I knew the word was getting out about this place when I spotted two other fly anglers at another bridge crossing on my way to a lower section of the stream. It wasn’t until later I found out that I knew those two guys from the shop and Trout Unlimited; the word was getting out and it was coming from me. Small stream smallmouth is your summer alternative to trout fishing.
I’ve discussed my small stream smallmouth obsession in this blog a few times before, and I’ve been a proselytizing about smallie-on-the-fly ever since my first wade trip up the Galena River. However, I haven’t actually said much about the practical side of this kind of fishing. As I was suiting up with a friend of mine for his first trip on this section of water, he said he’d never fly fished for smallmouth before; and it occurred to me that perhaps many Trout Bums were in the same boat.
I won’t claim to be an expert on these waters; but I’ve fished them pretty hard this past year-plus and have had some good success. This is what works for me and you could do worse than to start from where I’ve left off.
Where to go: Anglers are notoriously stingy when it comes to giving away locality data, but here’s a freebie: the Galena River near Benton, WI is absolutely loaded with smallmouth and offers plenty of public fishing access. It is the Timber Coulee of smallmouth streams. This stream looks like trout water from the road. It’s extremely wadable. The wide stream corridor is a great spot to bring beginning fly anglers who are growing frustrated from losing flies along the tight, brushy banks found in many of our trout streams.
Beyond that you’ll need to do your homework, but there is more smallmouth-y water in the Driftless Area than you might realize. In my opinion most of these streams don’t get nearly the same amount of angling pressure that their trout-y cousins do. They also lack the same amount of publicly accessible stream miles, but if you put in the legwork to find what is available you’ll likely have it all to yourself.
What to Bring: A 5- or 6-weight rod is all you need, and you already have one of those from trout fishing I bet. You won’t be throwing the larger, bulkier bass flies that you might want on the Wisconsin or Menominee rivers. The average fish here is 9-10″, though 12″+ is fairly common and 15-16″+ monsters are very possible. I’ve been using my 8’6″ 5-weight Recon paired with a Battenkill reel because it’s super lightweight and handles the majority of fish just fine. I use my standard all-purpose (Trout) taper line.
These streams are easily wet-waded during the summer but I tend to wear waders anyway. The stream beds tend to be rocky, so studded or felt soles will help keep you balanced.
As far a fly selection, it doesn’t need to be a complicated game. Surface action can be a lot of fun, but I’ve found that the best chance to nab fish is by keeping your fly near the bottom during the drift. White or yellow poppers, white Bass Sliders, and white Crease Flies are great options if you want to get them to come up; keep the sizes a little smaller than what you might do on bigger water (sizes 2-6). For sinking a fly quickly you can’t go wrong with your classic Clouser Minnow. I also like to tie up a beadhead bunny leech thing, and add extra weight through wrappable wire. Black works especially well. In areas where crayfish are common rust or olive-colored flies are a good bet, too. Whatever you choose, be sure that it’s not too much for your rod to handle.
When the bite is really on I like to have a small selection of bucktails, in sizes 6-8. They’re just fun to tie and fish.
If you do rely on heavily-weighted flies, be prepared to lose a few to hang-ups on rocks or drowned structure and have extras ready to go.
I tend to crimp down the barbs on these flies. When they’re at their most active bass will aggressively strike a fly and will take these flies deeper than trout. The angle at which they hit the fly also tends to cause the hook to lodge in the roof of their mouth; whether it’s due to cartilage or muscle or bone, I find barbed hooks especially difficult to dislodge. Since these fish take a looooong time to grow to trophy size in northern waters (a 10″ fish is 4-5 years old; a 12″ smallie is 6-7 years old) being able to quickly release them with minimal harm is important for protecting these fisheries.
Fishing Strategy: I’ve fished upstream, downstream, across, and have caught fish in each case. Direction and orientation, in my mind, depends more upon the fly you’re using and conditions your fishing. In some cases tall brush along the banks makes across-and-down a difficult tactic; in other instances I’ve found casting poppers directly upstream makes it difficult to strip hard and fast enough to “pop” them effectively, and swinging them downstream is usually a better approach.
Unless fish are particularly aggressive I’ve found that a slow, subtle retrieve with heavy streamers is most effective at generating strikes. Smallmouth are ambush predators and while they may decide to chase a fly I’ve found that in general they won’t follow a particularly fast-moving one (I’ve watched more than one fish break off a follow if I got too energetic on the retrieve). The trick is to achieve a retrieval pace that is steady enough to entice fish but active enough that you can coax the streamer around rocks and other potential hang-ups.
Smallies will hang out in a lot of the same lies that trout do, but I tend to find that the bigger ones prefer slower water with lots of rocky structure. Faster riffles will only produce smaller fish (and likely chubs). For the biggest fish seek out deeper pools and pay special attention to the areas around the biggest boulders and where fast and slow water meet.
When to Fish: Smallmouth fishing provides a perfect complement to the ups-and-downs of the trout season. While the smallmouth season begins in early May I usually don’t start hitting these streams until mid-to-late June after things have started to warm up a bit. July-to-August is prime smallmouth bass season and provides a respite to trout during a time when they are under greater environmental stress due to warmer temperatures. September still provides some great fishing, and you can continue to fish into the fall after your need to hang up your trout flies for the year.
Other considerations: When wading these picturesque streams it can be easy to forget that you are chasing bronzebacks instead of browns. However, smallmouth are an entirely different species and, while their general behavior is based upon the stream environment, just like trout, do not expect these fish to act in the same manner as their coldwater cousins. Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit and think outside your standard search parameters to find fish.
Smallmouth are, inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, one of the hardest fighting fish in freshwater: a 10″ smallie will give you an enjoyable tug on a 5-weight; and a 15″ fish will take you for a walk. There is nothing quite like hunting for these feisty fish on a tranquil stretch of virtually untouched water during the dog days of summer. The next time you’re looking for something a little different when the days heat up, go in search of smallmouth on a stream near you.