Both by tradition and practical experience, fly fishing for bass in streams is smallmouth fishing. This bass likes clear, cool water without too much weed growth in it and with sand or gravel bottom.
Those conditions are more common in streams than in lakes, at least in lakes in the southern or central section of the Middle West.
As we go farther north, especially in Canada, these smallmouth conditions become pretty usual in lakes.
As we go south, they become more rare in any except mountain rivers. These conditions delineate almost exactly the places where smallmouth thrive.
River smallmouth are splendid fly rod fish. They take flies with a zest that is almost unequalled. They take almost any kind of a fly, too—bass bugs, wet flies, exact imitations of natural insects, and flies that do not resemble anything in nature.
These latter highly colored fancy type flies, however, according to recent studies of light refraction, may actually be good imitations of the way a wounded small minnow or aquatic insect floating on top of the water looks to a fish. Anyhow, river smallmouth take them all—and how they fight!
River bass live in fairly shallow water and, therefore, take a surface fly especially well. Because fish in shallow water are more easily frightened, river bass are less frequently scared by flies than by the larger and heavier bait casting lures. I have often seen a river bass turn to a fly that lit behind him and take it avidly, while a plug, bait cast that near the fish, made him scurry for the nearest hiding place. That doesn’t mean bait casting isn’t useful in fishing for river smallmouth, but it does restrict its use.
The mood in which to approach stream fishing for bass is much like that needed for trout fishing. You are again stalking your fish. If you keep this in mind, it will bring many bass to your creel or stringer.
Most smallmouth rivers can be waded, which is ideal for fly fishing; there is even more need to wade properly, because most bass rivers are bigger than the average trout stream.
As with trout, by no means all of a bass stream holds bass. The fish have their feeding positions, and their resting or hiding places, just as trout do. In general, bass pick the same kind of water to feed and rest in as do trout, though smallmouth usually select spots nearer to heavier and faster current.
Whether the bass will be in the riffles or in the pools depends chiefly on water temperature, time of day, stage of water (whether high, normal or low), hatches on the water, and on weather and barometric conditions. Solunar feeding periods also have an effect, but, in my experience, are not as great a factor in stream conditions as in lakes. Where the bass will be and what they will be doing is entirely governed by the combined effect of these natural conditions.
I have already interpreted the thermometer’s story for water temperatures under 50° F. in lakes. That story isn’t too different for streams. Under 40° you had better use live bait, or a wet fly, fished by action methods.
Stream smallmouth in 50°- 65° water
If you find the water temperature between 50° and 65°— especially from 58° to 65°—in your favorite smallmouth river, look for the bass in shallow water 1 ft. to 4 ft. deep, on sand or gravel bottom, in pools, near cut banks or where the current is passing by rocky ledges or under low, overhanging foliage—either trees, bushes, or heavy grass.
At the end of the current toward the head of a pool is a good place. Just above the riffles at the foot of a pool is another likely spot. Below and just above boulders in the current and around sunken logs and brush cover are places to look for stream bass.
The preferred method of fishing for smallmouth bass in streams is fly fishing. At this water temperature wet flies, feather minnows, bass-size nymphs, streamers, bucktails and spinner-and-flies will all take fish.
Above 58° F., and on up to 65°, try bass bugs, especially if you notice any surface rises.
Smallmouth on rock ledges
For river smallmouth, the places surest to yield fish are probably the rock ledges, or rather where the current passes by the rock ledges. The sweep of the current has nearly always hollowed out pockets in the rock. These quiet pockets, just out of the fast current, are the places where the bass like to hole up.
From there they can dash out to seize an aquatic insect, larva or pupa that may float down the current, or the bass are in a position to pounce on minnows that are feeding on aquatic insects or plankton (microscopic aquatic food) brought down by the stream. Ledge fishing is usually best in the sunshine.
Ledge bass are best taken by fishing from the bank with some type of sunken fly that imitates a minnow or larva. This means a streamer fly, bucktail, nymph or spinner fly. Cast upstream and just a little out into the current. A bass in a rocky pocket several feet under the surface couldn’t see the fly if it comes down too close to the ledge. Two ft. to 5 ft. out is usually about right; if you don’t get a strike, experiment on the distance from the ledge at which you float your fly.
