How to ... fly-fish for smallmouth bass

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 31, 2014 - 5:54 PM

Mickey Johnson, of Brainerd, displays a dandy smallmouth bass he caught while fly-fishing an area river.

Photo: Photo by Bill Marchel, Photo by Bill Marchel

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Mickey Johnson, of Brainerd, is somewhat of an anomaly in this part of the state.

He fly-fishes almost exclusively. In a region where walleye is king, Johnson can often be found fly-fishing for other species including trout, panfish, even carp. Plus he travels north, south, east and, in particular, west, especially to Montana and its world-renowned trout rivers, to satisfy his appetite for fly-fishing.

But in central Minnesota, Johnson is usually found pursuing smallmouth bass. He has written a book on fly-fishing titled “Flyfisher’s Guide to Minnesota,” which can be purchased online from various booksellers.

Johnson is well-equipped for all this fly-fishing fun. His boat is a flat-bottomed aluminum jon boat powered by a 40-horse jet-drive motor. The combination is ideal for navigating shallow, rock- or weed-strewn water — skinny water as anglers call it. A foot-controlled electric trolling motor is mounted on the boat’s bow. Johnson employs umpteen fly-fishing rods, each a certain length and weight for unique angling situations. And his fly boxes are jammed with colorful offerings that fish seem to enjoy as much as anglers. Johnson ties his flies himself.

I’ve had the opportunity to fish smallmouth with Johnson on several occasions over the years. He recently shared these tips on fly fishing for smallies:

“In a lake, Mille Lacs for example, I look for rocky points that feature good escape routes to nearby deep water,” said Johnson. He prefers submerged rock points or rock piles in 3 to 5 feet of water.

“I like fishing when the wind is calm,” Johnson added. “When the water is flat, oftentimes I can spot fish and cast directly to them.”

On calm days Johnson’s fly of choice is the Dahlberg Diver, which he ties in a variety of colors.

“One of my favorites is an olive body with some orange added. The idea is to simulate a crayfish, a favorite meal to a hungry smallmouth,” he said.

When the wind is blowing, Johnson prefers to use streamer flies, especially the Woolly Bugger in sizes 2 to 4. “My favorite color is black with some crystal colors like red and silver tied into the fly. But never be afraid to switch colors.”

When it comes to casting, Johnson generally employs a slow retrieve, bringing his fly to the boat with small jerks. At times, though, he lets the fly sink to the bottom and then jigs it back to the boat. He stresses the importance of varying your angling technique until you find what is working on any particular day.

“When I fish smallmouth bass on rivers, I look for bends in the river that create an eddy. I also watch for anything that causes a current break like woody debris, large boulders or rocky points.”

Johnson has observed that hungry smallmouth will hold on the slower or back side of an eddy but close to the faster current. “They don’t want to move far to find food,” he explained.

What’s Johnson’s favorite fly for river smallmouth?

“I’ve boated two six-pound smallies this summer. Both were caught on white-and-chartreuse-colored deer hair poppers.”


Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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