Maine's Smallmouth Bass

Maine's Smallmouth Bass

Bronzebacks may be the Pine Tree State's most sought-after fish.

  • By: Rick Ruoff
  • Photography by: Barry Beck
  • , Cathy Beck
  • and Val Atkinson
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Flip open a copy of Delorme’s Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and you might be amazed at all the water in the state. Probably best known for big brook trout and classic landlocked-salmon fishing, Maine has everything required to fulfill fishing fantasies. Throw in some wonderful saltwater fishing for stripers and blues along the coast, not to mention the big bluefins shouldering along the continental shelf, and what else do you need? Well, bass, for one thing. Largemouth and smallmouth inhabit areas of the state as large and varied as the trout and salmon habitat, in some spots even overlapping those salmonids.

These bass populations, a result of stocking experiments nearly 150 years ago and some very lucky happenstance, took off in the fertile, warmer waters of the lower two-thirds of the state. Until recently, this fishery was met with a yawn from many “traditional” sportsmen; they considered trout and salmon as kings, and the smallmouth to be paupers. What they really had was a jewel in the rough, and bass are finally beginning to shine as a premier Maine sportfish. In fact, biologists say they have become the state’s most sought-after gamefish.

My love affair with smallmouth came about as a youngster in Ohio, going to summer camp in Michigan. Catching my first olive-sided bombshells took me by surprise—these fish, although small, were the strongest critters I had met to date. Later in life, as a bonefish and tarpon guide in the Florida Keys, I met with lots of strong and leaping creatures, but the smallmouth always occupied a very warm spot in my heart. I even took time off during the middle of tarpon season to go to places like Minnesota, Tennessee, Canada and Maine to fish for these lovelies. My clients were alarmed and pleaded for my return to the sanity of tarpon fishing, but my dementia would not relinquish its hold—I had to fish for smallmouth several weeks each spring.

Decades later, the disease is still there—I cannot not fish for bass. Which, happily, brings us back to Maine, the place where the smallmouth’s popularity grows quietly but steadily. Maine has become my state of mind when I think of calm lake waters and the rings of smallies taking nymphs in the reeds, or the bloop of a popping bug in a meandering river, to be greeted by a hard strike.

My first experience in Maine was a dream. I talked to some clients who had fished there, called the Maine Department of Tourism, read all the magazine articles I could find, and decided to treat myself to one of the best. I booked a week at the historic Weatherby’s Lodge, on Grand Lake (“Down East” in Maine vernacular), with the services of a guide. At the peak of my 1979 guiding season in the Keys, I washed my boat, racked my tarpon rods and drove up to the Miami airport. Flying to Boston, then on to Bangor, I decided to break the bank and charter a floatplane for the trip to the lodge. The flight was spectacular, and as we taxied to shore that evening fish dimpled the surface in every direction. I piled my gear on the dock, assembled a rod and paddled out in a canoe that the lodge kept at the dock. Assuming these were trout or landlocked salmon, I was astounded when a feisty smallmouth took my dry fly on the second cast. Oh, what a trip this was going to be! And so it was, fishing in glorious weather from handcrafted canoes with guides that took inordinate pride in their occupation. Lakes with wonderful names like Pocomoonshine and Sysladobsis offered up eager smallmouth bass on classic shorelines—weeds, boulders, stumps and reeds—on almost any color or size of popper. The strikes, either a delicate sip or outrageous smash, mesmerized me. This was an addiction with no cure. I needed more trips to Maine.

Some biology
As mentioned, smallmouth bass are not native to Maine. They were first stocked in 1868 from a population in New York state. They thrived in some of the warmer, shallow lakes and ponds. Shortly, they made their way to most of the larger river systems. Since the original stocking, they have been introduced to other watersheds (either legally or illegally) and occur officially—at last count—in nearly 500 bodies of water. Interestingly, in more than 200 of these waters smallmouth coexist with largemouth bass that were incidental to the smallmouth stockings of the late 1800s. Natural reproduction sustains most bass populations, and stocking is now rarely considered.

The bass generally spawn in May and June; males begin nest construction when waters reach 55 degrees, and females deposits eggs between 60 and 65 degrees. Surprisingly, males do not mature until they are three or four years old, females at five or six. The females deposit 2,000 to 5,000 eggs per pound of body weight, leaving the nest soon after laying eggs. Males guard eggs until they hatch (five to eight days) and then, being good fathers, stay on for a few weeks to watch the fry. Mortality is high and water temperature plays a large role. In very northern waters, or during an exceptionally cold spring, first-year bass may not put on enough body weight to survive the 200-plus days of winter starvation. Given average conditions, the baby bass are two to three inches long by the end of their first growing season. The larger of these youngsters have the best winter survival rates.

