By Al Raychard
Autumn brings plenty of color across the New England landscape, and “leaf-peepers” traveling from far and wide will come to partake of its beauty. I have to tell you though, despite the glorious shades of red, yellow and orange my favorite color this time of year is bronze, as in bronzeback. That word isn’t used much anymore when talking about smallmouth bass, but I come from a generation of anglers where its usage was rather common and every bass enthusiast knew what it meant.
We also knew, and still know, several things about the bronzeback that make them a worthwhile target. One was they are equally at home in moving water as a trout. In fact, they often inhabit the same waters as trout and in some neighborhoods the two are found and caught in the same riffles and pools. When sought in moving waters smallies can be a challenging adversary, and when hooked on light to medium tackle in a riffle along the edge of a rapid or from a pool with hidden cover and currents they offer one of the most exciting struggles in freshwater. I suppose that is why most folks who have caught them in rivers and streams like fishing for them as much as they do trout. Smallmouth bass are larger than trout in most waters where they’re found together, pound for pound better fighters, and they usually offer more consistent action. All things considered, you have to love them!
Personally, the thing I like about smallmouth bass in moving waters is they are not generally as selective as trout, nor are they as easily spooked. You can’t splash about and make a big commotion of course but crawling along a stream bank and casting from your knees is not required as is sometimes the case with well-educated trout. Most smallmouth bass aficionados consider late spring and early summer the peak time frame for seeking them out, but for a number of reasons the fall period can be just as rewarding, if not more so.
Following the spring spawning period, bronzebacks inhabiting moving water typically kick back for a while, just like those residing in lakes and other still water areas. These fish are fussier than largemouth bass when it comes to water temperatures and only a few degrees makes a difference in where they will hold, cruise and actively feed. Smallies have an optimum temperature range from 59 to about 65 degrees. Because many of our rivers and streams in Maine reach temperatures on the high end of this spectrum during the height of summer, if not higher for short periods, except during the hours of early morning and late day smallmouths are typically found in deep water.
As late summer wanes into early autumn, however, river and stream temperatures start to moderate. This is particularly true after periods of rain or sudden cold snaps. Once this happens and temperatures drop into the low 60s, bronzebacks move out of their deep holes into shallower areas and will be found in places that can be easily waded or fished with a float tube. They will hang in these areas for longer periods each day, eventually forming schools and staying in those shallow areas once temperatures drop into the upper 50’s. After that, as winter approaches and water temperatures get down to around 50 degrees they seek deep water again for a period of very limited activity right through the winter. The point here is that bass schooled up in shallow water and their increased inclination to feed after a long, hot summer add up to some terrific potential for fall-season anglers using fly gear and light spinning tackle.
Bronzebacks have smaller appetites than their cousin the largemouth, and while they do eat during the summer months it is not nearly as often and certainly not as much as during the fall because their metabolism simply doesn’t call for it. In the fall they must obtain the energy reserves needed to make it through the long winter. They are hungry and competitive – a small pool or bend in a river may hold many fish and the wiser individuals figure out they’d better jump on just about anything that looks like food before their schoolmate does. From an angler’s perspective, this is about as good as it gets.
Smallmouth bass are different than largemouth bass in several ways, and one of the major differences is smallies prefer fairly fast water. There are certainly plenty of lakes that hold smallmouth, but a bonus to the river-bred fish is that they must be stronger and more aggressive than their stillwater brethren. These fish are not as streamlined as trout, however, and the currents should not be too fast or demanding. Instead of fast rapids, smallmouths will hold along the edges where the water is less demanding. Places where powerful currents are broken by boulders and other structure are particularly attractive holding areas. Depending upon force of the flow, smallmouths will often hold just above these obstacles. They like eddies with gravel bottoms, shallow undercut banks, the edges of pebbled or boulder-strewn drop-offs, rock ledges along the side of a run, and particularly the flats or tail ends of pools. They also like the heads of pools below riffles or rapids. Log jams at the heads of riffles or pools are perfect places for bronzebacks to find shelter and a good supply of forage.
I like targeting small islands surrounded by a coarse rock bottom and sandbars with water flowing around one or both sides over a bottom that is two to four feet deep. These places fish best early and late in the day before the sun hits the water. Odds are small islands will be somewhat sheltered from the wind, and the bars along them will have a shallow average depth. If there is cover in the form of downed trees or bushes growing out over the water, so much the better.
