Fly fishing strategies for bass and other warm water species.
Smallmouth Bass River Strategies
“The beginner must learn to look with eyes that see. Occurrences of apparently little importance at the moment may, after consideration, assume proportions of great value.” From “Dry Fly and Fast Water” by George LaBlanche (1914).
When approaching a river fishing situation we present a practical established pathway to follow which will increase your chances dramatically. If you follow this sequence of approaches your odds to hook up will rise with reasonable adherence to these principals. Local conditions such as weather and water levels will impact fishing of any kind. Whether wading or floating, it makes little difference as we approach this by trying different flies in specific locations in the river.
Where to start
Since everyone’s favorite way to take fish is on top, it never hurts to start here. However, experience on your own waters may dictate reserving popper/slider fishing for the low light periods. At times they will hit them all day, but this is not the rule. As a general rule, follow this sequence:
Each technique takes you deeper and deeper into the water and eventually something will succeed. We generally will try a different strategy early in an outing rather than simply changing colors. In other words, if a yellow popper attracts no attention, I will go to a slider, diver, or streamer, before changing the color of the popper. Once I get action on a particular technique, I will experiment with colors to find the optimal choice.
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If new to the area, a great strategy is to start shallow and progressively work deeper. The shallowest spots are rocks, riffles, banks and shoreline structure. The easiest fishing is shallow. If you start here and score, you may be able to bypass deeper water altogether. Gradually eliminate unproductive water columns until you find the right level..
Key River Hotspots
Shoreline or River Bank
When floating, throwing at the bank is generally the main technique. You will rig up for shallow water with floating weight forward or bass taper fly line. The best banks drop off quickly into at least one foot of water. Gradual slopes are not my top choice, since fish will rarely hold in smooth water less than a foot deep. Other shoreline or bank topography is overhanging or overlying vegetation. Bugs and other terrestrials, including mice can easily fall into the water. Cuts or any slight intrusion (see slack water indents) of the shoreline should be explored. These sometimes contain surface slime (see below) and with enough depth, are excellent spots. When wading, one typically works up river moving very quietly, and carefully picking your way along.
Riffles are shallow rocky stretches often ignored by anglers searching for the ultimate hole. Riffles are easily identifiable and a good place to start. We will generally begin with a streamer if fishing during midday. The surface if choppy allowing offering security for fish to hold shallow. Riffles are great spots for buoyant mayfly imitations and poppers. Streamers are probably the most effective technique. You throw directly across or quarter down river. Wait the the line to tighten and begin your retrieve and continue stripping until the line gets directly down stream. Here shuck it a couple of times for those discriminating stragglers. Take a step or two up river and repeat the process. You can quickly cover a riffle stretch thoroughly using this “matrix” technique. You will do better generally working up the riffle and not down.
Never bypass a run. A run is an area of steady current deeper than a riffle where the surface is somewhat smooth and roiled. Runs are typically found after riffles and elsewhere along banks where the bottom will deepen for a stretch before it shallows again. There is good current for fishing and enough depth to hold numbers of fish. A run next to a cut bank with overhanging vegetation can be dynamite! Runs can be fished with any of the techniques covered above and are always good spots. They provide everything the fish need and are shallow enough to fish effectively with a number of offerings. You can try a popper against the bank. If nothing happens DON’T leave. Switch to a streamer such as a Deceiver or Bunny type fly and work it thoroughly from top to bottom. On the inside of a run their may be an eddy.
There’s just something about eddies (or back-eddies as they are known in some places). Remember the fish will face into the current and in eddies, this is opposite the normal river orientation. When in doubt run a popper across an eddie. We find again streamers will be more productive since eddies can be deep and we need to get down and probe those depths. The section of water between the current and the eddie is a hot spot. When fishing this margin water, try casting downstream and hard stripping a streamer in three foot increments up the line. Fish will lay in the light current waiting for food items to sweep by in the main current. They are often triggered by a fast moving fly. Also, keep your eyes peeled for slime!
Slime Pockets (****Editor’s Choice)
Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? On most rivers you will find eddies and backwater areas with little current containing floating slime, flotsam and yes, jetsam. Some even have foam when the water is, shall we say, a bit soiled. We have taken some our largest fish residing beneath this blanket of slime, waiting for some unsuspecting creature to dimple the surface. ALWAYS throw into the slime and work your fly slow. The key is patience! Let is set twice as long as you can possibly endure and you’ll do better on average.
If you see a wake approaching the fly do everything in your power to WAIT. Allow the fish to roll on the fly and feel it before setting. With waking fish it is sorrowfully common to wrest the fly from the jaws of excitement before they clamp down. We are speaking from experience here, folks!
Slack Water Indents (*****Editor’s Choice)
A trained eye will pick up many small slack water indentations along most banks. I prefer these areas, many times not more than 3 – 4 feet long, to be gravel or rubble dropping into deeper water. Deeper water may be 18 inches on some rivers. Over hanging vegetation is always a plus. Often nice fish will set up here and are often overlooked. Keep your eyes peeled for these little spots that will hold fish year after year.
Pools can be fished with poppers and will produce on those days when everyone is looking skyward. However most days pools are best fished with streamers and nymphs, and if you have a lot of pools – weighted fly line. Pools often hold the really large fish much of the time and you must cover them from top to bottom. You can add split shot to a weight forward floating fly line to achieve a decent sink rate. Poppers are best fished by throwing at or on the bank and stripping out slowly. The adjacent deep water will often hold fish next to the bank and you can “call these up” with a popper. On a float trip we will anchor at different locations along the pool and work various parts of the water column.
Not all trees, rocks, ledges and log jams are created equal. In truth, it is sometime impossible to fish some of these obstructions effectively without getting hung up. Pick your targets carefully, especially on a float trip, and try to determine the best angle to take your shot. One good cast is better than three rushed lousy ones that are a foot off target. When in doubt, hit the shady side of the cover.
Smallmouth are not behind every rock. Actually some fish spend time in front of large rocks rather than behind. Time and experimentation will tell you which rocks typically hold fish, but they should always be hit.