Fishing Log: Wilderness Pro Guide Juan Veruete's Smallmouth Secrets | Kayak Angler Magazine | Rapid Media
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Pro guide Juan Veruete shares his fly-fishing for smallmouth bass log. Juan Veruete

What started out as a goal to catch at least one river smallmouth bass in every winter month turned into a year long personal odyssey that has pushed my fly fishing and kayak fishing skills to a higher level. Many of you probably recall the movie “Forrest Gump”. One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Forrest started running one day for “no particular reason”. When he reached the east coast he turned and kept running. In a herculean effort, he ran from coast to coast multiple times before just stopping one day. In the movie, Forrest couldn’t quite articulate why he started or even why he stopped. My fly fishing odyssey started just like that. It started on a whim for no particular reason and when I reached what I thought was my goal in March,  I just kept going.

I learned a lot from my year long kayak fishing odyssey as I’m sure Forrest learned a lot about himself on his cross country runs.  Fly fishing is an intricate technique heavy endeavour as is river kayak fishing at it’s highest levels. Kayak fly fishing challenged my skills and forced me to move out of my comfort zone. Some days I felt like it was my first time kayak fishing. Other days, I was firing on all cylinders. I fished multiple days each month with my fly rod but what follows is a log of one day from each month the I feel taught me something significant or even better, humbled me.

Top 5 Kayak Fly Fishing Related Challenges Solved

Problem: Fly line gets caught on everything!

Solution: Use a boat with an open deck design like the Wilderness Systems ATAK. Slide your foot pegs all the way forward. Remove any unnecessary gear or attachments forward of your seat… in other words keep stuff behind you.

Problem: Multiple rods are difficult to manage.

Solution: Select a rod that can throw the widest range of flies for the fish you are targeting. For example, I use an 8 wt fly rod because I tend to throw a lot of bigger flies. If you need different line such as sinking, floating etc. buy extra spools for your fly reel and just change out the spools.

Problem: I have trouble casting from a seated position.

Solution: A shorter rod is easier to wield when you are going to be seated while fly fishing. I use a 7’11” fly rod for my sit down fishing. This is counterintuitive for some but I’ve found it to be true. If you like to stand and cast there are plenty of kayaks on the market that are designed for stand up fishing. Make sure you practice a lot though before you incorporate a fly rod into to the equation. There are some days that I looked like I was playing a game of twister on the deck of my ATAK when the line got wrapped around the keel of my kayak.. Don’t ask!

Problem: I can’t manage my boat position and make a good presentation simultaneously

Solution: Like I tell my kayak fishing students in my river fishing classes. Position first then fish. I tried anchoring my kayak off the bow a couple times but didn’t feel safe with that practice in moving water so relied on techniques that I teach in my kayak fishing classes. Wedging your kayak on top of shallow rock, gravel or shallow water vegetation will work. A short Park-n-Pole by YakAttack through the scupper will work wonders in water 3 feet or less. There are a lot of other techniques but these are a few of the quickest and easiest.

Problem: I tried all that positioning stuff and I’m still struggling.

Solution: Sometimes your kayak is just transportation to a fishing area. When I fish shallow weed islands on some sections of my home river, I jump out and wade with my kayak in tow. This is sometimes the best way to approach active fish to present your fly.

October (use a longer leader)

Weather Conditions: Cold front with high bluebird skies

Water Conditions: Clear flows, level a little higher than normal.

Location Pattern: 6-8 feet deep still pockets of water (eddies) behind large chunks of ledge rock.

Presentation: High sticking a weighted jig style fly on a long leader

Rod & Reel: 9 ft. 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 9 ft. 12 lb tapered fluorocarbon leader, 2 ft of 10 lb. fluorocarbon tippet

Like any October, this month has been riddled with cold fronts causing swings in water temperatures and levels. The blue bird skies today and chilly cold front conditions had me second guessing my decision to swing the fly rod in search of some river bronze. The water was clear and a little higher that usual.

