Fishing Smallmouth in Low Water
Check the local stream gauge and you will find most of our Central VA streams are low and clear. This happens almost every year. Fishing in low/clear water will change how we often think of bass. Typically, people describe them as ravenous, stupid predators that inhale anything that falls near them - even if it’s tied on an anchor rope.
In low/clear water this is far from the truth.
Let’s first discuss the problems low/clear water creates for us; then I’ll dive into a few ways we can tackle them.
LOW & CLEAR WATER PROBLEMS:
Clear conditions mean bass can see everything excellently, including you. Take a quick float through downtown Lynchburg, and one thing you’ll quickly notice is how many fish there are. The next thing you’ll notice is that those fish will almost always be moving AWAY from your boat. In these situations, if you see them, they can see you. You will rarely tempt these fish into eating a fly, regardless of how often or close you splat that popper on top of their heads.
Bass don’t like bright sun. Like all fish, bass do not have eyelids. They can’t close their eyes and pretend it’s dark out. Like us, they don’t want to sit out in bright sun and be blinded by the light if they have a choice. So, in low clear water they will search out cover that helps them tackle this annoyance. They have several solutions - swim to the deepest water they can find, stick to the shade line at the bank, use ledges or rocks in the river to their advantage, or camp out in a blown down tree. The solution will change from fish to fish and varies in every fishery you go to, but all are worth an investigation with your fly.
So, you can see them? You better believe an osprey, eagle, or otter can see them too! And, those predators are not catch and release anglers. Fish are always more susceptible to predation in low and clear water, and all animals know this. Bass will be particularly spooky to ensure they don’t become that eagle’s next meal. And when they see your “comparatively” monstrous self pointing at them with a fly rod, you can safely guess they’ll be terrified and shut down. You’ll be left watching their tail wag away from your direction, or they’ll parallel the boat at some distance watching with their peripheral vision (just as you might do to someone you want to keep your distance from without making it look like you’re too scared).
Weak Ambush Points
If big fish can see better, little fish can too. Baitfish won’t be as stupid and accidentally swim into the holding position of Big Mouth Billy Bass. This often means that in low/clear water, poppers become more effective. This is not always the case, but smallmouth seem to love it in clear water when a big bug drops into the river. It’s a fast and easy meal that can’t escape as easily as a school of shad. Going in line with the hi-visibilty factor, this can actually be more of a benefit for the angler than a problem.
In these conditions, you’d better practice your casting beforehand. Because to put the most fish in the net, you’ll want to put a fly 50-60 ft. away. This ensures you’re out of sight of the fish and won’t spook her. This casting distance may require off-the-water practice. I know many people in our neck of the woods are used to flicking flies at brook trout 12 ft. away all day, so casting a sz. 2 popper 50 foot can seem impossible. However, with the right gear and a little bit of practice you shouldn’t have a problem. If you do, give us a call or stop by the shop and we can give you some additional pointers.
Some bass leaders can be as short as 3 foot. In fact, I’ve heard of people tying a foot of tippet to the fly line and fooling fish, but the fish in our rivers won’t stand for that right now. I recommend, at minimum, a 8’ leader. Most times, I would like to see that longer. I’ve heard from very successful guides that they’ll sometimes use a 12’ leader in low and clear water. Yes, that would be annoying to cast. However, if you want to maximize your catching, you may consider doing something similar. Here’s how - add 30lb. Maxima or another stiff monofilament to the butt section of your leader. This will ensure the fly still turns over properly. There’s a little more explanation on this below.
If you read that previous point, you’ll see I said fish a longer leader. You’ll want to achieve that length NOT by only adding lighter tippet, but by adding a stiffer and longer butt section to the leader. If all you do is downsize tippet size, the leader won’t hold enough energy to effectively “turn over” your fly. With every cast you will have to force it, and your leader and fly will land in a pile. That’s annoying. You’ll want to go down to a lighter tippet anywhere in the 10lb. to 8lb. range (which would roughly translate to 2X or 3X). Keep the lighter tippet to about 1-2 feet to ensure your leader still remains stiff.
Here’s why. The lighter tippet will help do two things: 1) the fly will act more naturally and 2) it will give a little bit less material for the bass to reject. Think about it, would you eat your cereal with a long hair on it? Nah. you’d try to get it out. Would you be more open to finishing the bowl if it was a bit of your stubble that won’t seem to stick to your spoon or finger for removal? Gross, yes, but the point is valid. You can be aware something is there, but if it’s small enough, it doesn’t have an impact on your consumption.
This goes along with the “Bright Days/Predators” problem. Bass will do whatever it takes to remain uneaten and still be around a semi-constant supply of food. Often this means taking cover near structure. Could there be a better place to take cover than under the shade of a nice overhanging tree? They’re protected from the sun, they’ll be able to ambush bait, chomp on falling cicadas or frogs, and can quickly escape the claws of an osprey with a bolt into the submerged timber.
When the sun comes up and hits the water hard, you better believe one of the main places I’m focusing on is the shade side of the river, regardless of how small that patch is. Shade can be provided by a number of things: trees, foam on the surface of the water, fast moving riffles, or ledges. Regardless of where the shade comes from, the fish will find it, and you’d better be fishing it!
This is one of my favorite times to fish for bass. It can be a little technical if you want to be successful. However, the whole time out is a toasty joy. You don’t have to worry about hypothermia, you can enjoy getting a tan while fishing, and let the cares of the world melt off the side of the boat. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to shoot them our way!