Thanks all for the continued support during this crisis. As hard as it is, this social distancing thing seems to be making some positive strides and let’s hope we can at least get on the water and back to fishing here before too long. As much as the fly tying and prepping and dreaming effectively fills the hours, these warm and sunny days make fishing all the harder to resist. In the meantime, we’ll stick with talking about fishing. Yes, it’s a distant second to actually getting out there and doing it but will have to suffice for the moment. We appreciate the orders you’ve been calling or emailing in for various things. We’re continuing to offer mail order and local delivery and with little else to focus on, people are getting their stuff in a very expeditious manner. Please keep them coming. Just a heads up that Saturday, April 11th I won’t have access to ship. Any orders placed after 4pm on Friday, April 10th will ship the following Tuesday. Then we’re back to normal, or at least whatever normal is for the time being. Thanks for your understanding. Without further ado, let’s talk some about a fishery that sits right in many of our backyards.
I do promise to write on some trout and salmonid fisheries before long and mix things up when it comes to discussing the magnificent variety of fishing opportunities in our corner of the state, but today we are going to talk about smallmouth bass. Smallmouth, smallies, bronzebacks, whatever name you know them by, are native to the mid and eastern U.S. While not as widely distributed as their cousins, the largemouth bass, they can be found in a number of rivers and lakes in the west where they are stocked for sport angling. Although my focus tends to be toward fishing native species in their native range, smallies are here to stay in many of the systems where they exist and they are far too impeccable a gamefish to ignore chasing with a fly.
The first smallmouth I remember catching a great many years ago came from the Wolf River drainage in eastern Wisconsin. We were visiting my wife’s family and the lazy river abutted my father in law Jud’s property, just begging to be fished. Jud said there were some big ones in there from time to time and encouraged me to check it out. I took my 6 weight and some streamers one evening and ventured down to the stream with an hour of fading light. Against the far bank were little swarms of minnows that periodically erupted in a spray of fear and panic as a big bass tore into them. I cast a Yellow Zonker into the fray and after a few erratic strips of line the fly stopped with an unmistakable thud. Into the air, around every rock and back towards the cover of an undercut bank a chunky 15″ bass fought for its freedom. This thing had some impressive pulling power. Slipping the barbless fly from its jaw and returning the fish to the river, I simply couldn’t believe how tough these guys were compared to a trout of comparable size and stature. Had I wasted the better part of my life fishing for rainbows and cutthroat in the Northwest? Of course not, but the smallmouth bass has remained indelibly on my radar since that experience and I jump at every opportunity to pursue them with a fly rod.
Locally, smallmouth bass are much harder to stumble across than in the Midwest, but you can find them in a number of local lakes like Whatcom, Samish, and McMurray. Further south, Sammamish, Washington and Lake Tapps also have abundant populations of smallies. For our purposes I’m really going to focus on Lake Whatcom. It’s two minutes from my house, I fish it often and it has some really good fish. The common denominator in most of the lakes I’ve mentioned is size. They’re all pretty damn big and can be effectively measured in miles. I find their large size can be off-putting to a lot of fly fisher folk. Indeed, amidst the jet skiers, water skiers and the wakes of large frenetic party boats you can begin to feel a bit like a lonely lost seal pup caught in a school of great whites. Most of the time, you’re going to need or want a boat to cover water. If you have a souped-up bass boat with a big, fast, 4-stroke outboard, call me, let’s go fishing. If you, like me, do not, there’s a lot of water you can fish effectively with a small car topper, canoe, kayak, pontoon boat or even float tube. I should mention that Whatcom has strict boating rules and you’ll need an aquatic invasive species inspection and endorsement for many boats before you get on the water. Without giving away too many secrets, quiet bays around the South End, Bloedel Donovan or North Lake Whatcom trail are pretty accessible areas to get a small craft afloat and still stay out of harm’s way. While I may not run the length of the lake at mach 10 looking for fish out of my inflatable, I can very effectively fish a flat, point or rockpile here and there and still find plenty of smallmouth to keep me happy.
