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
Most of my friends locally that know me know that I am a self proclaimed Smallmouth nut! They are my favorite fish and they are tailor made for fly fishing. Myself, Tyler and my friends spend many hours chasing Smallies each Summer. We have our rods, reels, and watercraft dialed in. We each carry several rods with different lines so we can cover the entire water column from top to bottom and we are very familiar with the rivers that we float. What does all of this mean? Well, we are fortunate enough to land several 18 to 20 inch Smallmouth each year. Our Smallmouth game is tight, and we take pride in that.
I always say if you were to look into my working fly boxes you would probably be extremely underwhelmed. You may expect to see box after box with hundreds of different patterns in every color under the rainbow. While I do love tying flies, I love catching fish even more. and when I am all on the water it is all about the fish and catching them! While we are constantly experimenting, tweaking, and coming up with some new patterns. What follows are my core 5 Smallmouth flies. I call these "American Express Flies' because you don't leave home without them (you will have to be over 40 to get that reference) and you can bet if you see me on the river one (or 3) of these will be tied on my tippet.
We are full into summer fishing right now (the heat index is 108 as I type this) so I thought for the next couple of blog posts I could do a series of my 5 favorite Smallmouth patterns followed by a step-by-step tutorial in the coming weeks of each pattern. If you are a Smallmouth Junkie like me this is a great opportunity to fill your boxes with some proven producers. Here we go...
If you told me I could only ever fish one fly for Smallmouth this may be the one. This fly has accounted for more 20+" fish in the last 8 years than any other fly I fish. Spawned from the mind of Chuck Craft and available through William Heresnaik in materials or whole at Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing this could possibly be the perfect Smallmouth fly. I typically ALWAYS have one of these rigged and fish it on the bottom on an intermediate or sinking line. Brown (or moccasin) is my go to color, we have also done well on olive and black.
I tie mine a little bit different than the original dressing, just a few little tweaks. They probably don't really help and the original is probably best left alone. Fishing is 90% confidence and if I feel more confident in the pattern, I am going to fish it more effectively.
Any Serious Smallmouth angler worth his salt loves fishing poppers. The fishing is very visual and the takes can be explosive. We have used several popper styles over the years, some tied and some purchased. we have settled on these 2 as our favorites.
The Boogle Bug. A friend from Virginia turned me on to these several years ago. We got to talking about Smallmouth fishing and he said in his Virginian accent "you ever fish Boogles"? You have to say with the accent or it kind of looses the presentation. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Boogles are a hard face popper tied with a hackle skirt and rubber legs. They are very durable and catch a ton of fish. The one thing I noticed is the hard face poppers, especially the Boogles have a higher pitch pop when you strip them. Something I believe the fish really key on at times. If interested check them out here.
A few years ago the Flymen company came out with the Double Barrel popper heads. As soon as I saw them I knew I had to try them. The dual sound chambers and the semi-soft popping face gave us a sound that was very familiar. Remember the old Arbogast Hula Popper? The big gaudy, weird looking Bass hard bait? We fished these all the time as kids and they produced a deep, hollow pop it seemed the fish couldn't resist. Well, the Flymen Double Barrel popping heads come the closest to reproducing that sound. We quickly put these heads into some of our current designs (both mine and some of my friends) and the results have been fantastic.
O'Neill's Controlled Chaos
This type of fly is really more of a tying style rather than a pattern. Mike Schultz of Schultz Outfitters came up with a great pattern Called a Swinging D. This was the first time I saw a foam popper head turned around backwards to create a diver type of fly. The Swinging D is a GREAT fly, it takes a long time to tie with a lot of steps. Many people, including me, have taken Mike's pattern and tweaked it a bit for various reasons, for me it was strictly tying time. This is probably my favorite pattern in the bunch and, like the Clawdad you will be hard pressed to see me without one if these rigged up. Throw this on an intermediate or a type 2 sink tip on a short leader. The foam head want's to naturally float the fly up and the sink tip wants to pull it down. This self imposed Tug -of War creates an action that is incredible! This pattern is ever changing and here are a few of the variations I have used over the past few years. I am currently working on a all Synthetic version of the fly using some of the great new brushes that have hit the market recently. Like I said, this is more of a basic platform pattern so have fun with it.
The Feather Game Changer
About 8 years ago a fly hit the market that was truly a revolution in the fly tying world. Blane Chocklett's Game Changer is truly an innovation in the fly tying world. More of a platform for tying multiple patterns the Game changer is available in many variations today. My favorite is the Feather Game Changer. MUCH faster to tie that the original (not fast mind you, they still take 45+ minutes to tie) the best thing about this version is the taper is in the materials, there is little to no trimming. Now you are seeing variations with spun deer hair heads, popper heads and the like making this pattern very versatile. Check out one of the great videos on how to tie this great pattern by searching Feather Game Changer.
Shumaker's Shimmering Minnow
Brian Shumaker is one of the premier guides on Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River. You may have heard of the Susquehanna before as it is where the famous Clouser Minnow was born. The Shimmering Minnow is a bit of a wide body baitfish pattern, a perfect match for the juvenile Shad the Bass in my area enjoy. Easy to tie and fishy as any fly out there it is easy to see why this pattern has become a staple in my buddy Ed's Fly box. You can tie this in Multiple colors, we prefer the pearl / grey version. To date I believe the shimmering Minnow has landed something like 40 different species from Smallmouth on the Susquehanna to Steelhead in Erie, it is just a great all around fly.
Well, there you have it, my top 5 Smallmouth flies. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for tutorials on how to tie all of these great patterns. Till next time...
Tight lines - Tim