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Smallmouth bass fishing, for most anglers, is a summertime activity. And I can’t blame them. Fish are at their peak aggressiveness, as the waters are warm and the food is plentiful. But I’m here to tell you, great fishing can be found much earlier in the year.
Judging from my experiences and the knowledge I’ve acquired from fishing with great smallmouth anglers, river smallmouth can be caught with decent success with air temps as low as 35 and water temps as low as 40 and in particular circumstances, much colder. Early spring in much of smallmouth country is often much warmer than this. Consecutive days of 50+ degrees can be spectacular. But you need to understand how the fish are behaving and why. These fish aren’t going to operate at their typical warm water aggressiveness of midsummer. The keys will be situational awareness, multiplicity and a whole lot of casting.
First, let’s talk about gear. What you’ll need: 6 and 7 weight rods, fast action is best. I fish a G Loomis IMX Pro most of the time. For floating lines, I prefer Scientific Angler’s Mastery Bass Bug. I will also mix in the SA Sonar Cold Sink 25 in 250 grain. I don’t typically use an intermediate line, because if I need to get the fly a little deeper I’ll just use Versileaders, but there are circumstances for which I think it could be useful. As for reels, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. If smallmouth are taking you onto the reel with a 12-15 pound test, you’re not fighting fish correctly. I would suggest 7-9 foot leaders in most cases. Although, with topwater, it never hurts to fish longer. But generally, with the typical lack of water clarity, that’s not going to make or break you. For flies, you’ll need a variance of crawdad patterns (large and small), a few colors of sinking streamers (I like a trio of brown/purple, cocktail, and white), boogle bugs or deer hair poppers, and a swimming baitfish pattern of your choice.
1. Indicator Fishing
The early springtime in mid-late March can be a great time to find big fish. A lot of these fish are likely schooled up in winter holes, which are often large, slow pools. These fish will require time to strike and require multiple presentations. An effective way to get these fish moving is an indicator and a crawdad. For indicators, my dad and I like the styrofoam crappie bobbers you can find at Walmart. Whatever you use for a typical nymph rig will work just fine, though. Typically, I like to rig my indicator 4-6 feet from the crawdad, with the exception that adjustments may need to be made in deeper holes. The fly should weigh enough to get down, but not tip your indicator under and should be relatively small.
Start drifting through your selected hole and adjust indicator length accordingly. Typically you want your fly close to, if not on the bottom. Methodically work the hole, top to bottom. Other flies outside of the crawdad present opportunity, particularly the hellgrammite. It is best just to dead drift your fly, but sometimes a little strip of the line can induce a strike. This is about as close as you’ll get to nymphing for smallmouth. And for those of us who don’t typically pick up a spinning rod when it’s cold, the most effective. This is my go to winter fishing strategy, as well, and has often yielded some great days on the water. It’s a great time to see what kind of fish a stretch of water holds throughout the year, as many mature fish will be hanging out in these “winter holes” together.
Swinging flies are typically left to spey casters and salmon fisherman. But this style cannot be ignored for smallmouth. As the water warms, fish will begin to move out of the depths of winter holes, into shallower parts of the river, and will often congregate in bigger open runs. As the water temps rise, fish will become more aggressive. From early to mid spring, primarily in bigger holes, a sinking baitfish pattern should be utilized. I like to go heavy and large and will usually keep a variety of color profiles in my quiver to meet demands of varying water clarity. A few bright colored (white, cocktail) and a few dark colored (black, purple) will do.
My dad introduced this spring tactic to me and it has yielded incredible results in the early going of the season. I most often use a half & half clouser minnow, but I tend to think color is more important than fly style in this circumstance. If you’re fishing a smaller creek, a floating line will do, and sometimes a versileader could be useful. But typically with spring flows, you’ll need a sinking line for bigger water. I like 250-350 grain lines. The fly does not require much movement, just a long, slow, steady swing. At certain times, a crawdad can work in this style as well, but I prefer baitfish usually. This tactic can be extremely effective if fish have adopted a more excitable demeanor with rising water temps.
3. Low and Slow
This strategy is similar to swinging, but has more to do with fly placement and movement. Instead of covering ground with baitfish, you’ll be drifting and stripping a large crawdad pattern, free of an indicator, as deep and as slow as you can. Feeder creeks, rock piles, and large rocks in the center of the river are ideal habitats for mature female fish, as they beef up for spawning activities.
For colors, I prefer dark brown and light orange. Dark brown for dirtier water, and a lighter and flashier orange for clear. This is perhaps the most generalist style for spring, and when I’m not sure what the fish are doing, I’ll often default to this. This is ideal for wading smaller creeks, but can be utilized on larger rivers just as well. The fish above was caught on a moderately sized river in April, early in the morning on a 50 degree day. During the spring, it never hurts to start with a crawdad and see where things go.
From March to October, fish will eat a popper. But in the spring, this can be a great way to target large male fish in the area they will build a pre-spawn bed. When male fish are building beds to attract females, they have a small home range, usually in shallow water. They’re not likely to attack a baitfish or move much at all, but popping a boogle bug or deer hair popper over beds can induce a strike. This is a great way to find mature males and is especially effective in stained water. Depending on when fish are spawning in your waters, this is likely to take place several weeks before. You also won’t know if this will be effective unless you can clearly identify males on beds.
This one is easy. Never be out fly fishing for smallmouth without a swimming baitfish pattern. I prefer to use my dad’s signature fly, the Sugar Creek Streamer. Primarily because the hook rides up (fewer gill hooked fish) and it provides the varied movements desired in a swimming fly. Murdoch minnows and gamechangers are also great for this application. You want a fly that will fish sub-surface, but still work at varied speeds. Fish these flies just like you would a fluke on spin tackle. You can always catch smallmouth chasing baitfish, but I prefer to utilize these flies in the later days of spring or on irregularly warm days early in the year.
In the Spring, the inconsistent conditions and fish behavior combine for what can be a tough time. But this is when good anglers become great and personal bests are caught. You’ll need to deploy a diverse set of tactics and develop methodical tendencies to be successful. I hope these spring tactics help you catch more fish, but more importantly, I hope they help you develop a deeper understanding of your local smallmouth.
Angler story of the Week from Stone Miller, be sure to check him out on Instagram at @stoneflyfish.