It’s funny how a species pegged as such aggressive carnivores seems to repeatedly grab flies so softly. On the river, I’ve watched countless smallmouth approach flies in slow motion, flare out their gill plates and suck down streamers so casually you’d almost never know it, and that’s in clear water. Not to say these fish don’t occasionally demolish baitfish patterns as they hit the water, or turn on crayfish at the end of a swing so fast they nearly pull the rod out of your hand. Some days they set the hook for you. Most of us who’ve put our time in have seen these days. As a guide, I’m always ready for the subtle bite, wanting to capitalize on the soft grabs.
Wild native smallmouth bass, on any healthy river system, are creatures of their environment. They tend to have abundant food at their disposal. So they become efficient feeders, maximizing on net calorie return, especially the mature fish (the big ones). What feels like a soft breeze on the rod tip could be a 6lb smallmouth. Soft bumps can also be reactions from curious or territorial fish. If smallies don’t always collide with streamers like a freight train, then good line management, being connected to the fly, is everything. At the end of the day, I think line control is the difference between reflecting on how nice the weather was and sore forearms from all the head shakes you could handle.
It’s established that slack is a bad thing, but with all the moving parts on the river, maintaining line control can be tough. Here are a few methods I’ve found that can help keep line tight and connect with more fish.
• Constant erratic stripping helps to animate a streamer and keeps it moving. Smallmouth love to eat on the pause between strips so always keep stripping line. Blend short and long strips to make your fly noticeable and get rid of loose line.
• Use the rod as a lever. After each strip, twitch the rod. If you’re casting to river left, try twitching the rod to the right, alternating strip, twitch, strip, twitch. This makes the fly dart and push water, which smallies will sense, even in murky water. On each of these movements, you might feel a tug. A good hook set is just an exaggerated strip and twitch of the rod. It’ll bury the hook in the corner of the fish’s mouth.
• Keep the rod tip low to the water. By doing this, you’re using the surface tension of the river to keep your line tight. This also improves the water load on the back cast. If the rod tip is just a few feet above the water, that loose line between the rod tip and the river is a weak link in staying connected. With floating lines (which I tend to use), watch the tip of your line as you move the fly. You’ll sometimes see the line stop before you feel a bump.
• Mend the line. When casting across current, an upstream mend can slow down your streamer and sink it into the back ends of shoals or drop-offs, where smallies hang out. Upstream mends can also introduce slack so follow them with a sweep of the rod tip downstream. This will change the direction of the fly and keep your line tight against the current.
• Stay away from crazy-long casts, especially in off-color water. Pick a realistic target: a rock, a seam or an interesting bank line. Set up a manageable cast so your fly moves through this spot.
I do most of my streamer fishing for smallies from a drift boat with single-hand rods, but I’ve found these ideas and practices crossover well for wade fishing and for most species in moving water. There are always exceptions and different ways of doing the same thing. Fish behave differently in varying conditions and river systems. Techniques change depending on what kind of fish food I’m imitating, but that’s the beauty of fly fishing. I learn new things every day I’m out there.
Captain Will Winans owns and operates Big River Fly Fishing, a guide service based out of northern Illinois, near Chicago. Stay connected with Will by visiting bigriverfly.com or @bigriverfly on Instagram.