Among fly anglers, there’s no question that cold water species like trout reign supreme. Flies and trout are a perfect pairing, as they’re primed to feed on flying insects on or near the surface.
But across America, it’s largemouth bass that haunt the dreams of anglers, and on clear rivers, it’s smallies that get fishermen’s hearts pounding. And while these species are happy to hit a big bug on the surface, they’re even more likely to chase small fish, minnows, and crawfish deeper in the water column, especially in the dog days of summer.
There’s a special breed of fly angler who can’t leave these warm-water species alone, and I’m one of them.
I’ve hammered big bucket mouths and huge smallies with flies, and I can tell you that there’s nothing more exciting than having a three-pound smallmouth hit a popper so hard that it leaps clear of the water, or hooking a five-pound largemouth and knowing that the fight of my life was about to begin.
If that got your blood pumping, keep reading!
We’ll cover everything you need to know about fly fishing for bass.
Table of Contents (clickable)
- 1 Largemouth and Smallmouth 101
- 2 Tackle
- 3 Bass Fly Fishing Tips and Tricks
- 4 Final Thoughts
Largemouth and Smallmouth 101
If you’re new to bass fishing with a fly, it pays to do your homework.
Bass behavior is significantly different than what you might be used to, and understanding the basics can go a long way toward helping you with fly selection, location, timing, and technique.
The largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides, is the largest member of the black bass family. It’s also a ferocious predator built for hard-hitting ambushes that end in engulfing prey items with its telescoping mandibles.
Greedy and voracious, the largemouth bass will attack prey items as large as 50 percent of its size. Mature bass target minnows, bluegill, shad, snakes, frogs, crawfish, bats, insects, and pretty much anything else that dares enter the water.
This gluttonous appetite allows them to reach lengths of 29 ½ inches and weights as high as 22 pounds!
But while nearly anything can be on the menu, they show decided preferences across the seasons, reflecting both dietary needs and the availability of certain kinds of prey items.
In the spring, as the water is just beginning to warm, bass will still be quite sluggish. Unlike cold-tolerant trout, bass love warm water, and they’ll be unable to completely shake winter’s torpor until the water warms past 55 degrees.
At that point, the spawn will begin, and to prepare, bass will be targeting crawfish and holding to transitional zones between the deep water where they overwintered and the shallow spots where they’ll breed and bear their fry.
During the spawn itself, bass won’t feed at all. But when it ends, the water will be warm enough to have them hunting the shallows.
At this point, they’ll be targeting nearly anything they can find and sticking to relatively shallow water. And they won't retreat to the depths until the summer sun heats the water to 80 degrees or more.
At night, as the water cools, they’ll rise in the water column, move shallow, and hunt minnows, bluegill, snakes, and pretty much anything else that happen upon.
As summer progresses to fall, bass will slowly move back deep. But until they do, they’ll be chasing that year’s crop of minnows, bluegill, shad, and other baitfish.
Largemouth hunting behavior
But they don’t like currents. They prefer still water, and they’ll rarely inhabit rivers.
They use their keen sense of sight to identify potential prey at a distance, closing to use their other senses as confirmation that it’s dinner time.
They’ll get close, using their lateral line to detect the subtle vibrations of prey.
And when they decide to strike, it can vary from an explosive rush to a gentle inhalation, though my experience with flies has been that they hit them with nothing short of fury.
They also wait in ambush in heavy vegetation, using everything from lily pads to blowdowns to grass to hide and wait for prey to happen by.
Micropterus dolomieu, the smallmouth bass, is a cousin of the largemouth that shares many of its biological and behavioral characteristics.
No less voracious than the largemouth, smallies dine on much the same diet: minnows, small fish, insects, crawfish, frogs, lizards, and snakes.
Not as large as their bigger cousins, they can nonetheless reach lengths of as much as 27 inches, weighing in at an impressive 12 pounds.
They, too, can be indiscriminate eaters in late spring, summer, and early fall. And they’re far more cold tolerant than largemouth, meaning that they’ll strat feeding actively a bit sooner and keep hunting hard a bit later in the year.
