Fly fishing smallmouth bass is summer alternative
A few years ago I stopped at the Paulinskill River to have a look, having left my son with New Jersey Audubon’s Ridge Walkers program based at Mohican Outdoor Center north of Blairstown. To my surprise, I spotted at least a dozen July trout in a bottom depression under a tree and made a note to bring my fly rod next time. Next I stumbled into smallmouth bass. They eagerly charged my size 10 beadhead stonefly nymph.
We should give trout in warm water leeway. Brown trout may survive in water as warm as 82 degrees, but if hooked, they will not survive the fight. Lactic acid spikes when a trout takes the stress of a battle, and in water too warm it's lethal. Sixty eight degrees is the widely accepted temperature above which conscientious anglers don’t fish trout. Smallmouth bass may be an alternative for fly fishermen—alternative at least as an introduction. Once you become aware that smallmouths are worthy in their own right, you realize summer smallmouths are perfectly fitting for the fly rod.
When anglers think of fly fishing for bass—largemouth or smallmouth—they usually imagine the larger popping bugs that don’t attract so many sunfish. Popping bugs and deer hair bugs will work in the many small rivers in our area—the Paulinskill, Pequest, Musconetcong, North and South Branch Raritan, Raritan, lower Lamington, and Passaic—but I once caught a smallmouth bass on a size 14 Adams intended for brown trout in May. Can you consistently catch smallmouths on dry flies? You might catch a lot of sunfish also, but I’m sure you could some bass.
Other choices might be better at least to begin with. Beadhead streamers like Wooly Buggers prove especially effective because the bead is weight allowing tantalizing dipping action by stripped retrieves. You can get a beadhead streamer or nymph down into deep holes where big stream bass may lie out of sight. It’s fun to experiment. Bass slam nymphs as small as size 12. At times they may even prefer such small offerings, but you can cast big, ugly nymphs and perhaps do better. A four-pound test tippet is sufficient, and a four or five-weight floating fly line is standard. On rare occasions you may encounter a hole 10 feet deep or more, deeper than your leader and tippet, but the floating line may advantage the offering by allowing it to drift just off bottom before the fly line begins to sink.
I’ve had more fun sight fishing bass than getting lost after sunset, although I’ve caught some in the relative dark, a time when a popping bug is at its best. University research has shown that bass are sight advantaged to see prey that can’t see them as well when light intensity changes. It isn’t only that early and late in the day during summer are cooler weather periods. In fact, that’s not really what the action is all about. Bass scoot along the bottom with eyes looking up—usually to snatch baitfish. But a popping bug is perfect for this situation and the strikes can be ferocious. If you are fishing a stretch with strong current flow that forms a V pattern at the tail end, never fail to drift a popper right into the suction. After sunset, sometimes the largest bass in the stretch will position there to feed on whatever comes its way. The water may be a foot deep, but at dusk a bass is bold.
Intense sunlight, however, does not affect stream smallmouths as much as it does largemouth in lakes, or smallmouths in lakes for that matter, such as the bass in Lake Hopatcong hugging the oxygen line at this time of year, lying deeper in lakes with oxygen at 30 foot depths or more. You can spot smallmouths in clear shallow stretches about three or four feet deep and cast directly to them, placing the offering several feet ahead of the direction the bass is facing or swimming. It’s as if the fish is completely unaware of your presence, although chances are it perceives you in peripheral vision not alarmed until the hook set. Bass have an aloof lordliness compared to skittish trout.
Fly fishing is for anyone who wants to try. So much is written about the art it’s as if the intent is to discourage, because it’s easier to do than the persuasion makes it seem. Point your index finger against the cork and let your wrist move the line where it must go, and you may find the real challenge is landing a big bass.