Long shadows stretched across the rain-swollen river as the towering ridge above
glowed in fading golden light. A thumping strike bounced the five-weight’s tip before
arching the rod as the fifteen-inch smallmouth bore into the murky current. Three
memorable leaps and a strong run later a hellgrammite imitation was extracted from its
jaw and in a defiant flash of bronze returned to its rocky home downstream from the
Spring showers raise the water level causing it to turn cloudy, but smallmouth bass
are on the move. The warm influx of water stirs their instinct to prepare for the spawn, and their first stop will be protective current breaks within and immediately downstream from a riffle at the head of a pool. The bass will feed opportunistically on whatever morsels the river provides but in pale evening light the swift water of the riffle offers a dietary staple, hellgrammites. This larval stage of the Dobson Fly, especially the Eastern species (Corydalis cornuta) are mean looking critters with heavy mandibles capable of pinching an angler’s finger. They have a testy disposition to match which causes them to use those powerful pincers at the slightest provocation. West coast members of the Corydalis family lack the enlarged mandibles.
Hellgrammites, known to some as “toe biters,” are most commonly found among
the large gravel and chunk rock in swifter sections of streams where they take refuge
from the sunlight. There, although omnivorous, they mainly feed on other nymphs
including mayflies, caddis flies, and stone flies. They are most active at dusk and on into
the night, a fact which must not be over-looked when fishing hellgrammite patterns.
Their three-year life cycle enables growth to four inches in waters containing an
abundance of nymphs and larva on which to feed. In healthy streams, there is a wide
range of sizes of this mean-spirited, ugly bug from tiny wigglers to gigantic old timers.
Those most available to the smallmouth population are between one and a half and three
inches in length and imitations should replicate that range of sizes.
Even knowledgeable anglers often fail to recognize the importance of
hellgrammites because they seldom see adult Dobson Flies along the stream and their
rock turning forays fail to uncover true representations of the numbers that are available.
This may be because the fastest section of the river is the hardest place to obtain samples.
We shouldn’t assume their numbers are low and fail to imitate these brownish-black
nymphs so highly prized by the smallmouth bass population.
Fly fishing catalogs display an array of hellgrammite patterns, but few capture the
flattened body, a realistic simulation of the menacing mandibles or the flexible body of
the live version. Recently deceased fly tying icon George Grant, 1973 Buz Buszek Award
recipient, used aluminum finish nails on either side of the hook shank to create a flat
foundation for his weighted nymphs. Substituting 50-pound test monofilament for
Grant’s nails and borrowing the mandible material choice of another great fly tier, the
late Michael Verduin, and in providing a jointed body for maximum action, we’ve
fashioned our own hellgrammite imitation that we call “Wilson’s Jointed Hellgrammite.”
The jointed body is activated by the current, and any rod manipulation mimics attempts
by the natural to escape. The pattern has consistently given us good evening smallmouth
action. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s the recipe and tying instructions:
Abdomen and Tail Hook
Hook: Mustad 3366, size 4
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail: Black saddle hackle, size 12. Tie in the hackle at the hook bend and make 3 to 4
wraps. Pull them toward the rear and wrap thread at the base to slant the hackle back.
Body: 50-pound monofilament tied at both sides of the hook shank to make a flattened
body. Soak in head cement. Tie in fine black wire to provide segmentation and dub the
abdomen with Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite. Wrap to the hook eye, spiral the
wire forward and whip finish. Remove hook from the vise and, using wire cutters, clip the
hook at the hook bend behind the tail.
Thorax and Head Hook
Hook: Mustad 3366, size 4
Weed Guard: 16-lb Mason hard mono. Secure to the hook shank and leave to trail behind
the end of the hook bend.
Connecting Loop: 10-lb Mason hard mono. Secure along the hook shank and through the
eye of the completed abdomen and tail hook. Provide enough loop to allow freedom of
movement and secure the unattached end of the mono to the thorax/head hook shank.
Thorax: Secure two strips of 50-lb mono to either side of the hook shank and soak all the
monofilament attachments with head cement. Tie in fine black wire and tie in hen hackle
(black). Dub to the position of the head (approximately ¾ of the hook shank) with
Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite.
Legs: Wrap the black hen hackle to the head position then wrap the black wire forward so
as to secure both the dubbing and the hackle. Be careful not to trap the legs under the
Eyes: Extra small barbell eyes (black).
Head: Whitlock’s SLF dubbing, hellgrammite
Weedguard: Bring the weedguard mono forward and secure under the eye. Clip the mono
and adjust the weedguard position. Burn the mono end to prevent slippage.
Mandibles: Black rubber 3/8-inch O-ring. Cut 1/4 of the ring away. Cut at a 45-degree
angle to represent the sharp mandible points. The overall length of the fly should
be 1 ¾ to 2 inches from the end of the tail to the tip of the mandibles.
Your own choice of rods for stream smallmouths will deliver the fly effectively,
but we prefer a 9-foot 5- or 6-weight. The rod length will allow for “high sticking” where
that’s perceived to be an efficient presentation. The rod weights also accommodate the
sinking line we sometimes prefer because they enable the fly to be retrieved parallel to
the bottom as opposed to being stripped toward the surface. Fished on floating line with
at least a nine-foot leader facilitates the high-sticking presentation, whereas leaders on
sinking line should be short (3 ½ to 6 feet) to prevent the fly from bowing toward the
surface, thereby negating the purpose of the sinking line. The leader is best when tapered
to aid in turning over the fly, but under swift water conditions, tippet size isn’t a big issue.
