Fly Fishers' Republic

Super-sized Smallmouth

April 25, 2006

by Tim Holschlag

The author with a nice smallmouth bass

I was only ten and the fish barely 10 inches, but it’s still a vivid image. So bold and powerful, yet so beautifully colored and proportioned. That little smallmouth bass was great, but when I started catching bigger ones I was stunned. Such spectacular jumps, such incredible power and stamina. Decades and thousands of smallmouth later I’m still impressed.

Of course, I’m not the only guy to be awed by Micropterus dolomieui’s amazing power. As a long-time guide and angling instructor, I’ve put a passel of folks onto smallmouth. And even the most jaded world-traveling fly fishers get positively energized when a three-pound smallie charges off with their fly. They invariably compare smallmouth to the hardest-fighting saltwater species. And the “good old days” of smallmouth fishing are right now. Average sizes of the fish have significantly (in some places, dramatically) improved, due to catch-and-release and a warming climate. In many waters, where 17-inchers were rare specimens 20 years ago, nowadays they’re common catches. And even bona fide 20-inch, 4-pound smallmouth are increasingly numerous. Just as good, the adaptable smallmouth bass swims across an increasingly large portion of North America. Nearly every American state and most Canadian provinces have the species. This includes over 2,000 different rivers and thousands of lakes. It thrives in remote Canadian waters, close-to-home lakes, beautiful rocky streams and even many urban rivers.

Not Stout Trout

While the widespread smallmouth bass is becoming increasingly popular with fly anglers, guides and shops, there’s still considerable confusion regarding the species. Many trout-oriented fly rodders assume river smallies are a lot like trout. And even some fly fishing writers continue to promote this myth by suggesting trout tactics for smallmouth fishing. In fact, the two species come from very different family of fishes. The physiology of the species is extremely dissimilar, including their temperature requirements, reproductive needs, and food preferences. Despite all the differences between the species, attempting to apply trout fly concepts to bass flies still dominates warmwater fly tying.

And this makes about as much sense as believing a tarpon fly should follow trout fly principles. Not only do trout and bass have dissimilar physiologies, but you might say even the trout and smallmouth’s “psychologies” are different. Trout feed on tiny drifting insects in crystalline environments and are often able to scrutinize these minuscule food sources before they eat them. And because the sleek, soft-finned trout in its shallow, clear habitat is very vulnerable to predation, it survives by being extra cautious or shy.

In contrast, smallmouth often pursue large fast-moving prey in a relatively low-visibility environment. The crayfish and minnows they eat would be long gone if smallies took time to carefully examine them. Most of the time, teensy bugs drifting quietly through the water column arouse little interest among smallmouth. And as a top-line predator in its larger sizes, the species boldly seeks out and investigates possible food sources – it’s an “opportunistic piscavore” in biologist’s lingo.

Smallmouth and the Supernormal

So what do these big differences in feeding strategies add up to? For smallmouth flies, it means that a mimic-the-motion approach is generally more effective than a match-the-forage strategy. And in that context, it is often wise to incorporate the “supernormal stimuli” concept. These are simply greater-than-normal characteristics that trigger responses in predators.

In fly fishing, a larger-than-life stimulus might be exaggerated tail undulation, pronounced hopping motion or extra-noticeable eyes on a fly. If we can learn what a key stimulus is for a given situation, then intensify or exaggerate it, we can often get the fish to focus on our offering. In fact, the fish might even be more excited by our enhanced artificial than by their natural prey.

And don’t think this “supernormal” concept is just some new idea of mine. Over 40 years ago, the book, Animal Behavior delved into what triggers a response by various predator species, including fish. In the book there’s a picture of a bass bombarded by numerous lures. The caption reads: “The welter of lures surrounding a black bass indicates the lengths to which lure makers will go hoping to stumble on what attracts bass. If this could be determined scientifically, then a supernormal lure could be designed that might stimulate the fish into biting every time.”

Even back then, many lure manufacturers already understood (at least partially) that incorporating supernormal characteristics into a lure often triggered a strike response. Nowadays, lure manufacturers clearly realize that adding larger-than-life features to their products is essential. These can be anything from banging steel shot to holographic eyes, flashing blades or even fizzing bubbles. And make no mistake. Some of these supernormal-laden lures are tremendous fish-catching creations.

However, because of the powerful trout tradition in freshwater fly fishing, too many fly tiers either ignore supernormal stimuli entirely or give it only minimal acknowledgment when considering bass flies. Instead, they largely stick to the old match-the-forage concept, often creating subdued patterns that appeal more to angler aesthetics than to fish. But this is changing, especially as more spin fishers, unencumbered by match-the-hatch traditions, take up fly fishing for smallmouth and other warmwater species. And in the future (hopefully) more North American fly tying celebrities will also start clearly addressing supernormal stimuli, mimic-the-motion and other biological concepts.

But smallmouth fans don’t have to wait around for celebrity tiers to tell them what flies to use. Here’s a proven pattern I developed over 15 years ago that incorporates supernormal characteristics which appeal to fish under a wide variety of conditions.

A Supernormal Pattern

The Holschlag Hackle Fly (HFF) is a woolly bugger variation that’s got supernormal characteristics in all the right places. Tied with bright orange barbell eyes, this “weight forward” design means the HHF sinks head-first and cuts through the current to quickly reach bottom. And because the protruding orange eyes are very bright, fish can see them from a distance. Even more visible and attractive is the fly’s set of contrasting yellow legs sticking out at 90-degree angles from its body. These highly visible legs have a pronounced swimming action when the fly is retrieved with a hopping motion. The HHF’s long marabou tail also generates great action and the strands of Flashabou add more flash. This deadly combination of extra stimuli means this fly often out-catches a plain woolly bugger 3 or 4 to one.

Holschlag Hackle Fly

The Holschlag Hackle Fly has been one of my best subsurface patterns for over a decade, attracting big smallmouth like few other flies. The 1/50th-ounce eye weight is the most versatile , but I tie them in 1/60th to 1/30th ounce to cover all depths and current speeds. The pattern is outstanding for doing the Crayfish Hop, a deadly bouncing technique that I describe thoroughly in my latest book, Smallmouth Fly Fishing. In a nutshell, the Crayfish Hop represents the motion of a fleeing crayfish and smallmouth instantly notice and key in on this motion. In scientific terms, it’s a “triggering characteristic.”

By exaggerating this triggering characteristic we create a supernormal stimulus with our fly, causing the fish to focus on our offering sooner than it would on a natural crayfish

Doing the Crayfish Hop

Using an level leader, a floating line and strike indicator, a HHF or other weight-forward fly can be hopped enticingly along the bottom. The idea is to work the fly through pools and current breaks with a pull-and- pause retrieve just slightly faster than the current.. Each forward distance of the fly should be about 8 to 10 inches and on the pause the fly should momentarily tick bottom. A highly visible strike indicator is essential and allows you to detect light strikes when the fly is falling on the pause.