The Smallmouth Bass: Flies to fool them right away!
What do smallmouth eat?
The first order of business when coming up with a short list of flies to carry for a particular fish is to determine what it is, exactly, that they eat. This seems like the only logical place to begin our discussion.
Perhaps the food-source most synonymous with the smallmouth bass is the crawfish. Or crayfish. Or crawdads. Or whatever you want to call them. The point is, given a choice, a smallmouth bass will likely choose to eat one above anything else.
One thing that always puzzled me is how they manage to eat them. That hard shell and claws have to be difficult to deal with, right? Without going into extensive detail, just trust me when I say that they do. For a little more than that, picture them inhaling the little critters tail first as they skitter along the rocks. Claws first would be a major no-no! From there, powerful muscles in the throat crush the unsuspecting victim and powerful digestive enzymes take care of the rest.
Knowing full-well that that smallmouth bass can and do eat larger specimens, one thing to keep in mind is that all fish are hard-wired to get the most nourishment with the least amount of effort. The story here is no different. As such, a smallmouth bass would much prefer to pick off a vulnerable juvenile crawfish than go to war with an armored up, battle-tested adult. Keep this in mind when choosing your patterns, and err towards those in the 1.5 to 2 inch category.
The second major category that makes up smallmouth bass table fare is the baitfish. Admittedly this is pretty generic, but it’s intentionally so. It could consist of any mixture of minnows, shiners, and juvenile game fish, including the smallmouth itself.
That’s right! The smallmouth bass is a cannibal! Even so, when push comes to shove, small baitfish all generally look the same. This isn’t to say that there aren’t differences, and any fisheries biologist worth anything could easily list the differences between a rainbow darter and a red-bellied dace. We just don’t need to care. Show me a fly that mimics the most generic minnow you can imagine, and I’ll show you one that will catch smallmouth bass all day long.
Though the smallmouth isn’t generally thought of as a bug-eater, bugs absolutely make up a substantial portion of their diet. They don’t differ a whole lot from trout in this respect. However, don’t let this lull you into thinking that you’ll walk up to your favorite smallmouth spot and find those bronzebacks sipping size 24 BWO emergers. They usually just don’t play that game.
They do, however, indulge on larger helgramites, stoneflies, damselflies, and even caddis and mayflies. Knowing that some of these are more likely food sources than others, we can narrow down our fly choices.
Smallmouth: The Flies
So after a little hot air that I just can’t go without, we’ll get to the part you’ve been waiting for. To stay with the premise of keeping things simple, I’ll limit the list to 5 patterns. That’s right, just 5 to get you catching these guys (and gals) right away! To avoid the problem of stocking only a few patterns, but in many sizes, stock in wider intervals in the selected sizes. For example, if a size 2-12 is suggested, instead of having a 2,4,6,8,10, and 12, instead carry a 2, 8, and 12 to keep that box from bulging!
Without further adieu, the list:
Ah yes, the woolly bugger. One of my favorites, regardless of the target species.
So how does it fit for the smallmouth? Quite honestly, any way you want it to. Choose a darker color in size 4-8 with a bead- or cone-head and bounce along the bottom to imitate a crawfish. Choose a smaller size to imitate a helgramite or stonefly nymph. Choose an un-weighted version in a lighter color and swim or swing in the current to imitate a baitfish. Whatever method you choose, having a few of these in a couple different colors is a great way to get into the smallmouth right away.
Another of my favorites, the namesake of Bob Clouser, is the Clouser Minnow. The beauty of this pattern is in its simplicity. Using only a couple materials, we are left with a deadly pattern that rides point-up to avoid snags to boot!
Stock a couple in some different colors in sizes 2-10 and swim or swing in the current to mimic a baitfish perfectly! When selecting colors, it’s often best to go with a natural (olive-white), bright (chartreuse-white) and dark (black or purple-white) to cover the spectrum. Versions with flash, as the one pictured above (via http://www.riverbum.com/) are especially effective.
An oft-forgotten pattern, this deer hair beauty is another that does double duty for us. Float it to mimic a hopper or other misplaced insect, or sink-and-strip to mimic a baitfish at the top of the water column. Either way, it’s a deadly pattern for fooling smallmouth all over! Stock them in sizes 2-12.
Since we all love to catch fish on dry flies and we know that smallmouth bass will often take flies on top, it’s only prudent to offer a pattern for accomplishing just that! The stimulator is a perfect choice. While it doesn’t particularly imitate anything, it does well to imitate many things, especially for the smallmouth. Usually less picky than their trouty-cousins, smallmouth will take a stimulator for just about any fly on the water. Whether it be a damselfly, large hex mayfly, misplaced hopper, or something else, the stimulator does the trick. The standard orange as pictured (via http://www.copperfly.net) is a fine choice to make. Carry it in sizes 6-14.
Like most other species, the smallmouth will often attack something that doesn’t look particularly like anything we know it to eat. Perhaps it’s a frog? Maybe a mouse? Who knows, but throwing a popper is a good bet for explosive smallmouth action, especially in mornings, evenings, or on cloudy days. Pick a size 6-10 in a color of your choosing (green, yellow, brown, white and black are all good choices) and throw it out there. Vary your retrieve until you figure out what works. You’ll be hooked on smallmouth for life after watching that first bronzeback blow up on your offering.
How’s that for getting ’round the world in 60 seconds? We hope we’ve offered some help and insight for you. We especially hope this helps to clear the water surrounding fly choice and slimming down those bloated fly boxes. We’ll tackle another species next time, one we think the saltwater guys and gals will really appreciate! In the meantime, we always appreciate your feedback and requests. Tight lines!