Ours tend toward 3X to 4X, but slightly heavier tippets won’t cause rejection.
Presentation depends, to a large extent, upon current speed. If the riffle being
fished is slow enough to allow slack line recovery casting up and across insures the
longest drag-free drift. Intermittent action can be imparted even with sinking line by
lifting then dropping the rod tip and stripping only to remove slack. This lift, drop, strip
retrieve is equally valuable in swift currents which require a down and across cast as it
can be employed either at intervals or the end of the dead drift. Especially if casting
downstream it is advantageous to find positions from which to cast that involve as little
wading as possible. Any silt, sand, or gravel that is dislodged will be washed downstream
through potentially productive water. If a dead drift is preferred, a reach cast, that is to
say pointing the rod tip upstream as the fly is landing, will extend the length of the drift.
High-sticking can be very successful and involves landing the fly close enough to
the caster’s position to allow the angler to hold the line off the water by utilizing the rod’s
length then follow the drift causing direct line contact with the fly. The result is a drag-free
drift that enables targeting very specific seams in the current or specific current
breaks. The tactic also transmits fish contact immediately to the angler, thus reducing
missed strikes. Long leaders are necessary for high-sticking, and sometimes it’s helpful to
extend the length of the leader if the fish holding water is deep.
Another very successful presentation involves pocket water (sections of water that
look bumpy because the submerged rocks reach close to the water’s surface) which is
swift enough to harbor hellgrammites. Casting down and across allows the fly to tumble
among the rocks, then strip to intentionally bring the fly into contact with the rocks. This
creates a clicking sound that causes nearby bass to investigate. This “rock-banging” tactic
is particularly successful when the water is so turbid that smallmouths are having
difficulty locating their meal by sight. Barbell eyes, cone heads or bead heads will do a
good job of clicking against submerged rocks and attracting bass.
Fishing a hellgrammite pattern may well provide great smallmouth fishing, but it’s
important to remember the nature of this ugly bug. It shuns the light, waits until near
darkness to become active, and prefers the fast, well-oxygenated portions of the stream.
Success with hellgrammite imitations is best near dusk in and near riffles at the heads of
pools. Long rods and two spools for the reel, one with floating and the other with sinking
line, will serve every situation. And remember, within weeks of your first spring
smallmouth trip these same bass will be spawning. Return them safely to the water so
they can replenish the river.
Flyfisher. Spring-Summer 2009. Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. Sandpoint, Idaho
One of the questions we are frequently asked about fly fishing for largemouth bass is “How many different presentations do you use and what are they?” Although there are as many variations as there are places to fish, we recommend a fundamental five and provide each the name we use to communicate to each other while fishing: the “do nothing, do just a little bit,” “strip, strip, pause,” “structure-bumping, “yo-yoing, “and “bottom-bouncing.”
The “do nothing, do just a little bit” can be performed with a variety of flies in all sections of the water column from the surface to the bottom. As the name implies, the fly is cast into position and then is allowed to either sit motionlessly or fall freely toward the bottom. Poppers and deer hair bugs that rest motionlessly while the rings from their splashdowns fade away can provide triggering mechanisms for an ambush predator like ol’ bucketmouth.
How long should this waiting period last? Twenty seconds at the minimum, but if you know he’s home, a full minute or more isn’t unreasonable. If the strike still hasn’t occurred, the “do just a little bit” phase of this presentation may provoke the desired attack. Try to impart the slightest twitching action. Often this can be accomplished by wiggling the rod tip. Keeping the rod tip low with all slack removed not only minimizes the movements necessary to impart a tiny amount of action but also makes the hook-set much easier.
To employ the “do nothing, do just a little bit” tactic on a wet fly, cast to likely cover and let the fly drop naturally through the water column. Watch for the slightest twitch or hesitation in the fly line. When this occurs, remove the slack quickly and set the hook. If the fly reaches its destination without being taken and has remained motionless for what often feels like an eternity, impart the slightest crawling-type movement.
“Strip, strip, pause” can be employed in nearly any situation it involves pinning the line to the rod with your rod hand and pulling it through your fingers with your line hand. The strips can be very short (one inch or so) with long pauses, very long (one foot or more) and nearly continuous or in any combination. Choosing the appropriate retrieve speed depends on the attitude of the bass and the imitation that you’ve chosen.
If the fish are very aggressive and in a chasing mood it enables the fly caster to fish faster and therefore covers more water. Usually, this is not the case, and we’d recommend starting slowly and speeding up only when it’s apparent that slow motion is not productive. Fly choice is also a factor. A snake imitation, for example, needs continuous action as it swims across the surface, while a Dahlberg Diver needs pauses to bob seductively back to the top. An erratic “strip, strip, pause” that combines long and short strips effectively imitates injured baitfish.
“Structure-bumping” offers a powerful trigger for disinterested bass. It simply means pulling a fly into the wood, weeds or rocks, then pulling it away. Stout tippets are suggested for this work, as the flies that are heavily weighted near the hook eye. By pulling a Clouser, for example, into a dock piling or into a stump, the fly head collides with the fish holding structure and makes a noise detectable by nearby bass. When it is pulled away from the structure, the predator may believe a stunned or wounded prey is escaping an attack, even though it may not be feeding.