During the cold front, many smallmouth had moved from their usual fall shallow water haunts to 6-8 feet deep calm pockets of water behind major structure like large boulders and ledge rock jutting above the surface.

When fishing deep eddies behind large boulders both floating and sinking fly lines create a lot of drag on a presentation causing the fly to constantly move with the billowing and shifting currents. I wanted to present the fly like a tube on bottom and even dead sticking it at times. Tearing a page out of a nymph fisherman's book I came up with a strategy for fishing these deep eddy pockets of water effectively. I lengthened my leader with tippet to about 11 feet and used a floating line. Standing in my kayak at the bottom of the eddy, I “high sticked” my weighted jig style fly behind boulders with all or most of my fly line off the water. The adapted nymphing style presentation kept the fly in the strike zone. It was a nearly “zero” drag presentation. Perfect! I was able to catch several smallmouth using this technique including a big chunk of river bronze over 18”.

November (cheat with conventional gear)

Weather Conditions: Sunny and warmer than usual

Water Conditions: A little higher than normal and stained w/ low visibility

Location Pattern: Deep pockets of water around submerged small grass islands.

Presentation: Slow stripping a dark weighted “project fly” just off bottom.

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 7.5 ft 2X nylon tapered leader, 1 ft of 10 lb. fluorocarbon tippet

The air temperature was about normal for time of year.  The water level was higher than usual and on the cold side. Really high river levels concentrate fish as do very low levels. Today with levels just above normal the fish could be anywhere.

Faced with low visibility and the uncertainty of fish location I cheated a bit to swing the pendulum in my favor. The result was a number of really nice November river chunks on the fly.

I started the day by using a 4” swimbait on spinning gear to strain water around ledge rock, weed beds and partially submerged grass islands. This was my search bait. I started hitting fish around grass islands. In particular, grass islands with deep water pockets butted up against them. I confirmed the location pattern with a few fish on my conventional gear then went at it with my fly rod.

The best fly was a black jig style fly with a twister tail for extra actions. I just call it a “project fly” because Bug Wild tied it for me as an experimental fly aimed at cold water and muddy water fly fishing. Someday, once perfected, we will come up with a super cool name. Fishing the “no name” fly through the deep pockets adjacent to the grass islands was the ticket. Slow steady long strips drew strikes from the biggest fish. The slow steady movement kept the fly just off the bottom right where the bass wanted it! I left the water with a smile on my face today. I caught some really nice fish. I’m ready now to take on December!

December (Shorten up the leader & swinging ledges)

Weather Conditions: Overcast, cold, rainy with sleet at times

Water Conditions: High and muddy water with almost no visibility

Location Pattern: Fronts of deep submerged ledges

Presentation: Swinging ledges with a Bug Wild “project fly”

Rod & Reel: 7’11” Orvis Recon w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis “Cold Water” intermediate sinking line

Leader: 5 ft 10 lb. fluorocarbon, no tapper

The river was about as high as I’ve ever fished it in December. It was a wonderful color of chocolate milk. I felt a tinge of anxiety today as I pondered my chances of success with the fly rod in the high, cold water with near zero visibility. I took a couple deep breaths and made the short paddle into the pool that I’d be fishing and started chucking flies and swinging them through the ledge system.

The location of pattern was very distinct today. Smallmouth were positioned in front of deep submerged ledges that topped out at 4-8 feet under the surface. The best ledges where those submerged in the top third of deep wintering pools with moderate to slow moving current.

Swinging my Bug Wild “project fly” across the fronts of ledges was the best presentation of the day. I started with a 7.5 ft. tapered leader with about two feet of tippet. I struggled to control the placement of my fly in front of the ledge. Controlling the depth of the fly and the actual placement of the of the fly  in relationship to the ledge was difficulty with this longer leader configuration. I switched to a straight up 5 foot fluorocarbon leader and found it much easier to pinpoint my fly placement as it swung across the front of the ledge. This enabled me to swing the fly inches in front of the ledge where water stacks up and the lazy winter fish were waiting patiently for an easy meal. I picked up two fish today. I left the river feeling pretty darn good about my chances of making it through the winter and catching smallmouth in the next two coldest months in the north east.

