Are you guilty of the 7 most common smallmouth fly fishing mistakes?
Here are 7 quick fixes for better float fishing.
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Table of Contents
7 of the Most Common Smallmouth Fly Fishing Mistakes
Fishing from rafts, drift boats, and skiffs have many different and unique challenges.
I know – I’ve been fishing from a raft for nearly two decades.
During this time, I’ve found there are seven common things that anglers floating for smallmouth consistently struggle with.
Too Much False Casting
When you do too much false casting, you are not spending enough time with your fly in the water.
It seems quite obvious that if your fly isn’t in the water you won’t catch any fish. But most newbies to smallmouth float fishing will sometimes make five, six, even ten false casts to present the fly.
So they end up spending all that time passing up precious smallmouth territory as they drift by.
The easy way to fix it is to cast with a single haul.
When casting, don’t retrieve the fly all the way to the boat as this necessitates excessive false casting. Instead, work the area at a distance by picking up enough line to load the rod and return it downstream on one cast.
Your goal should be to cover as much water as possible – often targeting ledges, shorelines, grass beds, riffles, and so on. The best way to do that is to cast with a single or double haul depending on the conditions and get the fly in the water ASAP.
For example, if we are drifting along a productive length of shoreline fishing a popper. I try to “splat” the bug down, drift it ten feet or so, pop it once, then pick it up and present the fly again.
I might do this 5 or 6 times along a 100-foot stretch from 40 to 50 feet away. Each time I repeat it with a single haul and end it in another “splat” – the dinner bell that triggers a bite.
If you bring your fly all the way back to the boat and then begin casting all over again. You may get only two casts and “splats” on the entire stretch of fishy water, which in the course of a day is a lot of missed opportunities!
Not Considering the Smallie “Strike Zone”
The biggest problem most anglers have drift fishing relates simply to accurate casting and effective presentation. This involves much more than stripping and mending techniques that can vary under different situations and for different flies.
Both casting and presentation involve learning how to read the water, and recognizing where the fish hold. Then adopting and learning how to see underwater structure so that the water is fished properly.
Lucky for you, there is one basic casting and presentation principle that will instantly give your smallie fishing both a boost and a starting point for future improvement.
The easy way to fix this is to cast to the far side of their strike zone and retrieve your fly through it.
Smallmouth bass like to ambush their prey, so the fly needs to be retrieved through their strike zone, not start at the edge and exit it.
For example, when casting to a bank where the fish are holding tight, it’s best to work the fly directly off the shore. Missing the mark by casting five feet off the bank literally hits the fish in the tail, most likely only spooking it.
Or consider working an eddy or an “inverted V” behind a boulder. Here it’s important to cast to the other side and come through the V instead of landing on the side closest to you.
If you don’t, eager fish may still chase down your fly, but they are much more likely to turn off at the last minute or simply miss the fly on the take because the poor cast and/or presentation caused unnecessary difficulty.
Proper execution can actually make the difference of having a 30 fish day or a 10 fish day!
Not Stopping Enough
This is a very common mistake among novices as well as seasoned fishermen. After all, it is called “float fishing” isn’t it?
Casting as the boat drifts downstream is certainly the major way you’ll catch fish on a float trip. But this shouldn’t be your only approach.
Often you’ll fool some of the heftiest fish by stopping and probing prime areas more thoroughly.
Things You Should Do.
You can either anchor out and fish from the boat or pull the craft onto the shore or an island and wade fish. I’ve taken over a dozen smallmouth bass from a single spot this way.
If I had simply cast to the area as the boat drifted past, only one or perhaps two fish could have been caught.
The key is the pick the best spots for such thorough probing. You don’t want to waste time stopping just anywhere or you’ll never get to the take-out point. But some places just have all the right habitat conditions to hold good numbers of fish and demand extra time.
The best way to discover these is by making the float more than once and marking on your topo or in a notebook or GPS unit where these prime fish-holding lies are located.
Spooking the Fish
Often in summer, the waters are low and glass-clear. While smaller fish may be gullible in this situation, it takes extra care to avoid spooking larger specimens under these circumstances.
What You Should Do.
Put indoor/outdoor carpeting on the bottom and gunnels of the boat to help dampen noises. Also, be careful not to thump paddles or rods against the boat or slide tackle boxes across the floor.
Avoid being spotted by the fish, too, as much as possible. Don’t stand up except occasionally, very carefully, to stretch. In a canoe, it’s usually best to never stand up.
Lure and fly presentations should mostly be to the side, away from the boat. Don’t cast directly downstream since the lure or fly wouldn’t appear natural swimming strongly upstream if it was a wounded minnow or dislodged insect.
Lures cast to the side will swing past lots of fish and appear natural and lifelike as if they are struggling but being pushed downstream by the current.
Sloppy Line Control
Since a stripping basket can be cumbersome to wear on a raft most people prefer to strip into the floor or their seat if standing. If you are not careful, it’s easy to mishandle the line and get it wrapped around other things.
Things like extra rods, net handles, or back into the water where it can be pulled under the boat.
A common mistake I see anglers make when they are casting assuming they have cleared everything in the raft for starters. Are they indiscriminately let go of the line and end up having it wrap around their reel.
Once they recover the line, they have usually missed their opportunity at making a clean presentation (possibly missing an instant strike too) and have to start over.
The easy fix is to guide the line with your thumb and pointer finger. This entire issue can be easily avoided by simply creating a ring with the thumb and pointer finger. Then guiding the line through that to the rod hand to begin the stripping, mending, or whatever the circumstances dictate.
Once stripping, be careful to keep the line neat at your feet instead of throwing it in other areas of the boat where it can get tangled.
Too Much Slack in Your Line
It’s absolutely vital to eliminate slack in your line. Why? Because you must keep contact with the fly to feel the strike.
The poor mending technique, not keeping the rod tip down when stripping. Then having sloppy casts that pile lots of line on the water are the primary culprits for slack.
Over and over again, I see anglers attempt to start their cast with a sag in their line and the rod tip at eye level, which makes it tough to load the rod.
The easy way to fix it, keep your rod tip pointed down. The main thing for you to focus on is keeping your rod tip down near the surface of the water.
This helps you to get the most leverage possible in your hook set, which you’ll need because smallmouths have an extremely hard mouth lined with thick cartilage.
If using a popper, popping should be done by stripping the line rather than thrusting the rod tip into the air. This is what introduces large amounts of slack and prevents a solid hook set.
The other value this provides is at the beginning of your cast. Keeping the rod tip low alleviates slack and gets the end of the line moving, which is essential to start the cast.
Only Fishing Half The Water
The backcast is a huge asset to fishing from a boat that not nearly enough otherwise competent anglers have mastered. Your backcast allows you to fish both sides of the boat without having to cast over the guide if you have one and the vessel.
This is especially important when sharing the raft with another angler or dealing with wind. Most saltwater anglers are proficient at this, but not so many trout anglers are used to it.
The easy way to fix this is to use your backcast.
Note that this is not the same as an over the shoulder cast. To do this with proper presentation, make a standard overhand cast in one direction but present the fly in the other by delivering and/or shooting the line on the backcast.
Take it to the Water!
If you work on these 7 key areas – covering water efficiently with the single haul. Effective casting and presentation through the “strike zone,” line control, eliminating slack with your rod tip down.
And using your backcast then you will be much more successful at float fishing for smallmouth bass.