This tactic is also good for fishing a weedline. Allow your heavy fly to tumble down the edge of the weedbed and actually hang up in the weeds. Then rip it free, moving the weeds in the process before allowing it to sink so that the process can be repeated. Again the bass responds as if some hapless prey has invaded his home. Often big largemouths sill move relatively long distances to see what the commotion is all about.
This valuable tactic is not only effective on wet patterns but some floater-divers as well. Once, when we were fishless and unable to put a fishing pattern together, we stumbled across pitching rust-colored, hard-bodied floater-divers next to rip-rap. When we “clinked” them into the rocks and scurried them toward deeper water, they were inhaled lustily.
“Yo-yoing” enables the fly fisher to fish deep submerged structure that has long been the domain of the hardware slingers. Fast sinking line, a short (3 ½ to 4 feet) but strong (16- to 20-pound test) tippet and heavily weighted flies are a must. To perform this operation simply drop your fly vertically into the area to be fished. When the proper depth has been determined (a locator is helpful), stop the descent of your line and fly. Slowly lift your rod tip so that it points overhead, and then lower it to the water surface. Repeat the process slowly. An extra-heavy Calcasieu Pig Boat is a good choice for this work, but bunny leeches and Clousers can be good too. Use “yo-yoing” on lake points, submerged creek channels, against steep bluffs or in flooded timber. This technique is our least favorite to perform because the joy of the cast is lost, but its effectiveness cannot be denied.
“Bottom-bouncing” is usually best accomplished with sink-tip or full-sinking line. Heavily weighted flies are also important. Allow the fly to settle to the bottom before lifting and stripping the fly. This causes it to appear to swim upward from the bottom. The rod tip is then lowered, allowing the fly to make contact with the bottom again. This hopping action gives the bass the impression its sick or injured prey is trying to escape but is instead falling helplessly to the bottom. Silt that is disturbed by contact only enhances the effectiveness of this presentation. The little clouds of mud that result help to convince our quarry that the prey has enough heft to command it attention. It’s important to remember that as the fly is falling, slack is created so again watch the line intently.
Hook-setting on largemouth bass is, in our opinion, a much-misunderstood subject. The commonly held notion that it’s important to “cross their eyes” or “rip their heads off” is hogwash. It’s showboating plain and simple. Over 50 years ago, no less an expert than Jason Lucas (angling editor of Sports Afield wrote, “. . . I advised working the sharp hook in a series of jiggles, rather than trying to set it with one strenuous jerk which would tear it through its hold.” The conventional wisdom is that a bass’s mouth is bony and therefore hard to penetrate. Actually, there’s also a lot of very soft flesh inside a bass’s mouth that provides a large area for the hook to penetrate. Hook-sets are made easier by using sharp hooks with large gaps between the points and shank (we tie a lot of our largemouth flies on TMC 8089). Don’t contribute to the injuries and deaths of bass you intend to release with destructive hook-sets.
One last suggestion. Release all the largemouth bass you catch. It takes a long time to grow a trophy and all fighters deserve the tribute of freedom.
The Flyfisher, Keokee Co, Publishing, Inc., Sand Point, Idaho. Summer 1998.
(Note: Photo for this article will appear at a later date.)
In the middle of the previous century, when a gallon of gasoline sold for 32 cents, hardware stores were our primary sources of fishing tackle. Early spring found the eldest of us with nose firmly pressed against the display case glass fascinated by cards of brightly colored flies. A rummage-sale purchased fiberglass fly rod and several carefully chosen flies were regularly offered to bluegills on nearby waters.
A decade passed before a Field & Stream article announced that those old fly patterns were actually classic wet flies tied especially for trout. Yet another 10 years elapsed before recreating those elegant patterns and once again offering them to bluegills. Initially the old classic patterns were envisioned as a way of connecting with the past masters of fly tying and fly fishing. However, over the years, we’ve continued to fish the classic wet flies for a very different reason. Plain and simple, they really catch bluegills.
While the origins of some individual patterns can be traced through the works of J. Edson Leonard in his classic book titled Flies (1950) and others, the history of wet fly tying and fishing becomes obscure as it easily predates the 17th century’s Izaak Walton.
Early anglers noticed that when their insect-matching dry patterns became waterlogged and sank that they were still taken regularly by the fish. Initially the wet fly was presumed to replicate a drowned surface insect, and at times they are probably taken ¥ such. But upon closer examination it would seem logical that they might also be taken as pupae emerging at the water’s surface, an adult insect submerging to deposit eggs, a small crustacean, a sow bug, a nymph, or perhaps even a tiny minnow hatchling.
By definition a wet fly is any pattern that is fished beneath the surface. Although streamers and nymphs fit that description, they are different and not included in any modern classification of wet flies. Generally “wets” are tied on hooks of standard length as opposed to nymphs and streamers that are tied on a longer hook that is often heavy enough to ensure that the fly sinks. Other wet fly characteristics include sparseness, absorption and profile. Sparsely dressed flies enter the water with little commotion while their hackle, tail and wings move in a natural manner during manipulation or pressure from the current. Materials that absorb water and thereby aid the fly’s sinking ability further enhance its purpose as does a profile that resembles the insect or creature being simulated.
