Fortunately bass are universal in their taste, and there’s no need to carry the numerous flies that most trout fishermen haul to the water. But there are some bass fishermen who lose out on many fish-catching opportunities by throwing only popping bugs. Being aware that certain basic fly patterns can be used in various situations will allow you to carry a minimal amount of flies, and still let you cope with the different fishing situations.
First, there are two species of bass most fly fishermen seek – the largemouth and the smallmouth. While each will strike flies that are being fished for the other species, it’s good to know that the most effective flies for largemouth are often tied slightly different than those used for smallmouths. Largemouth, as a rule, seem to strike flies that are slightly longer, fatter and with wider undulating movements than the smallmouths. Whereas the smallmouths generally go for flies that are small and have less undulations. Another difference is that many of the best smallmouth patterns are imitations of their food – while that is not usually the case with largemouths.
I would rather fish for bass than any other freshwater species. For about 12 years I was a part-time bass fishing guide. There were two reasons: it brought my family extra money, and it allowed me more time to fish for bass. I’ve been lucky enough to fish in Mexican lakes in the 1950s when it was rare to see or hear of anyone fishing there.
In 1958, I fished Treasure Lake in Cuba – at that time 12-pound bass were common in that watershed. Wherever I hear about good bass fishing I try to get there. I believe that there are only a few patterns that you need carry wherever you bass fish, although you may want to vary their size for existing fishing conditions. While every experienced fly rodder may make a different list, the following patterns have served me well, wherever I fish throughout Central and North America.
Both species of bass often feed on the surface. There are three popping bugs that I would recommend for anyone seriously interested in the sport. One is the Pencil Popper, which was developed by Jerry Jurasik and popularized by Dave Whitlock. This is a super-thin, sleek fly that has a long, tapered body, generally with a small tail of marabou feathers. I prefer it with a monofilament weed guard impaled in the body in front of the hook. This fly has two virtues that make it a must in a serious bass angler’s fly box.
One, it has the shape of a minnow and allows the angler to imitate a struggling baitfish on the surface. The other feature, which is generally unrecognized about this popper, is that it has a face that is a third or less in diameter than a standard popping bug. This means the lure can be fished among lily pads and floating vegetation with far less chance of snagging the weeds. I have fished Pencil Poppers where conventional bugs were constantly snagging and spoiling the retrieve. The color of the pencil popper seems unimportant in my experience. Incidentally, the bug got its name because a round rod of balsa wood was formed for the body, and then the one end was inserted in a pencil sharpener and ground to make the rear taper.
The second popper I would suggest carrying is Lefty’s Bug. I don’t mean to be immodest about this, but for more than 25 years of hard bass fishing I worked on perfecting a bug where the tail never fouled under the hook on the cast; it had minimal air resistance, so that it cast easily; and you could make a gentle or loud popping sound with every twitch of the line. After years of trying all sorts of designs, I finally settled on this design. Unlike most poppers that have air-resistant, bulky hackles wound around the shank, rubber bands hanging down and large feather tails (all of which may entice fish to strike but make casting more difficult), Lefty’s Bug is sleek and a tail so attached that it cannot foul. After many, many years of bass fishing, if I were limited to a single bug, this would be the one.
The third popper is the Gerbubble Bug, developed by Tom Loving of Baltimore early in this century and popularized by the late Joe Brooks. This is a deadly popper for largemouth bass on still-water lakes, ponds and sloughs. The original Gerbubble Bug body was made from balsa wood (although some anglers are now using closed cell foam, which is much lighter), and along each side were one or two hackles, like miniature, multiple oars.
But a vast improvement over the original bug is to substitute marabou for the hackle feathers. When this kind of bug is popped on the surface and allowed to lie there, long after the rings dissipate on the surface, the miniature currents underneath the bug cause the flexible marabou plumes to continue to move, almost as if the bug is treading water. A largemouth, attracted to the popping noise, often lies beneath the bug studying it. The subtle movements of the marabou frequently are what trigger a strike.