I have fished for smallmouth off and on from Canada to north Alabama for most of my life. Most of it has been done
using conventional tackle but I have also caught a lot of them on the fly. I used the fly rod for smallmouth over 40
years ago fishing Lake of the Woods and other waters in Canada. That was an old fiberglass model fly rod and I'm
pretty sure all I had was level fly line. For the past fifteen years, all of the smallmouth fishing I have done has been
done using the fly rod. Most of that has been within a few miles of where I live in some of the streams that flow from
the Smoky Mountains National Park. The fish reside in the same places and eat the same food irrespective of the type
of tackle anglers use to try to catch them.
The first and foremost problem you have in catching smallmouth bass is finding them. Irrespective of
whether your fishing a lake or stream, you will usually find smallmouth residing in only a very small percentage of the
water. In terms of the surface area of the lake or stream, this is almost always less than 20 percent of the overall
surface area of water. In some cases, such as a large river or lake, this may be less than 5 percent of the overall
surface area of the water. That sounds simple enough until you consider that unless the smallmouth are feeding on
the surface of the water, you also have to figure out the depth the fish are holding and feeding. If your fishing a deep,
clear lake, that greatly complicates the problem of finding the fish. They could be anywhere from shallow water to
deeps of over thirty feet. If you are fishing a smaller size river, finding the area of the stream the fish are located is
usually less complicated, but even then, the depth the fish could be holding could vary from shallow water to deeps of
over twenty or thirty feet. Smallmouth don't generally live in streams or lakes that don't have areas of deep water. Of
course, it is much easier to find smallmouth in a small stream than it is in a large river, lake or reservoir. Considering
the fact that in most cases you need to get your fly within a foot or two of a smallmouth to catch it, the process isn't
exactly simple, even in a very small mountain stream. In such streams, they have a tendency to move to different
areas of the stream at various times of the year depending on depths, current and available food.
In order to have a decent chance of finding fish throughout the smallmouth fishing season, it is necessary to
understand some of the basics of where the fish reside and feed at the various times of the year. A great deal of that
is related to the spawn. Pre-spawn, actual spawn and post spawn times vary the location of the smallmouth. Other
than times surrounding the spawning season, much of understanding where the fish are located relates to the food
the smallmouth depend on for survival. Smallmouth are always going to be fairly near the food that is the most
available and plentiful at the time. That means the more you know about the food, the easier it is for you to find
smallmouth. When you are able to determine where the smallmouth are located during the spawning season, and at
other times of the year, as to where they are located as related to the food they rely on, it becomes a matter of
pinpointing their location. This enables you to be able to eliminate much of the water in a lake or stream, but it usually
leaves a lot of water you still need to eliminate. For example, if the smallmouth are spawning, you need to know the
type of water, depth and bottom they spawn on. In most cases, that still leaves a large area of water for you to try to
cover with a fly. Or for example, if it is during the middle of the summer and you know the smallmouth will be
located in deep water, in most lakes and rivers that still leaves a tremendous amount of water to cover with a fly. In
that case, the smallmouth usually reside in one area of water and feed in a different area that is almost always very
There are two basic ways to go about pinpointing them within a general location or area of the water. One is the trial
and error method. Some anglers cast to every likely spot in the river or lake, fishing from the surface to different
depths until they catch one. Those anglers usually return home talking about how slow or poor the fishing is. To be
successful using this approach, one thing always becomes necessary - a lot of luck. There is yet another problem with
the trial and error method. They may not be willing to feed on whatever the fly your are using imitates. For example,
you may be imitating a threadfin shad when they are feeding on crayfish.
In other words, catching them with consistency always gets down to understanding the fish and the food they eat. This
varies from lake to lake and stream to stream. I can't possible cover everything one needs to know in one article. You
couldn't cover the subject in a two-inch thick book. I will go over some basics, so that you get the general idea of what I
mean about understanding the fish and the food they eat.
Seasonal Changes In Smallmouth Habitat:
Smallmouth Bass 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.
They 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 want 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. They bass feed well during this period of time.
The 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. The exact locations depends greatly on the type of water.
Once the spawn has ended, the fish move to nearby deeper water. For a short period of time, they don't feed at all,
but then within a day or two, they feed very aggressively. This doesn't mean they are easy to catch. Finding them can
be more difficult than it is 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, 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. It can last all the way from the post
spawn period until the weather cools the water in the Fall.
Depth is critically important but 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, this may be
only ten to twelve feet deep. If it's a small stream, this may only be a few feet deep because there may not be any
deeper water for them to hold. In these cases, they always choose the deeper water. The 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
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 more
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 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.
Some Key Points:
There are two things to keep in mind anytime you are fishing for smallmouth bass. One is rocks and the other is
crayfish. These two things together in a lake or river that ranges within the preferred temperature preferences of
smallmouth bass is key. Broken rock and rubble are the ideal structure for them but don't exclude flooded trees and
bushes. Banks with a rather steep decline seem to be preferred over gentle sloping banks in lakes where both are
Smallmouth don't generally 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 the strike with a short, sudden burst of speed. Of course, there are
exceptions to this.
They 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
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 big 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.
The smallies in the lakes of Canada are generally different than those of the western lakes in Montana, Utah and
Oregon, for example. Smallmouth that live in the St. Lawrence River in New York are quite different from those that live
in the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. 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.
Just always remember, it isn't so much a matter of what fly to tie on. It is far more important to know exactly where to
put (present) the fly. Finding the fish is the big key.
Fly Fishing Techniques
The Most Important Thing, Finding The Fish
by James Marsh
Copyright 2014 James Marsh
June 2014 Issue
guess the above photo explains why our contributing writer, Mr. Mark Karaba didn't have an article for this issue.
He went fishing instead. Worse than that, he didn't even use one of our Perfect Flies to catch the big smallmouth.
He did say he caught it swinging the fly. He wouldn't even say where he caught the fish, other than near his house.
I will tell you his house is in Michigan, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.
Mark Karaba with a
very nice Michigan