Smallmouth Roots

Posted by Al Agnew on September 27th, 2011
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I snatched my damp shorts from where they were draped over the edge of the sink in the garage and put them on, then donned Mary’s wading boots–they fit me well as wet-wading footgear–grabbed my fly rod and fly pack from the hooks on the garage wall, and walked the 50 yards to the river, again purely appreciative of the fact that I actually live part time on a beautiful stretch of one of the famous trout streams of Montana. The evening sun was low on the horizon and I didn’t have long to fish, but so what? I surely didn’t have far to go.

The river is finally getting down into fine fishing shape after the record floods and the extended period of high, murky water. I can now cross the little side channel between my house and the big island, although the water is still fast and thigh deep where later on it should drop to a flow about the size of a small trout creek. My plan was to fish the channel rather than going out onto the main river, but the better position to fish the riffle where I could cross was on the other side. It has a nice “riffle corner” at this level; an area where there is slower water on the inside of the angle where the riffle empties into a pool with a soft seam where the slower water merges with the fastest part of the riffle. It should be perfect for nymph fishing. But I’d already fished it twice in the last few days with nothing to show for it.

I watched the pool below for a bit, looking for rising trout, and saw a few small rises but nothing exciting. So since I already had nymphs rigged, I started drifting them through the riffle corner. Twenty minutes later, I’d covered the entire area where I thought the fish should be with not even an exciting bottom bump. The shadows were on the water and the sun was setting, and I thought briefly about giving up. But, low light is streamer time.

My fly fishing buddies know I’m first and foremost a streamer fisherman. They marvel at the fact that my fall back thing to do on slow days is to tie on a streamer and fish the heck out of it. They have watched me catch trout after trout on the Yellowstone spring creeks on streamers when the conventional wisdom is that you have to use small flies, light tippet, and match the hatch closely. My friend Tom Coleman was almost aghast that I spent a good part of a back country pack trip on Slough Creek happily catching 16 to 20 inch cutthroats on streamers even though they were avidly sipping dry flies. He couldn’t understand why I’d forgo classic dry fly fishing to fish “meat and potatoes”.

There are a lot of fly fishing purists who would seldom if ever tie on a streamer, and certainly not if they could catch fish on dry flies. It is admittedly a little like guerrilla fishing. Casting a big streamer isn’t pretty like casting a dry fly; my Missouri fly fishing buddy Tom Manion has likened it to casting a sack of wet kittens. And in some ways it requires almost no finesse. You don’t have to worry much about getting drag-free drifts with a streamer.

Maybe if I hadn’t grown up bass fishing and spent much of the last 50 years or so river fishing for smallmouth, I’d be less enamored with stripping streamers. But streamer fishing is as close as you can come to using smallmouth tactics for trout. It’s all about accuracy, efficiency, and imparting action to an inanimate object in order to make a fish react by trying to eat it. It doesn’t require finesse, but if you think that means it’s easy, you haven’t done much of it.

It is simply an extension of how I like to fish for smallmouth; cover a lot of water by combing it with short, accurate casts using fast-moving lures. The theory is that if you fish fast, you can put the lure in every conceivable spot where a fish could be, and give every fish a chance to strike–and usually there are some fish that won’t be able to resist. That type of fishing works beautifully on float trips where you are fishing from the canoe as it drifts down the river, and it works with the fly rod when you’re floating a big Western trout river in a drift boat or raft. In that case it’s been called frantic fishing, because you’re moving a lot faster on the Yellowstone than you would be on a smallmouth stream and the good spots are going by at a breakneck pace. You won’t hit them all, but to do it well, you have to make each cast count, with as much accuracy and as little “down time” where you’re either lifting a bad cast off the water or untangling your line as possible.

When you’re wading, the pace isn’t frenetic and you have the time to get into position to make casts at the optimum angle, so the efficiency doesn’t come into play as much. You can afford a bad cast, or an aborted cast because you know it’s going to be bad, or the streamer whacking you on the back of the head because of wind or poor mechanics. I like to wade downstream while streamer fishing, making most of my casts perpendicular to the current or slightly downstream and letting the current sweep the streamer downstream as I’m stripping it, with a final swing below my position. I’ll vary the length and cadence of strips and the pause at the beginning of the cast to let the streamer sink to various depths, letting the fish tell me what they are looking for.

I pored over my two big streamer boxes for a minute or so, and finally selected a brown and yellow Woolybugger. I don’t pay much attention to hook sizes on streamers. The size of the hook isn’t important, the size of the streamer is. This one was about 3 inches long. Woolybuggers are all-purpose flies–they could be imitating anything from a minnow to a crayfish to a leech, but mostly they are supposed to just look edible to the kind of carnivorous trout you’re seeking. They are pretty much my default choice in “store-bought” streamers. I also make my own streamers, mostly simple affairs made of a cross-cut rabbit strip body and a rabbit or red squirrel strip tail, with sometimes a bit of flashabou tied to lie along the sides of the body, or with a marabou tail with some flashabou mixed in. I also tie them for smallmouth with two squirrel strip tails to imitate crayfish, and one time on the Kvichak River in Alaska when the flesh flies weren’t working on the big rainbows, I started stripping some smallmouth streamers with the double tails that I had found in a vest pocket and the 27-30 inch rainbows loved them. I only had three. I broke one off immediately on a huge trout, caught one on the second one and then had six consecutive strikes where I either didn’t hook the fish or had it on very briefly, and then examined that fly and found the hook had broken off just behind the barb. The third and last one caught five trout before I broke it off. It was fun while it lasted.

My first cast was toward the far bank where the current was still fast. I let it sink a bit in the strong flow, then began to retrieve it with six inch strips, pausing after each strip to let it continue to sink. It was about halfway back to me when the fish took it. I soon brought a 15 inch cutthroat to hand, grabbing the streamer and shaking it to let the fish off the barbless hook without lifting it from the water. In the next 15 minutes, in the water I’d just fished unsuccessfully with nymphs, I had eight strikes and brought five fish in, one brown, the cutthroat, and three rainbows from 13 to 16 inches. By that time it was getting rather dark and I still had to cross the strong flow back to the house, so I reluctantly reeled in and made the crossing. But there was a little slow eddy at the side of the riffle on this side as well, and I couldn’t resist a few casts to the current seam and into the eddy. First cast to the current seam, straight downstream, resulted in a hard strike from a fish that I had on just long enough to feel a substantial weight and the kind of head shaking throb that signifies at least a pretty good fish. A few more casts came up empty, but then I cast into the deadest water of the eddy and caught a nice 15 inch rainbow. The next cast snagged a log and I had to break it off. That, and the fact that the temperature was dropping fast and I suddenly realized I was shivering from standing in 65 degree water with wet clothes, was reason enough to leave the river.

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