The popper had only been on the water for a few seconds when the river seemed to open up and swallow it. My friend, guide Mike Smith of New River Fly Fishing (www.newriverflyfish.com), set the hook immediately, and the rod bent over from the strain of a hefty fish.
“Smallies love hitting the surface,” Mike said, as he quickly landed the moss-colored brute.
We took a few shots with my camera, and then let the fish go to fight another day. On a previous trip I had set the hook on a good smallie, but he had gotten upstream of the raft I was in and used the current against me. In the end, I watched a lot of line go out, but the fish never came to hand. I’d been outsmarted by the king of the river, the venerable smallmouth bass.
Smallies are very popular here in Virginia, but the truth is that you’ll find them in nearly every state in the country and in parts of Canada as well. Though originally native to waters like the Mississippi and Saint Lawrence rivers and Hudson Bay, enterprising smallies struck out on their own and rode the rails to the wide open spaces. In a manner of speaking, that is… anglers working on the country’s burgeoning railroads would often transport fish from their local rivers to other river systems where they quickly adapted.
Smallies thrived because, unlike their largemouth cousins, they are comfortable in cooler water, and unlike trout, they can also adapt when the water temperatures begin to climb. As dams began to dot the country’s waterways and waters consequently grew warmer, area trout began to recede; smallies promptly moved in as replacement game fish.
Tenacious fighters, and jumpy when the mood strikes them, a smallie’s average lifespan is 15 years. Although they start feeding on zooplankton when they’re born, they quickly move on to larger prey. Still, smallies tend to grow fairly slowly: A 12- to 15-inch fish might be 5 years old or even older. Many states consider a trophy smallie to be 20 inches or more, and if you’re the teen angler who lands such a prize, your catch might well be older than you are!
Traditional anglers can score well with smallies using live bait like shiners, mad toms, and worms. Crayfish are also prime bait, as they make up as much as 40 percent of an adult smallie’s diet. In the late summer months and into fall, anglers can also score with live crickets. Some smallie fans prefer spinner baits as well as topwater buzz baits and plugs.
Fly anglers love smallies because they’ll often reward a well-cast popping bug or other surface pattern with one of their trademark vicious strikes. Fly anglers casting under tree limbs and near brush piles will often stumble upon smallies: They’re particularly partial to structure. Besides the dependable popping bug, smallies will fall for streamers and minnow imitations and flies that mimic crayfish and damselflies. Hellgrammite patterns and sculpin patterns are also quite effective.
Prime time varies throughout the country, of course, but March seems to be the fishing season kickoff, as anglers head out to catch smallies during their pre-spawn feasting. The females put on weight to help with delivery, and males doggedly guard the nest without moving for days at a time so the extra weight is important to them as well. Only a rookie dad leaves his young to fend for themselves, as he knows full well that they are liable to become a snack for a catfish, large bluegill, crappie, or even another smallie. Fishing continues to improve in the warmer months, from May right up to late October for most of the country.
If you head out in pursuit of smallies, concentrate on areas where fast and slow currents meet and where structures like boat docks, blowdowns, rock piles, bridge abutments, and even beaver dams abound. Smallies can be quite territorial, so if you’ve had good luck in one spot before, chances are good that you’ll get lucky again. They are also wary fish, so keep boat motors, and your own movement if you’re wading, to a minimum.
Smallies are rarely the biggest fish in the river, but what they lack in size they make up for in spunk. If you’ve turned up your nose at smallmouth bass fishing, you don’t know what you’re missing. Your local general tackle or fly shop can point you toward a likely waterway and outfit you with the tackle or flies you need to bring a feisty smallie to hand. And remember: Don’t underestimate the humble smallmouth bass, or you’re likely to find yourself on the riverbank looking at a broken line and wondering what just happened.
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is a member of Local 2068 and a captain with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. His latest book, Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic: A No Nonsense Guide Top Waters, was just released.