Smallmouth bass flies have come a long way over the years. This arose from two main influences: the popularity and innovation in fly fishing streamers and the hundreds of designs and advances in general tackle smallmouth lures. The influence of general tackle would probably be the most important of these influences. In fact, it’s safe to say that virtually all of the top smallmouth bass flies have been inspired by some smallmouth bass lure, and this goes for bass flies and bass fly fishing in general. Innovations in streamers helped fly anglers make new designs, but the designs themselves have almost invariably come from innovative smallmouth bass lures. This makes sense because so many more anglers pursue smallmouth bass with lures than they do with flies, and there are countless bass fishing tournaments with money on the line. Big money means big innovation.
Smallmouth flies still have some limitations, but they’re getting better and better. We have a ton of options. But before you head out and purchase a million smallmouth bass flies to pursue smallmouth bass on the fly, you need to make sure you have you’re bases covered. The best way to do this is to think about how you can buy flies that offer you different options and versatility.
A NOTE ON SMALLMOUTH BASS FLY LINES AND LEADERS
First, different fly lines and leader configurations will dramatically change your smallmouth fly’s action and capabilities. The main fly lines you’ll use are floating, sink tip, and full sinking. You’ll then add leaders to these in various lengths from 10 to 3 feet normally.
Having many different fly lines is important because some flies may have difficulty sinking without sinking lines. You’ll also be able to get to the fish’s zone much quicker.
Different fly lines will affect the action of your fly as well. If you use an intermediate fly line with a jerkbait style fly, for example, you’ll be able to suspend your fly more easily in shallower water on the pause. Another variation on fly action can come from using a weighted fly, like a Clouser, with a long leader and a floating line. This will allow the fly to kick up better in many cases.
The point of this is to experiment with different lines, sink rates, and leader lengths to get your fly where you want it and with the right action you want. So, when you buy or design a fly, the first question should be, “How do you fish it and what line and leader do you use?”
HOW TO SELECT SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
The goal of this article is to allow you to choose as few flies as possible to cover all of the needs you have. So, by the end of the article, you should be able to buy or tie flies that cover many different uses. In this light, a great way to organize your smallmouth bass flies is according to features and function.
TYPES OF SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
There’s no official list of the types of smallmouth bass flies that exist, but the following classifications will help you to think about the different options you have with smallmouth flies. These are not gospel, so feel free to classify your flies in a different way if it works for you.
There are many different types of topwater smallmouth bass flies. These are flies that at some point during the retrieve are enticing smallmouth on the surface of the water.
Poppers are floating flies that have a divot in the front of the fly. To make these, you’ll normally buy a “popper head” that has this characteristic divot. They have a famous gulp or plop sound when you retrieve them because water enters into the cavity of the popper. These flies are almost always retrieved with a pause and strip cadence.
I classify flies that have no divot in the front but push water to make an auditory disturbance as flat-faced poppers. This class comprises flies like classic deer hair poppers, Blockhead poppers, and Bob’s Bangers.
You can retrieve these just like regular poppers, but at times you can burn them much faster over the water surface because they aren’t necessarily pulled under as much as flies with divots or lips. The big surface area moves tons of water and really makes some noise with the biggest examples like the Bob’s Banger.
OTHER TOP-WATER FLIES
Divot and flat-faced poppers make up a large part of smallmouth bass top-water flies, but there are still many different types of top-water fly options.
Sliders are a topwater fly that slides across the surface of the water with very little water disturbance. Some sliders move basically in a straight line while others can dart around and even slightly under the water. This pattern is useful when smallmouth are in really clear and shallow water or when you want to create tons of movement on the surface without a lot of disturbance. Good examples of slider style flies are the Sneaky Pete, Titanic Slider, and the KDM Rat.
Top-water frog style patterns that don’t really pop as much can be consider sliders, divers, or flat-faced poppers. Either way, they are very similar to sliders/divers but are often very weedless. The Gutless Frog is a great example of these patterns.
Crease flies are poppers of sorts, but they act very differently in the water, depending on the head construction. Crease flies have very tall sides from folded foam. They can have a flat face, a divot, and/or a lip. The action ranges from light splashes to a pronounced walk-the-dog action.
Walk-the-dog flies move in a side-to-side action. These flies are excellent in warmer water or when the fish are a little more aggressive for top-water flies. These flies require a strip and slight pause cadence to generate this action. Ron Dong Crease Flies and Pole Dancers are great versions of these flies.
