Autumn is a time of movement for riverine smallmouth bass. This migration may be a relatively short distance or many miles, and while the largest percentage of bass move downstream, a significant number migrate upstream. Their purpose is to locate suitably deep water in which to spend the winter. During the period of migration, the fish are scattered and difficult to locate. Armed with a 5wt rod, I walked along a steep bank above the river, looking for smallmouths. Most of the time, the only indication of bass presence is a flash of movement or the sight of a shadow. My reconnaissance failed to locate a single smallmouth, so I retraced my steps to the parking lot, exchanged the 5wt rod for a 2wt, and attached a size-12 soft hackle to a 5X tippet. Shaded, still pockets and slow eddys held brilliantly colored Longear Sunfish resplendent in bright orange flecked in turquoise. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Longear Sunfish gets my vote for freshwater’s most beautiful fish. Despite their lack of size, they hit aggressively and fight hard on light tackle. The action continued until an unchecked, and obviously weakened tippet allowed one of these beauties to confiscate the fly. I reeled in the line and leader and waded back to the parking area in darkness.
Recent cool over-nights may have induced crappies, or sac-a-lait in the Cajun vernacular, to migrate from the reservoirs into the rivers to feed before winter. To find out, I waded downstream to a long pool with multiple deadfalls armed with a 5wt rod, intermediate line, 4X tippet, and a size-8 Crappie Bully. A high bluff above the western side of the stream shaded the structure. I counted the fly to a depth of 4-feet, and when action was imparted, I felt a firm bump and set the hook by lifting the rod tip. The fly was solidly hooked into a large branch. Rather than disturb the entire deadfall, I broke off and re-tied both the tippet and fly. The decision to break off was proven correct as the next hookup resulted in a twisting fight and a netted crappie. Seven more “specs” were landed before a lull in the action prompted a move. At the next casting position, the trunk of a large tree hovered over water that appeared deep. An errant first cast landed atop the tree trunk. When pulled free, the fly dropped vertically for three counts before the line lurched forward, revealing the take of another crappie. The ensuing thrashing battle was highlighted by the sighting of 3 additional crappies in pursuit of the morsel stuck in the mouth of the hooked fish. I believe those 3 fish and others were caught on subsequent casts before the sun disappeared behind the bluff.
A cooling Northwest breeze fueled my hope for encountering surface-feeding bluegills in a weed-line encased pasture pond. I planned to fish a size-8 Rat-Faced McDougall fly created by Catskill fly tying legend Harry Darbee in the 1930s. Darbee’s dry fly has a a trimmed deer hair body with ginger hackle and tail. I launched my float tube and approached the shaded weed line pockets armed with a 4-wt. rod. Several initial casts were ignored, but the bluegills’ “kissing” sounds as they sipped insects from the surface could be heard from under overhanging branches. Short, accurate side-armed skip casts that enabled the fly to land under the leafy canopy were required. The casts that failed to skip the necessary distance did not induce strikes, and several casts misfired into branch or weed hookups that needed to be pulled free. The successful splashdowns, however, nearly always provided explosive strikes that became rod-tip bouncing tugs of war. The float tube allowed me to maneuver into the most favorable casting positions, improving my casting accuracy. As I released the last fish, a hefty 9-incher, I became aware of impending darkness. I did it again. I had been so wrapped up in bluegills that I barely had enough light to put away my gear.
From the comfort of a bankside log, I listened to the deafening buzz of crickets and katydids while searching my flybox for the magic offering that might resurrect a fruitless search for smallmouth bass. I knotted a size-8 weighted Muddler Minnow with 3X tippet and repeatedly cast across pocket water without success. Absent-mindedly, I roll cast below my position into a rock-infested slow eddy. Immediately the line lurched forward, and I instinctively raised the rod tip into a hookset. A strong dive was stalled by palming the reel spool, and the thrashing fight ended with a lipped bass. No, it wasn’t a smallmouth bass. It was a Rock Bass, better known locally as “Goggle-eye.” They are dark bronze beauties shaped more like sunfish than black bass with muscular bodies and a nasty attitude. Careful casts to the edges of the eddy then eventually to its center brought 5 more to hand. I made a downstream wade to a pool tailout that features eddys to either side of the current. Several casts to the first produced only one bump but no hookups. The second eddy is enhanced by a deadfall that created a secondary flow reversal on its downstream side. Multiple casts into the upper eddy added only 3 Green Sunfish. Equal care was given to presentations into the deadfall eddy, and this time fast action resulted. Five more Rock Bass and 2 Green Sunfish were plucked from the water before dark.
Some describe the instant of the hook-set on a sizeable surface feeding largemouth bass as the most exciting split-second in all of sports. I’m one of them. That moment initiates a violent explosion of whitewater infused with bits of weeds and moss followed by a gill-rattling tail walk. It takes your breath away and imprints that visual image into your memory. Bass fly fishing is nothing like tossing a puff of feathers you hope will be sipped from the surface. This combat fly fishing requires seven, eight-, and nine-weight rods to wrench these ambush predators from their entangled lairs. Six-foot leaders will suffice, but tippet strength needs to be 12-16 lb. test to turn over the heavier, wind-resistant flies and withstand the expected abrasions. Both floating and floater-diver flies, designed to entice surface action, can be constructed of cork, several types of foam, or deer hair. Each set in the water and project sound when retrieved differently. Floater-divers are particularly interesting because they attract the attention of the bass when the fly submerges before returning to the surface when line tension is released. They mimic struggling prey that big bass find irresistible. We have designed two floater-divers: Hula Diver and Bully’s Diving Frog which are available on our website <thebluegillpond.com>. Floater-divers are fun to fish because they involve your own creative fly activation, and the entire process is viable to the angler.
Long shadows stretched across the river as the towering ridge above glowed in fading, golden light. A thumping strike bounced the 5-weight’s tip before arching the rod as the 15-inch smallmouth bass bore into the murky current. Three memorable leaps and a strong run later, a hellgramite imitation was extracted from its jaw, and, in a defiant flash of bronze, it returned to its rocky home downstream from the riffle.
Hellgramites, the larval stage of the Dobsonfly, are most commonly found among the large gravel and chunk rock in swifter regions of streams where they take refuge from sunlight. They are most active at dusk, a fact that must not be overlooked when fishing hellgramite patterns.
Our favorite presentation involves pocket water (sections of the stream that look bumpy because the submerged rocks reach close to the surface) that is swift enough to harbor hellgramites. Casting down and across allows the fly to tumble among the rocks. This presentation creates a clicking sound that causes nearby bass to investigate. This “rock-banging” tactic is particularly successful when the water is so turbid that the smallmouths have difficulty locating their meal by sight.
Fishing a hellgramite pattern may well provide great smallmouth fishing, but It’s important to remember that they shun light and prefer the well-oxygenated portions of the stream.
There are many hellgramite patterns available. Ours is jointed to replicate its natural action. To check out “Wilson’s Jointed Hellgramite,” visit our “Flies” listings.