Surface Largemouth Retrieves by Lefty Kreh
Nothing is more explosive in fresh water than a big largemouth bass taking its prey (our flies) off the surface. Smallmouth fight harder but that big maw of the largemouth coupled with an almost ferocious attack is so exciting.
To successfully catch more largemouths on the surface with flies requires understanding the bass. It is not a bait chaser like a tuna, a northern pike, or any swift moving fish. A biologist told me once that among fish species the bass has one of the best all-around bodies of any fresh water species. A barracuda must launch itself like a rocket at its prey and can’t make a quick turn because of the long body. But a bass with a large tail, high dorsal fin and short, powerful muscled body can make quick turns when pursuing its prey.
Once the bass is close to its prey it’s other body confirmations comes into play. It has a huge mouth (the quickest way to tell a largemouth from a smallmouth bass is the largemouth's mouth extends to the rear of it’s eyes). Chasing a prey its powerful muscles allow it to close quickly then it opens its huge mouth and sucks in water and the prey.
Why is this important with when fishing largemouths with surface flies? The largemouth is an ambusher. It lies near structure where it can be hidden and with a huge burst of speed it can chase prey that comes close. This shortens the chase and lessens the prey’s chance of escaping. So it is wise to fish structure.
Years ago I gave up using deer hair bugs since they soon become water logged then float poorly. This is strictly a personal opinion and thousands of bass have been caught on them. If you like them—use them—after all we are suppose to fish for fun.
A number of fly patterns are effective when retrieving flies on the surface for largemouths. Perhaps the most versatile and useful is the Dahlberg Diver. Right behind that in popularity is the popping bug. But it should be designed properly.
There are three basic types of bass popping bugs. The conventional bug is a body or cork or durable light foam that has a rather stout body, a tail of some sort and for largemouths some rubber bands extending out from the bug body. Unfortunately, many of these are poorly designed. They have a cupped face often making too much noise when lifted for a backcast. Usually there are a number of feathers protruding from the bug's body representing the tail. When wet the softened feathers often tangle with the hook spoiling the retrieve. Between the feather tail and the body are wound a number of hackles which impede casting and cause the bug body to sit horizontally on the surface. Lastly, the hook point is located under the bug body.
Such a design makes the bug difficult to cast, may tangle in flight, and with the body sitting horizontal on the surface and with a hook point positioned below the body—the fish has to grab all of the bug to be impaled.
A properly designed bug body has the hook extending well behind the body—causing the bug to sit at a tilted position with hook dangling below. The hook point is the first thing to contact the fish—increasing the chance for impaling the bass. The tail is rather short and of a material that is stiffer than feathers and not likely to tangle with the hook. The face of the bug is not cupped but tapered at the base, which make all the needed noise on the retrieve but it allows it to be quietly lifted from the water.
Two other old style-popping bugs have served well. One is the Slider—which is a popping bug with a pointed body. This bug actually doesn’t pop but swims silently on the water creating an impression of a creature secretly trying to swim away from a bass. The third and lesser known is the Pencil Popper—it has a thin, tapered body and the angler hopes the bass will think it is a crippled baitfish.
There two new largemouth surface lures are extremely effective but most bass fly rodders seem not be aware of. One is the Crease Fly. This fly attempts to represent a crippled baitfish. Bass in hard-fished waters have become more wary and difficult to deceive with our flies. The Crease Fly realistically represents a baitfish. The other fly is the Gurgler a superb rather new fly that works exceptionally well when you want to impress wary bass here is a struggling meal that can’t get away. The Gurgler is designed to alight on the surface more quietly than any other bass surface fly and make little surface disturbance when retrieved.
A good rule is if largemouths are in moving water the retrieve should be a little faster. On lakes or where the water has little or no current the flies should be retrieved very slowly.
A cast every largemouth fly fisherman should learn is the roll pick-up. The roll cast is directly upward and as the line lifts the fly free of the water a backcast is made. This permits lifting bug and flies silently at the end of a retrieve.
The Dahlberg Diver is extremely versatile. Because the head is made of deer hair and tends to sink after being fished it is best to dress the head with floatant before fishing. Dahlbergs are almost always tied with a weed guard. The cone-shaped head when retrieved slowly swims rather quietly. Make a long and quick strip and the bug dives slightly and produces a fish-attracting noise.
It is generally best fished around cover with a 7 to 8 foot leader. But, in open water if a 10 to 12-foot leader is used an unusual retrieve is possible. A long cast is made and all slack is removed from the line and leader. A long pull is made on the Dahlberg causing the fly to dive “beneath” the water. Continue to make long pulls and the fly will dive and swim lower in the water column. Then---stop retrieving. The buoyancy in the fly will cause it to swim to the surface. There you can repeat the retrieve or manipulate it on the surface.
Basic popping bugs if they have rubber bands extending from the body and are fished slowly will often tease a fish into hitting.
If the largemouths are in very shallow water the bigger ones will be very spooky. It is here that a Slider or Pencil Popper teased quietly along often does the trick. This is also a great place to use the Gurgler. Because poppers with weedguards often snag in lily pads the slim face of a Pencil Popper will often slide through. I like to work the Crease Fly in open water where it imitates a struggling baitfish.