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!

Extending your long-distance dry fly drift, or: When not to mend.

I don’t usually double dip my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) and Currentseams posts, but I thought this one was worthy of a more in-depth discussion. It’s a video of a smallmouth blowing up on a dead-drifted Wiggly about 70 feet across the river:

Now that you’ve seen it, let’s get to what appears to be a problem. One sharp-eyed viewer made a trenchant comment: “Mend!” He noticed the long downstream belly in the line. It’s a fair point in the abstract, but it doesn’t address the situation or the presention in its entirety.

Let’s begin with conditions. We have very low, clear, slow moving water. That usually means spooky fish. Now, smallmouth are not known as picky eaters, but the longer you fish for them, the more you discover that they can be as difficult to entice as the world’s most finicky trout. I was fishing a Wiggly, which, if you’re a Wiggly purist, is supposed to be presented on a dead drift. Any angler-induced motion should include the legs only. That’s a daunting proposition, especially at 70 feet. It doesn’t mean that the fish won’t hit a waking or stripped Wiggly. It just means that you’re only going to get hits from aggressive, willing-to-chase bass. And sometimes, that eliminates the bigger fish.

Now let’s talk distance and tackle. 70 feet away is a challenging length to dead drift a dry fly. The 5-weight I’m using, although 10 feet long, isn’t enough stick to make a 70-foot mend with an 8-weight, weight forward long taper line. I could, of course, lengthen the leader if I was concerned about moving the fly on the mend. But that’s a moot point if you can’t make that mend in the first place.

So, how did I handle this situation? I began by determining where I wanted the fly to have the longest period of dead drift. I aimed my cast about 10 feet above that point. I made an aerial upstream mend, then a hard, full upstream mend with as much line as I could manage. The fly moved a bit, but that didn’t concern me — I was simply setting it up for where I thought the strike zone would be, well downstream. (I had seen this fish sipping bugs off the surface, and it appeared to be one of the larger bass in the pool.) As the fly dead-drifted downriver, I made another upstream mend with about two-thirds of the line — this was about as big a mend I could afford without disturbing the fly.

That sets up the large belly you see in the video. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessary evil to obtain the drift I wanted. What you can’t see is me tracking the drift with my rod tip, then pointing my rod downstream, and extending my arm as far out as possible to make that drift last just a…few…more…feet. (I could also have stripped out line and fed it into the drift, but that tactic makes long distance hooksets even harder.) And that’s the rub: with that much line out, and that much slack from the downstream belly, it’s a challenge to get a good hookset. You have to rely on a sticky sharp hook and hope the fish does most of the work.

When it all comes together, as it did here, you understand that while catching isn’t necessarily the best part of fly fishing, it most certainly doesn’t suck. In the end, we are presented with one of the most important questions in fly fishing: “What do you want the fly to do?” If you answer that question, and figure out a way to make it happen, you’re going to catch a lot more fish.