Pro Tips: Top 10 Topwater Flies for Smallmouth Bass

Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips

Kip Vieth is passionate about the smallmouth-bass fishing in his home state of Minnesota.
Photo courtesy Kip Vieth

I call the banks of the Upper Mississippi River home. Our shop and guide service is located right in the heart of the famous catch-and-release section, just north of the Twin Cities. Where we live, the smallmouth bass is the king, and in my mind the greatest fish that swims in fresh water.

I spend over 150 days a year chasing my favorite game fish. Nothing gets me more excited than visions of a smallmouth bass eating a topwater presentation. It can be an explosion, a slurp, or just watching a big smallie slide under your popper, track it for several yards and eat it with just the subtlest littlest sip.

I have been chasing these awesome fish for more than forty years. These flies are the topwater flies that seem to get the job done year in and year out. Of course, this is just my list and I would love to hear from others to see what they would include and exclude.

[Click the name of each fly to be taken to a place to buy, a recipe, or a video.]

1. Boogle Bug Popper
There is no better way to catch a smallmouth bass than with a popper. The Boogle Bug is one of the first to get pulled out of the fly box each day. There is just something about this popper that get the smallies to commit. I don’t know if it’s the rubber legs or just the shape, but it just plain works.

2. Dahlberg Diver
There is something about fishing deer-hair bugs. The diver holds a special spot in my heart. I fish and guide on the river that Larry Dahlberg designed the fly for, the St. Croix River. It’s one of the original Wild and Scenic Rivers in the United States. Its beauty is matched only by its superb fishing. When I fish the St. Croix, I always fish a diver just to honor the rich fly-fishing history of this great river. The great thing about the diver is that you can make it pop, dive, and swim. The bubble trail that it creates seems to drive the fish crazy. It is my personal favorite topwater pattern to fish. It’s just a lot of fun.

3. Porky’s Pet
The Porky’s Pet is another spun-deer-hair bug. It is a big popper that really pops. There is just something about the pop that comes from a big deer-hair bug. The red, black, and white popper also has that classic old-school look to it. I guess I have a soft spot for those old bass flies that date back to bamboo rods and canoes slipping down a river, with anglers casting to the bank.

4. Cork Popper
This is the most basic of basics. These have been a staple of several guides here in Minnesota. Nick, a guide who works for me, finally got me to try them a few years back. We have had several years of high water, and he told me that he was having great success with cork poppers. They are now one of my go-to patterns throughout the year. They move a ton of water and give a bigger profile than any other popper that I have used. They’re just an old test-tube cork or wine-bottle cork epoxied on a hook. We just spray paint the cork bodies, tie in some flash, artic fox tail, and hackle it up and you’re good to go.

5. Umpqua Swimming Baitfish
This is not just another diver pattern. Yes, it looks like one and you fish it a lot like a Dahlberg Diver, but it has a different action. I don’t know if it’s the color, action or what that makes it special. All I know is that it produces and has for decades. It is also the only fly that will make my top ten subsurface list also. You know that it’s special and versatile if it makes both top ten lists.

6. Gartside Gurgler
Another oldie which remains timeless. Now, we begin what I call the subtle topwater flies. The Gurgler still moves some water but not as much as its fly box mates listed above. It can be fished in any number of ways, and when less is more, this fly is a great choice.

7. Sneaky Pete
The Sneaky Pete is subtle pattern that has proven itself over and over. It can be twitched next to the rock, swung in the current, or dived under the water. When the season’s dog days of summer arrive, the quiet movements of a Sneaky Pete are often the ticket, enticing skittish late season bass to eat.

8. Chernobyl Ant Patterns
There are too many to list them all, but like the Sneaky Pete, these flies can be twitched, teased, or just dead-drifted to get those late season giants to eat. Some of my favorite patterns in this category are the Fat Albert, Obe Wan, and Ol’ Mr. Wiggly. They are a lot of fun to fish, especially for those trout anglers who need a dry-fly fix.

9. Damselflies
Late summer brings the damsel- and dragonfly hatches on our rivers here in the Midwest. Floating those big blue flies down the river can bring the smallmouths up to eat those Filet Mignon of all flies. The fish love those mid-Summer snacks, which can be a real treat to fish. This is another chance for those dry-fly lovers to take a real fish on the dry fly.

10. Todd’s Wiggle Minnow
Some anglers wouldn’t consider this fly a topwater pattern. It is, however, in my book. It dives no more than a lot of other topwater bugs. The minute it is stopped, it pops right to the top unless it’s fished on a sinking tip. It’s a great search pattern and some days it can move a ton of fish. It takes a bit of practice to fish properly, but it can be a day-saver when all the other tricks in the bag are coming up empty.

Watching a bass smash a popper is one of the more exciting experiences in fly fishing.
Photo by Kip Vieth

If you haven’t tried one of these patterns, I would encourage you to do so. They all have a place in my fly boxes. The great thing about fly fishing is you never really know which one will get the job done on any given day. I’m looking forward to hot summer days with plenty of the bronze river Gods slurping top water flies all day long.

Kip Vieth owns Wildwood Float Trips, in Monticello, Minnesota. Check out his excellent “10 Tips for Catching a Musky on a Fly.”

3 thoughts on “Pro Tips: Top 10 Topwater Flies for Smallmouth Bass”

  1. Awesome story. Could you make a post about fly fishing in the deep south? I am trying to spread my passion for fly fishing in Birmingham, AL where there are numerous creeks within the river local river system. There is an abundance of fish in all of these streams, including numerous types of sunfish, spotted bass, redeye bass as well as several different types of darter. I see such great potential for the sport to expand into the deep south in more humid, subtropical climates like Alabama and Mississippi. In fact, I am sure that throwing giant streamers to 50-100+ lb catfish in the murky tributaries of the Mississippi delta is an angler’s gem yet to be found.
    It is my hope that the sport will grow and thrive in this part of the country. I have just begun a blog about fly fishing in the this part of the world, particularly the Birmingham area:

  2. just starting to fly fish for smallies in ontario what would you suggest and where can i buy them How much and what size tippet do you use? Thanks Dan

  3. A listener who took me to task for encouraging another listener to try to introduce mayflies from one watershed into another. Shame on me. I didn’t think about also transferring other unwanted critters and I should have known better Tired of crowded trout streams? Looking for a new fish to catch on a fly rod that will give you a tussle and challenge your skills? Look no further than the white bass, which is a common fish in many parts of the US, from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi drainage and has even been introduced into some western lakes. My friend Jim Weatherwax is a white bass fanatic (he also fishes for wipers in the same waters, which are a freshwater sterile hybrid of a white bass and a striped bass) and offers solid advice on where to find these great fish, what tackle to use, and best techniques to catch them. Warmwater fish like this are great ways to spread out the fishing pressure that we all experience from time to time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *