Fly Fishing Basics: Reading the Water


Starting at the Bottom

One of the most important characteristics of the river I look for when searching out prime smallmouth habitat is bottom type. To why bottom type is so important, we must first understand the feeding habits of smallmouth. A smallmouth gets its energy by consuming other organisms (heterotrophic) and therefore must consume large amounts of prey in order to survive. The feeding habits of smallmouth change throughout its life cycle but we will focus on adults. Smallmouth primarily feed on crayfish, but also on aquatic insects and baitfish. With that said we need to understand where food sources that smallmouth feed on live to locate the best waters for smallmouth. Let’s start with crayfish which is one of my favorite imitations for targeting big smallmouth. Crayfish will burrow in the mud but I more commonly find them burrowing under rocks and logs. The crayfish I find here in the Midwest vary in color from bluish to dark olive to bright reddish orange. Crayfish feed on insects, various types of algae and small fish if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because I find crayfish dancing along the rocks, rocky bottoms are one of the key features I look for when searcing out prime smallmouth waters.

Where the Trees Lie the Baitfish Swim

While crayfish are the favorite and most universal food source, smallmouth will frequently feed on smaller fish such as sculpins, suckers and minnows. I find that these smaller fish will relate to wood structure very frequently. Root balls and fallen trees are stacked full of baitfish and therefore attrack smallmouth bass. Needless to say I am always on the lookout for structure under the water such as logs when looking for smallmouth bass. Even if the log sits on a sandy bottom smallmouth will still relate to it.

Smallmouth Under Log

Underwater Logs Make Great Ambush Points

Smallmouth will seek out structure and tuck next to it and under it for protection and as a point of ambush.

Other Important Features

Because smallmouth are heterotrophic they don't like to expend unnecessary energy otherwise the must find more food. Smallmouth will take cover from the current behind and in front of boulders. Both sides of boulders have pockets of slower moving water and make perfect ambush points. Current seams where fast as slow water meet, eddies, and drop offs all provide smallmouth with a place to take rest from the current.

Smallmouth Under Log

In the rivers in my backyard I find that almost every pool tailout has a deep spot or drop off where smallmouth congregate. My favorite tecnique is to swing a fly over the edge of the drop off. If the water is moving slower I will use the Tequeely otherwise a HiTail works well too.