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It’s Back to Basics for Smallmouth

Tis the time of year for freshwater transition. It’s September. It’s still a bit too hot for trout, and the largemouth bass is a morning and evening proposition. However, the most willing sparring partner in early fall is not hard to find. The smallmouth bass is a viable fly-rodding option as summer yields to autumn. Smallies love to take a fly and fight hard, from the hookset to the release.

Even though the bronzeback is a formidable foe, it’s a fish I’ve consistently neglected throughout my 30 years of fly fishing. I’ve always found trout sexier. It’s true that trout, as a species, boast loads of tradition, but if you honestly evaluate the attributes of each species, the smallmouth compares favorably and is well worth pursuing.

And since trout usually need a break, I’ve decided to give smallmouth a fair amount of love from now on during each fishing season.

So, it’s back to basics. Below are a few key components of my strategy.

Time Year for Smallmouth

Geography, of course, plays a role. I live in Western N.C., where the southern smallie season starts in late spring and ends in late fall. My fishing calendar starts in March and April with trout. As soon as the trout start to feel the heat of summer in late May and early June, it’s time for smallmouth. And when the autumn leaves start to turn, it’s about time for trout.

Temperature and Time of Day for Smallmouth

Smallmouth can be caught if the water temperature lingers in the 50s, but cold water is better for trout. Smallmouth like water temps in the high 60s and 70s, about the time trout head for the oxygen of the riffles.

For most of us, fishing revolves around work and family commitments, but the ideal time for smallmouth is early or late in the day. Low light is better than bright sun simply because the fish feel more secure. If you can fish on a cloudy day, take advantage of such conditions. The fish will hold shallower longer.

Where to Find Smallmouth

Smallmouth are not easy to find on your local river. But if you find one smallmouth, you will usually find several. And once you pinpoint a fishy spot, remember it, because chances are, fish will hold there consistently.

Smallmouth are ambush feeders. They use structure — logs, rocks and boulders — to hide and wait for unsuspecting prey, not unlike brown trout. And don’t forget your trout training. The tails of pools usually hold nice fish. Deeper runs are also a good option.

Food for the Smallmouth

If you don’t have a specialty box of smallmouth flies, don’t despair. Trout love dragon flies and crayfish. The venerable woolly bugger works well for both. I like to use bead-head versions of this pattern. When fish are feeding on the surface, I love poppers, and there’s no better smallmouth popper than the Sneaky Pete, which can be fished with a small woolly bugger or similar substitute as a dropper.

For trophy fish, there’s no better option than Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer. The Game Changer’s movement rivals many conventional lures.

The Equipment for Smallmouth

Heavy trout or light saltwater setups work well. A 5 or 6-weight rod is about as light as you would want to go. A 7, 8-weight can be used to throw bigger poppers. If you throw small flies, you can bring your lighter rod. Big flies, obviously, need a bigger stick.  For instance, you would not want to fish a Game Changer on your 5-weight rod. Step up to a 7-weight or bigger.

Temple Fork’s Axiom II series is a good option as is the BVK series. As for reels, our Power or BVK are good choices.

I fish for smallies with standard weight-forward line, but specialty lines and leaders come in handy when you need to throw bigger flies into a headwind or find yourself fishing deeper water, where you need to get the fly down fast.

Most of the time, I keep the leaders simple —- with a 9-foot 2 or 3X approach. Again, the main variable here is the size of the fly. There’s a difference between casting a size 10 woolly bugger and a 5-inch Game Changer.

If you have any other smallmouth suggestions, feel free to leave a comment on one of our social media pages.

Why You Should have this Game Changer

The cliché is true: Necessity is the mother of invention. So is patience. And persistence.

That was the path that TFO advisor Blane Chocklett endured to come up the Game Changer. You might think that the Roanoke, Va. guide cranked out this revolutionary baitfish fly in a few tying sessions. Well, you would be wrong.

The current Game Changer is the result of about 20 years of brainstorming to solve a riddle that few, if any anglers, have ever truly thought about:

“What makes a fish swim,” Chocklett said during a phone interview last week. “Not being an engineer you have to figure those things out on your own. It’s been a process of trial and error.”

The Game Changer was around for three or four years or so before its commercial debut with Umpqua in the mid-2000s.

It’s not an easy two-minute fly. Count on about 30 minutes at the vise during your initial attempts. Efficiency should follow.

“It can be (labor intensive), just like with anything else (new), especially with the synthetic version,” Chocklett said. “It’s a matter of learning the tapers and doing it correctly. It doesn’t require a lot of skill. A lot of it is repetition, creating a taper with the bait that you’re trying to imitate.”

Once perfected, the Game Changer is dynamite on an array of species — everything from Tiger Fish to freshwater trout and all that falls in between those two spectrums.

Its appeal is its realistic movement.

“Movement gets the fish’s attention and draws the fish to your offering whether it be a lure, a bait offering or your fly,” Chocklett said. “It depends on the fish species, but every fish is built with trigger mechanisms that causes them to strike as prey presents itself. Learning those different triggers within the species that you target, the better your odds of catching fish. There are certain triggers in all fish. The more wounded they are, the more realistic the movement pattern, all those things, this fly can do. It can undulate in the water and act like a fish that’s struggling to stay alive with a couple quick strips.

“Movement is one thing, but is it the right food source when they get up to it? Those all come into play. I don’t care what type of fish it is — a freshwater trout or a tuna in the ocean and everything in between. You have to get their attention first. Usually that’s by movement. Then once they get to it, is it a food source? The clearer the water, the more realistic it needs to be, in my opinion, to fool those fish.”

The inspiration for the Game Changer stemmed from Chocklett’s observation during years of guiding when he marveled at the action of conventional lures when compared to flies.

