Fly fishing for Lake James smallmouth

Anglers find smallmouth in a variety of locales on Lake James. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Lake James smallmouth on the fly

Tucked away in the foothills of western North Carolina lies Lake James, a lake that’s fed by three trout streams. The cold mountain water combined with the clarity makes for one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the Carolinas. 

Every year from about the middle of April to the middle of May, smallmouth bass move into the shallower water to spawn.  Anglers will find fish in all phases of the spawn, and can catch them on a variety of traditional bass fishing techniques. But one of the most fun ways to catch these fish is with a fly rod. 

Lake James is a very clear lake, which can sometimes be a challenge. The locals don’t call it the “dead sea” for nothing. Therefore, fly fishing is an excellent option to try. These bass probably don’t see many flies. So something different can be a key. Also, anglers can see the fish come up and eat the fly, which makes it more exciting. 

Anglers don’t need to use heavy gear when casting for smallmouth on Lake James. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Look for sunny spots

Start by looking for them on the main channel, points and secondary points. Also, as weird as it sounds, concentrating on sunny banks can pay off. Maybe the fish can see the fly better, or maybe it’s a degree or two warmer, but sunny banks seems to produce best. 

Any kind of brush is also a good place to find a bass. And they’ll be on rock piles or stumps too. Not many smallmouths are back in the coves, but largemouth will be there, and they’ll hit a fly also. Finding areas with the clearest water is the key. 

This time of year, some wind combined with boat traffic can dirty up the creek banks. Smallmouth bass are sight feeders, and flies usually don’t make any noise. So it may be harder for fish to find them in those dingy areas.   

Anglers who stand while running the trolling motor can look down to see deeper in the water. They can watch the fly, see how fast to fish it, and see when the fish comes up to eat it. A good pair of polarized sunglasses helps when watching everything the fly is doing. 

Stay in the strike zone

Start by casting the fly to the bank over brush or any type of cover. Subsurface flies that are slightly weighted sink slowly so they are good choices. Stripping the fly just fast enough in foot-long pulls ensures it doesn’t get hung up. Once clear of the brush, let the fly sink for a couple of seconds off the end.  Some big bass are caught doing this. So it’s always worth those few seconds. The fly is in the strike zone for the length of the tree.

As soon as it clears, casting to the next spot puts it immediately in the strike zone again. So the fly is slowly moving, and constantly in the strike zone. This is one way to cover surprising amounts of water while exposing the fly to more fish.  

The strike is sometimes immediate. But sometimes the fish comes out slower and inhales it. When this happens, especially if it’s a bigger fish, wait long enough to see his jaws close on the fly before setting. Otherwise it often results in a miss. When a nice bass comes to eat the fly, it’ll make an angler’s heart skip a beat. If you miss him but not sting him, the fish may bite again right away or a little later. This is a good opportunity to cast a different lure. Either way, the fly exposed the fish.  

Once hooked, smallmouth are relentless. They’ll first run back into the brush. Steering him out greatly improves the odds of him making it to the net.  

Many anglers don’t realize the leverage a fly rod offers. That fish has 8 to 9 feet of rod to battle, and in open water, if the hook has enough tissue in the mouth, an angler will usually boat him. Sometimes if he eats the fly and he’s still in brush, he’s likely to get wrapped up. It happens sometimes, that’s part of it.

Keep it simple  

An 8-pound tippet may sound light, the fly sinks better, and that size tippet is harder for fish to see. The key to using this sized tippet effectively is keeping a sharp eye on it. Any nick or abrasion significantly reduces the poundage. Anglers can apply a surprising amount of pressure as long as the line and tippet are free of kinks or cuts.  

Surface flies are popular, and they’ll work. But this time of year, subsurface is hard to beat. A small stock of flies is all that’s necessary. Some sort of soft breathing streamer, that you can watch is good to have. Woolly Buggers in sizes 4 and 6 are hard to beat. 

Black, brown, red, purple, olive, white, chartreuse, and combinations of these colors are all good bets. By far, the old standby is black; it’s easy to see. And it appears to bass as an easy meal. It also may trigger a protective response due to the time of year.

Another good fly is a Zonker in colors white or black and in the same sizes. A marabou streamer in white, or white and chartreuse, in the same sizes also. This color combination is especially good if the water is a little dingy. Slightly weighted versions are best.  

These fish see so many different lures this time of year, and flies offer something totally different. They offer actions that aren’t replicated with conventional bass fishing tackle.  Maybe that’s why they are so effective. When it’s time for a different (and thrilling) method of pursuing smallmouths, fly fishing is the way to go.

Don’t forget a net when chasing bronzebacks. (Photo by Jeremy Grady)

Gearing up for Lake James Smallies

Traditional fly rods for bass are usually 7 and 8 weight. But many anglers prefer something slightly lighter for these smallmouth. Fly rods around 8 or 9 feet long with line weights of 5 or 6 weight are good choices. These light lines will throw the weighted streamers adequately. The key to allowing the rod to throw these flies is to allow a split second on the back cast to “load” the rod for making the next cast. False casting while fishing down a bank isn’t always the preferred method. Stripping the fly out to the end of the brush or structure, letting it sink a second or two, then picking up and casting again is a good bet. But false casting to achieve a little more distance is sometimes required.  

It’s a good rule to keep a tapered 3x or 8-pound leader about as long as the rod.  Knotted leaders tend to turn over these flies a little better than tapered ones. If using various line weights, ranging from 25 pounds stepping down to 8 pounds will work. With stiff monofilament such as Maxima, tie the 25-pound, 20-pound, and 15-pound in sections in about 15 inches each. With monofilament such as Stren, tie a piece of 12-pound about 10 inches, 10-pound about 15 inches, and 8-pound about 20 inches.  

Keep a check on the leader and tippet. Any nick or abrasion anywhere on it weakens it significantly. Unfortunately, anglers often get caught up in the moment of fishing and sometimes don’t pay attention to tackle until it’s too late. It’s best to retie tippets and have fresh knots before even getting to the lake.

About Jeremy Grady 3 Articles
Jeremy Grady lives in Morganton, N.C. and is an avid hunter and angler. He’s been writing about his outdoor adventures for years.

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