Small stream bassing

by Ken Collins - March 28, 2020

Dependable, sunny summers seem to be a weather pattern of the past. Sunny days are now regularly replaced with clouds. Let me be clear - clouds are not the issue -- nor is the life-giving rains within them. The problem is it has been tough to get on the bigger rivers of the area. These rainfalls have been very heavy and spotty which when added to a bigger river drainage area ends up with unfishable too high river conditions. So give up and drag the golf clubs out of the corner of the garage – no way – not me! No thanks, that white dimpled ball has too much of a mind of its own.

My solution instead of fields of grass, golf-ball eating ponds and frustration is to look way upstream of the big rivers. Focus on the small tributaries or the head-waters of the big rivers. Here the rains have little to no effect. A walkabout in these areas will always bring pleasant surprises. Not always is it going to be fishing utopias but pleasant memories can be made by an innocent doe and fawn coming down to the stream for a drink -  only yards away from the pool you’re trying to fish.

The big difference to regular river bass fishing and these areas is, of course, the size of water. Along with that is the depth. Usually, the deeper stretches of these smaller rivers are pools. These pools don’t have as much current but they can be 3ft plus. They are boulder bound but as we all know this is what bass like. So get prepared to lose a few flies.

Waders, wading shoes or wading sandals. I definitely don’t enjoy full chest waders! There is lots of walking, during midday, in the middle of summer - even a set of breathable chest waders just makes no sense to me.  I love my wading sandals but I soon discovered between the terrain and the number of kilometers walked that they were no good. A full lace up studded wading shoe with neoprene wading socks is the ticket. Now my ankles have support. On one recent past walkabout, a misplaced foot resulted in a slip and resulted in a twisted ankle. This was no treat. My only choice was to suck it up and limp it out. In a bigger river, I might have tried to swim it out – not a possibility here.

My fly rod of choice is a 5wt loaded with a WF floating line. I like visible lines not dull coloured lines. I fully believe my 9ft fluorocarbon 3x  leader keeps the fly and bright coloured fly line far enough apart to not spook fish. But, the abilities to see strikes is increased and the abilities to untangle it from shoreline trees after a bad cast or a too hasty of a hook set is a big plus. I use fluorocarbon for its sink rate and abrasive resistance more than its invisibleness. Changing flies and replacing warn tippet material is non-productive time on the water I try to avoid. I have used 4wt rods and had fun, for sure on the small fish but sometimes a 16” plus bass gets a longer fish fight than I like to be part of. Why not a 6wt – purely the enjoyment and necessity of making small distance casts, most 6wts just are built to cast further than you would ever need in this small stream fishing experience.     

Other essential tools, fanny back (with water bottle holders), hemostats, landing net, leaders and tippets, fly box hat and sunglasses. One of the other key items I have discovered to be paramount important is a package of small dust size b split shot. I have proven time and time again that weighted flies are not the ticket for successful bass or carp fishing. They don’t act natural enough, they get stuck more often and most important they don’t suck in as easy as unweighted flies. You will see for yourself in this awesome fly fishing arena, sight fishing small water with your flies stripped and lying still on the bottom and how a fish vacuums it into his mouth. To see it is to believe it and boy is it fun to watch. Actually, I forget sometimes to hook set because of the entertainment. Watching 3 fish rush to the fly and watch how they decide who gets this morsel is comical.

Minnow patterns work but a slowly striped crayfish pattern will absolutely out fish anything else absolutely 5 to 1. Warning, yes I too love my popper fishing but two things happen, you get one fish per pool or you get none. The same gurgle in the big water is way too intrusive in the small water - Fish literally run and hide.

You know us Troutfitter guides love the FM series of flies we have created but these all were designed for big water. They too in this small water spooked fish. Thus the development of the wooly worm hot tip claw cray. Bob Clouser introduced the dark turkey crayfish pattern long ago and I have used it faithfully for years. I added the hot orange claw tips this year and watch fish butt heads trying to pick it up.

The dark turkey cray is a weighted fly and I don’t tie weight in my version. I prefer by far a Texas rigged style neutral buoyant version. A b split shot placed 12 inches up on the tippet gives the fly the extra tweak during your short stripped retrieve. Of course leaving your cray in perfect position - on top of rocky stream bottom – this makes for easy picking for hungry bass.

If you don’t believe me that this works ask Dave one of Troutfitters guides just how well it works. We watched 3 very nice bass refuse numerous other presentations but they could not resist the stranded crayfish on top a flat rock. All three fish succumbed to placed fly in three subsequent casts.

One of the tricks for happy client making I have been using for years while guiding bass is what I call “the spew factor”. During the battle of almost every fish there are followers – other bass looking for regurgitated chunks of food that the bass doing the battle pukes up. In fact, at least 50% of the double headers both clients with fish on in the Troutfitter drift boat happen because of this pre-digested morsel robbery technique. You will witness this first-hand many times over while fishing small waters. Nature has a cruel way.

When approaching waters that look hopeful – proceed with caution, stealth and most importantly fly cast ready! Sometimes, I blind cast a longer cast at a distant appropriate set of boulders - even before I can establish rivers depth in that location. It is so impressive how camouflaged these fish are, even in this shallow clear water. In other words just because you don’t see any fish make a cast or two, I have on numerous occasions overlooked decent fish only yards away.  So in review cast at any beach ball-sized boulder, it’s even better if there is more than one boulder. Clumps of boulders are fish havens – they have so many places to hide and wait for and prey. Knee-deep water and deeper if possible is the key to success. 

Transition waters are overlooked by the best of us more often than we will admit. Especially, the heads and tails of pools that ramp up to shallow riffles or runs – these areas hold hunters – fish that are on the prowl for food. They are extremely spooky and will run for the deep water on the slightest hint of trouble. Splashing casts or even blind casting laying a fly line near one will spook a fish which usually results in more fish following his escape. I really look hard at riffles that enter pools because the water there is more oxygenated (you can tell this because there is floating bubble pads of surplus oxygen that the riffle made and the river  could not absorb)This white mottled surface is security for fish and they use it to hunt prey unseen by osprey or other fish-eating predators.

One of my other favourite discoveries was the carp and bass relationship. This symbiotic relationship called commensalism is perfectly demonstrated as you watch swimming carp. Way more times than I can count I have cast at these large easy to see fish – hoping they might take my fly and to my pleasant surprise caught large bass instead. Small stream and driftboat fishing has also allowed me perfect confirmation of the reasoning behind this bass catching success. The bass are swimming close to the carp because they know when these large fish swim over rocks - crayfish scuttle away and offer great opportunities for feeding bass and an easy meal. Take this a step further and have a group of carp stirring up the bottom of a river while they do their rooting around feeding – this silted up water gives bass perfect camouflage for stealing away a morsel that the carp suctioning process missed.  

There is a saying amongst us fly fishers and it is said more often than not “ the tug is the drug”. And, one thing is for sure that these smallmouth bass absolutely know how to perform is the pull factor. There are many of us long time freshwater fly fishers that will tell you pound for pound there is no stronger fish out there  than the bronzeback.

Go see for yourself or book your adventure with us!


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