“I’ve been guiding twenty-six-and-a-half years now, and ninety percent (of my clients) are fly anglers, and then they’ll bring someone who doesn’t want to fly fish,” Chocklett said. “They’ll bring their gear and use soft plastics — Flukes and Senkos and other types of swimbaits versus crankbaits and all that kind of stuff. With that, you see how the movement attracts fish. There’s no denying that some of those actions you can’t get on a fly. We weren’t able to until now — that was my goal back then. If I had someone with conventional gear in the boat, that was easy. It was a day off. I didn’t have to worry about them. I had to focus on the fly guy to get them into fish. With spinning gear, you put that in the water, you don’t even have to know what to do and you’re going to catch fish. That’s the deal. I’ve got to come up with something that works like that with the fly rod.”

Chocklett is in the final stages of putting together a book on the Game Changer. His advice to those who aspire to create better flies as fly fishing evolves: Pay attention on the water. Persevere at the vise.

“More than anything it’s time on the water and getting an understanding what fish are targeting,” Chocklett said. “It’s observation on the water and putting that toward flies and seeing how that works. That would be my contribution to someone to give them inspiration. Don’t be afraid to try things and fail. I’ve got a room full of (lousy) flies. I’ll be set on something for a while and then it all of a sudden it hits me. A lot of times when you force stuff, a lot of times the ideas don’t work. I’ve made a lot of bad flies. Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Want to find out more about the Game Changer? Check out the video below. Let us know what you think on one of our social media channels.

Chocklett Makes His Mark as a Writer

Blane Chocklett is a professional guide and fly tier. The TFO advisor is also a writer. His first book, published by Headwaters, is due out this fall. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect.

 I know you haven’t definitely decided on a title other than Game Changer, which is the name of one of your patterns. But what about the content — patterns, tying techniques, I assume?

“It is going to be that with fishing anecdotes and my thoughts on that side of it. The other part of it will be fishing techniques as well. Maybe a little bit of everything. Fishing techniques, using these style of flies and my thought process on those, predatory fish and how they respond to the bait that they feed on. Also tying techniques, my patterns and fishing techniques and anecdotes.”

Where are you at this juncture in the editorial process?

“I’m pretty much done with my part. The editing part is where we are right now. They might have a couple questions, to add stuff or change things. So the writing part’s done. We’re still in the process of piecing it all together and putting it all together. (Editor Jay Nichols) said it probably would be available September or October.”

Since you’re done with the bulk of your work, how long did that take?

“Way longer than it should have. Six years, probably. But that was because of my scheduling and me not getting to it when I should have.”

That’s a lot of work.

“It is a lot of work and life gets in the way and stuff. I had a bunch of different things going on, but it was a good thing, too, because a lot of things (in the book) developed during that time that I can add to it. But during that time frame, Lefty (Kreh) told me I could have written two or three books.”

Who’s the Publisher?

“Jay Nichols. Headwater Books.”

How did the relationship come about?

“Lefty invited me up to his house with my wife and we spent the day with him (and) Jay. He said he had a lunch meeting set up for us. The meeting was with Jay Nichols. Lefty had said before we met that I was going to write a book. We were able to get a contract done at lunch. My original contract was with Stackpole, but since I was not able to get it done when they wanted it done, we felt like it would be less stress on both us that we worked on it with (Jay’s) publishing company that he owns. Jay has a unique deal where he’s the head editor of Stackpole on the fishing side of things and also has his own publishing company, too. He has a different deal. When we switched over, it was a whole lot less stress.”

Obvious question: How big was Lefty’s role in this?

“Lefty’s been everything to me as far as a lot of things in my career. He’s introduced me to tons of people. He got me hooked up with TFO. Back in the late ‘90s, he got me hooked up with Umpqua with my first patterns. He’s always had a place, definitely, in my career. I owe him a lot.”

I assume, when you started this book, you had a pretty clear objective. Now that you’re almost done, did you accomplish what you wanted?

“I think we definitely did. There’s also a lot more we could add. Jay said there’s definitely enough for two more books. That’s probably something we’re going to do in the future. Get this one out and then the next year or so get back on it and work on a couple more. There was so much information that Jay felt like we had to leave a lot of things out. You have to have a cutoff at some point. There’s definitely room for future books since we didn’t cover everything, that’s for sure. But did we cover the most relevant things that I’m doing at this time.”

I know it’s not over, but what was the most enjoyable thing about the process?

“I would say working with Jay and getting to know him and forming a great friendship with him and some of the things that go with it. Jay has a huge background in the industry with a lot of great authors. He was the editor for Fly Fisherman Magazine. That opened the door to work with (Fly Fisherman editor) Ross Purnell. Just working with Jay and his patience and seeing how good he is with what he does in holding my hand through the process. I’m not a writer at all. I don’t pretend to be. A great editor makes you look good. That was my favorite part. Also, there was learning about myself. He would ask questions that would really make me think about what I’m doing, the fly design and my fishing. That really opened my eyes to the things that I wasn’t really aware of with the way I was thinking about things. I learned a lot about myself and how I am designing these flies. It was really introspective and makes you start thinking about things. Teaching me how to write was really cool as well.”

What was the most difficult or challenging thing about the book?

“The act of getting down to it and putting it on paper. The discipline to get it done.  The only way Jay could get me to get down to it was where we would block days off where we would spend four, five days at my house. I would spend four, five days at his house. We’d rent a cabin and get away from everything. That was the biggest thing, finding the time and making yourself sit down and do it.”

Any advice to someone doing this?

“Make sure you have a really good editor, one that you can trust and feel comfortable with. Make sure you’re ready for the task at hand. It is a huge undertaking.”

 

Blane reviewed TFO’s Axiom II in this post. And when you take a look at his book, let us know what you think.