Catching bass on the surface by fly fishing involves two strategies. One involves imitating insects such as damselflies, mayflies, and caddis flies. The other revolves around hard-head bugs, such as poppers, similar flies, and hair bugs. These imitate food such as frogs and mice.
While not disputing the importance of subsurface flies for bass, especially crayfish and minnow patterns, there are times when topwater strategies are most effective. Having them in your repertoire, with the gear necessary to use them, will mean more bass and more excitement. Especially excitement, because a bass taking a fly on the surface is an adrenaline-pumping thrill not easily forgotten.
Often, when using insect imitations for stream bass, you will be fishing much like you would for trout. Simply match the insect bass are feeding on and work your fly dead-drift to rising fish. However, with bass it seems you will encounter, more frequently than with trout, stream situations that require you to impart movement to your fly. In these cases, you need a fly that floats well and high and that you can skate or dance across the surface.
These flies need to be durable, too. In the right conditions, bass are going to take them with gusto.
Flies such as bivisibles and elk-hair caddis and mayfly imitations such as comparaduns fit this bill and are impressionistic enough that they can imitate a wide variety of insects.
If an upstream presentation fished dead-drift isn’t working, try casting down and across and, keeping your rod tip high, hop or erratically skate your fly across the surface as the fly also swings in the current. Coating your fly and leader with dry-fly floatant will also help with this technique.
In addition, remember that long casts are not necessarily required. Shorter casts will give you greater line and fly control, as you impart motion to your fly.
In still water, casting to the spot where a bass just rose often produces a strike. Having just sucked in an insect, a bass doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. It can be persuaded frequently to take a crack at an artificial if it appears quickly following its take of a natural. Be prepared for an immediate strike, but if it doesn’t come after 15 seconds or so, with your rod held high, twitch your fly. Just like on a stream, bass in still water sometimes like to see a little movement before they will take an insect imitation.
If bass are only rising sporadically in still water, while waiting to target the next rise with your cast, try working the edge of weedlines, pockets within weed patches, or other cover or structure. Don’t worry about making a delicate presentation. Bass seem to like one filled with a little attention-getting commotion.
The “shad fly” or hexagenia hatch on lakes that have them can be one of the best times to fish a realistic imitation on the surface for bass.
Hard-head and hair bugs
Some call them lures designed to be cast with a fly rod. Some call them flies because they can be cast with a fly rod. Regardless, hard-head bugs include an ever-growing array of popper-type flies made from cork or foam.
Popper variations generally involve changing the shape of the face of the lure. We still have the traditional cupped-faced popper, but now we have poppers with flat faces, various angled faces (skipping bugs and darters), bullet, and pointed faces (sliders).
All these different types give each style of popper a different action. The cupped-, flat-, and angled faces are designed for a noisy presentation, with a bit of action imparted to the fly. The pointed face is designed for a quieter presentation. The bullet face is in the middle.
Hair bugs for bass, on the other hand, are most frequently made from the hollow body hair of deer, which makes the bug float better than if it was tied with the denser hair of the tail of a deer. Although they don’t necessarily float as well as cork or foam poppers, hair bugs nevertheless have their champions who argue that the softness of these bugs gives them a more lifelike feel in a bass’ mouth. As a result, bass will be more inclined to hang onto them, giving you a bit of extra time to set the hook.
When fishing hard-head and hair bugs in still water, there are a few techniques to keep in mind. First, remember that you can be too noisy in presenting your fly. Particularly in shallow water, a popper that’s immediately popped too aggressively will spook more bass than it attracts.
Instead, use a more subtle approach by first letting the popper sit where it lands. Then, give it a twitch or two. Next, work it with a gentle sliding action over deeper water. Then, give it a pop or two in combination with twitches and pauses. This often finally triggers a strike.
Secondly, try to keep your rod low and use your retrieving hand to give movement to your fly. You will be able to achieve a better hook-set with your rod near horizontal. However, subtle twitches can and should still be imparted with your rod tip.
Angling for river bass is usually for smallmouths, which prefer cooler temperatures and current. Your trout-fishing outfit will probably handle them. An 8- to 9-foot rod in 4- to 6-weight, coupled with a singleaction reel, a matching double-taper or weight-forward line, and an 8- to 12-foot leader with a 4- to 8-pound tippet will cover most river situations when fishing insect imitations or small popper bugs.
If you’re going to chuck larger hardhead or hair bugs over weeds and into a wind for cruising largemouths, then you will need to beef up your tackle. An 8- to 9-foot rod is standard fare, but you can use a shorter rod for leverage or a longer rod to try working your way above structure. You can get by with a 6-weight, but stepping up to a 7- or preferably an 8-weight will give you the performance you need. If you also plan on targeting pike or muskie, a 9-weight can perform double duty for them and bass. Some manufacturers now market bass-specific fly rods.
Again, a single-action reel will cover your largemouth needs. The recent trend is towards large-arbor reels. A weight-forward line is a popular choice, but if you’re serious about casting big bugs, look for a bass-specific line designed for windresistant flies. A short 6- to 8-foot leader with an 8- to 16-pound tippet is all you need to finish off your kit for topwater supremacy.