For years I fished with level winders and spin tackle, then one fine day I put down these contraptions and returned to fly fishing. For over 15 years I have been an intensely focused fly fisher, a fly fishing writer, and a fly fishing guide. I absolutely love to catch fish on the fly, and I help other fly fishers do the same. Since I took up ultralight fly tackle I have caught THOUSANDS MORE FISH, AND I have caught more larger fish than I ever thought possible. If you will try light fly tackle and build skill with it, you'll see results -- I guarantee it!
LARGEMOUTH BASS ARE JUST BIG SUNFISH!
First, let's get something straight. Largemouth bass are just large members of the greater sunfish family -- they aren't true bass at all! The family of black bass which includes the largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass, redeye, suwanee, guadaloupe, and possibly the shoal bass are all in the same general family known as Common Sunfish. The most known Common sunfishes are the bluegill, redbreast, crappie, and redear sunfish (shellcracker), plus the less known green sunfish, flier and rock bass. All of these fish eat small insects, so they'll eat small flies. If some "bass" fisher ever gives you grief because you enjoy catching "bream", remind him that he chases "bream", too. He just didn't know it!!
Those who fish for bass are pursuing slightly larger members of the same family as bluegills, redbreasts, redear sunfish, and the like. Considering that most bass caught by your average bass fisher are under 3 pounds, don't find it hard to believe that you can fish with lighter tackle and smaller flies and catch plenty of bass. Since bass of all sizes eat small insects, you can catch more bass and more large bass on light fly tackle and small flies, and enjoy fishing more! That's the truth, although it may just seem too simple.
"YOU MUST FISH BIG FLIES TO CATCH BIG BASS"
In a national fly fishing publication in early 1998 appeared an interesting and informative article by a well known writer about fishing large flies to catch large bass. In the opening of BIG FLIES, the author noted "One of the fattest largemouths I ever caught fell for a size-10 leech pattern fished on a five weight. The fish weighed 8 pounds, 14 ounces. The author was "...casting for bedding bluegills over a shallow flat..." at the time of the adventure with the bass. His very experience suggests that one will readily catch large bass on light tackle, but his article focused only on the reasons to use big flies, and heavy fly tackle to catch largemouths. Looks like the size-10 leech worked better than those LARGE flies! What bass oriented fly fishing articles NEVER TELL READERS is that with small flies on light tackle, you will catch MANY MORE bass, AND BIG BASS, too.
Our current technology light weight rods are plenty strong to catch any bass you're likely to come across, and because today's lighter rods will protect lighter tippets very well, the lighter rods will actually allow you to put more pressure on the bass and land it quicker, if you fight the fish correctly. Lighter tippets allow small flies to function more naturally, and according to Doug Hannon, The bass professor, "give off fewer negative cues". Most times, that is the difference in getting strikes and not!
In the recent past I have seen articles about orthopaedic problems from constantly fishing heavy fly systems. Shoulder, elbow, and arm problems may be the result! Want to cut down on falling apart early? Then lighten up your gear.
If you are ONLY fly fishing very thick cover, a strong tippet and a rod with backbone are needed, but the rod doesn't have to be an 8- to 12-weight, and the flies don't have to be 6 inches long. A 4- to 5-weight medium action rod and flies not over 2 1/2 inches long will give you more fishing pleasure without making it harder to catch and land more fish. You will still catch large bass, but you won't exclude large numbers of smaller bass and other available fish. If you "don't want to be bothered by bass under 4 pounds" stick to a 6- or 8-weight and 5 inch flies.
SMALL FLIES REALLY WORK
Recently, I was on the water ready to fish a consistently productive spot, a deep hole in a corner by a long point that runs from 2 feet to 36 feet of water. Loaded with woody cover -- this is one of my favorite fish holding spots!
As I motored across the lake I saw a bass boat with two B.A.S.S. clones chunking and winding all over this spot. With my binoculars, I observed as they cast a pig 'n jig, then a spinner bait, then crank baits probed the water. They worked the area for over 45 minutes without a strike then left.
Wondering how my small flies would perform, I quickly eased into position in the same spot and cast a size #12, inch and a half long black streamer into the woody cover. It sank to about 6 feet and I retrieved it in 2 inch strips.
On the first cast, a fat 1 pound bass sucked up my small streamer. After four more casts, I landed another 1 pound bass. On the tenth cast, my streamer stopped dead in the water. I raised the rod, applied steady pressure, and could feel the power of a larger fish headed for the adjacent depths. I played the fish carefully with the tippet protecting power of my 8 foot two weight Winston rod (right-ęByrd photo) and had the fish to hand in 2 minutes. It was a fat 4 pound bass that had been suspending just off the bottom over wood in about 10 feet of water.
