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!

“8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist” at Field & Stream Online

You can read my newest piece, “8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist,” right now at Field & Stream online. Even if you’re more of a trout person, I’d recommend giving it a read as many of the patterns translate to the Salmo family. Naturally, I’ve included a few of my own bugs, like the August White and the Countermeasure. Besides, it’ll give you something to do while waiting for all this water to recede…

I’m pretty sure this guy ate a TeQueely, one of the featured patterns in “8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist.”

Noah’s Ark — er — Housy Report

Drat this cursed rain! Last year the river was pathetically low. This year it’s disgustingly high. The upper Housatonic has been mostly unfishable this month, and as a result we’ve missed out on what’s normally a very productive period. I’ve been feeling bitter about the whole thing, so I decided to take a drive out to the river and see what the conditions were first-hand, and maybe even wet a line. You know — you don’t know if you don’t go.

After peaking around 7K cfs, the river dropped about a thousand cfs a day in the trout TMA until it stalled at 2.1K. It’s holding there now (with more rain on the way, of course). At 2K+, the river is either raging whitewater or a vast, featureless glide. This mark is normally a series of riffles and pockets that dumps into a deeper run flanked by frog water on one side and a rocky flat on the other. Now it’s this garbage.
Speaking of garbage, the shores are littered with debris. Most of it is natural, like this driftwood, but there are also tennis balls, plastic bottles, and other man-made crap. This photo was taken ten feet away from the present water line.
My heart sank at my first sight of the river. I don’t know why, but I expected that perhaps the water would have cleared up a bit. Wrong. Depending on your location, its color ranges from tea-stain to chocolate milk. Visibility ranges from one to two feet. The culprit is silt, which is everywhere, particularly along the riverbanks. Your first couple steps off the bank will be a sinking experience. Never wade into low/no visibility water unless you know the bottom structure intimately, and then, never stray into the current. Studded boots and a wading staff are a must. Be smart and stay safe.
Here’s the thing: fish don’t know that the river is flooded. They’ve still got to eat. While you can’t wade to places you’d normally fish in high water, the beauty is that the bass aren’t out in the raging torrents — they’re in the calmer water close to shore, particularly as the daylight transitions to dusk. I fished two evenings this week. One was not good — only one 8″ smallie to hand. The other was a little better, including this slob that could be measured in pounds. What a battle in a 2K flow!

“Low & Slow: Summer River Smallmouth” in the July 2021 issue of The Fisherman

Last summer was challenging time to fish for smallmouth: we had the double whammy of heat and severe drought. In “Low & Slow: Summer River Smallmouth,” I talk about some of the strategies, tactics, and flies I used to find success in those truly tough conditions. You can read the article in the current (July 2021) New England issue of The Fisherman magazine.

Smallmouth Report 6/24/21: Not warmed up yet

I fished a mark on the Hous last night from 7pm to 9pm, and it was very, very slow. By the time I reached the water, there’d already been a strong caddis hatch (mottled light tan, size 16) and there were sulphur spinners in the water. A few smaller trout and smallmouth were eating bugs, but I they were in some deeper water, way out of casting range. The flow was medium and lightly stained; the water really hasn’t warmed up yet and I find the smallie fishing goes better when it does. Bugs I fished were the TeQueeley, Gurgler, Mini D&D, Wiggly, and Countermeasure. Well, I did try some nymphing, but I don’t think I got deep enough. I had a hysterical swipe at the indicator from a little fish as I was preparing to cast, but mostly I practiced presenting and conducting experiments. (I have a lot of experimenting to do this summer, and I’ll let you know at some point how it goes.)

It wasn’t until 8:30 that I connected with my first smallie, a respectable 10″ fish. Right at dark I started pounding the shallows with the Countermeasure, and I was rewarded with my first good smallmouth of the year. But that was it, leaving me alone on the river with the bugs and my cigar.

Not too shabby, just about two pounds, and a worthy opponent on a five-weight. I have only the utmost respect for the power and doggedness of these creatures. They just don’t want to come to net.

The Return of the Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom! “Lessons of 2020” Jan 5, 8pm.

I’m excited to announce the first Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom of 2021: tomorrow, January 5, 8pm. This is a free event. I want to talk about some of the lessons I learned and re-learned last year, and how you can use that information to catch more fish. I’ve got some cool video to share, so you don’t want to miss this one. Feel free to share with your friends or on social media. See you Tuesday night!

If you’re already on my Zoom email list from last year, you know the drill. I’ll send out the Zoom link tomorrow. If you’re new to currentseams and want to get on the Zoom email list, please send me a request at swculton@yahoo.com.

