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In Praise of Smallmouth Bass (and why they are not trout)

So many of us fly anglers got into fly fishing for the trout. Historically, that is where fly fishing got its start and when most people think about fly fishing, trout are what come to mind. And for good reason, trout are awesome! They live in wonderful places. They require cold, clean water. And they are "persnickety" enough make fishing for them an interesting - and sometimes frustrating - challenge.

Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) provide their own unique set of challenges but they are not trout, a mistake many anglers that are less experienced with Smallmouth often make. Smallmouth are a lot more than a "pleasant distraction" when trout streams warm up. They are a game fish that is to be praised and for the fly angler. It is fortunate that as trout fishing often slows, stream and river bass fishing is reaching its peak. Maybe my favorite part of fishing for Smallmouth Bass is boy do they ever fight. I have told just about anyone that will listen, if you were to tie a 14 inch Smallmouth Bass to an 18 inch trout, the trout would get pulled around all day long.

Bringing in a Wisconsin River Smallmouth in the fog.
The smiles say it all - Smallmouth Bass are a ton of fun!

First, a little about how and why trout and Smallmouth Bass are different and then how to use that knowledge to increase your success rate. The biggest difference in their ecology - other than water temperature preference - is that trout are largely drift feeding fishes while SMB are largely ambush predators. You hopefully noted that the caveat, "largely". There are times trout are active predators and SMB will hold in the current to eat drifting insects. However, these generalities are important most of the time. These differences in foraging behavior influence where in the stream the fishes will be concentrated.

Smallmouth bass with conehead stream in its mouth.
Just as beautiful as trout? I think so.

Actively feeding trout are most likely to be in areas of slow current - which requires less energy to maintain their position - adjacent to areas of faster currents - which moves a greater density of food. Think of it like a conveyor belt, they do not want to spend the energy to stay on the belt but they want to be near this food conveyor. If the location has some cover or is close to a place to escape predators, even better. The largest trout tend to be in the best locations, the places with the greatest combination of energy conservation, proximity to food, and a feeling of security (a prime lie). The prime lies in the image below are in the pool, near the fast water but not in it, and the wood and undercut bank provide a sense of security.

Small stream pool with large woody debris.
Prime lies for trout provide ample food and protection from currents and predators.

The biggest difference in where you will find Smallmouth Bass is that their prey - crayfish, small fishes, and aquatic insects - is generally more diffuse and less predictably distributed. Prey for trout is concentrated by water currents; prey for Smallmouth have a mind of their own. What SMB eat depends a lot upon where they live. Generally, crayfish, fishes, larger aquatic insects (hellgrammites, dragonflies and damselflies, and other larger invertebrates), along with some other random items (frogs, mice, etc.) are their typical prey. Like insect hatches on trout streams, their density and location may be predictable based on time of day. Minnow schools may predictably forage on large flats early and late in the day, taking advantage of insect hatches in these locations. SMB will, of course, follow.

Fly angler in a raft on a large Wisconsin bass river.
Vast, open expanses are habitat features in large rivers.

In my experiences, in small streams, your trout fishing experiences serve your fairly well but in larger rivers, bass are concentrated in much different places than are trout. The photo above illustrates the vast, featureless looking expanses where large river Smallmouth Bass are found. However, these areas with rocks, large woody debris, and aquatic vegetation are responsible for and abundance of food and a sense of security; particularly when located adjacent to deeper water. Because of Smallmouth's predatory behavior and opportunistic nature, I find that fishing streamers allows you to cover a lot of ground and trigger bass into biting. Once a pattern is established - they're near shore, on shallow flats, just of the main channel, etc. - they can be more effectively targeted. For much more on where and how to target Smallmouth, check out Tim Landwehr and Dave Karczynski's excellent book, Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics, and Techniques.

Smallmouth Bass
A chunky Northern Wisconsin Smallmouth Bass being properly handled. Don't be a "hero" - support those bellies. .

If you're a bit familiar with Smallmouth Bass, you know they like eating crayfish. And that's mostly true. You've probably had somebody tell you that <insert some percentage greater than 50%> of Smallmouth Bass diets are made up of crayfish. I will tell you it is really hard to find any evidence of this in the scientific literature. Two things working against the idea are; 1) Smallmouth Bass are opportunistic foragers so in some waters, crayfish are king, in others, crayfish are less common, and 2) crayfish are not "fun" nor easy for Smallmouth Bass to eat. (I want to do a separate blog post about this later - there are some interesting ideas out there about what crayfishes are selected by fishes and thus how we can tie flies to better represent the more vulnerable crayfishes.)

