November 12, 2021
This article originally appeared in the June-July 2013 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
“First place in the fly-fishing division, three fish weighing 5.35 pounds,” announced the tournament director at the weigh-in of the Restore the Delta Bass Tournament. My fishing partner Ric and I were feeling pretty good about our results at the Bethel Island, California, charity tournament until the conventional guys weighed in their bass.
“The winning weight is 38.3 pounds,” the announcer finally reported. Really? Nearly 40 pounds for five fish? Ric and I went from the top of the mountain to free-falling with massive feelings of inadequacy. We consider ourselves pretty good fly fishers, but we were completely embarrassed by our conventional counterparts. We immediately asked ourselves, “What can we do to level the playing field?”
Fly Fishing is the Quiet Sport?
Tournaments are part of the culture of bass fishing, and at the heart of a billion-dollar conventional fishing market. Admittedly, “Basscar” is about as far from the “quiet sport” as we can get while still holding a fishing rod. But while we might leave the loudspeakers, fancy boats, and questionable fishing attire all to them, there are some things fly-fishing bass aficionados might successfully adopt or adapt.
Over the past five years I have spent dozens of days fishing with professional bass fishermen from the competitive circuit, and in that time I have gained a ton of respect for these anglers and their unparalleled dedication to an incredible gamefish.
Competition is a major driver of innovation in almost any field, and because of that, fly fishing for bass is 10 to 20 years behind our “Basscar” compadres! While very few fly fishers devote themselves solely to bass, and they use mostly traditional techniques, there are hundred of thousands of competitive conventional bass anglers pushing the limits every day. It’s no wonder that to some degree our flies and tactics have stagnated.
In the Restore the Delta Bass Tournament, some of the fly teams struggled to land a single fish, while four of the teams that competed in the conventional division had bag weights of five fish of over 30 pounds, with the winning weight averaging nearly 8 pounds per fish. Granted, high winds gave trouble to all the fly guys, but in my 20 plus years of fly fishing for bass, I have never experienced their kinds of results. So what are we doing so differently, and what can we learn from their success? Here’s what I have learned since then by spending time fishing in the same boat as the bass pros.
Pole Dancer Fly
There are few lures that elicit more ferocious grabs than those that “walk the dog,” a side-to-side surface motion created by keel-weighting a lure. Until recently this was the missing link from any topwater fly until Umpqua signature tier Charlie Bisharat created the Pole Dancer. This was the first fly that perfected the side-to-side motion stripers and largemouth bass can’t resist.
Since then, Bisharat has created a second “walking” fly for largemouth called the Muskrat. Both these patterns require practice and technique to get them to work properly.
The Pole Dancer works better with an upbeat tempo of 6- to 12-inch long strips followed by a slight bounce of the rod tip. I use this fly to cover open expanses of water, points, and flats where the fish may be cruising or feeding. It can be tied with or without a weed guard, depending on the environment. This is also my favorite topwater striper fly, and one of my most productive largemouth flies.
The Muskrat is one of the most innovate topwater bass flies ever created. It can dive like a Dahlberg, or you can walk it using small twitches of about 2 or 3 inches. This fly has a much slower pace than the Pole Dancer, and is best in tight quarters with a slower presentation.
The Hummer Fly
Bisharat has another innovative fly he calls the Hummer. This is the part where many purist fly fishers begin to cringe. Please stop reading if you are easily offended, because this fly has metal spinner blades. Yes, there is something about a blade wobbling and flashing through the water that bass can’t resist. But is it still a fly? That’s a question only you can answer.
The Hummer is most comparable to a lure called a buzzbait. I use it when the wind is ripping and I want to cover water quickly, or in environments where the weed growth is thick, and I need something to plow through the weeds or tulles. You have to hustle this fly to get the blade to engage, thus a two-handed retrieve with the rod under your arm is a must. This is a great fly for warm conditions in the late spring to early fall, and when searching for those aggressive reaction grabs.