January (swinging flies in eddie lines on a sinking line/ use lead wrap get the fly down low and slow/jerkbait style!)

Weather Conditions: Cold and snowy

Water Conditions: High water/green

Location Pattern: Billowy water on eddie lines

Presentation: Swing and suspend Clouser Minnow in eddie line

Rod & Reel: 7’11” 8 wt. Orvis Recon w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis “Cold Water” intermediate sinking line

Leader: 5 ft  10 lb. fluorocarbon, no tapper

Today was a fun day on the water. Started out with a snowy seal launch into the Juniata River! There were a few periods of sun but mostly cloudy and gray today. The water was high with a green color because of the snow melt. Water temp reading on Lowrance was 36 degrees.

The high water moved the smallmouth to deep bank eddies that averaged between 6-8 feet deep. I fished my fly in the still water of the eddie with no luck. Once I started working the billowy water on the eddie line, I started picking up smallmouth. All the fish caught today came from billowy water on eddie lines.

The most effective presentation was to throw 2.5” Clouser Minnow  into the current then let it swing into the billowy water on the eddie line. I had to position my kayak in the still water just inside the top of the eddie to get the best presentation. Moving the fly up the eddie line with a few slow short strips then letting it suspending just inches above the bottom was the most effective presentation. If the fly was suspended too high in the water column, the fish would not come up for it. I used a non toxic fly wire wrapped on the shank of small Clouser Minnow to get the bait to hover in the strike zone. I caught a few fish today in the frigid January waters. I am actually excited to get my February fishing under way. I left the water feeling almost too confident about my future winter kayak fly fishing prospects.

February (Don’t grab that leader!)

Weather Conditions: Cold and cloudy

Water Conditions: High slightly stained

Location Pattern: Ledges in the deepest and slowest part of pool

Presentation: Slow dragging Crawfish fly on bottom

Rod & Reel: 8’9” 8 wt. Temple Fork Outfitters “The Clouser” w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis “Cold Water” intermediate sinking line

Leader: 5 ft  10 lb. fluorocarbon, no tapper

Note to self… NEVER grab the leader to land a fish!

Cold and overcast weather conditions today. Water temperatures were in the high 30’s with a slight stain. The river level was a higher than normal but falling slowly.

I focused on one  larger wintering pool that has produced consistently in the past. I worked the shallower submerged ledges at the top of the pool with no luck. I moved down into the slower deeper water of the pool and fished a ledge system in 10- 12 feet of water. This was a stretch for the intermediate sinking line and it took forever to get the fly on bottom even in the slow current.

I tried different sizes and colors of streamers with no luck. After several hours of unsuccessful fishing, I tied on a big weighted crawfish fly. Moving to the deepest and slowest part of the pool, I made long casts and waited for fly to get on bottom. Once on bottom, I moved the fly by making slow short strips with long pauses between each. About an hour before I’d have to leave the water, I was starting another strip and felt weight and the rod loading. I set the hook and immediately felt a series of slow wide headshakes signaling a BIG fish. The smallmouth shot toward the surface and strained to get most of it’s body above the water. Quite a feat for a smallmouth in February! I had visual confirmation that this one was definitely pushing trophy class. Hours of fishing paid off!

I fought the fish to the side of my kayak with several anglers looking on from the bank. In my head, I debated… lip the fish?.. Or grab the leader and slide him over the gunnel into the kayak? Why was I even debating this with a heavy fish!?! It may have been the fact that I’d fished for more than 7 hours without so much as a bite? It may have been the cold clouding my decision making? Whatever the reason, I made  a rookie mistake and grabbed the leader attempting to hoist the smallmouth over the gunnel. With one steady slow tug, I got the head above the gunnel with rest of the smallmouth still over the water. After that? My memory is dreamlike. Maybe more like a nightmare. All I can remember is holding the tattered leader in my hand and watching the thick bodied smallmouth sinking back into the depths. Even as I write this, I’m sick in the stomach.

