Dry Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

The sage of the Shenandoah Valley tells us how to catch smallmouth bass during the summertime topwater bite.
by Harry Murray

Catching  smallmouth bass on dry flies in beautiful rivers is one of the most exciting forms of angling. Each spring, I check my stream notes from previous years in anticipation of specific hatches so I will be ready with the correct flies when the bass start feeding on the natural insects. In order to take advantage of this fine fishing, let’s start in early May and fish our way through the whole season as the most important hatches progress.

Let the Fishing Begin!
The first dry fly fishing for bass on most Mid-Atlantic rivers starts in early May when several species of caddisflies hatch in and just below the riffles. Both the emergence of the naturals and the return egg-laying flights of the adults are heaviest from sunset until dark.

Image Jeff Murray, the author’s son, caught this large bass using Murray’s Bass Hopper. He fished the fly along the bank to imitate a real grasshopper that had fallen into the water.

These insects are very active on the surface, and my favorite tactic is to fish a size 12 Olive Elk-Hair Caddis across and slightly downstream with a slow twitching action. As soon as my fly lands on the water, I extend the rod tip 45 degrees above the surface and impart several two-inch-long strips with my line hand every 15 seconds. This tactic is very effective for covering the water and catching any bass you see rising to the naturals. I find that dressing both the fly and the whole leader with silicone fly floatant helps fish these flies effectively. I use this method from the riffle downstream into the main pool.

Many smallmouth bass rivers get a good brown drake mayfly hatch in late May. The duns start hatching about 7 p.m., and the spinners return to the stream shortly thereafter to mate and deposit their eggs on the stream and then fall spent onto the surface of the water. This concentration of spent spinners is often very heavy in the flat water below the riffles, and you can find excellent fishing by going one on one with these rising fish right up until dark.

If you happen to be on a large flat pool with a slow current when the spinner fall occurs, you will see many of the bass cruising around to pick off the insects because the flow is not bringing them the mayflies as fast as they want them. There are two tactics that are effective for catching these cruising fish. You can watch a rising bass and cast your fly two feet in front of his anticipated path, but he might zig when you thought he was going to zag, and he may not see your fly. The technique I prefer is to hit him on the head with the fly. The instant I spot a rising fish, I cast my fly to that precise spot. This is very effective, and I catch most of these bass. The Irresistible dry fly, tied on a size 10 hook, is very effective during the brown drake hatch, which can last three weeks.

Damselflies Are a Midsummer Favorite
Damselflies hatches are very heavy on many smallmouth rivers in early June, and they last until October. The most effective and exciting tactic I use for imitating the natural insects came about almost by accident.

I was fishing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River close to Luray, Virginia, and there were many bass jumping to feed on the damselflies. Fishing poppers, deer-hair surface bugs, and a broad variety of regular dry flies took only a few small bass. In frustration, I dug through my fly box and found an old Paul Young Red Head. I shot this fly out over the jumping bass, but as it drifted calmly on the surface, I did not get a strike. Remembering the skating tactics that are effective with the great Neversink Skaters for catching trout, I decided to experiment.

I dressed the fly and leader with silicone fly floatant. Next, I cast the fly down-and-across stream at a 45-degree angle to the leaping bass. I raised the rod high above the stream, and skated the big dry fly across the surface of the river in two-foot bursts. This method worked exceptionally well that day, and it has been one of my favorite fishing tactics for more than 10 years. After a great deal of experimenting, I have found that a size 8 Mr. Rapidan Skater works very well with this method.

Smallmouth bass feed heavily on natural grasshoppers in August and September, when these land-born insects become large. I get my best action along pastures and hay fields where there are large concentrations of the naturals. Last summer my son, Jeff, caught his largest bass of the year using a size 8 Murray’s Bass Hopper; this quickly dispelled the concern that only small bass will take grasshoppers.

