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Big Hare Tactics for Autumn Bronze

by Joseph D. Cornwall


Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
September/October 2005


Although it’s hard to imagine it as I write this, the temperature is in the upper 90’s with a heat index over 100, but soon enough the air will cool, the leaves will reveal their hidden colors and the big smallmouth bass will hunt in earnest for enough calories to carry them through the long, cold winter. Late September through mid November is a great time of the year for a fly fisher to connect with a “personal best” smallmouth.

Labor Day constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. The holiday also accurately marks a point where the average size of river residents begins to shift towards ever larger sizes, as young-of-the-year fry grow large enough to survive the coming winter. Shiners, chubs, shad and dace feed actively on a multitude of near-microscopic insects and crustaceans that have bloomed in late summer’s warm, fertile flow. The increased feeding activity by baitfish and crayfish exposes them to predation – thus the average size of abundant and available forage increases. The buffet is not ignored by the bass. Large smallmouth are drawn to leave their deep, tangled summer homes and hunt their way back upstream towards the teeming nursery waters.

I gradually increase the size of the flies I fish as the autumnal equinox shortens the days, starting with modest size 4 streamers in early September and moving to the point where I’m casting 5-inch long, size 2/0 divers by Halloween. At the same time I move from somber olives, tans and browns on the smaller flies to flashy silver, pearl and bright color combinations on the big hare patterns.

What are big hare patterns? That’s the whimsical name I’ve given to a box of large Doubly Bunny rabbit strip flies, rabbit strip Dahlberg Divers, sculpted deer hair bugs, and Matuka-style streamers that is my “go to” selection for hunting trophy fall smallmouth. These are BIG flies, some of them are tied on 4/0 4xl hooks. None are weighted more than is absolutely necessary to get them to swim properly. To get deeper, on the rare occasions when a bottom presentation is necessary, I rely on a sinking tip line. This selection of flies demands the horsepower and control of an 8-weight rod, often loaded with a 9-weight bass-bug taper line. Leaders are rarely more than 10-feet long, steeply tapered to a short, 10lb. test tippet. While fall bass will demand your longest and most accurate casts, they won’t necessarily require the last word in subtle delivery. At times it seems as though the watery “splat” of a fully soaked, 4-inch long rabbit strip is the fish-equivalent of a dinner bell!

At times of warm, low water and stressful oxygen levels (read “most of this summer”), smallmouth bass will migrate downstream in search of deeper, cooler, more protected lodging. Studies in Minnesota and Kentucky have demonstrated that, under some circumstances, smallmouth bass can wander more than 20 river-miles! As peak summer water temperatures begin the steady decline that signals “autumn”, bass push upstream to the places they last visited during the spring spawn. This means that my search for fall blitz smallmouth starts on the wider, deeper, slower sections of major rivers and tributaries, and gradually moves up into feeder creeks and streams with good flow. Pocket water below natural barriers such as low-head dams and rock ledges becomes important holding areas. Large areas of moderate flow over rock and gravel bottoms – flats – will see a regular parade of aggressive, cruising smallies. Indeed, this type of water is often recognized as classic “buzz bait” water by our hardware tossing brethren.

The key to fall smallies is to keep searching for active, aggressive fish. This means long casts worked quickly and noisily. Remember, the fish are moving and hunting. Water that was devoid of bass can harbor two or three nice fish an hour later. Often these fish will be holding in minor depressions of the riverbed or cuts in the bank. You need to work the water constantly in order to capitalize on a changing situation.

I like floating in the fall. A canoe, silently drifting in the mist of a crisp, colorful October morning, gets to the very essence of the fly fishing experience. There is the “wisk-wisk” of the fly line in the air, and the gentle response of boat to body english. There is a pause, then the “pop, pop, gurgle” of the fly being worked. The sound is almost intrusively loud and there is a natural tendency is to show mercy; to slow down and quiet the retrieve.

Don’t flinch! Work the fly aggressively with staccato 2-foot strips punctuated with short pauses. Add in a few mends that allow for interesting change-of-direction retrieves. Make the fly dance with the understanding that you can’t possible retrieve a fly so fast that a motivated smallmouth bass can’t catch it! Ideally you want to impart a constant splashy motion to the fly with plenty of short opportunities for capture. Avoid sharp, unnatural “pops” by using a rollcast to pick your fly up off the water.

Fall smallmouth can hit hard. I remember one particular fish of 16 or 17 inches that exploded on a bait just a foot or two from the side of the canoe. That fish must have followed the retrieve for many feet before deciding to nail the potential meal before it disappeared under the “log” that was the silent boat. We almost capsized; such was the extent of our surprise at a disturbance that could easily have been the result of a 10lb bowling ball tossed into the creek by a passing airplane! That fish just came unglued!

As I drift I like to target obvious structure such as midstream rocks, old logs with deep scours, and undercut ledges. Even more importantly though, I’ll target inflowing springs and streamlets, island points and grass-bed edges, even if the water only appears to be a few inches to a foot or so deep. As the season progresses smallmouth bass will hold in ever shallower cover until at a certain, critical temperature, they move on to the safety of the wintering hole. This is usually about the time of the first frost. Until that point you’ll find it surprising how little water is takes to hold a respectable fish.

Besides baitfish, crayfish are also an important autumn foodstuff. After shedding, male crayfish become particularly active. Crayfish mate in the late fall or early winter, and aggressive males will begin to move about and hunt for receptive females as the water temperatures begin to fall. As a result, mature crayfish become more available to feeding smallmouth bass.

Bass are particularly selective to crayfish that have lost a claw and are more vulnerable or less able to put up a defense. 2 to 4 inch long flies that can be scooted along the rocky bottom in short hops, such as the Mixed Media, are excellent producers. When fishing a crayfish imitation, I lengthen my leader tippet to about the same as the depth of water I’m trying to fish. A long, level fluorocarbon tippet allows the fly to sink quickly and work laterally along the bottom rather than planning and climbing up in the water column.

Finally, I’ve found that, as the days shorten and the air cools, the bite moves from a daybreak/morning event to an afternoon/evening event. Early in September I want to be on the water just as the sun turns the sky gray. Later in October I prefer to get to the water at midday and fish till sunset. By Thanks Giving the fishing has narrowed to banker’s hours. While I am a staunch advocate of getting on the water whenever you can, I’ll have to admit that trips which coincide with the “Harvest Moon” and “Hunter’s Moon” (September and October full moon cycles respectively) have always provided me with the most memorable fishing.

Henry James once said, “Summer afternoon - Summer afternoon... the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Perhaps Henry James didn’t fly fish for smallmouth bass. If he did, I’m sure the quote would read “Autumn afternoon – Autumn afternoon… the most productive time in a fly fisher’s season.”


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