IntroductionOur intention is to help the new fly fisher get acquainted with fly fishing for bass and elaborate on material for the experienced angler as well. If you have read our past resource on bass species you will know there are roughly 9 species of bass—the most common being the smallmouth and largemouth bass. These two will serve as the foundation for our article. In this article we will cover:
- Why fly fish for bass?
- Habitats and environments
- Bass senses
- Spawning habits
- Bass Seasons
- Best time of day and conditions to catch bass
- What do bass eat?
- Best bass flies
- Bass fly fishing gear
Why Fly Fish For Bass?We all know trout reign supreme when it comes to fly fishing, but bass fishing with a fly rod is starting to gain popularity and authority among fly fishers. Bass are the most sought after game fish in North America, and can be found virtually anywhere from rural streams to urban ponds. Bass are revered for their hard-hitting strikes and fighting ability, making them even more fun to catch on the fly.
Habitat and EnvironmentSmallmouth and largemouth differ slightly in their habitats and environmental preferences; thus changing areas where fly fishers look. Both smallmouths and largemouths can be found in the same waterways, but certain conditions may be better for one or the other.
Habitats, Fly Fishing for Smallmouth BassSmallmouth bass prefer colder water and less pollution. One thing that is important when fly fishing for smallies, is finding adequate cover. When searching for smallmouths in lakes pay attention to weed bed, drop offs, large boulders, submerged logs, and other underwater structure. Smallmouths also thrive in rivers and will tolerate faster currents than largemouths. This proclivity makes them easy to find, and will be in similar areas as trout. Focus attention on undercut banks, eddies, in front and behind boulders, and along seams and foam lines. Smallmouths need higher levels of dissolved oxygen than largemouths, which is often why they are in deeper water, colder water, and fast moving waters (all generally have more oxygen). Their ideal temperatures are between 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike trout, temperatures don’t play as big a role in their activity.
Habitats, Fly Fishing for Largemouth BassThe ideal largemouth bass habitats consist of warm water, lots of cover, and shallow or slower waters. These robust fish can tolerate more polluted and murky water than smallmouths, and some of the waters are pretty surprising. Similar to smallmouth and all bass in general. You will want to focus your attention on cover. This could be weed beds, fallen trees, overhanging branches, and other rocky structures. They will generally stay close to shore making them easy to find when casting from a bank. One reason they tend to stay closer to shore is they require less dissolved oxygen than smallmouth and shallow, warmer waters do not produce the abundant amount of oxygen as deep cold water. When fly fishing for largemouths in rivers these same habitat principles apply. In addition, when fishing rivers pay attention to the current of the waters. These lazy predators like slow gentle currents. Within booth rivers and lakes, largemouths prefer water temperatures between 70 – 85 degrees, but can tolerate waters up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit!
Bass BehaviorUnderstanding bass behaviors is crucial when fly fishing and the more knowledge one has the better angler they will become. First off, bass are predatory and opportunistic in their feeding habits. These behaviors make them less peculiar in what they eat, and makes things easier for the angler who doesn’t need to match the hatch necessarily. However, common sense applies, I.e. A bass isn’t going to eat a grasshopper in the winter or spring time, and it’s probably not best to be using a frog in months of hibernation. Furthermore, bass are smart and will prefer to expend less energy for a meal if they can. With that being said, they are instinctively more likely to strike a wounded prey. Using different retrieves can help mimic injured prey along with fly patterns. They will also prefer smaller meal because those are naturally easier to catch. Therefore, if you’re not getting much action with a particular fly, try downsizing instead of upsizing. Sometimes that smaller fly will be enough to peak the bass’ interest. Bass are known to be migratory based on the season and when they are spawning. But new studies seem to believe that bass have specific migratory patterns each day. They may follow paths or routes up to 3 times a day; similar to deer trails. In addition, bass are schooling fish, and will be found with others of their similar size. Usually bass will travel with 3-10 others. Large bass are seldom in schools, preferring solitude.
