Fly fishing for small mouth bass


Let’s see what your thermometer can tell you about where to find small mouth bass in your favorite lake.

Since they are less a warm water fish than largemouth, we’ll start our temperature study at 33° Fahrenheit.

That’s as low as we can go because water freezes at 32° F. At 33° Small mouth bass are practically hibernating. They stay quiet, in the deepest, least cold water they can find, hardly moving at all. In fact, the body functions—digestion, for instance—almost stop at this temperature.

I do not mean the bass dies—he just slows down to a standstill. He might eat and digest one minnow in two weeks at this temperature.

You can easily see how unlikely you are to get a bass to rise to a fly, or go dashing after a plug in 33° water. Your only chance would be still-fishing—down deep. And you’d have to get a minnow or worm right down close to the bass to tempt him to take the bait at all. Even then, the bass would only feed about once in a couple of weeks.

From 33° up to 38° water temperature, I’ve never been able to get a bass to take an artificial lure or fly, nor have I heard of any other fisherman doing it. I’ve caught some bass— but not many—on live bait by still-fishing through the ice.

I’ve never caught a bass myself on an artificial lure under 40° F.; but I have authentic reports of several small mouth bass he caught November 14, 1943, in the Susquehanna River, with the water at 39° F. He was bait casting with Heddon River Runts— fished slow—about four feet below the surface of the water.

40° to 50° water

In water between 40° and 48° F., small mouth bass gradually get more active, range wider, come into shallower water, and—at 48°—begin to feed a little on the surface. This means that if you find the water temperature is below 48°, you’d better do your fishing with live bait, in water 4 to 8 feet deep in streams or about 15 to 30 feet deep in lakes. Slow drifting, with a minnow or worms fished close to the bottom, is the most successful method at this water temperature. The middle of the day is the best time to fish—from 10:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon.

If you are expert at it—or just determined to take your bass on artificial lures—you can try bait casting with deep-running lures like a Heddon River Runt, or other similar lures, fished slow.

A spinner-and-minnow, or spinner-and-worm, bait cast with a long, light rod is a good rig for this work. A 6 ft., 3/8 oz. tournament bait casting rod is perfect. Use a 1 ft. to 3 ft. nylon leader, a light casting sinker, a small spinner and a single hook. Hook the minnow through the lips.

You have to use an easy, rather delicate, under-hand cast with this outfit so as not to throw off your minnow or tangle up your spinner and casting weight. If you do it right, you’ll find this a very enjoyable, fish-getting method, not only at these low water temperatures but at higher ones. It is about half way between bait casting and fly casting.

From 48° to 50°, the bass begin to liven up. They start to feed on the surface occasionally—at the warmest times. This is especially true if the minnows are getting active in the shallows or there is a hatch of water insects on. Live bait, drifted or still-fished, will get more bass, but you can take fish with a spinner-fly, or a bucktail fished deep and slow by the action method. Streamer flies or nymphs fished with the hand twist retrieve, slow and close to the bottom, will work.

Small mouth bass in 50°- 60° water

Going upward in our water temperature scale, we now come to the first regular small mouth bass fishing temperature bracket—50°-60° F. In this range, they really come to life.

Small mouth bass will pick the gravel or sand bottomed areas. They like to hide near under-water logs or brush-cover along the shore lines, on gravel bars, along the edge of rushes, on rock ledges and under low overhanging foliage.

Small mouth bass in 50°- 60° water

You can take bass in this temperature bracket with wet flies, streamer flies or bucktails, or with spinner-and-fly.

Fish them by the action method with the jerk-and-rest routine.

Bait casting works well for small mouth bass when the water is between 50° and 60°. As in the colder water, drifting a minnow or worms or crawfish—or still-fishing with live bait— is a successful method; so is medium-depth trolling with a spoon or spinner.

Neither of these is as much sport because the angler misses the action and enjoyment of fly casting or bait casting, but a good fisherman should be flexible enough to use whatever is the best method for a given time and condition. Very often you have to be ready, and able, to use live bait or go without fish.

