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The first smallmouth that hit fell on that fast moving bug so hard he almost knocked the rod from my hands. And in the next two hours about 15 more bass did the same thing. Then they slacked off and passed up not only that retrieve but every other kind of retrieve I tried.
Then I noticed that there had been a change in the way the fish were rising. Earlier, they had been dimpling the surface, but now they were leaping all the way out of the water. I soon saw why. Snake doctors were flying about hovering a few inches above the surface. Those bass were jumping for them. So I put on a 2X tippet and tied on a spent wing Adams dry, size 6.
That turned the tables. They hit it hard and often and for the next hour I had the time of my life floating that big dry over them. But at last that ceased to be the medicine, too. The fish went down, and even though I moved upstream to show my flies to new and less wary bass, I couldn't connect. Yet I knew they were around.
Then I thought of an old time trick that often sets reluctant trout on fire. I tied on a big spider fly and tossed that small powderpuff out about 50 feet. I imparted quick jerks to it as I brought it back, made it jump across the current for two or three feet at a time, then let it sit still for a few seconds, then gave it the business again. Soon I had a three-pounder chasing that fly, all but turning himself inside out in his efforts to get it. So I stopped the fly altogether and wham! he had it. He smothered the fly with spray and when the hook went home he came out, red eyed as a mad bull, and once again I was in business. For half an hour, from then until dark, I had the time of my life fishing spiders.
Time and again when for one reason or another, the bass have been down, I've taken them by using that varied, jerky retrieve with spiders, variants and big hairwing flies, not only on rivers but on lakes and ponds as well. A fly played in that manner seems to bring out a playful spirit in bass. They like to chase a windblown natural across the surface, like a puppy after a ball, or a cat playing with a string. Sometimes I've found them with five or six naturals in their mouths, not swallowed, just sticking there. So apparently it's not the food but just the game's the thing, with smallmouths.
As mentioned earlier, when I find that the bass are not coming to a popper, I usually turn to streamers. I recall one such day on the Susquehanna below the Conowingo Dam when we had used poppers for some time and although we had taken the odd bass, we were surely not setting the world on fire. Then we turned to streamers. I tied on a fly with a 3-inch-long yellow wing and a brown body, on a number 1 hook.
I started casting it in among the rocks, dropping it less than a foot from shore and bringing it back straight across current, fast, in foot-long jumps. The long feathers really had action, flipping back and forth in the current. I cast for five minutes without a strike, then the whole tribe of Susquehanna smallmouths seemed to be located along about a hundred yards of shoreline and each one of them made at my fly. They just about tore the feathers off the hook. My partner was having the same experience. We never were sure just what those smallmouths figured the streamers to be-maybe they thought they were small walleyes, or catfish or sauger, or even chub, or some of the salt water minnows strayed four miles from tidewater. Or maybe just those flaunting feathers brought them roaring up.
And certainly the way the streamer is played makes the difference, as I remember another day on the same river, when every strike came when the fly was played in the exact opposite to the method just described.
Frank Bentz and I had fished all morning without taking anything more than a couple of 10-inchers. But fish were moving because as we waded and cast to the shoreline, we would now and then see the wave put up by a good sized fish as he got out of there.
We had tried almost everything in the box, and finally Frank was starting all over again, with a white bucktail on a size 4 hook. He made a cast, let the fly drift free in the current, and turned to say something to me. Bang! A two-pound smallmouth latched onto that drifting streamer and busted for the ceiling. Frank landed that one. We kept on fishing. No more action. Then Frank turned to me.
"Maybe they want it just fished like a wet fly, without any action," he said.
"Give it a try," I agreed. "After all, that other one hit while the fly was floating with the current."
And it turned out that was what they wanted that day. They wanted their streamers without any action. We both fished that way and both got some nice bass. So there's nothing that beats trying new ways as well as new flies, to get to bass that are not co-operating.
Even when an angler thinks he knows just what the fish are going to hit, it always pays to watch just what's going on in the water. Once while fishing near Point of Rocks, on the Potomac, Walt Weber and I were using our favorite popping bugs, but with little success. It was a still, hot day. The glides, slides and runs looked dead calm, only the bounce of the riffles giving any life to the surface of the river. There wasn't a sign of fish life.
