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
Well, the crew made the 6 hour trek west again this year to chase what has become one of my favorite fish, the Northern Pike. This marks the second year we have done this trip and I am sure it won’t be the last. I mean, what is not to like about big, aggressive, toothy fish? I just love this type of fishing!
We left Delaware Friday afternoon, we fished Saturday and Sunday and we made the easy drive east on the PA turnpike home early Monday morning. We were all tired, worn out and sore, it was 100% worth it!
If you have never taken a Pike on the fly I would suggest you do it ASAP. This is a very visual fishery with big flies, big fish sometimes at very close quarters. The take is incredible, to the point it can actually frighten you when it happens. I just love every part of it.
We are typically fishing out of drift rafts and the Smith Fly boats are perfect for this type of fishery. The lack of proper boat ramps along the river makes having a portable, light weight boat a must. It would be very hard, almost impossible to fish a hard hull here. We like the Smith Fly rafts so much we brought a “great Big Shoals” 15 footer home with us! 9 weight rods are the norm with an intermediate shooting head line. We opted for a variety of Temple Fork Outfitters rods including the Mangrove, Axiom 2 and the new A2X rods all paired with BVK and BVK 3 reels. Lines were Rio’s Outbound Short intermediate heads with floating running lines.
If you have ever looked into the mouth of a big Northern you will see rows and rows of large, sharp teeth. Wire bite tippet is not a suggestion it is a must! Leaders were fairly simple, 30# mono, 20# mono and a section of 30 pound knotable wire. The entire leader system is less than 3 feet long.
The flies we used were pretty diverse. We threw Game Changers (several varieties) bulkhead hollow flies, double deceivers and Pat Cohen’s Man Bear Pig. On the ride home Ed said “that Man Bear Pig May be the perfect fly for this type of fishing”. One thing is for sure. What ever fly you use make sure it has a sturdy, sharp, heavy gage hook, these fish are no joke. And they will absolutely destroy a poorly tied fly with a cheap hook!
The fishing is pretty simple for these fish. Pound the banks as much as you can and strip, strip, pause. Josh, one of our guides said they get probably 80% of their pike eats on the pause. One thing I will say is you have get the fly in the kitchen, possibly on the dinner plate, and Pike live in some nasty places. You can’t be afraid to put your fly in harms way. Snags, both in and above the water are the norm, know that going in.
The first day we spent almost 10 hours in the boat. Pounding the banks and stripping the fly all the way back to the boat translated into a lot of casting...a lot. We were very thankful for the light swing weight of TFO’s Axiom rod series.
Throwing a 9 weight for 10 hours can be tough. The Axiom 9 weights could be cast all day with no issue.
Pike fishing is a numbers game, with a “moved” fish almost as exciting as a landed fish (almost) in 2 days of fishing two boats, each with 2 anglers moved close to 60 fish landing 17. Size ranged from a few hammer handles to a 36 inch tank. Not quite the fish of 10,000 casts like their bigger cousin the Musky, but not like shooting fish in barrel ether. Wile they are aggressive and once they commit they are all in, they certainly are not stupid. Good accurate casts and a varied, erratic retrieve were a must. I can’t tell you haw many times Josh would say “put some pauses in there” I am glad he did because when that fly stopped and kicked sideways…
Till next time,
Tight Lines – Tim