Manual Fly-Fishing for Smallmouth: in Rivers and Streams

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Summer Conditions
Contents:
  1. Fly Fishing Streams for Smallmouth Bass
  2. Smallmouth bass - Wikipedia
  3. Summer Smallmouths In Moving Water
  4. Harry Murray
  5. Fly Fisherman

Smallmouth bass are known for that. Most fly anglers use a 5, 6 or 7 weight rod. I use a 6 weight more often but there is always a 5 and 7 weight rod in the boat for specific circumstances. The 5-weight is used for casting small minnow patterns on a slick water surface. The 7-weight is best for casting larger or heavier flies long distances. For me, the 6 weight is my favorite. Maybe it is just a personal preference. I like using small, lightweight flies for these bass. I almost always use a 9' tapered leader with an 8 pound tippet.

I use fluorocarbon leaders for streamers and nylon for floating flies. Tennessee is known as the smallmouth bass state.

Fly Fishing Streams for Smallmouth Bass

The smallmouth bass is the official state sport fish. The world record was caught in Tennessee decades ago. The average stream smallmouth bass grows to 14 inches in length by age 6. TWRA is managing the smallmouth bass fishery for quality fishing and larger smallmouth bass. Regulations vary from lake to lake or river to river.

If you plan to harvest a smallmouth bass, check the TWRA regulations. Catch and release is what I practice for all smallmouth bass. I have never kept one.

I probably never will. We are always waiting in the Spring for the water temperature to rise to 55 degrees. At that temperature, the bass become more active in the lakes. As these fish prepare to spawn, they move from their Winter holding areas in deep water, to shallower water. Fly anglers do much better, fishing in shallow water for obvious reasons.


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You can use sinking fly lines and reach the fish that are holding in 15 to 20 feet of water in the cold months. I like to catch smallies in water that is 1 to 6 feet deep. You can do that with a floating fly line. I tie mine on a 4 Gamakatsu bass stinger hook and wrap 18 wraps of. This fly is especially effective when the bass are moving into shallow water to spawn. At this time, I cast the fly close to the bank and retrieve slowly.

As the fly reaches deeper water I just let it sink and wait for a strike still giving the fly some movement with a very slow retrieve.

Smallmouth bass - Wikipedia

That helps me detect a strike when the fly is dropping. After the spawn ends, the females rest while the males tend to the beds. After a short resting period, these fish are very hungry. Now that is when this sport gets to be a lot of fun. The males leave the beds and they are hungry too. At this point, bass will take foam flies from the surface.

Summer Smallmouths In Moving Water

Somehow I endure, over and over again. This feeding frenzy lasts a few weeks on the lakes around here, then we change our tactics. It was designed to catch smallmouth bass that are feeding on the surface. I prefer black but chartreuse works well on some lakes and rivers. A Knucklehead floats well, even in swift current. It is easy to tie. Knuckleheads are also great flies for largemouth bass and very large bluegill or shellcrackers. The fly is tied on a 6 bass stinger hook, so only the large panfish can actually take it.

The small fish try but they finally give up. On a lake, the strategy with this fly is to cast it into a likely spot, then wait. They hit the water lightly but the smallies know it is there. Sometimes I give them a little twitch. If a fish is not interested, I cast again a few feet away. I never retrieve these flies. In rivers, I just let them float with the current. They work well in rivers. When the Spring fun is over, we have different ways to catch smallmouth during the Summer and Fall on the lakes. I switch to a shad pattern, usually one I tie using Puglisi EP fibers.

I fish these flies two different ways. First, I move the boat along the shore near trees that have fallen in the water. Smallmouth bass in our lakes like woody debris in the Summer and Fall. I usually cast these lightweight flies near the bank and let them sink. I retrieve enough to keep the fly from snagging something but still move it slowly. We have caught a lot of smallies using this method. When you hook and fight a smallmouth bass that has been feeding on shad, they will often regurgitate their meal.

Other smallmouth bass will follow the fish you are fighting to eat the regurgitated shad. We always keep a rod in the boat with a minnow pattern tied on and a piece of split shot to get it down. Therefore, actively swimming prey such as minnows, leeches, nymphs, frogs, and crayfish are always on the menu. Minnows such as chubs, smelt, ciscoes, shiners, dace, suckers, sunfish, perch, and shad are smallmouth favorites best imitated with Clouser Minnows, Sheep Minnows, Marabou Muddlers, bucktails, Woolly Buggers, Lefty's Deceivers, and Matukas.

