Fly Fishing for Spring Smallmouth: Part 2
This post is the second in a series that will detail how to target smallmouth bass in the spring. Click here to view Part 1.
Tackle and Fly Patterns
In early spring, the weather can vary between bitter cold or unseasonably mild within days. Regardless of the air temperatures, the water will typically be cold. Therefore, I often prepare to fish for smallmouth in March and April like I will be winter fishing. Multiple base layers, a warm hat, gloves and two pairs of socks. Waters temps can be in the low 40s and usually will not get much warmer than 50 degrees during the early season. The payoff for putting up with these cold water temperatures can be very cooperative smallmouth that are feeding heavily and haven't been pressured all winter.
Early Spring can mean snow and ice, but the smallmouth will still bite.
One of the great things about fishing for smallmouth bass is they don't require much specialized tackle or gear. I frequently use a 4-5wt fly rod when fishing for smallmouth bass in the summer, but in the spring I am often using a 6 or 7wt rod. I choose a larger rod mainly because the water in the creeks and rivers is often higher in the spring and sink tip lines and heavy flies are sometimes needed to get down in the water column. When the water is high, I fish larger flies and a sink tip. My "leader" is usually just a 4' piece of 0x tippet connected to the front of the sink tip. This piece of tippet gradually gets shorter and shorter as I change flies, so when it gets to around 2' I will swap in new 4' piece of tippet.
A sinking or sink-tip line is good to have, but I also fish a floating line in the spring, especially when the water is low and clear. In low water situations, with spooky fish, I use a floating line with a 10-12', 2x leader for a more delicate presentation. I pair this setup with a Clouser Minnow in natural colors or crayfish imitation in #4-8.
For a more complete list of the gear we use (including a list of fly rods and reels we recommend) please visit our gear page.
I break down my fly selection for smallmouth bass into four categories. Clouser style minnow patterns, crayfish imitations, articulated streamers, and topwater flies. In my experience, good topwater smallmouth fishing is unusual in early spring, so I will focus on the other three styles of flies in this post. My basic strategy for choosing a smallmouth fly is to start large and downsize from there, depending on the response I get from the fish.
Hook Size: #1/0 - #6
Preferred Colors: White and Olive in clear water and Chartreuse and black for cloudy water.
Weight: I prefer to tie my largest articulated patterns weightless or with just a few wraps of lead wire in the head. I fish these flies on a sink-tip line or poly leader. I will weight my smaller articulated patterns with dumbbell eyes, lead wire, or cone-heads.
Pictured above is one of the articulated minnows I tie and like to fish for smallmouth in the spring. A consistent feature of my smallmouth patterns is prominent eyes. This is true of each variety of fly: articulated, Clousers, and crayfish. I think eyes make a pattern more lifelike and give the bass (and other species) something to key in on.
If the flies are minimally weighted and fished on a sink tip line, they swim midway down in the water column instead of quickly sinking to the bottom. This is one of my favorite approaches in very cold water and often triggers bass when flies with a jigging action aren't producing much.
Most of the articulated patterns I tie and fish for bass are made to imitate baitfish in the 3-6" range. I start fishing with the larger flies to see how aggressive the bass are on a given day. If I'm getting hits and hooking fish, I'll stay with the that fly. If many of the fish I'm catching are small, I consider going a size larger. I use my largest articulated flies for high and off color water, something that can be common in the spring. These large flies move a lot of water, which helps the bass find them. This is especially important when visibility is less than a foot or two. During lower flows, with better clarity, I use smaller articulated flies in more natural colors.
Hook Size: #2-#8
Preferred Colors: White, chartreuse, chartreuse/white, olive/white, grey/white, brown, brown/orange
Weight: Dumbbell eyes in various sizes (small-large)
In the spring I often start my day of bass fishing with a larger, articulated pattern, but there are many days I end up switching to a Clouser Minnow before too long. Bob Clouser's Minnow is one of the most popular and successful flies ever tied and it was developed on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Clouser designed the fly to catch smallmouth bass and if I was allowed only one fly pattern for my bass fishing it would be a Clouser style minnow.
Although I have a few favorites colors, the Clouser Minnow can be tied and effectively fished in just about any color. The size/weight of the eyes is usually more important than the color of the fly when fishing for smallmouth in the spring. The weight will determine the sink rate, which is important if the bass are sluggish and you are trying to keep the fly in their face for as long as possible. When the water is high and off-color, I use larger minnows with heavier eyes to get the fly down to the bass. In off-color water my favorite colors are chartreuse and brown/orange. For clear water I like an olive/white or grey/white color combo.
Below: A Clouser Minnow well worn from many smallmouth bass.
Hook Size: #4-#8
Recommended Pattern: Whits Near-Nuff Crayfish is my favorite commonly available pattern.
Preferred Colors: Rust, brown, grey
Weight: Dumbbell eyes in various sizes (small-large)
Crayfish flies are usually my last resort, but in clear water with spooky fish they are often the most productive style of fly. There are many crayfish patterns sold in stores and online, and I have a few patterns I tie myself. Most of these flies will catch bass. I prefer smaller, subtle crayfish in size 6 and 8 - they are my go to flies when the water is low and clear. Bass tend to eat high numbers of smaller crayfish in the 1-2" range rather than having to fight with the 4-5" craws that can do more damage. For this reason, I find the smaller sizes most effective.
Much like the Clouser minnow, the most important part about a crayfish pattern is the size of the fly and how heavy it is. The fly should be heavy enough to get down in the water column, but not constantly snagging bottom. This means you should be carrying crayfish flies in a few different weights. Instead of buying (or tying) 3 different patterns, I suggest getting 3 different weights or sizes of the same pattern. This way you can select your fly based on water depth and work it closely to the bottom at a slow speed. In the cold waters of early spring, a slow, deep presentation can be critical for success.
I hope this post helps prepare you to chase some spring smallmouth this year! Please check out Part 3 of this series, which covers the gear and techniques needed to catch spring smallmouth. If you liked this article, please check out our other posts below!
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