Acrobatic September smallmouth bass on flies

Bill Graves, Special to The County
4 years ago

Ounce for ounce, pound for pound, smallmouth bass are the most acrobatic, aerobatic, fighting fish in northern Maine. Nicknamed “bronzebacks,” these fish remain aggressive and active regardless of warm, shallow water conditions, while most other gamefish school up and become lethargic. 

Another positive characteristic of these feisty fish is their propensity to strike almost any bait that crosses their path; soft plastic, hard plastic diving, hard plastic surface, wet flies and live bait are all effective.

My personal favorite bait, especially for late August and all September, is a floating fly in the form of a surface popper (part plastic, part feathers) or a colorful, trimmed and shaped hair and feather fly. It’s a bit of a challenge to cast a big, fluffy fly and you certainly won’t cover the distance a spinning rod and plug can, but the resulting action of a strike is well worth the constraints. It’s also a challenge to hook, play and land a leaping smallie on a single hook, especially one with a weed guard.

Most Aroostook anglers who already fly fish for trout and salmon will own a rod that will also work for bass. An 8- or 9-foot, 5-weight is perfect, even a 6-weight, and a floating line on a medium-sized reel. A weight forward line with a 7-foot leader of at least 10-pound test monofilament will aid casting distance and precision with the heavier, wind-resistant bulk of popper and hair bugs. Lighter lines and longer, lighter leaders just won’t turn the fly over well, often leading to the painful experience of whacking yourself or a companion in the boat with the fat fly on a backcast.

Casting and hooking bass on a big, fluffy bass bug can be a challenge for fly fishermen, but the ensuing battle with all the leaping and splashing is spectacular. This hefty smallmouth engulfed a frog imitation.
(Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Bass tend to lie in wait near large rocks or stumps, in lily pads and weed beds and along shaded shorelines for unsuspecting prey to appear. The trick for fly casters is to paddle or float quietly along and plop your fly into their feeding field of view. Once your fuzzy floating bait alights, let it sit in place until all the landing rings disappear. Then twitch your rod tip to make the popper or hair bug hop, and make a plopping noise and more rings, just like a live bug or amphibian that fell in the water might.

Fish the fly in hops and jumps all the way back to boatside before picking up to recast to another likely holding spot. Sometimes a smallmouth will attack the fake floating feast the instant it lands, as if on high alert just under the surface, which it probably was. More often a bronzeback will strike on the first retrieve after letting the landing rings clear away, and other times a fish will follow several yards and explode right at the boat. Either way, the surface strike of a hefty smallie is always spectacular, just like a cannon ball was shot into the water.

Once the water churning subsides, the real fight is on and it’s going to go one of two ways: down deep surging and shaking or aerial acrobatics with water flying and sun flashing off a somersaulting smallie. It tends to be the big bronzebacks that dive deep and apply rod-doubling pressure, the four-pounders are wrist breakers on a limber, moderate-weight fly rod. As much as I like fooling big bass, the two- to three-pounders splash and dash in and out of the water like Olympic acrobats, entertaining and challenging to land.

Popper flies and deer hair bass bugs are very productive this month on regional lakes and river for smallmouth bass. Surface fishing with a fly rod offers terrific action. Notice the size and style difference of the surface flies and poppers compared to the lure in the center.
Courtesy of Bill Graves

Deer hair bass bugs in vivid colors, fat near the hook eye and trimmed narrower toward the hook, are very popular. I like a pattern with rubber legs, long tail feathers and a hackle wound between the body and tail; orange, green, yellow and black are proven colors tied on the hook in layers and a set of glass eyes really ups the realism. The only downfall is the fly becomes waterlogged after catching several bass, so have several as replacements while others dry out in the sun.

Foam or plastic-headed poppers are another surface fly that really stir up  smallmouths. Early versions date back to the 1920s. They cast a bit easier than the hair bugs and they float high and stay dry longer. Peck’s Popper, Boogle Bug, and Freaky Frog are a trio of this type of surface bait. There are a vast array of bass bugs that imitate frogs, toads, mice, moles, and even small birds; smallmouth are true aquatic predators and eat just about anything.

The only real drawback to bass fishing for Aroostook anglers is the need to drive at least an hour to reach top-rate smallmouth lakes, ponds and rivers. Among the better waterways are Pleasant Pond and Mattawamkeag Lake in Island Falls, Baskahegan Lake, Crooked Brook Flowage and Hot Brook Lake near Danforth. East Grand Lake and the Penobscot River in Medway are a couple of other excellent options.

Moderate temperatures, foliage beginning to change colors and very few other fishermen on the water are all reasons to venture out this month for late-season bass angling.  Once you hook the first high-leaping, hard-fighting smallie on a bass bug you will understand the main reason for being on the water, and why you need to return again soon.