Summer Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass (June-August)

Summer opens the door on our great smallmouth fishing hard bugs. I usually stock over 20 different hard floating bass bugs in my fly shop.

For my personal surface smallmouth fishing, I usually start the day with the Shenandoah Blue Popper size 6 for the simple reason that it seldom lets me down.

When teaching our Fly Fishing Schools on the river, our instructors stress the importance of learning to read the water. This is a three-step process which lays the whole process right in front of the angler.  First the student evaluates the water before him and reflecting on the depth of the stream, the nature of the stream bottom and the shade, he tries to determine where he believes the bass will choose a feeding station.


After the angler has determined where the bass will locate the feeding station, he chooses where he wants to present his bug. With this information in hand, he now must select where he wants to position himself to make his presentation to the bass.

Here is a breakdown that helps me catch nice smallmouth bass every year.

Several large oak trees along the far bank provide the wonderful shade that all large bass seek. The water along the bank is four feet deep over a cobblestone stream bottom which holds an abundance of smallmouth food. Thus far we have a perfect feeding station to attract the bass. All I must do is cast my bug three feet above this spot and I’ll get my bass. From forty feet downstream I make a low sidearm cast to clear the low tree limbs and my bug drops just above the bass’s feeding station prompting him to take it solidly.

The Shenandoah Chartreuse Chugger is a very special hard surface bug I go to in demanding situations. I have this tied with a fat body and a deeply cupped face on size 4 & 6 hooks.

When floating the river where there are shaded banks with water 5-6 feet deep over cobblestone stream bottoms, I cast my Chugger in tight to the bank. I impart two firm line-hand strips that cause my Chugger to create a loud racket. Repeating this every five seconds usually prompts solid strikes from large bass.

Most of the shiner minnows which gave us such great fishing on the shallow gravel bars early in the season now make their homes in the aquatic grass beds. Over the years I’ve located many stretches of our rivers which give me outstanding fishing for smallmouth feeding on shiner minnows who make their homes in and around the aquatic grass beds.  You’ll know these hot spots when you see them but here are some of my favorites I’ll share with you. Pack Horse Ford on the Potomac close to the Antietam Battlefield gives you more rich grass beds than you can fish all summer. Seakfords Landing on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River has almost a mile of these rich grass beds on the east side of the river upstream of the parking area. I especially like the James River upstream of the Buchanan access point. These grass beds are loaded with shiner minnows and the smallmouths feed heavily upon them.

My favorite way to fish for the smallmouth that feed on the shiner minnows that make their homes in and around these grass beds is to go to them for the last two hours of the evening. I wade up and down the river about fifty feet out from the grass beds and watch for the bass that are chasing the shiners. I then cast a Silver Outcast size 4 out in front of the bass’s path and in many cases I get my bass. I remember one evening at Seakfords Landing when I caught a large smallmouth on one cast after the other until it got dark.

Our rivers currently have the largest populations of crayfish I’ve ever seen. As expected, we are catching many smallmouths on crayfish patterns. During our fly fishing schools and in our personal fishing the Murray’s Crayfish (olive) size 6 is the most productive.

I’m seeing very large numbers of the natural crayfish in the 2-3 feet deep water along the stream banks around cobblestones.

My favorite way to fish these areas is to wade down the river fort feet out from the bank and cast straight in close to the bank. I strip my crayfish two inches every five seconds to make it mimic the crawling action of the natural crayfish. There are many riverbanks that provide this type of cover and there are great numbers of crayfish for hundreds of feet in a row.

The young bluegills are large enough that the smallmouth feed readily upon them. The natural cover for these young bluegills is the shallow water along the banks. The smallmouth can easily run back into these shallows and feed on them.

Wade down the river forty feet out from the bank and cast a Murray’s Magnum Bluegill size 4 in tight against the bank and strip it slowly out toward the deeper water. Often the bass grabs the bluegill before it gets more than two feet from the bank. This is great fun and very productive.

The Bass Caddis Nymph size 6 and Bass Stonefly Nymph size 4 have become very important to the serious smallmouth anglers. By experimenting with these large nymphs in the heavy riffles we are coming to realize the smallmouth feed more on these large nymphs than we had suspected. A very effective technique is to enter the river right below the heavy riffles and cast straight across stream below the riffle. After the nymph sinks deeply, use a hand-twist retrieve to swim it right across the stream bottom. Wade slowly downstream, making repeated casts across stream. Swimming the nymph across stream will catch many bass.

The large open pools in our rivers hold many creek chub minnows. Effective streamers to match these minnows include Shenk’s White Streamer in size 4, 6, & 8 and Murray’s Pearl Marauder size 6 & 8. Starting about twenty feet downstream of the riffles, cast forty feet straight across stream. After it sinks deeply, strip it six inches every 5 seconds to swim it across the stream bottom. If the current is very fast, I often use a sinking head line in order to swim the streamer deeply.

I have a choice at this point as to how to fish this water depending on the depth of the river. If the water below the riffle is a wadeable depth an effective technique is to wade straight across the river taking two steps after each cast. Stripping these streamers six inches every 5 seconds is very effective. Upon reaching the far bank one wades downstream fifty feet then fish back across the river.

If the water below the riffle is too deep to wade across the river a very effective technique is to wade down the side of the river taking several steps after each presentation. Vary the length of your casts to cover all the water thoroughly. The same stream action is still very productive.

The madtom (minnow which looks like a small catfish) is an important smallmouth food if you are after large bass. Many of these live on the stream bottom below the cobblestones. They come out at dusk to feed and are easily exposed for the smallmouth to feed on them.

As a youngster I used to seine the natural madtoms to sell to the bait fisherman. I found very large concentrations of the madtoms lived in the lower one-fourth of the pools. After developing Murray’s Madtom Sculpin, I started fly fishing this streamer on this part of the pool.

Wade into the side of the lower one fourth of the pool at dusk and cast a Murray’s Madtom Sculpin size 6 straight across stream. After it sinks deeply, swim it across the stream bottom by stripping it four inches every four seconds. Wade slowly downstream and fan the casts over all the stream down to the end of the pool.

Once the river is warm enough to wade wet one can get some great smallmouth fly fishing at night. A few basic rules help improve this action and safety.

I select large flat pools with few drop-off ledges on the stream bottom. Stay clear of areas that have many tree limbs hanging out over the pool that can catch your back casts. Check the riverbanks where you plan to get in and out of the river, so you don’t run into old fences and steep muddy banks. Carry a small waterproof flashlight and keep a large one in the vehicle.

I like to start in the middle of the river so I can cast down and across stream on both sides at a twenty-degree angle as I wade downstream. This enables me to impart the action I want for my flies, and I quickly feel the strike and hook the bass.

The Shenandoah Chartreuse Chugger and Shenk’s Black Sculpin produce a strong swimming action when stripped across the stream often bringing powerful strikes.

The White Fly Hatch which is famous at Pack Horse Ford on the Potomac takes two weeks to reach its peak. It is heavy for two weeks then tapers off for two weeks.

All serious smallmouth anglers owe it to themselves to fish this hatch as often as possible. Standing in the middle of the river with two dozen smallmouth bass rising within casting distance as the sun slips over the horizon is enough to turn on the most serious angler.

In the low light and fast action, I like to use a dry fly which will hold up to heavy abuse. The Irresistible Dry size 12 and Humpy Dry (red or yellow) size 12 will both land many bass without having to be dried and redressed to give you the fast action you want.