I search for spots that look like they might hold trout for most of the season because in the fall they often hold bass. These aren’t turbulent pockets of rushing trout rivers but places that might have some submerged structure like a large boulder.
Just as when you’re hunting trout, take a few minutes to study or read the water. Doing so will not only provide clues where bass are holding, cruising or feeding it will also provide an opportunity to determine how best to approach those areas without creating a disturbance. This is important because the water tends to be quite clear in the fall and bronzebacks can be spooked much more easily when they’re in shallow water. A plan of approach will help determine where the best casting positions are and even more importantly how best to deliver your offering. Whether it be quartering downstream, working up or across stream, whatever the case may be or the situation may call for, it is important that your offering lands away from the target area, not right on the fish’s head. That way you can control the drift and presentation, making it as natural as possible.
As a general rule bronzebacks are willing participants when anglers do things right, but taking time to study a stretch of water also provides an opportunity to determine what bass are feeding on. When smallmouths are actively working the surface they can be rather gluttonous and will smack a wide variety of artificial flies or poppers. Just about any of the dry patterns used for trout work just fine, no need to get fancy or specific here. Dry offerings can be deadly during late season insect hatches or when hoppers, crickets and other terrestrials make a late season showing, but this situation is the exception rather than the rule, especially later in the fall season. Fortunately, smallies can often be coaxed into action with something big and juicy that floats high on the water like a hair bug or large dry salmon fly, and it is worth the attempt since their response is typically fast and deliberate. If the fishing is slow or a particular fish appears reluctant, try skittering the floater across the surface over the holding or feeding area.
Small poppers work as well and can be fished upstream or down, or across the current with hard, short strips that make plenty of commotion with each strip. About one pop every second or so should do the trick, although this may vary depending upon current speed and how fish are responding. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit.
Most of the time, however, the best mid- to late-fall action happens below the surface and small streamers designed for trout, salmon streamers from muddlers to small marabou patterns, wet flies, and even nymphs produce excellent results. Here again, we don’t have to get fancy. It might even be time to use some of those ratty streamers that are less than perfect for trout after plenty of service. The smallies don’t mind.
When using subsurface flies or lures, take a position that allows you to cover as much water as possible either by working upstream or getting long drifts on every cast when working across or downstream. In general, smallmouth bass like subsurface offerings worked on a fast retrieve, especially streamers, but don’t hesitate to experiment. On some occasions just a slight change in retrieve speed can make all the difference.
Fish-shaped wobbling spoons and lures and spinners work well on fall bronzebacks, too. Go small, keeping in mind the fish are not deep, using stuff that offers plenty of action or good visibility, and use them as fly-fishermen use flies, casting across and downstream, as well as upstream, using a fast retrieve, adjusting the retrieve as required.
Another thing to keep in mind is to fish a slack-free line. Use your rod tip and retrieve to control the fly or lure and to provide any necessary action. The prime reasons for this are bronzebacks can be fast to strike and they have tougher mouths than trout and rarely hook themselves. When the strike comes, the angler must respond quickly enough and hard enough to set the hook, which is difficult if not impossible to do when there is slack in the line. If you’re only used to fishing in ponds and lakes for bass this may take some getting used to but it is essential if you’re going to make a solid connection to the fish.
During the late spring and summer fishing periods, bronzebacks dislike bright sunlight and can be difficult to catch during the heat of the day. Early morning and late in the day until dusk are generally the best hours to seek them out at that stage of the season. During the fall, however, the sun rises later in the morning, does not climb as high or get as strong or intense, and starts to drop sooner. While early morning can still produce good action, getting out of bed before dawn and hitting the river at daylight really isn’t necessary. The midmorning hours, after water temps have had a chance to warm up a few degrees, can be prime time to get started and smallies can remain active through the day, especially on overcast days or when direct sunlight is deflected by clouds. The last hour or two before dusk are always worth fishing, as fish hunt for a final meal before calling it a day.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of larger streams and rivers in northern New England that host smallmouth bass. Hardcore trout anglers may scorn these fish but the fighting prowess of a bronzeback cannot be denied.