Many people in the fly fishing world turn their noses up at Smallmouth Bass. And I get it. Like so many other fish, they’ve been introduced all over the country and often thrive in places they shouldn’t. Talk to a Lower Deschutes steelhead guide about bass and you are sure to get a pretty negative response. Trust me. I know from experience. But here in the great state of Wisconsin, smallmouth are a wild, native species. And they are finally receiving the national notoriety they deserve.
As a long-time employee in the Midwestern fly fishing industry, I got to witness the evolution of smallmouth fishing firsthand. Truth be told, it came from a very humble beginning. The shop I work for, Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company, opened in 2001 and was almost exclusively catering to trout. At the time, the owner of our shop had a small drift boat. One day a friend approached him with the idea of floating a warm water river for bass. Despite being in the mecca of warm water fishing, bass were barely a blip on the radar back then.
As luck would have it, the stars aligned, and they had a great day. It was so good that it seemed like a viable option for guided trips…. not just something to do in the heat of summer when the trout fishing was bad. The rest, as they say, is basically history. It took some time to convince a bunch of hardcore trout anglers that fly fishing for smallmouth was the next great frontier in Wisconsin, but it worked. I’ve personally watched our summer guide business grow from two guys doing a few floats a week to a staff of seven doing about five hundred. Not huge numbers by some outfitters’ standards, but we’re in Northeastern Wisconsin of all places! In a state where most anglers don’t even know what a drift boat is, I’d say business is good. Our staff often jokes about the way our smallmouth program developed. If that initial outing in the early 2000’s was a bust, we might not even be here today.
Our secret sauce was simple. We developed a western-style drift boat fishery on beautiful Midwestern rivers that are often void of other people. The scenery and solitude make the experience worth the cost of admission, but it helps that the fish are just about perfect. Their propensity to feed on the surface is the big draw and the variety of surface presentations keeps things interesting. The takes vary greatly from jarring smashes of a popper to the most subtle sip of a foam terrestrial. Either way, under average summer conditions, fishing on top is not only the most exciting way to do it, but typically the most effective. Plus, the average smallmouth in a river here will double over a stout seven weight. What’s not to love?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to pursue a variety of fish in different parts of the world and I will tell anyone that the smallmouth fishing here in the Midwest is about as good as anything you’ll encounter. If you have not experienced it yourself, be sure to put it on the menu. You will not be disappointed!
Charlie Piette is the manager of Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in De Pere, Wisconsin. He guides trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area in the spring and smallmouth June through September.
Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co.
1534 Mid Valley Drive
De Pere, WI 54115