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No Apologies: Fly Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

By Jason McKinley Williams

With so many magazines, websites, and television programs dedicated to both bass fishing and fly fishing, both sports are enjoying ever-increasing popularity. Ironically, however, those of us who combine these pursuits - anglers who primarily fly fish for smallmouth bass - are often treated as oddities by our fellow fishermen. The proprietor of the upscale fly shop looks up disapprovingly from his Orvis catalog when we ask if there are more foam popper bodies in the back. The good old boy at the stream side bait store eyes us suspiciously when we drop some dusty tippet spools on the counter. Fishing magazine articles about fly rodding for bronze backs are only slightly more common than those featuring catfish noodling or holiday carp recipes.

Even longtime fishing companions, with whom I've spent many days flipping jigs from bass boats, are perplexed by my obsession. To maintain some level of respect for a misguided comrade, they've adopted several popular justifications that they feel explain why I might trade a day on the open water for a trudge through some overgrown creek. However, these explanations do not apply to me, nor, I would suspect, to most of the fly fishermen angling for bass in your local stream.

Certainly, it isn't because on fly tackle, even small fish are fun to catch.? If 'fun' were my motive, I can assure you effortlessly sailing a spinner bait to a precise target thirty feet away would be the way to go. Instead, I exchange that efficiency for the act of acrobatic contortionist required to back cast between overhanging branches so I can drop my streamer into a riffle, all the while terrified of wrapping my delicately knotted tippet around yet another tree limb. Once you've completed this maneuver (a few evenings of which will get a chiropractors phone number on your speed dial), the realization that your fly is lodged in the jaws of five-inch sunfish will not set your heart soaring.

Also, I do not fly fish for smallmouth because "it is more sporting" at least in the oversimplified definition of that term--which means something like on more even terms with the fish. Putting myself on even terms with a smallmouth isn't enticing at all. Those of us well acquainted with Micropterus dolomieui know him to be a vicious, ambushing brute--among the least pleasant creatures in nature. Once, while wading, I had a hooked bass run straight at me and encircle my legs with my fly line twice before I could think to reel. To this day, I'm firmly convinced he planned to drown me and mount my hat on his wall. To subdue such a creature, I will gladly utilize any advantage evolution or science can provide.

Moreover, it's not because "it's the popular thing right now." Though fly-fishing has become quite fashionable, that alone won't keep you coming back to a stream. I won't deny that one can get a rush of narcissism when an elderly gentleman and his grandson halt their stream side hike to admire your casting. When Grandpa says "Just watch him, Timmy," you can get caught up in the moment, stirred that you've become a scene from A River Runs Through It set before their eyes. It makes you wish you knew how to 'shadow cast,' and that bass might appreciate such a thing.

However, inevitably, I'm certain to shatter Gramps' and junior's awe by botching up something with remarkable clumsiness. My specialty is the roll cast that crashes into the water with a splash only slightly less than that you would expect if I tossed in a lawn chair. Nothing can make you realize you aren't Brad Pitt like Timmy saying: "Grandpa, look how fast the fish can swim away!"

No, my love for this sport is actually due to my satisfaction with the holistic experience. In my favorite creek, I've felt out every foot of the stream bed, and learned not only which boulders to target, but also which side of the stone offers the best haven from the current. I've come to appreciate the smallies that won't chase a Garlic-impregnated grub no matter how well it's presented, but which will emerge from beneath a log if a huge, leggy nymph floats by at just the right point in a nearby riffle. I've been awed when I've felt a big bronzeback run, feeling it not through the yank on my rod tip, but through my fingertips on the line. I've come to know this fish and its world in a unique way, and it has been an extraordinary education.

And from this education, I believe, we warm-water fly anglers have much to share to other fishermen. To fly fisherman, we can assure you that great fly angling opportunities don't necessitate plane tickets to famous trout waters. You likely drive past them daily while grumbling about the long wait until your next fishing trip.

To traditional bass fisherman, we can share simply this: in a river or lake you frequent, between a boulder and an undercut bank, there is a fish growing fat, smugly watching his na´ve brethren chase after worms. If somewhere in that boat you've got a 9-weight and a muddler minnow, you have an excellent chance of introducing that lunker to the wonderful world outside of water.

That's when you'll know that suffering a few odd looks at the boat dock is well worth the reward. ~ Jason McKinley Williams (C) 2007

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