KDM Rat Fly
Some of the best bass caught by the gear guys on the California Delta come during the warmest summer months, when big bass seek shelter from the blazing sun. The best shelter is under algae mats and heavy weed growth. Bass use the shade as prime ambush cover to explode on birds, frogs, ducks, and mice—the bass pounce right through this heavy cover and engulf their prey. You have to see it to believe it.
When you fish these weed mats, you’ll see some of the most exciting explosions in the fishing world as your lure or fly is completely dry one moment and then in an instant, the floor drops out, and the fly falls into the gaping maw of a largemouth.
Gear guys have been fishing these vegetation mats for decades, but the fly world is just now starting to catch on. Snag Proof Bobby’s Perfect Frog is the signature lure for this job—it is heavy, has a rear keel weight and rattle with two large hooks that ride hook point up and hide inside a hollow soft plastic body. This bait rides through the heaviest of cover and soft algae without fouling on the hooks.
Traditional hair bugs with hooks that ride hook point down foul immediately—even with weed guards. One fly that has helped get fly fishers into this mat game is Capt. Kevin Doran’s KDM Rat, which has taken more Delta bass in weed mats than any other fly. It’s a spun deer-hair fly tied on a giant 6/0 hook that rides point up, allowing the fly to slide over and through the heaviest cover. Crawl and stall the fly over the mats for explosive strikes. When the fly hits open water holes or edges, speed up the retrieve to bring more grabs. This fly doesn’t perform well in open water, so when it nears the boat, retrieve it quickly and cast it back onto the mat.
Getting big bass to eat a fly through this cover isn’t a challenge. Other than the “distance gap,” I feel fly fishers are just as much in the game as conventional anglers when it comes to getting the strikes. It’s the subsequent hooking and landing them that is our biggest shortcoming.
Gear guys use short, heavy rods to extract the biggest bass out of the burly cover, and 65-pound-test no-stretch braided line ensures direct contact with the fish. Fly rods are designed first and foremost to cast our weighted lines, so they are by nature longer and more limber. Most fly lines are made with multifilament or monofilament cores that stretch. When the fish gets the fly in its mouth, setting the hook with a long limber rod and a stretchy fly line is difficult.
Airflo has developed low-stretch cores for their fly lines and the Airflo Bass/Muskie line may be the best fly line alternative for helping drive the hook home.
Rohmer’s Bed Bug Fly
Fishing for anything on spawning beds is taboo for most fly fishers, and rightfully so. When most fish are in the reproductive mode it is best to leave them alone, especially salmonids. If you disturb spawning trout it may deter reproductive success, and wading anglers can easily smash eggs by stepping in the wrong areas.
Most serious conventional anglers practice exclusively catch-and-release and are not interested in harming bass in any way. Yet most of them routinely with no apparent or documented impact on their fisheries. In recent years I have also targeted bass on their beds both in prespawn and postspawn modes, and I have to admit it can be both fun and challenging.
By far the most productive ways to target these fish is by sight fishing. Yellow or amber polarized lenses reduce glare and improve contrast over the light-colored spawning beds.
When bass are on their beds, they are in a defensive position and grab flies and lures due to protective instincts. My favorite fly for this is John Rohmer’s Bed Fly. It has heavy lead eyes to quickly get the fly down on the bed, and the buoyant rubber legs drive the fish mad.
The key to this fly is to drag it into the bed, then let it pause—sometimes for minutes. This can be hard to do, but it’s often required. You need to get the parents’ attention. After you simply can’t wait any longer, slowly crawl the fly off the bed and start over. It often takes multiple presentations to aggravate the fish enough to pounce on it. Often the more aggressive male will be the first to pick up the fly. Once he has been caught, the larger female will go on the defensive and move to attack the fly herself.
Rohmer’s Diamond Hair Streamer Fly
While most of the flies and techniques mentioned above are ideal for the weed-rich habitat of the California Delta and similar fisheries, I have also fished side-by-side with gear guys in several of the clear, algae- and sediment-free reservoirs of southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. It is in these finesse waters that I believe fly fishers have some major advantages.
When the fish are feeding on specific small baits like threadfin shad, in water less than 20 feet deep, flies can—and often do—outperform all forms of lures and even live bait. I have seen it myself on many occasions.
“Matching the hatch” is where we shine, and on small baits less than 4 inches, we might have the casting advantage. The most exacting small baitfish imitations I have found are John Rohmer’s Baitfish and Diamond Hair Streamer. These flies are incredibly lifelike, and pulse and move just like the naturals. The key here is to find the schools of bait and work your flies adjacent to large bait pods. Make your fly look like an injured baitfish straying away from the school.
Use short, quick, erratic strips followed by a half-second or full-second pause. Fly fishers can present smaller imitations at distances up to 100 feet, and then using a sinking fly line, hover the fly at a specific depth. This is our world, as gear guys often struggle to present the smaller, lighter imitations at a distance and then suspend them.
Lighter 6- to 8-weight rods and RIO Freshwater Outbound Short lines are my favorite tackle for these situations. Outbound lines come in a variety of configurations from floating to intermediate and fast-sinking tips. Pick your line based on how deep you want to get. In extremely clear impoundments, I use 6- to 12-foot leaders with 4- to 10-pound fluorocarbon tippets.
Tools of the Fly Fishing Bass Tournament Trade
In the tournament/competitive mentality, anything you can do to give you more casts during fishing hours helps you catch more fish. In fly fishing, this translates to keeping your fly working in the water longer. I have to admit this adds a different dynamic to your day, but if truly catching more fish is your goal, then you should fish as though you’re in a tournament.
A good tournament angler can reach down and grab another already rigged rod, and make another cast without missing a beat. Lesson learned. I now fish with five to nine completely rigged fly rods and reels ready to cast, so there is minimal gear orchestration on the water.
I use multiple stripping buckets with my line already stripped into them so I can quickly grab-and-go from outfit to outfit without stripping or straightening line. This limits wasted time or movement. Stripping buckets also help eliminate line tangles, and you can put a half inch of water in the bucket to keep the lines wet for maximum performance.
This strategy is far quicker than changing spools with different lines, rerigging, and constantly changing flies. We fly fishers often like to take our time—the classic image of a gentleman dressed in a jacket, and smoking a pipe while waiting for the evening hatch, is part of our cherished heritage. But this isn’t trout fishing. If you want to catch more bass, maximize your fishing time.
Another way to get more out of your fishing time is to get a good bass boat. I have fished out of many different boats and have owned a drift boat, johnboat, float tubes, and pontoon boats, and there is only one craft I want to be in while fly fishing for bass and that’s a bass boat. They hold a ton of gear, have limited line catchers, move rapidly from point A to B, and sit low in the water, which gets you closer to the surface for better presentations.
Some minor rigging adjustments are needed to make bass boats more fly friendly. I have removed the foot pedal trolling motor in my boat and gone to the wireless Minn Kota i-Pilot trolling motor.
Most of the flies I’ve mentioned are large and wind-resistant. In tight cover, I use the Sage Bass II Peacock and Largemouth Bass rods and the matching Sage line. It’s a great combination for short, quick, accurate casts with big flies. When searching open water where distance is more important, I switch to a Sage ONE and 10-weight RIO Outbound Short floating line. This line still moves bulky flies, but casts much farther in situations where accuracy isn’t important. For leaders I use 6- to 9-foot specialty RIO Striped Bass 20-pound-test tapered leaders.
Next time you are fishing your local bass lake or pond, consider some of these techniques, or better yet go with that gear guy who has been asking you for years. You both may have something to learn, and you’ll find that you have a lot more in common than you thought.
John Sherman lives in Discovery Bay on the banks of the California Delta. He is the West Coast sales representative for Simms Fishing Products, the creator of the app FishHead, featured fly angler in Bass the Movie, a member of Bass N Fly Promotions, and a contributing photographer for Fly Fisherman. His website is johngsherman.com.