Bass On The Fly
The secret to this technique is casting the bait a long distance and then keep it running very shallow.
By Bill Harvey, Ph.D
Stillhouse Hollow (Texas) is a beautiful lake. Tucked into a landscape of undeveloped limestone hills and low juniper-oak clusters, its emerald-blue water is clear and inviting. Like Lake Whitney, Stillhouse Hollow holds some fine smallmouth bass, but Mike Hastings and I had come for a different reason this August day.
Donning my PFD and settling in for the short boat ride, Mike began to chatter. His enthusiasm could not be contained, "Man, the largemouth bass have been schooling on Stillhouse for weeks now. Every day about 9:00 a.m., regular as an alarm clock, they will absolutely boil the water. The fish are getting smaller, but there are millions of them. Really finicky, though, hard to get a bite. That fly rod of yours might be just the ticket. I am going to use my "launcher."
By any measure, Mike Hastings is one of the finest fishermen I have ever met. Meticulous in rigging his tackle, creative in his bait selection and capable of consistent pinpoint casting accuracy, he always catches fish. His topwater fishing technique is superb. His boat is cleaner than my house. I had always enjoyed complete confidence in his judgement. And then he showed me his invention, "the launcher."
"This thing works great. It is a nine-foot rod with a weighted cork, a four-foot leader and a small shad-colored lure at the end. I can cast it a pretty long way."
Winding up as if to throw a Nolan Ryan fastball, Mike made his first cast of the day. I never saw the bait hit the water, though I am pretty sure it came down somewhere in Bell County.
"Geez, Mike, not much of a cast," I said in mock disbelief. "is that the best you can do?"
"No, I'm just not warmed up yet, sometimes I can get it out there 80 yards or better."
"You gotta' be joking." "Nope, the secret to this technique is casting the bait a long distance and then keep it running very shallow. These schooling bass are chasing the shad right up to the surface. If you cast into the school, it spooks them and you can't get a bite. But with this rod and tackle arrangement, I can cast a very small bait for a long distance and keep it right at the surface during the retrieve. I am telling you, the fish are really finicky and this thing works."
My gear of choice for the day was a nine-foot, nine line-weight fly rod with a weight-forward floating fly line. A good cast for me with this gear might be 40 feet, much less 80 yards.
But the principal of lure presentation was the same. With a fly line, I could drop a shad-colored fly onto the surface of the water with barely a ripple and retrieve it just below the surface. We would have to get reasonably close to any schooling fish we might encounter, but Mike assured me that would not be a problem. "They will be jumping in the boat."
We took a short run out to Mike's fishing grounds, where we took a few practice casts and scanned the surface for action. The crystal clear water was lacking in the slightest ripple, as the day was promising to be windless and hot. The launcher almost immediately began to yield results, a small bass, a second and then a third. My fly line had been stretched but once by the time boated his fifth fish. But at 9:15, Central-Hastings-Time, the water in the distance became frothy with schooling bass.
"Show time," Mike grinned as he fired up the motor and moved into position.
Within minutes we were both hooked up. The surface of Stillhouse Hollow seemed to be carpeted with small shad and the bass were in such a frenzy as to literally leap sideways into the air in pursuit. On almost every cast I hooked a fish as the shad fly lured the hungry bass into range and into the boat. Within the first hour, Mike and I had both boated more than 15 bass.
Launching his cork and leader into the distance, he would retrieve his fly just under surface, holding up on almost every cast. Laying the lightweight fly line onto the water and pausing to let the fly sink a few inches, I would begin to strip the line toward me. Bass after bass took the bait.
As is almost always the case when fishermen begin to catch fish, other fishermen began to move into position near us. One boat, then two circled our position and in short order Mike and I were in the middle of a metal-flake flotilla. Six bass boats had eased into position near us, each casting into the same groups of feeding bass that we enjoyed - with one remarkable difference. They were not catching any fish. I mean none. Perfect cast after cast fell into the water with not a single fish being boated by 11 other fishermen.
"I told you they were finicky," Mike said, releasing another fish. "You gotta' have just the right bait and just the right size."
"Hey Mike, what are you using," called one of his friends. 'We can't get a bite to save our lives."
"That is one of my friends from Bastrop," he told me. "I'm using a launcher with a shad-colored grub," he yelled in return. "He is using a fly rod."
Two of the other fishermen eased close to us and I handed each a couple of my flies. "These are too small to cast with this rod and reel," one of the anglers noted, as he returned them and leaned back with a sigh of resignation.
Over the next couple of hours, Mike and I caught 51 largemouth bass and one smallmouth. Mike's launcher had accounted for 27 fish and my fly rod had snared the remaining 24. Total number of fish caught in six other boats: two. Four of the other boats had finally left in frustration and as he fired up his motor to leave, we heard Mike's friend from Bastrop say, "There is something basically wrong when one fly rod catches more fish than six bass boats."
In a sense, he was right. It is unusual for an angler with a fly rod to enjoy greater success than a counter-part using baitcasting or spincasting and more efficient means of fishing and this strategy allows the angler to use bigger and more diverse types of lures. But on some occasions, fly rods can be deadly.
The success that Mike and I enjoyed on Stillhouse Hollow that day was a perfect example of the importance of presentation. These fish, feeding on small shad at the surface, were easily spooked by larger lures striking the surface and the weight of the lure was taking it out of the feeding zone. We witnessed spinnerbaits, spoons, jerkbaits, and topwater lures - almost everything one could imagine - being tossed into the schools of bass with no success. Yet the small flies we employed, almost perfect imitations of shad, were attacked with ferocity.
Secondarily, Mike's strategy of casting over the school and retrieving a fly held at the surface by a weighted float had the very same effect as my floating fly line. Neither spooked the fish, and both flies were suspended very near the surface.
I must admit that I did not begin fly fishing until I was well into my 40's (closer to 50, actually) because I thought it would be too hard to learn, too expensive and too "elitist." After all, I was a real bass fisherman, weaned on WD-40 and the smell of diesel fuel. I still have my first open- face baitcasting reel. And I still use it. But I could not have been more wrong and I think that every bass angler could enjoy success by adding a fly rod to the quiver.
A seven-weight rod with a matching flyline is perfect for throwing all sorts of bass bugs, minnow imitations and sinking flies.
Learning to cast a flyline is infinitely easier than learning to cast with a baitcasting reel. An hour with a good flycaster can turn the most seasoned baitcaster into a successful if not silky flycaster and all of the knots used in baitcasting are immediately transferable to splicing flylines and leaders.
While many fly rods and reels are very expensive, excellent rods and reels can be had for about the same price as a high quality baitcasting rod and reel. My favorite bass fly rod and fly reel cost less than $200 and flies like those Mike and I used are about $2.00.
After Mike and I returned to Austin, I drove downtown to the Austin Angler and bought every shad imitation fly Larry Sunderland had to sell. I returned to Stillhouse Hollow the following Sunday, paddled my kayak a mile or so out to the area where the bass were schooling and caught another 25 bass in the midst of bass boats and more frustrated anglers.
Just some tree-hugging, Austin nut paddling a kayak and using a fly rod. But that day, I sold every fly I had to my fellow fisherman for $1.00 more than I had paid for them two days before. Who would have thought that fly-fishing could be so much fun - and so profitable.
Catch and release.