These fish live quite a long time. In many Maine waters a 12-inch bass is six or seven years old and a nice 15-incher is eight, nine or 10 years old, while trophies of 18 to 20 inches could be an astonishing 20 years of age.

Flights of fancy
Volumes have been written about techniques for fishing smallmouth bass, and I’ll admit that these fish can sometimes be tricky. But unlike trout, if you can find bass, generally they cooperate. Bass move seasonally in their environment according to water temperature, food distribution and spawning urges. Only temperature extremes drive them truly deep, so most of the time they are within easy reach of fly anglers. During late spring, summer and early fall they are in shallow water searching for minnows, insect larvae and crayfish.

All bass exhibit a somewhat nocturnal nature, and smallmouth are no exception. They work shallower, more exposed areas in the dark or in low light, then drop back to ledges or shorelines with more cover as light levels increase. In late fall, when waters cool significantly, smallmouth fall back to deeper outcroppings in lakes, and the slower, deeper sections of rivers. There they gather in large schools that move little as the temperatures stay down. Warmth in the spring—not to mention spawning impulses—sends them back to the shallows.

Flies for smallmouth are as varied as the places to fish for them. My first choice is always a small foam popper, with a deerhair bug a close second. Color does not seem to be particularly important, but the retrieve can make a difference. Often I fish the popper quite quickly, as a quantity of morning coffee and a desire to fish as much shoreline as possible rule my actions. Most times this works just fine, but often strikes come on the dead drift as I untangle some fly line or stop to pour another cup. Slowing the popper way down, so my retrieve becomes the occasional twitch with long pauses between has proven to be very productive, if not a lesson in self control.

For subsurface work, streamers, Woolly Buggers, leeches and Clousers do well under most conditions. Floating lines with slightly longer leaders reach most fish that are holding on the banks. I generally like lighter colors, as you can often see the fly and the strike underwater, but I’ve done just as well with olive, black and brown. As one old guide told me, “Yep, any color is fine as long as it’s in the water.” If I do have to go deep, I find that a sink-tip or sinking-head line is most productive, with a short leader and an unweighted fly. This allows me to fish slower, with more fly movement, while keeping the fly close to the bottom longer. Crayfish patterns are especially effective when fished in this manner.

Sometimes smallmouths imitate trout behavior, albeit in their own way. Maine bass live in a very insect-rich environment, and often key on bugs both below and above the water. Nymphs representing damselfly, dragonfly and dobsonfly larvae (the latter is the infamous hellgrammite) are particularly effective when twitched in lakes and drifted in moving water. Often, during early mornings and late evenings smallmouth sip mayflies on the surface, looking exactly like trout. When the days warm in mid-summer, these same fish may explode on adult damselflies with great abandon. On my first trip to Pocomoonshine Lake, in eastern Maine, many years ago, my guide informed me that we would fish bass “on the jumps.” Not quite sure what that meant, I asked him to choose a fly for me. Rummaging through my boxes, he took out a large Humpy with a bright-blue body, exclaiming that it would be just the ticket. When we arrived, the smallmouth were slashing across the surface for flying blue damsels, often jumping and taking them in mid-air. I will never forget floating that big fly down to the surface on a long, slow forward cast, and the incredible aerial attacks of these bass.

Maine is way beyond having something for everyone—it has everything for anyone who likes to fish, especially anyone who likes to fly-fish for smallmouth bass. From lovely lodges and guides, to rental canoes and wading opportunities, anglers can throw a dart at a map, especially in the lower part of the state, and be sure that some good fishing lies nearby. I’m often asked how I can leave great tarpon fishing in Florida or the blue-ribbon rivers of Montana to take a fishing trip back East for smallmouth. My answer: No problem!

A smallmouth tour of Maine

Giving a thorough overview of fly-fishing possibilities in Maine would take a lifetime of fishing. As a quick description I would say that the best bass fishing is in the southern part of the state, but I have found many exceptions to that rule. Also, usually the bigger systems hold the largest populations of sizable fish, and smaller systems may have good numbers of fish, but of lesser size. This has to do with food supply, water fluctuation and temperature, and a host of other variables.

Northwest

Cold water, short summers and long winters generally discourage good smallmouth populations this far north. The Moosehead Lake region does have a few exceptions. Moosehead’s Lily Bay is shallow, thus warmer, and has fishable numbers of bass, as does Prong Pond (just a mile to the east). Indian Pond, an impoundment that is the beginning of the Kennebec River, was illegally planted with smallmouth many years ago, and has a fair population that co-exists with native brook trout and landlocked salmon.