With a bucktail, streamer, or spinner-and-fly, use action tactics when the fly gets opposite and then below you. A natural drift retrieve is more logical and more successful with a nymph. With the nymph, use a curve cast of whatever kind is needed to avoid drag, just as you would in dry fly or natural drift wet fly fishing for trout.
After you have fished the water close to the rock ledges, cast upstream and across; fish out the cast until it tails down straight below you, then retrieve by the rest and jerk method until your fly is about 20 ft. from you.
As in trout fishing, be careful to make a quiet pick-up. You never know when a bass is watching. Bass bugs (or surface plugs) are seldom good for these ledge bass because the fish are too deep in the pockets to get to a surface fly easily.
Casting downstream and across and fishing a streamer, bucktail, or spinner-and-fly in the regular action retrieve, just as for trout, is another good way to fish the rock ledges.
In fast, deep water, you can sometimes do your fishing more efficiently with a light bait casting outfit. Small lures will be the best.
Murky water tactics
If the water is high and murky, or perhaps at times when the smallmouth won’t touch an artificial lure, you can take plenty of bass by skillfully drifting a live minnow, worms, crawfish or hellgramites through the same depth of water and kinds of cover previously mentioned.
Smallmouth bass to 65°- 70° water in streams
The water temperatures ranging from 65° to 70° F. are the favorite conditions for smallmouth bass. Sixty-seven degrees is his pick of all water temperatures. The smallmouth will look for and stay in water of this temperature if he can find it.
Water temperatures at any one time don’t vary as much in streams as they do in lakes, especially deep lakes; so if the water temperature of the river you are fishing is between 65° and 70°, you’ll find smallmouth feeding on the riffles, watching for insects that may fall into the water from foliage, for any food floating down the current or for nymphs or immature water insects hatching in either riffles or pools.
In the evening, early morning and at night you’ll find the bass in shallow water. They’ll stay deeper in the daytime, in stormy weather or with a falling barometer. Fly casting, bait casting, or drifting live bait are all successful methods in this temperature range.
Colors for surface and under-water lures
I have found dark colors will bring more strikes in a surface fly or lure, while brighter colors often cause more strikes in underwater flies or baits. This is logical from the standpoint of visibility. A fish sees a surface lure against a lighter sky. A dark object would contrast more in this case, so a dark fly on the surface shows more plainly to a fish than does a light one.
A light or more brightly colored fly, like a Yellow Sally, for instance, would be more easily seen when down at, or below, the level of the fish because it reflects more of the light from above and because it contrasts more sharply with the dark background of the bottom or the deeper water. The fact that a bright yellow fly back of a spinner is usually a favorite for a spinner-fly bears out this idea.
Fishing current tongues for bass
In a good sized pool, smallmouth bass usually will be found along the edges and at the lower end of the main current tongue, just as trout will—and for the same reason. The current is their best conveyor of larvae and other stream food. The bass will always try to find a comparatively current less pocket near the fast water but behind or at the side of a boulder or rocky ledge in the stream-bed.
For bass in this position the best stream tactics are just the same as for trout. Cast upstream with a positive right hand or a negative left hand curve, if you are to the right of the current (facing upstream), and just the reverse if you are on the left hand side of the current.
I usually use a bass bug or a hair frog or hair crawfish first, fished dry fly fashion. After that I try a natural drift with a flat bodied nymph, and then an action retrieve with a feather minnow, streamer or bucktail.
Smallmouth in rapids
The boulder-stream current in rapids, with deep rocky pockets between, makes one of the best smallmouth locations in a bass river. You can fish these places by casting either downstream or up. Straight casts will handle these places, except for the quiet water just above the big boulders.
These are best fished with a positive curve cast from below. I like nymphs or bucktails for this work. You fish these nymphs upstream by a natural drift cast, bucktails across and downstream by an action retrieve. In either case let the fly sink well before starting to retrieve.
Tactics for big bass
Big bass, especially in fairly clear and quiet water, will see a fisherman a lot farther away and oftener than most bass anglers think.
Small bass do not seem to care much; they often will strike anyhow. Big bass aren’t that way at all. They will get out as soon as they see an angler—that is, if they are in open water feeding positions.
If they are deep, or hidden in pockets or behind rocks or logs, they just stay close to their hiding places.This fact is a reason fly fishermen should use longer casts and also longer and finer leaders.
