How to Catch River Smallies on a Fly

By William Clunie

From tackle to technique — a primer for
smallmouth bass fishing in local rivers!

Smallmouth bass fly fishing catch

Another big specimen taken from the swift, river current. (Photo: William Clunie)

Have you ever tried fly fishing rivers and streams for smallmouth bass? While warmer summer water tends to diminish trout and salmon activity, smallmouth bass tie on the feed bag. That’s the time to give river smallmouths a whirl on the fly rod, otherwise you’ll miss all the action!

Here are a few fly fishing basics — from tackle to techniques — for successfully hooking smallmouth bass on fly rods in the moving waters of rivers and streams.

Choosing Gear

Rod: A five- to eight-weight fly rod works just fine for casting heavier flies, like weighted Clousers and big surface poppers, out to where the biggest smallmouth bass are feeding. Most surface flies don’t weigh very much, even if they are large and gaudy — but weighted flies for fishing below the surface can be difficult to cast with a rod carrying light line.

Line: Even with a five-to eight-weight rod, anglers should use a line made for turning over big, heavy flies. I use Rio’s (www.rioproducts.com) “Clouser” line, made specifically for this purpose. It performs flawlessly, as long as I do my part. Several companies, including Scientific Angler (www.scientificanglers.com) and Cortland (www.cortlandline.com), also make lines that can handle the big and heavy flies typically used for taking river smallies.

Another smallmouth bass caught in a river

Micropterus dolomieu is one colorful predator in the river. No wonder fishermen call them “bronzebacks!” (Photo: William Clunie)

Leaders: Many fishermen don’t give much thought to leaders, but leaders must also be able to handle turning over heavy flies. Five-, six- and seven-weight line should be rigged with leaders that start off with a butt of 40-pound test and taper to a tippet of no smaller than six-pound test. A seven- or eight-weight line could jump up to a 50-pound test butt with the same taper and tippet.

Wading gear: If I’m smallmouth bass fishing in the heat, I prefer to wet-wade — a perfect way to keep cool. I wear a pair of neoprene socks or wool socks, with a comfortable pair of wading boots. I sometimes fish out of a kayak and hop out to approach fishy-looking holes with a little more stealth.

The heat factor: Anglers who fish in sweltering heat require extra drinking water to keep adequately hydrated. Also, be sure to cover all exposed skin with good sunscreen that carries a high Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating. I like to wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off my head and neck. I also wear a neckerchief that I dip in cool water and tie loosely around my neck.

Tactical Techniques

Smallmouth bass caught in a stream

A healthy, river smallmouth bass taken on a fly rod thrills even the most dedicated trout and salmon angler. What could be more fun! (Photo: William Clunie)

Strive for accuracy: Casting flies to hook smallmouth bass successfully requires the ability to heave a heavy fly with long distance accuracy. At other times you must gently and skillfully place short casts to areas just off the tip of the rod.

Anglers must be able to drop flies with precision in and around surface structure without snagging on the objects. Any time you see branches, boulders, logs or other surface and subsurface structures, expect a smallie to hang out there. The best casts drop so the current brings them within inches of these structures, a task requiring skill, concentration and the ability to read the water.

Cope with current: Surface currents often defeat smallmouth river anglers. Casting across the current usually forms a belly in the line. The current pushes that line ahead of the fly, causing it to speed up unnaturally rather than drift along without drag.

To avoid an unnatural drag on a surface fly, cast across the current but slightly downstream, at a 45-degree angle. This gives the fly the most free-floating time possible. This works especially well when casting to the shore from a boat moving with the current.

Become a fish hunter: Fly fishing for smallmouth bass reminds me of hunting. Like a hunter, an angler needs to check pockets of varying habitat, searching out and investigating locations that look promising. Definitely drop a fly near shaded surface and subsurface structures, weed beds, shorelines with an immediate drop off or any place where the current has been broken by an eddy or any object in the water such as a log or rock. It’s no different from stomping brushpiles for rabbits, or focusing on edge habitat for deer.

Fly fishing smallmouth bass in rivers and streams

Pennsylvania angler Bill Cope shows how to cast a big fly and still maintain a tight loop. (Photo: William Clunie)

Final Tips

Learn:  My greatest improvement in smallmouth bass fishing with a fly rod came when I learned how to tie my own leaders. Tying leaders with enough butt strength to turn over heavy flies really helps an angler present the offering properly, and more accurately.

Fear not: Don’t be afraid to cast near objects that might cause a snag. Anglers with this fear will never get a fly into prime smallmouth habitat — predatory river smallies patrol the thick stuff where their prey hides. Learn how to cast accurately, so a fly can be placed under overhanging branches, near weedy shorelines and in close to banks with overhanging vegetation.

Work the shallows: Cast into shallow water, even if it looks too shallow to hold a big fish. I have caught huge smallmouth in water so shallow that I could see their dorsal fin sticking above the surface. As a matter of fact, don’t overlook any piece of water when fishing for smallies — they constantly surprise me by being where I would least expect.

Study the fish: Read as much as possible about this amazing fish. The more an angler knows about smallmouth bass, the more enjoyment he or she can get from fishing — and that’s really what it’s all about.


About William Clunie:

William Clunie outdoor writerWilliam Clunie is a registered Maine master guide, outdoor writer and nature photographer, blessed to be “living the dream” in the rugged mountains of Western Maine. He can be reached at: william.clunie@gmail.com.


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