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Big Water Smallmouth
Cracking the open water code gives you a shot at big smallmouth all year long.
By Rick Kustich

Photo by Dave Karczynski

There is an old adage I once heard as a young angler—pound-for-pound a smallmouth bass fights as hard as any other freshwater fish. And the four-pound smallie that was digging down placing a bend to the cork of my 8-weight was hell bent on maintaining that reputation. For a time, it was an immovable object desperately going in an opposite direction. I allowed it to take some line in fear of breaking 12-pound tippet. After shear strength didn’t shake the hook, the fish tried an alternative approach by rocketing to the surface. The momentum carried the smallmouth three feet in the air while violently shaking its head before slapping back down on the water. Remarkably, the hook remained attached. After a few more attempts to go deep and then some thrashing around, the thick smallmouth that clearly had not been missing any meals was steered boat-side, captured and brought aboard for a couple quick photos.

Post spawn smallmouth are typically found in shallow areas, even in big, open-water lakes. Photo by Dave Karczynski

Smallmouth are fun to chase and fun to catch. While I spend so much time during the year in pursuit of fish that are difficult and at times almost impossible to catch, my days out fishing for smallmouth in the plentiful open waters of the Great Lakes and connecting waterways is always a refreshing change of pace. Not to imply that smallmouth are a pushover by any means, but where solid populations of bass exist, aggressive feeding can often be found with a little effort.

Big open water has a tendency to intimidate fly anglers. The task of determining where to fish can seem daunting. Not to oversimplify the situation, but locating structure is typically the key. Structure provides security and attracts bait—what else does a fish need? Some structural elements are quite visible with basic observation, while the detection of others can be aided through electronics.

My “go to” structural element for big water is bottom variations in the form of significant reefs and bars or subtle changes of just a few feet. Add some boulders and ledges and you have the makings of great smallmouth holding areas. Look for points that jut out into the water or variations in surface that can indicate bottom changes or boulders. Electronic graphs can be a valuable tool in locating various structural elements that would otherwise be hidden from simple observation. Reefs and rocky bottoms can hold smallmouth food like crayfish, sculpins, and aquatic insects and also act to condense baitfish in areas that make the bait vulnerable.

Weedy areas and weed edges are also smallmouth attractors in open water. Various forms of a smallmouth’s diet can be found in and around weeds, often offering a cross section of that water’s food chain. Weed edges represent an ideal attack point for bait moving in and out of the protection of a weed bed. Weeds do not need to be heavy to attract both bait and smallmouth. In fact, sparse weed growth can be preferred in locating fish.

Nick Pionessa displays a plump pre-spawn spring smallmouth.

Watercraft assists in covering a range of areas when fishing big water. While a boat of 16 to 18 feet rigged with an electronic graph and trolling motor matches very well with this type of water, there are many less expensive options for watercraft. Kayaks, rafts, and one-man inflatables have changed the landscape for being able to cost-effectively cover open water with a fly rod. This type of watercraft can also be outfitted with everything you need, including graphs and small motors. And a boat doesn’t need to be a flashy, fast bass boat; any craft with casting decks generally free of obstructions that catch loose fly line will do just fine. But with any watercraft it always needs to be safety first. Respect big water and know that things can change quickly with the weather. Check the forecasts and always be close enough to shore to leave sufficient time to reach safety if the weather acts up and the big water gets angry.

At certain times of the year big water can be covered with no boat at all. Even on big open water, smallmouth search out areas close to shore for feeding or spawning. And while avoiding spawning fish is just good ethics, both pre and post-spawn fish can be found in shallow waters. Often a pair of waders or fishing from the bank or manmade wall puts you in the middle of the action.

The Clouser Minnow is an extremely versatile and effective smallmouth pattern.

I have always appreciated the relative simplicity of rigging for big water smallmouth. A nine foot 8-weight rod is a good match. A 7-weight is a good option for surface fishing and a 9-weight can be useful on windy days. A floating weight-forward bass taper with a stout butt leader of nine feet is the best rig for fishing on or near the surface.

