Small Fry, 2
Chapter 2: Presenting Brookus bassa; The Smallmouth
The smallmouth bass is the headliner of small coolwater venues and that fact is understandable. Micropterus dolomieui bends fly rods and performs top water acrobatics throughout the course of the fishing season, even during the hottest dog days, as long as the human on the other end of the line knows the angling art and craft.
I jokingly refer to the small stream smallmouth as Brookus bassa -- the “native brook trout” bass. Like its coldwater mountain cousin, this fish is wild and wily, and if sometimes gullible on the take, will always make up for that mistake by its tenacity to struggle free. This fish, if coaxed from little waters, is always slim and firm and often not much longer than the cork grip of your fly rod. Bronzed and mottled, this bass glows; its colors radiate clarity as vividly as the mountain brook trout, albeit one dressed in earthier tones.
Art appreciation of the smallmouth’s look leads in a discursive way to additional reflection on the real meaning and measure of scale. Size is relative to both skill and setting. A bass considered average in a big lake can become the model in a framed desk photo if lifted from a babbling brook. During a day full of fish topping off at ten inches, there is always the chance, especially during the half-light of a waning day, to wade into the whopper of the creek. Still small by lake or river standards, such a smallmouth, one of two pounds, will electrify the shallow, placid waters of the stream. The angler can take pride in his or her own skill as well, because a two-pound fish fooled in a small flow is probably as old and as wise as one three times its size hauled up from large water.
How the Fireworks Started
This affection for Brookus bassa, and the other little things in my angling life, came to me on one memorable evening: the Fourth of July, 2002. I had wanted to escape the humid heat of my rowhouse home in Philadelphia as well as the post-9/11 fear that some horrible act of terrorism might befall the nation during its 226th birthday. I decided to celebrate in my own all-American way -- I went fishing. I packed up my gear, mounted my mountain bike, and pedaled up to my home water: Wissahickon Creek, which is a small, cool, spring-fed freestone stream. There, in complete solitude, I explored its currents with the dry fly. The surrounding valley was a misty, deep, deciduous green, and much cooler than the gray stone and glass city, despite its close proximity. There might have been as many anglers fishing big waters across America at that moment as there were folks waiting for the traditional festivities to begin. None of those other people were anywhere near me, though. I breathed freely, and fished, and near dark the fireworks started.
I had chosen a spot downstream from a large bridge, and my choice proved to be fortuitous. There was a long, calm pool, followed by a stretch of wrinkled water that segued into a deep hole fed by numerous cliff springs. Fortune, or perhaps my sixth sense, felt that this would be a productive lie on such a hot day, and the first thing I saw when I arrived streamside added to my belief. A pod of brown trout was clustered in the shallows fed by one of the springs. These fish turned out to be skittish and ignored my first couple of casts, so I let them be in their cool spring spot and sought out a smallmouth or two in the deeper water downstream.
I clipped off my little Light Cahill and switched to another favorite classic -- the fluffy Royal Wulff. I waded across the riffles in order to cast from a pile of mossy boulders at the base of the steep hillside. I could see a silhouette holding steady in the pool down and across from me, so I made an across and downstream presentation in the manner described by Sylvester Nemes, the master of the soft-hackled fly. I watched with excited awe as the silhouette raced forward and hammered the pattern as it swung into the dark, calm water of its kitchen pool. I landed this fish, after three runs and three jumps, and it measured out at an even foot; my best smallmouth of the season up to that point, and one that in size far exceeded the Brookus bassa I was accustomed to catching in the creek. I released the fish, moved a couple of feet farther down, and cast again into the kitchen. A second hungry, solid fish intercepted the fly, and this one fought even harder and longer; a battle that ran into my Dacron backing, and into dusk. This bass was fourteen inches of muscular, mottled bronze; a solid two pounds plus.
Two strong, native smallmouths, the largest I had ever encountered in that small water, made for a memory worth putting down on paper. I released those bass, but could not, and would not, allow the excitement of those Fourth of July fish fireworks to subside and fade. Spark had become flame. The lure of the little had caught, and could not release, me.