Fishing the flats
While not many anglers fish them, some of the very fruitful places for bass in a river are the comparatively shallow flats at the lower ends of large pools. Do you remember how we fished these flats for cruising Brown trout? Well, bass cruise them the same way, moving all over the pool. Usually you will have to get in position by wading out from the lower lip of the pool, select your casting spot, and stand still until the bass have forgotten you.
This will usually take about five minutes. Then when the fish resume cruising and feeding, cast a No. 10 or No. 12 dry fly on a long leader—10 ft. to 12 ft. tapered to 2 X—ahead of the cruising bass.
Usually about 10 ft. ahead of him is about right. You can adjust this distance to fit the fish that day. If you land too close, you’ll scare the bass. If so, next time drop the fly farther ahead. If you land your fly too far ahead the bass may not see it at all. If this happens, make the next cast closer to the cruising bass.
Stalk your stream bass
In fishing for stream bass, remember the lessons you learned in trout fishing. Approach your fishing spots carefully, keep low, don’t let your figure be silhouetted against the sky line, and if you are wading, do it quietly.
Fishing undercut banks
Another good hole for river bass is in the quiet pocket or eddy beneath an undercut grassy bank. The bass here is usually a couple of feet underwater, just about at the shore line. He is looking for larvae, frogs, or worms from the bank or the current. One good way to fish this cut-bank is from a carefully approached spot on the bank above the fish—in this case you cast upstream and above and let the fly float down about four feet out from the pocket.
The other way is by wading the stream and, from about forty feet below, casting up and across. Again you drift the fly down about four feet out from the cut-bank. Either a bass bug or dry fly floated on top of the current, or a nymph or streamer, fished a couple of feet under the surface, is logical for this position. A spinner-fly is a very taking lure here, too.
Smallmouth in 70°- 75° water in streams
If it’s in the evening, early morning or at night and your thermometer tells you your stream has water from 70° to 75°, you’ll find the bass in feeding positions in the shallows from 1 ft. to 4 ft. deep; same cover and bottom as previously described. In the daytime, they will be in the deeper pools.
You can take plenty of bass in these temperatures with a fly rod. Wet flies, streamers, bucktails, and spinner-flies, fished deep are good lures. Fish them downstream and across by a rather slow twitch method of retrieve. Nymphs fished upstream by a natural drift technique will take bass when other ways fail.
Stormy weather or falling barometer conditions will drive the bass into deeper water and to more secluded places.
If the water is murky or roily, the most successful method will be drifting live bait—minnows, worms, crawfish, hellgramites or weed worms. This is true for all temperature ranges.
Stream bass in 75° to 80° water
In this range smallmouth bass will stay in slightly deeper water—2 ft. to 6 ft. in the evening, 3 ft. to 10 ft. during the day. This means they will cut their feeding in the evening, early morning and at night in riffles and shallows down to shorter and fewer periods. They will go to still deeper water in the daytime if there are such places in the stream. Most of all they will look for spring holes and for shady places in highly aerated water, such as small falls or rapids under trees. Narrow, heavily shaded channels are good warm water spots.
The most successful evening method in such water is fly fishing with bass bugs. The same thing applies to early morning fishing. If you know the water well enough, you can have great sport at night with bass bugs; but you’ve got to be good —and know the water like your own back yard.
In the daytime, you’ll find spring holes a good bet, also the mouths of cooler feeder streams. Just below the bar at the mouth of the small stream is a good spot. For daytime fishing in this bracket, drifting live bait across and downstream into the likely places will usually take more bass than any other method.
Stream smallmouth in 80° to 85° water
In the southernmost ranges of smallmouth bass, you may strike some water of 80° to 85°. The smallmouths won’t like it at all and they’ll go to any cooler water they can find. However, if you run into this temperature, you will find the bass feeding mostly at night or in the late evening. You can occasionally find them in the shallows at these times. Bass bugs on a fly rod, or bait casting, will work then.
Except at night you’ll have to still-fish or drift live bait in the deepest, coolest water you can find—spring holes, deep pools with bottom springs, and deep ledges. In some TVA reservoirs you’ll have to go down 30 to 73 feet.
You will long remember your river fishing for smallmouth bass, not only because he is a great fighting fish, but also because his hardwood-forested streams with their crystal clear water are charming and delightful places to be in.