Updated: Sep 3
Although I’ve fished small streams for smallmouth bass my entire life, most of that was done with conventional tackle. Occasionally I picked up the fly rod and caught a few, but I didn’t really focus on them with the intent to get better at catching them. The past couple years, though, I’ve purposed to change that.
There was a learning curve, of course. Not a big one, but enough that I quickly realized I had a few things to learn about fly fishing for smallmouth bass and how to catch them consistently in small streams. In this post, I’ll discuss a few of the things I learned.
Expectations for Small Stream Bass
Outside of the world of native brook trout, a 7-9-inch fish may sound unimpressive to most. But a 7-9-inch stream bass is about average for most marginal streams, which are defined as streams that are stocked with trout every spring but generally warm up too much during the summer months to support those trout, at which time they transition to warm water fisheries. In these streams, a 12-incher is a really good fish. Over 12 inches is a lunker.
Of course, this is ruling out big waters such as the lower sections of Big Pine Creek or even the lower parts of Oil Creek, both of which hold some very hefty bass in good numbers. But in small to medium sized streams, those averaging less than 40 feet wide, bass over 12 inches are harder to find. Of course, the closer you fish to where these streams enter bigger water can be a different story.
The main thing is to realize we’re not talking about the Susquehanna River, Youghiogheny River, Juniata River, French Creek, or any of the big name waters in this region known for producing large smallmouths. Many of those waters are best fished in some kind of boat. For the purposes of this post, we’re referencing fishing for bass in small waters that can be easily waded and accessed by anglers of all skill levels.
Gearing Up to Fly Fish for Bass
First of all, you can use your same trout gear for small stream bass. I use a 9-foot, 6-weight Orvis Clearwater fast action fly rod, and it does just fine. The key is fast action. Slower actions won’t have the necessary backbone to sling those heavier bass flies.
A good stout leader is a must, too. Buy a tapered leader that is already designed for bass flies. The delicate, lightweight stuff used for trout can make for a long day trying to get any distance with your casts, and you’ll have to work incredibly hard to turn over the fly and actually get a good drift.
A number of years ago, for reasons I cannot remember, I bought a pack of Rio saltwater leaders. It’s a 10-foot, 10-pound test tapered leader, and it casts those heavy bass flies like a dream. I can only assume I had small stream bass fishing in mind when I bought these leaders. And it makes perfect sense. In saltwater, you’re typically casting big flies, so naturally saltwater leaders would be ideal for turning over big bass flies, too.
Flies for Small Stream Bass
When I first started pursuing smallmouth bass on small streams, I used trout streamers. Within fifteen minutes, I caught three smallmouth bass on a size 12 white jig-style streamer. That might sound impressive except that the biggest of the bunch was maybe five inches long, and only if each of your buddies grabbed an end and stretched it about half an inch. But a bass is a bass, and even a little five incher fights well beyond its weight class.
You can catch a lot of small bass on small flies. Dead-drifting Woolly Buggers, nymphs, and other trout-sized flies will catch plenty of bass. But if you want to consistently catch larger bass, then larger flies are in order.
Smallmouth bass are renowned for their aggressive personalities. I’ve grown quite fond of throwing articulated streamers for these little badasses, and the strikes can be ferocious. Overall, I believe the ideal fly size for small stream smallmouth bass to be around three inches. I’m not sure that bass are as concerned with color as trout can be, so stocking a variety of three-inch patterns in white, black, yellow, and crawfish orange will cover most situations.
After my experiment with trout-sized flies, I made an extreme pivot to using full-sized Sex Dungeons. I had a couple of really good days but noticed I didn’t land many (if any!) fish under 10 inches. Everything I caught was around 12 inches, which are overall really nice stream bass. However, it’s hard to stay focused and feel successful when you’re only catching a handful of fish per day. It’s nice to have a few smaller, action fish in the mix just to boost morale.
Lately I’ve made the switch to Sex Mini Dungeons, which are about two inches shorter (about 3 inches overall length) and less bulky than the regular models. I have picked up a few more fish in the 9-inch range, and I may have gotten a couple even as small as 7 inches. I catch a lot of larger fish on the minis, too, and they’re a heck of a lot easier to cast all day than the regular sized Dungeons.