An effective tactic is to float or wade 50 feet from the riverbank, and cast your grasshopper pattern so that it lands about a foot from the bank. Natural grasshoppers are very active on the water, so use your line hand to impart a two-inch-long kicking action about every five seconds until your fly is about 10 feet from the edge of the stream. Make successive casts every 10 feet down the bank, and fish in this manner until you have worked your way down the river.

Image Big bass sometimes selectively feed on surface-riding insects, and you should be ready to match the hatch.

In my area, the white Miller mayfly hatch (Ephoron leukon) begins in mid-July and lasts for six weeks. This is the heaviest aquatic insect hatch that most smallmouth bass see. The duns start coming off about an hour before dark and continue into the night. The spinners come back to the stream about half an hour before dark and continue laying eggs until after dark. When these phases of the hatch overlap, the surface of the river is covered with insects and you may have a dozen bass rising within casting range. My favorite dry fly for this hatch is a size 12 Light Humpy because it is very durable and the bass take it readily.

I like to go one on one with bass feeding during the white Miller hatch. Due to the number of naturals on the stream, a gently twitching action often brings more strikes than a dead drift. As darkness approaches, I position myself so that I am fishing into the glow of the western horizon to get enough light to catch another six or eight bass.

Hexagenia Excite Smallmouth Bass
The Hexagenia
are the largest mayfly most smallmouth bass will see, and they really excite the fish. I was once fishing the North Fork of the Shenandoah River right behind my fly shop in Edinburg, Virginia, when I paused to work on my leader. It was about dusk, and I heard several bass rising downstream from me. Even though I knew the Hexagenia were due, I was surprised at the number of feeding bass. Just to get some measure of the number of rising fish, I held my wristwatch out over the stream, and in one minute I counted 17 bass rise to take a Hexagenia.

I immediately put on a size 8 Mr. Rapidan Skater, and dressed both the fly and the leader with silicone floatant. By fishing this fly down-and-across stream with a slight twitching action to mimic a natural mayfly struggling on the surface, I caught dozens of large bass before darkness set in.

Hexagenia hatch during the last hour of the day, and it lasts about a month. The nymphs prefer living in soft silt, so explore various parts of your rivers to find the best action. Be willing to experiment, because this fishing is too good to miss.

If you like exciting surface fishing, I strongly encourage you to try dry fly fishing for smallmouth bass.

 
________________

Harry Murray is one of Virginia’s leading fly fishermen, and he has contributed many articles to our magazine over the years. To learn more about his books, fishing schools, and fly shop, go to www.murraysflyshop.com.

 

ImageOlive Elk-Hair Caddis
Hook:
Regular dry fly hook, size 8.
Thread:
Olive 6/0 (140 denier).
Body:
Olive dubbing or floss.
Hackle:
Ginger.
Wing:
Deer hair.

 

ImageLight Humpy
Hook:
Regular dry fly hook, size 8.
Thread:
Brown 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail, wings, and hump:
Elk hair.
Body:
Yellow floss.
Hackle:
Grizzly.

 

 

 

ImageMurray’s Bass Hopper
Hook
:
Mustad 9672, size 8.
Body
:
Yellow Fly Rite Dubbing or foam.
Legs
:
Yellow rubber.
Wing
:
Fox squirrel tail hair and pearl Accent Flash.
Head and collar
:
Natural deer hair.

 

 

ImageMr. Rapidan Skater
Hook
:
Mustad 9672, size 8
Thread
:
Brown 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail
:
Brown calftail.
Body
:
Quill Gordon Fly Rite dubbing.
Wing
:
Yellow calftail.
Body hackle
:
Grizzly saddle hackle.
Front hackle
:
Brown saddle hackle.

 

ImageIrresistable
Hook
:
Regular dry fly hook, size 8.
Thread
:
Brown 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail
:
Moose hair.
Body
:
Deer hair.
Wings
:
White calftail.
Hackles
:
Brown and grizzly.


 
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