Do you know what your fly is doing? (Streamer Edition)

Do you know what your streamer is doing? I mean, do you really know how deep it is, how fast it’s sinking, how fast (or slow) it’s moving, and in which direction(s)? I think many anglers don’t. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into more than once, but there’s a clear way out of it.

Many years ago I tied up a streamer called the Hi-Liter. Part of its raison d’être was to be easily seen (its colors are hot pink and chartreuse) not just by the fish, but by me. I used the Hi-Liter to get a better visual handle on where the streamer actually was. A few years later I was interviewing George Daniel, and I was pleased to discover that he was doing the same thing. I’ll let George pick up the story:

“Take your favorite streamer, tie it in a bright, obnoxious color and fish it. You’ll be amazed to see what level and direction your fly is moving. You’ll learn a lot by changing the leader length, retrieve, and type of fly line — and that will allow you to really dial in your presentations.”

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday on the Housatonic, perched above the water on a rock, doing just that. The water was low and exceptionally clear, with none of the normal tea tinge that river usually displays. Not only did I get to observe and experiment with presentation, I also got to witness how smallmouth attack a streamer.

I used a white tungsten cone head Woolly Bugger for my experiments. The closing and attack speed of smallmouth is astonishing. One moment, your streamer is in isolation. In the blink of an eye, a shadow materializes at lightning speed out of nowhere. Smallmouth are classic ambush predators, attacking from below, behind, from an oblique blind side — or any combination thereof. You cannot strip a fly faster than they can swim, although they do not always want to chase and eat. I had several tremendous hits after I performed a combination of rapid long strips, then let the streamer begin to settle. WHACK! Where you cast is also important, as I had a good half dozen takes moments after the streamer hit the water.

Gettin’ Wiggly with it.

I’ve been doing some reading on low water smallmouth and trout tactics — ’tis the season — and I came across a fly family known as wigglies. In case you’re a newbie like me, they’re basically long foam-bodied spiders on steroids. They go by all kinds of names (Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, Mr. Wigglesworth, etc.). They’re not poppers; rather, they’re meant to be strategically cast and drifted. You let the bug sit on the film, and the current (and all those rubber legs!) do the work. If you move the bug, it’s only to move its legs — not the body. Work that one out.

I have to confess that at heart I’m a natural materials purist. But I’m also not above trying new things. And I embrace the concept of there being many, many ways. So while I basically dislike rubber legs, I see the parallel here with soft hackles.

I’m also obsessed with learning. This has been a difficult summer for smallmouth — the painfully low flows aren’t helping — and being able to conduct experiments in a laboratory known as a river is its own kind of wonderful. Yesterday the bass were indifferent to the Wiggly as a searching pattern. At dusk, when I cast to a rise ring, they bull-rushed the fly.

Speaking of experiments: anyone imagining a smaller, black Mr. Wiggly with a piece of yellow sighter material on top and a soft-hackle or nymph dropped behind it? Black cricket season is almost upon us…and the trout are hungry.

Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, size 2 and 4. You need some in your box.

Another terrific Witek striper/ASMFC essay, that fly you asked for, the 800 contest, and smallies on the brain

Out favorite dysfunctional — or is that non-functional? — committee met this week to begin formulating its future plans for striped bass. In another insightful essay, Charles Witek asks the question, “How Do you Define Success?” Suffice to say, the ASMFC grades itself on an absurdly low curve.

So where’s that Gurgling Sand Eel pattern you asked for? On its way. No, really. I’m hoping by the weekend.

Also coming soon: the official 800 followers celebration. Get your comments ready!

Last but not least, it’s been a tough summer due to drought and heat, but I fish in cycles, and right now I’ve got smallmouth on the brain. Big time. Nonetheless, to the Farmington I go. Guiding today.

Warm, low water doesn’t bother him. He liked the look of a TeQueely.

SummerSmallie

 

 

 

Housy smallmouth mini-report (late)

I fished the Housy the other night from 6pm-8:30pm. Virgin waters for me, below the TMA: some pocket water that dumped into a long boulders-on-the-bottom run, shoulder deep in the middle ringed with frog water. Action: underwhelming. Hatches: underwhelming (mostly tan and black caddis). So it goes, but I did catch fish and I had the place all to myself.

I took the usual assortment of late afternoon dinks. Pre-hatch swung wets produced very little interest (not surprising given the weak evening rise) and all the action came on the Black Magic top dropper. The smallmouth bite window was torturously brief: 8:00pm-8:15pm, then shutdown. I had switched over to a grey and chartreuse Gurgler, and my best fish of the evening came on that fly. Toward dark I did get the largest bluegill I’ve ever landed, but that’s really not why I was there.

Nearly a foot long, this dude whacked the Gurgler upon landing, then hunted it down about ten feet across a current seam. Almost put a burn in my rod hand forearm.

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