Fly Fishing the Flint River for Michigan Smallmouths
Bob Gwizdz 09.04.14
Dirk Fischbach wrote the book on fly fishing for smallmouth bass on the Huron River. Literally; The Fly Fisher’s Huron: A Practical Guide to Michigan’s Blue Ribbon Smallmouth River sold out its original press run (3,600 copies) and will be reprinted soon.
But when I contacted him recently to set up a day’s fishing, Fischbach recommended we try some place else. Instead of his home water, we wound up going to the Flint River.
“The Flint River has established itself as an outstanding smallmouth fishery,” said Fischbach, a 52-year-old writer, musician, and fly fishing guide who also runs a fly shop (Bailiwicks) in Dexter. “It’s incredibly productive and really lends itself to the fly angler because it’s wide-open.”
Indeed, as we found ourselves wading at mid-morning on a hot August day, I discovered a river that was wide enough to fly fish without tangling your back casts in the trees and, for the most part, shallow enough to wade comfortably (though there are some deep holes).
Our day started slowly as we worked downstream; it probably took an hour—and a couple of pattern changes—before Fischbach started nailing smallies on a chartreuse sparkle minnow. From then on, Fischbach was steadily catching ’em.
Just for the record, I struggled, having less success than Fischbach while I fished a fly that was kind of a hybrid muddler minnow/wooly bugger that fished higher in the water column. But when I switched to the weighted sparkle minnow, I never caught a fish on it, though I did miss several strikes. I guess I just wasn’t holding my mouth right.
What was impressive about the fishery was the quality of the bass Fischback caught.
“The average fish here is bigger and certainly heavier than in most other streams,” he said. “A 14-inch smallmouth probably weighs a quarter pound more than a 14-inch smallmouth elsewhere. If you fish here in a dedicated way, you’re going to run into some 15-, 16-inch fish and bigger.”
The Flint is kind of like what the Madison River out west is to trout—lots of good fish, Fischbach said, except it lacks the notoriety. It certainly isn’t the first waterway that pops into your head when you think smallmouth streams.
What separates the Flint from his home water (which is also an outstanding smallmouth fishery) is the baitfish population in the Flint River, Fischbach said. The river runs unimpeded by dams from upstream of Flint all the way to the Shiawassee River and then into Saginaw Bay. The fish grow fat on the minnows, Fischbach said.
“You’ll see balls of baitfish like you see in the ocean,” Fischbach shared. “Sometimes you see them flipping up on shore to escape the smallmouths that are chasing them.”
The ambiance—quiet, not especially developed, and surrounded by tall tress—defies the Flint’s location, Fischbach said.
”It seems remote, but it’s really kind of an urban setting,” he said. “I mean, you’re taking an exit off I-75 to get here.”
It’s classic smallmouth water; mostly boulders and cobble (though there are some logs and brush piles, too) like you read about in books, Fischbach said, and the fish relate to any depth change around the rocks. “It doesn’t take much; eight to 10 inches can make all the difference as to whether the fish hang there or not,” he continued.
Although we fished wet flies for the several hours we spent there, Fischbach said he’s had excellent results fishing on the surface, too (mostly with terrestrials and poppers) but generally does better on streamers. “There are times, on some stretches where the water weeds are so thick, it’s hard to fish deep.”
I lost track of how many fish we caught (which was plenty). Fischbach said it was a less than average day for him on the Flint. “I’ve had days when we caught 100 fish and a quarter of them were 14 inches or better,” he said.
Best yet, we saw almost no one else. There’s only one small canoe livery and the access and egress points are too far apart make the Flint very attractive to tubers, Fischbach said.
In a discipline (fly fishing) where trout are considered the be-all and end-all, Fischbach is a smallmouth junkie.
“I love trout fishing and certainly I’ve wasted a large portion of my life pursing them, but I wouldn’t give up my smallmouth fishing for trout,” Fischbach said. “Smallmouths are fish with an attitude. If you hook an eight- or nine-inch trout, you just pull them in. But every smallmouth thinks he’s 20 inches and he’s determined to prove it to you. They have an incredible spirit.
“I travel to Montana to go trout fishing for a number of reasons,” he continued, “and I’d do the same for smallmouths, too, but I don’t have to. I have that quality of fishing here: lots of 14- to 16-inch fish that will give you memorable fights.”
There’s no magic to the Flint, Fischbach said. It can be a tough bite, just like anywhere else, especially when water conditions or barometric influences are negative. But for the most part, an honest day’s fishing will result in a fine catch.
Personally, I liked what I saw on the Flint—though I would have preferred to fish a little better—and I’ve spent a lot of time fishing smallies on a lot of Michigan streams. Fischbach promised we’d return and the next time we go, he said, he’ll bring the float boat and we’ll make a day of it.
Frankly, I can hardly wait.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.