Written by: William G. Tapply
“It is with some degree of trepidation that I approach the subject of artificial flies [for bass],” wrote James A. Henshall in his Book of the Black Bass, “for I am afraid that I hold some very heretical notions on the subject. But of one fact I am positively convinced, and that is, that there is a good deal of humbug on this matter.”
Henshall published his classic book in 1881, and the humbug has been proliferating ever since—especially about fishing for bass on the surface with the fly rod.
Thumb through a fly-fishing catalog or wander the aisles in your local fly shop and you’ll be astounded by the number and variety of bass bugs. There are poppers, chuggers, sliders and divers made from deerhair, balsa, cork, and foam in myriad sizes, shapes, colors and designs. Many are impressively lifelike representations of actual bass prey (fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, mammals, worms, and even baby birds), and they come with imitative appendages such as wings, legs, arms, tails, gills, fins, antennae, whiskers and eyes. Many offer additional options such as propellers, rattlers, lips, and weedguards.
These bugs are designed to catch fishermen, not bass.
The unwary bass-bugger might feel compelled to buy several of everything in a full range of sizes and colors on the theory that you never know what the bass might want, and you better be prepared to imitate it. Many books and countless magazine articles have been written about the challenge of fooling selective bass and the importance of tying on the “right” bug.
The truth is, both largemouths and smallmouths will come to the surface to eat any old bass bugs just about anytime, anywhere. If they don’t, it means they’re either not there or they’re in no mood to eat, and you might as well go home.
Trout, as we know, can be infuriatingly selective (although I have caught a lot of big ones on bass bugs that looked like nothing in nature).
Bass are full-time predators. They’re opportunists. All they want is something—anything—that looks alive and easy to capture and nourishing, and that’s the only thing a bass bug needs to resemble.
To be sure, some bugs are decidedly better than others. But what they imitate is the least of it. Tie on whatever you want, cast it to the right places, and rest assured, if there are hungry bass nearby, they’ll eat it.
If you want to buy or make a good bass bug, don’t fret about what it looks like. There are more important considerations:
- Aerodynamics. Besides catching bass, the great fun of bass-bug fishing is identifying and casting to all those delicious targets that line a bassy shoreline—the pockets among beds of lily pads, the half-submerged trees, the dark holes under overhanging bushes, the shadows alongside boulders and docks. A badly designed bug (air-resistant wings and tails and other appendages, general bulkiness) quickly makes your casting arm ache and sucks all the fun out of it. Choose a light, streamlined bug that you can cast comfortably with a medium-weight (5 – 7 weight) rod. If you can’t find such a bug, you can improve the aerodynamics of a bulky bug with scissors.
- The Burble. The sound of prey moving on the water’s surface, not its shape or color, is what convinces bass to strike. You should be able to impart a variety of lifelike noises to a bug. Give it a sharp tug to make it go ploop. A twitch makes it burble, and with an erratic retrieve it chugs, glugs and gurgles. You can create the widest variety of seductive noises with deer-hair bugs.
- The Flutter. Effective bass bugs are never entirely motionless. Even at rest they shiver, shudder, quiver and flutter. A sparse, hairy tail and a few rubber legs improve any design.
- The Plop. Actual bass prey fall upon the water with a muffled splat or plop. If your bug lands soundlessly, nearby bass won’t hear it. If it crashes to the surface, they’ll flee. Closed-cell foam and deer-hair bugs make the best plop.
- Floatability. Like typical bass prey, good bugs float in, not on, the surface. But they should float all day. It’s hard to impart lifelike motion and noise to a bug that rides too high on the water, and it’s frustrating to have to change bugs because the one you’ve tied on has started to sink. Poorly-designed hard-bodied bugs (cork and balsa) float too high. Loosely-packed or insufficient deer-hair soon becomes waterlogged and sinks.
- Hookability. The gape of the hook should be wide relative to the size of the bug or else you’ll miss a lot of strikes. Keep your hook points needle sharp. Mash down the barbs.
