As the line twitches in their fingers, the angler is careful in keeping his count. With each jerk of the fly line, the cork popper makes another theatric lap across the surface of the pond. Behind it, a peculiar ripple boils up to the water’s surface. With one more gentle strip, an explosion of water engulfs the fly and the angler rips their rod back. The line goes completely tight as the rod tip plunges downward. It feels as if there’s a bowling ball attached to the leader. suddenly, there is another explosion and out from the pond flies a tenacious, yet beautiful largemouth bass, its skin glowing in the setting sun’s light.
Fishing for freshwater Bass (specifically smallmouth and largemouth) can be one of the most intense and rewarding experiences on a fly rod. Between their geographical abundance, hyper-aggressive nature, and the power they can impose against a taught line, bass are a great opportunity for anglers to diversify their regularly targeted species, as well as have a great fight.
In this guide, we will break down everything you need to know about targeting American freshwater bass such as smallmouth and largemouth. We’ll cover where to find bass, how to catch em, and what gear you’ll need. This being said, saltwater bass, including the popular striped bass, as well as sea bass, will not be covered, however, keep an eye out for a guide in the near future. If you would like to move around the page, just click on any of the titles in the contents below.
The Difference Between Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass
No, It’s not a stupid question. Many anglers spend years in unknowing silence because they’re shamed into believing that the difference between the two fish is simply the name. However, this could not be further from the truth. Here is a quick glance at how these fish differ.
Mouth Size: While this is the most obvious distinction, not all anglers know how to identify it. Largemouth bass’ upper jaw will extend past their eye, while smallmouth bass’ upper jaws will stop in line with their eye.
Striping: Another easy way to identify between the two is the striping of the fish. Smallmouth bass possess vertical strips that line their bodies, while largemouths have horizontal stripes located around their bellies.
Dorsal fins: Another easily identifiable detail that separates smallies and largemouth bass is the break between a largemouth bass’ dorsal fin. Smallmouths do not have these breaks.
Location: Largemouth Bass are generally considered the lazier of the two. They prefer hanging out in calm water, specifically in ponds and lakes, and waiting for their food to come to them. When targeting smallmouth, remember that they tend to hunker down in faster moving current, and can often be found chasing minnows in streams and rivers. Smallmouth also prefer colder water, and will retreat to deeper pockets of rivers and lakes once the water temperature begins to rise.
Fight: When you hook onto a largemouth bass, it oftentimes feels as if you’ve hooked onto a bowling ball. Once these fish realize they’ve been hooked, they will often take off towards the depths, only to come up and jump out of the water. However, they will usually only jump once or twice. Smallmouth, on the other hand, are more unpredictable. Once hooked, smallmouth will attempt an array of gymnastic feats in order to try to shake your hook free. So, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for submerged obstructions where they could break you off, as well as watch out for their leaps.
What to Expect when Fishing for Bass
Fishing for Bass on the fly is oftentimes an angler’s secret addiction. The entire process is great fun and can be a more than satisfying relief from targeting finicky trout or non-existent musky. So, when prepping to land some of these underwater bullies, there are a few things to remember off the bat.
- Bass (usually) hit HARD. like an ornery brown defending its territory, the bass often attack flies with tenacity. If unprepared, a hungry largemouth will make light work of your fly. Now, we noted usually because like any other factor, there are exceptions to behaviors. Often times, when they spot a gently floating fly, they will simply inhale it. So, stay alert.
- Thick skin means a hard set. If you’ve never fished for bass or other thick-skinned relatives, make sure to understand your sets. Once you feel a bass has grabbed your fly, give the hook a strong set. You’ll often see professional Bass Fisherman send their entire body in their hook set, and while this isn’t entirely necessary, Bass have much thicker skin than trout. Because of this, hooking them securely requires a slightly more powerful set than just an upwards flick of the wrist.
- Expect an airborne attempt. As mentioned before, Bass (Smallmouth especially) will oftentimes take to the skies when they realized they’ve been hooked. Don’t let their size fool you, these monsters can fly. In preparation, once the hook is set, keep some line available and let it loose if the fish jumps. By giving it a small amount of momentary slack, the fly will be much less likely to shake from the fish’s mouth.
- Expect a good long fight. Once you’re hooked up on a Bass, know that the battle has only just begun. Bass are meaner than trout, and do not wear out as quickly. Because of their lack of dependency on specific water temperature and oxygen levels, bringing in a Bass will often be a more rigorous and lengthy procedure. By capitalizing on their robust, thick skin designs, bass will often mix in a variety of maneuvers in an attempt to break you off, or toss your hook, only to settle for an instant then try it all again. Remain patient with Bass, put in the time and understand that you’ll be bringing them in on their time, not yours.
