Almy: Shenandoah stocked with smallmouths

With doves and Canada geese now open and deer bow season less than a month away, most outdoorsmen and women are concentrating on hunting. But September is actually one of the best months of the year for fishing. You’ll find waters are fuller than normal for this time of year because of slightly better rainfall this year. And the crowds of summer have disappeared, leaving you with long stretches of rivers and streams and entire coves of lakes to enjoy on your own.

Largemouth bass are biting in all of the popular waters Shenandoah Valley anglers like to visit such as Lake Anna, Moomaw, Buggs Island and the Potomac and Chickahominy rivers. Crappies are cooperating too around bridge pilings and beaver huts. Pickerel are starting to become active as they always do in the fall. But one of the best quarries of all is waiting close by in our own Shenandoah River — the smallmouth bass.

You can catch smallmouths on live bait such as madtoms, hellgrammites and minnows. That’s a great way to pull inparticularly large fish. Lures are also lots of fun. Try spinnerbaits, soft jerkbaits, thin minnow plugs, grubs and topwater plugs in small sizes. But for the most fun of all, rig up a fly rod. Shenandoah’s bronzebacks are the perfect quarry for this tackle.

Other than trout, it would be hard to imagine a freshwater quarry better suited for the fly rod than smallmouths, particularly those inhabiting rivers and large streams. The reason they are such a good fit for the long-rodder is their aggressive feeding habits and their penchant for compact, bite-sized meals.

Bronzebacks are so obliging that they can easily be caught by even beginning fly rodders. They are a great species to start learning the sport on. Using the right tackle is important, though. A simple single-actionreel with a 6-8 weight forward or bass-taper floating line is best, teamed up with a tapered 7-9 foot leader and 8-9 foot fly rod. This outfit will let you fish anywhere from the surface to depths of 4-5 feet. If you have to go deeper than that, buy an extra spool with a sinking tip line rigged with a 4-6 foot leader and switch to it when needed.

Nymphs, streamers and topwater flies can all entice Shenandoah smallmouths. Nymphs such as the hellgrammite, damselfly, Bitch Creek and Girdle Bug can be particularly deadly when tied weighted on size 2-8 hooks or fished on a sink-tip line. Drift them naturally through pools and deep runs and let them swirl into backwater eddies.

Streamers such as the Zonker, Clouser Minnow, Marabou Muddler, Wooly Bugger and Matuka are excellent in sizes 2-8. Fish them on a floating line in the shallows or with split shot or a sink tip line in deep pools and runs. Strip them back with crisp 8-16 inch tugs of the line.

Casting topwater flies for smallmouths is about as good as angling gets. Many chunky trout patterns in large sizes will fool our local bronze bass, such as the Wulff series, Goofus Bugs, Stimulators, and Irresistibles.

Also try imitations of land-based insects such as beetles, hoppers, crickets, caterpillars and ants. These form a staple food for river and stream smallmouths from spring through fall. Try patterns such as the Crowe Beetle, Foam Beetle, Chernobyl Ant, Letort Cricket, Joe’s Hopper and Dave’s Hopper on size 6-12 hooks. Deliver these with a tiny “splat” and often smallmouths will come racingover to nail the fly, thinking an actual bug from land has tumbled into the stream.

Larger deer hair bass bugs can be deadly too. Work these with subtle twitches after allowing the ripples from the initial delivery to dissipate. Work them 4-6 feet back, then pick up the fly and re-cast. Fish will rarely follow them farther than that. Poppers are also a top choice. My biggest smallmouth ever, a 5 ¾ pounder from the New River in West Virginia, nailed a yellow jacket cork popper in just three feet of water as we drifted through the tail of a pool in a West Coast dory driftboat.

That was one of my greatest angling thrills ever. But even when a bronzeback just weighing one pound slips up and smashes a deer hair bug or cork popper as you float down the Shenandoah, I think you’ll agree that the smallmouth may well be the ultimate freshwater North American gamefish.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.