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Smallmouth Bass on Flies: Learn to Match the Hatch

Smallmouth Bass on Flies: Learn to Match the Hatch

During a question-and-answer session at a Bassmaster club meeting, a newly minted bass angler asked, "What's the best bait to use?" Being new to the sport, he wanted to know which crankbait, soft plastic or spoon he should buy. In other words, he asked for the silver bullet to be revealed. The simple answer from an experienced angler: Use the bait you have confidence in. Baffled and befuddled, the newbie left the meeting not realizing that the silver bullet had been revealed.

Learn to match a smallmouth's favorite foods and catch more fish.


You might be like the befuddled bass angler wondering what the heck is a "confidence fly." There are hundreds, if not thousands, of smallmouth bass flies available, with more created every time a fly-tier tinkers with an old pattern or makes something altogether new. The challenge for new and experienced fly-fishermen is to distill that mass of flies into a manageable few that inspire confidence.

Fortunately, the distillation process is pretty simple. Fly selection throughout the year is governed by what food is abundant and available to the smallmouth during a discrete time of the year. What food is abundant and available is determined by water temperature. Water temperature at any time of the year is determined by locale. Water temperature on California's Russian River in March is going to be different than water temperature on Oregon's Umpqua River. Come August the temperature will likely have evened out.

Here's an example of food available depending on water temperature. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife did stomach samples of smallmouths on the John Day River. In April, when the water was cold, the prevalent fish food was large aquatic insects, like dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. A second stomach sample done in August when the water was low and quite warm revealed most of the smallmouths were eating crayfish. The reason for the change in the smallmouth menu becomes clear when water temperature is factored.

In the early season cold water, the aquatic insects were many months into their nymphal life cycle. They were big enough and active enough to be viable fish food. The crayfish were still huddled under rocks, not yet active. The females were still carrying fertilized eggs that had not yet hatched. Conversely, by the time August rolled around, the crayfish young of the year were a munchable size and quite abundant while the dragon and damsel nymphs had all emerged into adults. The adult dragons and damsels were only available when they returned to deposit eggs for the next generation or when hunting other insects flying close to the water surface.


Smallmouths are opportunistic feeders. They will eat anything and everything that they can fit into their not-so-small mouths. They gobble lampreys, sip mayflies and seine midges floating in the film. But it makes sense to focus on the three main food groups — large aquatic insects, crayfish and forage fish.

On smallmouth rivers and still waters, large aquatic insects means damselfly and dragonfly nymphs. Both are active underwater predators searching for food by stalking through underwater weeds and debris. This behavior makes them available to hungry bass.

Damsels have slender bodies and large prominent eyes. Of the three families of dragonflies, only the crawlers are important to smallmouths. The crawler has a long, slender body, thicker than a damsel but also sporting big eyes. The color of both dragon and damsel adults varies widely. The nymphs are primarily olive.

Based on these quite similar body types, fly selection is pretty easy. Long, slender, prominent-eyed olive-colored flies are the ticket. Long means 1 to 2 inches total fly length. Eyes can be either black mono, beadchain or dumbbell. The flies should be weighted because these bugs live on or near the bottom, except when emerging. That won't happen for a few months.

Damsels are relatively poor swimmers, while dragons are the underwater version of Michael Phelps. They are capable of short bursts of speed by expelling water through their body, much like a squid. A retrieve that combines the movements of both nymphs is a good idea. Crawl the fly slowly along the bottom and through the vegetation. Add the occasional short, quick strip to imitate the water jet action.

In the early season, all the crayfish will be adults, although they will exhibit some size disparity, depending on their age. Regardless of their variety, size, or color, they all share common characteristics. They live in the substrate, are most active in low-light conditions when they crawl about scavenging for food, and quickly scuttle backwards when alarmed or trying to escape a predator.

Crayfish come in a wide range of colors, ranging from nearly opaque right after molting to mottled olive-black. Regardless of their color, the underside is always lighter than the back. Protecting that lighter underside is important to crayfish because they areunable to defend themselves when upside down. Mother Nature provided crayfish with an interesting organ that acts like an internal gyroscope that allows the creatures to detect which side is up. Knowing that allows the fisherman to select a crayfish fly pattern that has the proper dark-over-light color scheme and has sufficient added weight to make it sink to the bottom with the light side facing down.