For fishing subsurface I rely on a 24-to 30 foot sink-tip shooting head. This style of line has a sinking section integrated with a floating or intermediate running line and normally a short back taper. This style of line can be cast great distances with a double haul by shooting the running line and is capable of reaching significant depths. A 300-grain shooting head sink-tip can cover depths over 20 feet with a countdown and slow retrieve or water of just a few feet deep with no countdown and a faster retrieve. A short leader of four-to five feet, looped to the sink-tip, completes the rig.

I typically use a 10- to 12-pound test tippet for smallmouth since there is the chance of connecting with fish exceeding six pounds and that the fly will be fished near structure that can cause abrasions. I have a preference for fluorocarbon in clear water conditions. An intermediate line, or adding a slow sinking leader to the front of the bass taper, allows for fishing the fly down a few feet in the water column when a slow retrieve is required. Straight line casts that turn the fly over on a tight leader are quite important in smallmouth fishing. Slack is the enemy.

Deep water fish require a sink-tip to place the fly down in the strike zone.

The annual progression has a significant impact on smallmouth behavior and location throughout the year. In the early spring smallmouth begin to be active as water temperatures rise into the mid to high 40s. Pre-spawn fish hook up the feed bag often leaving caution at the door. This can be the best time of the year to tangle with a true trophy size smallmouth.

As water temperatures rise through the 50s, pre-spawn fish continue to feed with urgency. It is also a time of year when smallmouth find shallow water structure making themselves available to anglers near shore while wading or utilizing personal watercraft. Bays and points with a south exposure tend to warm faster, attracting bait and bass. Focusing on natural or manmade structures that condenses or corrals bait can pay big dividends. Be sure the regulations in your geographic area allow for fishing during the pre spawn.

Spawning tends to occur as water temperatures move into the mid-to high 50s and through the low 60s. The spawn can occur over a prolonged period, and I always stop fishing areas when visibly spawning smallmouth are present. The post spawn occurs as water temperatures move through the 60s. After a brief lull, some of the most intense feeding ensues. This typically occurs in late May, June, and early-to mid-July. It is still possible to find smallmouth in water depths under 10 feet, particularly in the low light periods as small schools of bass move to the shallows to chase bait. Other fish begin to move deeper but still look for an easy meal.

Maintaining a deep bend in the rod, throughout the fight, is critical with hard-fighting smallmouth.

By late July and August the summer dog days tend to drive smallmouth deeper. Targeting depths of 15-to 20 feet or more may be required to find larger fish. A smallmouth’s metabolism is still revved up in the summer, but months of heavy feeding creates a pickier attitude. This time of year may require smaller flies and a more patient and stealthy approach. Mid-to late September and through October while temperatures stay above the mid to low 50s, smallmouth once again can be found in shallower water. Diet tends to move to larger bait fish in an effort to put on ounces before going dormant in the winter. This time of year may require bigger flies to be successful on larger fish.

The approach for big water smallmouth is straightforward—cast and retrieve. But it is the variations within the retrieve process that typically determines success. I have found the retrieve speed and cadence to be more important than fly selection in triggering a response and take from a big water smallmouth.

Post-spawn and early autumn represent the best opportunity for success on the surface. Fish at these times are aggressive and can be found in shallow enough water to make surface fishing possible. Over the years I have witnessed smallmouth moving from the bottom, in depths over 10 feet, to eat a surface fly when the water is clear. Focus on reefs, boulders, weed edges, and manmade structures found in shallow depths. Occasionally, small marauding groups of smallmouth can be seen terrorizing bait just under and at the surface. I have encountered this activity more often in low-light conditions and this represents the ideal situation for surface fishing. Normally the fly doesn’t need to be fished right in the activity as cruising smallmouth may recognize your fly as bait injured in the fracas.

A regal looking smallmouth that took a subsurface fly along a shallow reef.

For surface fishing I prefer a fly pushing some water to create a small commotion that grabs a fish’s attention. Flat or concave heads push water and are very effective. Heads that dive slightly under the water also work well. A slow, patient retrieve tends to work best. Stripping the fly and then letting it sit for a second or two can be deadly. If in doubt I slow it down. But if slow isn’t working sometimes an aggressive approach does the trick.

