Above: Late summer can be an exciting time to catch largemouth bass in local ponds and lakes.
August can be a tough month for salty flyrodders. Spawning blues are off the bite, it’s usually too soon for albies, and striped bass and weakfish sometimes take “vacation days,” ignoring every fly you throw at them. So, how about a shift from salt to sweet, trading striped bass for largemouth bass in local lakes and ponds? Canoes, kayaks, and inflatable float tubes offer maneuverability, or you can wade if the bottom is sandy and firm, or just walk the banks. It’s easy, accessible, and the fishing can be pleasant and reliable.
Many fly fishers ignore summer bass fishing. Angelo Peluso, noted outdoor journalist and skilled bass angler, thinks otherwise. “Don’t for a moment accept the ill-advised and oft-repeated belief that it is much less productive to fish for largemouth bass during the dog days of summer. Quite the contrary. I eagerly await those steamy summer days when bass take shelter from the heat and intense direct sunlight, lingering in the aquatic slop and underbeds of lily pads.
“This is an ideal time to slide and drop weedless flies, topwater bugs, and creaturelike creations across and through pads and other thick vegetation. Some of my biggest bass were caught when many other fly anglers had turned their attention to flipping burgers and hot dogs. This form of fishing is not easy, but it can be rewarding for the persistent angler.”
Ray Szulczewski, a retired charter captain in Cape May, fishes several south Jersey ponds when he’s not chasing striped bass in the salt marshes and thoroughfares. He says, “In late summer as the days start getting shorter, I like to fish the lower light as the sun is going down until dusk or after dark. I believe the fish start to feel the days shortening and get the urge to put on weight to get them through the winter.
“The lakes I fish do not have a lot of physical structure like logs, docks, or bulkheads. I work areas where shallow, sandy areas drop off to about 8 feet or more. Baitfish hang in the sandy locations and the bass lie in the deeper water, looking for opportunities. As it gets darker, the action gets better.”
Of course, choosing the prime lakes and ponds is critical to getting bites. Paul McCain at River Bay Outfitters explains, “We have two types of ponds in Long Island: mill and kettle. Mill Ponds are shallow and get very weedy in the summer. Kettle ponds also get weedy, but they have edges with deeper water.” Similar ponds are also found from Delaware to New England. Some ponds, lakes, and manmade impoundments in more mountainous areas like northwest Jersey and New England also have clear, deep waters bordered with excellent weed cover. The shallow New Jersey Pine Barrens also offer some terrific bass and pickerel opportunities as do coastal ponds and creeks in Delaware and Maryland.
Harold Eckett of NJ Saltwater Flies follows an “ABC” approach for late summer. He explains, “ABC stands for Aquatic vegetation, Bridges, and Current. Bass need shade, cover, oxygen, and food, and the ABCs always provide that. In addition, aquatic vegetation and bridges usually have depth changes; current from nearby creeks attracts bass, too.”
Summertime success does call for several adjustments, but it’s similar to salty striped bass fishing. The best time to fish is not usually high noon, and my friend the late Armand Courchaine, a dedicated flyrod bass nut, used to say, “Any time to fish for largemouth bass is a good time, so long as it’s at dusk.” Some flyrodders might prefer dawn, but the message is the same—low light usually brings better action. As the sun goes down, the bass get more active and stay active through the night hours until the sun bursts from the horizon the next morning.
Tackle choices vary with the season, the amount and type of vegetation, and size of the fly. Paul McCain notes, “Early in the season, I like to use a 7- or 8-weight with a floating line. Later in the summer when I’m on the kettle ponds because most mill ponds are too weedy, I fish a sinking line on a 9-weight at the drop-offs.” Light-tackle fans might go down to a 5-weight in those less weedy places; however, if the weeds are thick, especially with vast islands of lily pads, heed McCain’s advice and grab the 8-weight as the best general-purpose fly rod – same as you’d use in salt for schoolie striped bass and back-bay blues. The added power in the butt is helpful to coax bass from the vegetable garden. Anything lighter won’t cast large poppers very well.
B.A.S.S tournament rules allow fly fishing with 7-foot, 11-inch rods, and some terrific rods have been developed in recent years that non-tournament fly anglers will appreciate. St. Croix’s Mojo series and Echo’s B.A.G. (Bad Ass Glass) rods are available in 8- to 10-weight line ratings. These beauties have the ability to pull fish from weedy areas, yet still cast a fly with great accuracy, which is important for plopping poppers into weedy holes and open patches of lily pads. And, both rods are price-friendly.
Reels don’t really matter for largemouth bass because you’ll rarely, if ever, see the backing. I use a 1495 Pflueger on my 5-weight because the retro aspect of the old reel is so cool, but I have a pricy Tibor on my 7-weight just because I like it. It also has a largemouth bass engraved on the side plate that perhaps adds a measure of good luck.
SIX SUMMER BASS TIPS
- Get more bites at dusk and dawn, and on cloudy days.
- Keep the rod tip low to the water and pointed toward the fly.
- Use a strip strike off to the side to set the hook rather than a lift of the rod tip.
- Avoid slack. Stretch line and leader to eliminate coiling.
- An intermediate or Type 3 sink tip gets a fly deep to cool, oxygenated water.