Small mouth in 60°- 65° water

Between 60° and 62° water temperature, Small mouth bass go into shallow water along the rocky shore lines, and on the shallow sand, gravel and rock bars. You will find them in water from 1 ft. to 6 ft. deep in the evening and from 2 ft. to 8 ft. deep in the daytime. This is for normal weather. If you strike stormy weather or a falling barometer, you’ll find the bass going to deeper water at the same temperature.

In this depth, if the water is clear, as it probably is in a small mouth lake, the bass can see you a long way off. This means that casts of thirty-five feet or more usually must be made to take bass in still, shallow water. Even if the fish do not move away when they see you or the boat, they will not as a rule take your fly.

Wading for lake small mouth

Because a fish cannot see you so well when you are close to the surface of the water, you can completely change a “no fly fishing” day into an exceptionally successful one by wading instead of fishing from a boat. This applies to fly fishing in any water temperature. Of course it only works where the bottom is solid enough to wade and where the depth is such that you can wade far enough from the shore to get a chance to cast.

It is not necessary to be able to wade a full cast’s length out from the bank and cast straight in to the shore line. You can cast along the shore line or at an angle in and along it.

Fishing a shad fly hatch

When you find bass feeding on shad flies, they will probably pay little attention to any other food. This may happen in 60°-65° water, or in a higher temperature range. You will see circles on the water all around that show where bass are quietly sucking in the shads, much as trout do with an adult aquatic insect hatch in streams. Once in a while a bass will jump up in the air to seize a fly rising from the surface.

For this shad fly hatch fishing, put a length of 1X or 2X nylon on the end of your leader—making it at least 9 ft., and in some conditions 12 ft. or 15 ft., long. Tie a dry fly on it. Use a size that matches the naturals as well as you can. This may mean a No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10. Bass bugs of a size similar to the natural flies will do well here, too. If bass are rising fast, then cast only to the rises, just as in fishing the rise for trout. If you are lucky enough to be at a bass lake during a shad fly hatch, you’ll enjoy some unforgettable fishing.

Small mouth in 65°- 70° water

Now, suppose you’re fishing in a lake and you find the water temperature is between 65° and 70° F. This is an ideal condition for bass. In my experience, small mouth like 67° water the best of any. If they can find this kind of water, small mouth will go there—and stay in it—as much as possible. In a small mouth bass lake, you will nearly always find bass if you can find 67° water.

In normal weather, in the evening, early morning or at night, in water temperatures between 65° and 70°, small mouth will be in water 2 ft. to 8 ft. deep along rocky shorelines with gravel or sand bottoms—or on a rock or gravel bar, especially if close to deep water. Rock ledges or shoreline boulders are good spots, too.

There are two fine and extra-sporting methods of fishing in this temperature bracket and conditions—fly casting with bass bugs and bait casting with surface lures. In bait casting you may want a pork chunk fished fast by the dry line method, just the way a tournament caster handles a 5/8 oz. plug. You can cast the pork chunk into weeds or most anywhere else and have it come right through without fouling. You can cast a small pork chunk on a fly rod too—and get plenty of fish with it. Use the cast I told you about for handling live bait on a fly rod. Cast into the pads and weed beds and retrieve on the surface, varying the speed of the retrieve.

If there are surface rises—and sometimes when there aren’t —fly fishing with bass bugs will get you a lot of bass and the acme of enjoyment from your fishing. Especially in the evening and at night, bass bugs will often bring more strikes and more fish than any other method. Small and dark bass bugs are preferred for these conditions.

In water temperatures from 65° to 70° in the daytime or in stormy weather or falling barometric conditions, you’ll find small mouth bass in water 3 ft. to 10 ft. deep—on similar bottom and in like cover, but slightly deeper water.

