Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Spring bronzebacks: Great bass’n fun with your fly rod

By Tori J. McCormick
Contributing Writer

Take a stroll into any local fly shop, in pretty much any state, and you’ll likely be greeted by displays of flies, rods and reels, and other gear and gadgetry tailored specifically to trout anglers. 

This isn’t breaking news: Fly fishing, in literature and lore, is synonymous with stream trout. But the tastes of some trout-bum traditionalists are starting to evolve. Their preferences, slowly but surely, are changing based on practical experience. Indeed, more and more anglers are casting flies to a variety of warm-water species, but none more so than the hard-fighting, tail-walking, bronze-hued smallmouth bass – the street fighter of the piscatorial world. 

“They’re as fun as it gets,” said smallmouth guide Kip Vieth, owner Wildwood Float Trips in Monticello. “Besides trout, they’re the perfect fish to catch with a fly rod. They fight like gangbusters and eat topwaters readily. What’s better than watching a big fish eat your fly? That’s what happens when you’re fly fishing for smallies.” 

Vieth, who guides primarily on the smallmouth-rich Mississippi and St. Croix rivers in Minnesota (he also fishes and guides on some Wisconsin rivers), isn’t selling snake oil. He’s nearly fully booked with repeat clients for the upcoming year and well into the future. And many of those clients are trout anglers who’ve decided to give “smallies on the fly” a try. And once they have, they generally consider the experience with a simple refrain: more, please. 

“There are plenty of trout guys who still won’t do it, but more and more are,” said Vieth, who periodically guides for stream trout, bluegills, and muskies. “Not only can you catch numbers of fish on any given day, but you also can catch big fish. And big smallmouths are a lot more fun to catch than a 10-inch brown trout.”

Tim Landwehr is the owner of Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in DePere, Wis. He’s been a professional fly-fishing guide most of his adult life, the last two decades of which primarily for smallmouth bass. His guides are booked solid from spring into October.

“The sport is evolving, growing, getting more popular – even with hardcore trout anglers, but also with anglers new to fly fishing,” said Landwehr, co-author of “Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Methods, Tactics and Techniques.” “Fly fishing for smallies is a very visual medium for anglers, whether they’re fishing topwaters or just below the surface. It’s just addicting.” 

Landwehr said part of the allure of smallmouth fly fishing is that they’re plentiful and swim in more streams, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs than any other game fish. They’re also found across the U.S., from the John Day River in Oregon to the waters of the Great Lakes and as far east as Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania. Or, as one angler put it, “It’s common wherever there’s smallmouth bass.” 

River fishing for smallies, Landwehr and other guides and anglers say, is a completely different from fishing for smallies in lakes. For most fly fishers, river fishing is preferable, in large part because you can generally figure out ways to catch smallies at or near the surface throughout the season, from spring into autumn. 

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with chasing smallies in lakes or impoundments – it can be a lot of fun,” Landwehr said. “But they’re a completely different animal in rivers. They just fight harder. It’s just different in a good, good way.” 

Another consideration – indeed, a huge consideration – is how you fish for smallies in a river. One such way is with a drift boat. Fly fishing from a drift boat used to be reserved for the bigger trout rivers of Montana, Colorado, and other western states. But that practice for trout has been exported to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region for smallmouth bass, according to guides and fly shop owners.

Drift boats have mass appeal. They look cool, almost like floating pieces of art. They’re practical, too. Their design – wide, flat bottom, flared sides, a narrow, flat bow, and a pointed stern – make for easy, almost seamless navigation in larger shallow rivers and streams. Learning to row one well takes a little practice, but it certainly isn’t an insurmountable challenge. 

“Aesthetically, they’re very pleasing to look at and very comfortable to ride in and cast from,” said John Edstrom, a longtime smallmouth fly fisher and guide from Minnesota. “They’re quiet vessels … and they allow you to get close to fish that you wouldn’t be able to with a regular boat and motor.” 

Boats and motors are fine to fish from (as are canoes and kayaks rigged for fishing), but Edstrom said some of his clients prefer the “natural feeling and experience” of fishing from a drift boat. 

“And you don’t have the smell of fuel and whatnot,” said Edstrom, which his clients like, too. 

Another attraction is catching big river smallmouths – especially egg-choked females that are putting on the feed bag before the intense rigors of spawning begins – during that pre-spawn period, a window of opportunity that generally takes place (and depending on the body of water) beginning at some point in May for roughly two weeks or so. 

“It’s one of the best, if not the best times of year to fish for smallies,” Vieth said. “Not only is it one the best and easiest times of year to catch fish with a fly rod, you just might also catch the biggest smallie of the year, too. It can be that good.” 

“Smallies will be very aggressive this time of year,” said Vieth, in reference to the pre-spawn period. “They’re gorging themselves to build up their reserves and fortifying themselves; spawning takes a toll on them. But you’ll catch a lot of females during this time, and some of them will be those 6-pound egg wagons. I’m talking big, big fish, which are fun, fun fish.” 

While smallmouth fishing with a fly rod has grown continuously in popularity over the last 20-plus years, guides and anglers say there’s still waters to fish that haven’t been overrun by anglers – a key selling point to new anglers. 

“There are no secrets in the trout world,” Landwehr said. “There are only parked cars next to your favorite stream.”

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