Fly fishing for Smallmouth Bass: A Beginner’s Guide

Smallmouth bass are aggressive and hard fighting fish that are perfect to target on fly. Here’s a complete guide to fly fishing for smallmouth bass

There’s something about fishing for smallmouth bass with a fly rod that can’t be accomplished in any other method. The amount of control fly anglers have over the entire setup gives us a chance to feel every aspect of the strike and fight. Smallmouth bass are extremely aggressive and easily some of the toughest fighting freshwater fish. One fight with a smallmouth on a fly rod can add even more reason to be obsessed with fly fishing.

Smallmouth Bass Fishing on the Fly

Every fly angler needs to give smallmouth fishing a chance. They differ from largemouth bass in some of their feeding habits and patterns, so it’s an entirely new challenge depending on the species. They want large prey and they wait near structure and ambush their prey.

Targeting smallmouth bass is always exciting. There’s anticipation every single time your fly hits the water.

Where to Fly Fish for Smallmouth Bass?

Smallmouth bass are in ponds, rivers and lakes all over the world. They’re a fairly hearty fish, so they can survive in a variety of conditions.

Smallmouth bass live in water that’s somewhat clear and cool. They need water temperatures somewhere between 55 and 85 degrees. Any temperatures above or below these will cause the fish to become less aggressive and a long fight with one of them can be detrimental to their health.

Smallmouth prefer to hang out near hard structures. These include rocks, gravel, trees, ledges and even discarded metal. If the temperatures are warm, they’ll be in deeper water near vegetation. Vegetation also holds populations of baitfish, so it’s a natural place for them to spend time.

If the fish aren’t near vegetation or hard structure, try and locate currents or areas with high populations of aquatic insects. Moving water means food is coming in and out of the area and that’s perfect for a cruising smallmouth bass.

Take a look at your local game and fish department website for more information on what bodies of water hold smallmouth bass.

How to Fly Fish For Smallmouth Bass?

Fly fishing for smallmouth bass 1
Smallies on the fly are great fun for anglers of all ages

Fly fishing for smallmouth bass requires patience and a willingness to switch up spots and flies. Depending on if you’re fishing still water or moving water, you’ll find that smallmouth bass behave a bit differently. They’re going to be aggressive and eager to feed in both types of water, but it won’t be in the same ways! Plus, time of day and time of year will determine the most effective ways to target smallmouth bass.

Still Water

When you’re fishing lakes or ponds, straight-line techniques will land the most fish. Locate an area you think the bass are holding (almost always by structure) and cast your fly there. As soon as the fly lands, remove the slack and drop the rod tip. This will put you as close to a natural presentation as possible. You’ll be ale to nail the hook set and minimize any chance of you not hooking the fish.

When you’re ready to retrieve, start slow. It doesn’t matter if you’re using topwater flies or streamers, a slow, jerky retrieve is going to catch fish. Smallmouth bass love to see an easy target for food. Cast, let your fly sit for a few seconds and begin the retrieve. The retrieve should be a slow, methodical pull. Don’t be in a rush. Let the fly fall and sit. It’ll get those spooked fish a bit more agitated.

Another effective method is to continuously strip. Once your fly is in the position you would like, start stripping towards yourself and don’t stop. Many fly anglers catch smallies all day long using this method. It’s the most fun because you’re constantly moving and working to catch them.

My favorite method to tried is the “stop-go-stop” method. Smallmouth flies are going to move water, and that’s exactly what you want. The stop-go-stop method does this best. Cast your line, let it sit for a few seconds, and make one hard strip that’s somewhere between a few inches and one foot. Then, let it sit for a bit and repeat the process. This works great with floating flies like poppers.

Finally, if nothing is working, try being as erratic and loud as possible. Strip slow, fast and everywhere in between. This will make your fly look like prey in distress.

Moving Water

When you’re fishing for smallmouth in moving water, you can already assume they’re going to be large and aggressive. The moving water adds an element of extra toughness for these fish. Plus, the opportunity to sight fish for smallmouth becomes even more of a possibility. The methods you use in trout streams don’t have to differ much when fishing for smallmouth in rivers or streams.

Like smallmouth in lakes, they want food and protection. They’ll sit by structure and wait until they see an appetizing meal. They’re not afraid to hunt that meal and expose themselves, but they wait for the right opportunity. They want boulders or trees and other hard structure.

There are three primary ways to target smallmouth bass in moving water: dead-drifting, swinging and stripping.

To dead drift, cast your 10-15 feet upstream of where you think the fish are sitting. This will give you and the fly a chance to get everything in the right place before it gets in the “strike zone.” From here, you can let it drift through the strike zone without giving it any action. This method is good to do with heavier flies.