Their “magic number” is 55 degrees, as well, and when the water reaches that mark, they’ll begin spawning. And just like largemouth, their pre-spawn diet will focus on nutrient rich crawfish, transitioning across the seasons as new prey items become available.
Smallies love clear water, rocky or sandy bottoms, and plenty of current. Far more likely than largemouth to inhabit rivers and streams, smallmouth bass can also be found in lakes, but only when the water clarity is very good.
Almost exclusively sight predators, smallmouth bass turn off when the water is stained or muddied by run off.
Knowing that they can be prey themselves, smallies hold deep when the sun is bright, and bluebird skies necessitate that you find deeper holes and pools than normal. Late in the afternoon, around dusk, and early in the morning, you’ll find them moving into the shallows to hunt, making these ideal times to hit them hard when the weather is nice.
On cloudy, overcast days, you’ll find the smallies holding shallow, allowing you to hit them more or less all day.
Smallmouth hunting behavior
Smallies are typically ambush predators, using large rocks, stumps, and other cover to hide from prey as it’s swept downstream and into pools and eddies. In this respect, they’re very similar to trout, but far more explosive and aggressive.
In my experience, smallies are actually more aggressive than largemouth bass, rarely waiting before hitting a fly or popper.
I’ve had them rocket through the surface and land in my kayak, hit a popper so hard they damaged the wooden body and stripped all the feathers from it, and fight so hard that I wasn’t sure my reel could take it!
While you can bring your standard trout gear to the lake or pond for largemouth, it’s a good idea to up-size a bit.
Smallies may be ounce-for-ounce the more aggressive fish, but largemouth sport powerfully muscled bodies. They hit flies like a runaway train, turn on a dime, and will rush for heavy cover with incredible speed and power. They’re also far larger on average, with two- to three-pound largemouth being fairly common.
Tying into a four-, five-, or six-pound bass is going to feel like you’ve hooked a passing submarine, and while a 4-weight rod might survive a real monster, I wouldn’t count on it!
Bass-specific fly rods are typically shorter, stronger, and more deeply loading than what you might be used to.
They need to be short to allow very accurate casts around heavy cover, allowing you to lay your fly with precision. They must also be capable of fighting a heavy, powerful fish and even turning it back toward you as it attempts to escape. And to cast heavy flies and poppers well, they need to be somewhat slow, flexing closer to the reel to load well.
Fighting big bass on a 4wt simply isn’t going to work. Instead, you’ll need something in the neighborhood of an 8wt rod.
Options like the excellent Orvis Recon Big Game Fly Rod, an 8wt, 9-foot bass fighter, are ideal. Built tough, the Recon Big Game can turn heads, stop runs, and fight real beasts. It also casts heavy flies and poppers well, though I’d say that the Recon Big Game is at its best when you need long casts.
By contrast, the St. Croix Mojo Bass Fly Rod is pin-point accurate. Essentially a conversion of their amazing Mojo Bass spinning rod to fly tackle, the Mojo Bass rod in 8wt measures in at 7’11”, casts with superb accuracy, and features a graphite blank that doesn’t know the word “quit.” If you’re concerned about blank integrity, St. Croix’s rods are tough.
But for the ultimate fly rod for bass, I’d pick the unsurpassable G. Loomis NRX+. This is a no-holds barred tribute to fly fishing, and from the handle to the blank, the reel seat to the guides, it’s everything you want in a bass rod.
At 10 feet, it casts very well, allowing you to reach places other bass fly rods just can’t. I won’t say that it rivals the St. Croix in accuracy, but it loads and fights like a champion.
Both species of bass demand a fly reel with an adjustable drag system that can cushion your line in a hard fight.
Smallies fight hard, but largemouth are legendary. They’ll leap clear of the water, shaking their heads viciously to dislodge your fly. And when they can, they'll wrap you up in cover so thick you have no chance of ever getting them out again.
