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They like frogs, the different types of minnows such as shiners, darters, chubs and small catfish. They eat leeches, nymphs, small eels, natural flies, and all kinds of things that fall into the water, such as ants, worms, bugs, even mice and small snakes. And one of their favorite snacks is old pinchnose the hellgramite. The largemouth is such a stuffer that when hunger pangs assail him he's sudden death to almost any living thing that comes near him. He'll eat his nearest and dearest relatives, and has even been known to snatch a squirrel running along a log in the water, and to take birds of assorted sizes.
With such a wide variety of items to match or imitate, the bass fisherman should have a well stocked fly box and when he's so armed, he's certain at some time or other to have fine sport. There will be days, of course, as with any kind of fishing, when hits are few and far between, and a fellow should have gone to the movies, or "stood in bed"; but in general, with the right equipment plus a little thought and the right technique, he can have a banner day with bass.
And because one or the other of the basses is found reasonably close to almost any spot you can name in the United States and Canada, the bass fills a mighty void for the thousands of avid fly rodders who would otherwise be left high and dry when trout season ends in mid-July or August throughout most of the country.
If I were to choose a single fly rod artificial for both smallmouth and largemouth black bass, it would be a popping bug. A popper does something special to a bass as it makes a popping sound, caused by water action against the collar.
Probably the best working model is the bug made of balsa wood. This has lightness for casting and for effective lure play, even in large sizes. It can be popped or slid or skidded across the surface, or pulled under, according to the way it is constructed, and generally can be played with real zip and pep so as to appear to be something very much alive. Other materials may be more durable, but none performs with the same lifelike actions as does the balsa wood popper. The new plastic popping bugs, however, while a little heavier per size, also do a workmanlike job and are more durable and retain their finish better. And in Southern canals, tiny poppers made of either balsa, plastic or cork, all with rubber legs, get a great play from fisherman out for bream but taking bass on the side.
Because bass are found around weed beds so often, there are now quite a number of weedless poppers on the market, and they are good because they give the angler the confidence to cast into grass patches and among lily pads, knowing he will not hang up and will be able to play the popper properly. It will "walk" across the grass and lily pads, and that's where some mighty nice bass are often lying.
Popping bugs vary greatly in size, from the little bream getters just mentioned, which are sometimes only the size of a thumbnail, to whopping big foolers that are primarily designed for the big maws of the largemouth but are frequently just as effective for smallmouths.
The action is built into a popper by the tyer, according to the way he wants it to work. Some are designed to be played with loud pops, while others are planned to make little noisehence are often called "sliders"- and are meant to be just pulled across the surface, rather than popped.
Yellow seems to be one of the best colors to use for bass but robin's egg blue is also good, especially for smallmouth. And black is greatly overlooked. Black has always brought me plenty of strikes and yet there are probably fewer professionally made poppers in black than in any other color. Combination colors that pay off are the bugs with head of red on a yellow body, red on white, and blue on white. These bugs have the face and maybe a quarter-inch of color painted all around the head part of the bug, then the rest of the body and usually the tail of deer hair are in the other shade.
An excellent strike getter is the all-black popper with yellow dots all over it, and another one is all white with black dots on sides and back. There is considerable doubt in my mind that the bass ever see those fancy designs on the sides and backs of bugs but the fishermen like them, both the tyer and the buyer, and they do catch fish.
The fisherman who goes for bass with streamers and bucktails should stock his fly book with a wide assortment as to both color and size. Bass are sometimes quite selective and the angler should be equipped with several of each of certain basic patterns, so that if he loses a couple he will still have more of what those fish are looking for.
Larger editions of the trout flies, usually tied on number 2 hooks, are excellent bass streamers. I believe the essential difference is that, in general, the more sparsely dressed fly is better for bass. Many bucktails are tied with so much hair that the wing looks dead, and acts that way, too. Even with good rod and line manipulation it still doesn't have the dash to get hits. But a sparsely dressed bucktail with hair tapered to a point at the end of the wings to give it a minnow-like appearance, results in some slamming strikes. Bucktails seem to expand somewhat in the water and these lightly dressed flies then take on added stature. Some of the best luck I have ever had with bass came to an ordinary white bucktail, sparsely tied on a number 2 hook.
