By Sean Polk
Bass on the fly rod presents a rewarding and sometimes challenging adventure that can be found close to home. With a large distribution of bass across North America there is no need to travel great distance to enjoy catching fish on the fly. Unlike trout fishing with the endless list of gear and equipment, bass fishing requires just a few key items. All the bass angler needs are a few stout leaders, a proven selection of flies and some water.
The gear needed for bass fishing is quite simple. The staple rod for bass fishing falls in the six to eight weight ranges. While most fish will be between one to two pounds, the heavier rods are needed to cast the large flies used for bass. The bigger the water (think large lakes) will usually call for the heavier rods. Large reservoirs, like Lake Fork, will hold fish into the double digit range along with abundant cover and structure. In these instances, the angler will want a rod that can hoist a fish out of brush before they snap a leader. Smaller ponds are well suited for lighter rods, especially since the casting distances are not very long and the fish can be smaller.
Leaders for bass need to be heavy compared to trout fishing. Bass leaders fall into the 0x to 2x range and are usually seven and a half feet long. Specialty bass leaders are available that incorporate a heavy butt section and steep front taper that helps to turn over heavy flies. Bass specific leaders are rated by pounds with twelve and sixteen weight the most common. Monofilament leaders are the most common, especially when fishing top water flies. When the fish are lower in the water column, fluorocarbon leaders will allow the fly to get deeper and provide more abrasion resistance due to the hard coating on the leader. A word of caution on fluorocarbon, due to its density, the leader will drag a surface fly down decreasing its popping action.
Fly lines are usually weight forward floating lines. The floating line will cover most situations, especially in the spring when bass are shallow. Later on in the year, as water temperatures increase, bass will seek deeper water and sinking lines will be needed to present a fly. A fast sinking, density compensated line will get the fly down fast and keep a straight connection between the rod and the fly. When using this set up, a short piece of fluorocarbon tippet can be used for a leader. Most anglers use a section of sixteen to twenty pound in a two foot length.
When most anglers fish for bass, top water poppers are the first fly they have in mind. Poppers come in a variety of sizes and styles. Poppers with a cupped face create the most surface noise and will trigger strikes from fish when they are in an aggressive mood. Use these flies on windy days when there is surface chop or when blind casting to locate fish. Sliders are flies that will dive when stripped and then float back to the surface. These flies are effective on calm days or when the fish are shallow and the angler wants stealthy presentation.
Poppers can be made from a variety of materials. Deer hair and cork are the more traditional style, while foam is fast becoming the most common material used today. All three materials have unique characteristics that help in certain situations. Deer hair has the advantage of landing with a soft “splat” on the water and rides lower in the surface film than other materials. The hair also has a softer feel when the fish takes the fly, resulting in the fish holding the fly longer. Cork flies are an older style of popper and can be shaped in a variety of ways. Cork poppers tend to float higher than deer hair and due to their density and are harder for fish to push out of the way when they strike from below. Foam poppers can be shaped either from cylinders or flat sheets and offer the bass angler an unlimited range of styles and sizes. One of the most popular is the Gurgler, developed by Jack Gartside for striped bass in New England. This fly is easy to cast, has plenty of movement due to its marabou tail and can be tied in a variety of sizes and colors.
When the bass are in deeper water, subsurface streamers can be the ticket to a successful day. The standard Clouser tied with lead or bead chain eyes is one on the most universal flies for bass. The jigging motions of the fly combined with the minnow shape have landed many bass. Popular colors are chartreuse, black, olive and white. The standard wooly bugger is also a productive fly, especially when tied with rubber legs. Olive, black and rust colors help to imitate a variety of creatures from crayfish to hellgrammites. Dave Whitlock’s Hare Water Pup is another fly that imitates the plastic worm fished by conventional anglers. The double rabbit strip of this fly provides movement that the fish will key in on especially when temperatures are low and the bass are lethargic. Other popular flies are ones that imitate crayfish. Whitlock’s Near ‘Nuff Craw, Clouser’s Craw, and John Gulley’s Ultra Craw are consistent patterns when bass are targeting this abundant food source.
When approaching a new lake, a helpful technique for determining fly selection is to consult the fishing reports for conventional anglers. Find out what colors and sizes, as well as what types of lures they are using and match your fly selection. If anglers are using swim baits or crank baits, pick minnow imitations. If grubs or creature baits are the ticket, use large wooly buggers in the appropriate colors. When bass are keying in on plastic worms, Hare Water Pups and Gulley Worms will match these lures.
The key to catching bass on the fly is to eliminate non-productive water. Bass will hold to certain areas though out the year. Beginning in the spring, bass will stage in areas adjacent to their spawning beds. Look for ledges and drop offs that will mark a transition from shallow areas to deeper water. These fish will be in an aggressive mood as they prepare for the spawn. The key time for this is when water temps begin to approach 55 degrees and prior to a full moon. Cast to areas of heavy cover such as standing timber, brush piles and grass beds. As the water temps increase, bass will move into their spawning areas and begin to build their nest. While at this stage the bass will actively chase flies but can be difficult to entice into a strike. They are removing your fly from their nest instead of inhaling it. After the spawn, the fish will move off their beds and seek covered areas before the water temps increase and they go deep again. At this time, target channels, humps, rock piles and mouths of creeks. Present your fly slowly, bass are ambush creatures and generally refrain from chasing down their prey. Early mornings and late afternoons are the times when bass will move to shallow areas and can then be caught on top water flies. As water temps increase in the summer, bass will seek deeper, cooler water. They will tend to become lethargic and present a challenge to the fly angler. This time calls for big flies fished on deep sinking lines. Slow presentations are the key. The bass are trying to conserve energy and will tend to eat just a few times a week. As summer turns to fall, water temps decrease and bass will once again return to the shallows. They will now become aggressive in an attempt to fatten up for the winter. At this time, target shallow areas, particularly those that receive a lot of sun during the day. These areas will stay warmer longer and hold bass as the air temps decrease.
Catching and Landing
The hardest part of bass fishing for most trout anglers is learning to hook a fish. Bass have a hard mouth and you will need to strip set the fly in order to set the hook. To do this, keep the rod pointed directly at the fly and strip the line back towards you with a forceful tug. Once the fish is hooked, raise the rod tip and keep the rod at a 45-degree angle. Keep pressure on the fish, you will need to keep the fish from retreating to cover and risking a break off. Bass will not make long runs like other species; they will fight more like a bulldog, with headshakes and attempts to turn. Strong reels with drags are not necessary, as it will be rare that drag is ever needed for bass.