In our book Bluegill Fly Fishing and Flies (1999), we described big bluegills, those exceeding 8 inches, as freshwater’s most selective fish. Anglers who have examined the stomach contents of many fish including trout, bass, crappies and other species, recognize that all frequently swallow an assortment of debris such as pebbles or small pieces of sticks. Bluegills did not. Those who have observed feeding bluegills know that they nearly always hesitate behind their prospective meals to evaluate them before the morsels are eaten. Perhaps the bluegills heightened selectivity is actually a great recommendation for using classic wet flies to catch bluegills, due mainly to the fly’s subtle movements in the water and suggestive shapes.
On one wet fly outing, we were float tubing a small town’s water supply lake when a young mother brought a car full of neighborhood children to the picnic area above our position. We were still experimenting with various patterns when a brutish 9-inch bluegill grabbed a size 10 McGinty and raced for a nearby brush pile. The action brought excitement and a few shouts of joy from our audience at the picnic tables a few yards away. Observing our half submerged position in the water, the young mother grabbed the picnic basket, herded her brood back into the car and drove off in a cloud of dust. Exactly what danger Mom thought we posed is still a mystery to us.
Fishing these colorful patterns can often be as simple as using any of the infinite variations of the strip-and-pause retrieve. Keeping in mind the life-form the chosen fly represents can easily dictate the length of the strip and the length of the pause. If, for example, the fly represents a young minnow the stripping should be frequent and erratic, whereas an insect imitation might only be manipulated to keep it in the fish zone or to activate the materials in the wings and hackle. In the final analysis though, it’s important to experiment with the strip-and-pause retrieve; the fish will definitely indicate what their preference might be.
A second retrieve that has been very effective for us is the Leisenring Lift. It’s easily executed by first allowing the wet fly to settle to the bottom in still water or to cast upstream and allow the fly to acquire depth before “you raise your rod tip with a slow, gradual motion that causes the fly to rise naturally toward the surface.” This quote is according to Vernon S. Hidy in Sports Illustrated Book of Wet-Fly Fishing (1960). In that book, Hidy discusses the techniques of master wet fly angler James Leisenring who was the namesake of the technique he pioneered. The Leisenring Lift causes the wet fly to behave like a nymph rising to the surface to hatch. Of course Leisenring’s intent was that the lift be executed at the end of a dead drift in moving water, but the technique is equally effective in still water for bluegills. Short casts to relatively shallow water with long leaders enable the angler to completely control all aspects of the lift. Wet insect patterns such as Black Gnat, Cowdung and Light Cahill, for example, are best suited to this task.
A third method is an adaptation of an old English trout tactic called “clapping.” With only the leader extending from the rod tip, the angler places the fly gently on the overhanging bank grass and allows it to fall softly into the water and be swept into undercut banks. Our modification involves casting onto emergent vegetation such as coontail or milfoil. Then we gently pull the fly into the water and allow it to sink along the edges of the weeds or into pockets in the weeds before imparting action.
Finally, when fishing from a boat, canoe, kayak or float tube, the angler can utilize the wind to push them in a controlled drift to help locate feeding bluegills. We find a brightly colored attractor pattern such as Yellow Sally, Royal Coachman or Scarlet Ibis is best for this type of “searching presentation.” Recently at the “Smallmouth Rendezvous” held annually in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, we had a conversation with fellow Federation member and talented demonstration fly tier Toby Vaughn of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Our visit centered on our mutual passion for bluegills and our shared love of the classic wet fly patterns. Vaughn tied the flies pictured above.
There are literally hundreds of classic wet flies from which to choose. Good literary sources include the aforementioned “Flies” by Leonard that lists the recipes for virtually all of the classic wets that predate 1950; McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia edited by A. J. McClane contains color photographs and lists the recipe for 48 classic wet flies in the 1965 edition; and Wet Flies: Tying and Fishing Soft Hackles, Winged and Wingless Wets, and Fuzzy Nymphs by Dave Hughes, (1995) is a good source as well .
RECIPES FOR SUCCESS
Here are the recipes for a dozen of our favorite classic wet flies. Each of them is tied similarly to those in the photograph. Our thanks to Toby Vaughn for providing the flies pictured here.
Tail: Strip of red duck quill
Body: Yellow silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel
Hackle: Dark ginger
Wing: Speckled gray mallard flank
Tail: Strip of yellow duck quill
Body: Yellow silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel
Wing: Yellow duck quill
Body: Black chenille
Wing: Gray duck quill
Tail: Strip of red duck quill
Body: Red silk floss ribbed with oval gold tinsel
Wing: Red duck quill
ARKANSAS RED BUTT SOFT HACKLE
Tag: Red thread
Body: Twisted peacock herl
Tag: Flat gold tinsel
Body: Olive wool dubbing
Hackle: Dark ginger
Wing: Gray duck quill
Tail: Red duck quill
Body: Green silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel
Hackle: Light tipped badger
Wing: Speckled gray mallard flank
Tail: Lemon wood duck flank
Body: Cream fox fur dubbing
Hackle: Pale ginger
Wing: Lemon wood duck flank
Tail: Red duck quill
Body: Flat silver tinsel
Wing: Peacock sword herl strands with slip of red duck quill on the sides
Tail: Red hackle fibers mixed with barred teal flank
Body: Alternate banks of black and yellow chenille
Wings: White tipped blue mallard sections
Tail: Golden pheasant tippet
Body: Divided in equal thirds; first third peacock herl, next red floss, followed by peacock herl
Wings: White duck quill
Tail: Golden pheasant tippet
Body: Pink silk floss ribbed with flat gold tinsel
Wing: Gray duck quill
Published in The Flyfisher, Sandpoint, Idaho, Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc., Spring-Summer 2011.
