October 19, 2020
By John G. Sherman
This story was originally titled “Chasing Ten: A lifelong quest to surpass the 10-pound benchmark.” It appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The “thunk” you get from the grab of a big bass is undeniable. As I stripped my crawdad fly around some flooded timber I felt that “thunk,” but somehow didn’t come tight. I immediately cast the fly back into the same spot next to a submerged tree trunk. Before the fly reached the bottom, it was engulfed. I wasn’t going to miss her again, and swung the rod instantly. It felt like a big fish, and I tested the limits of my 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to keep her out of the heavy cover. She turned, came to the surface, and tried to leap out of the water, but her weight was too great to catch air. I got a good look at her, though, and knew she was the one. I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and I began to shake. My nearly three-decade-long hunt for a truly giant largemouth bass was close to ending. Now I just had to get my hands on her!
Fellow fly fisher, bass addict, and longtime friend Todd Alday set a personal goal of landing a 10-pound largemouth on the fly back in the late 90s. I bought in to the quest in 2002 when I moved to the California Delta. At the time, I naively thought this wasn’t such a tall task—after all, some of the top tournament bass pros have notched dozens of bass over 10 pounds . . . so why couldn’t we do it just one time using fly tackle?
There were a couple of stipulations for Alday ’s mission. 1) The fish had to come from public water, not a private farm pond or a pay-to-play fishery. 2) The fish couldn’t come from bed fishing, when bass are most vulnerable. 3) It had to be a legit 10-pound bass. No rounding up. A 9.9-pound bass was not “good enough,” it had to be an actual 10-pound largemouth.
Setting goals and meeting them has always been part of my angling career. First I wanted to catch a 20-inch trout, then it was all five species of Pacific salmon, a 10-pound bonefish, 100-pound tarpon, 20-pound steelhead, 40-pound striper, and 50-pound roosterfish from the beach. Setting the bar high and then finding a way to jump over it made things interesting, and I met each of these goals within five years of setting them. When I took the 10-pound-bass challenge, I didn’t realize how rare these giant largemouths are, and how challenging they are to fool with a fly.
Fast forward nearly three decades, and we still had not reached our bass milestone. Our double-digit bass quest brought us to legendary big-bass lakes like Clear Lake, Berryessa, Canyon, El Salto, and Lake Baccarac to name a few, and I spent an enormous amount of time searching the Delta. Alday landed a 9.8-pound fish, and in 2018 I caught and released a 9.6-pound largemouth. We both landed multiple fish over 9 pounds, yet our magical 10-pound bass eluded us.
As sales representative for Simms Fishing, I helped launch Simms into the conventional bass market in 2012. One of the perks of this expansion was that I found myself on boats with some of the top Simms-sponsored gear anglers in the world. I used the time to learn and to find ways to adapt my fly techniques to what they were doing with conventional gear.
I bought a bass boat in 2010 and customized it for fly fishing. Alday was scouring Internet forums and digesting Bassmaster articles looking for that one tip that would help us crack the code. We participated in fly-fishing tournaments, learned from others, and constantly tweaked our flies, techniques, and tactics. Along the way, I learned a few things about chasing the biggest of bass on the fly.
Choosing the Fishery
In order to catch a giant bass, you have to fish where they live. Largemouths over 10 pounds are extremely rare, and it takes the right conditions to grow them. While largemouth bass are found in all 50 states (yes, there are recorded catches in Alaska), giant bass are found mostly in the South, where they have longer feeding seasons and an abundance of forage. Also, Florida-strain largemouths grow bigger and thrive in these warmer climates.
Todd grew up and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He lives close to several big bass lakes in the desert. I’ve been living on the banks of the California Delta since 2002. The Delta is known as one of the best big-bass waters in the country.
Timing is Everything
The biggest bass tend to be large females, and they are at their heaviest during the pre-spawn period. Knowing when the spawn is for your body of water helps you determine when to spend your efforts wisely chasing these big girls. If the primary spawning window is March/April, your best bet to catch a giant bass at its heaviest weight is the four to six weeks leading up to the spawn. I have caught several post-spawn largemouths that would have been 10 pounds if I had caught them a few months earlier. Giant bass can be caught year round, but the pre-spawn window is when they are carrying the most weight.