Another articulated streamer that has worked even better than the mini Dungeons is Hansen’s Meal Ticket in size 6. These are truly deadly flies that catch bass of all sizes, and it has steadily become my go-to pattern and first choice for working over new water.
Almost any of the traditional bass flies will work on small streams, too. Clouser Minnows, various crawfish patterns such as Whitlock’s NearNuff Crayfish, divers, and poppers. In skinny water, I generally stay away from heavy flies like the Clouser Minnow because they drop so fast and sometimes snag the bottom before I can even start the retrieve, but I definitely tie one on when I come to deeper pools where bottom-bouncing flies is necessary.
For shallower pools and rocky flats, streamers that incorporate deer hair have more buoyancy and can be fished slower. I’m also partial to flies that incorporate Zonker strips as tails. I strip these along the bottom of big, slow pools and that strip tail seems to have just the right movement to imitate crawfish claws wiggling in the current. With these flies and others that are fished along the bottom, you’re trying to imitate crawfish or minnows that dart from structure to structure, so use quick, short strips for the retrieve.
And every now and then, I throw something completely different, such as Galloup’s Flatliner, which glides in the water instead of quickly sinking to the bottom. The unique trait of the Flatliner is that it’s designed to fish on its side and look like a dying fish.
No matter what pattern you use, the sweet spot for size seems to be around 3 inches, give or take half an inch. Much smaller than that and you’re not provoking as many fish to hit. Bigger than that and you’re missing a lot of small action fish that are a lot of fun to catch.
Two Tips for Hooking Bass on the Fly
First, learning to strip-set is very important. As you’re lifting the rod tip, simultaneously pull the line with your retrieving hand. And pull hard. Bass have hard mouths and it takes a good set to hook them, especially larger ones.
Second, it can be hard to hook fish when you see the strike. Instinct tells you to set the hook as soon as you see the take, but it’s necessary to allow the bass to take the fly deeper into its mouth. Trust me, there’s no greater disappointment than setting the hook too soon and pulling the fly out of the bass’s mouth before it’s actually had a chance to chomp down.
In many ways, it’s easier to fish to bass when you can’t see your fly. I’ve missed a lot of fish by reacting to the strike rather than waiting to feel the take. And that’s exactly what you have to do — set the hook only after you feel the weight of the fish on the end of the line.
Which Streams Offer the Best Bass Fishing
There are literally hundreds of small to medium sized streams in Pennsylvania that have fishable populations of smallmouth bass. The best ones are typically referred to as transitional waters. These are streams that are often stocked with trout, but warm up too much during the summer to support trout year round. They also lack the habitat and consistent warm temperatures to be thriving year round fisheries for warmwater species.
Many small streams throughout this region that are stocked with trout every spring also offer good smallmouth bass every summer. Some of them have lots of bass. Whether a stream has numbers and/or size depends on several factors, each of which can severely impact how good the fishing can be on any given day.
The stream’s proximity to larger waters is important. For instance, most tributaries of the Allegheny River, Monongahela River, Susquehanna River, and so on will have bass, as will streams that feed lakes, both natural and manmade. Smallmouths often leave these waters shortly after spawning in the spring and migrate up into tributaries in search of cooler, more aerated water, and to feed abundantly on crawfish. Typically, closer to these larger bodies of water will have higher densities as well as bigger bass provided that there is good structure, such as rocky flats and long, deep pools. However, bass will travel many miles up small streams in search of ideal conditions.
Using the Allegheny River as an example, consider the many tributaries that potentially have bass in them in the summer. Heading north from Pittsburgh are Pine Creek, Deer Creek, and Buffalo Creek — all of these are very good places to find summer smallmouths. Farther north, Oil Creek is another stocked trout stream that becomes a heck of a smallmouth fishery come summer.
I grew up about 10 minutes from Buffalo Creek in Butler and Armstrong counties and spent many days chasing bass and trout there. After smallmouths spawned in the larger bodies of water in late-spring, they often begin their journey up these smaller tribs. Many of the marginal trout streams see an influx of bass around middle to third week of June. At this time, it’s possible to find bass stacked up in pools with prime habitat and lots of forage. For a week or two it can be a literal bloodbath as bass feed constantly on crawfish, no doubt replenishing their bodies following the spawn.