Use patterns with the same color and the same size as the minnows in the waters you're fishing.

Harry Murray

In my experience, especially with selective, older, and wiser bass, matching the color, shape, size, and action of the real minnow is important when fishing in clear water and bright daylight. On the other hand, when water visibility is restricted, a streamer with high-contrast colors such as black, white, chartreuse, yellow, and fluorescent orange works better than natural minnow patterns. These flies are more effective if equipped with vibration generators like rattles, bulky-head muddler-type profiles, Petitjean's Magic Heads, or revolving spinner blades. Like it or not, a revolving spinner blade in front of a streamer probably doubles its effectiveness.

When I first began fly fishing for smallmouth, revolving-spinner flies were common.

Fly Fishing Smallmouth Bass in Streams

The spinner helps get the fly deep, gives it more action, and enhances low-frequency sound appeal. Today spinners are unpopular with most fly fishers, but there are times at night or when the water is stained that they are worth the extra trouble and weight. Hildebrandt still makes excellent straight-shafted spinners for straight, ring-eyed flies. Gold, black, and silver blades, in that order, are the best producers.

Smallmouth also key in on crayfish and small fish that live on or under bottom structure like sculpin, darters, suckers, and small catfish. In fact, most smallmouth fishers would probably vote crayfish as the number one smallmouth food, and I'd agree because my NearNuff Crayfish has enticed many nice smallmouth over the years and is my go-to fly. The Editor] When tied in the correct color and size, this fast-sinking pattern also imitates streambottom fishes.

Swimming and bottom streamers have the best action in the water if they are made from marabou, soft hackles, rabbit strips, fox or Icelandic sheep hair, and silicone rubber legs. For flash I prefer Flashabou and Flashabou Accent. Each of these materials breathes and wiggles with life at the slightest movement. Additional lead eyes, spinners, or material weight adds significantly to the line weight and rod power you need to cast them smoothly.

However, when I fish small, clear, shallow streams where fish are smaller, distances and depths are less, and food forms equally smaller, I enjoy using 4- or 5-weight rods. If I walk and wade, I carry two extra spools so all three lines are with me. This way I can present flies in any part of the water column. When I use a kick boat, canoe, or bass boat, two or three rigged rods are easy to carry and changing lines and techniques as conditions require is convenient. A floating, weight-forward or bass-taper line is ideal for flies that make a surface wake or swim just below the surface.

Because it's easy to mend, this line is the best of the three when you need to control drag in flowing water. I usually use a 9-foot, 3X to 1X knotless leader and fluorocarbon tippet with these lines. For presenting swimming and bottom-bouncing flies deep and briskly, I use a line with a short 5-foot type IV sinking-tip, especially in water two to four feet deep. Unlike the , , or foot sinking tips, the shorter tips cast like a dream, mend fairly well in moving water, pick up easily, and get the fly to the depth quickly.

In fact, a 5-foot sinking tip casts bass flies better than any other line I use. The leader I use with this line is a 4-foot, knotless, sinking leader with 18 to 24 inches of 3X to 1X fluorocarbon tippet. This is a great leader for most bass and trout streamer fishing. It's also perfect for diving flies that sit on the surface and dive underwater when retrieved. When fishing stream or lake water between 4 and 20 feet deep, a full-sinking, density compensated sinking line type IV or V with a 3- to 4-foot sinking leader is my favorite.

In water deeper than four feet, you should get the fly down quickly and keep it deep while retrieving it over a considerable area to locate fish. I often get some of my biggest smallmouth when fishing swimming flies close to the bottom or crawling bottom flies slowly and erratically. This can only be done effectively with a uniform full-sinking line. Fishing swimming flies on full-sinking lines is also productive and one of my favorite streamer techniques.

Attach 24 to 30 inches of 1X fluorocarbon tippet to a full-sinking line and tie on a streamer with a buoyant head, like my Sheep-Minnow Waker or a Marabou Muddler. As the sinking line descends to the bottom it pulls the fly after it. As you slowly strip, the buoyant fly momentarily dives toward the bottom then rises again when you pause between strips, suspending a foot or two above the bottom. This allows you to retrieve slowly without the fly snagging structure. To detect a strike, keep the rod tip close to the water and watch the line for subtle movements or focus on feeling any delicate change in line tension while stripping.

