Late summer typically means low flows, clear water, and timing your fishing outings to avoid the Aluminum flotilla hatch (I know we’ve all been there: you’re working a run, throwing hard hook sets that unexpectedly send bluegills flying overhead, and all the sudden you catch a canoe to the back of the knee. Ouch!). In addition to high water traffic and a reduction in CFS, already-pressured fish must now cope with some of the warmest water temperatures of the season, which can be incredibly stressful and often lethal to trout, salmon, and related species. For this six to eight week period of time, the sustainable (but no less exciting) move is to trade in our “trout goggles” and to target hardier warm-water species found in our local haunts. In many fisheries that present a “mixed bag” of angling opportunities, responsible anglers choose to ditch their nymphing rigs and size 16 Cahills in favor of stout streamer rods and 1x leaders. Why? It’s time for smallies!
As a New England expat, my perception of “a trophy smallmouth bass” was tainted until I moved to the Great Lakes region: for reference, the standing Connecticut smallmouth record weighs in at just over 7 lbs, whereas Michigan’s largest recorded smallmouth tipped the scales at 9.98 lbs. Behemoth smallies — just a hair shy of 10 lbs — have been caught in Michigan variously over the past few years, with one record upending the next at a stunning rate. While these are just ‘max’ sizes for a fish species (and are perhaps outliers), a middling smallmouth in Michigan is on average going to be larger than the average sized smallie in Southern New England. This knowledge has done nothing but add fuel to the fire of my already obsessive fly fishing habit.
Over the past few years, there’s been a bit of a learning curve in exploring my new home water — Michigan’s Huron River — but help from local guides and friends have taken much the guesswork out of targeting late summer smallmouth. Here, I’ve compiled a number of patterns and techniques to help you all out in the coming weeks. So, here is a definitive guide to fly fishing for late summer smallmouth bass!
When and Where to Fish
Remember, the Aluminum flotilla hatch is to be avoided at all costs. Luckily, the “‘yak attack” doesn’t start until the sun is high in the sky which means that low lighting fishing is your friend!
Obviously, get out on the water whenever you can. In my experience, low-light conditions, or an hour bracketing true sun-up and sunset are your best bets: there’s less traffic on the water, the reduced solar glare can help you spot feeding fish, and it seems like there is proportionately greater insect activity during these golden summer hours. Additionally, smallies probably feel more comfortable moving out of their holds in order to chase down prey in more distant or more shallow stretches of water. Maybe most importantly, low light creates cooler temps, which in turn means that you won’t force yourself into heat exhaustion (… am I the only person who forgets to drink water while fishing?).
Expert Tip: in these low-light conditions, you can trigger a strike simply by changing the color of your pattern from, say, chartreuse to black (while holding all other variables like retrieval speed as a constant). Dark patterns like black, purple, and maroon will work wonders when the sun is going down!
When throwing patterns like a Double-Barrel Popper, don’t hesitate to slap your fly down atop some slack water or just downstream of weed beds. Once the fly has landed, wait several seconds for ‘rings’ to dissipate, and then throw a few “popping” strip to retrieve from upstream. Also, try tossing your pattern close to tree throws and at 45-degree angles in front of boulders, changing the pace and tempo of your retrieve until you get a take. When using streamers, work these down around secondary shelves and river seams — especially in places where there’s visible structure traversing different “types” of water (i.e., changes in current). If you happen to see a smallie crashing bait schools, throw your streamer near the activity and work the fly into the mix.
Top Water Presentation
Smallmouth virtuosos Tim Landwehr and Dave Karczysnki recently wrote about topwater techniques, saying “on a good day, everyone has a chance at a good eat, no matter their skill set.” Anyone who has landed a smallmouth on a popper will recognize how (dangerously) addictive this approach can be. Given that bass are relatively opportunistic eaters, they’ll attack anything that’s somewhat life-like, or that somewhat imitates a protein source moving across the surface of the water. With this in mind, we can break up our must-have topwater patterns into three broad categories: (1) Surface Disturbance Flies, (2) Bugs, (3) Hybrids (“Wigglies”).
Below is a list of patterns that are to be sized appropriately to your local water. While these color combinations have been effective on my home river, be sure to use your intuition and match the hatch! Starred (*) patterns are some of Postfly’s favorites.
