Fly fishing for largemouth bass

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More American anglers fish for largemouth bass than for any other fish. From this standpoint the largemouth is the All American game fish.

Certainly his adaptability to many waters and conditions, his willingness to take all kinds of artificial flies and lures, as well as live bait, and his gameness when hooked justify the American fisherman’s enthusiasm for this grand fighting fish.

Just as with trout, it saves a lot of time, is more fun, and helps you catch more fish, if you have some fairly easy way of telling where in a lake or stream the bass will be on the day and at the time you go fishing for them. The best way to do this is to think like a bass.

Like other fish, bass put in most of their lives doing five things. I’ll repeat them because they’re important: First, getting into a water temperature that is comfortable. Second, feeding. Third, resting. Fourth, hiding from their enemies. Fifth, spawning.

The first, and most important of these from the standpoint of locating bass in a lake, is finding and going to a water temperature they like. This means that a fisherman’s thermometer is his best friend in finding bass.

We have studied this temperature business in connection with where to find trout, but most bass lakes—deep ones, anyway—are different from streams, ponds or shallow and protected lakes, because most bass lakes are stratified as to temperature. Here is what that means.

This is a cross-section of a bass lake in the summer time. Notice the water temperatures along the left hand side, compared to the depths of water at the right hand side. See how little the water temperature changes as you go deeper in the surface layer of water. This is because in this layer the wind will cause the water to circulate slowly on the top of the layer and back across the lake at the bottom part of this surface layer.

Sometimes this layer is 12 or 15 feet deep and the temperature may vary a few degrees more than the three degrees shown here. The point, however, is that in this surface layer, the temperature lowers only a few degrees in ten or fifteen feet.

Now notice how fast the temperature of the water changes in the middle layer—called the Thermocline (the Greek word for “temperature slope”). Here there is a drop of twenty-five degrees in from ten to twelve feet of water.

The third, or lower, layer contains cold water all the way to the bottom of the lake. Here there is again only a very little change in water temperature as you go deeper—about ten degrees in twenty-five feet.

This stratification is typical in the summer of most lakes and reservoirs where the water is deep enough and the lake wide enough so the wind gets a good sweep across it.

Water temperature in shallow lakes

In small or shallow lakes or those closely protected from wind by trees, the water temperature just drops steadily from the surface to the bottom without the stratification mentioned above. Lakes under twenty-five feet in depth usually do not stratify, while those over thirty-five or forty feet deep usually do.

Basing our figures on the average of bass lakes in the summer time we can tell very closely at what depths below the surface you will find different water temperatures—if we know the temperature of the surface water.

Now, if you know what water temperature each species of fish finds most comfortable, you can tell at what depth in the lake this kind of fish will stay if he can, provided again you start by knowing the temperature of the surface water.

Barometric pressure

Some other natural factors have an effect on fish, too. When barometric pressure goes down, fish, especially in lakes, go into deeper water. Stormy weather, which usually means a falling barometer, has the same effect.

Feeding periods

Because the bass get hungry, they sometimes have to go out of the most comfortable water temperatures into warmer water (in summer) or to colder water (in winter) to get a good meal. That’s why you find bass feeding in shallow water, warmer than they like, in summer evenings, early mornings or on summer nights. But you will usually find that these feeding periods are at times when the shallow water will be the least amount warmer than the bass like.

About the only exceptions to this are the solunar feeding periods—governed apparently by the same forces which control the tides.

Hiding from enemies

The necessity of hiding from enemies, such as ospreys, mink, and otter, causes bass to choose positions under logs, rocks, weeds, and other cover. These hiding places also serve to conceal bass while they are waiting for minnows, frogs or other food to come close enough to catch.

Spawning periods

When it comes time for bass to spawn, they go into shallow water to build their nests. The water temperature is commonly the determining factor in causing this migration.

A combination of these conditions governs where in a lake the bass will be at any given time. Of all of these conditions, water temperature is both the most important and easiest for the fisherman to determine. All you need is a thermometer.
From many years’ study of the habits of bass, trout and other game fish, I have charted where the different kinds of fish will be at various surface water temperatures.

