Fly-Rodding for Bass
By Vincent A. LaZara
Part One: The Whys of Fly-Rodding for Bass
If you are like most bass anglers, you fish for largemouth or smallmouth bass only with spinning and bait casting tackle. I hope this article will encourage you to include the fly rod in your bag of tricks. While many readers might consider this radical, it actually falls into a long tradition of bass fishing techniques. Over a century ago, Dr. James A. Henshall stated in his classic Book of the Black Bass that "fly-fishing ... is to be greatly preferred to all other ways and means of capturing the finny tribe." In the 1970s, fishing expert Byron Dalrymple said in his Modern Book of the Black Bass that "fly-rodding for largemouths is without any question the sportiest way this fish can be taken." And in more recent times, Uncle Homer, now in his 90s and arguably the greatest living authority on bass fishing, wrote in Circle on Bass: Bass Wisdom from a Master that the fly rod "just may be the best all-around method for catching bass." Just what is so special about the fly rod? Experienced bass anglers already know that one type of rod is not enough to cover all possible presentations. For instance, the bait caster enables flipping and pitching and facilitates ripping lures through heavy cover, while the spinning outfit enables skipping under docks and facilitates fishing light weight finesse lures. Likewise, there are several reasons why the fly rod is unique and adds to the ultimate success of the bass angler who strives to show those black bass something "they haven't seen before."
Mechanics of Fly-Rodding
The mechanics of fly casting and retrieving are unique. With conventional approaches like spinning and bait casting, the weight of the lure typically carries the line off the reel to the strike zone. But in fly casting, the line is stripped off the reel by hand prior to the cast and the weight of the line then carries the lure to the target. In spinning and bait casting, the lure is retrieved and the bass brought in by winding the line back onto the reel. However, in fly fishing, the lure is retrieved and the bass typically is brought to the angler by stripping in the line by hand and not by cranking the reel handle, unless all the excess line has been pulled out by the bass while playing it. These differences result in some practical benefits.
Advantages of Fly-Rodding
First off, bass feed on fish, frogs, crayfish, leeches, and insects, yet neither conventional spinning nor bait casting rods lend themselves to casting lures that truly mimic the insect portion of the bass's menu. But with a fly rod, anglers can cast lures that are virtually weightless, thereby making presentations of insect imitations that are impossible with conventional tackle. For example, bass seasonally take grasshoppers that fall from overhanging trees and dragonflies that cruise over weed beds. I have exploited these patterns with my fly rod to repeatedly catch bass ranging from two to five pounds throughout the day while envious on-lookers using conventional tackle were catching few if any bass. And I find deceiving bass into striking an artificial insect to be a distinctively different sort of angling thrill.
A second advantage of fly casting over conventional tackle relates to the fact that the angler remains in direct contact with the line on the retrieve rather than relying upon the reel. This enables the angler to feel the most subtle pick up by a bass rather than depend on the sensitivity of a spinning or bait casting rod to transmit that sensation. It also is more challenging to play and land a bass this way because you must fight the fish with the flex of the rod using your own judgment to determine when to let out line by hand instead of depending on a drag mechanism when the bass makes a run. I find it exciting to feel this more direct contact with the bass, from the impact of the strike to playing the fish with line in hand.
Part Two: Getting Equipped for Bass Fly-Rodding
Casting with a fly rod
Many anglers dismiss the idea of fly-rodding for bass because they are intimidated by the mystique of fly fishing. Don't be! To make it as simple as feasible and save as much time as possible, I paid a pro to give me a two hour casting lesson, followed up the next day with on-the-water fishing instruction. Ironically, the more experienced you are at casting with conventional rods, the more difficult it is to acquire the technique of casting with a fly rod because initially your body does not want to obey your mind. During the first hour of my casting lesson, I thought seriously of quitting. How glad I am now that I persisted through the second hour when it all came together! If you're not up for paying someone to teach you, many local fly shops offer free lessons when you buy an outfit, and many individuals, perhaps contacted through a local fly fishing club, will generously give of their time to help novices. In any event, don't try to learn fly casting on your own or you likely will spend many hours slapping the water with your line and scaring away bass instead of catching them.
There are two ways to equip yourself for fly-rodding. The first is to take the route I did by getting educated on all aspects of fly casting tackle. Having first included the fly rod in my bass fishing arsenal of equipment only two years ago, the memories of the frustrations I faced are still vivid. You might prefer to take the alternative route, which is to get someone already knowledgeable to help you select and set up your outfit. Whichever route you decide upon, I suggest that you read the remainder of this article, which covers the basics and will perhaps reinforce your decision to take the latter path of least resistance. In any event, the advice I offer in the following sections should help you bypass much of the aggravation you would otherwise experience.