Some crayfish fly patterns found in books and fly shops accentuate the claws so much that they look like the fly has adopted a fighting position, claws waving wildly in a defensive posture. That looks realistic from the crayfish and fly-tier's point of view. However, big claws on a fly are not good from the fly-fisherman's view. Here's why. When a smallmouth bass looking for food finds a crayfish, the bass wants a meal, not a fight. If the bass has a choice between a bite-sized crayfish with small, largely ineffective claws, or an adult, ready to do battle with claws big enough to do damage, that bass is going after the little guy. Look for impressionistic patterns that subtly feature suggestions of the claws, add a thick head and flared tail. The materials used to craft these flies should be soft, like rabbit and rubber legs, as they provide lifelike movement in the water.

There are two schools of thought on how to fish a crayfish fly. In still water and rivers with little current where the crayfish can move without being knocked upside down, the fly should be fished like the real thing. Crayfish crawl along the bottom, poking and prodding under rocks and detritus for food. If spooked by a predator or otherwise, they scuttle backwards a few inches. Fishermen will catch more fish if they retrieve the fly like the real crustacean moves — slowly with an occasional quick strip.

Smallmouths are opportunistic feeders. They will eat anything and everything that they can fit into their not-so-small mouths.

On the other hand, in rivers with current that could knock a crayfish askew, try rolling and tumbling the fly like it has lost control, unable to right itself. Smallmouths may pounce on it as easy pickings.

To a smallmouth bass, a forage fish is any fish it can eat. Like humans, forage fish come in three basic body shapes: long and slender (western silvery minnow), bulky head with rapidly tapering body (sculpin), and robust, pear-shaped body (threadfin shad.). Different forage fish live at different levels of the water column. Sculpins and other fish that share that shape are bottom dwellers. Shad are frequently open-water school fish during the day, and then move in close to shore at night. Shad are also intolerant of cold water and will die if the water temperature drops below 45 degrees. Yet another reason for the well-equipped fly-fisherman to carry a thermometer and monitor water temperature of his favorite lake over the winter.

All forage fish share a common darting motion after detecting a predator. Some researchers believe the fish can detect the "bow wave" generated by an oncoming predator. In addition to the shared movement, forage fish share a common color scheme. No matter the fish and no matter where it lives, its belly will always be lighter than its back. When poring over fly patterns in the fly shop trying to decide which ones to buy or when tying baitfish patterns on your own, remember the color scheme.

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When buying or tying flies weighted with beadchain or dumbbell attached to the top of the hook shank, notice if the added weight is sufficient to make the fly ride point up in the water. If it flips over, then make sure the color scheme of dark over light is still maintained.

Most forage fish are spring spawners, with the first brood of fry showing in April in warmer climates. Until that first batch of eggs hatches and the fry swim up, all the forage fish will be adults, calling for adult-sized flies. Some of the spawning males adopt spawning colors. Orange, red and pink are the most common enhancements worn by the males so bits of color can be added to the fly patterns to make the fly stand out. For example, male sculpins may show an orange band on the first dorsal fin.

Avoid a steady strip retrieve when fishing forage fish flies. That's not how they move. Fishermen will catch more bass if they spend a few minutes observing the baitfish in the water they intend to fish. First, notice the body type, then pay attention to how those little guys move. Pick a fly that matches body type and size, then give it action like the real deal.


It's oft-repeated wisdom among fly- fishermen to ignore casting topwater flies until the water warms and then only in low-light conditions like early morning before the sun hits the water or late evening. Just for fun, rig a second rod with The Hamster attached to a floating line and make a few casts toward likely looking structure. The takes can be so aggressive it's hard not to overreact. Patience is the key.

The keys to finding the confidence fly are knowing what smallmouths eat in early season, a few moments of observation and making the fly act like the real food. See you on the water.

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