Gurglers are like a half flat-faced popper. They generate a more subdued sound than a full flat-faced popper. They also generate a splashier sprinkle of water than flat faced poppers. These are a great top-water fly when you want to be a bit more subtle on your sound and splash.
Divers do just as the name implies; they dive under the water but then float to the surface. This is accomplished with a tapered head and normally a large collar. Smallmouth bass love these flies, particularly if they’re on a frog bite. The sound that divers make is awesome for attracting fish and sounds like an exaggerated popper. The Umpqua Frog is a great example of a diver pattern.
At times, mostly in the fall in clear shallow water, smallmouth will focus on smaller terrestrial patterns. This is because there are a lot of terrestrials around but also because they may have been pounded by larger patterns all season.
A good way to figure out if you should try terrestrials is to see how the fish are responding to your regular sized topwater flies. If you’re getting nothing, they’re not committing, or you can tell you’re spooKing fish, then you can try a terrestrial pattern like the Mr. Peanut Hopper.
Before looking at mid-depth and bottom flies, think about triggers. The main three triggers for smallmouth bass flies are horizontal, vertical, and both planes (erratic). This means that the primary action of the fly is either along the horizontal (side-to-side), vertical (up and down), or both planes (erratic falls, rises, falls, and turns). Some flies will do two or three of these actions with different retrieves. Mid-depth flies employ these triggers more than any other type of smallmouth bass flies.
The most characteristic action of horizontal is the side-to-side action. This is similar to the action a snake will use. Another incredibly important action is one jerkbait style action. In this case, the movement is more like a “glide bait” in that the fly moves mainly in the horizontal plane, and the pauses are longer. Many flies can have both horizontal and erratic actions, depending on how you fish the fly. Good examples of a horizontal action are the Double Deceiver, Swingin’ D, Bulkhead, and Todd’s Swimming Minnow.
Vertical actions with smallmouth bass flies are almost always connected to weight. Weight comes in many different forms: lead tied in, bead chain, lead or brass dumbbell eyes, for example. This weight gives your fly that characteristic kick and dive action that fish love. The Clouser fly pattern is the quintessential vertical action fly pattern. Other great smallmouth flies with vertical actions are the Bottoms Up, Half and Half, and Schultz Red Eye Leach.
BOTH PLANES (ERRATIC)
Flies that can cover both planes are some of the absolute best smallmouth bass flies. These flies are normally fished at a moderate to slow speed because you need to pause the fly for at least a moment so the fly can switch directions. Smallmouth almost always hit on the pause. These flies might be termed “jerkbait flies.” Great examples are the CK Baitfish, Craft Fur Hollow Fleye, and Game Changer.
There are some flies that have very little action except for the tail. These flies travel more or less in a straight line when retrieved, but their tail has quite a bit of action. These flies are more subtle in their movement. They can be fished extremely slowly or extremely fast. Many single-hook trout flies have this action. Examples are the Zonker, Seal Bugger, and Meat Whistle.
Bottom/weighted flies fall into two classes: low motion and flies with triggers. Many of the low motion flies are trying to imitate a particular prey species in appearance. They might also have materials that have inherent motion, that is, motion that the water will bring to life. Examples of these materials are marabou, fox hair, rubber legs, craft fur, and rabbit.
These flies will elicit a strike when the fly is just sitting still on the bottom or when you give the fly subtle shakes. You might also pull the fly along the bottom. These flies are great for sight fishing or fussy fish. A good example is a Potato Chip Goby or a small craft fur Clouser.
Many weighted flies are meant to be fished on or near the bottom. They can also have triggers built into them similarly to mid-depth flies. Flies can have all of the actions that mid-depth flies have, but some flies must be fished slightly off of the bottom to create the action. This is the case with Clousers for example. They can get a nice vertical action just off the bottom.
An Equalizer, on the other hand, will land right on the bottom and move very erratically with a sharp strip of the fly line. A Changer Craw can generate a vertical or erratic movement, depending on how you fish it.
Many weighted flies give you options. Some are excellent low motion flies that have excellent action when stripped.
SMALLMOUTH BASS FLY FEATURES
Besides triggers and different types of smallmouth bass flies, these are some other fly features you should consider: water depth capabilities, optimal speed, size, profile/appearance, color, materials, unique fly action, and sound.