Legendary professional bass angler Bobby Barrack once told me that of the nearly 140 largemouths he’s landed over 10 pounds (yeah, you read that right) 95 percent of them came between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. In other words, he caught them in the middle of the day when the light is the best for them to see their prey. While I did catch a 9.2-pound bass one time as the sun was setting, almost all of my other bass over 8 pounds have come in this same window. Giant bass are apex predators, and they have little to be afraid of, other than the anglers who are pursuing them. They do feed in the middle of the day.
Pre-spawn Florida-strain largemouths tend to be lazy, and they do not need to feed all day. They take down a few large morsels and they’re usually good for the remainder of the day, or even days.
Understanding the timing of these magic big-bass feeding windows is an important key to your success. In my home tidal waters of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, these windows often occur at the tide switches. Moon phase and barometer are also two critical factors to consider. I have found that the four or five days leading up to the full moon tends to be a magical window, but any moon phase can produce big bass. Throw in an incoming inclement weather front, and you have the makings of a potential prime window to tangle with the biggest bass of your life.
I recall a session in an arm of a large lake in the Delta back in March of 2013. My buddy Ric Rudgers and I had calm overcast conditions as the tide bottomed out and began coming in. I was fishing a 5/0 Charlie Bisharat’s Rainbow Pole Dancer, and for about 30 minutes every giant bass in the river was trying to eat it. We landed 10 bass in that 30-minute window, and as quickly as it started, it was over.
Swim Your Flies
Most of the truly giant bass caught in the West take giant swimbaits and glide baits thrown by dedicated gear anglers who are willing to cast the largest lures for that one strike from a giant bass. It’s low-numbers, high-reward fishing. Many of the West’s best bass lakes are the result of rainbow trout stocking. Imitating these trout “hatches” can be productive.
After seeing Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer patterns, Alday quickly went to work twisting 8- to 11-inch rainbow trout Game Changers for us to use along with his own large Boracho Baitfish patterns. As many of these oversized (3/0-8/0) patterns are fully custom, and not available commercially in these sizes and colors, they also tend to be unique in the way they swim. Every injection-molded swimbait you buy in a store swims exactly the same way, but when you tie large flies like this, and you are searching for the bass of a lifetime, it’s very important to test these patterns in a pool or clear pond to understand how each fly moves. Aggressively over-stripping the fly can cause the pattern to jackknife, and big bass won’t have any of this. The fly needs to swim realistically, imitating a wounded or healthy big bait.
Once you understand how each baitfish pattern moves, it’s important to cull the herd. No matter how good the pattern looks in your fly box, if it only swims one direction or turns upside down too often, it’s time to euthanize it. Wasting these crucial feeding times with a fly that doesn’t swim right is a recipe for failure.
Whether you are using a Chocklett Game Changer, Popovics Hollow Fleye, a Bisharat Pole Dancer, or your own custom big fly, understanding the proper stripping cadence for each pattern is critical. Some flies are designed to “walk” like a Pole Dancer, which requires a steady foot-long strip in conjunction with a slight bounce of the rod tip, while Game Changers swim better with a steady, long, slow strip.
Tossing a foot-long fly also requires the right rod and line combo. My go-to setup is a 1090-4 Sage X (I like a fast action, not ultra-fast for tossing the biggest of flies) with a RIO Outbound Short or Scientific Anglers Titan. I use these in floating, intermediate, and fast-sinking versions. I use 20-pound-test and sometimes 25-pound-test fluorocarbon tippets to survive the big grabs and heavy hook-sets that come with this type of fishing. I rig these lines on a Waterworks Lamson Speedster because of how light this reel is.
With its close proximity to the San Francisco and Sacramento metro regions, and its long history of producing big bass, the Delta holds more bass tournaments than any other body of water. Even though there are over 1,200 navigable miles of water out here, these fish see plenty of rip baits, swimbaits, glide baits, and senkos. What they don’t see much of are small flies presented properly. I have caught some of my biggest bass using flies less than 2 inches long while sight fishing to big cruising bass. Gear anglers can’t toss baits this small because they don’t have enough weight. Presenting small baits accurately and delicately is the exclusive realm of fly fishers.
A couple of important notes on small flies. I’m convinced that the pattern isn’t that critical, but the hook is. A good old Woolly Bugger often does the trick, although damselfly nymphs, dragonfly nymphs, and small baitfish patterns work as well. Strong hooks are key if you’re going to hook a big bass in and around cover with a size 6 or 10 pattern. Your favorite trout hook won’t work with a big bass in heavy cover. The hook will open up when you put the screws to the fish.