Yet when we waded in the shallower water we could see the waves that several bass made as they went out ahead of us.
"They're here," said Walt. "They just aren't hitting."At that moment we both saw a couple of swirls along the shoreline, close by. Those fish didn't break through the surface, they just pushed it up.
"They're bulging," I said. "Just like trout."
"Nymphing!" said Walt, and we both dove for our tackle boxes.
We added an extra two feet of 2X tippet to the end of our leaders and then greased the leaders down to within four inches of the end. Then we put on gray nymphs tied on number 8 hooks.
Walt made the first cast, to one of those fish we had spotted. He dropped the nymph three feet above the bulge and let it float free with the current. Down it came. Our eyes were glued on the end of the floating leader and just under it we could picture the nymph, two or three inches below the surface, jiggling around a little in the current, life like.
Then the forward motion of the leader stopped and it seems as if a giant hand had grabbed it and pulled it forward.
"He's there! He's on!" yelled Walt, striking.
A two-pound tiger-striped smallmouth came out and walked across the surface on his tail. He splashed back in and dashed away for 20 feet, then came out in an end-over-end leap. He tore down the shoreline, then cut out below us, headed for deeper water. When he hit the fast current, he jumped again. Then he hung there in the current, resting.
Walt kept the pressure on and finally pulled his head our way and got him moving. That stubborn fish dashed for shore and jumped again in water so shallow that he must have bumped his belly on the bottom. But at last Walt got him in. He was only the first of a nice string we took that day on those gray nymphs.
Since smallmouths live mostly in clear water lakes and rivers, and have eyes like a hawk, they present a special problem during the bright part of the day. In the shallows, particularly, they can spot motion in a hurry, and fishing for them there calls for just as careful an approach as fishing for trout. The angler who wants to connect in such water must work cautiously, avoid noise or excessive commotion in the boat or in wading.
The value of being quiet when fly rodding for bass was convincingly demonstrated to me one summer when half a dozen of us who lived in Baltimore used to go to the Upper Potomac near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for weekends of smallmouth fishing. Usually we would line up in the river and start down, six abreast, flinging flies in all directions. We caught plenty of fish because there were plenty of them in there-and solely for that reason, I believe. Because six men fishing together in a stream make a lot of commotion. But the fish we caught were mostly eight and nine inches long, with a few up to 15 inches.
It was fun, for there is nothing dull about the fight of even that size of smallmouth. But we wished we would catch some larger ones occasionally.
"There are no big ones in here," said one of the boys. "Want to bet on that?" asked Walt Weber. "I'll bet we could come out here on a week day, just a couple of us, when the river is quiet, and take some good fish."
Bets were laid, and later that week Walt and I slipped out there. We eased into the river quietly, waded carefully, avoiding excessive grinding of gravel under our boots, and made no false motions for wary big boys to spot. There was no one on the river but ourselves.
We took several smallmouths apiece in the two- , three- and four-pound class. And in almost any water where the small ones are found, you can count on some hard-hitting bigger ones, too, if you get there at the right time and fish the right way.
In large rivers such as the Potomac, the Shenandoah in Virginia, the Great Cacapon in West Virginia, the shorelines are frequently big producing areas. To avoid spooking the fish that are lying or feeding alongshore, the angler should stay well out from the shore, at least 50 feet, and work slowly downstream, casting directly across current, in to the shore. The fly will go downstream in the current, then swing in below with plenty of real-looking action. A fly cast directly downstream, as would be the case if the angler were wading inshore and casting to fish just below him, would look lifeless. The fly should be retrieved in slow, even strips, and brought well in before being picked up for the next cast.
When smallmouths are feeding in the shallows along the shore of a lake, as they often do on summer mornings or evenings, then a quiet, stealthy approach is doubly important. Always when a fish is in shallow water he is warier than at other times. He knows he is open to attack from many angles, so he swims and feeds with both eyes cocked, ready to shoot off to safety. At such times a fairly long cast is advisable, both to reach the spot where you know there is a fish, and to avoid frightening any that might happen to be between you and the known smallmouth.