If the water temperature is cold or the bass are especially sluggish, give them an extra two seconds to get the whole fly into their mouths and then strip-strike slowly but deliberately. No matter what line you choose to fish, animate the fly to simulate prey that is disabled, off guard, or in peril, retrieving at least half the length of your cast each time because bass often follow before they strike.

Experiment with action as each stream and each day is different. Slow action is usually required in water colder than 60 degrees.


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Fish subsurface smallmouth flies across, under, or next to stream structure like big rocks, ledges, deadfalls, and weedbeds or in open, deep runs where specific structure is not apparent. Most of the time smallmouth hang near structure and ambush their meals. Sometimes bass also go on feeding prowls in open riffles and runs, along shorelines, and into pool tailouts where they intercept flushed minnows and crayfish.

Keep in mind when fishing around underwater stream structure that the current moves the fly downstream as it sinks. Therefore, depending on the speed of the current, cast well above where you expect the fly to encounter a waiting smallmouth. Fishing flies close to structure is the most effective presentation, and I often pull my flies right over structures or let them sink and drift beneath boulders, roots, ledges, or logs.

This requires flies that drift hook up or have weedguards to discourage snagging. Otherwise you can lose a lot of flies, spoil good spots while dislodging snags, or you'll refrain from casting a fly where it fishes best. Open water in streams is the water offshore that appears relatively smooth at the surface and has no apparent structure in it. Bass may be there but probably don't stay long before moving to where structure is plentiful.

Look for them in riffles, runs, pools, and tailouts, especially if you see bass forage foods. Open water from one to four feet deep will have bass in it when the light is low and water temperature is 60 to 75 degrees F. If the water has a cold, slow current, fish will likely congregate in four- to ten-foot-deep pools. The easiest way to fish smallmouth streamers in these areas is to cast across and downstream. The current provides swimming action for the fly and a strike is obvious on a taut line. However, in faster water it's harder to get the fly deep or on the bottom and mending is required to slow the speed of the fly.

Casting and fishing in these areas requires much more slack-line control. Keep your rod tip low, right next to the water's surface or even under it, to heighten your strike detection and ability to quickly react to the bite. When trying to crawl a bottom fly with a full-sinking line in a current, poke your rod tip toward the stream bottom to avoid drag on the belly of the line caused by the faster upper currents as the fly sinks and during retrieval.

To efficiently set the hook, strip-strike and lift the rod tip at the same time. Strike this way two or three times, about one to two seconds apart, until the bass relaxes its bite pressure enough so the hook can stick. Bass use lots of jaw pressure to hold and crush prey and its difficult to hook them on a single hook until they relax their grip — which they'll do as they begin to feel pressure. When I'm after big bass, I prefer hooking them from a downstream position, which pulls the hook deeper into the jaw.

An upstream hook-set tends to pull the hook out of the mouth, plus it's much easier to exert the rod's power against an upstream bass during the hook-set and fight. A smallmouth's response to subsurface flies changes through the year as variables like temperature, water levels, food availability, spawning, and light levels change. Here's a basic guide to the seasons. As soon as winter loses its grip on water temperatures, smallmouth move out of deep pools and start feeding on swimming food, especially minnows.

Once spring brings warmer, higher water levels, the best subsurface fishing locations are in lower riffles and deep runs where there's lots of coarse rock or submerged roots and trunks.

Fly Fisherman

Deep runs along cut-banks are also excellent. Flies fished slowly just above or on the bottom are the most consistent producers. Smallmouth spawn from mid to late spring in shallow, current-sheltered water. If you see a nest, avoid fishing there if you want good fishing in the future. Catching bass off the nest fatigues them too much to spawn and guard their eggs. If eggs are already laid, removing the parent bass leaves the eggs or fry unguarded from sunfish or other predators. Look for smallmouth hiding everywhere in the stream, but runs and pool perimeters are the most likely spots, especially those that have coarse structures and shaded areas.

Late-summer bass often congregate in deep, rocky riffles where the water is cooler and aerated. This is the season and time when smallmouth can be caught on swimming flies at all levels of the water column, particularly early mornings, sundown, and at night.