By Dave Hughes
Last summer, as the world basked or baked in record warmth, I set out on a trout trip to a favorite river. Where I fish it, the flow bounds out of a national forest and should have been cool all day. I measured water temperatures at 58 degrees at 6AM, 68 degrees around noon and 78 degrees when the sun finally quit shining on the water. The trout are native redband rainbows and have adapted to high water temperatures over thousands of generations. They’ll continue to survive them. But I quit fishing before lunchtime for the first couple of days, and then decided it wasn’t quite right to pester trout at all when they had other stresses working on them.
I turned away from that river, drove across a quarter of Oregon and set up my tent alongside the John Day River, well known for its smallmouth bass. It was low, clear and approaching 80 degrees at mid-afternoon. Conditions that are warm enough to endanger trout are perfect for these feisty bass. Their engines rev up, making them hungry and in turn making them angry. When it’s time to quit fishing for trout—predicted to be more often in the future—it’s an excellent time to turn to smallmouth.
My experience with smallies is long but thin. I’ve fished them for many years, but they always have trailed far behind salmonids in the way I allocate my fishing time: a trip a year, some years two, other years missed. But I’ve always kept a minimalist setup for them handy—one that I can grab and go at any time. In this age of elevated temperatures, I pack that setup on trips that take me near water that contains smallmouth bass. That’s why I had it as backup when temps got too high on that trout stream bounding out of the mountains. I’d crossed the John Day on the way over.
When you select an outfit for smallmouth bass, it’s unlikely you’ll need to gallop out and buy a new rod, reel and line, though that’s perfectly acceptable if you’re looking for an excuse to purchase one. You probably already own an 81⁄2- to 9-foot rod in 5- to 7-weight and have it spooled with a floating line, perhaps with an intermediate or sink-tip line on a spare spool. I use the same rod for smallmouth that is my favorite for summer steelhead—a rod I also string often on lakes. It’s a 9-foot 6-weight, substantially stiff and designed for distance over delicacy. I call it my exploring outfit, and I carry it whenever I’m not sure where I’m going and what I might end up fishing. In other words it’s with me on nearly every trip I take.
For smallmouth I often use a floating line. But I like to have a line handy that will penetrate the surface if I bump into a big, deep pool and would like to get a fly near the bottom.
Leaders can be kept elementally simple. Carry a tippet spool in 15- or 20-pound test and another in eight- or 10-pound. If you prefer things even easier, go with a level leader of 12- to 15-pound test that’s six to 10 feet long. I usually split it into a heavy butt and lighter tip, and I feel better about the tapered leader. You can buy and use specific tapered bass leaders, but they should be 0X to not lighter than 3X and no longer than your rod, for casting control with big bugs and weighted sunk flies.
Flies for smallmouth can be kept as minimal as the gear. The biggest dry flies, nymphs and streamers that you use for trout are rarely neglected by hungry bass. But I like a selection of hair bugs and poppers, because they’re pretty and because they cause the kind of constant detonations that are fairly rare in trout fishing but so common with smallmouth. Hair bugs can be easy to tie if you keep them simple, and it’s fun to experiment with color combinations, knowing that almost anything you cobble together will work. But you won’t go wrong tying some in yellow, others in natural colors and a few that combine the two. Sometimes bass like bold colors; other times they want something subdued. Most times they’re happy with anything that lands on the water within sight or sound and will attack it no matter its color.
Compared to finding trout, reading smallmouth water is somewhat easier, because you might find bass anywhere. They often are found right at river edges even in thin water. If the bank is weedy or lined with reeds, they’ll be there.
Smallmouth take nearly any bass or bluegill popper just as well. I buy a few rather than constructing my own out of laziness. I prefer expensive ones over cheap, mostly on account of the quality of the hooks. Bass are strong and sometimes big. They have a tendency to straighten popper hooks designed for smaller panfish. Poppers you buy for smallmouth will work for largemouth bass just as well, so you can get double duty out of them. Good ones cost nearly five dollars a pop, which is a fine reason to keep your leader stout, so you don’t lose them often.
Sunk smallmouth flies can be divided into nymphs and streamers. Though you can do a quick search and come up with an infinite number of nymphs designed just for bass—and I recommend you do that—I confine my own minimal list to a size 4 or 6 Casual Dress tied with a tungsten bead head and the Montana Hybrid tied with barbell lead eyes. Both sink quickly. The Casual Dress is an old Polly Rosborough fuzzy nymph tied for trout. I discovered long ago and by accident that it works wonders on smallmouth.