I prefer flies that sink slowly so I can lead the fish from long distances. I don’t want the flies to sink below the level of the fish. With smaller flies and a more delicate presentation, I go with a 9-foot tapered leader with fluorocarbon tippet on a 6- or 7-weight floating fly line.
Presentation is everything when playing with small baits. I stand on the bow of my boat holding the fly in my hand, like I’m bonefishing on the bow of a flats skiff. I don’t cast until I see the fish, and I lead them by 3 to 10 feet, depending on how fast they are moving. I watch how the fish reacts to the fly as I start my retrieve. Usually short, quick strips followed by a pause is all it takes to get them to eat. Sometimes I do not move the fly at all, and let the bass just pick it up as it slowly sinks in front of them. The key to this style of fishing is to stay back as far as you can, and don’t let them know you’re there. Once they have “made” you, it’s game over. One of the challenges with small baits is that smaller fish can get them in their mouths as well, so keeping it away from bluegills, crappies, and 8-inch bass is part of the challenge.
Being patient can be the biggest hurdle of all. If I’m in a spot where I know there are big bass, I approach slowly with my trolling motor and then put down my Minn Kota Talons (shallow-water anchor) so I can work the area thoroughly and methodically.
Big bass in heavily fished waters associate the sound of trolling motors with anglers. I use any opportunity to avoid the trolling motor and let the tide or wind slide me into position. Pushpoles are another stealthier approach, and I see many more gear anglers these days with pushpoles. Also avoid stomping on the deck of your boat, slamming the cooler shut, or making any other sound to alert the bass to your presence.
Once you’ve stealthily positioned yourself, it’s critical to put the fly in the right place. Casting accurately into prime bass structure without a giant “plop” is required to fool the biggest bass. Work on your casting both in accuracy and at distance and practice making the fly land softly.
Slowing down is the most challenging, and important, task. Whether it’s working down a bank too quickly, or stripping your flies too fast, I’m convinced most anglers of all types fish far too fast for big bass—and that includes me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a giant bass blow up on a surface fly that has been sitting in one place for 15 seconds or more while I try to untangle a knot in my fly line. Most anglers like to fish fast, and big bass see this type of presentation regularly. If you can slow down your retrieve, you’ll often get those big bass to react. [In his story “Cicada Mania” on page 28, guide Blane Chocklett says big smallmouths also like flies that move slightly or not at all. The Editor.]
Success & Failures
I’ve been keeping a fishing journal since I was a teenager. I can also go back and look at my digital library of photographs, and I can see the dates and times of significant catches and then research the tides and moon phase from that given day to find correlation and trends that can help determine future success.
I was once told by a bass pro that what you do to catch a bass over 5 pounds is exactly the same thing you do to catch a 10-pound bass. Alday notates every single bass over 5 pounds and records weather, time of the catch, moon phase, and the pattern he fooled it on. Equally as important as recording your successes is to record your failures, to ensure you do not make the same mistakes again.
On June 1, 2019, I fished in the annual Costa Bass-N-Fly tournament with my buddy Ric Rudgers. We finished in third place, failing to three-peat as champions. The next day, my daughter Kalum wanted to go fly fishing, and I had earmarked a number of bluegill and redear sunfish zones on my Lowrance fish finder with her in mind. After about two hours of working on her casting, and catching a handful of panfish, the blazing June heat was taking its toll on her, so she decided to take a break as we approached some flooded timber. She sat in the shade of the console and ate a snack.
I scanned around this prime big-bass habitat, and decided to make a few casts while Kalum took a break. We were in about 4 feet of water, so I reached for my 890-4 Sage X loaded with a floating line and a large orange crayfish imitation. I made about six casts when I felt that first “thunk.” After sticking the fish on the next cast, I let out a yelp when I saw the size of the fish.
Because of the tournament, I still had my large net in the boat, and after leading the fish out of cover, I scooped the bass of my life. It weighed 11.34 pounds. I was in tears. It was an amazing moment, and to experience it with my firstborn child made it even more memorable. If I had caught this fish the day before, we would have easily won the tournament. But the way it happened was perfect—Kalum and I will have that memory forever. After soaking it in for about five minutes, there was only one phone call to make. Todd Alday had to be a part of that day because after all, he was the one who got me on this crazy quest!