred by trout, but faster than that preferred by
largemouth bass. You can just about always count on more smallmouth being in pools with current than
those without any current. Lakes that hold smallmouth will usually be found near the mouths of rivers or
creeks with some current. If this doesn't exist, you can just about count on them being more active where
wind is adding some current. Many of the smallmouth bass lakes in the South are formed by upstream
tailwaters that have current created by discharges of water from dams upstream and sometimes, both
upstream and downstream.
Water clarity is very important and much different from that largemouth bass will tolerate. They will tolerate
murky water for a short period of time, but they won't live in water that stays murky. If the visibility is less than
a foot on the average, you can rest assured you won't find smallmouth bass.
One of the most important habitat features is the type of bottom the stream or lake has. The preferred
bottom is clean rock and gravel. One reason is that this type of bottom generally has crayfish, dragonfly and
hellgrammites. If the lake or river has sandy areas of bottom, the smallmouth will often hold there but there's
usually rock and gravel nearby. The sandy type bottoms hold baitfish and that also can be important food for
the smallmouth. They prefer sandy bottoms with some vegetation but not lots of it. Sparse areas of
vegetation are preferred.
Smallmouth Bass change their locations in lakes and rivers throughout the year. They have specific seasonal
movement patterns. In terms of the area of the river or lake, this could be short migrations in the same
general areas, or longer migrations of up to miles. It depends on the type of water.
Smallmouth bass are rather inactive until the water reaches about 50 degrees but that doesn't mean you
can't catch them. They can be caught in water in the high thirties and low forties but they won't move over a
few inches to take a fly. It has to be right in front of their nose. When the water gets about 50 degrees they
will start moving towards their spawning areas. In streams, this migration can start at a lower water
temperature than they actually spawn. The bass feed well during this period of time.
Smallmouth spawn in the same areas year after year. Once you find them spawning in a particular lake or
stream, you can be assured they will be there in future years. That will change only if major changes take
place in the water or habitat. The exact locations smallmouth spawn depends greatly on the type of water
they live in.
Smallmouth move to nearby, deeper water once the spawn has ended. For a short period of time, they don't
feed at all, but then within a day or two, they will begin to feed very aggressively. This doesn't mean they are
easy to catch. Finding post spawn smallmouth can be more difficult than finding them at other times. Again, it
greatly depends on the type of water.
Summertime is the easiest time to find smallmouth bass. They reside in the same areas from year to year.
Once you find them during the Summer, in a lake or a stream, you can be assured they will be there again
the next year. They will hold on the same structure in a lake, year after year.
If crayfish are present, their location is almost always related to rocks because that's their favorite food. They
usually hold on the same structure until Fall. This location the smallmouth hold can last all the way from the
post spawn period until the weather cools the water in the Fall.
Depth is critically important but again, the smallmouth bass holding areas vary greatly with the type of water.
For example, In deep, very clear reservoirs and lakes, this may be as deep as 35 feet. In a lake that's
commonly dingy or slightly stained, this may be only ten to twelve feet deep. If it's a small stream, this may
only be 4 feet deep because there may not be any deeper water for them to hold in. In these cases, they
always choose the deepest water.
Smallmouth will leave the deep water to feed but only in nearby areas and only under low light conditions.
The clearer the water, the more less likely they will venture shallow to feed during daylight. They often feed at
night in clear lakes and streams during the Summer.
In the early Fall months, the smallmouth may remain in the same exact locations but move more often to
shallow water to feed. Baitfish and crawfish are more prevalent in shallower water at this time and the
smallmouth bass will move there to feed on them. This also greatly depends on the amount of light. In bright
light conditions, the smallmouth will tend to stay in their normal holding pattern.
In the northern lakes and deep water southern lakes, as the upper water column cools off and becomes the
same temperature as the lower column of water, the lake will begin to turn over, or the water near the surface
will become cooler than the deep water. While it's near the same temperature, top and bottom, it makes
finding the trout even more difficult.
In the late Fall and Winter months, the smallmouth bass move to deeper water. They will come in the shallows
to follow baitfish when the water warms up from a period of warm weather, but otherwise, they will remain in
the deep water. Again, this is controlled more so by light than temperature. In dingy lakes this may be 12 to
15 feet and in deep lakes as deep as 35 feet. Of course, catching smallmouth bass on the fly becomes much
more difficult in deep water. Sinking lines must be used and they are not very easy to fish.
Although all of the above information is general and depends on the water, hopefully, it gives you a good
idea of the seasonal changes in the smallmouth's location during the changing seasons.