Eight Rules of Flyfishing for Late-Summer Smallmouths

Eight Rules of Flyfishing for Late-Summer Smallmouths

Hit the water with these modified trout fly tactics to hook dog-day bronzebacks

Summer can be cruel to a devout trout fisherman. I found that out during the relentless drought of 2016. By July, flows on the Farmington River—my home water in Connecticut—were reduced to a pathetic 60 cubic feet per second. It looked more like a rock garden than a river, forcing its browns to huddle up in scattered cool-water refuges. I had no choice but to give them a rest.

Still, it was summer and I wanted to flyfish. Luckily the nearby Housatonic was there to give me a fix. It was warmer than the Farmington, but its natural flow was a bountiful 250 cfs. And it held a thriving population of smallmouth bass. Though I’d fished for “Housy” smallmouths on and off over the years, last summer I piled up my trout fishing chips and went all in on bronze. Focusing exclusively on smallmouths for an entire late-summer season gave me a true crash course in the methods and approaches that can make or break you on a summer bass wade. There are certainly similarities between targeting skinny-river smallmouths and trout, but you can forget about micro bugs and 12-foot leaders. Here are the most critical smallie lessons I learned.

Don’t Be Dainty

Have you ever thrown an articulated streamer into a pool of delicately sipping trout? At best, the fish will ignore it. At worst, they’ll scatter. Not so with smallies. Part of what makes them such exceptional fly targets is that going bigger, louder, and gaudier often draws more strikes when the action is slow than going dainty does. One evening, I was frustrated by a pod of bass that were taking small insects off the surface. Despite my impeccable drifts, they’d have nothing to do with my size 18 Light Cahill. Out of frustration, I tied on a big, ugly deer-hair streamer. Just before it hit the water, a 16-inch smallie exploded from below and snatched the bug clean out of the air. I was stunned. When was the last time you saw a trout do that?

Get Big and Weird

Subtle and sparse are not words commonly used to describe smallmouth flies. In-your-face is more like it. I knew smallies would hit Woolly Buggers and basic baitfish imitations, but I wanted more options. An online search led me to the TeQueely. With a flashy body, contrasting marabou tail, chartreuse wiggly legs, and beadhead, the TeQueely looks like nothing in particular, but the bass treated this mash-up pattern like their first meal in days. Aside from trying oddball flies, don’t be afraid to chuck larger patterns than you might normally use for bass to keep little smallies from attacking your bug before heavier fish can. I learned this trick from former Housatonic guide Torrey Collins. “My favorite streamer there was a rabbit-strip leech with a conehead,” Collins says. “I always tied them at least 4 inches long to get past the pipsqueak fish.”

Mix It Up

Trout will turn their noses up at anything but the perfect imitation of that moment’s hatch. Smallies don’t. That frees you up to use a variety of different patterns and presentations to see how the fish will react. During an outing, I’d switch from a conehead streamer to an old-school soft-hackled wet fly to a popper to a classic Catskills dry in the span of an hour—and I’d catch smallmouths on all four. Even when the renowned Housatonic white fly hatch was going off in August, attractor flies like an Adams or a Stimulator would get sucked down as quickly as a genuine white fly pattern. If you’re not seeing surface activity on dries or poppers in rivers with a strong crayfish population, Collins says, a dead-drifted earth-toned Woolly Bugger can be lethal. Nymphs can be fished deep along the bottom or as a dropper off a dry. No matter the approach, smallies don’t require a perfect presentation; in fact, they’ll go out of their way to chase down a meal. You’ll catch plenty of fish even if you’re lacking a bit in the accuracy department.

Fear No Frog Water

Smallmouths are ambush feeders, so unless there’s a hatch they’re keyed into, these fish are less likely than trout to hold in open runs. With that in mind, avoid featureless areas and extreme shallows. When you get to the river, target structures like downed trees, submerged logs, boulders, pocket water, and underwater ledges. One other major difference between trout and smallies is productivity in frog water. Stretches of still water tend to be worth fishing for trout only when they are rising, but that’s not the case with bass. Slow-water trout have a lot of time to look at a fast-moving fly, which makes them difficult to fool on streamers. Smallmouths are more likely to charge than study, and the reedy edges of frog water make great ambush points. Whenever you hook a smallmouth near a prime ambush point, keep fishing that area for a while, because where there’s one, there are usually more.