Like many fisheries, timing and location are everything and knowing a bit about what may be happening seasonally will help you find and stay on fish over the next many months. In a typical year, which this is obviously not, Whatcom opens for fishing the fourth Saturday in April. Let’s just say it’s TBD for the time being. During an average late April or early May, the water is hovering in the low to mid 50’s. At these temps, smallies move out of deeper water and into the shallows in preparation for the spring spawn. At this point, they really become targetable to the fly angler and are in prime pre spawn shape. As the water warms another few degrees in to the upper 50’s, the bass create nests or beds digging around in the finer rocky substrate. They do their thing and the female (usually the bigger of the two) guards the nest for a period of time before vacating to deeper water to recover and turning over the babysitting job to the smaller male. There are widely differing opinions about fishing for smallmouth on beds, which is quite common practice throughout their range. My thoughts are first and foremost, that they are an introduced non-native species in our neck of the woods. Secondly, the spawning process and reproductive success of smallmouth is vastly different than that of salmon, steelhead and trout. Where I would not dream of presenting a fly to a spawning pair of steelhead, it’s pretty routine to throw one at a bedded up bass, which will likely be caught multiple times during its spawn time. The same guidelines apply as with all fish to be released: minimize handling, keep them in the water as much as possible and let them go near the site where they were taken that they may resume their business.
Bedded bass are a sight fishing game. Early on, newly bedded smallmouth are super aggressive and will take just about anything tossed their way. As they get caught a few times or see pressure, they become a bit more apprehensive and more difficult to catch. It becomes all about the finesse and may require multiple fly changes and different colors and sizes of attractor patterns to make things happen. Keep in mind that this annual spawn doesn’t happen at a uniform rate throughout the lake. Things generally get going earliest at the northern end, where greater sun exposure over shallow depths warms the water more quickly. Depth, exposure and weather trends all play a role in where and when the smallie spawn happens, but this event usually lasts 3-4 weeks over the breadth of the lake. Whether or not you choose to fish at this time is an individual decision, but it does tend to concentrate fish in predictable areas easily accessed with a fly. Following the spawn, the bass tend to retreat to deeper water to recover for several weeks. During this time, fishing is pretty lackluster.
Following their recovery period, however, a very unique (for Western Washington) and exciting occurrence fires up throughout the shallow silt and clay shoals around Lake Whatcom. The Hexagenia Limbata or big yellow mayfly lives in a handful of lakes with a particular bottom configuration and begins its emergence in late June/early July. These bugs are huge and we imitate them with nymph and dry fly patterns tied on #4-#8 hooks! The hatch begins late in the day, usually 1-2 hours before dark. The presence of actively working swallows, cedar waxwings and later, bats will often tip you off as to where the bugs are concentrated. Most folks are awestruck by the sheer size of these insects as they lift off from the lake’s surface and the bass are equally drawn to them. This is perhaps my favorite time and method to target smallmouth on Whatcom. The Hex hatch usually continues through early August before petering out. During this same time frame, several other methods and approaches can also be used to successfully pursue big smallmouth.
To narrow the search for fish, it’s important to understand what their preferred habitat looks like. Smallmouth favor rocky structure and shade. “Rocks and docks” is my mantra on Lake Whatcom. If you have water 4-10′ deep with a rocky bottom under and around a dock, you’re probably going to have a few smallmouth nearby. Much of the length of the North Whatcom Trail is rip rap and boulders combined with rocky shoals and drop offs and inviting shade from overhanging vegetation. This is smallmouth nirvana. The more intense the sunlight, the more likely you’re going to find them under something like a dock or kicking back in deeper water. Early in the morning and towards last light, they’re more apt to venture out in search of food.