STREAMER TACTICS FOR JUMBO BLUEGILLS
Minus the customary telephone greeting, an excited voice pleaded, “The big bass are suicidal! Get down here right away!” Six hours of post-midnight driving led to expectant casting, but as the sun rose above the trees our enthusiasm evaporated with the morning mist. Downsizing the streamers that had been magical the day before turned around the fishing as monster bluegills, with their twisting, diving tugs, swept away the gloom of failure. We caught easily a hundred apiece, and in the process we were again reminded why we love bluegills: they are just so much fun.
In our first book, Bluegill Fly Fishing & Flies, we arbitrarily established a length of 8 inches to designate the point at which a bluegill is considered “large.” Linear growth after that is relatively slow as the species’ thickness and depth become more pronounced. A 9-inch bluegill, therefore, is substantially larger than a fish but one inch shorter.
Despite their beauty and admirable fighting ability all bluegills, including the world record at 4 pounds 12 ounces, have relatively small mouths. That fact likely convinces most anglers that the species does not actively target the local minnow populations. In reality, minnows provide readily available meals and big bluegills regularly pursue the most vulnerable. Still, we must recognize that the small-mouthed bluegill is limited to tiny minnows and our flies must be sized accordingly.
Practical hook sizes for bluegills range from 12 to 6. That obviously doesn’t mean that these feisty fish won’t attack much larger flies. Most warmwater fly fishers have had the experience of catching bluegills on their largest bass flies. Yet that speaks more of the tenacity of our quarry than to flies sized for consistent success. Appropriately sized Tiemco 200R or Mustad 9672 hooks enable tying streamer patterns that are easily cast with the light rods preferred by bluegill lovers. Fly fishers need to be able to present their streamers to depths in the water column from just below the surface to 10-feet or more. Two spools of lines solve the problem: one spool of weight-forward floating line and another with sink-tip or full-sinking line. Leaders of 4 to 9 feet tapered to 5X tippet handle most bluegill fishing circumstances. In weedy environments a tapered leader, as opposed to a knotted one, will prevent having to wipe vegetation from the leader after every retrieve. Short leaders of 4 feet are practical when fishing unweighted streamers on sink-tip or full-sinking lines so the fly will not bow back toward the surface, which might render it ineffective. Lengthening the leader with weighted flies enables presenting flies to deeper water.
Flies with complex recipes that require a lot of time to tie or are composed of expensive materials just don’t make sense because bluegills are primarily structure oriented. Submerged tree branches, stumps, weedlines, and brush will inevitably consume some flies. If the angler is hesitant to cast right into the heaviest cover for fear of losing flies, few jumbo bluegills will be caught.
Our favorite bluegill streamer is one of our own creations we call “Wilson’s Mini Minnie.” Here’s our recipe:
Wilson’s Mini Minnie
Hook: TMC 200R, size 6 – 12
Thread: Uni-thread 6/0, red
Head: Cyclops eye, nickel (adjust size for sink rate and hook size)
Body: Quick Descent Dub, silver
Ribbing: French Tinsel Wire, silver
Wings: White marabou extending a little beyond the hook bend
Gills: Multiple wraps of thread
Other patterns, such as a Black Nosed Dace or a Woolly Bugger, tied in similar sizes can be equally successful.
Whether fishing natural lakes or impounded water, three locations top the list as big bluegill magnets. The first is docks. Docks serve cabin and home owners as safe and convenient boat tie-ups, swimming and sun bathing areas or fishing platforms. Unfortunately, not all docks are created equal, but those located at the edge of relatively deep water will hold big bluegills during every season of the year. It’s best to approach the prospective dock from deep water and cast the streamer near its deep edges. Count the fly down to assure that you can return to that same depth. Your countdown pace may differ from the next angler’s but that makes no difference as long as you are aware of the depth at which you are fishing. When you have fished the outside edges move progressively shallower along the dock until the shallows have been thoroughly explored. If large bluegills have been caught there make a mental note of the location as it will remain attractive to big bluegills.
Another equally productive type of structure is the deadfall. Look for trees that have fallen into the water with their trunks on or near shore and branches extending into relatively deep water. On bright, sunny days big bluegills will likely be located in the deepest branches while overcast skies may push them higher in the water column and closer to the branch tips. The best approach is to fish the deepest end of the deadfall first and work toward the shallows so as not to spook fish by casting over them.
A third big bluegill location is the weedline. Simply drifting along while casting toward the weeds wastes time. Instead, look for areas of the weedline that are different. Pockets in the weeds are worthy of attention but they can be difficult to target because there isn’t a great deal of room for fly manipulation. Utilize the “vertical drop” of the fly to its full advantage. A short, but accurate cast to the back of the weedline pocket with some slack line will allow the fly to drop vertically through the water mimicking a wounded minnow. The angler can interrupt the fly’s fall periodically by lifting the rod, then lowering it to permit the fall to continue. Often it’s this hesitation that triggers strikes. Line-watching as the fly drops deeper is important. Set the hook if any hesitation or twitch of the line is observed.
