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Winter Fly Fishing for Smallies

Mark K

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I've spent a pretty fair amount of time winter fishing for smallies. Typically I fished conventional tackle, usually tubes and other soft plastics.

I usually fished slower stretches of the Kankakee with a lot of down timber. In that time I was suprised to see insects flying around and what appeared to be fish feeding on them. Cold blooded critters buzzing around in the 30's and 40's ???? There was a LOT of slurpin' going on. I strongly believe that some of those fish were carp, others smallies.

Tim Holschlag discusses using Float and Fly techniques in his book. The thought of bringing a flyrod out at the time crossed my mind. But at the time I was not very clear on the concept of a "strike indicator", which is pretty much a glorified "bobber" or "float" if one drinks their tea with a pinky raised. Any hoo. I'm just tossing this out for discussion


As a side note, I was highly impressed with the book. It was cool to see ISA member flies listed in there.

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The strike indicator on a Float n' Fly rig is a bobber. I've used the method with both spinning rods and a fly rod with spotty results. When using it with a fly rod, you need to use a foam indicator that is big enough to suspend the fly. I think that it is easier to to use this method with a spinning rod (at least 7') because the method works better with a heavier jig. The Float N' Fly jigs that I have used are 1/16th oz. The heavier jig gets down faster and stays down better than a weighted fly, which usually has less weight than a 1/16h ounce. To fish a heavy fly with an indicator, you need to use a seven or eight weight fly, which diminishes the fun factor on sluggish cold water bass.


In cold water, I've found the keeping whatever bait that you are using (plastics, flies, jig and minnow) stationary on or close to the bottom is often the ticket to catching smallies. You can do that in some spots with a Float 'N Fly, but if there is current around the slack water area that you are fishing or if the depth varies much, it is tough to keep the light fly/jig where you want it for long. When I've used the Float 'N Fly, I've had to switch my rigging back and forth from Float N' Fly to jig or streamer change presentations to try to fish in a specific spot., which is a pain in cold weather.

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Tim has an article int the October Midwest Fly Fishing magazine about fall and winter smallmouth where he mentions the float and fly. I'm kind of torn between wanting to stay with the fly rod, and feeling like a spinning rod is really a better way to float fish. I've done a fair amount of float fishing (ala Mick Thill) and if you use a float designed for flowing water (long and thin with most of the bouancy at the top), you really have a lot of control.


You can fish it a long distance downstream, and by watching the float, you can really tell a lot about the stream bottom and currents. If the bait (jig or whatever) gets hung up on the bottom, you just hold back on the float a little, and the current will swing the bait up and over the obstruction. If the float is drifting straight up and down steadily, your not getting down to the bottom. If you hold back on the float just a little slower than the current speed at the top, your bait will be moving at the slower bottom speed for a real natural presentation.


I first read of Float and Fly fishing for those fishing for winter smallmouth on large resevoirs and lakes. The "float" was a large round bobber, and the "fly" was a hair jig. The waves on the lake would provide the action to the fly, and if there where where no waves, you could rock the bobber slightly to provide the action.


I'll probably try the float and fly presentation using a fly rod if I get the chance yet this year. If it gets to be too much work in the cold, I'll either switch to a slow bottom presentation, or maybe even go with the spinning rod.

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Al- the dark side is calling your name.

It's still OK to use the spinning gear- as long as none of your fly fishing buddies see you.

If one does happen by, explain that you fell and hit your head on a rock, you have amnesia or all your fly gear got stolen back in the parking lot.


They'll understand. ; )

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Make no mistake about it, my favorite way to fish (for smallies or otherwise) is with a fly rod. I do still enjoy using a spinning rod now and then. When I take the kids fishing, I usually don't even bring the fly rods. I also like to fish for muskie. I have yet to cast a fly for muskie (although I will some day).


Now, after hitting my head on that rock, if I can just remember my name..... Darth something or other??? B)

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OK, I see what you mean now. Using a dry fly as an indicator, and having a wet fly as a dropper. I'd think you would want to use a pretty buoyant dry fly, like maybe a dear hair pattern like a humpy or something similar. Or, one tied with closed cell foam, and experiment to see how heavy a weighted fly it would support. Maybe even a very small jig as a dropper. I wonder if there would be any way to adjust the depth, rather than retying?


Great idea! And, not just for winter!


What I had in mind was an insect imitation of some sort a strike indicator all on a fly rod. Winter bites are often very light almost undetectable. Seems like it might be worth a shot.
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  • 1 month later...

Mike P. Sorry I missed this earlier.


In general, cooler temperatures reduce mortality in fish. The preferred time to handle fish for commercial purposes is fall and spring when water temperatures are low. Oxygen levels are generally higher in the water and early in the winter the fish are also fat from the fall feed. Here are two pictures of fish from the same system between early September and early November. Look how much the condition improves over that time span.


Here's September




Here's November




There is one study on walleye that I found that did not show any mortality effects of catch and release on walleye. However, physiological recovery from stress tends to be longer in cold water and any fish who's tissues are allowed to freeze is likely to have long-term problems. If you're catching smallmouth on a day that's a problem, you're almost certainly ice fishing.



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