While I really enjoy fooling a smallmouth on surface flies, fishing down in the water column is the bread-and-butter of big water smallmouth. While intermediate lines get down few feet, when fishing shallow flats in the post-spawn or fall periods, I rely on the shooting head sink-tip for most subsurface work. A short countdown allows for coverage water 10 feet deep or less, while a longer count can reach much greater depths when fishing from a boat or other watercraft. Wind can impact your efforts to maintain a desired depth. When fishing from a boat, I use the wind or sometimes the current of a connecting waterway to move across and cover potential holding structure. Heavier winds can push the boat quickly, causing the fly line to flatten out and not maintain a desired depth. On lakes, some wind is desired to push a boat over structure and create a little chop that churns the water. But when facing too much wind, slowing the boat down with a drift sock or electric motor helps to keep the fly in the strike zone for a longer period of time.

When fishing down in the water column I prefer to present the fly near the bottom structure. The fly does not need to drag bottom, but when using crayfish and sculpin type patterns, placing the offering right on or near the rocks and boulders creates a realistic presentation. Covering the water within a couple feet of the bottom reduces the chances of hanging up on bottom while placing the fly in the zone where smallmouth are quite comfortable to feed. If using electronics to determine depth, keep an eye out for significant changes and adjust accordingly.

Flies with eyes allow a pattern to sink along with the sink tip and create an up and down action in the water when stripped. This action triggers smallmouth into feeding. I rely on a fairly slow, deliberate retrieve with just enough pop to make the fly jump up slightly with each strip. Be patient allowing the fly to sit between each strip. Smallmouth often eat on the pause and the weight of the fish is detected with the ensuing strip. But never be locked in to one retrieve. Sometimes a faster cadence with a more erratic strip works best and other times a slow draw with limited up and down movement triggers more strikes.

When fishing deep water, a slow retrieve maintains the fly in the deeper zone for a longer period. And when the winds are strong, simply stripping the fly and releasing the line back while drifting along can be quite effective. This is the best approach for ensuring the fly stays deep for the maximum amount of time.

Open water smallmouth are often found in groups, typically gathered together close to a food source. When you find one fish you often find more. Mark the areas where you have had success on that day and continue to work the same holds or structure until there are diminishing returns.

Effective surface patterns for smallmouth push some water when retrieved and have good movement even at rest.

Strip setting on a smallmouth that has grabbed the fly is the best method for hook penetration. Setting with the rod provides too much cushion, preventing consistent quality hooksets. Since a smallmouth often grabs on the pause, the next strip of the fly can be continued into a set. Be ready to react to the weight of the fish. When a smallmouth is hooked maintain a full bend in the rod throughout the fight and be ready for the fish to make quick directional changes. I almost always fight a big water smallmouth by stripping line. Getting used to setting your own “drag” by letting line slowly slip through where it is pinched against the cork is critical for larger fish. When landing the fish be careful not to make dramatic angle changes that can pull the fly from its mouth.

My fly selection for big water smallmouth fishing is fairly simple. Clouser Minnows tied in colors to represent common bait in the waters being fished are very effective. Woolly Buggers and rabbit-strip flies in brown, olive, purple and black, complete with eyes, are must-haves. Dressing Buggers and rabbit-strip flies with rubber legs or a little flash seems to add to their effectiveness. And since crayfish, especially when molting, provide a prime food source for bass, no smallmouth fly box is complete without some patterns to represent this bottom dwelling crustacean.

Goby or sculpin imitations are a mainstay when covering the Great Lakes are for smallmouth.

For surface flies, spun deer, foam, and wood heads that provide buoyancy and push some water all work well. Most are dressed with hackle, synthetic tailing material, and flash. Many of my surface flies have a white, gray, or blue theme with hints of red to represent injured, vulnerable bait. Darker surface patterns, and those representing frogs and mice, can be effective.

Fly fishing for smallmouth in big water has been part of my fly-fishing routine for over 40 years. I never grow tired of the range of possibilities that this resource provides as there is always something new to learn. One has to appreciate the aggressive behavior of a smallmouth and a pursuit that is often fun and relaxed, but can be as intense as you want it to be.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.