The 2021 Smallmouth Season that Wasn’t. Or Was It?

I had big plans for this summer. I was going to go on smallmouth fishing binge the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I was going to conduct a bunch of experiments with presentation and techniques and different flies. I was going to find and learn some new water, and I was going to do some in-depth study of water I discovered last year.

And then the rains came. And came. And came. And kept coming. It was one of the wettest summers on record. The Housy was stuck on a black or blue dot on the USGS page for the entire month of July. August wasn’t much better.

But I’m a stubborn sort and I wanted to fish for smallmouth. I was damned if little things like flood stage and water the color of chocolate milk was going to stop me. So I went fishing. I managed well over a dozen outings, for which I am giving myself a gold star. I mostly had fun. I even got into fish. Here are some of the things I learned and re-learned.

Not only can you catch fish in high, heavily stained water, you can catch some big fish in high, heavily stained water. This slob could be measured in pounds. It was one of three fish in the 16″ or bigger class that I landed, on — get this — surface bugs in a 2,300cfs flow. As it turns out, it was my biggest Housy bass of the summer. All fish were taken in water about three feet deep about a rod’s length from shore. I highly recommend that you don’t wade in water that you’re unfamiliar with if you can’t see the bottom. And don’t forget the wading staff! My apologies for the substandard photo. But it’s a nice smallie.
I’d rather fish in very high or very low water than in medium-high to high flows. In the latter, there is no consistency to where the fish are from day to day, as they have enough water to virtually go anywhere. So one evening, I’d bang up a dozen quality fish in a pool. And the next, in the same mark, I’d blank or only get one or two. It’s also frustrating to have the river at a level where you just can’t wade into certain very fishy areas due to depth and current speed. I still managed to go exploring, and I fished two brand new marks with varying degrees of success. Pro tip: whether you’re fishing in high or low flows, structure is your friend, as are current breaks between faster water and slower water. Here’s the proof.
In high water, hatches go on. Not only did this’s years White Fly hatch happen, it was one of the stronger showings I’ve witnessed, and it went well into August. Sadly, the surface action was virtually nil, although I did manage a few bass on dry flies over the course of the summer. Wet fly action was a little better, but if you know there’s likely to be a strong hatch, fishing well under it — AKA nymphing — will put a very big smile on your face. I didn’t see that many black caddis this summer, but there were a bazillion sedgy-white caddis, size 18, most afternoons and evenings. The bass liked them a lot.
Some things didn’t change. There continued to be a shutdown moment right as dusk transitioned to darkness. And the Countermeasure continued to produce quality fish at that moment. I had several foot-plus bass on that fly as my last bass of the outing. Here’s to better conditions in 2022!

Best of 2020 #7: Silver Linings Smallmouth

Feast or famine is the new normal for stream flows. In the summer of 2020, we were left wanting for water. After a soaking spring, precious rainfall eluded us through the start of fall, creating harrowing drought conditions across Connecticut. Thankfully, we have smallmouth bass.

It’s no secret to readers of Currentseams that I am a smallmouth addict. So even though the Hous was low and warm, it was still within the acceptable range for targeting Micropterus dolomieu. So I went at it hard. The challenges were many. Low water meant fewer places to find fish, and sometimes what was there wasn’t in the mood to play. This was clearly an off year on the Hous, with an exponentially smaller class of larger fish (this was by far my worst year in the last five for bass you could measure in pounds) and fewer fish in general (I witnessed one epic white fly hatch with hardly any bass on the bugs). Parking and crowds were a concern; there were times when I saw more angler traffic in a day than I normally do all summer. So what did I do?

I explored. I walked. I tried new water and new methods and new flies. I learned so much that I’m going to be writing an article about it in a future edition of The Fisherman magazine. It may be winter, but I can still feel the humidity falling over my shoulders like a coat, sweat collecting along my brow, as the dragonflies buzz around my head at dusk. Maybe one more cigar for the walk back to the truck?

This summer I tried to use multiple methods when learning a new piece of water. So in a typical outing, I might strip and swing a streamer, pop a Gurgler, swing wets, or dead-drift a surface bug. Here’s a nifty shot of a decent smallie blowing up on a Wiggly.

