On a recent smallmouth bass kayak trip here in Central Pennslvania on the Juniata River, I watched a fly angler gear up at the boat launch with his guide. The high and cold water didn’t seem to setup well for a fly angler. I chuckled to myself as I knew my finesse spinning rod arsenal would dominate the day. Well, they got started slightly before me and they weren’t 50 yards from the launch before I heard cheers and saw high-fives between the guide and his client. Due to the pace of my kayak and their drift boat, that is pretty much what I heard all day as I struggled to manage just a handful of decent fish on my finesse techniques on spinning gear. Fly fishing for smallmouth bass is something that Dock Talker Spotswood Payne shows clients the joy of doing throughout the year. We discuss with Spotswood fly fishing for James River smallmouth Bass but he also gives some great advice for anyone that wants to try a fly rod for river smallmouth bass.
How long have you been fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass?
I have been fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass for most of my life, but to be completely honest it wasn’t till about five years ago that I truly fell in love with these creatures. There are many characteristics which the James possesses, that is why I prefer and love to fish the James for smallmouth bass. It is the pure fact that the James River is a “gorilla” breading ground. Those who have been fishing and guiding this river for years know it holds some of the biggest smallies on the east coast.
For someone who has never done it, describe what it is like to catch a smallmouth bass with a fly rod?
One of the reasons that so many local Virginia anglers get hooked on smallies is literally the immense fight that smallies regularly display. More often than not, most fish that are willing to eat a surface fly are not the trophy specimens or species we are chasing. Smallies are one of the few that are the opposite; in Virginia the big smallies eat topwater. The fly rod is the best tool to present a top water pattern delicately enough not to spook these old educated fish in the shallow summer waters of the James.
What fly rod setup do you primarily use for fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass?
I have a bit of a formula that I follow pretty carefully for chasing smallmouth on the fly. For the average angler I would highly recommend a 7wt or 8wt rod. Sure, most anglers could fight your average smallie on a lighter rod, but a heavier rod is needed to toss the big bugs the distance that is necessary to stick a wary old bronzeback. Personally, I throw a 7wt rod with a floating 7wt line. I use a 9 ft 1x mono leader and add 2 to 3 ft of 2x fluorocarbon tippet. This may seem to be overkill, but it works.
For someone just starting out in fly fishing, would you recommend this same setup or something different?
A 7wt set up will get the job down for most anglers, though I definitely suggest an 8wt set for the beginning angler. Again, success is more about delivering the bug to the right spot over and over again. The James is not a numbers fishery, so making sure that every cast lands in the kill zone is paramount for success.
What sections are you guiding and fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass?
The James River is the largest watershed in Virginia and thus obviously provides us with an incredible diversity of fishing opportunities. But, for smallmouth bass, I truly believe the best waters are below where the James crosses through the Blue Ridge mountains. The piedmont of Virginia provides the flatter topography that trophy smallies need to pack on that size and weight.
When fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass, what do you consider a good day on the river in terms of #s and size?
Though the James is a proven producer of legends, she can be a tough nut to crack. Most successful days on the James are not counted by the number of fish boated, but the number of possible monsters we may have had shots to stick. On an average productive day anglers can expect fair numbers of fish, but usually not pushing past the mid-twenties. But, in this number, usually a couple of trophies present themselves. Anglers can expect fish ranging in size from 6 to 22 inches. There is no exaggeration there. It can be pretty technical fishing, but it can sure pay off.
If you had to name a favorite fly for each of the seasons, what would your favorite fly be for spring, summer, and fall?
One of the greatest things about the average smallmouth is that they do not tend to be very selective, and in most cases this holds true. But, being able to key in on certain hatches will greatly improve your odds to be dancing with an absolute toad. Just like big brown trout out west, there are “hatches” or food sources that even larger more educated smallies will gullibly gobble.
I will mention a few, and those who are interested in a more in-depth discussion on presentation are more than welcome to book a trip where I will reveal all… but, the early spring crayfish are a killer. Colors and size can be a huge deal when fishing for prespawn smallies in the spring. But as the sadly late and great Lefty would tell you: a chartreuse and white bait fish imitation will produce as well. Some anglers swear by hellgrammite patterns this time of year too.
Midsummer generally heralds the advent of topwater fishing. By about June 1st, most all fish have moved out of spawn waters into feeding lies, located much closer to moving water and structure change. Poppers along structure and seam lines can draw a lot of fish. Keep in mind the old adage: foam is home. Other topwater patterns such as the wiggle minnow and divers of all sorts should also produce well.
By July 1st the Dobson fly hatch is in full swing and there is no reason to take that popper off the line. Late July and August are obviously the realm of terrestrials and most definitely my preferred time to chase beast smallies on the James. Patterns from anatomically correct foam bugs to old school cork poppers will get the job done. Here it is all about presentation; much like presenting a Wulff to a native brook trout, a good drift makes it real enough.
Topwater usually extends into September and mid October, but as the weather cools the big boys turn to bait. A simple clouser minnow jigged low and slow is generally the most productive pattern and presentation in the fall and into the colder months.
What are some conditions on the James River that will give bass fly anglers a challenge?
Low clear water is a common condition endured by anglers on the James. Longer casts, longer leaders and more precise drifts can alleviate some of the difficulties that low water can produce. The flip side of lower flows, is the occasional blow out. This usually sidelines most anglers, but those who have put the time in even in poor conditions reap the benefits. Just like other fish, when waters rise and get dirty, larger predators are more likely to move out of there hidden lairs to hunt. Thus giving us a few more shots at these target fish. There aren’t many tricks other than fishing to the water color/condition and fish’s behavior, except taking advantage of each and every day on the water no matter the conditions.
Are there safety considerations that anglers should be aware of for floating and wading when fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass?
The James is a rather docile body of water and really doesn’t provide many hazards for anglers wading or floating. The James is a flatter shallower river, and is also the largest watershed in the state. That being said, anglers should check flows of the river after any large precipitation that may have affected the upper reaches of the watershed. The James is known for blowing out flood stage a handful of times a calendar year.
Overall, what are your best 5 pieces of advice for someone fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass?
My top five points of advice would be:
#1 – Fluorocarbon: fluoro sinks so it does not leave a impression on the surface of the water.
#2 – Long leader: the longer the leader the less of a chance you have at spookin big smallies, as long as you turn it over.
#3 – Stretch your cast: same concept as a long leader. The further your bug is from you, the less you’ll spook fish.
#4 – Progress your fly down the bank/structure/seam as you move: at the end of the day smallie are somewhat of a numbers game. The more fish you present to or pass, the more opportunities you will have at boating a true monster.
#5 – Less pops are better when fishing topwater: in most conditions, an aggressive or continuous popping action tends to scare off large more wary fish.
What is a typical day like for a client when fly fishing for James River smallmouth bass with you?
I am a lover of the sport and the location, so my guide experience, while still focused on landing trophies, is more directed to the appreciation of the fishery and the quarry. Appreciation and respect many times bring support to a fishery.
How does someone get in touch with you about a trip?
Anglers who are interested in joining me on the water may call the Albemarle Anglers at 434 977 6882 or email the shop at Albemarleangler@gmail.com to book a day on the water with me.
To follow Spotswood’s Virginia guiding for both trout and smallmouth bass, check him out on Instagram @va_onthefly.
Also make sure to read are other interview with Spotswood.