Everyone loves fishing a fly on the surface of the water. There is just something about a nice Rainbow coming up and slowly grabbing a fly or a bass coming up to smash a popper. That visual experience strikes deep in every fly angler. There is a great blending of these experiences with Smallmouth and fishing terrestrials. That’s right terrestrials are not just for trout.

When most fly anglers think of Smallmouth fishing, they envision stripping steamers, using poppers, or bouncing crayfish patterns off the bottom. While these are great techniques, however sometimes these are not the most effective. As the season progress we see many changes in both Smallmouth behavior and water conditions. As the summer comes along we generally see increased activity in the fish due to the warmer water temps, but often find lower and clear water conditions. This can present a difficulty for anglers targeting smallmouth in these conditions. It is very common to see the fish in the shallow water feeding, but presenting a fly well can be a challenge. Very often just the splash of a streamer or popper will spook the fish. So, a more stealthy approach is required, and this is where terrestrials excel.

There are many advantages to throwing terrestrials over your normal flies. To start with they are a light fly and generally smaller than most Smallmouth flies. This makes them easier to cast and allows the fly to land softly. Being that most terrestrials are tied with foam, then are highly buoyant and durable. The most productive water for terrestrials is found behind large rocks in the middle of the river, soft edges, and along the banks. Also, with fishing a terrestrial, you are able to slow down your presentation. Most of the Smallmouth will take the fly on a dead drift, with little to no movement of the fly.

In addition to using a terrestrial, a stealthy approach is gained by using the appropriate equipment. Due to the lower water, a longer leader is a big plus. It is not uncommon to use a leader that is 12’ to 15’ in length. This additional length helps by adding distance from the fly line to the fly, thus increasing the stealth. There is no need to go down in leader size, 2x and 3x are still fine. Unlike most Smallmouth fishing, this is where a more general purpose/ trout taper fly line helps. I typically use an InTouch Rio Grand or InTouch Rio Gold, this just depends on the rod that I am using. With regards to the rod selection, this is where we slide to what would be more viewed as “trout” equipment, 4 to 5 weight rods. By going down in rod size, you can a more delicate presentation that would be more difficult to achieve with standard Smallmouth equipment. I prefer a fast action rod for this type of fishing and I am currently using the 490-4 METHOD. I personally like this rod due to the ability of the rod to handle a wider range of conditions and techniques. Shorter and slower action rods also can work well for this technique, but do not have the latitude of casts that the METHOD provides.

Again, with any surface presented fly, it’s all about the take. This is where the Smallmouth offer a very unique experience. Typically, a Smallmouth takes a terrestrial much in a way that a trout would take a dry, with a very delicate sip. It is odd to see a fish that is known for its explosive hits on poppers to slowly and delicately take a fly. A Smallmouth will generally slowly approach the terrestrial and start to drift back with it. It will then nose up, slowly open its mouth and suck in the fly. You can sometimes even hear the sip. This is where patience pays off, because you must wait to set the hook. If you set on the initial disappearance of the fly, you will miss the fish. Wait for just a second before setting the hook, and let the fun begin.

Fishing terrestrials for Smallmouth is also very effective at targeting larger fish too. Many of my clients’ personal best fish have come on terrestrials, including mine as well. Nothing like a 20” plus Smallmouth taking a fly so lightly right before your eyes. It is definitely a technique that most Smallmouth anglers should try and have in their playbook.

Mike Exl is a Sage Elite Pro and guide for Wildcat Creek Outfitters, who loves to chase any fish with fins and lives on the water regardless of the season. Smallmouth is only one of of Mike’s specialties, as he is one of the premier two-handed or spey fishing experts in the Midwest and spends a great deal of time chasing steelhead in addition to all the other great Midwest species.
Mike can be reached at

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