Housatonic Smallmouth Recap: lots of walking, low, slow, and not very big

You may have noticed this year that there weren’t many Housatonic River smallmouth reports on these pages. It wasn’t for a lack of effort from your humble scribe. I believe I fished more days this summer for smallmouth than I have since I started seriously pursuing them (in 2016). So why did I go dark? Part of it was people — and anglers — everywhere. And anywhere. I ran into anglers in places where I’ve never seen a soul. Finding a parking spot was, at times, impossible. Part of it was the drought, which made for challenging conditions. And part of it was that in terms of size and especially numbers, this was by far the worst year I’ve had fishing smallmouth on that river.

One late July night illustrates this last point. I fished a favorite mark that was, to my delight, devoid of other anglers. I hit the White Fly hatch perfectly — in fact, I’d rate this as one of the top three blizzards I’ve ever experienced. The surface should have been boiling with frantic rises — dozens per second. Instead, I could easily pick out an occasional lonesome rise ring here and there. The lack of bass on the bugs was both extraordinary and discouraging. What’s worse, what was rising was small. Not a bruiser in the bunch.

At least the dragonflies had a good meal.

Since the fishing was awful, and — this is important — every year is different — I decided that I would embrace different. So I explored. I fished new water. I tried new flies (like Wigglies and Barr’s Meat Whistle). And I tried new methods (like indicator nymphing and dead drifting crayfish patterns along the bottom). These efforts will pay off handsomely in the future. So, 2020 wasn’t the year we wanted it to be. But we can take comfort in the hope and promise of 2021.

Housy Mini Report 8/19/19: Low, slow, and small

A quick zip in/zip out (there have been a lot of those this summer) last night from 7:00pm-8:30. I hit three marks in the FFO section and it was tough going. First spot blank, second spot one pipsqueak, third spot nothing until the 8pm to dark slot. A couple on streamers, a half dozen then on White Wulffs (although the white fly hatch is kaput). No real size — biggest was 10″.

The mysteries of smallies on the Hous continue, as I have fished these marks in past years at the same height (200cfs) at the same time of year and same time frame and done gangbusters. This was by far the worst outing of the year in terms of size and numbers.

Where’d you go, bubba?

July18HousySmallie

 

Housy Report 8/1/19: Ladies & Gentlemen, start your White Wulffs!

The White Fly hatch is officially on! I experienced a heavy blizzard last night below the TMA beginning at 8:45pm. Up until then, the fishing was slow, with a handful of bass coming to surface (Gurgler and Countermeasure) patterns. Decent size fish in the 10-12″ class. But not a lot in terms of numbers. Water was 78 degrees, 250cfs and less stained than yesterday. Same bite pattern: waning as it got darker. Then the White Flies came.

It starts like this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you’re a White Fly newbie, this is a big (size 8-12) mayfly that hatches as dusk, then forms a dense cloud of mating activity, such that it looks like it’s snowing big, chunky flakes. If you turn your headlamp on, they will inundate you (they don’t taste very good — ask me how I know). It’s a late July/early August hatch, and when it’s going the bass will key on the insect to the exclusion of larger offerings. Wet flies swung pre-hatch and chunky dries like the White Wulff, Usual, and Light Cahill will serve you well. (You’ll want to tie those dries on stout hooks.) If you’re fishing spinners they have very long tails, twice the length of the hook shaft.

The hatch can be fickle and come and go, so jump on it this weekend.

…and before you know it, it’s snowing in August. All I had to do during last night’s hatch was pick a rise ring, make a drift over it, use the bucket method of strike detection, then set the hook. I took many fish on a flat that was only a foot deep. Don’t let those dainty, tiny sipping rise rings fool you — with the exception of one fish, every smallie I connected with at dark was in the double-digits length class.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Housy Trout & Smallies in the March/April issue of Eastern Fly Fishing

Hot off the presses: “Upper Housatonic River, CT — The Smallmouth River That Thinks It’s A Trout Stream.” You can read it in the March/April issue of Eastern Fly Fishing. You’ll find a little river history, a little reconnoiter, some trout and smallie basics, and a couple of my favorite Housy fly patterns. Oh. It’s also a pretty good read (said the author modestly). I believe you can get a copy at matchthehatch.com.

Where we set out to prove the O.W. Holmes quote, “There’s no tonic like the Housatonic.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Housy Smallmouth Report 8/1/18: No snow day

A short outing last night, from 7pm-9pm, below the TMA. Once again, I had the river all to myself — I haven’t seen another angler in the last week! It was pouring when I left the Jeep, but it was over by the time I was on the water. Steamy, tropical, just disgusting air. The river was 440cfs, still a bit over where I’d like it, but I’d rather have this than 100. The fishing was OK — that is, I caught another bazillion fish, only this time there were a few more pipsqueaks in the mix. Sure, there were a bunch in the 10-12″ class, but the big one eluded me on this night. Favorite moment: stripping a TeQueely, bang!, and then both fly (now out of mouth) and bass go aerial.