"What do you call a long cast?" one angler asked me.
"Anywhere from 65 to 70 feet," I said.
"How about these 100-foot casts you hear people talking about?" he wanted to know.
"There's such a thing as casting too far," I told him. "For efficient fly or bug play and for a quick strike, and for line work in general, I'd say that 55 to 70 feet would be the best distance to cast. Over 8o feet the strike impulse takes too long to get to the fish and he may spit out the fly before he's hooked. And the greater the distance away, the harder it is to see the flash of a fish as he goes for the lure, and so you may strike too late."
In other words, the shorter the cast, the more control the angler has over line and fly, and the easier it is for him to hook his fish. So he has to judge the conditions and cast accordingly, remembering always that the shorter cast is surer and easier to handle.
Often on rivers I creep up close enough to get off casts of only 40 feet. And if I were to choose one over-all perfect casting distance, I would take 50 feet. At that distance you have control, it's hard for the fish to see you but fairly easy for you to see him.
Another important thing to remember in clear water fishing for smallmouths is that the terminal tackle should be light. Going light on fly leaders for bass means tapering down to 2X, which works very well with dry flies and nymphs on rivers. Generally it is better to go a bit heavier when using streamers or bucktails on big water. A hard strike from a smallmouth while the lure is being retrieved quickly across current will snap the leader where it is tied to the fly, if the tippet is too light.
On such big water there are usually swirls and runs, broken surfaces and bubbles which tend to prevent the bass from seeing the leader too readily anyway. Then a slightly heavier tippet is called for-say 4-pound test. But there is seldom, if ever, any need to put on a heavier leader than that. A 4-pound test tippet will hold almost any smallmouth in existence, and the finer the calibration of the last section of the leader, the better action can be given to the fly. A stiff, heavy leader end makes the streamer appear dead and will certainly be spotted in a hurry by a suspicious bass.
And the bass leader should be tapered just as carefully as the trout leader, in fact, a properly tapered leader is all the more important in casting the big flies and poppers used for bass.
While the smallmouth is undoubtedly one of the readiest hitters, there are times when they cross you up, and for no apparent reason refuse to hit.
Don Gapen and I ran into such a situation in a little lake on an island in Lake Superior, near Nipigon, Ontario. This was not smallmouth country, but Don knew where there were some bass in a lake and he frequently took guests from his nearby resort to this lake for a change from trout and northern pike fishing. But that day we cast poppers for an hour without a hit. We tried bucktails, streamers, nymphs, dry flies. Don put on a spinner and fly combination and tried that. Nothing happened. We tried fast retrieves, slow retrieves, with equal lack of success. We went back to popping bugs again, hoping to stir up those lethargic bass.
"It's been pretty hot," said Don. "But still, we should get a hit or two, at least."
We were both sitting there feeling pretty disconsolate, and as we sat, Don had left his popper lying on the surface of the water about 50 feet out from the boat. It must have lain there a full minute, and then he started to retrieve it.
A two-pound smallmouth came roaring out, clamped down on that popper and the fight was on. After he had landed that one, Don threw the popper out again and I did the same with mine, and then we just sat there and grinned. Don pointed to his watch.
"We'll give them a full minute," he said. "That's what they need. Time. We haven't been waiting long enough."
If you've ever sat and waited for a bass to hit, while you watched the second hand of a wristwatch make a full circuit of 6o seconds, you know that a minute can seem like an hour. But that's what we did. And it paid off. And has paid off many more times, with lazy bass.
"They must have been down there looking at the bugs all the time," said Don. "But they're lazy with the heat and it takes quite a while for them to make up their minds to hit."
"Well, we can wait," I said. "It's never too long to wait for smallmouth."
Later in the day, when air and water had cooled a little, those bass returned to their normal willing form and knocked the spots off our poppers and for the last half-hour before dark we were mixed up with a bunch of wild-eyed bass that didn't care what kind of temptation we offered. They took everything, to remind us once again that in spite of their peculiar behavior earlier, they were the same old rambunctious, hard-hitting, highjumping smallmouths that make anglers all over the United States and Canada just as wild-eyed as they are.