4:30 AM, the lake is calm, and the eastern sky is just starting to turn pink. I ease the boat up onto plane and make a 25 minute run. It's late June on Lake Champlain and this flat I've chosen is as close to a guarantee as you can find in Smallmouth Bass fishing. As I get near the small point I kill the motor and deploy the bow mounted troller. Its just before 5 am now and there is plenty of light, as I silently angle the boat to the south of the point I see the first big swirl in the bay, then another. Stripping line from the reel, bass popper in hand, I watch the depth finder go from 15 to 4 feet pretty quickly. Just about to make a blind cast into shallows I notice some baitfish 15 feet in front of the boat. Suddenly a smallmouth slashes through the school, back out of the water coming right at the boat. I flick the popper at the swirl and instantly the fish rolls on the fly then goes airborne as I set the hook. These bass are street fighters, and in shallow water, the only place to go is up. Minutes later I finally am able to horse the roughly 5 pound fish into the net. For me, few things in fly fishing are more exciting to me then rolling up on a smallmouth flat at day break or just before sunset.
Smallmouth hunting flats are far and away my favorite areas on a lake to bass fish with a fly rod. Shallow water and feeding fish make these areas particularly important to the fly angler. What makes a good hunting flat, how to find them, and when to fish them are all important pieces to learning how to experience the magic of a good hunting flat yourself.
DEFINING A HUNTING FLAT
Understanding what features create a good hunting flat for smallmouth bass is key. A great flat will have structure, vegetation, and depth nearby. Depths of the flat vary at the time of the year but can be anywhere from 2' to 8' deep and have a steep drop off to deep water at the edge of the flat. We aren't looking for deep largemouth bays with lilly pads and stagnant water. Structure of a great smallmouth flat will have diversity. You want to see boulders, small rocks, and sand, mixed in with uneven bedrock. A good flat does not need to have all of these features but it needs to have a combination of at least a few. Within these bottom features needs to be some kind of vegetation. It doesn't need to be thick, in fact I think its better when there is spare to moderate vertical weed growth. Just enough to provide cover for baitfish and predator alike, but open enough so that the bass can visually hunt. The size of the flat is not terribly important. If you find a small area with all of the features you can expect there will be some small mouth feeding there. A big flat offers potentially more fish and more area to cast to however, the fish could be harder to pinpoint.
FINDING A HUNTING FLAT
You can start locating potential hunting flats from your computer at home. I use the Navionic's app which shows contour lines in good detail. The two images below are example of small and large sized hunting flats. Usually these flats are located on "main" lake locations, so cross off big, deep, shallow bays from your search. Note that not all feeding flats show up on the contour map, and sometimes the feeding flat can be skinny and long while it parallels a shoreline.
Once you have located a potential good hunting flat the next step is to get out on the water and look at the bottom for the structure mentioned above. If the flat is all hard bedrock or all sand, move on. Here on Lake Champlain there are some really large flat areas of shale bedrock that offer little in the way of diversity. Sure some bass may cruise these areas here and there but they won't be reliable. Conventional tackle anglers will often target individual boulders off of these shale rock flats with a drop shot rig, but for the fly fisher they are better left alone. As you cruise around your particular lake searching for these flats, it pays to stay near the shoreline and check out new areas as you motor. There are hundreds of small hunting flats scattered around a particular lake. Once you've located one or more good flats its time to start fishing.
HOW AND WHEN TO FISH A HUNTING FLAT
The first three and last three hours are typically the most consistent times to fish a hunting flat, but there can be fish on these flats all day long throughout the spring summer and fall. The pattern I've seen over the years is that large numbers of smallmouth will be hunting as it gets daylight. As the morning wears on some fish will move back to deep water for the day but there will be some that stay on the flat. Additionally, roaming schools of bass that can appear on the flat at anytime. The daytime activity changes by the day and minute. Some days lots of fish stay shallow, including big fish, even under bright sun in the heat of the summer. Other days the flats can be devoid of fish during most of the day, save for schools moving in and out. I've been prospecting good flats at midday during the summer with little luck when suddenly there are big bass all over the place. The predictability of daytime flats hunting is difficult but the best flats usually have some bass on them all the time. If you prefer to fish shallow as I do, it pays to rotate to different known flats throughout the day to find active schools of bass. Keep in mind that smallmouth move a lot throughout a particular lake.
HOW TO FISH A HUNTING FLAT
Top water is by far the most fun and often the most productive method for fishing a hunting flat. Additionally, top water poppers have accounted for nearly every 20"+ smallmouth I have caught. The key here is presentation and size. I use mostly small to mid sized top water flies. Many anglers take cues from conventional tournament anglers, and I did for many years. Generally when conventional anglers fish top water they are looking for aggressive reaction bites where a fish violently attacks a lure. This presentation will work for bass on a fly as well, but when I began slowing things down a whole new world of top water fishing opened up for me. I began getting fish not only attacking the fly, but more fish gently sipping the fly. The real magic is that it's usually the biggest fish that sip. This takes real finesse and patience especially if you can see the giant bass hovering under your fly. Too big of a pop and it will turn away, but too long without any movement and it may lose interest. Top water is always a go to early and late, but it will work all day long. Occasionally the mid day top water bite is far and away the most productive method. I won a fly fishing tournament two years ago catching all but one fish on a popper. In fact, we fished through a hunting flat at midday with streamers with zero results, but when my partner picked up a popper he immediately got an eat. The next hour saw us boat around 10 bass over 18", 2 of which were over 20" all on top water. That resulted in an individual tournament win, team win, and biggest bass of the tournament cash payout!
There are plenty of times when bass are not looking to the surface to feed however. When this happens we prefer to fish an intermediate line with a lightly weighted clouser minnow or unweighted streamer. The bass generally prefer the fly fished in the upper half of the column. Seeing the fly pause, flutter and move erratically above them will often trigger a strike. Should the flat be deeper in the 8-10' range then a type 3 sinking line will occasionally be preferred but its not usually necessary and we prefer fishing shallower anyway. It's just more fun to clearly see the bottom and have targets such as rocks, weeds, shoreline or better yet fish to cast at than to blindly cast into deep water. If things get really slow I'll turn to a crayfish imitation fished along the bottom. I'm much more inclined to go this route if I am seeing fish lazily hanging out on a flat but not reacting to moving flies. If you can get a crayfish pattern on the bottom near these lazy fish you can occasionally coerce them into eating. Lastly, if the flat is non productive, you can target the drop off into to deep water. Use your electronics to find the drop and if you mark fish then throw a full sink line down to them with a baitfish pattern, but I am much more inclined to look for fish on another flat.
Hunting flats are dynamic places that are an absolute blast to fish with a fly rod. One of the other great things about a hunting flat is that there are many other species that use these areas. Largemouth, Northern Pike and Pickerel, bowfin, sheepshead, carp, and more are all occasionally spotted on a good Smallmouth hunting flat. Some of these require specialized flies, while others you'll hook as a by-catch on bass flies. Finding these areas is not hard and within a few outings on your local lake you should have some quality spots marked that can produce wonderful fishing year after year.