Mysteries as yet unsolved (but I have my theories): Why such lousy action on wets? (water height, and the fish are feeding deeper than surface/film). Why the lack of visible surface action? (see above). After the previous night’s blizzard, why only a few white flies? (weather, different location, nature of the beast).

On the way home, I called Ken (Abrames) and we had a good chat about smallies, in particular fly patterns. I will be heading to the vise shortly to hammer out some of our ideas.

I call these fish “scrappers.” They’re just short of being forearm burners, but loads of fun and completely unwilling to come to the net quietly. (C&R fans, note the water still dripping from my hands.)

DCIM100GOPROG0012939.

Housy Smallmouth Report 7/30/18: Zen and the White Fly

There’s an old zen saying I recently made up that goes like this: “The second white fly cannot come until the first.” Well, the first, second, third, and beyond are here. More on that in a minute.

I spent most of yesterday afternoon banging around the river shooting for my upcoming feature in Eastern Fly Fishing. Evening found me ensconced in a pool that proved to be a challenging wade at 600+ cfs. We had some difficulty, but despite a good-near-soaking stumble, we made it through.

So. At this height the bass were more spread out and definitely not as surface happy as they were last week. I did most of my business from 6:00pm-7:45pm on a TeQueely. The Gurgler was largely ignored. Saw my first white fly at 8:00pm, and although they weren’t thick the hatch built up some steam. As usual, the bass moved into the shallows and frog water as it got progressively darker. They were feeding on the surface (which was also littered with sulphur spinners) but they weren’t keyed solely on the insects. I know this because I did boffo box office with a Countermeasure from first cast to take out at 8:55pm.

Lost in all this white fly madness (sure, it’s fun!) is the black caddis. Size 16, and they were out in force. And I think the smallies like them as much as the white flies. Fish a Black Magic top dropper over an August White on point, and see which the bass prefer. Smallmouth always tell the truth.

That’ll put a good bend in the old five-weight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Coming soon to a stream near you

Tied for a client, this neat little collection will drive smallmouth bass (and trout) out of their minds. We have the subtle (size 12 August White soft hackles), the traditional (size 12 Black Magics, tied as a 14-16), the horrible (size 4 TeQueelys), and the noisy (Gartside Gurglers, size 2 and 4).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Housy Smallmouth Report 8/9/17: No big deal

I’m a creature of habit, and that includes fishing. So every once in a while I need to force myself to switch things up, get out of my comfort zone, and try something different. That’s how I found myself last night in what’s probably the most popular pool on the river.

My evening began way above the covered bridge in some snotty rapids. One 6-incher on the TeQueely and done. I moved downriver to reconnoiter some new water. Didn’t like the looks of it, so I headed to my beat for the evening.

I hadn’t fished this run in a few decades. There’s a lot to like about it: substantial riffles that dump into a long pool, good current, ringed by both deep and shallow frog water. It’s fishy as hell.

Alas, it was infested with dinks. Even after it became difficult to see the fly, I was still hauling in pipsqueaks. OK, I was fishing on the wrong side of the river. But I didn’t see many of those telltale big fish bulges. On the positive end, I did boffo pre-hatch business with a Black Magic North Country spider dropper and a white fly soft hackle on point. They loved the flies on the dangle, rod tip raised, with a very slow or hand-twist retrieve. I had a few doubles, but mostly the bass were keyed on one fly or the other. I was intrigued that I would get several bass on the black — consecutively — then 2-3 bass on the white. (You may have heard this before, but droppers are the quickest way to find out what the fish want.)

Finally, you’ll want to know about the white flies. The answer was no. Very weak hatch, maybe a 2 out of 10. This pool is upriver from where I’ve been fishing, so I can’t make an intelligent scientific comparison other than to say it sucked. Black caddis were out again.

Good to meet everyone last night, and thanks as always for sharing the water.

Black Magic was featured in the color plates of Robert Smith’s book The North Country Fly. It works as well on eastern freestone river smallies as it does on English chalk stream browns. Black Pearsall’s silk, peacock herl, black hen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA