Sep 4, 2018

On the Hunt - Targeting Big Smallmouth

Slurped in a hellgramite fly pattern drifted under an indicator deep in a tailout seam on a little canoe stream in Midwestern, USA
Anyone can catch smallmouth bass. Shoot, you might even catch some big ones if you hit the spawn season just right. But when it comes to targeting big fish year around most anglers, (sorry guys but especially most fly anglers), have no clue where to find them. One can always play the game of chance but if you want to consistently find big smallmouth here are some guidelines you need to follow. 

Fish where there are big fish

Not every smallmouth fishery has big fish. They need proper food sources, good growing seasons, not too much angling pressure and ample room to grow. I have fished many small rivers and reservoirs that have a hard time producing big fish. It's not always that big fish are not there. It's just the big fish are so outnumbered by the small eager fish that the odds of contacting a big fish are slim to none. Also, I believe big fish can become well educated through catch and release and many have grown resistant to artificial offerings, fly or otherwise. But despite all that just match the right size gear to your fish and they are all fun. Meanwhile there are things you can do to up your odds for catching the larger specimens in your water. 
100 yds offshore on a rock in 20' foot of water...Smallies live there

Get off the bank

Big smallmouth hate the bright sun and they like security. They didn't get big by exposing themselves to predators. In the heat of summer and bright light of day an angler needs to think safety and shade while still set up on points of interest for ambushing food. Often, late evening, night time and early morning approach is your best odds but if you know where to look in middle of the day you can still find success. 

Stream and small river environments can be pretty easy to pick apart. Determined how deep you can see and double that to figure a starting point for safe habitat. In summer flows I look at outside bends with deep slots and/or undercuts. While wood structure should never be overlooked smallmouth will always prefer rock structure first. The combination of rock and wood should be a sure thing. 

Tailouts! These areas should be probed intently. The top header photo fish was taken from a tailout. The stream he came from is not known to produce big fish. One can fish this stream a lifetime and never see a 20" smallie but that doesn't mean they're not there. It took several drifts and adjustments with a float and fly setup to get him to eat and he ate in the middle of a sunshine day. 

Moon lit summer nights can get smallies looking up
Lakes and reservoirs can be much more difficult in the shear fact that fish have the deep option to retreat to. Focus on areas of sharp drop offs and rocky points. Deep shoreline with shade can be productive. Low light and night time can excel your odds when fish will become relaxed and start to go on the hunt for food. 

Big streamers equal big fish right? Sometimes!

I find the go big or go home approach works best when fish are up and active such as times like early season, spawn season and some low light conditions including cloudy and rainy days. But more often then not my big summer catches are on topwater or suspension tactics. Big streamers should always be an option but I warn you, be quick to set it down and reach for another tactic. 

This crawfish was spit up by a 14 inch smallie. It sits next to a 5" Swinging D. Big is not always the answer but it certainly should not be overlooked

Suckers for topwater

Topwater is probably your best game for big summer bass. The great feature of topwater is even if they fail to eat sooner or later bass will give away their location and current attitude. While we wish for solid strikes be aware of your fly being met with refusals, swirled on, or an aborted strike attempts. You can get a good read on a bass' current mood by how they react to a topwater. Even if their current mood is not desirable for you chances are you will witness this mood change at some point through the day. Use the information of any topwater reaction to measure their mood and if necessary try a different approach.

Deer hair Sliders can elicit good strikes with the realistic dive, swim action on strip retrieve and bubble trail they produce

The suspension approach

When streamers don't get attention and topwater gets refused I reach for a float and fly. It might sound odd that I will apply a float to my bass game but I find it extremely affective. While I couldn't tell you the last time I indicator trout fished because it's been so long ago, I can tell you I've fished an indicator for bass less than a week ago from this writing. I personally no longer go bassin' without a rod rigged with float and fly. 

But why? Just because bass won't chase a streamer or break surface for a topwater doesn't mean they won't eat. Bass themselves can often get into a suspended, or lazy state and easily resist tried and true techniques. 

I use this for an example: Think about your favorite desert. For me that is ice cream. You just finished a big dinner on a night out. The server ask if you want desert? "Hmm, no thank you". A mix up happens or maybe your server is working for a better tip and the next thing you know there is a dish of ice cream in front of you. Are you going to eat it? I bet you a fly rod you'd at least take a couple bites. 
Sage Method 690-4, WaterWorks Lamson Force SL #2, Scientific Angler Amplitude Anadro WF6F
Smallies are no different. They may not always be in the mood to eat but a carefully place attractive food item will rarely be passed upon. This is where the suspension technique really shines. Place an offering in plain view that either drifts naturally through the holding seam or sits stationary in the mr. smallies shaded holding pocket and chances are he'll eat it. On many occasions, Float a fly under an indicator can make your day go from tough to incredible real quick. Also, don't be confuse that it's just a small fish technique. I've landed some of my biggest smallies with float and fly. 

Wrap it up!

Of course fishing is greatly a game of chance and many just get lucky, but to consistently catch big smallmouth bass a scientific approach is needed to succeed. I've fished for smallies most of my life in waters from east to west and north to south. I darn near always find fish but rarely find the fish I call trophies. Although, I am finding those 20" plus fish more often than ever and I can tell you I had to learn new tricks and change the way I looked at these predators in order to more consistently achieve trophy hunter success. Solely playing a game of chance I just no longer find acceptable.

Greg Darling 

"My Passion For Fishing Is A Lifelong Pursuit Of Discovery"

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