The Montana Hybrid is a carp fly that I tied with hopes I might finally catch one or two of those beasts that occupy the same water as bass. Last year I took a trip for smallmouth with Rick Hafele, and he asked if he could borrow a fly, as his boxes held mostly trout flies. I peered into my minimal smallmouth box, noticed the Hybrids I’d tied for carp and gave him one in hopes that it wouldn’t work. (Opportunities to outfish him are rare and shouldn’t be wasted.) Unfortunately the bass were greedy for that carp fly. I added that pattern to my own short list of nymphs for smallmouth.
For streamers, if you already have Woolly Buggers in black and olive sizes 4 to 8, you might have everything you need to catch smallmouth. I prefer them tied with tungsten bead heads and Krystal Chenille bodies, with flash added into the tail. No one knows more about smallmouth fishing than the great Bob Clouser, and your box might be empty if it lacks Clouser Minnows in sizes 4 to 8. As I write this, in winter, I see that my own fly box is almost barren of Clousers, which means that bass feasted on them heavily last season and separated me from most that I’d tied. Note to self: Get busy at the bench.
Compared to finding trout, reading smallmouth water is somewhat easier, because you might find bass anywhere. They often are found right at river edges even in thin water. If the bank is weedy or lined with reeds, they’ll be there. If it is overhung by branches and brush, that is a perfect ambush setup. If the bank is steep or lined with boulders and indentations, don’t expect to set your fly—surface or sunk—anywhere near it and have it remain safe.
Bass hang out in riffles too—sometimes in the fast water near the head but more often farther down where the water slows. If a riffle or run has any structure—boulders, ledges, trenches, deep edges and so on—this will help you pinpoint fish. They also school often in so-called frog water: the near-stagnant water that forms in eddies and backwaters alongside riffles and runs. Always toss exploratory casts in there. If you hook one bass, continue fishing that water—any water—until you’ve worn it out. Bass school together, so if you find one, you probably have found a bunch.
Covering all of the water, at least at first, gives you a quick sense of the type of water the bass are favoring at the time you’re fishing. They do move around from season to season and even from morning to evening, so you have to search for them with your flies.
Minimizing smallmouth tactics is not difficult. Cast a fly—surface or sunk—where they can eat it, and it’s likely you’ve got them. If populations are heavy, you might have trouble keeping fish away from your fly, especially if you are focusing on the largest fish. If the bass are scattered, persistently covering water until you bump into fish might be the most productive tactic you can employ.
A couple of specific tactics will serve you well. With a bug, popper or oversize trout dry fly, cast it out, let it sit for a moment, and then give it just a twitch. That’s when it is most likely to get whacked, because something probably has been watching it. Let the fly sit a moment more, and then retrieve it in six- to 12-inch strips, with pauses between. A bass might take it anywhere between the cover to which you’ve cast and the rod tip, but you can be forgiven if you lift it off and cast again after 10 feet or so of active retrieve. Odds for a strike decrease as the fly moves away from cover.
When hitting an edge, step and cast your way along, hitting a target every few feet down the bank. Keep moving. You’re after singles, and they might be sprinkled along that edge. But you also are looking for a pod. As mentioned, if you find one fish, stay with that spot until you’ve worn it out. If bass happen to be rising to insects out in open water, which they do often, pretend your bug or popper is a perfect match and fish it dead drift. The bass might sip it, but often they will try to kill it, which can be quite entertaining.
Sunk flies, whether nymphs or streamers, should be fished almost the same way you’d fish floaters. Cast to the river’s edge, to structure, across a riffle or into frog water. Let the weighted fly sink a bit, but watch your line tip while it does. Bass often pounce, especially when they’re schooled, outracing their buddies to the fly. It often happens that the biggest fish gets first crack, so the one you miss while your fly is on the sink might be the one you’d most like to catch.
Retrieve the sunk fly slowly at first. Then speed it up. On one cast make your retrieve smooth and steady; on another jerk the fly around. You’re experimenting, trying to see what the bass prefer in that water at that moment. It can change, so give them a choice. Again, they tend to school, so if you hook one, continue fishing the same spot the same way until the last bass bites.
If you’re working your way down a pool or any featureless water, you may not know where the best structure is and the fish may be anchored near bottom. That’s likely where the big one will be. On that trip when I loaned Hafele the carp fly, I made another mistake. I’d fished a pool almost to its end, caught lots of smallmouth from it—including a couple that pushed two pounds (big for the John Day)—and thought I’d fished it out.
I asked Rick to move up, fish the remainder of the pool and let me take a few photos while he demonstrated the proper presentation. You know what happened next. An unseen boulder must have been sitting near the tail-out and had a last large bass hanging out next to it.
The smallie was bigger than any of mine.