Because small mouth bass are comfortable in 65°- 70° water, they range widely under these conditions. Temperature being almost eliminated as a selective governing condition here, the bass go where the food is most plentiful; or if they have gorged themselves, they retreat to rock ledges, or under sunken logs, or in the protection of rocks and boulders, to rest and hide from their enemies.

Rock ledge small mouth

On the other hand, small mouth near rocks and ledges are not always resting by any means. They are often feeding. Aquatic insect larvae and crustaceans live on the rocks and boulders, on rock ledges and on rock and gravel bars. Crawfish are a favorite food of small mouth; you find these fish where the crawfish are plentiful. When feeding on larvae or crawfish, bass are bottom feeding. In these cases, flat-bodied nymphs or fly rod lures imitating crawfish are sensible.

The hair crawfish are very life-like and respond to action handling on the retrieve very well. If the bass are in shallow water-not over 7 ft. and preferably 5 ft. or under—these hair crawfish handled by the rest-and-twitch retrieve are very killing lures. Tied with a weighted body they also do a nice job for bottom fishing.

Taking bass in a glassy calm

Many anglers feel that the morning or evening hours, and when there is a slight breeze on the water, are about the only times when fishing is good. It is true that the largest catches are usually made at these times, but a skillful fisherman can take a lot of bass in the middle of the day and in glassy-calm water if he knows what things he has to do and what things he must not do.

In the first place, this is a fine chance for fly fishing because aquatic insects are liable to be plentiful in these conditions and in the 65° to 70° water temperature we are talking about. But, because the water is calm and probably clear and the light good, the bass can see you pretty far off. You have to use long casts in most cases. Also you need a long leader, 9 ft. to 15 ft., tapered to .010 or .009 (1X). If the lake is wadeable, you may need to fish from the water instead of a boat.

Bass bugs in brush cover

Brush lined shores with boulders and logs, on sand or gravel bottom, will hold plenty of small mouth bass. In the warmer water brackets the bass will only be in these places in the evening, early morning or at night; but when the surface water is between 65° and 70°, you will find the fish feeding in such spots all through the day.

Bass bugs in brush cover

In casting a bass bug, feather-minnow or dry fly in these brush and log cover locations, put the fly far enough away so that a bass under the log or brush can see it and yet not so far out that he has to swim many feet to reach it.

This depends on the depth of the fish; the best spot is usually between 2 ft. and 7 ft. from the log or brush cover.

Fish it slow—by the rest-and-twitch retrieve.

Deep fly fishing for small mouth

For small mouth that are bottom feeding in these log and brush cover conditions, bucktails, streamers, nymphs, and spinner-flies are all good if you let them sink. Use action fly methods with the bucktails, streamers and spinner-flies. Nymphs should be fished by the hand twist retrieve, allowing the nymph to settle back to the bottom every five or six feet- just as in nymph fishing for trout.

65°-70° water is also ideal for bait casting with surface or medium depth lures. Medium depth trolling or drifting crawfish, minnows and worms, or still fishing with live bait, are all successful methods.

Small mouth in 70°- 75° water

This is a common temperature bracket in the summer in many bass lakes. In the evening, early morning or at night, bass will be in water 2 ft. to 8 ft. deep. Bottom and cover are the same as I mentioned before.

Watch for surface rises; if you see them, use bass bugs. Otherwise some type of wet fly will probably be more productive. The bait caster, the still-fisherman, the skillful drifter with live bait and the troller who hits the good spots will still do all right in these conditions.

With lake temperatures of 70° to 75°, in the daytime, in stormy weather or with a falling barometer, you’ll find small mouth bass in 4 ft. to 10 ft. of water.

The small mouth haven’t changed their liking for bottom or cover; but it’s more important at this water temperature to have some deeper water close to where you’re fishing. The fish will be resting more and feeding less. Use smaller and darker lures—and fish them more quietly than before.

