All You Need for Smallies

All You Need for Smallies

It's time to gear up for this season's smallmouth action

  • By: Chad Mason
Tree blossoms had fallen to earth, replaced by the tender yellow-green leaves of early May. A partner and I slid our dented aluminum canoe into the clear waters of Kentucky's South Fork of the Licking River and shoved off for three days and nights of sleeping in hayfields and catching bass. We were college boys recently sprung from final exams, and the river had been calling our names for weeks. Amazingly, we got through the whole trip without rain. Every morning we woke to the mingled sounds of rushing water and gobbling turkeys.

Smallmouths lurked behind boulders, under logs and in the shade of undercut banks, and they attacked our surface bugs greedily at all hours of the day. We kept a couple every night for dinner, since the rock bass and sunnies were too small to clean. When the trip was over we drove home without speaking much, thinking of those perfect 72 hours on the river. The smallmouth bass has been my favorite fish for a very long time. Although I relish the genteel technicalities of trout fishing as much as anyone, throughout the year I spend far more time fishing for smallmouths. They're local, and trout are not. Of course, a love born close can lead you far away. I've caught smallmouth bass from Tennessee to Ontario. No matter where I go, the same patterns, presentations and tackle produce fish.

This is an article about what is instrumentally necessary for catching smallmouth bass. At the outset I confess some ambivalence about the subject matter, as I've never been one to limit myself to what is necessary. Beyond instrumentality lies a whole world of gratuity that is only lovelier for its lack of necessity. Although trout flies are mostly about necessity, bass bugs are all about gratuity. Of course I tie a greater variety of bass bugs than the ones described here, but these are the ones you need. And even within these few, I recommend switching frequently just for the hell of it.

Leave home without your fly rod before you leave home without some popping bugs. Foam or cork bugs last longer than deer hair, but I have an unbreakable sentimental attachment to deerhair bugs. Beyond sentiment, deerhair bugs have some practical advantages: They can be dropped as quietly or as loudly on the water as you wish, depending on casting technique; their deep popping sound is unique; and they are soft in a fish's mouth, just like a live organism. Poppers need not be complicated. I simply tie on a tail of marabou and a few strands of Krystal Flash framed by four long saddle feathers, and then I spin a deerhair body. With a hair stacker, I align the tips of the first bunch of hair and leave these tips unclipped to form a skirt that extends back over the tail feathers. There are no doll eyes, no rubber legs, no weed guards. However, I do tie a few weedless poppers for reasons we'll discuss below. Where popper color is concerned, I agree with Lefty Kreh--color is almost completely unimportant. White, yellow and chartreuse are good attention-getters, and that's what a popper is for. Take your pick. I tie all my smallmouth poppers on a TMC 8089 hook, size 10. That may sound small for a bass bug, but the finished pattern is three to four inches long and casts well on rods between 6- and 8-weight.

When fish are not aggressive enough to chase a popper, a diver pattern can save the day. I use Larry Dahlberg's classic pattern, which I tie precisely the same as my poppers except for the haircut. Whereas the popper tapers down to its waist, the diver tapers down to its nose. Additionally, I leave a wide collar on the diver to catch air bubbles. This makes the fly look more substantial under water, and creates additional flash as sunlight refracts through the bubbles. Some tiers use a strip of rabbit fur instead of feathers for the tail. This works well and is quicker than fussing with feathers, but rabbit fur has a tendency to get waterlogged, decreasing the fly's buoyancy and making the cast laborious. By contrast, a feather-tail diver shakes relatively dry on the first false cast, and doesn't feel like casting a water balloon.

Clouser Deep Minnows
What if the smallies won't come to the surface? Go down and get 'em with a streamer. Although the smallmouth has a much-deserved reputation as a crayfish eater, I favor minnow patterns during the daylight hours as crayfish are mostly nocturnal. Moreover, by late summer crayfish populations become depleted in many rivers, forcing smallmouth to rely more on baitfish for sustenance. And even when smallmouths do feed heavily on crayfish, a minnow pattern will still catch them. Last summer I caught a dandy smallmouth on a minnow pattern. When I reached to grab his lip, he coughed up a two-inch crayfish. Susquehanna River guide Bob Clouser may be regarded as the smallmouth Dali Lama. His Deep Minnow pattern, developed in the 1980's, still serves as the gold-standard of baitfish patterns for smallmouth. I tie this pattern on a TMC 200R hook in size 4 with eyes weighing a mere 1/50 of an ounce, because I want the minnow to fall very slowly on the retrieve. Overall length should be about three inches. I've experimented with numerous body materials, but the original bucktail remains my favorite. For durability, I coat the butts of the bucktail with undiluted flexible cement-such as Dave's Flexament-before tying them down. Unlike poppers, I do think the color of a minnow pattern matters, but exact duplication of real minnows is not the goal. The goal is to create a highly visible streamer that provokes aggression and not suspicion. I always use red-and-black eyes; they've consistently out-fished other colors for me. Best body combinations have a white belly and a back of olive, chartreuse or purple. The purple-and-white version has produced especially well for me on the slightly turbid, tannin-stained waters of the upper Midwest. Whenever the water is very clear and shallow, the olive/white version is my favorite. In deep water I reach for the chartreuse model.

