By Summer, in my locale, both the Susquehanna and its tributaries have warmed enough for the bass to return, en masse. While I cannot deny my own acute preoccupation with salmonids, I relish the fact that bass requires different tactics, gear, and flies to catch.
When the water gets to those temperatures where catch-and-release fishing could kill a trout, I switch gears and try to target bass, particularly smallmouth bass. They provide a stunning fight, are pretty to look at, and I feel like they are often just as cunning as the trout I know and love.
Largemouth bass provides another starkly unique experience on the fly rod as well, and at least twice a year I make a point of fishing ponds in the State Game Lands in search of them. Bold and explosive largemouths attacking a properly popped topwater bait make my heart flutter just the same as the trout’s gentle mayfly takes in the Spring.
In my opinion, there’s never a bad time (or water temperature) to go fishing, and there is no fish unworthy of catching on a fly rod.
In this review we’ll cover:
- Fishing gear for bass
- Best flies for smallmouth bass
- How to tie (and fish) flies for smallmouth
- Best flies for largemouth bass
- How to tie (and fish) flies for largemouth
- Conclusion // Reeling it in!
Join me as I wade into warmer waters for a different kind of fish.
Bass Fly Fishing | Gear
The bugs that I find most effective for bass are by and large louder, heavier, and full of movement. To be able to throw these flies effectively, some changes must be made from your traditional trout gear. Heavier leader and stronger tippet are a given, but consider sizing up your line and rod weight as well.
Both smallmouth and largemouth bass get big and are notorious for their outstanding power. Horsing in a 20+ inch largemouth could spell disaster for your 3 wt. When I fish for bass I use a 7wt line and 6/7 wt rod (up to a 10 wt), the longer the better.
I find that a moderate action works well to really send larger bugs flying and turn them over. There are also distinct benefits to having a sink-tip line, especially if you’re throwing subsurface flies like articulated streamers. The line gets the fly down in the water column easier and faster.
Remember, having the right gear for an outing can mean the difference between an enjoyable trip or a defeated car ride back home. Make sure that your rod, line and leader can handle the long, powerful runs and digs that bass are capable of, as well as the weeds and debris that are common fare when fishing ponds and rivers in the summer.
Best Flies for Largemouth Bass | A Dance With the Ditch Pickle
Largemouth bass is the coveted fish of tournament anglers, fishing magazine subscribers, and the Bass Pro Tour faithful. These warm-water fish, in the sunfish family, are aggressive and known for awe-inspiring topwater takes and long aerial leaps when feeding.
Their huge mouths mean that they have a laundry list of forage that they can consume. While younger LMBs feed on nymphs, small crayfish, flies, beetles, and even eggs, as they increase in size, they can and will attack larger terrestrials and other creeping critters, like mice, snakes, and even small birds.
Baitfish are always on the menu for largemouths, and when I fish for them in the Susquehannah, I can often find them by first locating the clouds of baitfish that they harass back and forth from morning till night. They are voracious and capable predators, regardless of what water you find them in. All of these characteristics add up to a lot of fun on the fly rod, so let’s take a look at some flies for largemouth bass.
1. Foam Bass Popper
Poppers are a classic and effective way to catch bass, and I’ve used them on spin and baitcasting setups with success when pond hopping in the Summer. This bug is a fly-rod sized take on the popper concept, and it is just as effective as its larger counterparts.
Foam is a great material, and it’s easily shaped, cut, and trimmed to achieve the type of popper you like. If you’re unsure of your shaping skills, there are many pre-fabbed popper heads you can buy to simplify tying this fly, some that look like frogs, some that resemble mice, some that are impressionistic, and others that are meant to represent specific species of dying baitfish. The possibilities are endless, and I have found that I can often make effective poppers out of scrap hackle and feathers from my bench mug.
Heavy mono line is used here to add a weed guard to this fly, and I find this technique invaluable when fishing ponds. Bass love waiting in the weeds for prey they can ambush, and I hate losing flies and snapping tippet, so I highly recommend implementing the weed guard on other flies for bass.
How To Fish Foam Poppers
Foam poppers can be fished in many different ways, and this versatility is what makes this fly a complete necessity for pursuing bass. Short, sharp flexing of your fly rod can produce the desired ‘pop’ of the wide-mouthed foam head, and stripping your line with a short and jerky retrieve can make the fly ‘walk’ in a zig-zag fashion. Short pauses between stripping or flexing allow a bass that might be following your popper the time necessary to decide that it’s time to eat.
I get the majority of strikes on the pause, so make sure to throw that into your popper retrieve. If you’re already familiar with this type of bait for bass it’s not much different on a fly rod, and poppers can produce those huge topwater blowups that bass fishermen know and love. They are an absolute essential so keep your fly box stocked up in various colors.
Foam Bass Popper Fly Tying Video Instruction
2. The MONSTER Bugger
I love the wooly bugger! This pattern has stood the test of time, and I never am without one when I am fishing. It was one of the first patterns I learned how to tie and fish, and I’ve caught some of the biggest fish of my life when using them.