Notice in the video from Tight Lines Fly Shop is that Smallmouth will reposition the crayfish so that they can eat them tail first. If you can keep your wits about you, if you miss a hookset on the first bite, let the fly sink and see if the bass won't try to eat it again.

Probably the biggest challenge for the trout-centric fly angler is to understand where Smallmouth Bass will feed and what they'll be eating. There are, of course, predictable places that are nearly always likely to hold Smallmouth Bass. Wood, large rocks, weedlines, and other instream habitat that will concentrate food and deflect current will hold fish. Like with trout, Bass will be in deep water and they're often worth fishing for but actively feeding fishes are often shallower. In most large, Midwestern rivers, this means 1 foot to 4 foot deep flats. These flats may be a bit easier to read if you see large rocks, wood, weeds, or actively feeding bass. Flats concentrate Smallmouth Bass because flats are where much of the primary productivity (algae, aquatic vegetation) occurs in our larger Smallmouth Bass rivers. This primary productivity - the base of the food web as you may recall from way back when - encourages secondary production - the insects, crustaceans, and vertebrates that are either herbivores or eat herbivores feasting on the "green stuff" in these shallow flats. Lastly, as the name suggests, these are areas off the main channel so current is limited so flats require bass to expend less energy to maintain position. Off particular importance quite often is where the shallow flat and the deeper, faster main channel come together. The flats really are the most fun places to fish on large Smallmouth Bass rivers because if bass are on them, they are nearly always actively feeding.

Lower Wisconsin Riverway
You think Smallmouth Bass are tough to predict? Try it on the Lower Wisconsin River.

Let's talk briefly about the 3 major food sources of Smallmouth Bass: crayfish, fishes, and insects.

  1. Crayfish - These crustaceans are abundant anywhere that there are rocks and a least a bit of alkalinity so they can regenerate their shells (exoskeletons). There are about a bazillion ways to fish them and they all work so long as you are in contact with the bottom often. Trout anglers should feel pretty comfortable fishing this under an indicator (bobber!) and hopping them back towards you on an upstream cast. Another effective method is casting them near cover, letting them get to the bottom, and then twitch and hop them. Fishing crayfish patterns are my least favorite way to target smallies but sometimes, they are what the bass are feeding on and you better have some patterns and be willing and able to fish them.

  2. Fishes - There a number of different fishes that Smallmouth will feed on and what to expect and imitate really depends upon where you are. A number of different minnow species - typically shiner species, darters, catfishes (madtoms), small suckers, and other fishes are commonly eaten by smallmouth. Some of these fishes - the shiners in particular - are schooling fishes and anglers can spot feeding Smallmouth by looking for "busting baitfish". Fish imitations (streamers) can be fished top to bottom, depending upon how Smallmouth Bass are feeding. Vary your retrieve until you find what is working. Other than fishes feeding on poppers, fishes chasing streamers is about the most fun you can have Smallmouth Bass fishing.

  3. Insects - This is collectively a large and diverse group but in general, we see some of the same "bugs" we see on trout streams (mayfly, caddis, and stoneflies), hellgrammite larva, dragonflies and damselflies, and terrestrial insects. Smallmouth Bass rarely drift feed like trout but at times, they will feed on adult aquatic insects, often when the congregate in eddies and other off-current areas. Hellgrammite larva are imitated well by Woolly Buggers and other flies with a lot of movement. These predators require well oxygenated water so look for them in broken water. Dragonflies and damselflies are probably the most overlooked Smallmouth prey item. Fish poppers and "wiggly bugs" on weedy flats. Don't overlook the dead drift or movement and an excruciatingly long pause. Small buggers and nymphs, particularly in olive colors can be a great way to imitate the active nymphal stage. Lastly, like in trout streams, the middle of summer provides a lot of grasshoppers, ants, and other terrestrials. Fish these relatively close to shore. After all, on our larger bass rivers, few terrestrials are going to be found more than a few feet from islands and streambanks.

Bass Thumb
If it all comes together, "Bass Thumb" may well be the result.

This is by no means a complete guide to Smallmouth Bass fishing on the fly. After all, it took Dave Karczynski and Tim Landwehr 222 pages to do in their excellent book, Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics, and Techniques. If you mostly fish trout and are looking for something different or want a way to extend the fly season if you live far from streams that stay cold enough for trout year-round, give smallies a try. They are not trout - but you will know that as soon as you hook a good one!

Look for another post about some of Wisconsin's world class smallmouth bass fishing in an upcoming post.

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