Where to look for Bass
Bass are warm-water fish. This means, unlike cold-water fish such as trout, Bass have the ability to thrive in most areas of the United States. With this in mind, ideal ecosystems for bass will be areas that provide an abundance of food, space, and shelter. Due to their aggressive habits, bass do better in large ponds and lakes where they have the ability to move around and grow with minimal harassment, as well as minimal dietary interference.
Ponds and Lakes)
When fishing for bass, ponds and lakes are where you’re going to find a majority of large-mouth, as well as some decent small-mouth. In order to properly target these fish, check which techniques to use based on the season HERE.
Whether you’re casting from the shore or a boat, aim to land your fly around any large submerged structures. Drainage basins, downed trees, and even patches of weeds or lilly pads make a great target area. Bass, like many fish, spend most of their time around these submerged structures in order to stay protected from predators, out of the sun, and hidden from oncoming prey. By placing your fly, around these areas, you greatly increase your chance of hooking up an unsuspecting fish looking for an easy lunch.
When fishing in bodies of water with substantial depth, pay close attention to the topography of the area, and look for submerged ledges and drop-offs. For Bass, Drop-offs are an instant food delivery service where they can sit cool and out of sight awaiting an unsuspecting minnow or crayfish to wander too close to the ledge. When it comes to fishing these zones, don’t be afraid to let a lot of line out in order to get near the bottom of the dropoff. By getting your fly down deep, you’ll be able to cover the entirety of the drop off zone and hopefully entice anything that’s hunkered down there.
During the hot summer months, smallmouth and largemouth will head to the deeper sections of the pond in order to avoid the increasing heat. As mentioned before, smallmouth have a greater sensitivity to temperature change, but both species like to stay cool. Note, both species will most likely not cohabitate, so you’ll be able to figure out which fish your targeting pretty quick after your first catch.
Streams and Rivers)
When fishing for bass in moving water, you’ll primarily be targeting small-mouth. Smallies prefer slightly colder water and running current compared to their largemouth counterpart, and therefore will oftentimes thrive in streams and rivers. Lots of the time during the warmer summer months, anglers will begin to target smallmouth bass in their local rivers in order to compensate for unenthusiastic trout.
While the fish couldn’t be less alike, fishing for Bass in rivers is fairly similar to trout fishing. By utilizing current and keeping to riverbanks and deep holes, anglers will find great success in their pursuits. However, something to keep in mind is that while smallmouth Bass love strong, oxygen-rich current, they also love still water. Bass can often be found near the end of tributaries, in eddies, and in low current pockets culminating and chasing around smaller baitfish. If you see a glass water hole with a few submerged trees, you’d be a fool not to send a few casts in that direction.
When to fish for Bass
Time of Year
When it comes to Bass, warm water is the way to go. However, this is not to say Bass can’t be found during the winter, but in the spring and summer is the best time to target these fish.
In the spring, Bass will begin their spawning season. Before that, they will be in pre-spawn (April-May depending on the region). During this time, Bass will be feeding rampantly in preparation for spawn. This is an excellent time to target bass on large, shiny streamers.
Once the water heats to approximately 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit, bass will seek out deeper, more sheltered water to begin spawning. In areas such as lakes, it is important to remember that the water does not all reach the same temperature at once, so there will be hot spots where bass will be located, as well as dead zones.
Once spawning has concluded, near the end of spring, bass will be rather apathetic as they’ll be recuperating. However, within a few weeks, they’ll be back to their normal feeding habits. As the summer sun heats up the water to the high 80’s, largemouth bass especially will be targetable throughout all levels of ponds. During this time, smallmouth will be spending much of their time in fast-moving current in order to maintain their preferred temperature.
Time of Day
Bass are never really reluctant to feed, but like many other freshwater fish, they prefer to do their feeding in the early hours of the morning, and dusk. As temperatures rise and fall, fish activity usually possesses a negative correlation to temperature. On hotter days, larger fish will swim deeper in order to combat the heat (smallies especially).
The best times to shoot for would be 5am-9am, and then (depending on the time of year), 6pm-8/9pm. During these times, not only is the heat comfortable, but many animals that bass like to feed on make their way near or onto the water this time (mice, frogs, and certain insects).
