By Tim O'Neill
Any one who knows me knows that Smallmouth Bass are my favorite fish to chase with fly gear. Oh yeah, if it is Steelhead season I will say Steelhead are my favorite, when we are Pike fishing I will say Pike are my favorite, when the Shad are running I will say...well, you get the picture.
I have been quoted many times saying "Pound for pound a Smallmouth is the hardest fighting freshwater fish" I believe that to be true. I have also been quotes ad saying "Once you catch a truly big Smallmouth you will kick a stone at all of your Trout gear". I believe that to be true, hence the title of this article.
For us, typically the end of March into April has always been the Trout time of year. It is just what we did year after year for as long as I can remember, this would take us to the Smallmouth spawn, usually around the first week or two in June. We would start our Smallmouth Fishing after the spawn and fish them through the summer. Well, a few years ago our friend Brian Shumaker of Susquehanna River Guides (the premiere smallmouth guide service on the Susky) introduced us to pre-spawn Smallmouth bass fishing, and he ruined us forever!!!!
For us the pre-spawn typically starts around the last week in March and can carry deep into May with the month of April being the prime time. This is all temperature driven so you need to watch your waterways closely and when that water hits around 45 degrees you need to hit the water. We are typically looking for "river run" fish meaning fish that come out of the river into one of the smaller tributaries to spawn. Resident fish can grow to a large size in this area, this time of year we are looking for the migrators fresh in from the big river, hungry, hormonal, and MAD. Man, I love these fish!
Some of the smaller tributaries can be hard too access and tough to navigate once you get on the water. Our favorite pre-spawn river is no exception. Our Smith Fly Big Shoals was tailor maid for this type of fishing. Light to carry and easy in and out of the water, you can bounce this thing off every rock in the river and it keeps on trucking.
Low and slow if the key during this time of year, intermediate and heavy sinking lines are the norm and you can leave your floating line and popper box at home. Don't get me wrong, I love coaxing bass to the surface and I love the visual of the popper bite. There will be plenty of time for that in a few months, just not now. Short leaders of 12 to 15#, sinking lines and big baitfish patterns are your go to for early season Bassin, favorite patterns include Feather Game Changers, Deceivers, Clouser's and Half and Half's are all great choices. I have long believed white to be the most productive Smallmouth color and the early season choice remains the same. To throw all that payload you need a serious stick. We have been relying on the Axiom II X and the LK Legacy from Temple Fork Outfitters. These rods have the juice to launch a heavy sink tip and the backbone to land an angry 20" Bronzeback. We have been very happy with everything TFO since joining their team.
On this particular day we spent about 6 hours floating a productive section of the river. Cast, upstream mend, count the fly down, strip, strip, pause. We spend as much time on the anchor as we did on the sticks setting up on the likely fish holding water and drifting over the other. Cast, upstream mend, count the fly down, strip, strip, pause. Most of the time that pause id the most important aspect of the cast, a truly bid Smallmouth will usually hit on the drop, probably the reason the Clouser minnow and it hundreds of variations are so effective.
When we were driving home, tired, gear stowed and boat in tow I was thinking; "This was the single beast day I have had on a Smallmouth river. Never before had we landed three 20" fish, 5 18" fish and I don't know how many 14, 15 & 16" fish. Truly an epic day on the water (and I really do not like the word epic) but that is the only way to describe it.
So, like the title says Smallmouth...in April??? Absolutely! Man, I LOVE these fish! Till next time...
Tight Lines - Tim