October 26, 2015
By Lynn Burkhead
“I cast a big Near Enough deer hair froggie to the edge of a five-foot-wide pothole of open water, let it sit there for two, three, maybe four minutes and then gave it a twitch. The fly went down in a rise that looked like a toilet flushing. That’s what bass fishers say. It’s not the prettiest analogy in angling, but, I’m sorry, that’s exactly what it looks like.” — John Gierach, “Texas” essay in “Dances with Trout”
“There is just something terribly satisfying about watching the chug-chug of a bass popper get violently interrupted by a falling bowling ball.” — Louis Cahill, “The In-Law’s Bass Pond” essay on GinkandGasoline.com
In a world where trout tend to dominate the fly fishing culture – and I love to chase rainbows, browns and brookies with the best of them – if pushed to pick my favorite species on the fly, it would hands down be a bass.
Why is that? It’s because of topwater poppers, my favorite way to fly fish for largemouths and their small jaw cousins, which will usually hit a well-placed popper in one of two ways.
Like a porcelain throne or a bowling ball, as in the former flushing and the latter falling from the sky.
Take a morning spent fly fishing on one of my local bass waters, where from the seat of my sit-on-top Wilderness Systems kayak, I got to experience both methods of take.
Early on that day, while fishing a shad colored Bob’s Banger over a submerged laydown that fell off the end of a main-lake point, the fly was there one minute before totally vanishing the next.
With a commotion and sound that could only be compared to … a toilet flushing by a big North Texas bass.
I’m sad to say that I was so surprised by the sudden turmoil in the water and unexpected absence of my fly that I failed to get a proper hook set.
Which was more than enough for a bass that was pushing 5-pounds or better to dive into the flooded jungle below, gain some leverage and throw the hook.
I won’t lie – it took a while for my jangled nerves to settle down after that furious swing and a miss. It was a big fish, the kind that rattles you for a spell.
But a half-hour later, my nerves were again serene as I plied the shaded waters of another likely looking area complete with shallow water, a little vegetation, some timber and a deep-water escape route sitting nearby.
This time, I was more than ready when a bowling ball fell from the heavens and smacked the smithereens out of the black-and-gold popper I was now tossing.
With a solid hook-set, I was quickly buttoned-up to this chunky bass no matter how much he protested. Jumping once, then twice, the bass then tried to make my kayak swap ends a few times.
As I smiled and remembered yet again why I love playing this grand game of fly fishing for black bass.
The fish showed plenty of courage – especially for one that only pushed the scales towards the three-pound mark – as I battled it to the plastic boat's side.
Once there, I admired the bass, slipped the hook from his jaw and let it slide away from my grip into the oily water surrounding the shady spot.
Not a bad morning of popper fishing, complete with a few flushing toilets and bowling balls falling from the skies.
As I paddled back towards my truck, I began to think about why I am so addicted to this pursuit of convincing a bass that my popper is the next best thing to a Happy Meal.
One reason came years ago as I fished Lake Fork with my friend Rob Woodruff, an Orvis endorsed fly guide.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and coffee at a lakeside cafe, I began the morning by tossing a frog-hued popper towards a wall of cattails and vegetation standing in three feet of water.
On the day's first cast, there was a soft plop as the fly found its mark. A brief pause to let the rings on the water slowly ripple away. And then a soft tug on the fly line.
All of which was followed by a ferocious splash as a solid 4-pound largemouth decided that it was his own breakfast time in the gloom of a cloudy and humid late spring morning.
There was a brief but intense fight during which the deep green bass vaulted skyward a couple of times and thrashed around as it desperately tried to throw the #1 hook on the Orvis bug.
Eventually, on one of those leaps, the bass flung its head in the direction of Rob’s bass rig and did just that – throwing the hook – before returning to Fork’s timber-choked waters.
Noticing a pattern here? Trust me, it gets worse.
A couple of springs ago, I was kayak fishing on Fork as the evening sun made its way towards the western horizon. I had enjoyed a fair day of late spring bass fishing but had never made contact with the big bruiser that I was hoping to hook-up with.
That changed suddenly when I threw a big white popper near some flooded timber lying next to a small drop-off in the bottom contour.
One minute the fly was there, the next minute it was gone as the darkening water swirled around it viciously.
I’d like to tell you that I landed this big post-spawn bass, one that I estimated at 8 pounds or better. Unfortunately, I did not.
But I did have a good two-minutes of hand-to-fin combat as the lunker pulled this way and that, giving me a pretty good kayak sleigh-ride in the process as it put a sizable bend into my eight-weight fly rod.
Just before I reached to land the fish, the bass dove again and the line suddenly went limp as my popper finally came unbuttoned.
Leaving me to sit there for a moment or two as I soaked in one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in warmwater fly fishing.
Notice I said one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had.
Because I’m not sure anything will ever top the close encounter I had with a bass dubbed “Orca” a few years ago, a big bucketmouth that came calling while I was fishing with Woodruff on a secluded lake deep in the East Texas Pineywoods.
We had already enjoyed a memorable day landing several good bass between us, most on topwater poppers. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling pretty smug as we continued to work poppers along the hard edge of a weed-line.
Because of that smugness – you know, as the Bible says, pride goeth before the fall – I was a bit unprepared for what happened next.
In short, I pulled the popper from the water, let it sail behind me on the back cast and then propelled it forward as the fly line completed its unfurling journey.
In the exact millisecond that the fly touched down upon the water, a huge geyser of spray erupted to its side as a giant bass leapt skyward.
Like a killer whale arcing above the H2O, “Orca the Bass” came hurtling up out of the water, turned hard to its right as it sailed up and over the popper and then turned its fury downward as it sledge-hammered its way home.
Pile driving my size #1 popper well below the lake’s rippled surface.
Anyone remember the old antique Heddon Lures sign of a bass doing exactly the same thing?
Well, as my Texas A&M Aggie friend, Woodruff, looked on in amusement at his Texas Longhorns friend sitting befuddled in the other seat, I got to see the fly fishing equivalent of that tin advertisement, up close and personal.
After the initial shock of that explosive take wore off, I tried a half-second later to set the hook.
And for the briefest period of time – 10 seconds or less – I actually had the bass hooked.
Before the line suddenly went limp, leaving me with my jaw gaping wide-open once again.
So I guess we'll call it field research as yours truly continues to try and figure out which topwater take I like better.
The porcelain throne flushing, or a bowling ball suddenly dropping out of the sky.
Either way, whether it's a memorable catch or another in a series of spectacular failures, I can't wait to do it all over again.
Chasing bass with a long rod in my hand and a popper at the end of my fly line, somewhere deep in the heart of Texas.