What Rig to Use for Bass
When fishing for bass, whether it be shallow creek smallies, or deep pond Largemouth, it’s important to have the right rig. The most important thing to remember, is that bass spook less easily than trout, and tend to fight harder. With this in mind, it never hurts to pack heavy.
A 5-6 will almost always do the job. However, as previously stated, it’s better to overcompensate rather than underestimate. You never know when you’re going to hook onto the fish of a lifetime. If you want to be really safe, especially when fishing big lakes or rivers, pack an 8 weight. The extra durability will most likely benefit you in the long run.
Flylords Recomendation: Sage IGNITER (6 wt.)
When choosing a reel, just try to match it to whichever rod you’re using (weight wise). Using a large arbor is never a bad call, as sometimes monster bass can take you deep into your backing. Another factor to take into consideration is the drag on the reel. For bigger fish, we recommend using a “disk” drag over a traditional “click and pawl” system. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the click and pawl system, the disk drag accommodates for more gradual resistance as line is pulled from the reel.
Flylords recommended reel: Abel SDF (olive)
While your fly line requires less subtlety than with trout, it’s always important to have line that you can depend on, and can turn over heavy flies. some folks prefer sinking fly line, but when it comes to fishing ponds, a sinking leader will usually do the trick. As always, make sure to replace your line regularly, and to always let line dry after a long day on the water.
Flylords recommendation: Scientific Angler Amplitude Smooth Titan Long Taper Fly Line
This is all dependant on what kind of fly you’re fishing. Most likely, you’ll be using some sort of wet fly like a streamer. In this case, any leader between 4-2x should do the job. Make adjustments based on the average size of the water, as well as fish caught in it. For fishing poppers and dries, aim for no larger than 4x. Also, feel free to tie on some tippet to allow for a more gentle presentation. Total leader size (tippet can be included if used), should be around 7ft. by finding a solid middle between 9ft. and 5ft., you can improve presentation without making casting awkward.
What Flies to Use to Fish for Bass
Like many other elements of bass fishing, it’s not about the specific flies, but instead about their presentation. Below are a few guidelines that will help you to find the perfect fly for catching that pond monster.
Let it shine
Flies (primarily streamers), that implement a shiny or colorful element are a great way to catch bass’ attention. By utilizing flies with sparkly, shiny, or otherwise attractive elements is a great way to draw bass out from hiding. In murky pond water, bright flies are the difference between getting skunked and landing a PR.
Using poppers is not only an extremely enjoyable method for catching bass, but an extremely effective one. Popper flies, or just poppers are built to replicate the movement of a large topwater animal (usually a frog). Unsuspecting frogs as a perfect snack for a sneaky bass, and are commonly a large part of their diet. By stripping these flies in with small, abrupt strips, the commotion of the fly is sure to bring a hungry lurker your way.
By using weighted flies, you greatly increase your chances of getting a fly down to a big bass’ feeding lane. These flies are especially useful in the late summer as fish are hunkered down in deeper water in attempts to stay cool. Using heavy flies is also an important aspect when fishing big moving water, as it assures you that your fly will spend less time sinking, and more time looking delicious.
Movement is Key
Flies with moving parts is just another way to get the attention of apathetic fish. By using zonkers, rubber legs, or articulation, bass are more likely to fall into the hypnotic daze an easy meal presents. Without overdoing it, the more going on with your fly, the more likely it is to stand out to a fish.
If fishing for bass at night, all other rules apply. However, also feel free to break out that large mouse/rat pattern that’s been burning a hole in your flybox. While mice can be fished effectively at most points of the day, it’s at night when the monster fish make their rounds, preying on clumsy nocturnal rodents distracted by dangers above.
Can’t seem to get the attention of a fish with your olive woolly bugger? Try getting creative! in areas where food is in abundance, bass can sometimes grow content in their ability to find food, and will become less inclined to feed. If this seems to be the case, throw on something new. Perhaps it’s time for that pretty pink streamer you got as a gag gift to shine.
Flylords top 5 flies:
-Articulated Conehead Minnow
-Umpqua Swimming Frog
In closing, by following the tips in this guide you should be ready to get yourself on some serious bass. However, something to remember is there are techniques that work for some that don’t for others. Depending on factors far out of anyone’s control, sometimes certain methods work better than others. With that in mind, get on the water and experiment! Implement new techniques and get creative in order to find out what works best for you.
Most importantly, just enjoy your time on the water. Whether you’re catching bass, trout, perch, or trees, one of the best parts of fly fishing is being outside and living life. That being said, catching the bass of a lifetime never hurts either.
Article written by Flylords Team member Wills Donaldson