Terrific strength, bulldog runs, acrobatic leaps
Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Ontario, Tennessee, Virginia, Minnesota
The world record smallmouth bass, a fish from Tennessee’s Dale Hollow Reservoir, weighed in at a whopping 11 lbs. 15 oz, but the odds of encountering fish of this caliber in the modern era are slim. A river bass of 20 inches is a heck of a fish, with anything over 17 inches being considered a very good specimen. Lake fish run larger, and the last few years have seen several IGFA line class records fall. To wit: in 2020, Michigan angler Spencer McCormack broke his own 8-lb. tippet-class world record with a smallmouth that weighed in at 8 lbs., 1 oz, and measured more than 24 inches long.
The smallmouth bass makes a strong case for the the title of preeminent warmwater sportfish. Thriving in rivers and lakes in urban, rural, and wilderness settings alike, a good portion of North America’s fishing population lives in proximity to a quality smallmouth fishery. Smallmouth also fall into the Goldilocks category when it comes to level of difficulty: not too easy and not too hard. But don’t expect banner days on every outing. While very good days on the water happen with regularity, smallmouth fishing can also be very technical, requiring deliberate, refined presentations.
There is only one best reason to fish smallmouth bass: to have a fun day on the water with a bodacious adversary. James Henshall’s observation is still true, well over a hundred years after his proclamation that the bronze bass is “pound for pound and inch for inch, the gamest fish that swims.”
While most fly fishers have historically targeted smallmouth in rivers, there is a growing trend of seeking them in stillwaters. Fly fishers who crack the code of stillwater bass are rewarded with oversized, potbellied specimens and a shot at the IGFA line-class record books.
Then there is truly big water. An increasingly popular method of smallmouth fishing in the Great Lakes involves poling a low-profile skiff, saltwater flats style. Requiring long, precise casts and quiet presentations, this is perhaps the most technical form of bass fishing in the catalog.
While their native range hews to the Great Lakes and Mississippi drainage, smallmouth have been introduced in many lakes, reservoirs, and rivers across the country and into Canada. In the continental U.S., they are found in every state except Louisiana and Florida. They are most abundant in the eastern U.S., in the lakes of Southern Ontario, as well as the Ozarks. But they are still spreading in the West, creating phenomenal fisheries in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and more.
Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass occupy very different habitats, even in bodies of water where they co-exist. Whereas largemouth relate to cover (weeds), smallmouth relate to structure (boulders, drop-offs, points, and submerged wood). In riparian environments, smallmouth are usually found in some proximity to good current. Frog water denizens, they are not.
River bass are sometimes called “warmwater salmon” by some anglers and biologists, due to their ability to travel great distances (in unimpounded watersheds) to preferred spawning habitat. They are opportunistic feeders, enjoying a diet of crayfish, baitfish, aquatic insects, and frogs, and as a result can be engaged with a variety of angling tactics, ranging from bottom-bouncing crayfish patterns in deeper water to drifting dragonflies over logjams and submerged vegetation.
While smallmouth are popularly regarded as a cool-water fish, their metabolism is directly linked to water temps, which means they only eat more voraciously as the temperatures get warmer. Prime smallmouth season is June to August across most of their range, but smallmouth fishing can also be excellent in the cooler months of April, May, September, and October. In general, smallmouth congregate in deep water in the cool months and diffuse across various habitats during the summer months.
It should be noted that smallmouth bass are particularly vulnerable during the spawn, attacking anything that crosses over their beds. These beds are quickly raided by egg-hungry predators during even short absences by adult smallmouth. Leave spawning bass alone.
Smallmouth are best pursued with rods in the 6- to 8-weight class, with 7-weights striking the balance between finesse and power. Anglers most commonly use floating and intermediate lines, though Type III sinking lines can be effective early and late in the season, as well as during high water events.
Streamers for smallmouth span the gamut. Single-hook suspending baitfish patterns like the Murdich Minnow are a classic, easy casting choice, though throwing large, articulated patterns like the Swingin’ D and Game Changer can be excellent when water is high or stained. Leech and sculpin patterns can really produce in spring, while crayfish patterns are effective for most of the year.
Smallmouth also respond very readily to topwater flies once their preferred surface forage becomes abundant. On some watersheds this means dragon and damselflies; on others, frogs and even mice. Surface patterns need not be anatomically exact. Buggy, foam-bodied patterns in the right overall size and color will work, as will the venerable Boogle Bug. For imitating larger offerings, Dahlberg Divers are another great surface fly.
Whatever fly you are fishing, it’s essential to remember that smallmouth are “on-the-pause” eaters. That is, they most often move in for the kill when a fly stops. For this reason, think about structuring your smallmouth retrieve as a series of pauses with strips in between. This is the exact opposite of a trout retrieve, where the core component of the retrieve is the strip.