Fly fishing like a bassmaster
5 hot summer flies for non-stop largemouth and smallmouth action
For some great steamy-season bassin,’ think outside the fly box.
The Imitation Game
Conventional fly-fishing wisdom suggests that come summer, flies are only effective for bass during the shoulder hours, when the fish feed aggressively in the shallows. For a long time, I took this as gospel and switched to hardware during the dog days. Then about 10 years ago, I went on a camping trip and forgot my spinning gear. Not willing to only fish the twilight hours, I had to find a way to fish all day long with my fly gear. And find a way I did.
As I discovered, you can catch both largemouth and smallmouth bass on flies all day long throughout the summer. After all, if bass pros can catch fish during the heat of the day, why shouldn’t fly anglers be able to do it as well? All you need to do is think like a bassmaster first, and a fly angler second.
Obviously, there’s no fly-fishing equivalent to drop-shotting in 40 feet of water or burning a double-bladed spinnerbait with an 8:1 baitcasting reel. But when bass are somewhere between the surface and 15 feet down—which they often are—you can match the form, function and retrieve of many other lethal pro presentations to catch them. Here are five flies that are up to the task.
Weedless popper = Topwater frog
This classic summer bass fly is fatally attractive to both smallies and largemouth when fished along weedlines or around rock piles at dusk. But weedless poppers also produce all day long on largies in cover. I repeat: you are allowed fish poppers from dawn to, well, the next dawn. They are almost as weedless as the latest hollow-body topwater frogs, and allow for better hooksets. To fish a popper, strip line sharply for a “pop” or softly for a gentle gurgle. Pause between strips for as long as you can bear, and then some.
Bass seem to care little about popper colour, so pick something that’s either easy to see or aesthetically pleasing. However, the best poppers do have soft legs and tails that shimmy even when the fly is motionless. That’s when most fish hit—and the strikes are explosive.
Lefty’s Deceiver = Suspending stickbait
Designed in the 1950s for saltwater by fly-fishing guru Lefty Kreh, the Deceiver is criminally deadly on both largies and smallies (and utterly unhinges poor northern pike). The key design elements are its swishy feather tail, wisps of tinsel and bucktail top and sides, which “breathe” in and out as the fly moves. The combined effect is like the sexy wobble and shine of a lipped stickbait.
The first time I saw a Rapala X-Rap, I knew it was going to be a great lure because it was essentially a plastic Deceiver, right down to the feather tail. I carry three-, four- and five-inch Deceivers, in chartreuse/white, blue/white and green/black. Fish ’em where and how you’d throw a suspending stickbait, with a floating or sinking line, depending on the depth.
Clouser Deep Minnow = Tube jig
When smallmouth guide Bob Clouser debuted this fly in the 1980s, fly-fishing purists disparaged it as a “jig.” Fly anglers who like catching fish, on the other hand, said, “Brilliant—it’s a jig!” With its dumbbell eye, the Clouser gets down fast, stays down and rides point up, making it snag resistant. Given the fly’s action, appearance and beautiful simplicity, think of the Clouser as a tube jig for the fly rod.
You can fish it for largies, smallies or any predator fish, practically anywhere. Bass love Clousers in lengths of two to four inches. For the sake of simplicity, I stick to the traditional olive/white, chartreuse/white and red/white colour combinations, which adequately imitate most minnows, as well as crayfish and gobies. Bob Clouser intended this fly to be darted near bottom, but like a tube jig, you can also drag or swim it.
Pike Bunny = Soft-plastic worm
Ignore the name and just try this fly for largemouth anytime hardware anglers are heaving plastic worms. With its rabbit fur strip tail and body, the Bunny undulates and flows in a way that soft-plastic chuckers can only envy, even when you're not moving it. Typically about six inches long and tied on a 1/0 or bigger hook, the classic white-and-red pattern is good, but bass seem to prefer chartreuse, all-black and even natural brown.
Use a sinking line or a weighted version to snake the fly along the bottom like a Texas-rigged worm, or let it slowly descend on a floating or sink-tip line like a wacky rig. Experiment with various retrieves, and stay alert for gentle takes. Just remember that rabbit fur gets heavy when it’s wet, so you’ll want at least an 8-weight rod.
Dahlberg Diver = Floating/diving minnowbait
Every bass fly box should have a Dahlberg Diver or one of its dozens of slight variants. You can run wild with colours, tail styles and lengths (from two to six inches), but as long as the fly has a deer-hair body trimmed into that distinctive cone-and-collar shape, it will behave as it should. Like a classic balsawood minnowbait, this fly floats at rest, dives and sways when retrieved, and wobbles back toward the surface when stopped. If you use a weedless Diver, you can also throw it into areas where hardbaits bristling with treblehooks fear to go. Whether bass see it as a frog or a wounded baitfish or something else, it rings the dinner bell, and not subtly—both largemouth and smallmouth will attack it with reckless abandon.
Delivery system: The best bass outfit
Bass fly gear is mercifully simple. The main consideration is matching your rod and line weight to the size of flies you’re casting, and to the size of the fish. If your outfit is too small, you won’t be able to deliver larger flies, especially in wind. If it’s too big, you’ll need a cortisone shot by day’s end. Bronzebacks go for flies at the smaller end of the scale, making a 6-weight a good general choice, though for small waters a 5-weight may suffice. For largemouth, try an 8- or possibly a 9-weight, both to move the bulkier flies and drag a fish out of cover. I never bother with tapered leaders on bass. Instead, I just use a length of eight- or 12-pound mono. Two to four feet of leader is plenty with a sinking line, and four to six is all you need with a floating line.