First, when shopping for your tackle, be prepared to encounter a wide assortment of specialized equipment designed for fly fishing, such as waders, float tubes, forceps, retractors, fishing vests, chest packs, etc. Fortunately, the bass angler working out of the typical boat will not need to get outfitted with this full range of gear but basically needs just a rod, reel, lines, and lures.
Second, you may be surprised to discover that the terminology used to describe fly fishing tackle differs in most respects from that of conventional tackle. Before I discuss these differences, I urge you to acquire your first fly-rodding outfit in person from a local dealer knowledgeable about fly-fishing equipment. If sales reps know your needs, they can help you assemble a suitable outfit. Then, you can focus your time and attention on fishing, simply replicating the appropriate choices for lines as needed when they wear out instead of wasting time mastering terminology.
The lures cast on fly rods are called flies, and some of the larger ones designed specifically for bass fishing are called bass bugs, regardless of whether or not they imitate an actual biological insect. Since I use conventional tackle as well as a fly rod, I do not tend to use flies or bass bugs that are designed to imitate lures used on spinning or bait casting rods, like pencil poppers or jig-n-pig style lures, as do many anglers who fancy "fly rod only" fishing. Rather, I am interested in what I can catch by showing the bass a totally different presentation than they have seen by anglers using conventional tackle, who comprise the vast majority of the bass fishing community. So I turn to lures that enable presentations that only can be achieved effectively with a fly rod. A few of these unique looking flies and bass bugs include the following: the wooly bugger, Dahlberg diver, Clouser minnow, hare jig, dragonfly, damselfly, hopper, and micro popper. Just look over the inventory at any fly shop or do an internet search on "bass bugs" to find a wide, wild array of offerings limited only by the imaginations of the "fly tiers" who create these wonders out of feathers, fur, Styrofoam, and hair.
Instead of fly rods being designated "power" wise, they are labeled in terms of "weight." The correlations between power ratings and the weights of fly rods correspond roughly as follows: medium light = 4 weight, medium = 5 or 6 weight, medium heavy = 7 weight, heavy = 8 weight, and extra heavy = 9 or 10 weight. Your choice depends on factors like the air resistance and weight of the lures you intend to cast, the size of the bass you are likely to catch, and the density of the cover you will typically encounter.
To imitate small insects like grasshoppers and damselflies, I use smaller lures that have hooks sized 6 to 10. For this purpose, I find the best rod is a 5 or 6 weight (medium power), which can be used to hook and land medium sized bass up to five to seven pounds. When I go for really big bass, cast the larger so called bass bugs, or use weighted flies to get down deeper, then I use an 8 weight rod (heavy power), though some anglers prefer to use a 9 or 10 weight rod (extra heavy). I prefer a 4 weight rod (medium light) only when targeting smaller bass not likely to exceed the 1 to 2 pound range and when imitating insects using lures with very small hooks sized 12 to 14, which are noticeably smaller than the hooks typically used by bass anglers casting with conventional tackle.
Fly rods of the weight range used for bass fishing typically come in lengths from seven and a half up to ten feet. To facilitate more accurate casting around cover and for ease of handling on my boat, I prefer to use the shorter rods: my 4 to 5 weight rods are seven and a half to eight feet long, while my 6 to 8 weight rods are eight and a half to nine feet long.
When you select your line, again you must wade through the confusions of fly-fishing terminology. There are basically four types of line that are used conjointly, called the backing line, the fly line, the leader line, and the tippet line, respectively.
The backing line: Before attaching the basic fly line, it is customary to spool on some backing line. The rationale for this has to do with the fact that the fly line itself, whose weight carries the fly to the target, is quite thick compared to other types of line and rather pricey to boot. So, fly lines are kept to a length only as long as necessary to cast typical distances, while a thinner and cheaper backing line is used in the event you end up fighting a bass that strips off all of your fly line.
The fly line: First, instead of fly lines being designated by pound test, they are labeled by "weights" that correspond to rod weight designations and ultimately relate to how heavy they must be to properly load the rod to make sufficiently long casts. Hence, 4 weight fly line is used on 4 weight rods, 5 weight fly line on 5 weight rods, and so on for the other weight rods. Next, fly lines are designated as floating or sinking. Most of my fly-rodding is done with floating lines since I can fish surface flies and subsurface flies down to a few feet with appropriate leaders and, as needed, small split shot weights to go somewhat deeper. When conditions call for going deeper than feasible with this approach, I again go to my trusty conventional tackle using presentations such as drop-shoting with a spinning rod or swimming deep diving crank baits with a bait casting outfit. Finally, fly lines are designated by the taper of the fly line. On my 4 to 6 weight rods, I use a simple weight-forward taper, while I use a bass-bug taper on my 8 weight rod.