- Try an 8-foot, 8-weight for accurate casting and playing fish in a kayak.
And one extra tip is that you’ll need plenty of bug juice or you’ll get eaten alive by mosquitoes, gnats, and no-see-ums, and probably god-awful horseflies, too. No-Nats is a good formula with no bad chemicals, and the 2-ounce size stores handily in a pocket or small fly pack. I add about 5 drops of concentrated lemongrass oil for extra zip to keep the bugs away.
What’s more important is the selection of flies you choose. The top summer patterns include tried-and-true Wooly Buggers tied on 1/0 to size 2/0 hooks, sizes that are a bit larger than typically used for trout. Colors can be more dramatic, like white, chartreuse, and pink, although darker shades of brown, purple, and black also have their magic moments. In shallow waters, a suspending fly like the Seaducer, or a diver like the Clouser Deep Minnow, are good candidates. Tied very small, these patterns appeal to crappies, bluegills and small bass, so use the same 2/0 to 1/0 hook size that will look like more of a mouthful to bigger bass.
I’ve had some minor success with flatwing streamers, tied with and without lead eyes, meant to represent a big fat garden worm or small elver eel. After rereading Gary Ellis’ Bassin’ with a Fly Rod, I’ve also experimented with his techniques of casting rubber worms and salamander lookalikes on sinking lines, but my success has been inconsistent. Worms with a small diameter, not those fat Senko-type worms, can be cut to half their length to reduce weight and aren’t much different than casting a Clouser. Fished on an intermediate line, I’ve caught several bass on the “rubbah.”
A popular tarpon fly developed by Capt. David Mangum is also an excellent bass-getter. The Dragon Tail wiggles and darts as well as (or better than) a plastic worm and is made of a chenille-like material that is easy to tie with. I use 10-inch line strips with brief pauses to allow the worm to settle back down after the acceleration of the strip.
Varying the retrieve pace and speed is essential to getting a lot of bites, but predicting which retrieve works best can be tricky. The small bait found along the shore move slowly, with short darts, unless disturbed by prowling bass or a wading shorebird and then they explode in a shower of silver spray. A slow twitch-twitch-retrieve seems to work well. Recast as the fly leaves the edge of the weeds.
With larger minnows, a productive retrieve uses longer strips, pauses, and then strips with a slight acceleration at the end—like a slow slide ending in a fast break of the wrist. Creature-looking things like Woolly Buggers generally work better with short, lazy strips that go something like this; twitch, twitch, strip, pause, then repeat the process.
Poppers, often called bugs by bass flyrodders, are the most exciting flies to throw at largemouth bass. Besides the fun factor, poppers can cover a lot of territory. Paul McCain comments, “I like using a fly rod because I can cast into holes in the weeds, working the popper right to the edge and then pick it up for the next cast. I don’t have to worry about pulling it all the way back except when I get lucky and hook into a nice bucketmouth.”
Ray Szulczewski is also a dedicated popper fan and employs a Gurgler-inspired pattern he’s fine-tuned over many years. “My favorite is a black popping fly with a marabou tail. That marabou really adds life when the fly is in the water. I don’t use a really large fly and largemouth, pickerel, and bigger crappies all hit it, so you get good action.” I’m also a big fan of Gurglers and appreciate how they cast so easily. Unlike a big popper, there is less wind resistance and they cast well even on a 5- to 7-weight rod. Favorite colors include white, pale blue, and chartreuse.
Armand Courchaine was a devotee of big poppers and tied up some really large deer-hair creations that looked alive in the water and often fooled many big Rhode Island bass. To cast effectively, he often used an old favorite glass fly rod, a 9-weight that had, as he said, “A nice, easy action for casting to lily pads at dusk.”
Many flyrodders expert in catching fly-rod largemouth believe that to get the most from a bug, you must slow down the retrieve. Fast speed is usually a no-no and being patient while breathing life into a bug will get many more strikes. A turtle’s pace is better than a zippy retrieve, and long pauses in between pops often get the attention of bigger bass.
Here’s an exaggerated but true pause story. Just as I cast a popper to a hole in some lily pads, my wife, Linda, brought a bass to the shore and decided to take a picture. The popper I had cast sat still for maybe two minutes or so. When I picked up my fly rod and made another pop, “Wham!” I was on with a 4-pound bass.
To make large cup-face poppers really pop, a hard pull is needed to make them sing, so an aggressive strip with the line hand is required. Begin the pop with a short strip to be sure the line has no slack and you’re tight to the bug, then sweep the line hand off to the side to create the hard pull that will make an explosive sound.
Weedless bugs are a necessity to avoid snags in the lily pads. Thirty-pound hard mono is usually the favorite, but some fly guys prefer stainless wire. With a slow retrieve, a surface fly can be made to slither and waddle along, easily bouncing off snags for exciting late-summer action.
Teaming up with fellow flyrodders is a terrific way to quickly gain experience. River Bay Outfitters hosts special group fishing outings in Long Island and Connecticut rivers for freshwater trout, striped bass wading, and surf fly fishing at state parks. There’s also a trip or two for largemouth bass each summer season. They’re great fun and excellent social opportunities for good fly-fishing ops with experienced anglers.