American Fly Fishing

By Nick Carter

A largemouth bass crushing a floating frog pattern is one of the most exciting sights in fishing. It’s a spectacle that brings bass buggers to the water early and keeps them late. With the exception, perhaps, of a big river smallie’s raw power on the other end of a 7-weight, there is nothing in bass fishing to match it.
   Bass are coiled to go off like a steel trap when triggered, which makes them the perfect fish to target with big, noisy, and garish top-water flies. It’s a great tactic during peak feeding, when fish are actively searching for something—anything—to kill. But what about the other 90 percent of the time?
   In most waters, whether ponds, rivers, or reservoirs, the surface bite is fleeting, a short spree of activity. Rarely is it the most productive means of catching fish. Most of the critters bass eat live under the surface, and consistently catching these fish requires subsurface fishing.
   As a general rule, black bass—including largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass, and all the other regional variations—will eat anything living that fits in their mouths. Shad, herring, sunfish, other bass, crayfish, and damselfly nymphs: these are the types of prey items that make up their regular diets. But bass’s tendency to cream anything that catches their eye has led fly tiers to come up with some interesting creations. Just to get it out of the way: Woolly Bugger. There, it’s been said. It could mimic a hellgrammite, crayfish, leech, minnow, or any number of other edible things, depending on the design and how it’s fished. With hundreds of variations, the Woolly Bugger is probably responsible for catching more bass than any other pattern out there. Its renown makes it boring, though. Let’s move on to other things.
   Baitfish patterns are essential in any bass box. The Clouser Minnow and Lefty’s Deceiver, in addition to being the most effective saltwater flies ever invented, will catch just about anything that swims, including bass. Simply put, with its dumbbell eyes and sparse materials, the Clouser is fly fishing’s bucktail jig. The Deceiver is an unweighted bucktail jig with some long hackles thrown in. This is not to diminish these two cornerstones of the fly-fishing world. Thanks to their simplicity and productivity, they have evolved into more of a style of tying that has produced countless variations designed to target certain species in different environs.
   The thing about bass is they are not picky. Appealing to a largemouth’s or smallmouth’s predatory instincts is often more important than fooling the fish into thinking it’s looking at an actual gizzard shad. The classic feather- and hair-wing streamers, the Muddlers, the bunny flies, the big wads of synthetic fibers shaped to resemble baitfish—all of these will catch bass. Tie them with some flash and in colors highly attractive to bass, like chartreuse, yellow, red, white, and black, and they become even
more effective.
   Perhaps more important than a bass streamer’s looks is the ability to put it in front of fish with a little bit of action or flash that serves to trigger reaction strikes. When the fish are shallow, this is simple. But a bass angler needs options for different depths. This can be achieved with sinking lines as well as with sinking patterns. An aspect of crafting streamers that some might not fully understand is the complexity of positioning weight and materials on the hook shank to achieve the desired action. A fly designed to have that jigging action so productive for conventional anglers requires all the weight to be up front. Patterns like the Jawbreaker and Barr’s Meat Whistle are very similar to the conventional bass jig. Bass can’t help but hammer a fly that is dropping through the water column. Almost all crayfish patterns also take advantage of this tendency.
   Swimming streamers, however, require precise placement of materials to achieve the desired action. No application requires an understanding of how a streamer behaves in the water more than articulated patterns. Just stringing together hook shanks will not create those sexy undulations you see on YouTube. The easiest way to impart this swimming action is to use coneheads or eyes to weight the front segment. The head sinks faster than the tail, so the fly undulates vertically with each strip. Manipulating water resistance also makes a streamer dance. Bulky heads and sparse rear segments create wiggle; jerkbait-style patterns, like Mike Schmidt’s Double Deceiver, use vertically tied materials to achieve side-to-side action. A little wiggle is sometimes all it takes to trigger bass, which is why conventional lures like soft-plastic minnow imitations are so effective.
   Some of the best bass designs draw directly from successful conventional baits. Brian Schmidt’s Schmidterbait is just a spinnerbait light enough to be thrown on a fly rod. Patterns with spinners, like Henry Cowen’s Coyote, are deadly on bass. And although some might scoff at this kind of hardware in fly fishing, it’s worth knowing that spinners were fished with fly rods before conventional gear was even invented. 
   Anglers worried about crossing over to the dark side might turn their noses up at fishing a plastic worm, the most productive bass lure ever invented. Whether they use materials like chenille, long strips of rabbit fur, or braided strands of silicone skirts, fly tiers have imitated plastic worms with some success. Other patterns, like Craig Riendeau’s Darth Baiter, are not imitations. Flies like this are essentially harness systems for a plastic worm. Jumbo Squirmy Worms might not have a Zoom logo on the packaging, but they can be just as effective.
   Few anglers seem to take offense at other plastics and synthetics that have firmly entrenched themselves in tying. From synthetic fibers, rubber legs, and Flashabou to commercially produced baitfish heads, silicone, and epoxy, the big patterns preferred by bassers are a hotbed for innovation with nonnatural materials. When flash, action, durability, and castability count, synthetics are often the natural choice. Think of the Gummy Minnow and Charlie’s Airhead. Even a feather-based fly like Whitlock’s Sheep Minnow utilizes synthetic fibers, stick-on eyes, and a rattle.
   Sound and vibrations sensed through the lateral line might be just as important as or even more important than visibility in dingy water. Designs like the Rattle Rouser, with a tiny rattle encased within a sheath of Mylar tubing, take advantage of this just as well as patterns with spinners. Bead-rattle flies are a different way to achieve the same result.
   So it seems nothing is off-limits when designing patterns for a fish that will eat anything it can fit in its mouth. Bass have a reputation as the everyman’s sport fish, and it seems a little of that conventional bass-fishing aura has seeped into fly fishing through the crack in the door that is a desire to catch fish.
   Open a cold beer when considering all the wild subsurface options a warm-water angler has these days. Leave the single malts for the purists, who will find river smallies are just as eager to pluck a damselfly nymph or hopper from the current as they were several hundred years ago, when anglers with fly rods invented
bass fishing.


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