I've been fly fishing for smallmouth bass a lot lately in many or our local lakes. Much of it has been sight fishing too: you cast to likely structure — a rocky shoal, drop off, dock, point, or the edge of a weed bed — and, often, somewhere along the retrieve you'll see the outline of a bass show just behind or underneath the fly. It's exciting, to say the least.
This is streamer fishing at its finest and standard smallmouth fare such as wooly buggers, muddler and Clouser minnows, Zonkers and Dahlberg divers work well. These are all classic smallmouth flies, but when bass aren't smashing them outright, you need to incite a strike.
There are two ways you can go. You can start to retrieve faster or you can slow things right down. Either way, I rely on the inch-and-pause retrieve.
This entails pulling a few short inch-long strips of line followed by a pause. The pause is when the strike frequently occurs.
This, I strongly suspect, takes advantage of the bass's natural aggression and predisposition toward wounded prey. You're imitating something that wants to get away but doesn't have the strength to do so.
I got a chance to witness firsthand how a big smallmouth is a sucker for wounded prey the other day when a small rock bass took my beadhead wooly bugger. As it was struggling to get off, a huge (I'm guessing 5- to 6-pound) smallmouth materialized underneath and took the rock bass sideways in its mouth before turning it, swallowing and slipping off into the deeper water. I never did catch that big bass — it quickly coughed up the 4-inch rock bass. But, at least, I now know where it lives.
Certainly, the inch and pause retrieve I rely on simulates what that rock bass was doing. And, with a wooly bugger, which, depending on color, imitates a leech or crayfish, it also seems to animate the fly with just the right amount of erratic movement to make them appealing to even the most hesitant fish.
Needless to say, polarized fishing glasses help here.
It's not the only way to go, but it is one of the first approaches I try when bass are a little finicky.
Sometimes, it's not about the fly so much as the action you impart upon it.