Bass SensesBass have some very keen senses primarily their sense of sight, taste, and movement. A bass’ sight is probably the most developed and useful sense when hunting, as it allows them to see fairly well even in murky water. Using flies with bright colors, especially red, can help grab their attention. However with this improved sight they don’t tend to be leader shy. They sense movement through their lateral line, probably the most used sense when feeding. The lateral line allows them to sense the slightest vibrations in the water and can spark curiosity, drawing them closer. Using flies with a lot of movement is advantageous when searching for bass. Lastly, their sense of taste is very important. It is said that bass have excellent taste and can even taste prey before they have it in their mouths. Whether or not this is true, it is safe to make sure your hands or free of any foreign smells when tying on your flies. Based on these senses and to put them in practical terms, using a brightly-colored, vibrating, and odorless fly will be the main factors to consider when choosing your flies.
Spawning HabitsBass spawning season is broken down into 3 categories
- Post spawn
- Angling For Nesting Largemouth Bass Can Have Negative Effects on Spawning Success
- 5 Pre-spawn Bass Fishing Tips
Bass SeasonsDepending on where you live the seasons will offer different fishing experiences and require different tactics. Here is a general overview of bass fishing by seasons.
SpringSpring can be an exciting and fruitful time to fish. They are eager to eat and take in calories after the winter. They are not as picky during this time, but tend to focus on smaller hold over fish and crayfish. Crayfish patterns are probably the most effective during the spring. Once spawning occurs females will retreat to slightly deeper waters, leaving the males to tend the small fry on their own. Males will attack virtually anything but imitating predators of the fry such as small bait fish will be the most useful. Females are tired from spawning but very hungry. Using smaller patterns and slow retrieves will be helpful. About 2 weeks after bass spawn Shad, a popular food source of bass will spawn, causing a feeding frenzy. Look for disturbances in shallow water, indicating shad are being chased. There are a number of different fly patterns that match shad; such as grey and white deceivers or clouser minnows. Following the shad spawn, bluegills and other sunfish spawn creating more easy targets for bass. Use similar patterns for shad but introduce more vibrant colors to imitate these other fish species.
SummerAs the water warms and summer begins, food sources are prevalent and there isn’t anyone on specific food sources. Anything from smaller baitfish, crayfish and insects can be deadly for bass. Especially smallmouths will rise to the surface for a hopper or damselfly pattern. Summer also means exciting topwater fishing action to imitate frogs and mice. In rivers using simple bead head nymphs will also take bass. Smallies tend to retreat to deeper waters on really bright hot days. Putting on a sink tip line or sinking leader can be necessary to get your fly deep enough. On the other hand, the warm-water-loving largemouths will remain tucked up in shallow weed beds and underwater debris.
FallOnce September hits and water temperatures begin to cool lake and river vegetation starts to die off creating more open pockets of water. Surface insects are abundant—using crickets, ants, grasshoppers, and beetle imitations will lure bass to the surface. Early fall generally offers better fishing in the mornings before petering out later in the day. Later in the fall, Shads become the primary food source again. Most of the insects have died off, and receding vegetation causes small baitfish to lose their hiding spots. Shads migrate into shallow water following their main food source, plankton. Many of the shads and other bait fish will die off once the temps drop below 40 degrees and dying shads make great meals for bass later in the fall. Use patterns with some red and slow disjointed retrieves to mimic these dying fish. Crayfish are still abundant and besides shad make up a majority of their diet before winter hits.
WinterDepending on where you live bass fishing tends to slow down. In the northern states most of the lakes and rivers freeze over making angling impossible on a fly rig. In warmer states fishing will depend on what the water temperatures stay at. Most places will result in a decline of vegetation and other bait fish minimizing the amount of food. In addition, the cooler water temps slow the bass’ metabolism, causing less need to eat and slower movements overall. Crayfish are still plentiful during winter.
Best Time of Day and Conditions To Catch BassTiming can be key when fishing for bass. Different times, seasons, and weather conditions can affect fishing. It’s possible to catch bass at any time during the day. Although, for summer fishing it’s argued that dawn and dusk yield the best bass fishing. During bright and hot summer days smallmouths retreat to deeper water, but they can still be caught; it just might require heavier streamers or sink-tip lines. Largemouths are not as peculiar when it comes to warm bright days, and will remain shallow ready to take surface flies. In the cooler months of spring and fall, mid-day fishing is a little better, as it gives time for the water to warm up and in turn, the fish start moving more. Like most fishing, overcast and rainy weather often produces more bass action. Windy conditions can also be productive as the water surface becomes more broken up with waves.
