A well-established routine adapted for use on picky smallmouth bass in clear shallow water.
It was after several sessions of frustration on the water that I began to take a well-established routine and adapt it for use on picky smallmouth bass in clear shallow water. Once I became confident with the method in its new application, I began to catch more shallow fish, even in waters that had been host to the heavy pressures of bass tournaments on the same day.
Equipment for the jumping nymph technique really isn't any different than that which is normally used for smallmouth bass. Here's a rundown of what I generally use.
Rod: The main consideration for this technique is rod length. A long rod provides excellent line control, and allows for more reach with a vertical presentation. I typically use an 8½ or 9´ 7 weight rod with a relatively fast action to help with getting casts off and ahead of moving fish.
Lines: Presentations are made well ahead of moving fish, so delicate tapers aren't necessary. I find that weight-forward lines make casting to target spots quick and easy. Floaters are good for very shallow water, and intermediates are effective for slightly deeper waters. The clear lines (intermediate or ghost tip) that have come to market in the last several years are perfect for this type of fishing because they offer the angler another element of stealth.
Leaders: Fluorocarbon leader material is a great asset because it has a higher sink rate and a lower refractive index than mono. It's the best option for a stealthy presentation.
Glasses: Being able to see smallmouth in the shallows requires a good pair of polarized lenses. Which shade to wear depends upon the prevailing light conditions. For very bright days with few clouds, dark grey is an excellent choice. For overcast days with less ambient light, amber or very pale yellow lenses fit the bill nicely.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, there are a few prerequisites for this technique to be effective. First, this is ultimately sight fishing. Water clarity and light penetration can be limiting factors, so a good pair of polarized glasses is a must, and a cap with a brim helps too. Second, since the water is typically shallow, your presence as an angler must go undetected. If this isn't possible, then your presence should be as unobtrusive as possible. Dress in neutral colors, keep a low profile, and use any available cover to mask movement. If fishing from a boat, eliminate excess noise that could be transmitted through the water column by achieving propulsion via drift, electric motor, or oars. Once these factors are taken into account, the method can really start to prove its worth. To keep in spirit with the method, I will continue to call it the jumping nymph technique; however, since I will be describing a system that can be used for bass, the fly may not necessarily be a nymph. With that in mind, I'll start by describing general fly presentation.
Sometimes the initial jump of the fly off of the bottom will alarm the fish. When this happens, learn from the experience. You now know that the bass are very spooky, and that future presentations will require jumping the fly perhaps a bit earlier and more subtly. As time passes, the bass may start to become a bit more aggressive, and the initial jump will have to go back to being more deliberate. Let the fish and their reactions to the fly dictate which presentation you use. I usually try to use a more subtle approach on my initial presentation; if I don't draw a reaction and am fortunate enough to have a second shot at the same bass, I pick up the intensity of the next presentation in hopes of getting some attention. I find this to be better than a very aggressive initial presentation that has the potential of spooking a smallmouth, leaving little or no opportunity for a second chance.
While the horizontal presentation of the jumping nymph is by far the most common application, there are a few circumstances where the presentation will become nearly vertical. When angling from a boat, fish will sometimes follow the fly to almost directly underneath the craft. And when angling from shore or wading, some fish will follow and then nestle up tight to the bank or relatively close to you. In these situations, keep the fly near or on the bottom and then manipulate it nearly straight up and down. It's imperative to be as inconspicuous as possible with this method because you are simply much closer to the fish than in the horizontal method. Instead of casting it out and away, work the fly off of the bottom with very little (if any) fly line. In some cases, just leader, tippet, and fly need to be beyond the rod tip. The same general technique applies here, with the necessity of added subtlety. To avoid rod movement, manipulate the fly by stripping it up and down with the line hand. Again, don't take the fly from the water while it's still close to a fish that's apparently lost interest. Ripping the fly from the water at such a point will only serve to put that fish on alert, and when one becomes spooked it has the potential to spook others.
Fishing on bright days affords the best possible sighting of bass in the water. However, during the summer months, fewer bass will tend to be roaming the shallows during the prime sighting window. Fishing on overcast summer days means that more bass will be roaming the shallows, but they will be harder to spot because of the obvious decrease in available light. Given a choice between the two summer options, I would opt for the overcast day and fish armed with amber or pale yellow lenses and the confidence that more smallmouth will be available in the spots I am searching.
New techniques are constantly evolving to improve success with catching difficult fish, but we should never be too quick to ignore an older technique that has proven itself in certain situations. The innovative use of an older method can be just the answer to a flyfishing problem. While this technique may not have been developed with bass in mind, it is certainly effective in the right conditions. The next time the smallmouth are shallow and uncooperative, try to get a jump on them with your fly. Let the fish dictate the nature of your retrieve, and you might be surprised with the results.
For the jumping nymph technique, I exclusively use fly patterns that have the hook point riding in the up position. This has the obvious advantage of preventing snags. There are many patterns out there that fit the bill nicely for this type of work, but over time I have come up with a few wrinkles to existing patterns that seem to do the job very well. I prefer materials that will move and give the impression of life with very little movement. Zonker strips, marabou, and round rubber are some pattern components that achieve this. When bass are particularly wary and picky, smaller sizes seem to perform better. As for color, natural muted colors seem to outperform attractor colors.