Use these tips to boost your angling success fly fishing for smallmouth bass.
You’ve read about winter steelheading where fly-fishermen spend hour after hour, day after day, casting heavy lines, swinging heavy flies in the often-unrequited hope of getting a single bite.
Some might well insert the word “insanity” here.
Perhaps you are one of those yourself. Or more likely you’re reading this because you are a smallmouth addict who is unwilling or unable to put the fly rod away once the leaves fall and weather turns dank and dark.
You need your smallmouth fix but don’t know where or how to catch smallies when the water is cold, your digits are rigid and when a single bite makes the world seem sunny and bright.
Coldwater smallmouth fishing is different from fishing on hot summer days, and it’s all due to water temperature. Warm water ramps up metabolism, meaning each prey item is quickly consumed, making it necessary for each fish to keep returning to the chow line. Cold water has the opposite effect.
Each prey item acts like a Tootsie Roll, it lasts a long, long time. Fish don’t need to eat often, but the bigger the fish, the more often it needs to eat and that works in the angler’s favor. Coldwater smallmouth fishing is a big fish game. Do not expect to rack up big numbers. Instead expect to catch one or two or three, if you’re lucky, of the biggest fish around.
LOCATION IS KEY
Life is not very complex for a coldwater smallie. It needs security from the environment and predators. It needs to minimize energy consumption. If it’s a big fish, it needs ready access to an occasional mid-winter meal.
In moving water, that generally means the fish move from their summer lies into the deepest pools with the least amount of current. The fish hug the bottom where friction of water moving over substrate slows the current. Bottom huggers benefit in several ways.
They minimize the energy expended to maintain their position and they are close to bottom-living food sources. The water depth also provides protection from avian predators and anglers who only focus their efforts on spots where hot weather smallmouth hang out.
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A few days of warmer weather can trigger a hungry smallie to venture into shallow slack water in search of a food item, generally a hapless forage fish, before dropping back into the depths. Shallow water tailouts can also hold a feeding fish, especially as winter transitions into spring.
Still-water smallmouth also move in predictable seasonal patterns. They favor rock humps, deepwater ledges, river channels and sloping points. Stair-step ledges are good spots to explore.
The main difference between the seasons is the depth were the fish hold. In deep lakes that may mean the fish are 60 feet down, taking them out of reach of all but the most patient fly fishers. Instead, focus fishing effort on shallow lakes where they may be within easy range of a type 3 sinking line.
WATCH THE WEATHER
The thoughtful fisherman pays attention to weather trends. Smallmouth respond to cold fronts in two ways. Before the front hits, they can increase activity. The cold air and sunny skies that follow the front make for pretty days but put the fish deep and off their feed.
A few days of mild — or better yet, sunny — weather can bump the water temperature a couple of degrees. That modest change can put forage on the move. And fish can follow. Sunny day fishing should be banker’s hours and focus on areas most protected from the wind and shallow, rocky areas that gain the most solar radiation.
A warm rain can raise the temperature of a small lake a degree or two. If there is a creek or stream running into the lake, the fresh influx of water can bring nutrients spurring fish forage activity. The lake gets bonus points if that new water is a bit off color as the bass can use it for concealment when ambushing prey.
WINTER FISH FOOD
Winter fish food follows a predictable pattern. The last forage fish spawn is months in the past. Those fry that haven’t already become dinner have grown to juvenile size, and their parents are full-sized adults. The same goes for the crayfish that haven’t yet burrowed and gone to ground.
All the aquatic invertebrates — mostly damselfly and dragonfly nymphs that have a multi-year life cycle — are available in a variety of sizes. Chironomids are always hatching and can be an important food source as winter wanes and spring rolls around. If the water is so cold as to have forced all the crayfish into hiding, food preference shifts to forage fish.
The food size variations have resulted in two theories regarding the best size of fly to entice a winter smallmouth to eat. Some favor small flies, suggesting that the lethargic smallmouth will pursue small prey items because it takes less energy to track and capture those bite-sized items.
