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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Ray Bergman was one of the deans of American sportfishing. He held the post as angling editor at Outdoor Life magazine from 1934 to 1960. When Bergman retired from the staff of Outdoor Life he had more than 300 articles to his credit.
Bergman targeted all North America’s freshwater species including trout, bass, musky, pike, steelhead and salmon. Of these trout and bass were the species he most enjoyed pursuing. Whether fishing for trout or bass, fly fishing was Bergman’s favored approach. Bergman fished with conventional tackle, but given a choice he’d grab a fly rod every time.
As a child I discovered Bergman’s fishing books on a trip to the library. I was mesmerized by Bergman’s accounts of pursuing black bass with flies. For Bergman, who’s fishing career started in the early 1900’s, using a fly rod for black bass was a logical choice. At that time spinning gear was in its infancy and bait casting gear was crude and best suited for presenting large heavy lures. Back then a fly rod represented a “finesse” tactic that allowed the anglers to make a subtle presentation with lightweight offerings.
Today’s bass anglers seldom pick up a fly rod, while this is unfortunate it’s understandable. Unlike in Bergman’s time, we have access to both high quality spinning and bait casting gear that enable us to utilize lures spanning the spectrum from heavy swimbaits to ultra light jigs. Yet, I believe that every bass angler should give fly tackle a try.
There is something intangible about using a fly rod that is satisfying. Picture the scene, your deer hair mouse lands delicately along the edge of the tules. You begin twitching the fly forward. Suddenly the water bulges, the tules shutter and you see the sleek green largemouth as it rushes the fly. The rod snaps upward drawing into a graceful arc as the bass surges out of the water with the hair mouse pinned to its lip…
Are you ready to take a step back in time and try for bass the Ray Bergman way? If so, let’s begin by looking at the necessary tackle. Fly fishing has the undeserved reputation as being a complicated and expensive endeavor. Sure you can make it that way, but you can just as easily keep things basic. Mail order houses such as Bass Pro Shops offer fishing ready rod, reel and line combos for under $70 that will do the job nicely. That’s less than you expect to pay for a comfortable bait casting or spinning rig.
Fly rods are rated by line weight. The smaller the line weight the more delicate the rig. For bass you’ll want to stick with a 7 or 8 weight rod that is 9 feet in length. Once you’ve settled on a rod, reel and line the next step is setting up a leader. Fly leaders taper from heavy to light. The heavy section attaches to the fly line while the fly attaches to the light end. The taper is critical since this is what caused the leader to lay out straight.
Commercially tapered leaders are available, but you can easily make your own. My bass leaders consist of three 30 inch sections. For the rear section I use 30 pound mono. The middle section is made of 20 pound mono, while the light end consists of 12 or 15 pound mono. I connect these sections using improved clinch knots.
With your rig assembled and your leader attached it’s time to start casting. Most beginners think that learning to cast is difficult. In reality it is pretty simple as long as you don’t try to cast too far. If you can cast 20 or 30 feet you’ll catch plenty of bass. A large lawn is the perfect place to start. Instead of using a fly tie a couple short pieces of yarn to the leader. To cast, grasp the rod in your dominant hand and strip a few feet of line off the reel. The cast is made by moving your forearm from the 10 o’clock position to the 1 o’clock position. As you make that movement keep your wrist rigid.
At the top of the cast, pause for beat in order to let the line straighten out behind you. When you come forward aim for a location above and beyond where you want the fly to land. This way the fly will come to rest gently. As you practice evaluate your casts and adjust your timing until you leader is laying out smoothly.
Hardcore fly anglers utilize sinking lines to probe depths to 20 and beyond. The casual enthusiast should stick with floating line to target bass from the surface to 8 feet deep. If the bass are deeper than that conventional tackle is a better choice.
For shallow water fishing there are three basic types of flies, surface bugs, divers, and streamers. The most effective surface bugs are made out of deer hair to resemble mice or frogs and should be worked accordingly. A diver minnow shaped with a deer hair head and long feather body. These flies are worked like a floating minnow plug. At rest they set on the surface. When retrieve with a series of tugs and pauses they dive and display a rise and drop action that predators can’t resist. Streamers are sinking flies constructed of feathers and fur. These flies are tied to imitate baitfish. Think of streamers as suspending crankbaits. After casting the streamer, allow it to sink to the desired depth and then work it along with an erratic strip and pause retrieve.
The biggest adjustment you’ll have to make when switching from conventional tackle to fly gear is the means of retrieving line. With conventional gear the reel is used to move the lure through the water. To work a fly run the line between the index and middle fingers of the rod hand and retrieve line by striping it in with your free hand. When you hook a fish the fingers on the rod hand act as your drag. When the fish runs release line. When the bass weakens keep the line tight by stripping line in.
The classic places for using flies are cover chocked waters, but don’t hesitate using them in rocky open water reservoirs. I’ve had some memorable days targeting Folsom’s acrobatic spots and smallmouths with yellow divers worked over rocky structure.
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