America’s most popular fish: Fly Fishing Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass
Smallmouth and largemouth bass might be America’s most popular gamefish—and for good reason. These hardy, stocky predators smash lures (and flies) hard, they thrive in both lakes and rivers and in a variety of environments from wilderness backcountry to urban rivers from California to Maine. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Sacramento or New York City, there is probably bass fishing near where you live.
Bass are voracious predators and in many cases they feed on the same foods, live in the same types of places (in lakes and rivers), and take the same flies as trout. If you fly fish for trout, you probably have all the equipment (and skills) you need for bass.
Dry flies. Popping-bug fishing is the most exciting fishing you can do for both smallmouth and largemouth bass (see below) but bass also rise to dead-drifted dry flies much like trout. On big and small rivers and lakes where there are mayflies, caddis, and other aquatic insects, bass seek out drifting adult insects and sip them from the surface. You can use the same flies and the same presentation strategies as you would dry-fly fishing for trout. The only significant difference is that trout rise to sometimes extremely small food items. Mature bass tend to ignore small aquatic insects like midges and small mayflies, so bring big Parachute Adams (#8-14) and large, bushy drys such as gray, brown, or white Wulffs to imitate large mayflies like the White Fly, Green Drake, Brown Drake, and Hexagenia.
Nymphing. Bass (especially river-dwelling smallmouth) regularly feed on subsurface aquatic insects and can be caught using the same trout nymphing tactics. Mayfly nymphs, dragonflies, damselflies, and hellgrammites are important bass food items, and you can dead-drift them effectively using the same tactics described for high-stick and indicator fishing.
Streamer fishing. Bass are predators and they chase and devour smaller fish and minnows as well as leeches, swimming aquatic insects, and especially swimming crayfish. Because of their predatory nature, streamer tactics are especially effective for smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Your streamer box for smallmouth bass should be similar to your streamer box for trout. Bass love Woolly Buggers (especially big, gaudy ones with rubber legs); Muddler Minnow variations (Kelly Galloup’s Zoo Cougar is a great one); Zonkers; and above all, chartreuse/white, olive/white, and yellow/red Clouser Minnows.
Realistic streamers catch many bass, but outlandish, brightly colored concoctions also bring strikes when more natural patterns seem to fail. Large streamers with inherent movement seem to be the ticket.
On both stillwaters and flowing waters, crayfish are sometimes the single most important food item for bass. While tan Zonkers and brown conehead Woolly Buggers are fine crayfish imitations, it can pay to have specialty flies like Dave Whitlock’s Near Nuff Crayfish, Clouser’s Crayfish, or Duane Hada’s Creek Crawler.
Crayfish scoot along the bottom from one crevice to another, and they are strong swimmers over short distances. Fish crayfish imitations with a short, twitching retrieve and use 0X tippet to prepare for crushing strikes.
As you can see, bass succumb to a variety of dry and wet techniques too long to list. Dave Whitlock wrote a four-part series on smallmouth bass for Fly Fisherman that explains all aspects of smallmouth bass fishing.
One of the special things about bass is their fatal attraction to surface flies like poppers, sliders, and gurglers. These surface flies remotely resemble large food items like frogs, swimming mice, or ducklings, but mostly they just attract, excite, and entice bass with their sounds and movement. The Dahlberg Diver, Clouser’s Floating Minnow, the Umpqua Swimming Frog, Whitlock’s Deerhair Bass Bug, and the Blados Crease Fly are just a few examples of effective popping bugs.
Surface flies for bass should be large (#2/0-#4) to attract aggressive bass and keep away smaller panfish that may try to peck at smaller flies. Monofilament weedguards help you in weed-choked areas that hold the biggest bass.
Cast your flies in and around lilypads, piers, downed trees, rock gardens, under overhanging tree branches, and other shoreline structure in lakes and ponds. In streams and stillwaters, bass hold in many of the same places as trout.
When trout fishing, your dry fly should land as delicately as possible. When bass fishing, your floating fly should land with a crash. Wait for the ripples around the fly to die away—normally five to ten seconds—slowly draw the slack out of your line, and with your rod tip low, yank the line sharply with your stripping hand. The fly will pop, dive, or slide, disturbing the water, and attracting hungry bass. Wait through another pause and then repeat.
Normally bass engulf the fly when it pauses, so don’t retrieve your fly too quickly. Let the fly’s rubber legs, hackle, and hair provide subtle movement and the illusion of life during the pause, then “pop” the fly again and let it sit.
When a bass attacks in a sudden explosion, wait for the fly to disappear, and then set the hook hard—bass have hard cartilage mouths. You should use heavy 0X to 2X tippet so you can set the hook strongly and then lever the fish away from weeds, branches, and other hazards.
You can use a 5-weight trout rod for bass fishing, but it’s not the best tool. Because bass flies tend to be large and wind-resistant, heavier 6- and 7-weight rods with a medium action are best for bass. The rod should load deeply into the mid and butt section to launch bushy bass poppers in and around thick cover.