Bass Buggers
The venerable Woolly Bugger can be variously tied and presented to suggest crayfish, leeches and hellgrammites (Dobsonfly larvae), all of which are important smallmouth forage. To suggest leeches and hellgrammites, the Bugger is best in basic black. To suggest crayfish, make it olive or rusty orange with 1/36-ounce lead eyes to keep it on the bottom. Add some rubber legs if you like; they don't seem to hurt anything. Don't make the fly too big, though. A 3X-long streamer hook, like Mustad 9672 or Daiichi 2220, in size 6 is about right for smallmouth. These four basic fly patterns will cover the gamut of smallmouth fishing situations almost anywhere as long as you present them well. Presentations

I once heard the great fly-tying innovator Larry Dahlberg describe the popper as "the fly fisher's version of a buzzbait." Dahlberg meant that a popper should be presented with a rapid retrieve to cover large expanses of water in a short time. If you've ever watched Dahlberg fish, then you know he's a tad frenetic. He uses a popper to blanket the water with casts, searching for active fish. I'm a bit mellower, but I think Dahlberg is right about the popper's primary function. Rarely do I use a popper to fish slowly and methodically. This may come as a shock to bass anglers who have caught bass for many by plopping a popper on the water, waiting for all the ripples to dissipate, and then slowly twitching the bug. This, they imagine, is how you tempt a reluctant bass. That may be true, but I suspect these anglers are catching bass they would have caught anyway with a faster retrieve--and a faster retrieve would enable them to put the popper over more bass. Fished quickly, poppers are at their best when bass are most aggressive--May and June, dawn and dusk, or the pleasant, stable weather of September when bass gorge to prepare for winter. The only time I'll fish a popper less than briskly is when prodigious numbers of grasshoppers are on the water. On one of my home rivers, late September and early October bring a dense plague of giant yellow-belly hoppers. At that time, I'll match the hopper with a popper. That means a splashy landing near shore, followed by a mostly dead drift with intermittent twitches; I tie a few weedless poppers for this purpose.With a gentle tug, a weedless popper comes clean from bank-side grasses. When you want to get subtle on the surface, do it with a diver, not a popper. Think helpless, weak and vulnerable thoughts. Dives are induced with quick, hard tugs on the line. With intermittent dives divided by long pauses, bass can often be provoked--even from considerable distance or depth.

I'll only tie on a subsurface pattern when bass have already proven uncooperative on the surface, or at times when I believe surface action is unlikely, such as the middle of a bright summer day or whenever the water temperature is below 55 degrees. At such times, I reach first for the Clouser. Few patterns are easier to fish than the Clouser Deep Minnow. Cast it across the current at a slight upstream angle, let it drift down to fish level, and then retrieve it steadily with foot-long pulls of line. Bass generally strike between pulls as the minnow is falling, and are felt as a dead stop in the line when it comes taut. If presenting this pattern in a lake, anchor the canoe--you do have one, don't you?--and cast parallel to the shoreline along points and ledges. Begin at the depth where you can just no longer see the lake bottom. With the all-black Woolly Bugger, my favorite presentation in moving water is down-and-across. I pinch a split-shot onto the tippet right in front of the hook eye. As the fly swings across likely lairs, I pulse the rod tip gently up-and-down while taking in line slowly with a hand-twist retrieve. This produces an undulating motion, taking full advantage of the marabou tail. Perhaps bass mistake the Bugger for a leech or hellgrammite, or maybe that's excessive trout-think. Whatever the impulse, they do take it. This presentation is possible only in moving water; in lakes, forget the split-shot and get the fly down with a sinking line, then retrieve it slowly with short strips. Crayfish-color Buggers should be used in shallow rock-rubble areas during low light periods. They should be fished directly on the bottom where the real thing lives. The retrieve should consist of quick, jerky strips of about 12 to 18 inches. Pause between strips to let the fly regain contact with the bottom, and expect to lose some flies.

Tackle If I were to select one rod for all my of smallmouth fishing, it would be a 9-foot 7-weight rod. It would have a moderately fast action and good lifting power in the butt section. [For reviews of FR&R's favorite bass rods, see June 2006 or visit] A reel for smallmouth fishing need not be expensive. It should reel smoothly and have interchangeable spools, but needs no high-tech drag system or advanced corrosion protection. A good example is the Ross Flywater series. I would guess that 75 percent of smallmouth fishing can be done with a floating line. I like so-called "bass bug taper" lines, because casts beyond 50 feet are seldom needed and the steep forward taper of these lines will turn over a wind-resistant deerhair bug. Another 20 percent of smallmouth fishing can be done with a sinking-tip line. Most of these lines come out of the box with a 10-foot sinking section, but I cut mine back to about six feet to make casting easier. The remaining 5 percent of smallmouth fishing can be handled with a fast-sinking shooting head. With floating lines I use a simple three-section leader constructed as follows: 36 inches of 0.022-inch monofilament; 36 inches of 0.015-inch monofilament and 24-inch tippet of 10-pound monofilament. If the water is exceptionally clear, I may shorten the 10-pound tippet to 12 inches, and add another 24 inches of 6- or 8-pound tippet material to the fly. All sections are joined by blood knots. With sinking-tip or shooting-head lines, I simply use three or four feet of tippet material ranging from 6- to 10-pound test, depending on water clarity and sunlight intensity. One evening last summer, after putting in the arbitrary but socially acceptable allotment of eight hours' work, I returned to the river at 6:00 pm--the hour when a stagnant summer world starts moving again. Near the branches of a fallen silver maple, I dropped a popper, and before I could even take up the slack, the bug disappeared in the daintiest of sipping rises. The rod bent double when I lifted it, and after a considerable struggle a tiger-striped smallmouth came to hand, glaring at me with a crimson eye.