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March (scents make sense)

Weather Conditions: Cold and cloudy

Water Conditions: stained and rising water

Location Pattern: Slow moving water in ledge trenches w/ 6-8 feet of depth

Presentation: Slow dragging Crawfish fly on bottom

Rod & Reel: 8’9” 8 wt. Temple Fork Outfitters “The Clouser” w/ Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis “Cold Water” intermediate sinking line

Leader: 5 ft  10 lb. fluorocarbon, no tapper

Drysuit weather again today! My Kokatat SuperNova Angler suite kept me warm and dry. The skies were overcast with cold rain and at times sleet. The stained color and large volume of debris in the water was a tell-tail sign that the river was rising rapidly.  The run off from the winter sleet was driving the water temperatures down. By most anglers standards this could be interpreted as a worst case scenario. I would need an edge.

I found smallmouth in slow moving water of 6-8 foot in depth. The fish were not relating to the actual ledge rock as the had the past couple months. They were in the deeper ledge trenches where the bottom consisted of chunk rock.

I knew that cold muddy water would make the smallmouths strike zone small. I’d also have to deal with a very light bite and possibly a lot of pick ups and drops. The best presentation was slow dragging  a crawfish fly tied with fabric claws and heavy 1/20 oz. dumbbell eyes on bottom. The fly was sweetened with Bio Edge crawfish scent. The fabric claws held the scent nicely. I found when I started to apply the scent that the smallmouth held the bait a lot longer so I was able to increase my bite to hook up ratio significantly. I was able to land several smallmouth. The river gods smiled on me today!

April (Fish the fish!/big streamer)

Weather Conditions: Cold and cloudy

Water Conditions: stained, a little higher than normal but leveled off after rise

Location Pattern: Major current breaks with deep water

Presentation: Suspending a 4” Clouser Minnow just inside eddy line

Rod & Reel: 8’9” 8 wt. Temple Fork Outfitters “The Clouser”, Orvis Access reel

Line: Orvis “Cold Water” intermediate sinking line

Leader: 5 ft  10 lb. fluorocarbon, no tapper

Air temperatures were not too bad today given the overcast skies and intermittent rain. Obviously a great day to fly fish from my kayak! The east side of the river was very muddy so I focused on the west half of the river where the water clarity was better. I could see my fly down about two feet because of the influx of clearer water from creeks on the west bank.

April means pre-spawn so I focused my efforts on the deepest eddys behind the biggest car sized exposed chunks of ledge rocks. I found pre-spawn smallmouth holding just inside the eddy line in the calm water. This is a common “feeding station” for pre spawn fish looking to conserve energy but take advantage of a conveyor belt of food that the nearby current provides.

I tried a variety of flies imitating crawfish and small baitfish. The pattern that worked the best was a Clouser Minnow tied with about 4” of material resembling a big River Dace. River Dace’s and  other baitfish species often fall prey to the early cold, die and end up being washed into eddy’s where the opportunistic pre-spawn smallmouth bass take full advantage of the easy meal. The best presentation was positioning my kayak upstream of the eddy and swinging the fly into the calm water just inside the eddy line. The smallmouth weren’t impressed with a lot of  movement. I would let the fly hover in the middle of the water column “pulsing” it by lifting my rod tip a few inches every minute or so. I really struggled staying focused because hanging your fly out there like that for an extended time takes some mental discipline. I passed the time by striking up a conversation with another nearby kayak angler.

May (slow steady stripping draws the strikes)

Weather Conditions: Sunny and warm

Water Conditions: Green color 2-3 feet of visibility

Location Pattern: Top third of pools

Presentation: Small Crawfish fly slow strips no pause

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater, Orvis Access

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 7.5 ft 2X nylon tapered leader, 1 ft of 10 lb. fluorocarbon tippet

It was a beautiful day to be on the water. Warm and sunny with no chance of getting rained on. I truly perfect spring day.  The water was at normal levels and the USGS river gauges indicated a steady flow.

