Small Streams & Smallmouth Bass

Fishing Indiana's unknown waters with the fly rod

Small Streams & Smallmouth Bass

Fishing Indiana's unknown waters with the fly rod

Our state’s flowing waters don’t get the respect they’re due. Some of that has blessed us. Our rivers aren’t lined with lodges that locals can’t afford, nor are they choked with drift boats carrying anglers wielding fly rods and sporting wide-brimmed hats. 

Hot-shot fishing guides are seldom seen and you won’t catch shows about these rivers or streams on ESPN’s Sunday morning fishing programs. Our access points; aka bridges, pastures and old country roads; are free of sedans and spotless SUVs with out-of-state plates. We can cast on our streams without bumping elbows with the angler next door and without snagging the fancy fishing necklace worn by the person sneaking upstream behind us. 

What we call “foreigners,” i.e., folks from other states, or, to be honest, even those from north of U.S. 40, are sparse, especially foreigners with fly rods. Rarely does some-body travel to Indiana to fly fish. Not that our native fly fishermen swarm the countryside either, although Indiana, especially the Indianapolis area, has an active fly fishing community. 

Photo: Richard Fields

Most every kind of fly fishing equipment is available around the state capital, including flies for fishing all over the world. A person can walk into a fly shop empty-handed and leave fully outfitted for any one of the ever-expanding list of fly-fishing travel destinations. Which is almost always a few time zones away. 

We are largely a state of traveling fly fishermen, a place where when people think of fly fishing, they envision a long haul on the interstate or a plane ticket as necessary equipment. I’ve heard people say, both directly and through long-winded tales, that Indiana is a place to travel from—that there’s not much use in staying home. These people are mistaken. 

The secret flowing in plain sight is that our state has fly fishing of uncommonly high quality. Our small streams are pinnacles of beauty and technical difficulty. They vary in personality, but share some common principles. 

Photo: Richard Fields

No matter where you’ve fished, how well you cast or how talented you are, these streams will humble you. Fly fishing our small streams is for anglers who value beauty in function over form. Forget long, tight-looped casts and light leaders tipped with dainty flies, though these have their place. Somewhere else. 

The Fish

Our local legend is the smallmouth bass. We respect this fish almost as one would revere a relative. Many life-long and experienced fly fishermen consider the smallmouth to be as noble and distinguished as the trout, perhaps more. A smallmouth is certainly as fickle when it comes to eating. These fish live in cool, clear, running water and generally prefer shade. 

Rarely is there a direct relationship between the size of this fish and the stream in which it lives. Sizable fish come out of streams that can be stepped over; small ones may come from larger streams. 

These fish range in size from barely big enough to take a fly, to 3 or 4 pounds; a fish of 14 or so inches is not uncommon, with one caveat. These dimensions presume that large numbers of fish aren’t being taken by the greedy or misinformed. 

Small and even mid-size waters can’t withstand much overfishing and maintain quarry of decent measurements. Healthy streams have been reduced to near devoid of smallmouth by one afternoon of overfishing. 

Left to grow, the smallmouth changes color with age. Young fish tend to be a solid shade of light green; larger fish often develop striking, dark stripes. A large, river smallmouth is muscular and well-proportioned, camouflaged perfectly in shimmering greens and black. 

This disguise makes a big, healthy smallmouth as successful a predator in its element as many species on land or in air. Unlike many other fish found in the stream, the smallmouth fights long and hard when caught. 

On the end of a fly line, this fish is easily distinguished from others. The smallmouth’s first run will be hard and away. Without proper care by the angler, the smallmouth will often break the line right then. 

Photo: Richard Fields

If that doesn’t work, the fish will try many other tricks, like tangling the line around rocks or downed timber. On the next run — and there will be at least two and maybe a half-dozen or more —the fish might dart directly toward the fish-erman, creating slack that might allow for a successful escape. 

Or the fish may run into the current to multiply its considerable strength. Acrobatic jumps have surprised many a novice smallmouth angler. Often the fish will propel itself straight up, sometimes two or three times in a row, trying to throw the hook. 

Finally, when the fish sees the angler while being drawn in, the smallmouth makes one last spiteful rush. Even experts have lost many a large fish at arm’s length. 

The Streams

Indiana has a wide variety of streams that hold smallmouth. Ideal streams are clear, flowing, and have adequate cover and a food source for the fish. The bottom should have a combination of gravel, rock and mud with downed timber and subsurface rock structure.

The stream should be broken up, at least roughly, into a series of riffles and pools. Stagnant river water rarely holds smallmouth. An ideal stream location will also have banks of rock shelves that continue below the surface, at least on one side. 

Underwater shelves and big rocks provide cover for the smallmouth and its favorite food, the crayfish. Strong shade along the banks is also a near-necessity. Undercutting along mud banks is a plus. That said, even all these features don’t necessarily mean a stream holds smallmouth. 

To really know, you’ve got to see them or catch them. Many small streams in Indiana lack classic, dramatic rock forma-tions, but make up for it with other types of cover. If you’re fishing for smallmouth in a small stream, it’s best to fish everywhere once. Although fairly predict-able, these fish sometimes turn up in odd places.

The Difficulty

Fly fishing is challenging for a variety of reasons. The first is the inherent learning curve that goes with casting, fishing, wading and putting it all together. An endless array of environmental factors, such as over-hanging brush, the lack of space for a back cast or the necessity for pinpoint casting multiplies the challenge. 

Indiana’s small streams, it seems, present every impediment to fly fishing that nature could think of. Trees seem to overhang every good hole, sticker bushes often lurk where a back cast should go and some sort of aquatic devilry that snags a loose fly line often fouls up a fisherman’s best efforts. 

Patience pays on these waters; the haste that follows frustration usually leads to a bigger mess. These fish relish mistakes. Smallmouth in shallow, clear water spook easily, just like trout. Your first cast may be the only one that counts. 

Reading the water is paramount —for both you and the fish. Smallmouth don’t appreciate someone wading through their cover. Novices often commit the sin of walking where one should fish. 

In such places good casts don’t happen by accident. Easy hookups are rare. A smallmouth caught is a smallmouth earned, no matter the size. 

Ask traveling fly fishermen why they follow trout all over the country, possibly the world. “Difficulty” or “beautiful scenery and solitude” might be the reply. These anglers might even mention the distinguished and fickle nature of their quarry. Ask Indiana fly fishermen what draws them to home waters and you’ll likely hear the same.

Originally published in Outdoor Indiana Magazine.

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