Smallmouth Bass on a Fly

Pity the Western Smallmouth

Smallmouth bass on a fly. The smallmouth bass is largely ignored out here in the West, only a relative handful of us fly fishers out here recognizing his magnificence. There are some fairly good excuses for this failure to appreciate a first-rate game fish in our presence.

Excuses, Excuses...

  • Excuse #1: steelhead and trout and salmon seem everywhere out here, and they're magnificent as well.

  • Excuse #2: few of us started out fishing rivers with a fly for smallmouth in the West because not many of our rivers are warm enough to suit a smallmouth's tastes (unlike so much of the US, from Alabama to Pennsylvania, where a typical creek or river is far more likely to hold smallmouth—or perhaps bluegill or spotted bass—than trout). So we just didn't develop the smallmouth habit.

  • Excuse #3: because of Excuse #2, we Westerners often have to go considerably out of our way to find smallmouth bass, at least in rivers—I, for example, live about a four-hour drive from the nearest smallmouth river (yet I can be on a steelhead or trout river, or a largemouth lake, in 20 minutes).

  • Excuse #4: smallmouth are relatively new around here. That's right, they're not native to the West. According to some of my books smallmouth first came west in the mid 1800s, to California. But I never heard a word about smallmouth in rivers up here in the Pacific Northwest until the 1970s.

A few decades ago—you bet that's new in town, compared with the millennia during which the smallmouth filled so many rivers in eastern North America.

An Intimate Encounter with a Smallmouth in an Intimate Setting

I caught my first smallmouth bass in a stream in Central California in the mid 1970s. It was a clear and warm little flow that would have seemed secluded enough had not so many sunbathers (both with and without swimwear) and swimmers (also with and without swimwear. California, the 70...) strung themselves up and down the stream's rocky desert canyon. But none of them seemed interested in the adequate population of six- to ten-inch smallmouth bass there. I was.

On the Road, Off Road

The five-piece funk/pop-music sort of band I belonged to was constantly on the road, charging up and down Interstate 5 mostly, but sometimes beyond to Phoenix, Arizona, Anchorage, Alaska—wherever the booking agency said we'd make the most money. The longer I lived that overwhelming life—rehearsals five days a week, performing six nights a week, working on my instrumental parts and vocals daily—the more I wanted to escape to the outdoors to fish. And the more I did.

Blessed are Sundays

That smallmouth stream was a manageable drive from Sacramento (that band loved playing Sacramento, distant as it was from our Washington homes), too far to fish on a night I played music. But Sundays were wide open. I think I spent several Sundays running up to fish among the clad and unclad during the gigs we played there. I had a blast.

That was my first taste of what smallmouth bass have to offer, and I became a fan almost immediately. After that, I caught smallmouth here and there in lakes, but didn't catch another in a river until—hold on, big leap coming—the late 80s or early 90s. It pains me even to think of over a decade without standing in a smallmouth river swinging a fly rod (though I spent plenty of that decade standing in trout rivers).

Since then, however, I've been busy atoning for my smallmouth-neglecting sins—

and loving it!

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