In addition to the vertical drop, three other streamer retrieves can be incorporated into the bluegill fly fisher’s repertoire. First is the “strip, pause” retrieve. Varying the speed and length of the strip will enable the fish to tell you which is most enticing. Start by stripping slowly in 2-inch strips with lengthy pauses and increase the length of the strips only when it’s clear that the fly is being ignored. Another productive retrieve is the “lift, lower, and strip” retrieve for weighted flies and/or sinking lines. Instead of stripping to move the fly, simply remove all slack line; point the rod tip at the fly, then lift the rod tip 4 to 6 inches. Lower the rod tip back to its original position and strip to remove the slack. Repeating the process causes the fly to rise, then dive. Again, line watching is important because the bluegills often strike the fly as it dives toward the bottom. The “change-of-direction” retrieve can trigger strikes from reluctant bluegills. Make a short cast on a 9-foot leader, count the fly down to the desired depth, make a mend to one side, add a couple of short strips, then mend in the opposite direction to cause the fly to change directions. The fly appears to be a minnow taking evasive action that may heighten the bluegills’ interest.
Incorporating streamers of appropriate sizes; fishing docks, deadfalls, and weedline irregularities; utilizing the vertical drop; varying strips; the lift, lower, strip, and the change-of-direction retrieves will slant the odds of catching big bluegills in your favor. Then, do all of us the favor of releasing those 8-inch and larger bluegills so they can continue to grow to increase the possibilities of creating trophy bluegill fisheries we can all enjoy.
Published in Midwest Fly Fishing 2007
When clear lakes and ponds become swollen from downpours and suddenly acquire the color of cappuccino, the prospects for catching largemouth bass can appear to be pretty dismal. Indeed, casting the same flies to the same places and employing the same retrieves will likely bring discouraging results not because the bass have disappeared or quit feeding but because they may not be able to locate the angler’s offering.
Those bass that are accustomed to relatively clear water have learned to feed primarily by visual means. Bass that live in normally dingy or turbid waters, on the other hand, locate their prey by sound. In other words, all fish are captives of their environment and are forced to adapt to whatever conditions occur. Unfortunately for anglers no two of these piscatorial homelands are quite the same. That means that each waterway must be evaluated independently in terms of water clarity by comparing its present condition to what is normal for that body of water.
The two muddied conditions, one permanent, the other temporary, require very different fishing solutions. For permanently darkened water the presentation solution is the creation of sound. Flies, whether topwater, mid-depth or bottom-bouncers, must be chosen to create vibrations that enable bass to utilize their lateral line, which functions a bit like a sonar unit, to locate the angler’s imitation. For clearer waters that have been muddied, the visually oriented bass population must be approached very differently. Many years ago we regularly fished a 37-acre water supply lake that was loaded with largemouth bass. Although clouded by suspended nutrients its water was normally clear enough for visibility to a depth of four feet. Near the dam the water depth exceeded 30 feet, and it grew progressively more shallow toward the creek that had been dammed to create it. The stream drained agricultural croplands and tiny intermittent rivulets that emanated from pasturelands fed two coves. Rains affected the water clarity quickly and sometimes for several weeks. We avoided fishing there after rains until a long-planned trip by a visiting fisherman forced us to deal with the muddy conditions. That weekend we eventually caught over 30 bass. Two were 4 lbs. and one exceptional catch tipped our hand-held scales at 6-1/2 lbs. It was an eye-opening experience that was instrumental in the formation of our stained-water strategies.
Eventually we were able to identify six steps that had helped tilt the odds in our favor that day when the water looked unfishable. Here’s our six-step muddy water plan:
- Avoid fishing the area most affected by the inlet creek that is the main source of the silt. The bottom in this area is made up of soft silt from years of similar events. Structure, such as humps, depressions, and submerged stumps, has largely been covered by soft mud and this portion of the pond or lake has become a “fish bowl.” For flyfishers this is not an altogether bad thing because with underwater structure erased, what you see is what you get. The visible weedline, deadfalls, rocks and others are the only structure available to the bass. But during the influx of silt, the visibility is too poor for flies to be seen there. Move past this area and focus further toward the lake or pond’s basin.
- If fishing the day immediately following the deluge, fish the dam area and main lake points where the siltation process hasn’t yet affected water clarity so severely. The slightly clearer conditions, especially in smaller waters, will attract the fish that have been negatively impacted by the muddy conditions. The least affected area will have a larger concentration of bass and they will tend to feed more competitively. This is especially true for school bass in the 12- to 15-inch length size range. Check the visibility in the water by lowering a brightly colored fly (fluorescent chartreuse, for example) into the water to determine the maximum depth at which it is visible. Repeat this process in various locations to determine where the greatest visibility occurs and concentrate fishing efforts there. Often this will be the inside edge of main lake or pond points and deeper sections of bluff areas in the main lake basin.
