Smallmouth Fly Fishing in the Upper Peninsula

Trophy smallmouth abound when the conditions are right.

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Fly fishing for gigantic lake-run smallmouth has become a yearly ritual up here in the Upper Peninsula – unfortunately it is also a pastime that eventually leads to insanity. Encounters with these aggressive brutes typically lead to broken fly rods, tattered nerves, and sleepless nights dreaming about the next trip. To pass the time between trips, fly anglers will talk about green monsters and the gear they choose to stalk this explosive quarry. If you ever overhear a smallmouth fly fisherman’s conversation about what to throw at these fish it might sound like something out of a fraternity: Drunk-N-Disorderly, Flip-Flop Flies, Mr. Wiggly, Thin Mints, etc.  

What are Smallmouth Bass?  

Smallmouth Bass (aka Smallies, SmallJaws, River Gangsters, or as the latin scientists call them Micropterus dolomieu) are distinguished from there largemouth brothers by the fact that the rear end of their lower jaw doesn’t extend past the eye, while the jaw on a largemouth bass does. Smallmouth are usually olive green or pale brown, while their belly is yellow-white in color, and they usually have a number of small, dusky brown blotches and sometimes five to 15 indistinct dusky lateral bars.

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Adult smallmouth bass grow up to 26 inches long and can eclipse 7 pounds (with the largest smallmouth bass ever caught, according to the International Game Fish Association, was 11 pounds, 15 ounces). Most are 8 to 22 inches, if you are in the 18” range you’re in for a sore arm, if you are in the 20” range you’ve got a trophy. 

Smallmouth bass are sometimes overshadowed by their largemouth counterparts, but they are still easily one of the most popular sportfish species in North America. They’re easy to find and are some of the most aggressive fish out there hungry for all sorts of flies, baits and lures.


When is the best time to fish for Smallmouth Bass?   

In the Upper Peninsula, we enjoy fly fishing for smallmouth almost all year long. 

  • In the spring (May-Jun), pre-spawn smallmouth move up our Lake Michigan tributaries to spawn. Pre-spawn fishing is prime time, these fish are huge, super aggressive, and come in large numbers. We stay away from bedding fish and practice catch and release to make sure the next generation gets their shot.  The bonus this time of year is that there are usually some dropback steelhead still in the rivers that may decide to crunch your fly too.
  • In the summer (Jun-Aug), it’s top water time. We’ll spend our time chasing resident fish in the streams, lakes, and ponds. No better way to spend a beautiful summer evening than chucking big poppers. Glug, glug…
  • In the fall (Sep-Nov), smallies change gears and head to deeper, slower water so we throw big sink tips and slow twitch streamers.

Want to see what a spring smallmouth trip is like, check out this video we made of a recent trip:


What Upper Peninsula rivers have smallmouth? 

Smallmouth bass can be found all throughout the rivers, lakes and ponds in the Upper Peninsula, where they are commonly native. However, some places are known for huge smallmouth -- and the Little Bay De Noc in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is one such area. The Little Bay De Noc is on the far north tip of Lake Michigan (near Escanaba and Gladstone). This region is home to some of the best Walleye fishing in the world, but what few don’t know is that the same conditions that make this area such a spectacular Walleye fishery also make it home to an amazing number of gigantic smallmouth bass. 

Just about every river that flows into the Bay De Noc has some sort of run of Smallmouth in the spring. Being there when the fish are there is the challenge. In the spring, fish tend to move in and out of the smaller rivers really quickly which makes timing difficult (you may only have a couple days or a week to hit the run). Best advice is to target the larger rivers, they'll give you the greatest window of opportunity and make timing less a factor.


How do I find smallmouth bass in a river?   

There are many great articles on this topic, but basically you can usually find smallmouth bass around the more noticeable structures in a river, such as fallen trees, large debris, undercut banks, big boulders and deeper troughs waiting to ambush their next meal. During the fall and winter, when things cool down, smallmouth will move to the deeper pools and slower water. In the spring, it pays to work streamers around the banks, holes and troughs. In the summer, work the banks and edges with poppers. In the fall, look to the slower deeper pools and work your sink tips with twitching streamers.


How should I fly fish for smallmouth bass?   

There's really two main tactics when it comes to fly fishing for smallmouth: streamers and top water. 

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Chucking streamers for smallmouth:

It’s best to use a 6 to 8 weight fly rod, a 7-weight is about ideal. I like to swing with a 10.5 ft #5 two-handed switch rod). Floating line will work fine but, depending on depth, you’ll want to add 5 to 10 feet of sinking tip to help get your fly down. Add a short 15-pound leader around 3-4 feet long between your sink tip and streamer and you’re all set. 

Typically you’re casting and stripping/jerking the streamer erratically to give it a lot of movement and action. Don’t forget to pause every now and then, that can be a trigger for a big smallmouth to ambush.

You do have to get down to the fish. They want it in theirface (except for one smallie that took the streamer right off the surface whenit hit the water )…so I usee a variety of heavy sink tips depending on the water depth we werefishing. We’d just slowly swing through the deeper darker holes and waitfor “a snag” which then would turn into an explosion and chaos.   

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Best streamers for smallmouth bass: #4-6 Drunk-n-Disorderly (white, yellow or olive), #4-6 Woolley Buggers (green, black, brown), #6-8 Near Nuff Crayfish, and #6-8 Clouser Minnows. 

Throwing top water for smallmouth:

7-weight rod is ideal rigged with a floating line and a short 15-pound leader about 4-5 feet long. Our fish aren’t typically leader shy so I’ll go shorter leader to give me better control and casting. 

Best top water patterns for smallmouth: Grab some #4-6 poppers in yellow, green or black. If you have a lot of blue gray dragon flies you might want to experiment with blue poppers. 

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Smallmouth seem especially sensitive to bright noon day sun(much like many fish) and they will just turn off -- so we want to target mornings,afternoons, and evenings the most.  

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Get ready for a fight

Smallmouth in the 17-18” range are incredibly strong and if they are downstream from you and you are trying to work them up to your position they will use their broad body shape against the current to wear you out -- they have a way of tacking like a sailboat back and forth in strong current that is just not right. Take your time and eventually they’ll work their way to the boat. I’ve learned to use a long handled net to minimize the bend on the fly rod, I’ve broken more rods on smallmouth when trying to net them.


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As mentioned, chasing pre-spawn smallmouth in the Upper Peninsula during the spring is an epic adventure and you never know what else might be lurking in the same a 20-pound drop back steelhead interested in a quick snack!

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