What Do Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass Eat?One of the most important questions to ask when learning how to fly fish for bass. Bass are predatory fish and will eat a variety of creatures. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass eat similar foods, with smallies being more prone to eating insects. Another consideration, due to size, largemouths can handle bigger prey.
Some favorite foods for bass include
- small baitfish
Best Fly Fishing Flies for BassMost bass flies will be either streamer flies or topwater flies. Bass will also take small nymphs in rivers and creeks, along with some surface insects such as mayflies, caddisflies, dragonflies/damselflies, and terrestrials. For topwater flies there are 3 main varieties that bass cannot resist which are
- Poppers – Fly fishing poppers for bass can be incredibly effective. Poppers are a type of fly used to imitate surface creatures, primarily frogs and mice. Poppers can be made from foam, cork, hair, and wood.
These flies have a flat or slightly concave front that when stripped make a distinct “popping” sound that can be heard by nearby bass.
Poppers are best used in shallow waters especially among weeds and other structures. Some popular poppers are Boogle bugs, double barrel popper, and the peeper popper. Deer Hair Frog Popper
- Divers – Another topwater fly popular for bass are called divers. They are similar to poppers but their bullet shaped design allows them to dive under water before returning to the surface when stripped.
These movements look virtually identical to a frog diving underwater. Dahlberg Divers are the most well-known pattern and can entice ferocious strikes from big bass. Dahlberg Diver
- Sliders – A hybrid between poppers and divers. Due to their cone shaped design, sliders submerge underwater when stripped, but not as extreme as a diver fly. One popular slider pattern is the Sneaky Pete, which represents frogs, and small baitfish. Sneaky Pete
- Deer Hair Mouse – This is one of the better known mouse patterns. The deer hair is helpful as it creates more noise and water movements, indicative of a struggling mouse. Cast this fly near banks with overhung trees near dusk or dawn. Deer Hair Mouse
- Crayfish – As mentioned above bass love crayfish, and many times crayfish make up the majority of their diet. When fishing for bass and not sure what to tie on, start with a crayfish pattern. There are hundreds of crayfish patterns, and can be found in numerous styles, colors, and materials.
Some of our recommended patterns include: the skulldaddy crayfish, clouser crayfish, the near Nuff crayfish, and soft shell crayfish. Assorted Crayfish Flies
- Game Changer – This is a type of articulated streamer with usually 3 segmented parts. Because of this design it creates “S” curve movements identical to small baitfish. The extra movements also push more water, signaling to bass that there is prey nearby. They can be tied in many different colors and sizes depending on the fish you’re wanting to imitate. Game Changer Fly
- Wooly Bugger – an instant classic, this fly works wonders for trout, panfish and bass. It is very versatile and will mimic a leech, small minnow, and even crayfish. This fly is easy to tie and can be fished a variety of ways. Wooly Buggers
- Bunny Leech – The bunny leech is another tried and true fly that is also easy to tie. It can be made in a variety of colors but most traditionally black. They are a go-to summer fly, and the rabbit fur makes for realistic movements of a leech that bass can’t resist. Bunny Leech
- Clouser minnow – This simple yet effective streamer can be made with a few materials and can depict a number of different minnow species. Assorted Clouser Minnows
- Hoppers – Grasshoppers appear in late summer lasting around till fall. These insects are notorious for their poor flying ability and often end up in rivers, lakes, and ponds where they are easy meals for bass.
There are a variety of hopper patterns made from different materials. Assorted Hopper Flies
- Dragonflies/damselflies – For bass, dragonflies and damselflies can mean a big meal. These bugs are known for being expert flyers but will occasionally fall into the water where a hungry bass can pick them off. There are several different types of dragonfly patterns. Assorted Dragonfly/damselfies
- For more information on streamers and streamer fishing check out our article on streamer fishing for beginners.
- If you want to get into tying your own flies, visit our resource on getting started with fly tying.