- Size. Under normal conditions, the size of the bug is not crucial. I’ve caught five-pounders on bluegill-sized bugs and twelve-inchers on bugs the size of sparrrows. Something on a 2/O hook for largemouths and a little smaller (size 1, say) for smallmouths is about right. Nick Lyons writes evocatively about the way big bulky bugs attract big bulky bass at twilight, and they surely do, although Art Scheck argues that those same bass would probably gobble panfish bugs that you can cast comfortably on a 4-weight trout rod. I think they’re both right and take the middle ground. On flat, shallow water, oversize bugs might scare bass. On choppy water, though, the commotion of a big bug helps to attract them.
- Shape. Bass guru Will Ryan chooses stubby bugs for shoreline fishing and sleek, tapered bugs for offshore reefs and shoals. He theorizes that bass expect to find wounded and disoriented baitfish offshore and terrestrial creatures near the banks, so he picks bugs whose shape suggests, but needn’t imitate, the predominant bass prey. This is a good theory, and it works for Will if for no other reason than it gives him confidence in whatever bug he ties on. When it comes to shape, though, the important criterion is still how well the bug casts.
- Appendages. Keep them sparse and soft for good castability and quivery motion on the water. Most commercial bugs are severely over-dressed. Eyes and ears serve no function except to attract fishermen, since bass can’t see the top of a bug from beneath it.
- Color. Frogs are green, baitfish are silvery, moths are white, mice are gray. All of these colors make good bass bugs. So do purple and chartreuse and pink and blue. From a bass’s viewpoint—looking up at the belly of a floating bug—it’s just a blurry silhouette. A spot of red on the bug’s “throat” might suggest flared gills and trigger a bass’s predatory impulse, and a pale belly resembles the undersides of most bass prey. Otherwise, since it doesn’t matter to the fish, the best bass-bug color is whatever you can see best on the water. I like yellow and white.
- Durability. Bass are toothless creatures. A good bug should survive the chomps of a dozen or more fish. The material it’s made from is less important than how well-made it is. The cork, foam or balsa bodies of poorly-made bugs can come loose and slide up and down the hook shank or even break off. Badly-spun deerhair bodies will fray, twist, become waterlogged, and fall out. If you make your bugs yourself, you can attend to the details that make the difference. If you buy them, you can’t be sure.
- Weedlessness. Bass, especially largemouths, lurk in and among lily pads, reeds and other aquatic vegetation. A bug that slithers around, through, and over weeds and half-submerged tree branches and snags allows you to cast to the places where the big ones live. Weed guards are generally made from monofilament or wire. Bugs tied on keel hooks theoretically ride with the hook bend up. I’ve never owned a completely weed-proof bass bug. The annoying rule of thumb seems to be: The better they prevent snagging weeds, the worse they hook bass. I usually avoid weed guards entirely and take my chances unless casting among dense weeds is my only choice. Then I use bugs with monofilament loops tied along the bend of the hook and just behind the eye. This design is somewhat weedless and hooks bass pretty well. It’s the best compromise I’ve found so far.
- Materials. Spun deer hair, closed-cell foam, or hard (cork, balsa, plastic)—each has its advantages. I prefer deer hair. It makes delicious ploops and burbles. I imagine it feels like something alive in the mouth of a bass, it floats low in the water, and, when well made, it endures a day’s worth of chewing and chomping. I happen to enjoy spinning and trimming deer hair, which is not an inconsiderable factor. Closed-cell foam is hands-down the easiest material to work with. I can make a dozen fine foam bass bugs in the time it takes me to make one good deer-hair bug. If you like cabinet making—carving, sanding, gluing and painting—rather than fly tying, by all means make your bugs from cork or balsa.
Each material has its small advantages and disadvantages, but all are minor compared to what the angler does with his bug—casting it close to shadowy shoreline targets on a soft summer’s evening, imparting enticing sounds and movements to it, and strip-striking hard when the water implodes and a big bass sucks it in.
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Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here.
Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
And visit Vicki Stiefel’s facebook page to learn about her new books.