Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips
Nothing beats catching a smallmouth bass on a topwater presentation. (See my “Top 10 Topwater Flies for Smallmouth Bass” from April.) If you have been a smallmouth angler for any length of time, you know that sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go subsurface. Living in Minnesota, on the banks of the Upper Mississippi River, we are blessed with relatively clear water for a good portion of the season. I love smallmouth fishing because I love sight-fishing, and even most of my favorite flies that run below the surface are easy to see.
A subtle and or slow presentation is usually the key to enticing a strike on subsurface flies. A twitch, a pause, and teasing the fly can usually be done more effectively with subsurface presentations. Though it’s not as cool as a popper eat, watching a large smallmouth charge from the depths and simply inhale a minnow pattern can be just as intoxicating. Here are my top 10 subsurface flies that are proven winners and also a lot of fun to fish.
[Click the name of each fly to be taken to a place to buy, a recipe, or a video.]
1. Wildwood 3M Minnow
This is a fly that I designed seven years ago. It continues to prove itself over and over again and is the first subsurface fly that I reach for. It is extremely bright and very easy to see even deep under the water. The best aspect of the fly is that it has almost a neutral buoyancy. When you strip it, give it a long pause. As it hangs in the water column, it is almost too much for any smallmouth to take. When the fly disappears, set the hook: it’s most likely in a bass’s mouth.
2. Murdich Minnow
This streamer has a very similar action to my to my 3M Minnow, but it is a bit heavier. You need a few of these in the fly box. Sometime the subtle difference is all that it takes to entice a willing smallmouth..
3. Umpqua Swimming Baitfish
The Umpqua Swimming Baitfish is the only fly that has made both my topwater and subsurface Top 10 lists. The reason that I put it on the subsurface list is that in the spring when the water is a bit dirty, nothing fishes better on a mini sink-tip head then the Swimming Baitfish. It makes one dive, and then as you strip it in, the mini tip makes the fly dart and dance under the water. It pushes a ton of water, causing fish to take notice and crush it. It also works well even in the summer when the water clears and the fish are looking for a big meal. If you have never fished this fly like this, I encourage you to give it a try.
The TeQueely is one of the true versatile flies on the list. It can be fished a number of different ways. I have fished it aggressively, stripping it fairly fast to imitate a fleeing crayfish. I have also used it as a dropper on a two-fly rig when it is legal. (Check the local regulations.) It has a super fishy action, and on the St. Croix River near me, it is a must-have.
5. Articulated Zoo Cougar (a.k.a. Heifer Groomer)
Kelly Galloup is the master of streamer fishing, and most of his streamers make excellent smallmouth bass flies. You really can’t go wrong with any of his offerings, but the Ol’ Cougar really is the cream of the crop, in my opinion. It moves a ton of water and really has a great action. This is one fly that I like to run on an intermediate sinking tip. The big deer hair head can be hard to get down without it. Strip it aggressively and a waiting smallmouth can rarely say no.
6. Turkey Leech
This is one of my absolute favorite spring-creek flies. It is super buggy looking and just really ungulates in the water. This is my emergency fly. When things start getting slow, I pull this one out. I tie it bigger sizes to temp in the most finicky of smallmouth.
7. Hansen’s Meal Ticket
I was lucky enough to fish these flies before they were commercially available. The designer Sean Hansen and I were steamer fishing the Driftless Region spring creeks, and the fly was absolutely destroying big brown trout. I was lucky enough to confiscate a few from Sean for the upcoming smallmouth season. Well, I gave them a try, and they had the same effect on the smallmouth as they did the trout. They push a good amount of water and have a really nice kick. They certainly can be the ticket when the smallies are looking for a little smaller meal.
8. Hairy Fodder
This is the first of my three “dredging” flies. When things really slow down and you have to go deep, the Fodder is one of the first ones that I reach for. It sinks like a rock, and the rubber legs and rattle can turn a neutral fish into an active fish. They come in several colors and with different size doll eyes to really dial in the effect that you’re looking for.
9. Sparkle Minnow Sculpin
A simple but effective fly, this is another one that sinks like a rock and has a lot of flash and fish-attractive mojo. This is one that I often fuse during the winter season when low and slow is the mode you’ll need. It can be fished aggressively or simple draggged on or near the bottom. It’s another very versatile fly.
10. Near Nuff Crayfish
Dave Whitlock’s Near Nuff Crayfish sums up crayfish patterns the best, in that they just need to be “near ‘nuff” the real thing. I look at some of the crayfish patterns that are out there, and they’re works of art. The Near Nuff is close enough for me, and boy can it get the job done. Dave’s simply one of the finest smallie hunters out there, and if it’s good enough for him, then it is certainly good enough for me. Simply cast it toward the shore or drop-off, let it sink, and strip it in along the bottom like a fleeing crayfish. Watch for the subtlest jump in your fly line to indicate that a smallie has picked it up. While stripping crayfish patterns is perhaps my least favorite way to catch a Smallmouth, sometimes you have to go to the dark side to make it happen. Crayfish do make up the vast majority of a smallmouth’s diet and sometimes that’s all they’re interested in.
This list is just a starting place, and there are a lot of other great patterns out there that can get the job done. This list covers pretty much every aspect of subsurface smallmouth fishing, from the aggressive minnow patterns all the way to what I call the dredging flies. You’ll be able to cover most of the water column with these ten. They all have their place and time. If you learn to fish this selection you should be in good shape. The most important thing is to have fun, and the more you learn the better angler you’ll become.