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
Over the Memorial day weekend myself and a few members of the Norvise crew headed west to chase what was to be a new species for me, The Northern Pike. You may know Norvise has a strong relationship with Steelhead Alley Outfitters, the premiere outfitter on the Alley. What you may not know or realize is Steelhead Alley is a geographical area, hence the name SAO outfitters. Anyone who has fished this area knows there is PLENTY more to catch in the Alley other than Steelhead. Intrigued???? Read on.
While Steelhead are in fact a large portion of SAO's guide service (Norvise runs a hosted trip out to the Alley once a year) the warm water program can be just as prolific. The 2 guides spearheading the cultivation of the Pike program are Dan Bennett and Josh Trammell. At 22 and 19 years old respectively, these young men are mature beyond their years. We at Norvise have been fortunate to fish with a lot of different people over the years, let me tell you, ether of these young men can guide me any time, they are that good!
Going into this trip we really didn't know what to expect, this is a new fishery and we were the very first clients that had been guided for Pike by Steelhead Alley Outfitters. Having fished with these guys before I knew they would work hard and do everything they could do to get us fish. I must admit, on the ride out I was having trouble shaking the thought "this is a new fishery for them and we are the first ever clients on it.' I figured this was going to be epic one way or the other. An epic weekend on the water or an epic failure. I was hoping for the former not the latter.
In prep for the trip we contacted our buddy and TFO vise president Nick Conklin and picked up a few new Axiom 2 nine weights, and a few BVK reels.
We talked to Norvise Ambassadors Nome Buckman-Stark owner of "Predators on the Fly" and Thomas Williams, owner of "Stoney's Custom" Flies and fortified our fly selection.
We were rigged up and ready to go with some new gear, new lines, fresh tied leaders and a selection of flies that would make Blane Chocklett smile, still I couldn't shake the feeling that I was not sure if we were "ready" yet.
While we were driving out on Friday, Tyler and I got into some deep conversation about the trip, our 2 businesses, our hopes and expectations for the coming year and about life in general. I do enjoy these times with my son as we talk and I can see him start to mature. Some times he will come up with these profound thoughts that make me step back and think to myself, "he is going to be alright in life" other times he says something and I look at him and think "who the hell are your parents" one thing for sure, it is never dull. He could see I was stressing a little about the trip (I tend to do that about a lot of things) and he says "lets just go and have fun, what do we have to loose"? At that point I said to myself if I boat 1 Pike during the trip I will be happy. Well, I accomplished that in the first 10 minutes.
We were throwing 8 and 9 weight rods. I had one rigged with an intermediate and one with a floater. Leaders were simple affairs with a butt section of 30 pound Maxima Chameleon and a section of 30# bite wire tippet For the sinkers, the floaters got an extra section of 25# between the butt and the bite wire. As mentioned we had a variety of big, nasty meat flies, all of which would be perfect for Northern's. Most of the trip we wound up fishing a fly Dan and Josh have been working on developing specifically for this fishery, a Frankenstein combination of a Deceiver, Hollow Fly, and a T Bone. A large profile for sure, but light and easy to cast. Did I mention the action, oh yeah the action, it is plain ole SICK!
Well, 10 minutes into the float I had a fish swipe at the fly and miss. Dan says, very emphatically, "get it back in there, now, now now"! So I cast back in where he swiped at it and sure enough a 25" green freight train absolutely crushed Thomas' Sucker Game Changer, I mean CRUSHED it!
Shortly after this Tyler came tight to his first fish. I am in the front of the boat and I feel him strip set. He says "that is a fish, that is a fish, THAT IS A BIG FISH"
We continued floating and casting, A lot of casting. The really cool thing is this fishery is so visual. You can see the fly, the take and the fight. it is something every fisherman or woman should experience at least once in a lifetime.
By the end of the second day we had moved 70+ fish and landed around 20 between the 2 boats. Sizes ranged between Hammer Handles to 2 fish in the 40" class, one was even landed on a on a popper! We also boated some really nice Smallmouth too.
I think you could say we had a pretty good trip! Northern Pike quickly ascended to the top of my "Most favorite fish to fish for" list. They are such a blast on fly gear! The picture below is my favorite picture from the trip. Dan was as excited as me when we landed this fish (pretty evident we were happy) This will eventually be framed and put on the wall in my tying studio as a reminder of a fantastic weekend.
Till next time