Subsurface Smallmouth On A Fly

As fly fishers, we must be versatile and adapt our angling techniques when conditions are not right to entice smallmouth bass into surface takes.

Sometimes the sun is too bright, the water too clear, or the atmospheric conditions are just not right to entice smallmouth bass into surface takes. As fly fishers, that is when we must be versatile and adapt our angling techniques to ensure success. Smallmouth love leeches, crayfish, hellgrammites, and minnows. All of these food sources are very abundant in Northwestern Ontario, which is why the smallmouth bass here are so large.

The one pattern that imitates all of these food sources is the infamous wooly bugger. Without question, a wooly bugger is my number one subsurface pattern to use for catching smallmouth. Black, brown, two-tone, bead-head, unweighted – they all work! Over the years I have developed certain methodologies that work well. 

The first is to use a short sink-tip fly line with a short 4-5 foot leader to a white or black wooly bugger. I cast this setup onto ledges, boulders, fallen trees, etc... and then “twitch” the fly back. I find that white woolly bugger in sizes 4-8 to work very well.

Smallies will race out from behind the structure to grab what they think is either a struggling minnow or hapless leech. A fly line such as Orvis’s Streamer Stripper is perfect for this type of application in a 6 or 7 weight.


The next option I have is to use an intermediate fly line, usually a size six or seven weight, coupled to a 5-6 foot leader (10lb-12lb test). To that, I will attach a weighted wooly bugger. Beadhead or conehead wooly buggers are ideal, as I want to retrieve these flies in such a way that they “jig” underwater. To do this, I like to cast near some deeper structure, such as fallen logs or big boulders, and then let the fly line take the fly down.

Once deep enough (I use the countdown method to search different parts of the water column), I start to retrieve the fly using a short and fairly fast hand retrieve. This will make the fly “jig” and “pop” up and down as it comes back. It seems to drive bass and other fish crazy. You have to experiment a bit to find what retrieve speed works best.

When the bass are in a neutral mood, I find that I really need to slow my retrieve down in order to elicit a strike. Usually, you will feel a “bump” or weight on your line – immediately set the hook by giving your rod a jerk up or pull on the line. Often you are rewarded with a big bass somersaulting through the air!

The last technique I use is slowly retrieving right near the bottom a sculpin pattern. Often I find I can catch both big bass and sometimes a big walleye! With so many lakes and rivers in Northwestern Ontario that hold lots of trophy fish, you are usually rewarded when using these subsurface fly fishing techniques! These are some of the lodges I have fished for bass within Ontario.

About Colin McKeown

Colin McKeown is the producer of The New Fly Fisher Television Series, and several documentary series for the Outdoor Life Network, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. With a passion of fly fishing, Colin's goal is to help both novice and veteran fly fishers everywhere by giving them a top-quality fly fishing series that will make them better anglers. Known for his keen sense of humour, Colin has two wonderful children and is married to the most understanding and patient woman in the world. 

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