If you're looking for a new challenge, try bass fishing on the fly.
If you’re looking for a new challenge, try bass fishing on the fly.
You’ll find bass in each of the Lower 48 states. They’re arguably the most popular sport fish in the country, and you generally don’t need thousands of dollars of tackle to catch a trophy.
I’ve lived my entire life in the Rockies, though, and one thing the Rocky Mountains are short on is bass. Or perhaps more accurately, the trout fishing is so great here that bass are often a second choice for most anglers. I’m not esteeming trout over bass or vice versa. It’s just a fact that bass fishing is viewed differently in this neck of the woods. For a guy who grew up on high-country trout fishing, bass almost feel exotic.
I’ve always wanted to get into bass fishing. Last year, while visiting my parents in St. George, Utah, I grabbed some jig heads, Dirty Sanchez grubs and the old Ugly Stik I grew up fishing with. A half-hour later, I reeled in an 18-inch largemouth from Sand Hollow Reservoir.
It was fun, but the reason I fly fish is largely because I enjoy catching fish on a fly rod more than a spinning or baitcasting outfit. Are there situations when conventional gear has a clear advantage over fly gear? You bet. Fly rods weren’t exactly built for use in a downrigger while trolling for salmon (don’t try that one at home). So the hurdle has always been – for me and a lot of other fly anglers here in the Rockies – I think, that bass on the fly is a challenge. If you’ve never fished for anything other than trout and haven’t picked up a spinning rod in years, then catching bass on the fly presents a steep learning curve.
Over the past few years, I’ve slowly expanded my middling angling knowledge to include bass fishing. Around May 2018, I made my first-ever bass-only trip. My buddy Preston invited me to Lake Powell, and I’m never one to turn down a few days jetting around on a boat.
Preston caught way more fish than I did. He also threw a spinning rig 90 percent of the time. Granted, he’s fished Powell his entire life, and I didn’t expect to out fish anyone. What I learned on the trip, though, is that bass on the fly isn’t as hard as you think.
And once you figure it out, they’re a helluva blast on a fly rod.
Writer Spencer Durrant (above) snagged this bass on the fly at Lake Powell in May 2018. Photo Credit: Preston Fitts.
The first step in tackling new species is . . . well, tackle. You need different gear to chase tarpon than trout. The same thing goes for bass, though the gap isn’t nearly as big.
I brought my Winston Nexus 9’ 7wt, Echo ION-XL 10’ 6wt, and Winston Boron IIIx 9’ 5wt to Powell with me, paired with an Abel TR-2 and a Hardy Ultralite ASR 7000. I had a few different weights of Orvis Bank Shot and Power Taper lines, as well.
The 5-weight became the rod of choice, with the Abel TR-2 reel and Airflo Forge WF5F line to match. I tied a level leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon, and the smallmouth gave me a good run for my money.
I wouldn’t recommend chasing all bass with a 5-weight, though. While we were at Powell, the smallmouth moved off the rock piles and into the shallows and flats. I got away throwing two lighter streamers – about 20 inches apart – on a floating line because I didn’t need to go deep.
On the occasions I went deep, the 6 and 7-weight rods proved more useful than they’ve ever been. The bottom line here is your regular bass setup should be “beefier” than a standard trout rig. A 6-weight with a good disc-drag reel and a half-weight, heavy, aggressively tapered line should do the trick for most situations.
Oh, and don’t forget the sinking line. You can buy some really great fly lines with the sink tip integrated, but I prefer to buy a Type 3 or 4 sinking line (the cheapest stuff I can find) and nail knot it to my floating line. This makes switching rigs easier.
Bass are arguably the most popular sport fish in the country, and you generally don’t need thousands of dollars of tackle to catch a trophy.
The best advice I can give on rigging is this: If you’re with anglers fishing conventional gear, find a way to match their presentation. Fishing, with flies, lures, or even bait, is all about presentation. If your buddies are pulling in bass with deep-diving lures, mimic that with your fly rod.
That being said, the following rigs produced the most fish for me at Powell, including one nice largemouth:
Level leader, floating line, Size 4 Clouser minnows: This got it done for smallmouth on the flats. I fished a 12- to 15-foot level leader, tied from 10-pound fluorocarbon, off some WF5F line. I fished a tandem streamer rig, with a white Size 2 Clouser up front, and a brown Size 4 about 20 inches behind it.
Level leader, reverse dropshot rig, sink-tip line, big flies: Let me clarify what a reverse dropshot rig looks like. Instead of the normal rig with the weight at the end of the leader and a tag for flies two or so feet above the weight, I swapped things around. My streamer was on the end, with weight in the middle. This made the streamer pop more like a jig – and it worked for some largemouth.
Level leader, dropshot rig, sink-tip line, big flies: Nearly the same thing as the other rig, but with the dropshot weight in the usual spot.
The hardest part of catching bass on the fly is feeling the subtle bumps and takes. Smallmouth almost always demolish a streamer, but largemouth are much more subtle. Learning to feel a fish on the end of your rig and watching the movement of line in the water pays off big time. That’s why I’d suggest a 6-weight rod with a sensitive, soft-tip section.
And don’t make the rookie mistake I did. When something bites your fly, strip set. A trout set yanks the fly from a bass’s mouth, and if you’re really unlucky it’ll fly back and smack you in the face.
Strip-setting is easy. You just pull the line tight – like you’re stripping in a streamer – and pull horizontally with your rod. That keeps the streamer in the fish’s mouth and ensures a solid hookset. Just make sure to tape up the fingers on your casting hand. Fly line burns like hell when it’s pulled too fast over bare skin.
Bass on the fly is a blast. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to figure it out. I’m lucky to have had a great teacher for my first bass-only trip. More than anything, that’s my best advice. Go with someone who knows what they’re doing – a guide is a great investment at this point – and you’ll come away having skipped some of the more frustrating parts of the learning curve.