- Target wood structure with short, accurate casts using weedless flies. When bass are disturbed or threatened they instinctively seek the protection of overhead cover. A dock or deadfall provides great security as well as a place where moss clings to the branches, which attracts insect larva, minnows, and crustaceans on which the bass can feed. Anglers can approach more closely during this time of darkened water because the bass are less able to see them. Accuracy is necessary to put the fly right in the thickest cover yet maintain tight line contact to facilitate strike detection and a positive hook set. Weedless flies will also enable the fly-fisher to make contact with the wood by intentionally changing the direction of the retrieve. This structure-bumping retrieve will alert the bass to the potential meal in his bailiwick. Numerous monofilament weed guard arrangements can be successful in preventing unwanted hookups, but recently we have come to rely on a clear plastic product called “Stick-Guard.” It has a slot in the plastic that slides over the hook eye, and the other end is pushed into the hook point making the fly as weedless as the bait caster’s plastic worm. If you are unable to find Stick-Guard at your local tackle shop, buy clear plastic worms and make your own. In either case, they are more successful in preventing snags than any other weed guard we’ve used.
- Tie or purchase bulkier flies capable of creating a more visible silhouette as well as displacing more water, thereby creating more vibrations that enable feeding bass to locate them easier. Years ago while fishing the ultra-clear waters of Lake Superior, we learned the importance of sparsely tied flies from a grizzled veteran fly caster from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Just as flies tied with a minimum of materials are the solution in gin clear waters the opposite is more effective when the water is murky. Heavily tied Clousers with epoxy or E Z Shape Sparkle Body heads are good choices. The substantial heads allow the structure bumping change-of-direction retrieve to bang into the wood structure to create needed noise as well as stand up to the constant pounding without destroying the fly.
- Fish dark-colored flies, such as black or purple, so that the silhouette of the fly is contrasted sharply as the bass views it against the sky’s lighter background. A bass’s eyes are located on the top of its head, which makes it much easier to ambush its meal from below. A black popper is easily seen by the bass from the stained water below even on the darkest overcast days. But that dark surface fly is difficult for the fisherman to see against the dark water, which further underscores the importance of making short, accurate casts close to the densest structure. Even heavily weighted bottom-bouncing flies in dark colors are effective. Jig-type weedless flies have the action and stark silhouettes to entice bass that are trying to overcome their mud-imposed hunger strike.
- Cast fluorescent-colored flies that incorporate highly reflective materials like Krystal Flash in the shallows when sunlight is intense. Fluorescent chartreuse floater/divers are perfect for this situation as sunlight accentuates the fly’s visibility while the fly being constantly pulled under then floating back to the surface creates an attention-grabbing commotion. If the darkened water conditions have existed for several days, it’s entirely possible that the bass have had little to eat during that time. Under those circumstances, they will move shallow even under intense sunlight in search of food protected from the blinding rays of the sun by the muddy water. Using a noisy, light-reflective fly with the fly caster hidden from the bass’s view can often produce a surface-fishing jackpot. Rain and the resulting runoff is the necessary lifeblood of our lakes and ponds with siltation as the unfortunate byproduct. Too often the condition causes the cancellation of fishing trips. But there’s no reason to cancel your plans or use the stained water as an excuse. Moving away from the darkest water near the inlet creek and toward the down lake clearer waters to target wood structure with short, accurate casts will locate catchable fish. Temporarily muddied waters may provide outstanding bass fishing if you use weedless flies capable of structure-bumping, heavily dressed flies in dark colors on overcast days, and fluorescent colors on days of bright sunlight
Published in The Flyfisher, Sandpoint, Idaho, Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc., Summer 2007.
Millions of miniature bass and bluegill factories dot the North American landscape. Many offer easy public access to productive waters that range from those that can be cast across to others of several acres in size. City park ponds, water supply reservoirs, state conservation areas, reclaimed strip mine pits, and small state park impoundments account for many outstanding fly-fishing opportunities that are often found in our own neighborhoods. The problem is that not all ponds are created equal. While some may boast hand-sized bluegills and football-shaped largemouth bass, many offer only a few small fish.
The first step in finding success on public ponds is discerning the difference between productive waters and those that are a waste of time. Fortunately, there are pond characteristics that enable pond prospectors to target only those bodies of water that are capable of sustaining substantial numbers of larger bluegills and bass.
First, observe the lay of the land. Ponds with relatively small watersheds allow less sediment to be introduced into the pond, which makes the water clearer. Larger fish are able to locate and eat fry more easily thus thinning the small fish population and enabling bass and bluegills to reach the sizes we love to catch. Both species benefit from a balanced predator-prey relationship, but if a trophy bluegill is your objective choose a pond with an abundance of slow-growing largemouth bass.
Ponds with abundant submerged vegetation are capable of sustaining good populations of big fish. Aquatic plants provide rearing areas for the fry of both species to avoid predators, feed on invertebrates, and grow. At the same time, vegetation provides ambush points for predators, a shield from overhead sunlight, and a cooler environment, as well as oxygenation. In addition, weedbeds provide structure that’s easily targeted by anglers.
The ponds in question should also have shallow areas suitable as spawning grounds for bass and bluegills that offer access to relatively deep water. Spawning success is critical to providing strong year classes for both species as well as abundant forage for adults. The deep water provides a sanctuary to which both species can escape to safety, a refuge from intense sunlight, and allows them, as cold-blooded creatures, to find more comfortable water temperatures.
The final piece to the pond assessment puzzle is the absence of carp and gizzard shad. Carp feed on the all-important vegetation, which causes the quality of the weed-beds to deteriorate, and carp negatively affect water clarity. They are also prolific enough that they can eliminate underwater vegetation entirely. Gizzard shad are common in ponds in the lower Midwest and in the South. The presence of gizzard shad causes the bass to focus their predation on the shad instead of the bluegills. Bluegills will quickly overpopulate, reduce their own food sources, and stunt the pond’s population.