I did a lot of casting today trying to find smallmouth bass. The smallmouth seemed to be spread out and not concentrated in one type of area. The one type of location where I was able to pick up several fish was at the top of pools. Specifically where the speed of the water flowing into the pool started to deepen and slow down.

The post spawn is upon us so the fish are spread out and many are still trying to recover from the rigors of spawning so they were less willing to take the flies I tried. I cycled through Clouser Minnows, Wooly Buggers and a few others. I settled into using a very small Clouser Crawfish fly that produced several smallmouth. I presented the fly across the current as I floated through the pools. I very slow steady stipping retreive definitely made the difference. The fish definitely wanted something moving but it had to be moving slow.  Strikes were less than vicious. As I slow stripped the fly the rod slowly loading was the only indicator of a strike. It was a tough day on the water but thought several key adjustments I was able to catch a few smallmouth on the fly.

June (take it to the top with poppers and stealth bombers!)

Weather Conditions: Sunny and brutally hot

Water Conditions: Very low and clear

Location Pattern: “Taper Ups” at the end of pools

Presentation: Topwater Stealth Bomber fly

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater, Orvis Access

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 7.5 ft 2X nylon tapered leader, 1 ft of 10 lb. Monofilament  tippet

No rain and incredible hot weather have been the standard the past few weeks. Today was no different. Incredibly hot with no relief in sight. The water is low and crystal clear. Perfect conditions for an evening topwater bite so I decided to paddle out into a shallow area of the river dotted with grass islands to fish the last two hours of daylight.

Fish were not so  much relating to the grass islands as they were to the numerous small waist deep pools that are more like large divots among the relatively shallow water. Fish were notably positioned on the downstream end of these pools where the the bottom tapers up becoming shallow again. I find this to be a consistent summer location pattern for smallmouth in rivers. In particular when the water levels are low, clear and stable.

I fished from my kayak standing most of the time. Periodically, I hopped out to waded with my kayak in tow. The presentation was simple today. Sling the Stealth Bomber poppers into the “taper up”, give the fly two or three hard strips and then pause it as long as you could stand it. The Stealth Bomber is a large profile foam top water bait that dives, bubbles and splashes as it is stripped. I caught numerous smallmouth today in quick order. The noisy retrieve attracted the smallmouth but long excruciating pause was definitely the trigger today. I feel like I’m on easy street now. Only two more months to go and a year of kayak fly fishing will be complete.

July (Mix it up top/middle/bottom)

Weather Conditions: Sunny and hot

Water Conditions: Very low and clear

Location Pattern: Deep runs with medium current and chunk rock

Presentation: Swinging Clouser Minnows / Poppers on top

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater, Orvis Access

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 5 ft of 10 lb. Monofilament no tapper

Today was another hot day in a steady string of almost unbearable heat in the north east. Mostly sunny with only a few clouds overhead. Water levels are still extremely low and stable. The water is so clear I could see catfish in deep water wedged under big chunks of  rocks trying to escape the intense sun.

I fished from mid-day until evening. Fish seemed to be relating mostly to deeper runs with medium current holding behind submerged boulders and chunk rock. No doubt to escape the glaring sun. Today I mostly wade fished with my kayak on a tow rope. At times I position myself in shallow water just off my target location and used a YakAttack Little Stick to pin myself in place.

Mid-day the most effective presentation was a small 3” Clouser minnow swung across the runs several feet under the surface. Most strikes came as the fly swung through the run. At the end of the swing I made several strips with pauses between each but that didn’t seem to interest the smallmouth today. Toward evening, as the light faded, I change to a Booglebug popper and picked up a couple fish on top. Today was a mixed bag and another successful outing in my first full year of focusing on kayak fly fishing. That being said, I still look back on February as my nemesis!

August (Popping the submerged grass beds)

Weather Conditions: Sunny and hot

Water Conditions: low and clear

Location Pattern: Submerged grass beds

Presentation: Poppers over the grass beds and Articulated Streamers

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater, Orvis Access

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 5 ft of 10 lb. Monofilament no tapper

The dog days of summer are upon us. It was hot sunny with hardly a breeze. The calm conditions were great for casting a fly rod but that’s about all I can say positive about the heat. The water level is stable. It had come up about a foot several days ago due to some scattered rain but still very clear.

