Written by: Drew Price
Smallmouth bass are some of the most fun fish to catch on a fly. They hit hard, fight hard, jump, and are more than willing to take a fly. Catching smallies on the fly is something that I love to do, and the springtime is my favorite time to do it.
Smallmouth bass start switching into spawning mode at about the same time as the Hendricksons come out. There are some other good indicators I use, too–blooming trout lilies, the first appearance of fern fiddleheads, and the water climbing into the upper 40s or low 50s. In northern Vermont, where I live, these are signs that smallies are heading into their spawning waters. We are pretty fortunate to have a few rivers that get runs of smallmouth in the springtime. Some pretty impressive fish find their way into small water, and they are a blast to target.
The female bass come in first, and the males follow soon after. It is pretty easy to tell who is who, since the ladies have nice fat bellies loaded with eggs. It goes without saying that these fish should be released unharmed, and in Vermont the season is strictly catch-and-release from the opening of trout season until the third Saturday in June. The females dont hang out too long. They are around for a couple of weeks, and then they head back to the lake they came from. The males are a different story. They are in for the long haul. They set up beds and remain on them until their brood is big enough to fend for themselves. Daddy dedication is the name of their game for about four to six weeks.
The early part of the season is the best part because the fish are fresh and hungry. They haven’t fed well for a while and want to pack on the food to prepare for spawning. They are super stupid at this point and will take just about anything. Conehead Zonkers, Woolly Buggers, crawfish patterns, and Clousers in sizes 2 through 8 are all good choices. If there were two basic colors not to be without they would be black and olive. I have a preference for olive flies, but my buddy Tom Rosenbauer will swear that there are three colors you should have: black, black, and black. Multi-colored Clouser Minnows are my favorite, though, especially classic chartreuse and white, olive and white, olive over orange, and Mickey Finn. Recently I have been having great success–including four fish between 17- 20 inches in one 20-minute period–with Clousers that feature tungsten dumbbell eyes.
Rod choice is a bit of a personal preference, but any rod weight between 5 and 8 will serve you well. I like to use a 6-weight primarily because it gives plenty of backbone and can toss a heavy fly easily but is light enough to make things fun. If the water is very low, I will tend to use a 5-weight, though. Smallies can get spooky at times, and the lighter rod will help.
which makes the fish pretty gullible.
I have found that fluorocarbon tippet is a great choice for fishing spring bass. A couple of spools of 3X and 4X should be all that you need. Fluoro lets the fly get down fast and is quite abrasion-resistant. The inside of a bass’s mouth is loaded with tiny little teeth that act like 60-grit sandpaper. You will know this if you ever end up with Bass Thumb, a horrible affliction that only comes from catching lot of smallies. Your thumb gets all torn up by those little teeth, and because of them, you need to check your tippet frequently (which you should be doing anyway, right?). Even with fluoro, the bass’s teeth will slowly abrade the line. Most people realize this has happened right after a bass launches itself into the air and their leader breaks. Dont be that guy! Check your leader after each fish and re-tie your knots.
Work your flies in a variety of ways; stripping, swinging, and dead drifting all have their place. When the water is high and cold, swinging a fly steelhead-style or dead-drifting it through holes can be quite productive, but stripping the fly back is generally most productive throughout the season. Don’t move the fly too fast, though. I was fishing with a buddy recently, and he was stripping his flies back pretty quickly and getting nothing. I was letting my fly sink and giving it a short strip then a pause to let it sink again, and that was doing the trick to the tune of several nice bass. Vary your retrieve until you find what they want. There are days when a slow retrieve gets them and other days when it seems you can’t move it fast enough.
As the run progresses, the males are the fish you will encounter the most. Early on, these fish will be courting females and chasing off other males, and it can be pretty easy to get them to take. After the ladies are gone, the males get into Daddy Duties and guard the nest and baby bass. Something stripped through the nest will get their attention, and can get you a really nice fish. However, the more times that the male is caught off the bed, the better the chances that a predator will get into the nest and snap up the babies. It is very easy to go from nest to nest and pick off males, but consider the bass fishery as a whole before you do that. Your fun may adversely impact future generations of smallies. Besides, there are usually a few bass kicking around that will be more than willing to play with you if you strip a fly through pools and runs.
These spring runs are usually over by mid June, and the bass have returned whence they came. The six-week period when they are around is one of the most fun times of the year. We catch lots of big fish–mostly between 1 and 3 pounds, but 4 or 5 pounds is not out of the question. Because of the catch-and release season, the fish are left to be caught again later. It is definitely a blast to get out there and nail some. Hopefully you come down with that most horrible of angling injuries, Bass Thumb. Now if it would only stop raining and let the water come down a bit, so I could stop writing and go fish.
Drew Price is a guide who lives in northern Vermont. He specializes in trout, pike, and other species, including bowfin and fall fish.