Similarly, too many feathers in the wings of streamers make the fly appear too bulky in most smallmouth water and scare the fish off rather than enticing them into striking. However, even though the dressing may be skimpy, considerable length is good in these bass flies.
The standard all-time successful colors are the winners in bass streamers and bucktails. One of the best of all is a blue and white bucktail, the top half blue and the lower half white. The all white, the all yellow, the brown and white, and the black and white are all good producers. The yellow is especially good in discolored or roily water, as are the black and the brown. Black is a universally good color for both smallmouth and largemouth bass and in waters where black leeches occur as a natural food, then the black marabou will produce plenty of action. Streamers which are bass getters are the red hackle with white wings, yellow hackle with barred rock wings, red hackle with yellow wings, and most of the standard New England streamers such as the supervisor, the Wilson special and such flies designed primarily for trout. The honey streamer as tied by Lew Oatman of Shushan, New York, is also a killer.
While dry flies are not widely used for bass, there are certain situations when smallmouths will knock the feathers off them, and occasionally the largemouths, too, will go for a big dry.
When you're after smallmouths in rivers, a size 6 dry fished as it would be handled for trout, with accent on the perfect float, will often produce wonderful results. Many smallmouths are found in little meadow runs that hardly seem big enough to hold fish, yet from such places I have taken smallmouths up to three pounds, and it is fun with a light outfit and small flies.
As in trout fishing, this kind of water calls for a quiet approach and careful delivery and to fish these small waterways I use an 8-foot rod, an HDH line and a leader tapered to a 3-pound test point, or roughly, a 2X tippet. Dry flies that work well are the standard patterns of royal coachman, black gnat, light Cahill, ginger quill, and the hairwing dries, all on size 8 or 10 hooks.
As is the case with dry flies, only a handful of anglers ever use nymphs for bass, but when the occasion calls for them, and when properly played, nymphs are good items for smallmouth. Only a few patterns will be needed in the bass fisherman's book, however, because if the bass are hitting nymphs it will usually be either the large gray nymph, or a large black one tied on a number 4 hook. This particular one matches the hellgramite on which bass feed so avidly and brings thudding strikes. And nymphs tied to represent the large salmon flies, trout flies and willow flies of the West are also good with smallmouth.
When bass are hitting on top, I'd rather use a popping bug, and if they're just below the surface, then my choice is a streamer. But there are plenty of times when the fish are lying deep and seem to need something to stir them up, and at such times there is nothing quite like the fly and spinner combination to produce results. This tandem pair is designed to look like a minnow, with the flashy spoon to catch a dormant bass' attention and get him moving.
It takes a good stout rod to throw such a fly because nothing but a strong tip would stand the constant strain of lifting the heavy lure from the water and casting it repeatedly. Perhaps this is one reason-that this oldtime favorite of bass fishermen is so seldom used today-that in many places it is next to impossible to buy ready-made flies of this kind. Yet I remember one day last summer on a northern Ontario lake when I tried everything in the book without any luck, and then dug that old spinner rigged with a Colonel Fuller wet fly out of my box. It had been lying there for a couple of years, unused. But that day it brought the previously lazy smallmouth roaring up for it, to give me one of my best days of the season.
Even when it is not possible to find the ready-made flies, it is easy enough to purchase small spinners of the type used in both trout and bass fishing and to attach a favorite fly to them. The spinners should be in size number 2 for clear water, or number 3 for roily or muddly water. Bronze, silver or gold color is a matter of seeming indifference. It is the flash that counts. Sometimes, especially when the water is very heavy or discolored, a tandem spinner will attract notice and bring strikes.
Flies to be used with these spinners should be tied on hooks with a straight eye, as a turned down eye will not allow the fly to ride freely, but instead forces it to one side, thus preventing good action.
