Smallmouth Bass: Bowery Boy Of The Fish World

Remember Leo Gorcey, as Slip Mahoney, leader of the Bowery Boys street gang in those innocent urban unrest movies of the 1940s, and a later TV series in the 60s. He was the quintessential wiseguy, hat brim pinned back, pugnacious Irish face, fast of mouth and taking no guff from anyone.

He was a human smallmouth bass. 

Smallmouth are born with a grudge. They, in the trite phraseology of football coaches, "Play bigger than their weight." I was fishing with a lean Vermonter. It was partly sunny, but there were thunderheads to the west, towering cumulus where Thor lives, amid lightning bolts. 

Smallmouth with Mepps spinner in its mouth.

I’ve crossed swords with smallmouth bass from Minnesota to Vermont, Missouri to Ontario, and each time it is a discovery of strength. My first smallmouth assaulted a leopard frog on a northern lake. The frog was carrying a concealed weapon, a No. 2 hook. It came to the end of the slack line and kept going. The rod bowed and the boat rocked.

Obviously this was a very strong frog or something had hold of it. The something was a 2-pound smallmouth bass and after what old-timer angling writers used to call "a spirited tussle," I landed it.

Smallmouth bass agreeably inhabit both lakes and rivers. It’s fine to caress the shoreline of a lake with a popper, but even moreso to let a spinner swing downstream through a river riffle. If you drift a helgrammite, the grotesque larvae of the Dobson fly, through a riffle, a smallmouth will swim through fire to nail it. 

Small, softshelled crayfish also are obscenely effective, as are any flies that imitate Br’er Crawdad. Once, using a crayfish fly in a small bay of a lake in Ontario’s Quetico Wilderness, I caught a 2-pound smallmouth on every cast.

And there were four or five equal-sized fish chasing each hooked fish, apparently miffed they were left out.

Smallies Grow Slower Than Largemouth
Smallmouth bass grow more slowly than largemouth and usually don’t spawn until they’re at least 3 years old and more than a foot long. That’s why some states have gone to length, rather than creel limits

For perhaps two days each year, the smallmouth bass in the Vermont lake are without caution.

"You’ll catch a fish on nearly every cast," Dave says. "Two of us have caught 50 fish or more in two hours.” 

The honey time is during spawning. Bass are in shallow water and will hit a popping bug anywhere in their vicinity. A crawfish fly makes sense for smallmouth bass — their diet will be 70 percent crawfish where mudbugs are plentiful. 

We catch perhaps 25-to-30 fish in five hours, release all but three, the only ones Dave has kept for the fry pan all year. I lose at least a half-dozen fish that feel like 2-pounders 

Smallmouth bass with fly rod and selection of bass flies.

Dave sticks with a Bunny Fly, a leech-like strip of black-dyed rabbit fur, tied on a No. 2 hook.

"If I had one fly for everything, this would be it," Dave says. "I’ve caught more fish of more species with it than anything else."

He’d rather use a small popping bug, but the bass aren’t buying topwater. We chugged a half-mile of shoreline with yellow poppers and had only one taker, a grouchy half-pounder whose red eye promised that if he were a few pounds heavier, he’d knock the snot out of me. 

Dave uses a sink-tip line that takes the undulating strip of fur deep. Watching him try to lift the heavy line and fly from eight feet down is like watching a cowboy try to pull a mired horse out of quicksand.

He sets the hook on a nice deepwater bass and, simultaneously, a fish of equal size takes my fly near the surface. The fish dance around the canoe, threatening to tangle our lines and we frantically whoop and maneuver, the canoe rocks precariously, and the loons giggle.

For a fine selection of Fly Fishing gear, click here.

For a fine assortment of fishing gear, click here.

Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.