To swing, you’ll cast your fly up and across the river or stream at around a 45 degree angle. After it hits the water, mend your line so the fly is the first thing moving downstream. As the fly drifts across your body, you’ll notice that it’s going to start pulling towards you. This is called the swing! Fish will hit flies on the swing. If they don’t, start stripping as soon as the fly is almost straight downstream of you. This also works with nymphs and streamers.

The final method is stripping. With this method, you cast your fly out near where you think the fish are sitting. As soon as your fly hits, start stripping it towards you. This can be done with a popper or a streamer.

Time of Day

Fish for smallmouth in the mornings and evenings on sunny days. Fish don’t have eyelids, so they avoid feeding in the brightest parts of the day. Plus, they don’t love the warm temperatures, so sunrise and sunset are the most productive times.

Time of Year

Bass spawn in the spring and feed heavily all throughout the summer (see here for more on smallmouth bass spawning). They’ll feed out of aggression during the spawn and out of hunger the rest of the year. As long as the water temperatures are somewhere between 55 and 85, they’re going to eat.

Best Gear for Catching Smallmouth Bass on the Fly

Fly fishing for smallmouth bass 2
Smallmouth are aggressive feeders that take a range of different fly patterns

Smallmouth bass fishing gear isn’t overly complex. It’s a bit heavier than traditional trout fishing gear, but the setups aren’t abnormal.

Best Smallmouth Bass Flies

Woolly bugger fly
The Woolly Bugger is a great smallmouth bass fly

The best smallmouth bass flies are anything that can represent crayfish, minnows and aquatic insects of any type. These are their three primary food sources.

Poppers are the best topwater fly to use. They move water and look like anything from a frog to a large insect on the surface of the water.

For streamers, look to use Clouser Minnows, Muddler Minnows and Woolly Buggers. All of these are good minnow representations. Use anywhere between size 0 and 6 hooks (see here for info on fly fishing hook sizes) in a variety of colors. Bass like a nice amount of flash.

Flies like stonefly nymphs, prince nymphs and any other large nymph patterns can also be effective. Smallmouth will eat large aquatic insects, so an appetizing nymph is always on the table.

Best Fly Rod For Bass Fishing

close up of casting hand fisherman holding fly rod 1
Choosing a fly rod for smallmouth bass is relatively easy

Use somewhere between a 6-weight to 8-weight rod. The rod should be between 8’6″ or 9′. This allows you to make those long, accurate casts and still have the power to fight them.

Also, a moderate-fast action rod is great. You want to have a sensitive setup to be able to be as particular with the retrieve as possible, but still have the backbone to cast through winds and fight a strong fish. You don’t want to completely wear them down on the fight.

See here for more on choosing a fly fishing rod for bass.

Fly Lines

You can use a variety of fly lines when fishing for smallmouth bass. Floating, sink tip and sinking lines are all effective in the right scenario. Below we explain the different types of line are good for. See here for help with choosing the best fly fishing line for bass.

Floating lines

If you’re fishing topwater flies or wet flies in shallow water, then you want a floating line. Floating lines are going to completely stay on the surface, so it’s the obvious choice for dry flies. However, if you’re fishing up shallow, then a floating line will allow your leader to be the only thing that sits below the surface. This’ll keep you protected.

Sink Tip Lines

Sink tip lines are good for wet flies in water somewhere between 5 and 15 feet deep. The sink tip allows your fly to fall in the water column, but not sink too fast. You don’t want to be immediately dragging your fly on the bottom. You want to give it a chance to drop slowly right in front of the face of the bass. They love to hit flies as they fall.

Sinking Lines

Fly fishing for smallmouth bass
A beautiful small mouth bass is a great prize for the fly angler

If you’re fishing for bass with streamers in water over 15 feet deep. A full-sinking line should be your go-to. Bass can be sitting all the way at the bottom and feeding there. You want to give yourself a chance to get in on the action, so use a full sinking line to get all the way down.

Fly Reels

Whatever fly reel you choose, make sure it matches well with your fly rod. If you’re using a 7-weight rod, you want a 7-weight reel. Also, it should be a large arbor reel. Bass can take you on a long fight, and you want to be sure you have plenty of backing to fully handle them.


If you’re using streamers and other wet flies, a 7′ to 9′ 1x or 2x leader is what you should use. It’s plenty of length to get the fly away from the fly line and strong enough to handle a long run. Typically 2x tippet is good enough to catch smallmouth bass (see our tippet size chart for more info).

If you’re using dries, a 2x 9′ tapered leader is a good choice (see here for a good leader formula for trout that you can adapt for bass). You still need the strength to fight the fish, but the tapered leader is going to give you a bit more power and finesse with your casting.

Final Thoughts on Catching Smallmouth bass on the fly

Smallmouth bass fishing with a fly rod gives even the most experienced angler a jolt of excitement that’s hard to find anywhere else. The strong strikes and acrobatic fights will put a smile on your face all day long.

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Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.
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