Small mouth in 75°- 80° water

In the evening, early morning or at night, in lakes, you’ll find small mouth bass in the deeper, cooler water, 6 ft. to 12 ft. deep. At this temperature, look for rock or gravel bars near deep, cool water, in or near spring holes. The deeper rushes are good, too—especially if near still deeper water; gravel or sand bottom is still preferred.

Small mouth in 75°- 80° water

Late in the evening and at night at this temperature, small mouth often feed in the shallows where they will take bass bugs voraciously.

Except for this special condition, however, you’d better use bucktails, streamers, nymphs or spinner-fly down deep.

Spinner and minnow, fished deep, is a real fish-getter at this temperature. Be sure to use the live-bait cast with this rig or you’ll break your rod.

With 75° to 80° lake water in the daytime, or if you run into falling barometer or stormy weather conditions, you’ve got to go deep for small mouth. Fish in 15 to 30 ft. water, in spring holes, deep rock or gravel bars, or along deep rock ledges. Drifting live bait — minnows, crawfish, crickets or worms—will usually catch more bass than any other method. Deep trolling also works.

If you’ll use a nymph, bucktail or spinner-fly and let it sink clear to the bottom, then “jig fish” it in, you may do all right. In this method, you must tip-work the lure in, retrieving just fast enough to keep it off the bottom.

Night fishing for bass in lakes

Small mouth bass become night feeders more and more as the water warms up. From the time the surface water reaches 75° and up, small mouth will be so deep (in their search for 67° water) that they can only feed on the bottom if they feed at all in the daytime. If there is 67° to 70° water available down deep and there are minnows, crawfish or larvae available at that depth, small mouth will feed in the daytime on the bottom; but you’ll have to go down to that 67° water to get them.

In 75° to 80° or even higher surface temperature ranges, however, small mouth bass still get hungry; you’ll find them feeding at night in the shallow water, along rocky shores, bars, rock ledges and brush and log cover, on sand and gravel bottom.

If you’ve never done any night fishing for bass, you’ve not only missed your chance for the biggest fish you are likely to catch, but you have also missed a thrilling new fishing experience. While small mouth are the chief night feeders, this also applies to largemouth in very warm water conditions. Except for the kind of bottom and cover situations, the same night fishing tactics will apply to both fish.

In the first place, as with night fishing for trout, be sure you chart out in the daytime the water you intend to fish at night. Make a map of that section with the depths of water and type of bottom plainly marked. Locate all rocks, bars, ledges, logs and brush cover. Take a flashlight along but use it only for changing flies or lures, or for taking fish off the hook.

Do not use your flashlight when casting. Fastening the flashlight to a cord around your neck is an easy way to carry it. Take a long-handled landing net with you.

Casting in the dark

One thing that helps a lot in night fishing is the tournament caster’s ability to cast a 20, 30, 40 or 50 foot cast with a fly rod without seeing the fly or lure at all. You do this by measuring the line that you shoot out through the guides. You can train yourself to do the same thing in bait casting. This accurate casting ability, used in conjunction with a map of the water you are fishing, solves a lot of the trouble most anglers have in fishing at night.

A night fishing adventure in Lake Chabaneau, in the upper Peninsula of Michigan, illustrates my point. We went out about eleven o’clock. There was no moon. We didn’t have a map, because it was an impromptu night fishing trip. The bass were not feeding in open water that time, but it was so quiet we heard the “swish” and “spat” of feeding bass in Wardwell Cove, a shallow bay covered with logs and stumps, but with clear spots in between the cover. This was where the bass were rising to aquatic insects.

A nice lad who was rowing the boat for me, knew this bay by heart, but I didn’t. So he put the boat up to casting distance off the logs, and then called for casts of 35 ft., 40 ft., 50 ft., or whatever distance was needed—telling me to aim towards a big tree silhouetted dimly against the night sky, or just “straight in” for the length of cast needed to lay the bass bug up along a log or brush pile. The night was absolutely black. It was exciting—and we took our limit in an hour.