SMALLMOUTH BASS FLY DEPTH CAPABILITIES
We covered depth capabilities somewhat under fly types above, but you need to have all bases covered to get your fly into the strike zone of smallmouth bass when they are in different moods. Sometimes they’ll move ten feet to smash your fly when at others, you’ll have to basically smack them on the nose. Have smallmouth flies that cover all of these situations.
OPTIMAL SPEED OF SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
Each fly has an optimal speed and cadence. This is important for a few reasons.
First, you need to consider the mood of the fish. If you fish too fast, when the fish are in a non-aggressive mood, the smallmouth may not even move towards your fly. In this case, you might select a smallmouth fly like the Game Changer that you can strip and then let sit. This will keep the fly in the zone longer.
Second, the fly’s design will have limited speed capabilities. For example, you may need a fly that can move much faster while still maintaining some sort of action. An example might be a Double Deceiver, which has a horizontal serpentine movement even when you strip fast.
This is really apparent with top-water flies. For example, a popper normally requires a pause, but a Ron Dong Crease Fly can walk the dog at a fairly fast pace. The fly’s design allows you to cover water faster when you have aggressive fish and warmer water temps. Have different flies for different speeds.
SMALLMOUTH BASS FLY SIZE
The size of your smallmouth bass flies is hugely important, and many factors determine why you might choose one size over another.
First, the activity level and feeding drive of a smallmouth at a given time will warrant using one size over another. For example, if the smallmouth are in prespawn with a warming water temp, they will crush very large flies like a six-inch Bulkhead. Smaller flies can still work, but the biggest females are often looking for that big prey item.
Second, available prey species and fishing pressure can condition the smallmouth to look for a certain prey item or smaller sized fly. This is really apparent on Lake Michigan in the spring for example when the lake is swarming with gobies. In addition, Lake Michigan receives heavy fishing pressure in spots, and these fish are at times not willing to crush the huge patterns you might fish in rivers.
Third, density of fish population will determine how small you can go and effectively cover water. If you find a bunch of fish stacked up in an area, 2-to-3-inch flies can be deadly. I’ve experienced this many times on almost every type of water from Western reservoirs to Mid-Western rivers. Throw a large Hollow Fleye into them and you may not catch a thing, but hop a small crayfish fly off the bottom, and you may catch everything.
PROFILE AND APPEARANCE OF YOUR SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
The overall profile and appearance of smallmouth bass flies can be important at times. I can’t point to a single time that I’ve been fishing for smallmouth bass when the appearance of the fly mattered that much. For example, times that I found fish that were feeding on crayfish, I did not have to use a fly that looked like a crayfish, with claws, etc. However, the fly needed to move similarly to a crayfish or a bit slower in general. Maybe you’ll find a situation where you need to more match the hatch, but impressionistic flies that you can make move right are the rule not the exception.
Profile is more important. Again, I use impressionistic flies that have similar profiles to a bunch of different prey items. My Equalizer fly pattern is the epitome of this. Flies that have the overall profile that you want but that are versatile in their action are highly effective.
Profile can also be important for the fish’s mood. In general, the more neutral to negative a smallmouth bass’s mood is, the smaller in profile I go, unless other factors affect this decision, like the prevalence of prey species.
Profile can also affect the overall aquatic footprint of your fly. A fly that has more bulk pushes more water. Smallmouth can feel this with their lateral line. So, if you’re in a lowlight situation, you need to cover water, the fish are super aggressive, or you’re going after monsters only, a large profile fly pattern like a Hollow Fleye may be what you need.
COLOR AND FLASH OF SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
Smallmouth bass flies come in virtually any color imaginable. Smallmouth love almost all of these colors at different times. In general, I find the more inactive smallmouth are, the more I need to use natural colors, and related to this, my smaller flies are almost always natural colors like brown, olive, tan, black, and rusty orange. This is usually the case with most of my flies that I fish near the bottom in clear water.
Jerkbait style flies like Game Changers, Hollow Fleyes, Bulkheads can vary from white and tans to bright pink, orange, and chartreuse. It depends on water clarity and fish activity, and sometimes smallmouth just like brighter colors because of their natural curiosity and aggression.
Poppers and smallmouth flies that I retrieve quickly are often similar to jerkbait flies, but I will get pretty wild with the colors from yellow, chartreuse, and orange to black, silver, and white.
