Topwater Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass are strong and intelligent, making them a sought after game fish. (Dave Whitlock Illustration)
Smallmouth bass are strong and intelligent, making them a sought after game fish. (Dave Whitlock Illustration)

Smallmouth bass are wild, abundant fish that love to eat dry flies

I was fortunate to discover fly fishing over 60 years ago and of all the techniques I’ve used and fish I’ve tackled, the two I enjoy the most are surface fishing and stream smallmouth bass. When I can do both at the same time, it just doesn’t get any better for me. Fly Fisherman editor and publisher John Randolph and I were discussing this pleasurable combination early this winter and he suggested that more readers might want to discover how special it is and include smallmouth bass as part of their annual, freshwater fly fishing.

According to statistics, most Fly Fisherman readers favor stream fishing with dry flies for trout. However, in many waters, trout fishing is not what it was when I was in my teens and twenties when most streams weren’t as crowded and were well-populated with wild trout. Today, if you want to find plentiful wild fish and uncrowded waters, your best chance is a smallmouth bass stream. Smallmouth, for the most part, are wild, abundant and found in streams throughout the lower 48 states.

But that’s just part of the attraction. These tough fish are stronger, more durable, much more prolific and more intelligent than trout. They have an admirable and uncompromising personality of a true game fish, eagerly attacking the fly and, once hooked, respond with wild, acrobatic jumps, hard runs, and a strong, stubborn fight that earned them the reputation of being pound-for-pound the hardest-fighting freshwater fish. In my opinion, only a wild brown trout, Great Lakes carp, or Argentine golden dorado approaches the smallmouth as the noblest freshwater, fly-fishing quarry. My granddad used to say that you could tie a 3-pound smallmouth tail-to-tail to a 5-pound trout and the smallmouth would drag that trout to death.

I’ve yet to see a smallmouth roll over and give up in exhaustion. They may eventually tire, but they’ll never surrender to you like a trout. Because of that, it’s easy to underestimate their strength. I’ve probably lost more big smallmouth than any other freshwater fish. They always seem to have one more run in them and often immediately dash away when released. The size of a smallmouth is probably the most exaggerated of any freshwater fish because, when you hook one, they feel bigger than they really are.


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