Swing the Fly Issue 2.4 Spring 2015 - Page 103

As present day steelhead anglers we must have a dogmatic yet also systematic approach to what we do. By now the idea of us chasing unicorns, that even I believed at one point in time, is not a notion of the truth. These so called mystic beasts can be caught, but there is a right of passage that we all must go through before the Eden is revealed.

There are no certain truths, nor is there a unified belief in any one way to accomplish the goal of catching a swung fly steelhead. There are many opinions as to what the path is. Where is the Eden of the Steelheader? Better yet, how do you get there?

I am going to tell you how, but you must be ready to take the journey. It won't be easy, but failure will not come to those who embark on this path. Fish-less days and nasty weather will be common but your protective Gore-Tex armor will be your comfort and a 2-handed rod your weapon of choice.

You must choose a steelhead river close to you which will provide better and quicker access to a place to practice. Distant rivers will be visited for affirmation of the chase. We have no historical writing nor a compiled grouping of prevalent information to guide us. The good stuff is spread out further and less common than the steelhead we chase, cryptic and diluted by opinions and over marketed shit you don't need! Besides, the more often you go fishing the closer you are to lassoing that mystical unicorn, so spend less time looking up how and more time doing good field research.

What breaks most starting anglers is lack of confidence. The conundrum is where to find it in the beginning? Anglers hire guides like myself for a variety of reasons, gaining confidence is one of the top for most of my clients. I know it sounds like a sales pitch but it's the truth, not just me but other guides are looked at as ambassadors of the sport and our lifestyles revolve around the fundamentals of swung fly steelhead fishing. I think this is why people look to us as givers of the truths of swinging flies for steelhead. We have all heard the line “You can't handle the truth" even more true is "You’re not believing the truth.”

The path to confidance and eventually Eden is simple and can be explained in five truthful steps.

The Great Lakes region benefits from large lake resident bass moving their way up one of the lake’s tributaries. These are fish that experience high growth rates in the forage rich lakes and in the spring nose their way into tributary waters that warm faster than the lake water. Great Lakes smallmouth can normally be found in the tributary waters until mid summer. While most of these fish will be two to three pounds, some will be of trophy proportions for smallmouth with a few exceeding five or even six pounds. The fishing regulations vary by state and province with respect to targeting these lake-run fish.

Due mainly to tighter regulations and an overall greater emphasis on catch and release fishing, many rivers within the smallmouth’s range are now producing fish in the four to five pound range. But growth rates for river resident smallmouth will be slower than Great Lakes fish, especially for waters located in northern climates. It may take seven to eight years for a fish to reach four pounds on some rivers.

River smallmouth will usually be found in water with moderate current – perfect for swinging. Structure is one of the key elements to locating fish throughout most of the year. Smallmouth relate to boulders, ledges, changes in the river bottom, and downed trees. Pools strewn with boulders through the mid section and into the tail out represent prime smallmouth waters.

A smallmouth’s diet comes from a wide source of aquatic life as various baitfish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects all make it to the menu. Smallmouth can be ravenous eaters rarely passing on an opportunity to strap on the feedbag. The need to feed can dictate fish movement as it is common for roving groups of bass to follow migrating schools of bait. Also, hunting for crawfish across rocky bottoms or feeding mayfly nymphs in shallow riffles will dislodge smallmouth from their protective structure.

River smallmouth can be caught at any level in the water column. Sink-tips and sinking leaders can be used to swing patterns along the bottom or in swift waters. A floating line combined with a stiff, long leader and a weighted fly provides a stealthier option in ultra clear water conditions. The floating line and long leader will also be used for swinging and waking a surface offering. On many rivers smallmouth are very surface oriented which provides another very enjoyable aspect of bass fishing.

Rotating through the pool provides the same advantage of water coverage as when fishing for migratory fish. The actual approach is uncomplicated. A mend can be used to control depth but smallmouth readily move up to feed. A uniform swing across the current will be very effective. For a variation, add a short strip or pulse to allow the fly to dart and move in the water. Make sure that the fly covers obvious areas of high percentage structure. Allow the fly to sit for an extended period on the hang down, especially when fishing a dry. Smallmouth often follow a fly and attack when it stops moving.

I have caught smallmouth in the spring on just about any of my favorite steelhead flies. So in other words it is not necessary to be too particular with pattern selection. But when specifically targeting smallmouth it makes sense to utilize flies that represent a common food source for that river. Streamers that represent bait common to that river or various crayfish imitations are always a good choice. Bunny buggers and over-dressed wooly buggers in black, brown, or olive are universally effective smallie patterns. For surface flies I prefer patterns that push some water and make a disturbance such as deer hair poppers and foam gurglers.

When specifically targeting bass, matching the right two-hander or switch for the job will add to the enjoyment. Lighter rods will increase the ability to cover specific structure and enhance the connection to a smallmouth when one is hooked. The added sensitivity of a lighter rod will also help detect subtle takes.

A smallmouth bass was the first game fish that I ever caught. And growing up on a smallmouth river lead to the development of a special affinity. Targeting bass with the swung fly requires a slight shift in mind set from pursuing migratory trout and salmon. The fish aren’t as big nor as sexy, but represent the opportunity for some relaxing time on the water with the chance of multiple hookups. And just about any angler will learn to appreciate the smallmouth’s aggressive spirit. If you live near a smallmouth river, try to swing a few up this summer - you won’t be disappointed.