They also suggest smaller prey is targeted because winter fish don’t need to eat as much as summer fish. The latter sounds too much like rational thought. Smallmouth are opportunistic feeders, not thoughtful feeders.
The big fly crowd win the battle. Big flies more closely imitate what winter fish food is abundant and available. Winter fish food lives in that same cold water as do the fish and is subject to the same slow motion lethargy-inducing effects of cold water, making them easy prey.
FLY COLORS AND MATERIALS
Flashy attractor patterns are a ton of fun to throw and can generate uninhibited strikes, but don’t expect that to happen much in winter and early spring. Attractors are usually fished with a quick, darting retrieve and that’s not the way the food moves this time of year. Fly-fishermen will have much better success using flies that imitate natural prey found in the water they are fishing. Think dark colors. Olive, brown, black and purple top the list.
Realistic patterns tied with hard materials are pretty to look at but they are static and fail to imitate the natural life-like movements of the real creature swimming in the water or crawling along the bottom. Conversely, patterns tied with soft, pliable materials are more likely to catch fish. Rabbit, both cross cut and straight cut, marabou and rubber legs provide fish-catching pulsing sex appeal. There is a reason why black, brown or olive Woolly Buggers are such effective flies.
In the world of investments, there are those known as contrarians who buck the prevailing economic opinion. They buy when others are selling and vice versa. Sometimes it works to their advantage. There are contrarian fly-fishermen as well when it comes to crayfish fly color.
Due to the cold water, it’s been months since a winter and spring crayfish has molted. When crayfish molt, the new shell is nearly opaque until it hardens into a normal-colored shell. Bass love these soft-shelled snacks.
A contrarian would fish a light-colored crayfish pattern to take advantage of that learned behavior. A truly thoughtful contrarian would add a normal-colored crayfish pattern and fish both at once.
FOCUS ON THE RETRIEVE
Forget making the cast, then ripping the fly back through the water in an effort to trigger a reaction strike. The cold water makes that an unlikely happening. For coldwater catching, the watch word is slow and if a slow retrieve doesn’t work, slow it down even more. Make the fly crawl across the bottom. Let it sit, with only the current providing movement of those soft marabou and rabbit fibers. Move it a bit and let it sit again.
Avoid the steady strip, strip, strip retrieve because that’s not how winter fish food moves. For that matter, it’s not how summer fish food moves either. Streamers patterns should be fished with a pause, followed by a pause, followed by a short, slow strip.
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Be prepared to lose gear when slow-walking your fly. Rocks and bottom debris can be unforgiving but using a stouter tippet can help save gear. An even better solution is using flies tied on Daiichi 45-or 60-degree jig hooks so the hook rides point up.
If those jig hooks are hard to find at your local fly shop, there is another solution to minimize hanging up. When tying flies, use dumbbell weights instead of cones or lash strips of lead wire on top of the hook shank.
Doing so counterbalances the hook bend and point so the fly rides point up. Just remember when tying the fly add the materials in the correct sequence so they present the proper color scheme when fished.
Winter fish are light biters so it’s important to remove slack from the cast and keep in contact with fly. If it hesitates, feels mushy or its movement is restricted, set the hook.
MAINTAIN YOUR FOCUS
Winter fishing means cast after cast after cast without a bite, making it easy for concentration to wane and boredom set in. Of course, at the very moment when the fisherman’s focus is at its lowest, the fish a lifetime strikes. Reaction is slow, a faulty hookset ensues and blue language colors the air.
The only way to prevent that heart-breaking result from happening is to maintain focus and fish each cast as if it is the last cast of the day. If you need to take a break every hour or so, do it. Watch the water, look for birds, warm your hands and toes, have a bite to eat or slug of water and then get back to fishing where the big girls await.
Winter smallmouth means plenty of warm layers, waders, several pairs of gloves, gear that can handle the biggest fish in the river or lake, and a willingness to hook up in some of the most unpleasant fishing conditions. It also means you’ll have the water and the fish all to yourself.