On another night we did the same thing, bait casting with a black Arbogast Jitterbug. You’ve no idea the thrill you get casting into the dark, having the lure land without seeing it at all, then hearing a splash and feeling a hard-fighting bass on your line—all in the pitch dark.

Night fishing weather

The best weather for night fishing for bass is when it is hot and still, with plenty of stars but no moon. Sultry nights, when you couldn’t sleep anyhow, are particularly good night fishing times—probably because hatches of aquatic insects are liable to come in these conditions.

If you hear a bass feeding in one location, try for him until you get a strike. After you have caught one bass in a certain position at night, go back there half an hour later and you’ll probably find another fish has taken the place of the one you caught—in the exact spot, too.

Night feeding bass will often be in very shallow water— just enough to cover them. Be careful not to frighten them. They can’t see you but they are very sensitive to thumps on the bottom of the boat, scraping of feet, banging oars in the oar locks or any commotion in the water.

Bass bugs for night fishing

In this very shallow water fishing, a bass bug, either a hair type or a small popper fly, is ideal. Hair frogs, hair crawfish and hair mice are all good for this night fishing; dark colored ones are usually best. A bass is so easily disturbed in a foot of water that bait casting lures will often scare away fish that would take a bass bug viciously.

Better use a little heavier and shorter leaders for night work; 6 ft. tapered from .020 to .012 is about right for most conditions.

By the way, bait casting with a pork chunk does a very nice night fishing job, too, especially if you cast the chunk up on the bank and then twitch it off into the water.

Be sure not to pick up your bass bug from the water too quickly in night fishing. Let it lie still when first cast, then use a slow retrieve. The longer your bug stays on the water the more chance there is of a bass taking it. A fish can’t take a fly when it is in the air or in the boat.

If you have never done any fly fishing at night, be careful not to get a low back cast by bringing your rod too far back at the end of the back cast. Most inexperienced casters will do this even more at night than in the daylight.

For night fishing for small mouth, the rock and gravel bars are good places. Rocky shore lines with gravel bottom, where the drop-off to deep water is fast, are especially good spots.

If you are after largemouth bass at night, go to typical largemouth water—mud bottom with plenty of weed growth and lily pods.

While bass may feed at any time of the night, I have caught more before midnight than after that. Solunar Tables are worth following on the time of the night to fish. Of course, night fishing is a warm water sport. Certainly for the thousands of salaried people whose vacations come in late July and August, this night fishing is a life saver.

There are many times in summer lakes when you must fish at night, or you get no fish. At least, in very warm water periods, you must either fish very deep or at night, and night fishing has the edge, both as to probable catch and the enjoyment of fishing in shallow water with a bass bug or other surface lure.

80°- 90° water for small mouth

If you fish in the South, you’ll run into some lake fishing where the water temperature is 80° to 90°. In the early evening or early morning, you’ll find the bass in water 10 to 25 ft. deep. Look for the coolest water you can find—spring holes if there are any. Better drift or still-fish if you want bass, and use live bait—fresh water shrimps, minnows, crawfish or worms. Deep trolling may work.

In the late evening or at night, you can sometimes find bass feeding in the shallows even at this warm temperature. In this case use long casts, 40 to 50 ft., and leaders 9 ft. to 15 ft., tapered to .010 or .009. Give the bugs lots of time on the water.

If you have to fish in a lake in the daytime or in stormy weather or falling barometer conditions when the water temperature is 80°- 90° F., you’d better search out really deep water—20 ft. to 40 ft., or even 60 ft. if the lake is that deep— and go down there with a live minnow, crawfish, shrimp or worms. Bass have been caught in water 73 ft. down, where the temperature was 67°, with the surface water 90°.

Another good summer bait is the weed worm, found in stalks of giant ragweed, or “horseweed.” Deep water jigging, or very deep trolling with spinner or spoon, might get you some bass at this temperature, but you must go deep.

So much for what your thermometer tells you about small mouth bass in lakes.