Summer smallmouth bass Brian Grossenbacher

Work the Cafeteria Line

One of the best places to find smallies is in what I call the cafeteria line, and it’s easy to spot. Look for a distinctive foam line gathered on the surface, as such lines indicate the heaviest, deepest flow in any given section of river. This is significant, especially in the low, warm-water conditions you’re likely to encounter during the dog days. Compared with other parts of the river, the cafeteria line offers lots of dissolved oxygen, food, and cover. Focus your drifts and streamer strips through its softer edges. As long as they’re not too shallow, gravelly riffles and their dump-in points at the heads of pools are also prime smallie real estate.

Harness Magic-Hour Power

You can catch smallies at high noon, and there’s definitely something liberating about wet-wading a river on a scorching summer day. But dawn and dusk are truly magical times. Low-light conditions—particularly the first or last hour of light—turn smallmouths into reckless marauders. I’ve caught dozens of smallies at sunset in runs where I blanked a few hours earlier. In low light, you’re also more likely to encounter bigger fish that have spent the day lazily holed up. Once the sun dips behind the hills, the water temperature will begin to drop, and by dawn it will be at its coolest. It’s during these brief periods that the wise, old fish are going to grab a meal. If you must fish under the blazing sun, target shade lines from bankside trees, any area in full shadow, and deeper runs or holes.

Use a Trout Stick (With a Kick)

Last summer, I used a medium-fast-action 10‑foot 5-weight on almost every trip. Collins favors a 10-foot 6-weight or a 9-foot 7-weight. Choosing the proper setup really boils down to the flies you’ll be throwing, the size of the river you’ll be fishing, and the average size of the smallmouths you’ll be fighting. If you don’t want to bulk up your outfit, one way to keep your rod light and still throw fairly bulky flies is to fish a line that’s heavier than what’s printed on the rod’s blank. Last summer I used a long-bellied, weight-forward 7-weight floater with my 5-weight rod, and I was able to cast even larger articulated flies with ease. If you’re looking for an excuse to buy that new sealed-drag reel you’ve been eyeing, this isn’t it. Sure, smallmouths hit like a battering ram, cartwheel like steelhead, and dig in their heels like a stubborn teenager, but you won’t see your backing. My standard-issue trout reel handled every fish.

Lead With Authority

If you’ve ever been frustrated by diagrams of Euro-nymphing trout leaders, some of which require an engineering degree to decipher, you’re going to love the fact that your smallie leader can be a straight shot of 8- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon. If you need help turning larger flies, add a simple butt section of 15- to 20-pound-test fluoro. Don’t want to build anything? Grab some 0X to 3X tapered leaders at the fly shop. For fishing dry flies, I’ll use a 7½-foot 1X leader and splice some 4X tippet to the end. The goal with any leader for any presentation is strength, not stealth, as smallies aren’t often leader shy. Your leader should be strong enough to withstand the shock of a punishing hit, and it should enable you to put enough pressure on a fish to land it quickly for a healthy release with minimum stress on the bass.

Written by Steve Culton for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

How I Fish: Lefty Kreh

How I Fish: Lefty Kreh

One of the greatest flyfishermen of all time shares his angling wisdom, talks about his favorite fishing spots and fish to chase on the fly, and explains his four principles of fly casting

Lefty Kreh, one of the most accomplished and beloved flyfishermen of all time, died in 2018. He was 93 years old. Kreh was a prolific author and globe-trotting angler. Among his many accolades, Kreh was the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sportfishing Association and a member of the IGFA Hall of Fame and Flyfishing Hall of Fame. He was also a wonderful person—kind, warm, funny, and always happy to teach others. Field & Stream’s legendary fishing editor John Merwin once wrote of Kreh: “If America can claim a national flyfishing treasure, Lefty is it.”

Here, we’re reprinting an interview Kreh gave the magazine back in 2009. His stories, humor, and fishing tips are timeless—just like the man himself.