After this phase, it seems bass tend to disperse throughout the stream. Although you can occasionally find pools still loaded with them (especially during low water when there are only a few places for them to go), for the most part they’ll be more scattered and you have to cover a lot of ground to catch a lot of larger fish.
Smallmouths are very migratory, and where they’ll be any particular day is based on two things: water temperature and food. What makes many small streams problematic to fish is that they tend to cool off considerably at night.
As an example, one weekend a guy told me about a section of stream that was “polluted” with smallmouth bass and suggested I try it. I didn’t make it there until a week later, but by then, only a couple remained and they were tough to catch. The difference? When the guy saw the bass, we were in the middle of a hot, dry stretch. Water temperatures were pushing 80 degrees. By the time I got there, it had cooled off and rained and the water was around 60 degrees. The bass were either gone (perhaps moved down to the bigger water, which was unfishable due to recent rains) or simply lethargic in the cold water and not in feeding mode. To emphasize the point, I eventually moved to a lower section of the stream, and later in the day, when the water had warmed up approximately 10 degrees, I started picking up a lot more bass.
The presence and activity of food such as crawfish also plays a role in how aggressive bass feed. The day that guy told me about his secret spot, there were pieces of crawfish all over the place where I was fishing. A claw here, a tail there. You could tell fish had been feeding on them heavily. When I fished this new spot, I saw no signs at all of crawfish despite it being perfect habitat.
Simply put, bass move, and where you find them one day is not always where you’ll find them the next. Bass can cover miles in a single day, but paying attention to things like water temperature and food can help you get back on them.
Prime Bass Lies and How to Fish Them
Now let’s look at prime lies for small stream smallmouths. The most obvious, of course, are rocks, rock clusters, rock ledges, and rocky flats. Notice a theme?
Rocks are important because this is where the food lives that bass prey on. Crawfish and minnows rely on these rocks and crevices for shelter and propagation. Streams with rocky habitat will naturally have more prey, which in turn attracts more bass.
But don’t overlook mud bottom streams, especially if they have sections of gravel. As long as there’s some type of forage, bass will be nearby. In my experience, though, you can occasionally catch a nice one (over 12 inches) in mud bottom streams, but they are more rare. However, I’ve seen mud bottom streams produce good numbers of small bass in the 7-9 inch range, and these can make for a good day of fly fishing.
Bass love to hug structure. Don’t be afraid to pound the structure, too. If there’s a rock outcropping, cast right up against the granite. Most of the time, bass will ambush the fly within the first couple feet of the retrieve.
Overall, bass aren’t chasers. If they’re chasing, they’re not hitting, in my experience. This is why I like to use flies in the three-inch size range, because they trigger strikes, whether from impulse, hunger, or simply a territorial reaction.
If you believe you know where a bass is holding, cast upstream and slightly beyond its position rather than right on top of it. Casting on top of it is likely to spook the fish. But casting slightly up and beyond will put your first strip or two right on the fish’s nose, and strikes will increase.
Smallmouth bass can be pretty spooky at times, especially in those big, slow pools. They see you walking along the shoreline, they feel the vibrations of your footsteps on the stream bottom, and they can certainly spook from your fly line traveling over their heads. How you approach and fish these pools is extremely important.
Whereas most trout fishermen approach from downstream, I always approach from upstream for bass. I start at the head of a pool and work down slowly, disturbing as little mud as possible, and cast quartering downstream, hitting structure as I go. I allow the fly to swing down through the current until it’s directly downstream before picking it up for another cast.
As I’m working downstream, I start fishing all of the structure I’ve hit from a different angle. I hit it from straight across, and then once I’m downstream of it, I cast quartering upstream to try that angle. Bass aren’t exactly picky when it comes to what they eat, but sometimes how you present the fly can make a difference.
Also, bass move around a lot. They constantly cruise up and down pools and rocky flats. Unlike trout, which tend to hold in a single feeding lane for long periods of time, a hungry bass has no problem hunting down its food. So where you cast a minute ago and caught nothing could now have a hungry bass there.
For this reason, it’s common for me to work over a pool two or three times a morning if I know there should be a lot of bass there. And every time I make a pass, I try a different fly or a different color. That simple adjustment can be enough to add a few more bass to the tally.
As with anything, learning to fly fish for small stream bass is a learning process. It’s similar to fly fishing for stream trout, but there are just enough differences to make fly fishing for stream bass unique. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
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