Smallmouth were holding in submerged grass in about 4-6 feet of water. The grass tends to grow in areas where the current speed is slow to medium. It is a common summer location for smallmouth in this area of the river because of the abundance of aquatic grass. It was evident that the smallmouth are seeking out shade in the clear water.

In the deeper areas I stood in my ATAK 140 and fished as I slowly floated over the grass beds. In the shallower areas of the river I waded or wedged my kayak on top of shallow ledge rock to hold position. I caught several smallmouth stipping in an atriculated streamer but the best producer was a Booglebug popper. Working the popper aggressively over the grass beds produced the most fish. The action was consistent and of course it’s always fun to catch smallmouth on top so I stuck with the popper most of the day. I ended the day a little worn out from the sun but happy about the success. I’m looking forward to the 12th and final month of my year long fly fishing blitz.

September (The kitchen sink)

Weather Conditions: Sunny, Cold front

Water Conditions: low and clear

Location Pattern: Shallow

Presentation: The Kitchen Sink

Rod & Reel: 9 foot 8 wt. Orvis Clearwater, Orvis Access

Line: Orvis Access Weight Forward Floating

Leader: 5 ft of 10 lb. Monofilament no tapper

On the Susquehanna River we call September “football season” because it’s the month when smallies start feeding up for the long winter and many will be so thick that they resemble brown footballs. I was excited when I hit the water today but mother nature didn’t want to play.

The daytime air temperatures were about 10 degrees lower than yesterday. I had been camping along the river and spent the night wide awake and shivering. It was as classic early fall cold front.

My first fishing efforts of the day where focused on deeper areas of the river around ledge rock. When that didn’t pan out I started paddling shallow water to see if I could get a visual on some bigger fish. My hunch was confirmed when I started seeing significant numbers of smallmouth in shallow water. The fish were holding around shallow weed islands and shallow submerged aquatic grass in areas where there was very little current.

I wanted to fish fast and big so I started the day casting across the back side of white water formed by long ledges running across the river. I used a two handed stipping technique to burn an 8 inch articulated streamer across the fast water behind the ledges. It’s a common fall strategie I use with big swimbaits on conventional gear. I was just duplicating it with a big articulated fly. My delusions of catching a citation smallmouth faded after several hours of fishing the streamer. I even moved down to a smaller articulated streamer with the same results.

I moved into the shallow water where I was seeing fish and still no luck on the streamer. It was evident that I needed to throw something more aggressive and noisy that would illicit a reaction bite. I switch to the biggest Booglebug popper in my fly box and worked it so hard it burned the paint off. On one shallow piece of rock I got my first and only take of the day. Not a trophy but it finished out my 12 month run with a solid hard fighting river smallmouth. I celebrated with my  son Juan Jr. and fellow Wilderness Systems team member Troy Meyerhoeffer that night at camp. The camp food and beer never tasted better!

Final thoughts about the last 12 months

It’s been a great year. The things I’ve learned will certainly carry me forward in my quest to become a better kayak fly angler. In addition, it’s challenged me to rethink some of my strategies and generally refine my techniques. I was able to catch at least one river smallmouth on a fly rod in every month with the exception of February. Most months I caught multiple smallmouth on multiple trips. Heck, at the time I’m writing this I still have 20 more days of September left! Honestly, I thought that I’d be tired of kayak fly fishing by now and that I’d yearn for my conventional gear when I’m “fun fishing” on my days of from teaching kayak anglers. Nothing can be further from the truth. I’m more focused, more enthusiastic and like Forrest Gump, I’m ready to head for the other coast again!

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JUAN VERUETE (kayakfishpa.com) is a Wilderness Systems pro and an ACA certified kayak instructor. He conducts kayak fishing classes and guided trips at Kayak Fish PA. 
 

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