A Proper Tie
Anglers who are used to big water expect big bass and may refer to small stream fish in terms culled from cable television fishing shows -- “dinks” or “itty-bitty” bass. I counter such criticism with care. I respect their love of the big grab, yet I have to state that I appreciate, even celebrate, every rise to the fly tied onto the end of my fluorocarbon tippet. Each and every fish I engage is grand be it a “hawg” with the girth of a log, or a spunky little small stream bass that leaps out of the water four or five time before coming to hand.
The smaller size of the Brookus bassa takes away some of the testosterone normally associated with bass fishing and replaces it with the kind of finesse familiar with trout enthusiasts. A master authority on the smallmouth bass, Harry W. Murray, has called the smallmouth “the gentleman of warmwater fishes,” and as with all gentlemen, a proper tie is a must. Certain trout flies -- the largest, fuzziest, most obtrusive attractor patterns -- are the sure fire lures to use along a little smallmouth stream. A carefully presented dry annoyer pattern such as an Olive Stimulator, Royal Wulff, Bivisible, or Irresistible can bring bass to the top. If the standard natural drift doesn’t yield results, you can often coax the more stubborn fish into striking by dapping or skating the fly. Positioned behind the cover of boulder, log, or brush pile, use the length of the rod to your advantage and drop the pattern into the holding zone, keeping most if not all of the fly line off the water. The angle of rod to line is similar to high stick nymphing with an added, more kinetic, follow-up. Once the fly has been placed, use a quick, rotating wrist action to mimic a natural breaking free of the surface film. Bass tempted by this approach will often rise and roll over the fly, making a solid “Fish on!” connection.
When dancing a dry fly for smallmouth, the angler is usually hemmed into a tight position, one where the roll cast is the most effective launch vehicle. A bass brook is rarely, if ever, an open meadow stream that allows for a graceful textbook backcast. Forested, rocky, freestone runs usually afford no working room behind an angler as well as some combination of overhanging structure in front. Here the roll proves its standing in the fundamental category of casts. Proceed by positioning yourself where you want to be and strip the amount of line you need to reach the target, say ten feet, with your free hand. Bring the rod in front of yourself and parallel to the water. Smoothly shake the rod tip from side to side; the combination of rod motion and the grip of the surface tension on the line and leader already resting on the water will draw the fly line through the guides. Next lift the rod to the twelve o’clock position and carefully pull back to ten o’clock. This stage of the roll creates the all-important loop, which when rolled forward will combine with momentum to shoot line, leader, and fly toward the bass. This cast carries an added bonus: the ability to work around, and especially underneath, those promising spots that are also voracious fly snatchers: overhanging branches, log piles, and mossy rock ledges.
The surface approach, no matter how well it is executed, will not work some of the time. The reason may be that smallmouth bass can be moody in a manner akin to the selectivity of the trout. Periods of low barometer and the letdown that occurs post-spawn are two times when another approach should be adopted. The best advice at such times is: “Go deep.”
Bob Clouser, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s dean of the smallmouth bass, invented a recipe along his home water, the Susquehanna River, which has become a subsurface classic. His namesake Clouser Minnow is a weighted streamer with barbell eyes that can be worked deep in a variety of water conditions and stream settings, including the small flows Brookus bassa call home.
Small streams are just like rivers in their basic construction. The flow contains areas of faster, shallow water followed by slower, deeper sections. This alternating riffles and pools pattern dictates the type of fly and presentation a fly fisher should use for good results: a.k.a. fish caught without hang-ups or headaches.
When the bass are avoiding the surface and appear to be in the moody and sulking mode, it will be the deeper water to target. Focus on the pool, whether it is a long stretch of slow water or a bathtub depression behind a boulder or before a logjam. Here is where the Clouser Minnow, tied in a small stream size of 6, 8, or 10, can be a fished with that sense of near certainty angler’s like to call confidence.
Presentation of the weighted streamer can take two forms, both of which can be applied during a single cast. The first is an across and downstream swim that swings the pattern along a current seam and into the pool or stream structure. This should be handled in such a way so that the fly line and leader become straight at the exact point when the pattern reaches the target spot. Here the fly begins to sink and may be allowed to drop to the desired depth, or it could be slammed immediately by an aggressive bass. If there is no initial strike, the second method should be employed at this moment; an upstream retrieve that can vary between even strips at regular intervals -- the swimming retrieve -- or a more erratic approach -- the drowning retrieve -- one that mimics a hapless, crippled, or otherwise easy bite for a bass.