Let’s suppose you are going fishing in your favorite lake for largemouth bass. If you stick your stream thermometer in the water, and it reads 55° F., you might as well go home and keep warm—or you can fish for trout, walleyes, great northern pike or even for small-mouth bass if there are any of these fish around—but you won’t catch many largemouth in water as cold as that. They seldom feed in water under 55°.

55°- 65° water temperature range

A few days later, you may go back to the lake and find the water between 55° and 65°. In this range the largemouth begin to liven up. The farther above 55°—up towards 65°-— the water gets the better the bass feed. Above 60° bass fishing begins to get good. In this range of temperature—in the evening, early morning or at night, in normal weather—you will find largemouth bass in shallow water, from one to four feet deep, on mud bottom along the shore lines.

They will be lurking in the edge of rushes, under or near under-water logs or brush, on shallow mud bars, in weed beds or under low overhanging foliage.

Now that we have located our bass, let’s see if we can get one to take a fly. Put the boat about thirty-five or forty feet from the edge of those rushes. As you are rigging up your tackle and bringing the boat into position, watch closely to see if there are any natural rises.

If the bass are taking aquatic insects on the surface, bass bugs are the preferred method. In this temperature bracket, however, free surface feeding on insects is not so common. Not locating any rises, let’s put on a streamer fly. I like a six or seven foot leader for ordinary fly fishing for bass, one tapered from .020 to .014 or .013. If the water is especially clear and still (not ruffled by any breeze), a nine to twelve foot leader tapered to .012 will be better; and if the water is very shallow or the fish particularly scary, then a fifteen foot leader is still better.

Most bass fishermen use a short three or four foot leader. I admit that this takes a lot of bass, but it is just as easy, or easier, to cast a six or seven foot leader—better for some bass flies—and the longer leaders will definitely bring more strikes under many conditions than will the same fly fished on a shorter leader. Bass are not as easily frightened as trout, but if you will use on bass the same stalking-your-fish attitude that is absolutely necessary with trout, you will take more bass than you would otherwise. But let’s get back to our bass fishing.

Streamer fly for bass

Cast your streamer fly right into the pockets in the rushes, let it sink a couple of feet, then retrieve it rather slowly with the hand twist retrieve. Varying the timing and speed of the twists is a good thing. Fish the cast clear out to within about twenty feet of you; then, if no strike comes, pick up your fly and cast again to a point about six feet farther along the edge of the rushes. You will find the stems of rushes covered with the larvae of aquatic insects. The bass feed on these, as well as on the minnows that also feed on the larvae.

After I have covered about fifty feet of the shore line, i like to have the boat quietly moved in to about thirty feet from the edge of the rushes, and then cast diagonally along and towards the rushes at an angle of about forty-five degrees to the shore line. Sometimes it pays to hold the boat even closer to the shore so your casts can almost parallel the edge of the rushes.

This method gives you more feet of retrieve in a territory where the bass are most liable to be than does casting straight in at a right angle to the shore.

On part of your casts, use the jerk retrieve made with the rod tip. Variation in the action of the streamer, to make it seem like a wounded minnow to the bass, always helps.

In this open lake fly fishing you will frequently need to use the wind casts I told you about at fly casting technique.

Spinner and fly

Farther along the shore of the lake, off a point, is a long, wide mud bar. This is a favorite spot for large-mouth. As you can’t tell where the bass will be on a mud bar, this is a good place to try a spinner-and-fly because the fish can see the flash of the spinner from a greater distance. Use the spinner cast I told you about and let the spinner sink to within a foot of the bar. Retrieve just fast enough to keep the line off the bottom. Bass in the rushes or on a mud bar are usually feeding, so make the lure act and look like a minnow.

In this 55°-65° bracket, especially if the water is under 60°, the best time to fish is in the middle of the day—and in the bright sunshine. The shallow water will be warmer then; largemouth bass prefer water between 70° and 75°, so in this cold water bracket they will go to the warmest water and prefer to feed at the warmest time of the day.

In the day time, in stormy weather or with a falling barometer, largemouth bass in this same lake we are talking about— and in the same 55° to 65° temperature bracket—will be in slightly deeper water, 2 ft. to 7 ft. deep, on mud bottom and in the same kind of cover.