Northern

Northern Maine used to be the stronghold of very healthy brook trout populations. Floats on the St. John River were canoe-fishing classics for these natives. In 1970, Canadian plantings of muskellunge in Québec started to slowly change the fishery as these predators moved downstream. Now there is a very robust musky fishery in the river. Illegal plants of smallmouth in New Brunswick around 2000 added to the brookies’ problems. Scattered populations of bass are now found all along the St. John, and they’re expected to increase. Good bass fishing is limited this far north, but there are fishable numbers in Nickerson Lake and the Meduxnekeag River, near Houlton.

Eastern

Eastern Maine is a region just filled with lakes and ponds. It is one of my favorites as it was the first place that I fished in the state. Almost any of the waters here have smallmouth, and many lakes have predominantly shallow or rocky shores that are very favorable to fly-fishing. Sysladobsis, West Grand and Junior lakes offer outstanding smallmouth fishing and are connected, with mile after mile of beautiful shoreline. Big Lake and the Grand Falls Flowage are also joined, and they open to the St. Croix River. These are all enormous lakes that have limitless fishing possibilities. Farther north, 17,000-acre Spednik Lake, and East Grand Lake (only slightly smaller), provide an excellent fishery that borders New Brunswick.

Central

From the fabled East Branch of the Penobscot River at Grand Pitch to tidewater, the beautiful Penobscot is the foundation of bass fishing in this area. I have had interesting days just above Bangor where I took small stripers and smallmouth at will, and was even treated to the sight of Atlantic salmon rolling in mid-river. The lower river is large and lazy, with rocky shoals that provide bass with perfect structure. Almost every tributary supports smallmouth, and they conjure up memories of fishy spots and exotic names: the Passadumkeag, Piscataquis and Mattawamkeag rivers, for example. Lake fishing is also great in this region. Seboeis Lake may be difficult to reach, but offers excellent fishing. Sebec Lake has easy access near Dover-Foxcroft, with equally good angling. This area has bass in almost every watershed, and most lakes and ponds. Every time I fish a new piece of water I am constantly led on to the next. Canoeing and/or wading shorelines of theses waters provide opportunities that seem endless. In fact, Endless Lake may be named for just that reason.

South Central

This is a very fishy area as two of the large rivers, both good smallmouth habitat, come together in Waterville, just north of the capitol city of Augusta. The Kennebec has become one of Maine’s bass rivers of note, due to its size, fish populations and large fishable area. Colder water and water fluctuations keep most of the smallmouth below the town of Solon. North of there, biologists expect that Wyman Lake may one day become a good bass fishery, as these fish are drifting downstream from a population established in Indian Pond, near the huge Moosehead Lake watershed. The best areas of the Kennebec range from Skowhegan right through the middle of Augusta and down to tidewater. A real bonus here is a large run of stripers, some to 40 inches, that ascend the river to Waterville in late spring. This creates the possibility of a mixed bag of stripers, smallmouth, some large brown trout and even the occasional rainbow.

The Sebasticook River flows into the Kennebec at Winslow/Waterville, and provides good fishing all the way up to Pittsfield. Interesting here is a run of juvenile alewives that heads back to the ocean from June to October, attracting legions of hungry bass below dams and in deep holes. The lower end of the Sandy River, above Norridgewock, is worth a look for smallies, as are the Medomak and St. George rivers. They support fishable numbers of bass, usually somewhat smaller but rarely fished. The Carrabassett, Sheepscot and Passagassawakeag rivers look good, but do not provide reliable fishing.

Almost any of the lakes and ponds in central Maine host largemouth, smallmouth or both, and most have boat ramps or access points. I once had an old-timer whisper a hot spot to me: Pickerel Pond. Frantically searching my Atlas for that spot, I came up with four Pickerel Ponds, three of which I fished during the following several trips. I caught fish in each of them, thinking that this was a wonderful way to disguise a secret spot. Was the fourth the magic one?

Southern

Southern Maine is blessed with the Androscoggin River, which flows out of New Hampshire. Meandering through Maine, this river was once heavily polluted by industrial waste and logging activity, and municipal sewage from the towns along its shores. The turn of the last century brought environmental issues to focus, and a slow cleanup began. Today, the river is sparkling and home to a bragging population of smallmouth bass from the state line to tidewater. Because the river is large, bass numbers remain relatively stable, as they are not subject to radical water fluctuations. Food is abundant, and good shoreline cover gives flyrodders unlimited fishing opportunities. Canoe access is good at most bridges and towns. Smaller rivers in the region support lesser populations of bass. Many lakes and ponds are good here, too. Some have shorelines that drop off quite steeply, like 30,000-acre Sebago Lake, which offers good fishing in spawning season, only to have the fish go deep over the summer. Other waters, such as Long Lake, offer largemouth and smallmouth, and a good shallow shoreline. Thompson Lake has a strong smelt population that feeds hungry smallmouth and helps produce some big bass.

—R.R.

Rick Ruoff was this magazine’s first Guide of the Year, in 1987. Which is to say, he’s been at this for a while.