Watching my gaudy, oversized surface fly disappear down the gullet of a largemouth bass is my ideal summertime fly-fishing experience. And that’s followed by a few minutes of frenzied hand-to-hand jungle combat as I drag the brawler out of heavy cover.
Fly purists may consider this activity a little uncivilized, but to me, throwing meat-locker flies at spunky, aggressive fish is just plain fun. And with largemouths often lingering in relatively shallow water throughout the summer, bass bugs—bulky flies made of wood, foam, plastic or deer hair—are effective all day long.
Largemouth bass did not become one of North America’s most prolific and popular sportfish by being picky eaters. Still, you’ll need a modest variety of flies, in three styles, to entice them. Poppers have a broad, concave front to “pop” water and chug along the surface. Sliders have the opposite shape, with a slim front and wide back, to slip more subtly across the water. And divers have the conical nose of a slider, plus a flared collar, so they dart underwater on the strip, and wobble back to the surface on the pause.
I don’t think colour matters much, but a good bass bug does need a feathery tail and rubber legs. These features continue to quiver or undulate when the fly is still, which often triggers strikes. It’s also essential to have some flies with weed guards.
Since even a small bass can inhale a fly the size of a knackwurst, my go-to patterns are about four inches long. But I’ll go as small as two inches on slow days, and as big as six inches when I’m hawg hunting in deeper or choppy water.
For casting wind-resistant bass bugs, and hauling fish out of cover, you’ll want an 8-weight outfit with a little backbone. As for reels, anything that holds your line and won’t fall apart is adequate. Bass pull hard, but they don’t make long runs.
If you’re concerned about casting big flies, consider a specialty line with an exaggerated power taper, such as Rio Products’ InTouch Big Nasty or AirFlo’s Super DRI Bass/Musky. For a leader, I like a simple, six-foot length of 15-pound mono. And to give the fly more action on such a heavy leader, I tie it on with a loop knot.
Shallow-water largemouth are homebodies, and they like to hole up in a cozy spot to ambush prey. And, naturally, the biggest fish are often in the gnarliest spots. The classic technique is to drop your fly as close to the cover as you can, whether it’s timber, a weed edge or a channel through lily pads. Then let the fly sit until all the rings in the water have dissipated before stripping it in.
An erratic retrieve is usually best—tug the fly two or three times, let it rest again, then repeat. This pace isn’t easy for type-A folks, but it sure is effective. I can’t tell you why, but about 50 per cent of hits come on the pause. After the strike, you need to drive the hook home with a strip set—a sharp tug of the line.
Around wood or thick weeds, the fight is won or lost in the first moments. Once stung, the bass will head for cover, and if it makes it, you’re in trouble. If you haul a hawg into the open water, on the other hand, it will still pull hard, but you’ve got a decent chance of landing it. I’ll admit this kind of fly fishing lacks a certain elegance, but it more than makes up for that in action and excitement.
When buying or making bass bugs, make sure the body doesn’t extend to the bend of the hook, or otherwise crowd the hook point. This critical design flaw (above left) actually prevents hook-ups. Instead, the hook point must be completely behind and well below the body (above right). This positioning often results in the back of the fly sinking, which many mistakenly see as a flaw. In fact, a partially sunken fly elicits more hits and better hook-ups.