In bad weather or with a falling barometer, bass are not likely to be taking insects on the surface; in good weather in the day time, they might be. If you see surfaces rises, try bass bugs.

In the day time and stormy weather conditions in 55°-60° water, bait casdng with medium depth lures is a good method.

Largemouth bass in 65°- 70° water

This is a good temperature bracket for bass. largemouth bass range very widely in this water; besides the rushes, under water logs, brush cover, foliage-grown banks and mud bars I mentioned before, you will find lily pads and weed beds with greater growth than found in the colder water.

These lily pad and heavy weed bed areas are splendid spots for largemouth bass, as are floating bog sections of the lake.

In 65°-70° water in the evening, early morning or at night in normal weather, look for largemouth in water 1 ft. to 6 ft. deep. They will probably be feeding. Watch for surface rises. At these times and temperatures you should find them pretty often.

Bass bug tactics

In fishing a bass bug, remember you are imitating a natural bug, moth, grasshopper or aquatic insect, that has fallen on the water. Just watch the next one you see in this fix. The insect will usually stay still for from a few seconds to a minute or two minutes. Then it will struggle for a few seconds, then stay still again. You can do no better than take a lesson from this aquatic bug.

Cast your bass bug to good bass water—near a sunken log along the shore line or a few feet from an overhanging bank covered with branches, grass or other foliage. Let your bug lie still for about one to two minutes. I have seen lakes and conditions where a five minute wait was the best plan. Do some experimenting on this. Also, it pays to vary the length of time you let the bug lie still. Anyhow, don’t be in a hurry to retrieve the bug quickly—as most beginners do.

After you have let your bass bug stay still a minute or two, twitch it slightly with the tip of your rod. Try to make it act like a live bug struggling on the water. Then let it lie still again, and get ready for a strike; this is the most likely time for a bass to nail that bug.

You can repeat this twitch-and-wait process several times. Then retrieve a few feet of line, let the bug stay still again, and repeat the twitch and rest routine. It’s a great system.

Follow it all the way in until you have only twenty feet of line left. If there are bass around, feeding or watching the surface, you will get strikes.

While we are on the subject of strikes, it is well to remember that bass have harder and tougher mouths than trout. You have to strike a bass with a very firm, but not jerky, stroke.

Color and size of bass bugs

I have found dark, rather dull colored bass bugs the most successful—brown or black ones of medium or smaller sizes, on hooks from No. 6 up to 1/0. If there are many Bluegills or Crappies around you may be bothered a good deal by them if you are using bass bugs tied on No. 6 or No. 4 hooks. Bass will take them just as well—and sometimes better—than the larger bugs; but you may have to use hooks from No. 2 to 1/0 to protect yourself from the Bluegills. If you want the Panfish, use the smaller sizes.

Of course, bass bugs may be used with equally good results in any of the other bass haunts I have mentioned—just as long as the fish are surface feeding. Do not, however, expect bass that are feeding on the bottom, or in deep water, to come up for your bass bugs.

Lake wading

If the day is bright and the water clear, you must be careful not to let the bass see you or see the boat. This is especially important if the fish are fairly near the surface. Unless the water is too deep or the bottom too soft, you can often get more bass fly fishing if you will wade, instead of fishing from a boat. This is because the fish can’t see you as far away when you are low in the water.

Another advantage of wading is that you will probably see quietly feeding fish more readily. If you’ve never tried it, you may be amazed at how much better success you will have with bass bugs and dry flies, as well as with wet flies, when you get right into the lake and wade. Take your time, wade quietly; and fish out the water all around you thoroughly.

In 65°-70° water, in the day time, stormy weather or with falling barometer conditions, you will find largemouth bass on mud bottom, in water from 3 ft. to 10 ft. deep. In these conditions (especially if fish are down 7 ft. or more), a buck-tail or streamer fly, fished close to the bottom, will do better than a bass bug or other surface fly.

A spinner-and-fly, fished slow and rather deep, should be a good lure here. A varied-speed retrieve, by the hand twist method, should be used.

Largemouth bass like this range (especially 70°-72°) best. While in this kind of water you will find largemouth bass ranging all over the shallow parts of the lake, they are most likely to be in water from 2 ft. to 8 ft. deep in the evening, early morning or at night.