With all the spinner combinations, the retrieve should be slow and steady, so that the fly swims, drops, swims, drops, while the spinner gives out the glint to draw the eye of the fish to the wounded minnow which I suspect this combination represents. Sometimes if this fails to catch their eye, a smooth, slow retrieve will stir them. The important thing is that the spinner blade be moving from the time it enters the water until it is lifted from it.
FISHING FOR SMALLMOUTH BLACK BASS
Two of the best smallmouths I've ever caught came to big poppers. One was taken from an Ontario lake only a few acres in size, one evening when I dropped a yellow popping bug on the mirrored surface and popped it only once. While the tiny waves were just starting to roll out from it, I had a strike that tossed water all around and out came a big-headed, pot-bellied smallmouth that was ready for just about anything. It took me a long time to get him in.
He weighed 5 1/4 pounds, one of the biggest smallmouth black bass I've ever seen. When we got in to the dock, I looked down his throat. A broad tail was sticking out.
"Look," I said to Frank Bentz who was fishing with me. "Full to overflowing, and he still socks a bug."
I took a pair of pliers and clamped down on that protruding tail and carefully pulled out the half decomposed carcass. It was seven inches long, what was left of a bullhead.
"They sure like big things to eat," I said. "And this shows that you can make them mad by working a big popper, too." "That fish had to be mad, all right," Frank agreed. "The way he was packed he couldn't have swallowed a no-see-um."
A year later I was fishing with Frank again, with the same model bug, and for the same species, smallmouth black bass. We were with Fred Narvel at Port Deposit, Maryland, and we were fishing the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Dam. We had been working the shoreline with poppers and getting enough fair sized fish to get a big bang out of it.
Then I put on an extra big popper and the minute it dropped, in close to the shore, it looked as if a landmine had exploded. Then, as my nerves jolted back into their grooves and my eyes stopped spinning, I saw the shape of a great, bronze-backed fish emerging above the splashes of water, a long, wide, ferocious smallmouth, the biggest of all.
That was a fight, too, because he was as powerful as he looked, with the spunk of a great fighting species to back him up. But I finally brought him to net. He weighed 61 pounds, the largest smallmouth I've ever taken.
The greatest charm of fishing with poppers is that they bring the bass within sight of the angler as it hits. The popping bug lets him in on the whole works. He has the fun of manipulating the bug to coax the fish to it, then he gets a bang out of the strike, right there in plain view, and then the excitement of fighting the fish near the surface.
But the bug must be worked right to produce results. A popping bug, especially a big one, without proper play, is as impotent as a sea cucumber. Most novices at the popper game just throw the bug out and bring it back at once in a series of pops, maybe for five or six feet, and then pick it up and cast again. And usually they rip the line off the water so hard that they scare the scales off any nearby fish. Bringing it back so fast doesn't give the fish time to get to it and the undue surface commotion discourages him from even trying. Most fish, on seeing a bug drop to the surface, swim away and then turn to see what's happening. If they see the bug resting quietly there, or making only a slight dent in the surface, they'll usually swim back to see what's cooking, and that's when the angler has his chance. And unfortunately, that 's the time the novice chooses to rip the line off the water, and then the fish is suspicious for sure. In fact, he's convinced that all is not as it should be.
But an angler who knows how to put a popping bug through its paces can make it talk the right language to make that bass come up and sock it, make him so mad he wants to grab it and smash it flat. So the popper should be rested quietly a moment, then popped gently, then brought back in a slow retrieve of interspersed pops and rests. If that doesn't work, then try a faster retrieve. Make the bug act like a minnow skipping across the surface. Use small pops across the top. Use a big, hard pop now and then, one that really kicks up a commotion and makes a big fish think that there's something he wants.
But always remember that there is plenty of attraction for bass, both big and small, in a still lure. Especially in hot weather, the slower the play the better. The bug should be stopped dead and allowed to lie on the surface for as long as half a minute. Sixty per cent of all strikes come when the bug is not moving, but resting quietly on the surface.