It’s always a depressing time for me when I discard my flip flops and shorts for wading boots and long johns.  It seems as if there is never a gradual transition period; one day it’s an endless summer filled with poppers and drift boat mojitos only to find frost covering my rowers seat 12 hours later. Sure it can be off-putting however this is one of the best times to fish for monster smallmouth bass. The key to catching big smallmouth this time of year is fishing transition lines in the river bottom.  If you can find these locations, you can increase your chances of catching a stud smallmouth. Below you will find tactics and tips for three types of imitations I used to target smallmouth; baitfish, crawfish, and top water. 

4-6’’ Baitfish Streamer Imitations

As the water temps start to drop into the 60s and 50s, smallmouth bass, as well as all warm water species shift into overdrive for the upcoming winter. They become somewhat reckless as they chase baitfish near the banks and in the shallow flats of river systems. I even start to see them get into feeding groups in an effort to trap baitfish easier. It’s not uncommon on the rivers that I guide on to see multiple bass chasing my flies during the retrieve.

When throwing baitfish streamers I focus on areas with shallow, gravel flats immediately next to a sharp drop off. My retrieve is very aggressive up to the drop off which I will then kill the retrieve and dead drift the fly. If the fly is not eaten in the shallow water, it will get crushed at the drop off. This transition from shallow too deep is critical for smallmouth.  It allows the fish to move quickly from deep to shallow when heavy cold fronts arrive and provides a great ambush line.

Guide Note: I throw almost all of my streamers on sinking or intermediate lines. They help me get my flies to the correct depths quickly and help in providing a more realistic swimming action to weightless streamers as compared to jigging motions of weighted flies. 

Crayfish Imitations 

Over 70% of a smallmouth’s diet consists of crayfish. This is why a crayfish is my go to  pattern year round, especially in the fall. Depending on water clarity, I prefer to throw larger patterns but will size down in low, clear water. I prefer to fish these in deeper holes with little to no current. As well as bottoms that are scattered with large, chunk rock and a mixture of logs seem to produce better. However, it can be very effective to fish in deep riffles so long as you can get the fly down to the bottom.

Unlike a streamer, I do not consider a crayfish search pattern. I think of them as more of a “direct” or “target area” pattern. I fish them to specific rocks and structures that stands out. Often time while guiding clients they typically end up snagged on the bottom. So don’t worry if you are snagging up a lot. And Keep in mind, crayfish are a bottom dwelling creature. They do not like to swim as it makes them vulnerable as prey. To increase your success with crayfish, fish a specific rock or even a specific side of a rock. Once you finish working that targeted area, move to the next. Don’t waste time trying to fish the entire area in one cast.

Guide Note: Fish structure closest to you as the angler. Don’t go for the long cast initially. Often times I find my clients spooking fish 40’ away when they are trying to cast 80’. You can always add distance to your cast, but you cant get back a fish that spooked out.

Topwater Imitations

I do not throw a lot of topwater as fall progresses. However, there are times when a warm snap will occur and it can make or break your day. I let the fish tell me before I tie one on. A key indicator that it is time to throw on a topwater is when I see baitfish blowing up along a shallow flat or against the bank. I typically only throw minnow patterns that are flashy this time of year and I fish them in the exact same areas that I would throw a streamer. I work them very aggressively with little to no pause. This is an area coverage fly just as a streamer. I want to cover as much water and structure as possible in the shortest amount of time. Cast away and be aggressive. 

Article and photos from Wesley Hodges, a longtime fly fishing and bird hunting guide in Blacksburg, Virgina. Check him out on Instagram on online at https://wesleyhodgesflyfishing.com/

Fly Fishing for Smallmouth/Largemouth Bass: Your Complete Guide