The lesson: Big baits didn't catch the bass, little flies did. Big baits/flies aren't the answer MOST of the time; just ask the bass -- they'll tell you.
SMALL ITEMS ARE PART OF BASS' DIET
Tom Tripi (left) originally fished for browns, rainbows, and largemouths in 3 ponds in a private 150 acre preserve located close to his home in up state New York. He caught largemouth bass to 5 pounds on a normal trout fly selection. So he relates "when I came down here,[to Louisiana]...I just continued to do what I normally do, and just never stopped." Tom still finds himself compelled to chase fat bayou bass with ultralight fly rods and tiny dry flies. After years of watching with their mouths wide open, now some of the locals are catching on.
I called Tom because I knew he'd understand about catching large bass on small flies. The bass in his area would be larger than 4 pounds except for predation from gar and gators. Tripi has observed that even large bass "eat those small flies day in and day out...they eat (small flies) 'em like we eat M&Ms."
Georgia State Fisheries Biologist Reggie Weaver of Gainesville, says: "...big bass can take larger things, but they will also eat small things - small bluegills, small bass, salamanders, crayfish, leeches, tadpoles; they'll even feed on insect hatches."
Doug Hannon of B.A.S.S. and ESPN Fame has studied largemouth bass for years. He has studied bass while diving with them. Hannon has personally caught more largemouths over 10 pounds than anyone else, because he knows bass behavior. Doug is known to be an accomplished fly fisher. When it comes to small flies for bass and large bass, Hannon explains "with a fly we can generate the buoyancies that are similar to real prey. As the result, these flies float, suspend, and sink at natural rates...so there are no negative or unrealistic cues given off to the fish...flies become very natural." Hannon further says "...big bass feed on small minnows as long as there are enough of them around for him to catch." Abundant food sources like minnows, crayfish, leeches are good small patterns for catching large bass.
HOW SMALL A SNACK?
My #14 rubber water spider landed in a school of bluegills holding close on a shallow shoreline. For a friend I was demonstrating how sensitive and fun ultralight fly tackle can be. On his lunch break, I cast, hooked a fish and handed him the rod. The first fish was a fat, scrappy bluegill which he enjoyed playing to the boat. He released the fish, handed me the rod and I cast right back in there. A fish sucked down my little water spider so I briskly raised the rod. It felt like I was hung on a small stump, but then the huge bass erupted in the shallows, went airborne, and tore off down the shoreline. My Orvis 1 weight was connected to the bass! It surprised Bill and me. With the 7 1/2 foot rod bent directly at the big load, I said "Bill, I hope you have a long lunch hour...if I do enough things right, and my luck holds, we're going to be here for a while." My luck held and I gently played the fish on 4 pound tippet for about 12 minutes.
I know what you are thinking 12 minutes! With the light rod that bass hardly knew he was hooked. Instead of being worn out, he just grew bored and gave in! Then I landed him and carefully returned him to the water, none the worse for wear.
He weighed 8 pounds 4 ounces (above left-Byrd photo) and as far as I know, is still the heaviest largemouth taken on the Orvis 1 weight fly rod. We measured, weighed, photographed, and released the fish unharmed. Think about the evidence and downsize your bass tackle. Take a fish's eye view of what you cast, and your catch rate will increase dramatically.
F L I E S
Start with larger fly selections and work your way to smaller. For surface bass fishing, use #10, #12, or even #14 balsa, cork, or foam poppers. If you can't find tiny poppers, make them, or tie rubber water spiders (foam beetles, spiders). Spiders are deadly on bass, are easy to tie, and materials are readily available.
This huge bass was caught and released on my Sage Ought weight! Try water spiders with black body and dark chartreuse legs no more than an inch long, or light green body (the color of grass hoppers) and dark chartreuse legs. Available local forage will determine size and color to some degree, so experiment with color combinations for your area. Foam head floating buggers are very good in white and black colors. Keep poppers to smaller natural sizes so you don't have to work so hard casting, and you can enjoy lighter fly tackle.
Use your favorite subsurface flies. Use flies with lead eyes 1/100th, 1/50th, 1/36th, and even 1/24th ounce to get them down. Even light chain bead eyes work well on the slowly suspending sub-surface flies. Most crayfish, leech, or minnow immitations in sizes not exceeding 2 inches will work well. Flies in sizes-8 to -12 work just fine on bass to thirteen pounds. Use slender profile subsurface flies in the size-10 and -12 range and you'll catch larger members of other sunfish species as well. Select or tie flies that emulate the available food.
Don't be afraid of breaking off large fish, just use slightly heavier tippets and good fish fighting techniques. Downsize. You'll catch more fish and bigger fish when you cast small flies for large mouths - REALLY!
Header photo: Rick McQuiston
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