The wooly bugger is a great impressionistic fly, imitating everything from hellgrammites, crayfish, and baitfish, to stoneflies and more. I truly believe that this is one of the best patterns for the multi-species fly angler, so having an in-depth knowledge of how to fish it and how to tie it is a must.
Movement is key
My love for this fly aside, there are things that you can do to make it more appealing to largemouth bass. Movement is important when targeting largemouth. Anything that adds extra movement to your fly will increase your chances of having an encounter with one of these powerful fish.
The Monster Bugger incorporates numerous features that bass love into the well-known bugger pattern. It has lifelike rubber legs that pulse and ‘breathe’ when stripping and when dead-drifted, and it has a conehead nose for added depth and a noisier subsurface retrieve.
Flashy hackle and that proven, classic marabou action all add up to a lethal fly. Non-lead wire can be added if you need more depth, and this fly works great when also using sink-tip line.
I can’t recommend this fly enough, and if you’ve mastered the wooly bugger, adding your own bass-appropriate features shouldn’t be too difficult.
MONSTER Bugger – Wooly Bugger Variation with Rubber Legs! – McFly Angler
3. Crazy Charlie Bonefish Fly Pattern
This is a saltwater fly, meant for bonefish on the flats. I bought a few fly boxes at an estate sale and came into possession of quite a few of these flies two summers ago, and was determined to put them to use for trout in my local waters since I have no easy access to saltwater as of yet in my fly fishing career.
I found that these flies were a great crayfish imitation, and the largemouth in the Bald Eagle loved them, even more so than the trout I was after. Those hot Summer outings made me keep a few of these flies in my box for crayfish crazy bass in the Summers to come.
How To Fish The Crazy Charlie
The Crazy Charlie is another impressionistic fly that can be worked like a shrimp or crayfish when allowed to sink. The Crazy Charlie flies I received at the aforementioned estate sale were very heavy and sank like stones to the creek bed.
I work them slowly on the bottom with short strips and gentle flexes of my rod tip to give them a realistic crayfish-like action. If fishing them this way isn’t really your style, these flies work equally well when jigged or stripped in like a bucktail streamer.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to tie these as heavy as you would if you were fishing on the saltwater flats. Bead chain eyes add weight and a little gurgle to this fly, and they are simple to tie quite a few at a time, so consider adding these to your bass arsenal.
Crazy Charlie Bonefish Fly Pattern (Fly Tying Tutorial
4. The STP Frog Fly Pattern Tutorial
I was attending a music festival in Virginia near Newport News this past Summer, and I was able to sneak away to a Cabela’s near the hotel for an hour after the first day’s lineup was finished. The fly fishing section there was much smaller compared to what I was used to in Pennsylvania, but I did come across this fly, and it has been in my box ever since.
The STP frog fly is an ingenious, weedless frog imitation that pops, gurgles, and even kicks its back legs! Most of the bass fishermen that I have met on the water have a whole box devoted to frogs, so it behooves you to have at least one in your fly box.
I recommend the STP mostly because of its versatility and slim profile.
How to Fish The STP Frog
When the weeds get thick, this is usually the first fly that I use for bass. Chucking it deep into the weeds and stripping it back with a jerky short retrieve is my first tactic, and if this doesn’t work I resort to using it as a popper. Once it is free from the weeds, swimming it back and forth erratically (but slowly) is my go to. When swimming this frog fly, the knotted silicone back legs can be made to kick and flap by raising and lowering the rod tip. It requires a light touch but once you learn how to make this bug swim it only makes it more effective. Bass love frogs, do yourself a favor and tie some of these up.
The STP Frog Fly Pattern Tutorial
My continual search for trout takes place mostly in multi-species waters. I’m not one for ‘fly fishing only’ waters, or massively stocked class A streams. I do fish them, and they are a treasure to have available and accessible in Pennsylvania, but I find more sport and enjoyment in pursuing wild trout, especially when they have to compete with other species of fish for their dinner.
Smallmouth bass are pound for pound better fighters than trout, and trying to corral them to the net on trout leader and trout tippet is as exasperating as it is rewarding. They are a real thrill to catch, and they are prone to some of the same frenzied acrobatics as trout when they’re on the hook. These things aside, I like fishing for smallmouth because they often take up residence in the same waters that hold spring and fall trout, so I don’t need to go somewhere new and unexplored to find them. If you enjoy the antics of rainbows and browns, smallmouth are a warm-water fish that have similar behavior. I will also say that smallmouth flies can easily be adapted for use in chasing trout with little to no modification. Consider these things as I take a look at some cracking good smallmouth flies.
Best Smallmouth Bass Flies
1. the Clouser Minnow
This fly catches fish. A phrase I hear repeated by fly tyers and fly fishermen around the world is, “Anything that eats minnows will eat a Clouser.” This really is the case, and this pattern catches almost anything that swims.