Flash is similar to color in that I normally put flash in most of my mid-depth flies and some of my topwater flies, but less frequently in my finesse and bottom flies. I’ve found smallmouth love flash in most cases where they’re somewhat active.
UNIQUE FLY ACTION AND MATERIALS
Each smallmouth bass fly pattern you choose will share many features with other patterns, but each one will have its own unique fly action capabilities. These unique fly action capabilities can make a huge difference in how many smallmouth bass you’ll catch on a fly on a given day.
You can often modify your fly patterns when you tie them to have different unique fly actions. For example, you can vary the overall size of the fly or the length of the tail. This will cause the rhythm of the fly’s action to be faster, slower, or more/less exaggerated.
For example, a short, stubby Game Changer, say 3 inches, will often move much quicker than a 6-inch gamechanger, which will require a longer pause. This goes for most jerkbait style flies, like Hollow Fleyes and Bulkheads. Really active fish might prefer this quicker movement of the shorter flies.
The materials you use will also affect the action of the fly as well, so you could tie these patterns in different materials to achieve much different actions. For example, craft fur and bucktail have unique buoyancy properties that are different from one another. Your flies will act differently when you use these materials tied with varying degrees of density. Having options for the day’s fishing will make you much more versatile.
See below how Blane Chocklett creates his Game Changers with different materials and designs to have different actions and triggers.
Another example might be adding different amounts of weight in different locations. You really have so many options when it comes to your fly patterns and their unique actions, even when you’re tying many of the same general style.
One final example would be tying a Clouser with large lead eyes, heavy amounts of craft fur, and a flashtail out the back. This fly would push more water, dip more exaggeratedly, and send a ton of movement from the tail for more attracting properties. On the other hand, a thinly-tied bucktail Clouser with light eyes and no flashtail will have much less action but may be exactly what a negative fish prefers on a cold-water spring morning.
Don’t underestimate how you can change smallmouth fly action and how important these unique actions are.
SOUND AND VIBRATIONS WITH SMALLMOUTH BASS FLIES
Finally, sound and vibrations are unbelievably important for smallmouth bass fishing with general tackle. They are also important for smallmouth bass flies, but we cannot achieve the same degree of water disturbance with flies yet, particularly when we’re talking about vibration. Buzzbaits, Whopper Ploppers, rattling crankbaits, and spinnerbaits are just a few options available to general tackle anglers. These baits are extremely effective for smallmouth, who love vibration and sound.
Virtually no fly can emulate these lures in vibration. We have to rely on flies that have big profiles to push a lot of water to the smallmouth bass’s lateral line to even get close to generating as much sound/vibration .
Some smallmouth bass flies have rattles in them, but I personally have noticed zero difference using a relatively tiny rattle buried deep within the fly. The sound/vibration difference is minimal. We’ve got work to do with our fly patterns to achieve similar outputs of vibration to the metal and plastic components of smallmouth bass lures.
We can do fairly well with sound on our topwater flies. Achieving super fast speeds is difficult, but as far as sound goes, we’re pretty close.
So, we can get good sound outputs from our topwater flies, and each of these topwater fly patterns has a unique sound. You should have a variety of different topwater flies with different sounds. For example, a small Bugle Bug or popper with a hard head will have a short blurp and higher pitched tink respectively. This differs from a Blockhead Popper that pushes more water and makes a large deep sound when retrieved. A large Bob’s Banger will push even more water and have a deeper gulp. A Crease Fly will have multiple higher-pitch splashes. Each one of these different topwater flies gives you options for the fish’s mood and preference on a given day and body of water. Have an assortment of these topwater flies to give you options and to fine-tune what the smallmouth are on.
HARD PLASTIC HEAD PRODUCES A HIGH-PITCHED TINK SOUND
With this info, you’re much better able to make deliberate decisions on the water about your smallmouth bass flies. Have smallmouth flies that give you different features, so that you can experiment and dial in on what the smallmouth bass want each day and even time of day, etc.
When on the water, watch what your buddies are fishing and how the fish are responding to your and their flies. Ask questions and vary your retrieve. Figure out if they want a fast-moving fly, one that pauses for long periods of time, one that is burning through the water, one that matches the abundant prey species available, one that gives them a huge profile and aquatic footprint, or a smallmouth fly that uses any of the features discussed above. You’ll catch a lot more smallmouth bass on the fly with this mindset.