This basic technique can produce with patterns other than the Clouser. A weighted Muddler Minnow, Woolly Bugger, even the antique Mickey Finn, can work on certain days when nothing else will. This facet of uncertainty is one of the reasons why fly fishing is so fun. There is a bass magic surrounding the Clouser Minnow, however, reason being, perhaps, that this pattern was developed by a veteran bass master specifically for the smallmouth.
Simple strategies: surface dances with large dries, or subsurface swims with weighted streamers, yet both approaches can rattle the handsome stream smallmouth’s gentlemanly demeanor.
The novelist Thomas McGuane has referred to one ideal fly fishing scenario -- casting to tailing bonefish on a saltwater flat -- as “the absolute champagne of the sport.” When discussing the smallmouth bass, the choice of libation may be different -- summer ale comes to my mind -- but the ideal is crafted in similar fashion: the shallow end of a rocky lake; a fly pattern presented with care; an explosive surface strike at dawn or dusk. This combination can compel smallmouth anglers to toast their pint-sized glasses, whatever the contents may be.
Never have I experienced top water action more vividly than among the boulder gardens of a shallow lake environment. The contrast of the surface -- the mirrored reflection before the rise, the rippled wake after the take -- is more striking here than along a stream where water’s sound in motion constantly bathes the ears.
Two regions of the United States, northwestern Pennsylvania and southern New Hampshire, have exposed me to the lure of lake smallmouth, and though each of body of water I explored was large -- Kinzua Reservoir and Lake Winnipesaukee, respectively -- it was always nestled within a cove or sheltered inlet the size of a farm pond where I maneuvered a floating fly with the long rod toward receptive small fry smallmouth. Fly fishing from shore and in a canoe, I have had several memorable outings, fishing trips that solidified some of the basic tenets of stillwater smallmouth on the fly.
Lesson one is: “Stay On Top.”
Lesson two is: “Stay Near Structure.”
A typical recipe for a fulfilling outing begins by isolating a manageable, fishable subset of the big lake -- a promising cove or inlet -- areas where some combination of feeder spring, exposed timber, and visible rock outcrop creates a chute, pool, or lagoon where a game fish can stalk and strike its baitfish, crayfish, and insect prey. A second ingredient includes a careful dawn or dusk approach when the mist hugs the water, either because it is coalescing in the evening or dissipating with the waking day. The presentation in such locations is more important than choice of fly. A large attractor pattern or popper on a floating line is gear enough. The lure of feather and fur need only resemble the flesh of bass forage, something big and alive enough to disturb the lake’s meniscus.
Stalking the stalking smallmouth can become a game of sight fishing, and like McGuane’s experience with the bonefish, it is the tail that tells the attentive angler where to cast. The smallmouth has a very distinctive subaqueous profile. More slender than other sunfish, the smallmouth also possesses a dark, almost black, caudal fin. I have felt a thrill akin to McGuane’s at the sight of a slim, dark tail holding fast a foot below the surface beside a cliff of New Hampshire granite or Pennsylvania sandstone. Smallmouth hold at attention in such places like a sentry until the fish is activated by the perception of edible life exposed, perhaps struggling, in the water. Large dry fly patterns tossed onto targeted rocks or logs and carefully tugged onto the water’s surface will imitate the spent insect or baby frog slipping into the lake. Smallmouth bass, poised to ambush prey, hearing the dinner bell, will be ready if you are. At times like these the waters of the lake will no longer be still.
The Small Stream Smallmouth Kit
5- or 6-weight fly rod and reel outfitted with floating line; spare spool of sinking tip fly line.
1) Clouser Minnow, size 6, 8, 10
2) Irresistible, size 8, 10, 12
3) Mickey Finn, size 8, 10
4) Muddler Minnow, size 8, 10, 12
4) Royal Wulff, size 10, 12
Polarized sunglasses, hemostats, insect repellent, medium size landing net, wading staff