Dry fly tactics for bass

In such conditions—if there are surface rises—bass bugs are again a preferred method. Sometimes, on summer evenings, too, you will find bass surface feeding on small aquatic insects—cruising around as Brown trout do in still pools. When this happens try some Nos. 8 or 10 trout dry flies with 9 ft. to 12 ft. leaders tapered to 2X. Spiders, bivisibles or other exact imitation flies are particularly good here.

Cast ahead of the progress of the bass if you can spot a series of rises or see the fish. You may have to use a side cast so as not to scare such fish. Wading, if the bottom is suitable, will probably beat boat fishing at such times. Once you have found and caught bass this way, I believe you’ll agree with me that there are few more enjoyable times in your life than you have had with these bass.

If the bass aren’t surface feeding in 70°-75° water, you may find they are gorging themselves on larvae on the bottom or that they are picking aquatic insects off the weeds or rushes under water.

A good thing to try here is a flat-bodied, bass-size nymph.

Other exact imitation wet flies or bucktails do well in this situation, too.

Cast a long line, count until the nymph sinks to the bottom and then retrieve by the hand-twist method—just as you fish a trout nymph. If you’ve never done this, you will be happily surprised at how well it works with bass that are feeding on under water nymphs.

Popping bugs

Very productive places for evening largemouth fishing are the stumpy, weedy bays and the shallow weed-bottomed bars, close to deeper water. All kinds of flies are good here, but popping bugs are particularly effective. This type of bug is always a good bet when bass are feeding near the surface. If you find the bass in the evening or at night, near or below overhanging foliage around the shore line, popping bugs are especially taking lures. This applies to other temperature brackets, too.

In 70°-75° water in the daytime, or in stormy weather or falling barometer conditions, you will find largemouth bass staying in slightly deeper water, 4 ft. to 10 ft, but still on mud bottom and in similar cover.

Bucktails for bass

Very often in these conditions, you can do well with a buck-tail. Fish it deep, casting and then counting until the fly has sunk to just a foot or less from the bottom. You then retrieve with the rest and jerk method, using rod tip manipulation. Working a bucktail in this way along the edge of an underwater weed bed, or in channels or coves in or between weed beds, is one of the best ways of taking bass in 70°-75° water in the day time. Nymphs are also very good for such situations.

When to use wet or dry flies

An angler who is alert and wants to be sure to suit his method of fishing to the conditions must be ready to try both wet or sunken fly methods and dry fly or bass bug technique in daytime 70°-75° water conditions. With the bass from 4 ft. to 10 ft. deep, they may be feeding or willing to feed either on the surface or at the bottom.

If you find the bass lying from 4 ft. to 6 ft. below the surface when the water is clear, they will probably come up for a surface bass bug or other surface lure. If the fish are 7 ft. to 10 ft. down, you had better use a bucktail, streamer or nymph and fish them near the bottom.

In these water temperatures in the early evening or early morning, you’ll find largemouth bass in water 6 ft. to 12 ft. deep. Bottom and cover will be as usual with large-mouth, but they will stay closer to still deeper water if there is any in the lake. A spinner-and-fly fished slow and deep, by the hand twist retrieve, is a good system at this time.
In the late evenings and at night, bass often feed in the shallows—and here a hair-frog type of bass bug will do particularly well.

Bait casting with medium depth lures, when the bass are in 6 ft. to 12 ft. water, or with surface lures in the late evening or at night, fits this water bracket. Medium depth trolling for these 6 ft. to 12 ft. bass does well, too.

In the early evening, I have often found largemouth bass feeding around the lily pads on natural flies that look like small bees. In this case dry flies or very small cork bodied bass bugs—really Bluegill bugs—will bring a lot of strikes.
In the daytime, stormy weather or with a falling barometer, large-mouths will be in deeper, cooler water, 10 ft. to 25 ft. down, on mud bottom, near spring holes, in deeper rushes, on medium-depth mud bars close to deeper water and in and around deep-water weed beds.

Drifting live bait

When the bass are in these positions, the most successful method is still fishing or slow drifting with live bait. Drifting will get more fish—if properly done. More bass in these conditions are taken on live minnows than on any other bait, though soft-shelled crabs and worms are both good. A live frog will bring plenty of fish in many instances.

