Fly Fishing for Spring Smallmouth: Part 3
This article is the third part in a series on spring smallmouth fishing. If you haven't already, please check out Part 1 and Part 2. Part 4 - Locating Smallmouth Bass is the final installment in this series.
Fishing the streams and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic for smallmouth bass in spring is highly dependent on weather and water conditions. When these factors combine favorably you can have great fishing and catch numbers of larger than average bass. More likely; however, you will encounter some challenges along the way. This article will walk through different situations and tips for a successful spring day on the water.
It is important to exercise caution while wading rivers and streams in early spring when water temperatures are cold. Sturdy boots with studded soles, a raincoat (to cut the wind), warm fishing gloves, a winter hat, a face buff, and multiple base layers all will help to make you more comfortable while you're waist deep in 45 degree water. I have found it is best to dress warmer than I feel like I need to when wading in early spring. As mentioned before, water temperatures are still cold and, even if the air is warm, your lower half can get very cold and make it difficult to focus on the fishing.
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When fishing in the the spring I often catch fewer smallmouth than I would expect in the summer, but those bass tend to be much larger. The large bass are feeding heavily in the early spring and they have received little fishing pressure during winter, making them easier to catch. My fishing techniques for spring smallmouth are similar to my summer tactics, but there are import things to consider to improve your chance at success.
In the spring, 42 degrees is considered by many to be a key temperature in Mid-Atlantic streams and rivers when smallmouth activity increases and they become more likely to move and feed. Depending on your location, and the weather in a particular year, this could vary by a few weeks. In my area, it is usually some time in late March or early April.
In the cold water of early spring I usually try to achieve the slowest retrieve possible. In very cold water, I often get hits "on the dangle" - just holding the fly in the current at the end of the swing. This is especially true when the water is very cold. My theory is the bass follow a slowly swinging fly as it moves across the stream, finally committing to eating it after it stops and swims in their face for a minute. As the water warms up, I will mix in short strips and pauses to trigger hits.
High water is a common challenge when fishing streams and rivers for smallmouth bass in the spring. When the water is high and off color, I select larger flies that move more water. Instead of a Clouser minnow with a slim profile, I will use the a larger articulated pattern with a bulky head. I covered these flies in detail during Part 2 of this series (links for Part 1 and 2 can be found at the top of the page).
When the water is high and cold in early spring, it can be challenging just to find somewhere to fish. Wading is often not an option on the larger rivers in the spring. While this makes fishing more challenging, in some situations it can also produce very good fishing. During the spring, smallmouth bass are often looking for slow water where they can hold and feed while expending less energy. When flows are high, the slowest water with the least current is often right along banks. This means a lot of bass will move in close to shore giving anglers a chance to target them. To find these areas I look for any kind of current break along the shore that creates an eddy. Spring smallmouth are drawn to these eddies and will spend much of the spring in them, eventually spawning there.
Smallmouth bass tend to school up in the spring, so when you catch one from an eddy that area often holds more fish. Keep fishing that spot. If you don't have any more success try changing flies. Changing the weight (or sink rate) and color of the fly can be very effective. Change how fast you're retrieving the fly as well. Often these changes will produce some more action.
Low water with spooky bass is most likely to become a problem later in April when the bass are starting to think about spawning, but aren't making beds yet. In low water years I've had a few weeks of this type of fishing before the bass will actually start to spawn (once they start spawning, I stop targeting them). When the water is low and clear I usually use a floating line with 12'-2x leader. For flies, it is tough to beat a #6-8 crayfish pattern or a Clouser Minnow in natural colors. In the lower flows, its also important to stock these flies with smaller dumbbell eyes for a slower sink rate.
When bass become exceptionally spooky, longer casts can be the difference in catching and not catching. Taking the time to work out an extra 10-15' feet feet of line and casting 50' instead of 40' gives the fly a much wider swing and covers more water, further away from the wading angler. Sometimes that 10' makes the bass more comfortable and will produce more action. In low water, especially in smaller creeks and streams, wading needs to be done carefully so not to spook the bass.
Swinging vs. Stripping Flies
There are a lot of ways to fish streamers effectively and most work for smallmouth in the right situation. I keep it pretty simple in early spring. I usually work my way downstream, casting flies at 90 degrees to the opposite bank. I then make an upstream mend - a big mend in fast current, a small mend in slow water. As the fly is sinking in the current, it comes tight and begins to swing. It is important to select a fly weight and/or sink tip line appropriate for the water you will be fishing so you can swing the fly slowly, at the right depth, without hooking bottom.
As April continues and water temperatures start to warm into the upper 40s and 50 degree range, I retrieve my flies more aggressively as the bass are more likely to chase. Even when stripping the fly my retrieve tends to be slow. An aggressive, 8"strip, followed by a long pause to let the fly swing or sink is a favorite technique of mine. I try to make myself wait longer between strips than I feel like I should, and often the bass will take right as I'm about to strip the line again. When my normal retrieves aren't producing any action (no matter the water temps) I will try an extremely aggressive retrieve paired with a heavy fly. Sometimes this fast jigging action will trigger fish when other approaches don't.
I hope you enjoyed Part 3 of the spring smallmouth bass series. Please check out Part 4, which discusses how to find spring smallmouth bass within your local waterways. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please comment below and share it with other fisherman. Also, please check out our other posts, linked below.