Now that you’re getting a sense of where you might find them, let’s talk about how to catch them, starting with equipment. I almost invariably use a 6 weight, aiding in both presentation and with enough backbone to handle a trophy bass that may go 5 or 6 lbs. I like a faster action rod designed to throw mid-sized streamers and a variety of fly line types. The Sage X 9’6″ 6 weight is one of my favorites, as is the 6 weight Sage Payload. The Redington Predator series and Echo Ion XL 6 weights are fine choices as well at a budget price. For reels, anything with a relatively smooth drag does the job. Something like a Waterworks Lamson Liquid 3 pack is an excellent choice as the extra spools included give you the capacity for several line options. For shallow water, topwater or during the hex hatch I stick with a floating line, some of my favorites being the Scientific Anglers MPX or Infinity. The half line size bump in weight loads the faster rods I fish nicely. My second line is a Rio Intouch Streamer Tip. This multi-density line has a taper well-suited to throwing larger streamers and a short but aggressive type 6 sinking tip that excels when fishing baitfish patterns around docks and over drop offs. The last line I’ll carry is a full type 6 or 7 Intouch Rio Sinking line for when I need to fish 20-25′ of water or find fish that may be feeding on kokanee suspended in the water column. I typically fish crude leaders of straight 8-12 lb. Seaguar STS Fluorocarbon off the sinking lines and a 9′ tapered leader off the floating, terminating in 2x-4x tippet, depending on the size fly I fish.
Before I get into presentation, let’s think about what smallmouth like to eat and how we choose to imitate those things. I’ve always felt like smallies bridge the gap between the trout and warmwater spiny ray worlds. In the one hand, you’ll catch them matching a bug hatch as when the Hexes come off, on the other, they’ll readily take the same big rubber-legged popper chugging along the surface that the largemouth bass can’t resist. Smallmouth certainly eat insects, but also prey heavily on baitfish (perch, chubs, sculpin, kokanee, their own young and second cousins), crayfish and leeches. Does a Woolly Bugger come to mind? It probably should because it does a reasonable job imitating all of those things. Buggers and Jawbreakers (a curly tailed, rubber legged Bugger on a jig hook) are some of my favorite smallmouth patterns. Zonkers, Zoo Cougars and Clouser Minnows are my go-to baitfish imitators. Yellow, chartreuse, white, black, orange and olive are my preferred fly colors in that order in these flies depending somewhat on the light conditions. Add a handful of Stalcup’ss Crazy Dads and Clouser Crayfish and you have a place at the dinner table. During July you’ll want some Hexagenia adult, emerger and nymph patterns to match the hatch. Some nights they want the nymph only, others it’s all about the dry or emerger. In the spirit of Hank Patterson’s hopper-dropper with a dropper-hopper approach, dangling a nymph below a the big buoyant dry can be a most deadly tactic for covering your bases. Lastly, take some poppers. Big bass are attracted to noise and commotion on the surface in the dusky hours. A large, loud popper or wake-plowing slider are downright fun to watch get pulverized by brawly bass on a quiet evening over the placid lake.
Your fly presentation will often be in flux with the season. Bear in mind that the warmer the water, the more active and aggressive bass will often be. Whereas my strip retrieve on a baitfish pattern might be slow and methodical early in the season, it’ll tend to get more lively and accelerate as the summer wears on. During the spawn, your best approach is often to simply cast your fly near a bass bed and let it sit with little movement. The bass will just pick it up and attempt to move it. If this approach fails, a slow crawling retrieve will tend to get a response. If I’m fishing crayfish imitations, those are best creeped along the bottom slowly, with an occasion duo of short quick strips as though the crayfish is startled or fleeing. On all of these presentations it is imperative that you strip set. When a fish takes, whether you see it or you don’t, just keep stripping or give one long strip to set the hook before even thinking about raising the rod. Should you fail to strip set and instead lift your rod suddenly to bury the hook, you will inevitably loose at least as many smallmouth as the number of bonefish you’re going to farm on your next flats trip when you do the same thing. The single exception to the strip set rule is when fishing dries during the hex hatch. You can trout set when your Parachute Hex disappears in the twilight. It might even be a trout, but it’s probably a decent smallmouth that’ll fight 20 times harder.
There you have it, our beloved backyard watershed painted in a little more detail along with some insights on a fish that you really owe it yourself to fish for somewhere, whether it’s on a big urban lake in Western Washington or a rural creek in the Heartland. If trout had a questionable attitude, gold chains and a Mr. T mohawk…they would be smallmouth.