In drifting live bait, you do it much as you do pond fishing for trout with worms or minnow . Hook the minnow either through the lips or lightly just under the dorsal fin. Fish either minnow, worm or crawfish close to the bottom.

I prefer not to use a sinker, unless the boat drifts so fast that you can’t get the bait down close to the bottom without one. In that case put a sinker on the end of the line with the hook fastened to about 8 inches of leader, some 12 or 13 inches above the sinker. It is best to attach the sinker by a piece of line of only about half the breaking strength of your main line, so that if you get snagged on the bottom you will only lose your sinker instead of your hook, sinker and part of your line.

On a windy day a light canvas sea-anchor will slow up and control the drift of the boat to good advantage.
It is important to keep your bait close to the bottom. You will need to learn the differing depths of the bottom, the snags, rocks and weed beds, in order to be able to do this successfully.

To catch as many fish as possible, the bait should be fished only about a foot from the bottom of the lake. As this bottom depth will change as you drift, this isn’t easy. But it’s worth learning to do well if you are going to fish with live bait by the drift method.

Largemouth bass in 80°- 90° water

In water between 80° and 90° F., in the early evening or early morning, largemouth bass will be in deep cooler water, 10 ft. to 25 ft. deep. In these conditions, they like medium-depth water, close to deeper places, or near spring holes. You will also find bass in the deep, very thick lily pad areas. Streamers, bucktails, nymphs and spinner-flies are all good here, if fished deep.

Even in this warm water bass will come into the shallows in the very late evening and at night. When in shallow water they will take bass bugs.

In using a bass bug in 80°-90° water I have often found bass taking the lure so slowly and gently that most anglers think the fish are too small to get the bug in their mouths.

This is not at all true. In many cases these bass will toy with the fly for a minute or more before taking it. The bass may be large enough, but they just aren’t aggressive in the warmer water. Upright wing dry flies or bass bugs are especially liable to be taken in this manner by feeding bass.

Dragon fly bass

If you find bass feeding on dragon flies, as you sometimes do in warmer water conditions in the summer, you can do a good job on them with a bass bug, a big spent-spinner or spider type dry fly. A large bivisible is also good here. Use long casts and a long, fine leader—9 ft. to 15 ft., tapered to .010 or .009 inch in diameter. Fish the rises if there are enough; if not, fish the fly slow by the rest-and-twitch retrieve.

Warm water bass feed at night

As the water gets warmer, bass feed more and more at night and less and less in the daytime. This applies to Small-mouth even more than to Large-mouth, but is true for both. I’ll tell you more about night fishing for bass when I come to warm water angling for Small-mouth; but just make a note here to try the same tactics with largemouth at night when the water gets above 80° F.

In 80°-90° water, in the daytime—or in stormy or falling barometer weather, largemouth bass will be in cool water, 15 ft. to 40 deep. Deep bars and spring holes are likely places for these conditions. Dense shade under heavy lily pad areas, particularly if the minnows are there in quantity, may be productive fishing ground for this warm water bracket.
Drifting with live bait, or still fishing, will get you more bass than any other way of fishing in this 80°-90° water in the daytime.

Deep water fishing

A spinner-and-minnow or spinner-and-frog casting rig fished deep and slow—with a bait casting rod—does well here. Deep trolling, especially with a worm, crawfish or minnow fastened on a single hook behind the spinner or spoon, will take warm water bass. You have to learn your lake bottom thoroughly, though.

For fly fishing, a spinner-fly, fished deep, will take bass in these conditions. Also a nymph or bucktail, fished by counting until the fly has sunk to the bottom, retrieving by the hand-twist method a few feet and then letting the fly drop to the bottom again, will often take warm water bass. You repeat this routine until the fly is almost up to you.

Taken altogether, largemouth bass are just about the most satisfying fresh water lake fish for the all around American angler. They stay in shallow water a larger proportion of the time than does any of the trout or salmon family or than Small-mouth bass. They tolerate warm water temperatures. They take a bass bug, or floating bait casting lure, freely almost all the time; and they put up a grand fight. In most regards they are the All-American game fish!