I’ve been fishing since I was old enough to walk to the Monocacy River, near Frederick, Md. My father died when I was young, during the Depression, and my mother had to raise four children. I was the oldest, at 6. We were so poor that we had to live on welfare. I’d catch catfish on bait and sell them so I could buy clothes and food to get through high school.

After World War II, I started fly casting when I got back from Europe. (Lefty fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945). Back then, I got a job at the Biological Warfare Center, where we grew and concentrated the bacteria that the scientists worked on. I was one of three people who got anthrax—on my hand and arm. My full name is Bernard Victor Kreh, and there is now a BVK strain of anthrax. I was doing shift work, and I’d hunt or fish between shifts. I started to get a reputation as a hotshot bass fisherman.

Joe Brooks, the fishing writer, lived in the Baltimore suburbs, and he was writing a column in the county paper. He came down with a fly rod one day. This was in September 1947. A big hatch of flying ants was trying to fly across the river, and millions of them were falling into the water. I’m using a 6-pound-test braided silk line, and Joe pulls out this fly line that looked like a piece of rope and swished it back and forth. There were rings out there—he was using a Black Ghost streamer—and he dropped this damn thing in a ring, and boom, he had a fish. He caught almost as many bass as I did, and you don’t normally do that to a guy on his own river.

The next day I drove to Baltimore in my Model A Ford and met him, and we went down to Tochterman’s Sporting Goods—it’s still there, third generation—where he picked out a South Bend fiberglass rod, a Medalist reel, and a Cortland fly line. We went out in the park, and he gave me a casting lesson. Of course, he was teaching that 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock stuff, like everyone was.

My favorite fish to flyfish for are bonefish, absolutely. In freshwater, I like smallmouth bass and then peacock bass.

The longer you swim the fly, the more fish you catch. Gradually I evolved the method that I now teach, where you bring the rod back way behind you on the cast. This accelerates the line, lets you make longer casts and, in turn, puts more line on the water.

I started fishing for smallmouths on the Potomac, at Lander, which is below Harpers Ferry. The river was full of big smallmouths. It was fabulous fishing.

In the 1950s, I went down to Crisfield on the bay. They had a crab-packing plant there, and at the end of the day they shoved everything they didn’t put into cans off the dock. It was the biggest chum line you’d ever seen. My buddy Tom Cofield and I knew about it, and the bass were all over the place. We were using bucktails with chenille, and the wing kept fouling on the hook. On the way home, I said to Tom, “I’m going to develop a fly that looks like a baitfish, that doesn’t foul in flight, that flushes the water when it comes out into the air and is easy to cast.” That’s how I came up with the Deceiver.

Lefty Kreh got his nickname because he used to do everything left-handed—except write and cast. Chris Crisman

The first magazine story I sold was to Pennsylvania Game News. I got paid $89. We thought it was a fortune! It was on hunting squirrels from a canoe.

I teach four principles rather than a rote method of fly casting. The principles are not mine; they’re based on physics, and you can adapt them to your build. They are: (1) You must get the end of the fly line moving before you can make a back or forward cast; (2) Once the line is moving, the only way to load the rod is to move the casting hand at an ever increasing speed and then bring it to a quick stop; (3) The line will go in the direction the rod tip speeds up and stops—specifically, it goes in the direction that the rod straightens when the rod hand stops; and (4) The longer the distance that the rod travels on the back and forward casting strokes, the less effort that is required to make the cast.

My most memorable flyfishing experience was in New Guinea. There’s a fish there called a New Guinea bass—they spell it N-I-U-G-I-N-I. They are the strongest fish I’ve ever seen in my life.

My three favorite flyfishing spots in the world are Maine for smallmouths, Los Roques off Venezuela for bonefish, and Louisiana for redfish. The marsh near New Orleans is over 20 miles wide and 80 miles long. There’s very light fishing pressure, and it’s absolutely the best redfishing anywhere.

The three most important fly casts are the basic cast —you have to learn to use a full stroke; a roll cast, because you use it for all kinds of things; and the double haul. You need to learn how to double haul.

Up until seven, eight years ago, you couldn’t get into flyfishing if you didn’t have a lot of money. Now we have fabulous rods. If you buy any rod today that costs more than $100, it will probably cast better than the person who buys it.

Written by Jay Cassell for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream