It’s no secret fly fishing started as a trout fishing sport.
Over the decades it's spread into several other arenas of fishing: saltwater, warm-water, carp… just about anything that swims.
But suffice it to say, even here in the Southwestern United States where the only cold running water within a 3-hour drive comes from a faucet, the trout is still the king of the fly rod world.
However, cold-water trips are far and few between unless you happen to be gifted with unlimited vacation time and free gas. So, being blessed with fishable year-round weather, it is inevitable that even the most die-hard trout purist will eventually try their skills at fly fishing for bass.
Most cold-water veterans go into it with the attitude that this much less sophisticated fish requires much less effort to trick than their cold water cousins, and most are quite surprised when they get stumped time and again by these neanderthals of the fly fishing world.
I’m not here to convince you bass are smarter or harder to catch than trout – they’re not. But if you want to show up at the bass lake and be able to leave with your dignity in tact, you need to change up your game.
Here are 3 of the most common reasons you might not be catching as many bass as you could be.
1. Your flies are too small.
Mike Smith of New River Fly Fishing caught this smallmouth bass on a Jackknife streamer. These fish are aggressive.
The first dead giveaway when a newbie comes into the bass world from the trout sector is their flybox.
If you brought your trout box onto the bass boat, your flies are too small.
Those conehead number 4 woolly buggers may seem to be big on whatever stream you just came from, but if you’re going to dedicate serious effort to chasing a truly huge largemouth, you need to scale it up. They’re called largemouth for a reason and even an average sized bass can gulp down the biggest articulated trout streamer you have without even batting a fin.
It's difficult to have over-sized flies with such an aggressive predator. Tournament bass guys catch 10” bass on a 8” baits all the time.
I routinely fish patterns in the 4-6” range as my general all-purpose size and this is where I think the strike to cast ratio is the best. I will fish shad and bluegill patterns in the 2-4” range when the bite is on and this accounts for a lot of action, but I never fish anything smaller.
When you get into the 8” size range and above, this is the trophy range. This size is generally for that ten-pounder you know is hanging out under that secret ledge somewhere and you need to smoke him out. Although the strike ratio goes way down, the fish you do catch are usually Instagram worthy.
If you need to expand your mind about fly size, go take a look at some of the giant swim baits and the size of the bass they pull in. Some of these behemoth baits are a full 14” long. That will help adjust your thinking a little when you think that 5” streamer is too big.
2. You’re still thinking like a trout.
Blane Chocklett with a fatty caught on a Surface Seducer Double Barrel popper.
I’ve seen some truly expert still-water trout guys get completely baffled during an all out feed frenzy simply because they’re not fishing the water correctly.
Bass are a completely different species than the trout we've all studied so religiously and to put it simply, they act almost nothing like trout.
Bass are ambush predators and if your fly isn't near something big enough to hide behind, its going to be a long day.
Bass hold near structure almost all the time. They are rarely caught in open water unless its the dead of winter when they follow the shad schools out into the main lake areas. But the rest of the year, they cling to structure, any structure: weeds, trees, sunken UFOs, anything they can find to stage up on, under, or behind.
If there isn’t any structure available, they hug the bottom.
So to put it simply, you need to be getting your fly in and around obstacles or near the bottom. Get your flies into the areas where the fish are holding and keep them there.
These same rules apply for surface action. Topwater usually means keeping tight to the shore and weed lines most of the time but fishing over shallow rocky points and rock piles will be worth the time. Again, the structure is the key.
Casting accuracy becomes critical here to stay out of the weeds and trees and fly robbing brush. You might be an expert tossing small dries to a tight lie on a stream with your super exquisite 4-wt, but slamming down a soggy wet mouse pattern within an inch of a brush pile with an extra fast 7-wt and a nice mini-hurricane-like breeze in your face all day is more of an art than you would think.
3. Your gear is all wrong
If you’re a full-time trout guy who's just starting to get into the bass game, I hate to break it to you, but you need new gear. I know we’re all just waiting for an excuse to go shopping for new equipment, and this is it.
When you show up at the dock with your 6-wt “streamer” rod all set up with a floating line thinking your going to do some damage, you’re going to have a bit of a surprise.
You’ll find that a 5-6 wt rod will have hard time accurately placing even a modest-sized bass bug. If you want to do it right, a 7 or even 8-wt is almost mandatory, along with a solid reel to go along with it. As a general rule I fish 7-wts almost exclusively. Fast or medium action, whichever you prefer, just make sure rods are strong enough to stop a small beast.
Reels should have solid drags. Think saltwater. They don't need to be sealed for saltwater use, but need to be plenty strong. Bass don’t make long runs like saltwater fish, but they are tough to move away from obstructions and will hang you up quick if you don’t move them fast. Add ten pounds of weed bed salad to your line and you can see what you’re up against. I like reels with a large arbor that take up line fast and that are tough enough to take some abuse of being tossed around the boat.
If you fish from a bass boat, room is not an issue. I have rigs for every different set up I plan to use and can fish from top to bottom without changing spools or setups, which means have anywhere from three to seven fully rigged rods lying on the deck. When I float tube it, I use two rods minimum. One rigged for a floating line and one with a mid depth sink tip. If there’s no top water action I switch the floating line out and choose and intermediate sink tip and a mid or deep sinking rig. This can cover the majority of situations you encounter in a day.
A word about lines.
Lines are probably the most important part of the setup.
There are line tapers for every type of fishing nowadays. I take full advantage of the spectrum and have lines that are intermediate sink tips from 1-2 ips, all the way to full sinking Deep 6 lines.
Neutral buoyancy on your flies are usually the goal and this means the line has the job of getting the fly to the right depth and keeping it suspended there. This means you need to match your line to the fly and style of retrieve. It may sound complicated and technical but its just a matter of experimentation. An intermediate sink tip and a medium sink rate lines will cover most of your needs. Add a fast sinking full sink line for direct bottom bouncing and you’re all set. You only need one floating line with a heavy weight forward or “bass” taper to do all your topwater fishing.
Now get out there!
Fly rodding for bass, like all fly fishing, an be as complicated or as simple as you wish. Just a few adjustments to your approach, gear and especially mindset can make all the difference in the world.
Fly rod bassing is a great game to play, but be careful, once you get it figured out, what was once an “alternate species” might become your main passion.
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About Dave Parsons:
Dave grew up in the desert southwest and started tying flies at the age of 9. He owned his first fly rod at age 11. By the time he was out of high school he had abandoned all conventional fishing gear and hasn’t looked back. Almost entirely self taught, he began designing and developing his own fly patterns almost from the start. Using materials gathered from various farm animals and household pets, most of his designs were concentrated on the warm-water species of bass and bluegills with an occasional trip to the back country for trout and smallmouth.
As it happens so many times, a hobby turns in to a passion, and that passion accidentally becomes a business. Dave has been selling custom flies as a small private business for almost 20 years. He started out selling his own designs on the side but is now a signature tyer for Spirit Rivers, Inc. Most of his pattern development nowadays is concentrated towards warm water patterns but also ties trout patterns of all varieties. You can find his website and unique patterns at www.theeyeofthefly.com.
Dave now spends most of his time on his home waters near Phoenix but also travels every year through the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Utah, Montana and Colorado.