So a good fly reel also needs a big arbor to retrieve line quickly. Look for reels with an arbor diameter of about 4 inches.
The Echo Bravo Fly Reel is an affordable, entry-level fly reel that uses a carbon fiber drag system very similar in design and performance to a baitcasting reel. It features a big arbor, and picks up a lot of line. It’s a great choice for the price, offering really nice performance for this price point.
Abel’s Vaya Black also uses an amazing drag system, though it’s not quite as fast on the retrieve as the Echo Bravo. Absolutely a top-shelf reel, it’s built for life with performance that’s hard to beat. Silky smooth, reliable, and very light in the hand, you’ll like the feel of this reel on your rod while you cast.
But the Lamson Guru S is probably my favorite fly reel for bass. Its adjustable drag is simply excellent, and it’s as fast as the Echo Bravo. Silky smooth year after year, it’s probably the last bass reel you’ll ever need (or want) to buy. Light, and built to tackle fish as large as reds, it’s got plenty of fight-winning drag and speed.
Line, leader, and tippet
Bass fishing is very, very different from the trout you may be used to, and your line choice should reflect that.
You’ll need to think about low-stretch options that can allow you to set your hook with authority. You’ll also want a head taper that’s conducive to casting large flies. And while most fly line is brightly colored, you’ll get a lot more attention from hungry bass if you use a muted color fly line.
For floating flies and poppers, one good choice is Rio Mainstream. Designed specifically for bass fishing, it offers a low-stretch core and a head taper that maximizes casting distance.
Be forewarned, however, that it lacks loops, meaning that you’ll need to tie your connections. It can also have some issues with memory, but a bit of line conditioner should fix that quickly.
I’m also a fan of Croch Weight Forward. In “Moss Green,” its perfect for targeting wary bass, and it casts well. It comes with a pre-attached, 9-foot leader, and the price is great.
But undoubtedly, the best fly line for bass fishing is Orvis’s Pro Saltwater All Rounder Fly Line. Its complex taper ensures longer, smoother casting. Color-coded along its length, the running line is a subdued green color. While not cheap, it will outcast and outfight pretty much anything else on the market, and it comes with welded loops for easy connections.
For sinking flies, I like Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 Clear Tip. Its sink rate is slightly more than an inch a second, which is perfect for targeting bass in the water column as well as getting down deep when you need to. And because the sinking head is clear, it’s ideal for bass.
Leader for bass should be in the neighborhood of 8- to 12-pound test. I like Orvis’s Tactical Nymph Leader a lot, and at 8.75-pound test, it’s simply perfect for bass.
Another option to consider is Scientific Anglers’ Absolute Bass Leader. Rated for 8 pounds, it’s tough enough for lunkers.
My tippet of choice is Rio Bass. Rated for 12 pounds, this clear nylon tippet is strong enough to win fights, turn heads, and set hooks, while still offering just enough stretch to keep your hook planted when a bass tries to shake it loose.
Bass flies are a breed apart from what you use on trout.
I’ve used Bett’s poppers more than anything else when fly fishing for bass, and I can guarantee that they just can’t leave these little guys alone!
Mine are so well-loved at this point that they’re missing limbs and feathers, and some of my favorites have gotten a new paint job from all the wear over the years.
These are seriously effective when cast into eddies and pools for smallmouth, especially on overcast days. And largemouth hit these like the poppers owe them money. I like to land these near stumps, under overhanging vegetation, and around lily pads and other floating vegetation.
I let my popper sit after it hits the water, waiting for the ripples to subside. If it hasn’t been engulfed at thai point, I’ll use my rod tip to pop it forward a few hops, then stop again. Repeat this pattern as necessary, but it won’t take long!
Orvis’s Bass Popper is no joke, either. And these diminutive poppers come in both a small #6 and big 1/0 size. II
In late spring, the big popper is nothing short of magical around cover, and largemouth will tear into them with vicious strikes and acrobatic leaps.
