Top Water

Top Water Smallmouth Fly Fishing

If you’re joining us from the trout fraternity, you are in for a treat! Remember all those days with your vest fly pad covered with patterns that sucked? Remember the frustration of laying the perfect imitation repeatedly on a trout only to be trumped by the natural? Get ready for some fish that don’t share the same table manners. Smallies will hit most anything, even when it’s done all wrong. The best way to experience this trauma – is on top! The four types of surface offering to consider for smallmouth or largemouth surface fly fishing are:

Flies – Match the hatch “trout style” flies such as hopper patterns and ants.
Poppers – Designed top pop or gurgle when twitched.
Skitter Poppers – Designed to skitter across with an canted, undercut face.
Sliders – Designed for a quiet or subtle retrieve.
Divers – Dive upon stripping; appear as a critter trying to escape.

Top Water Surface Flies for Bass
Here are some of the best patterns to try. This is exactly like trout presentations where a drag free float is the ticket.


Poppers – Smallmouth were made for poppers…  
Hopper Patterns – The go-to summer fly, when poppers won’t get it done.                                          
Damselflies – Often better than a dragonfly, look for grass beds, esp., close to the bank.  
Dragonflies – Spent Dragonfly down-wing can be can be dynamite when the dragons are out heavy.  
Skaters – Sofa Pillow, Madam X, keep the rod high and dance it along. Explosive!  


Crickets  and Ants– late summer when it’s dry, hot and windy. Fish by the banks out several feet as these insects are blown into the river. Twitch them a bit to find what the bass prefer for action.

Which Popper? Experiment. Don’t force feed. If they don’t hit or roll short on a traditional popper, slow down or speed up, or better yet try a different style. Sliders and divers will save the day at times when the bass are spooky and more selective. If larger offering don’t work, try a hopper pattern.

Without a doubt, poppers are everyone’s favorites! Nothing beats the visual excitement of a fish exploding on the surface. At other times poppers will quietly disappear in a small dimple. Either way the visible aspect of fishing the poppers makes it the top tactic when fish are “lookin’ up”. There are largely three classes of poppers.

Deer-hair Poppers
Balsawood, Cork, or Hard Plastic
Softer synthetic plastics and foam

Deer hair poppers are famous for their lifelike action and feel when taken by the fish. At times, the soft plop of a deerhair popper will be required for temperamental or spooky bass.

Hard Body Poppers
Everyone loves a hard body! Hard bodied poppers are generally balsa wood or plastics. You can experiment with wood and synthetics until you find what works for you. I like wood for the durability and ability to move water. They come in two face contours (flat and cupped), and are a mainstay for many.

Foam synthetics are getting great reviews and are a bit softer and lighter than wood. If you look around your home or work, you’ll see a lot of potential materials you can use sitting in the garbage or the toy box. Material used in packaging or packing comes in a wide array of colors. Many tiers now glue layer together creating multicolor poppers that fishermen love. Grab some and play with it, you’ll like it. Maybe even the fish will show a hankerin’ for some of this new fangled material.

The size of the fly will range generally be a #2 – #6. When popper fishing consider arming yourself with an assortment to include:

  • Cupped and Flat faced poppers on long shanked hooks with and without rubber legs.
  • Deer Hair poppers
  • Bullet Head Bugs
  • Pencil poppers
  • Skipping Bugs

Retrieve tip: If a consistent short stripping sequence does not produce, vary is with pauses. If this doesn’t work, try to slow way down. Let the popper sit five seconds longer than you can possible stand it and then start subtle movement. At times this will work wonders.

These flies offer a subtle lazy motion you can’t get with “faced” poppers. Sliders can be moved very slowly. If the normal popper is not effective, slow down and use a slider. That easy tantalizing action is sometimes too much for Big Daddy Small-jaws to resist. The Sneaky Pete pattern has rubber legs and a feathered tail. The Drakes’s Slider, a hair pattern, is extremely versatile.

These flies can dive sharply and wobble at the same time. The most famous are the Dahlberg Divers created by Larry Dahlberg of Grantsburg, WI. Some feel they are the best all around choice because the pop and dive. They act as a surface popper when twitched and, with steady retrieve, will dive and swim. Use these when the fish simply won’t take the bouyant surface poppers and require a different presentation. Some have fur strips and others employ feathers for tails. Generally use a long pull to start these, let the fly rise a bit, shuck it again, and shake it as it rises to the surface with short strips.

Skitter Bugs
Skitter pop type poppers such as a pencil popper or even a Lefty’s InShore Popper, definitely have their moments. This group is a saltwater standard, but not commonly seen bouncing off rocks along the river shoreline. The slender body offers a different profile, more minnow-like in appearance. They can be worked to simulate a struggling minnow on the surface. These kinds of flies need a more erratic retrieve than sometimes used with a traditional popper.