A little homework and some advance observation can give any pond aficionado the ability to determine which ponds are capable of providing good numbers of sizeable fish. Checking the size of the dam can help to determine an approximate maximum depth. Shallow areas should have a healthy growth of weeds while deep water will be revealed by lack of weed growth at depths beyond the reach of sunlight. A county topographical map or exploring the surrounding area can easily determine the pond’s watershed while discussion with other anglers or a local fly shop owner can provide a preview of the health of the bass and bluegill population as well as information about the presence of other species.
Once the most productive ponds have been determined, the key to early fishing action is monitoring the temperature of the water. Small ponds warm more quickly than large ones. As the thermometer reading creeps into the fifty-degree range, male largemouth bass will begin to move to the edges of the shallow flats. Their metabolism will increase causing them to feed actively. If there’s an inlet creek that is activated by the runoff of the spring thaw or rains it’s an excellent location for the first casts. Even a trickle of incoming water adds a couple of degrees of warmth to the area. A strategically placed deadfall or weedline capable of providing security as well as points of ambush will enhance the attractiveness of the area for bass. Other points of early-season largemouth activity around the pond include the edges of shallow spawning flats where the bottom breaks into slightly deeper water, the backs of coves, points, humps, and the corners of the dam.
Small, light-colored flies in sizes 6 and 8 are most effective in the cool water. White flies and flies tied using white materials in combination with silver are good choices. A white marabou streamer with silver Flashabou mixed into the wing or a white woolly bugger ribbed with silver tinsel are effective. Flies need to be fished slowly in early spring, and it’s important to remember that bass that are moving shallow for the first time in months are very easily spooked. Shadows cast across their positions and sloppy casts will cause their immediate retreat to deeper water. Cast beyond the holding structure and retrieve slowly.
As the water warms into the sixties bass will move onto the flats. Aggressive males, fueled by their competitive instincts to spawn, are less cautious. Larger flies that create more of a disturbance are in order. Surface flies in sizes 2 through 6 can produce exciting action. Poppers and floater/divers in bright colors that are easily seen by the angler or frog patterns make bassing a visually stimulating game. The bass may well prefer an aggressively retrieved fly during this period, but the prudent approach is to start slowly and let the bass dictate any increase in tempo.
As water temperatures rise into the seventies and spawning activity diminishes, sunlight penetration replaces procreation as the factor that governs bass locations. Bright sunlit skies cause the bass to move deeper or to shady locations. Slowly retrieved wet flies in darker colors that probe the weedline, deadfall branches, humps, and riprap areas are best. Leech, worm, and crayfish patterns that utilize lifelike materials such as rabbit strips or rubber hackles can be the ticket to success. The low light periods of early morning and late evening or heavily overcast skies allow the bass to move shallower. Surface fishing or shallow retrieves of streamers near the edges of weedbeds and deadfalls can trigger some explosive strikes.
In ponds, bluegills occupy the same structure as bass but are stimulated to move into the shallows later in spring. Although catchable when water temperatures are in the fifties, they will occupy the deeper portions of structure. Sixty-degree water will bring bluegills to the edges of the flats to begin fueling for the spawning process. Slowly retrieved flies in fluorescent chartreuse or fluorescent pink/red are highly visible to shallow bluegills. For a more natural approach, lightly weighted Pheasant Tail or Prince Nymphs retrieved with gentle liftings of the rod tip and strips only to remove slack line can deliver fast action. Slightly weighted flies sink in a more natural manner, and those in sizes 8 through 14 will be more suitable for the bluegills’ tiny mouths. Inlet creeks and the back ends of dark-bottomed coves deserve the first casts.
As the water temperatures elevate into the upper sixties and lower seventies bluegills will flood the flats to occupy colonies of shallow nests that may appear as light-colored depressions on the bottom. The brightly colored male bluegills are so competitive and territorial that virtually any cast that hits the water can bring a strike. Size 8 to 10 poppers can be excellent, but wet flies of appropriate size also work well. Color selection isn’t usually critical during the spawn, but light colors in clear water and dark colors that provide a stark silhouette in murky water are most visible to the fish and are therefore more productive. It’s wise to remember that the largest fish spawn in the center of the large colony of nests, but casting directly over the outer ring of beds is likely to frighten the entire population. Initial casts should be made to the outer edges of the nests. Hooking and playing a fish among the others furthers their excitement and subsequent casts can then be made progressively toward the beds of the largest bluegills.
As water temperatures rise into the mid-seventies and beyond, sunlight penetration determines fish location and fly color selection. Wood structure is a key location for post-spawn bluegills. A small dock or deadfall provides the overhead cover necessary to block sunlight, provide security, and become a feeding magnet. Flies that fall slowly and vertically into the bluegills’ lair without manipulation are best. We have created our own vertical-drop flies for warmwater fly fishing, such as Bully’s Bluegill Spider that’s tied with a chenille body that covers a .020 lead wire base and round rubber hackle legs, but another fly that works well on the drop is a size-12 bead-head Woolly Bugger with a marabou tail.
By identifying the qualities of productive nearby ponds, paying attention to springtime water temperatures, targeting the seasonally-used structure for each species and choosing the right size and type of fly, longrodders can find exciting action near home. Deciding whether to fish for chunky largemouths or feisty bluegills, well. . . that’s the hard part.