The leader line: Since fly fishing requires casting fly lines heavy enough to carry your lure to the target, they are much too thick and visible to be attached directly to the fly without scaring away bass. So a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader line with a butt end of comparable diameter to the main fly line is attached to the tip of the fly line. This is accomplished using a loop to loop connection between fly lines and leader lines manufactured with loops at their ends. Since the eyes of the hooks on the flies are much smaller in diameter than the fly line and leader at the point of attachment, leader lines taper down in diameter until the tip end is thin enough to fit through the eyes of the hooks. The overall length of the leader from fly line to fly will vary depending on the degree of visibility of the water. In crystal clear water, a length of eight or nine feet would be suitable, while in very murky water, the length could be as short as five or six feet.
The tippet line: After repeatedly trimming the end of a tapered leader to change flies or retie knots for strength, the diameter of its remaining length eventually becomes too large to fit the eye of the hook on the fly. Then a length of monofilament or fluorocarbon line with a small enough diameter, which is called the tippet line, is attached to the tip of the leader line. I prefer to use a Uni-to-Uni Knot connection to join the leader line and tippet line. The Uni Knot can also be used to attach the fly to the end of the leader or tippet for especially small hook eyes, or the improved Uni Knot, called the Fish-N-Fool Knot, can be used when the hook eye is large enough to pass the leader line or tippet line through the eye twice before tying the knot.
To make matters even more confusing, leader lines and tippet lines are not designated simply in terms of pound test but by "X" ratings that are a matter of line diameter. Pound test to "X" rating equivalencies vary by manufacturer, but to give you an idea of what this involves, some general correlations are as follows: 0X = .011 inches = twelve pound test, 1 X = .010 inches = ten pound test, 2 X = .009 inches = eight pound test, 3 X = .008 inches = six pound test, 4 X = .007 inches = four pound test. Lighter leader or tippet lines are not really suitable for bass fishing, and heavier tippet lines are typically designated by diameter and pound test without an X rating. I generally use sixteen pound test leaders / tippet with the heavy 8 weight rod and lures with hooks sized 1/0 and up; 0X, 1X, or 2X leaders / tippet with the medium 5 or 6 weight rods and lures with hooks sized 1 through 10; and 3X leaders / tippet with the medium light 4 weight rod and lures with hooks sized 12 through 14, unless I am fishing where bass need to be worked out of weedy cover, when I upsize the line diameter to get the benefit of the stronger pound test rating.
Compared to spinning and bait casting reels, fly reels are mechanically simple, having a one to one retrieve ratio. They are sized according to line weight, the thicker lines requiring larger spools. If you are using a 4 weight line, you will use a reel designated for 4 weight line; if you are using an 8 weight line, you will use a reel with a larger spool designed to fit the thicker 8 weight line. Fly reels have conspicuously small retrieve handles since, except in the unusual circumstance that a bass runs out all of the line you have stripped out by hand, the knob is only used to take up slack line. When fighting a bass, if I end up using the reel, I generally do not rely on its drag but "palm" the reel, controlling the rate of revolution of the spool by hand. I suggest getting reels that weigh as little as affordable without regard to factors other than fitting the correct size line, keeping in mind that those weighing less generally cost more due to the use of lighter weight materials and extra machining that removes unnecessary metal.
While all the information provided in this article appears hopelessly confusing, once you see it in practice, you will realize that it is much simpler than it seems at first glance. All in all, I hope this article has stimulated you to undertake a new challenge that will pay dividends in the thrills and catches "conventional tackle only" anglers are missing out on.
May your lines be tight and your bass lunkers!
For Further Reading
Kreh, Lefty. Fly Fishing for Bass: Smallmouth, Largemouth, Exotics. 1993. Odysseus Editions. Birmingham, Alabama. An excellent treatment of tactics for fly-rodding for bass in rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds by the world's foremost authority on fly fishing.
Rounds, John. Basic Fly Fishing. 2006. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. A thorough yet simple explanation of the fundamentals of fly fishing tackle and techniques, including sections on fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Vince LaZara is a retired college professor who took up bass fishing a few years ago in anticipation of retirement. He angles avidly for largemouth bass on a regular basis in various lakes in southeastern Arizona.