When the bass are really keyed in on topwater, and insects are buzzing all over the pond, I like to throw a dragonfly pattern fly. My top pick is the Best of MFC Adult Dragonfly Flies Assortment, as their big, foam bodies really do trick bass into thinking they’re the real thing.
But don’t forget that both species of bass prey on minnows in summer and fall.
Steamer flies are ideal for targeting hungry bass when the minnow population is high, and in conjunction with sinking line, they’re amazingly effective.
The White River Fly Shop Clouser is nothing short of deadly if you match the hatch. Available in a range of hook sizes - #2, #4, #6, and 2/0 - its range of colors and patterns are very good choices for large- and smallmouth bass.
Orvis’s line of Freshwater Clousers is excellent, as well. Available in #6 and #8, four colors and patterns are available, all of which have a place in your fly box.
Schultzy’s S3 Sculpin is a must-have for smallmouth bass anglers. All that fluff rings the dinner bell, and by working one of these near the bottom, it’ll imitate the fish for which it’s named. Smallmouth are just waiting for a sculpin to get stuck where it doesn’t belong, and they just can’t resist this fly, so hold on!
And last, but certainly not least, I love Hud’s Bushwacker. Armed with a 2/0 extra-wide gap hook that’s upturned to help prevent snags, you can rip this fly through live weed beds, across grass in the shallows, and around stumps and blowdowns.
It’s hard to get the Bushwacker hung up, and it allows you to actively fish the places big bass lie in ambush.
Bass Fly Fishing Tips and Tricks
Warm-water species like smallmouth and largemouth bass are amazingly fast, but especially in the spring and fall, too much speed can lead to a less-than-enticing presentation.
As you strip line, keep it slow and don’t burn your streamer through the water. Stop, pause and let it sink slowly, fluttering toward the bottom. Nine times out of ten, chasing smallies will hit it on the drop, not the run.
Rest your popper
I’ve fished poppers for bass more than anything else, and I can tell you with great certainty that most fly anglers work them far too quickly.
The trick with a popper is to wait.
When it lands on the water, nearby bass will be alerted. They’ll hear and feel the vibrations that result from that soft plop, and they’ll turn toward your popper and give it a good look.
You don’t want to start working it right away; instead, let them get acquainted with your popper. Let the ripples crate by its landing subside completely, and only then give it a gentle pop or two.
I’ll even twitch it with erratic, small movements of my rod tip - not popping but just wriggling my popper more or less in place.
A few rounds of that near heavy cover will almost always result in a hit.
Own the night
Smallmouth bass will retreat to deep water when the sun’s out, only returning to the shallows when clouds move in or dusk arrives.
To catch more smallmouth, you need to think more like they do.
Sunny, bright days are not the best times to hit the river. Instead, wait for clouds and overcast days after a series of bright-blue skies. And when the weather is fair, try to arrive on the water before sun up, after sun down, and all night long.
That’s especially true for largemouth bass in summer.
When the water temperature rises above 80 degrees, bass will start to feel heat stress, retreating to cooler, deeper water. But when the sun sets, they’ll head back to the shallows and hunt all night long.
Use larger flies to target bass at night: nothing’s too big to throw!
Experienced trout anglers know that if the fish can see your shape or shadow, they’re going to shy away from your fly.
That’s just as true for bass, and you need to think about being stealthy if you want to catch more fish on fly tackle.
I’ve done a lot of fly fishing from a kayak, and I can tell you that a canoe or ‘yak just doesn’t spook bass until you get very, very close. That’s not the case with larger boats, and if you’re running an outboard, it’s game over.
Try to keep engine noise to a minimum, stopping your outboard way before you reach your spot.
And if you’re fishing from the shore, hunker down and avoid having the sun at your back.
While bass may not enjoy the popularity that trout do among fly fishermen, that’s starting to change.
Small- and largemouth bass are common across the US, and good places to target these voracious fish are nearly everywhere. Cold, cool trout streams aren’t.
And if you learn more about bass, use the right tackle, and throw the right flies, you’ll be hooked for life by the excitement of explosive strikes and heart-stopping acrobatics.
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