Opportunistic, hard fighting, and readily accessible across the country, smallmouth and largemouth bass are an insanely fun species to pursue on the fly. Fly fishing for bass can be intimidating to some however it’s one of the most accessible types of fly fishing around. Bass can be found in rivers, ponds, and lakes from New York City to Hawaii so there’s no excuse not to wet a line.
Smallmouth Vs Largemouth & Where to Find Them
For starters, let’s take a look at the physical differences between largemouth and smallmouth bass and where they can typically be found. Largemouth bass have a jaw extends beyond the eye and are green with a defined black lateral line.
Largemouth typically prefer shallow, weed and lily pad filled water and like plenty of cover. For this reason, small ponds in parks provide great habitat for largemouth bass which can be easily accessed on foot. When fishing lakes and rivers, target large structures like fallen trees that provide coverage for ambushing prey and protection from predators.
Smallmouth bass are easily identified by their jaw that extends to the middle of their eye. Smallmouth are typically a bronze or brown color and will have vertical black lines on their bodies and horizontal lines on their cheeks. Smallmouth tend to reside in deeper and cooler water compared to largemouths throughout the spring and summer. They can often be found in colder streams and cohabitate with various species of trout. Smallmouth bass will move into riffles to feed similar to trout and can often be found at the dropoff of a riffle into a deep pool.
Fly choice is not quite as important when fly fishing for bass as some other species. Bass will often have reactionary strikes and attack any fly that catches their attention. Crayfish are one of the biggest food sources for bass so having a variety of crayfish patterns like the Wooly Bugger, Meat Whistle, Slump Buster, or Nancy P are recommended. Throwing one of these flies against a bank with quick strips will imitate a fleeing crayfish and likely attract a resident bass.
For some, fly fishing for bass is synonymous with poppers, and for good reason. Topwater eats on foam poppers and deer hair bass bugs are some of the more exciting freshwater eats you’ll get. Throwing a frog imitation popper over lily pads or into structure is a surefire way to get an explosive eat from a lurking largemouth. Short, quick strips with a foam popper will drive bass crazy. Slider patterns are another way to target bass on the surface.
Fly fishing for bass wouldn’t be complete without a few minnow patterns. Tried and true classics like Clouser minnows, Deceivers, and Game Changers are must-haves for an aspiring bass angler. When fishing baitfish streamers, vary your retrieve with some pauses and variable strips. At the end of the day, bass are predatory, reactionary feeders so don’t overthink it!
Fly fishing gear for bass fishing, like most fly fishing, can be as simple or complicated as you want. Any 9’ fast action 6-8wt weight rod is ideal for throwing large, wind resistant flies. You can certainly get away with a 4 or 5 weight if that’s what you already have. When using lighter rods, plan to throw smaller flies like a Micro Game Changer. If you plan to regularly pursue bass and want a purpose built rod, consider the G. Loomis NRX+ Swim Fly Rod, which was designed specifically for large baitfish patterns, is perfect for targeting large and smallmouth bass.
When fly fishing for bass, choose large arbor reel with an adjustable drag in a size paired with your desired rod weight. While you can certainly play bass on click and pawl reels, an adjustable drag system is the way to go. The Ross Reels Animas is a phenomenal, American made reel with a super smooth drag. Available in ⅘, ⅚, and ⅞, there’s a model to pair with your favorite bass rod.
Choosing a line when fly fishing for bass is pretty simple. In most scenarios, aside from deep lakes and fishing from a boat, a weight forward floating line is all you will need to pursue bass on the fly. Choosing a weight forward fly line with a compact head is ideal as it will help turn over large, wind resistant patterns. When fishing with streamers and larger patterns, I turn to the Airflo Superflo Power Taper in 5wt and 8wt models for bass fishing and streamers due to its compact head, capable of turning over large flies, and unmatched durability.
If you plan to fly fish for bass from a boat on deeper lakes and rivers, you may want to consider and intermediate, sink tip, or full sinking line to help get your flies down quickly. Depending on the amount of structure in the lake, you may want to avoid sinking lines as you can get snagged frequently.
If you find yourself fishing a variety of water types, from shallow lily pad filled ponds to deeper lakes, consider attaching a sinking polyleader to a floating fly line to create a sink tip line.
Leaders for bass are pretty simple. When fishing top water, a leader in the 7-9’ range should do the trick. Using stiff, bass specific leaders will work however I’ll often use old trout leaders that are cut back into the butt section with a few feet of 10-20 pound tippet attached. If you’re fishing baitfish, leech, or crayfish patterns, using a 4-8’ fluorocarbon leader or section of tippet will usually do the trick, similar to streamer fishing for trout. Like fly selection, don’t over think it.
Get Out There
Fly fishing for bass is fun and accessible nearly anywhere in the country. Now that you have the basic knowledge of large and smallmouth bass, where to find them, and the gear required to target them, what’s stopping you? With the fly rod you already own and a handful of flies, you can be fishing for bass in no time.
Article by Evan Garda on the Content Team here at Fly Lords. He can be found chasing trout throughout the west with his trusty fly rods. Check out his adventures at @evangarda.