Surface Disturbance Flies (Poppers, Sliders)
I know what you’re thinking: poppers are like the caddis for bass. Kinda, but like way bigger. Less obvious choices for surface disturbance flies include sliders and seductive “wake”-leaving patterns like downsized versions of Gartside’s famous Gurgler. Here are my favorites in no specific order.
- *Foam Gurgler or Moss’ Bass Popper (chartreuse and white, chartreuse and black)
- *Crease Fly (“frog” or black)
- Blockhead Popper (black, chartreuse)
- *Bob’s Banger (green)
- *Big Head Popper (black)
- Double-Barrell Popper
- Boogle Bug (yellow)
- Porky’s Pet (red, black, and white)
- Umpqua Bass Popper (“frog” or “minnow”). Hint: cut off the weed guard!
With breezy late summer evenings, it’s always a good idea to have terrestrial patterns like hoppers and flying ants in your fly box. In some fisheries, there will be prolific hatches of whiteflies that will send smallies into a drunken stupor. During these hatches, I like to fish foam caddis patterns in a manner similar to how we’d do it for trout. While you could and should always match the hatch, here are some patterns that work particularly well when cast towards brush lines, reeds, or even on the skate. I’m a huge fan of slapping these down hard in the slack water above holding pools.
- *Hot Butt Ant (black body with red butt) or *Foam Ant
- Hoppers (green, tan, orange)
- *Foam Caddis (white, yellow, orange)
- Damsel Dry Fly (traditional; blue)
- *Large Mayfly Patterns (e.g., Green Drake)
- Chernobyl Ant (black over orange)
- Irresistible Wulff (tied large; cream or tan)
While some people lump these “Wigglies” in with your traditional dries or terrestrials, I think they belong in a class of their own. Why? Because these are among the most effective topwater patterns and I didn’t want their inclusion in “dries” to outshine the others.
- Dave Whitlock’s Nuevo Spidaire (olive, yellow, green, brown)
- *Cicada variants (black, brown)
- Bluegill bugs (or small poppers; white, olive)
- Wiggly-style Damsel (blue)
- Stimi “Chew Toy” Stimulator (chartreuse, fl. orange)
- Wiggly-style Hoppers (green, brown)
The following are mostly no-brainer options to land nice fish, and in my limited experience, these seem to produce from late May all the way through October. Make sure to match the size and color of your streamer patterns to local forage species.
- *Flash Monkey (olive, black)
- *The Dustbuster 4000 (original coloring)
- TeQueely Streamer (yellow and brown, black and brown)
- Galloup’s Zoo Cougar (olive, tan)
- Schultzy’s Mini Swingin D (orange, yellow, brown)
- *Near-Nuff Crayfish (brown, burnt orange, tan)
My favorite set up is a 9′ 8wt rod, with an appropriately sized reel such as a Sage SPECTRUM LT. While smallies put up an incredible fight, they’re most known for performing jumps and flips and not necessarily for pulling you into your backing, so no need for 200 yds of dacron!
Unlike throwing something like a 13′ 6x tapered dry fly leader, you can go down to a relatively stout but supple leader built with 8 to 20 lb of Maxima UltraGreen. This time of year, I have a short butt (~18″) of 20 lb, to which I’ve nail-knotted about 4 foot of 10 lb test line. Change length and thickness depending on the depth of the presentation. Don’t be afraid to size up or build a taper if you’re having trouble turning over larger popper patterns!
Gentle rear tapers are a must-have for fishing many of these topwater patterns. This form of taper ultimately allows you to perform subtle touch mends as well as to lift a significant amount of line of the water without stripping in. Crucial. For some settings, like fishing a Crease Fly on a slow sink tip (yeah, you heard that right), I’ll use an OPST Commando Head with Scientific Anglers’ textured TC tips.
Don’t forget to crush your barbs! Also, avoid fishing in state-designated thermal refuge areas (i.e., the confluence of cold tribs and warm main branches) and please avoid targeting any fish that appear to be in thermal distress. Use your intuition. I know the temptation is there, but targeting a trout that’s in water a safe threshold is incredibly unsporting and not sustainable. If you are fishing for smallmouth and happen to land a trout (yes, it happens on the Natchaug and related rivers), please revive the fish and let it go immediately; no grip and grin is needed.
Have a blast!
Follow Vince on Instagram @vindianabones!
New England native and PhD student at the University of Michigan. I throw heavy streamers on sinking tips. Quality over quantity, any day of the week.