John Merwin’s Top Fly Patterns for Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass
Our fishing expert picks the best bass bugs, and explains how to use them.
Compared with the drabness of many trout patterns, flies for bass are a carnival freak show come to life. Garish colors and outlandish names, such as Meat Whistle and Chubby Gummy, highlight the bass fishing midway these days, where high-tech glitter promises plenty of low-tech fun.
The essence of flyfishing for bass is a kind of laid-back antidote to trout fishing’s match-the-hatch intensity. Bass bugs are fanciful rather than factual, full of wanton wiggles as they pop, slide, or slither among the lily pads of summer. New materials and tying techniques are making bass flies more diverse and more effective than ever. Here’s a close look at some of the best.
Poppers and sliders are both essential patterns for topwater fishing. The styles are classic, but modern bodies of painted, dense foam float better and last longer than the cork versions. Soft silicone-rubber legs, meanwhile, add lifelike movement that drives bass nuts. Cup-faced poppers like Umpqua’s Bass Popper (umpqua.com) make lots of surface noise when twitched, thereby stirring up lethargic fish. As much fun as poppers are to fish, I often use a subtler floating slider, such as the Shenandoah Sunfish Slider. Sliders make a slow and quiet surface wake when stripped with intermittent pauses. Perhaps imitating a wounded bluegill, sliders are the answer for pressured bass in clear water.
Newer developments in trout flies also have some application in bass fishing, notably various popular and large foam-bodied dries. Patterns like the Flush Floater Stone work as well for smallmouth bass as for trout–or even better.
Not all modern bass bugs are high floating. The Polk’s Dirty Rat (orvis.com) swims with only its nose above water when retrieved–just like a mouse. Then there’s the Chubby Gummy Minnow, a fly caster’s version of the soft-plastic jerkbaits used by conventional bass anglers. Its soft, reflective body is a great imitation of the threadfin shad that are common forage in many lakes.
Fly anglers are now imitating other bass lures, and the results can be terrific. The Gulley Ultra Craw from Orvis and Umpqua’s Meat Whistle are similar to skirted bass jigs but with a key difference: They have even more fish-appealing wiggle thanks to the combination of flexible furs and feathers and comparatively little weight. They’re heavy enough to sink but not so much that they rocket to the bottom. Because bass often hit while the fly is sinking, a slow drop can be a good thing.
There are equivalents for soft-plastic worms, too. Umpqua’s Hare Jig is based on a long, flexible strip of wiggly rabbit fur. That soft fur has more bass-tempting wiggle in the water than even the softest of plastics. The fly also has a lightly weighted head to give a jiglike action when retrieved.
Rabbit-fur flies do raise one critical point: Fur soaks up lots of water, and the weight becomes very difficult to cast with lighter gear. Although smaller, lighter bugs can easily be cast with trout tackle, bigger flies require a heavier line and rod. Eight- to 10-weight rods are not too big for larger bugs, and they’re best coupled with a bass-taper fly line. Such heavy rods may sound intimidating, but the latest graphite models like the Bass series from Sage (sageflyfish.com) feel quite light and do a superlative job of casting big bugs around cover 40 to 50 feet away.
This is not dainty stuff. When a 6-pound bass smashes your bug, those same heavier rods have enough power to keep the fish from diving back into cover. So not only will you have the fun of awesome surface strikes–you might even land the fish, too.