When the Going Gets Tough

Craig with smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

Smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

I sat by my computer for a good ten minutes before I came up with this title. I could have gone several directions with the information I’m about to disclose. We were fishing for smallmouth bass in Door County, Wisconsin right after opening day of the season. The bass were in all stages of the spawn…pre, spawn and some post-spawn. The weather had been yo-yoing up and down twenty-five degrees. The wind couldn’t make up its mind on which direction to blow from but it had decided to blow hard from whichever was the direction of the moment. The warm tannic waters of the Mink River would be blown out of the river mouth and onto the rocky flat at its mouth only to be blown back up river several hours later. Plus, the word was out that the bass were in and there was a parade of boats of all sizes going up, down, in and out of the river. The conditions weren’t good and were constantly changing, rarely for the better.

There was a crowd at the lake looking for smallmouth

The word was out that the bass were in

How to deal with any of these situations individually is a story of its own. But the one thing they all have in common is the fact that they make the angling tough. Tough is tough and I’ve got a one size fits all solution to them. Just how good is this? In less than favorable conditions I managed one hundred smallmouth in three days with most bass over three pounds, a third over four and half a dozen at the magic five-pound mark. Got your attention now?

The greatest part of what I was doing was its simplicity. I guess that saying of keep it simple is true. All I was doing was an extension of my favorite way to fish, with a float and fly system. If you follow my website you already know of the Wee Willy Wiggler. Well, welcome his cousin, Big Willy and his brother Double-Wide. Before you go thinking I’ve been out in the sun too long, these are the names of two of my latest fly patterns.

Wee Willy is a size #8 jig type fly with a one-inch long rubber tail made from a child’s toy, a Googly Ball to be exact. A Big Willy is the same pattern tied on a #4 hook and made with a two-inch rubber tail from a jumbo Puffer Ball. While a Double-Wide is a #2 jig hook with twin three- inch rubber tails, yes from a child’s toy with a silly name. Despite the goofy names of the toys and the odd names of the fly patterns, these are the single most effective fly patterns that you could fish under tough conditions. This isn’t bragging, exaggerating or alternative facts but the cold hard truth. No fly pattern that I have ever fished has worked so well and consistently under tough conditions. It’s no slouch under favorable conditions either.

Original Wee Willy Wigglers (bottom right), Big Willys (left) and Double-Wides (top right)

Original Wee Willy Wigglers (bottom right), Big Willys (left) and Double-Wides (top right)

Googly Ball and Jumbo Eyeball Creature toys

Where the Wee Willy Wigglers, Big Willys and Double-Wides come from

Now that you know the what, here’s the how. As I stated, float and fly. The Willy’s are all tied on ninety-degree jig hooks and weighted to rest in a horizontal position when strung under an indicator. A half inch round indicator will support a Wee Willy and either a three-quarter inch round or a two-inch crappie float will hold the two larger versions suspended. A six to seven weight fly outfit will cast the larger fly and float easily. My personal choice is a Sage II 290 gr smallmouth bass rod. This outfit (comes with a specially weighted line) will readily cast your fly effortlessly even into a stiff wind. Plus, I feel that the 7’11” rod length is less fatiguing to cast all day.

As tied all three versions are weighted enough to get themselves down most of the time. If I’m fishing deeper than five feet or if there is a fair amount of water or wind current I will add a small clam shot six inches above the fly. Getting the fly to get to and remain at the correct depth is crucial. Most of the time the smallmouth bass are hugging the bottom. Under unfavorable weather, water conditions or extreme fishing pressure they become reluctant to leave it.

Craig with one of many smallmouth averaging 4 lbs

The closer you can suspend the fly to the bottom without dragging on it the better this will work. Being no more than a foot off the bottom is key when it’s rough going. You can suspend the fly at mid depth when conditions are good because in clear water the bass are always looking up. Knowing the depth of the water around you is critical. A depth finder is a great help but just sticking your rod tip underwater to find bottom is by far the most accurate way to know where to set your indicator in water depths less than the length of your rod. At times I alligator clip a weight to my fly to find the depth but I’m constantly checking to be sure I’m still fishing the zone.

Here’s a tip about bass fishing and wind. Bass of all species love to be by or in weeds when they are available EXCEPT when the wind is blowing hard. This tidbit is worth the price of admission alone! Besides all the sediment and debris being tumbled about, the weeds themselves become the equivalent to sitting next to curtains by an open window on a windy day…annoying. The bass relate to hard structure in high winds. They relate to things like piers, seawalls, blow downs, fish cribs and oh, ROCKS!

The wind was blowing hard in Door County, WI

The wind was blowing hard in Door County, WI

All of Rowley’s Bay and the mouth of the Mink River is nothing but rock. The river itself has some rock but mostly sand and clay with substantial weed growth along the drop offs. There’s more places to hide and be secure along the weeds but only when it is relatively calmer. When the wind wants to gale, the many of the bass move out into the river delta or surrounding flats (which depending on water color and temperature). Smallmouth love current, so the wave action that is tossing your boat around and making anchoring difficult is heaven to them. This is also where you want to fish.

Picture of Craig with smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

This was just a small one

There are always some scattered fish along the flats searching for their next meal but the concentrations of bass are along the edges of the drops along the river delta. Fish these areas just as if they were on your favorite stream. Suspend the fly to work the depth needed, be aware of which way the current is going. There is a strange seiche type current at this river mouth that changes speed and direction with no rhyme or reason. Then cast your rig so that you achieve a downstream dead drift. If the current is slack or slow, give your indicator a foot-long strip periodically. I guess I could add to set the hook if the indictor stops or goes under but that’s about it.

Told you, simple. Put a relatively small bait in their face and keep it there for the longest amount of time possible without gluing it to the bottom. I believe that the vertical presentation keeps the fly line and most of the leader out of the fish’s view in clear water. This cannot hurt your cause. That’s how you catch fickle fish. Plus, it’s addicting to anticipate the indicator sliding under water when a fish takes it. It brings you back to being a kid watching a bobber over a cricket while fishing for bream… except these are five-pound bass.

Craig with one of many smallmouth averaging 4 lbs

It’s never really tough when you catch over 30 fish a day averaging 4 lbs.

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