I use this streamer for just about any fish I’m on the prowl for, but Bob Clouser designed it for use on the Susquehanna, and for the smallmouth bass. It is utilitarian, easy to tie, and deadly effective.
The dumbbell eyes combined with bucktail create a unique swimming and jigging action that drives fish nuts. There have been many days when a Clouser Minnow saved me from the skunk, and it is more than deserving of a mention as one of the top smallmouth flies in existence.
Do not be afraid to tie this fly sparse. Mr. Clouser has often said that if people saw how sparsely he really tied them, they probably wouldn’t sell as well. The color and flash combinations possible on this simple, intuitive fly are nearly endless. I even know some saltwater anglers that tie them only with flash, sans bucktail.
How To Fish The Clouser Minnow
They can be worked like a normal weighted streamer, or jigged slowly across deep holes. They’re easy to make weedless and easy to use. There is no excuse not to have some of these on hand, especially when you’re after smallmouth bass.
I included a video of this fly being tied by the man himself, and it is the exact video that I used to tie my own. I cannot say enough about how effective this pattern is.
Tying the Clouser Minnow with Bob Clouser
2. Smallmouth Bass Predator X
Here’s a streamer that was designed for smallmouth, but can be sized up or down to tantalize big browns or even musky and pike.
The Predator X is a flashy fly that moves a lot of water on the retrieve and possesses a ton of movement in the water. Here again, a sink-tip line would pair well with this fly. Smallmouth are territorial and swinging bigger streamers like this can result in powerful and sudden strikes out of the blue. Streamer takes like that are what smallmouth fishing is all about, and this fly gets the goods, especially when you’re covering bigger water.
This video tutorial below is a bit longer than the others included in this piece, but that’s for good reason. The techniques needed to spin up this fly will give you a good foundation to be able to make other, more complicated streamers with large, predatory fish in mind. This is one of those flies that works well on all bass, not just smallmouth. I’ve caught quite a few chain pickerel while using flies like this too, so be prepared for carnivorous fish to give this fly the eye, regardless of what you’re fishing for.
Like other big streamers, use this fly to cover a lot of water fast. It works well stripped quickly and flexed often to imitate a panicked baitfish.
Smallmouth Bass Predator X Fly Tying Tutorial | The Fly Fiend
3. The Chubby Chernobyl
This fly is super popular right now, and oftentimes when I visit a new fly shop, the Chubby Chernobyl slot is empty. This bug imitates a ton of different terrestrials and bigger flies, and it works great when used with a beadhead nymph secured by a length of tippet to the hook bend. This dry-dropper tactic has caught me quite a few smallies because nymphs are natural forage and smallmouth will not pass up an easy meal.
This fly works equally well when ‘skated’ or pulled quickly around the surface, creating a small wake and giving action to those rubber legs.
The video for this one below has some great methods for cutting foam, tying with it, and just using it in general, so it’s worth a watch even if you don’t plan on tying some.
Foam is a great material, especially for bass flies because it floats high on the water and won’t sink.
Smallmouth are notorious for being able to chomp big bugs off the surface (much like trout!), and these flies can get those types of strikes often. The foam and dubbing body is durable, and that means that these flies can also take a load of abuse from bass before they start to degrade.
This is a must-have fly for smallmouth, regardless of how you fish it.
The Chubby Chernobyl Fly Pattern Tutorial
4. The Morrish Mouse Pattern
Mouse flies are just cool. I have some in my collection that will never see the water because I like them that much. That being said, this pattern is straightforward and the fly gets results.
I first started experimenting with mouse flies in an attempt to target brown trout that were on the move at night, but I have yet to catch one that way. My personal failures aside, this pattern is all bass, but particularly smallmouth, love to chase down and blow up on.
When the smallies become super active in the Susquehanna by late Summer, they just can’t seem to stay off of the Morrish Mouse.
How to Fish A Mouse Pattern For Bass
This fly is fun because of how you fish it. Trying to imbue it with a lifelike swimming action will take practice, but once you have it down it’s hard to switch it out for a different fly. Deer hair and foam combine to create a fly that won’t sink, while also creating enough of a disturbance on top of the water to gain the attention of smallies and largemouth bass. I fish it in many of the same places I fish a frog, as well as casting it directly to the bank and then stripping it into the water slowly. Whether you tie these big or small, they’re super fun.
Fly Tying Tutorial: Learn to tame the hair on a Morrish MOUSE
Reeling it in
Bass are impressive, powerful creatures that require slightly heavier gear and different flies than trout do. Even with my particular preoccupation with trout, I would probably lose interest in fishing if they were the only species I targeted.
Learning different techniques and different methods to catch different fish is what it’s all about to me. If you’ve never gone on the hunt for bucketmouths or their small-jaw cousins, consider it in the summer when trout fishing can arguably be at its worst.
I hope this bass bug expose has given you some ideas on what to fill that empty streamer box you have laying around with, and I hope you’ll make time this summer to check out the Susquehanna and chuck some fluff in warmer waters for a different type of fish. If so, I just might see you out there. Tight lines!