February 23, 2016
By Lynn Burkhead
If you've been reading this On the Fly series about catching big bass on the fly at East Texas' Lake Fork, you've probably figured out by now that the 27,264-acre water body near Quitman is big bass country and then some.
How else do you describe a place that boasts 32 of the top-50 largemouth bass ever caught in Texas, an exclusive club that takes a bucketmouth bass weighing more than 15.38 pounds to even gain entry into?
Because of that track record, not to mention the labyrinth of boat docks, dense aquatic vegetation and leader-sawing timber that fills the light green waters of Fork, Orvis-endorsed fly fishing guide Rob Woodruff says not to come under gunned to this Pineywoods' lunker factory.
Because if you do, you'll almost surely get your angling heart broken into pieces – if not your fly rod itself – since Fork is a place that literally demands heavyweight fly tackle, the same kind that a fly rod enthusiast might target a double-digit saltwater redfish with.
"As for fly rods, I'd say bring a minimum of an eight-weight," said Woodruff, who prefers the Orvis Helios 2 or Recon series of rods. "And I carry nine-weight and 10-weight rods too. I will even occasionally use a 12-weight when I'm hunting for a really big fish."
Sounds crazy, right? Not at Lake Fork, where Woodruff and his clients have landed huge bass weighing nearly 12 pounds.
"As for rod actions, I like a mid-flex rod for floating lines and a tip-flex rod for sinking lines or sink tips," he added.
What about those fly lines? Woodruff notes that while a floating line will suffice a good portion of the time, most of his big bass have come on subsurface presentations several feet down.
Because of that, it pays to have other options available in the form of different fly reels (or spare spools) loaded up with a variety of different fly line options.
For upper-water column presentations in the spring, summer and fall, Woodruff suggests a floating bass taper fly line that can efficiently turn a big fly over.
For subsurface targets when bass are staging in water of five to 10 feet in depth, he points to the new Orvis Hydros HD Bank Shot sink-tip line – or even an intermediate line – for mid-water column presentations.
During the winter and summer months when Fork's big bass are lurking deep in sizable schools situated around underwater structure, he'll opt for a 350- to 400-grain Orvis Depth Charge integrated shooting head sinking line when he needs to get the fly down quickly to such offshore bass.
"It isn't necessarily the easiest fly fishing of the year, but you can get a fly down to them," said Woodruff. "And when you do, they are usually grouped up, tend to feed in unison across that whole area and are often schooled up in big sizes."
What about leaders and tippets?
With a floating line, Woodruff uses a 7 ½- to 8-foot hand-tied leader in the following formula: approximately 2.5 feet of Ande Billfish in 30-pound Tournament Yellow (to aid in subsurface strike detection); approximately 2.5 feet of Ande Billfish in 20-pound Tournament Green; and approximately 2.5 feet of Orvis AR tippet material in 16-pound test mono at the end.
When he is fishing sink tips and sinking lines, Woodruff will usually go with three feet of straight tippet material in the 16-pound range.
Another area where the guide and Texas A&M entomology graduate likes to "tie his own" are in the various fly patterns that he uses.
A commercial fly tyer in his spare time, Woodruff's patterns are practical, artistic and designed to answer a specific presentation need to target the bass at Lake Fork.
"I like a lot of non-weighted action in my flies," said the guide, who is always tinkering around at his Regal fly-tying vise, looking for the next pattern that a big Fork bass can't refuse.
"Lately, I've been doing a lot of work in articulated flies because I can get increased action and even more weedless performance out of them.
"And I've found that articulated flies are harder for a big fish to throw since they tend to dampen the force that comes with their big head shakes."
Articulated or not, such fly patterns also easily resemble the various gray, silver, chartreuse, yellow, white, orange, red, olive, green and even black hues that will be found on the lake's primary forage species like threadfin, gizzard shad, bluegills and other sunfish species and yellow bass (barfish).
Where are crawfish on this list? Woodruff concedes that the crustaceans are indeed an important food source for Lake Fork bass, but he also notes he's had a difficult time in making a crawdad imitation that doesn't hang up on the timber-choked bottom at Fork.
Like most other fly anglers, Woodruff loves to fish topwater patterns. Given the option, deer-hair bugs on slick days when fish are spooky and hard-bodied 1/0-size poppers on days featuring a little breeze can be tough to beat.
But Woodruff also is quick to note an angler must show up to Fork with more than a box full of surface flies.
“Come with flies to fish from the top to the bottom, especially from four inches to four feet below the surface in the mid-level of the water column,” he said, noting that of his half-dozen fly-caught double-digit bass at Lake Fork, none have ever been caught on surface oriented flies.
"People err too much fishing topwater flies for bass," he said. "It's a lot of fun, but conditions need to be just right. And even then, it's really hard to catch a really big bass on a popper."
Because of that, Woodruff's fly box for the lake will include his own subsurface creations like the I.C. Fly; the Lake Fork Leech; the Swamp Rabbit; the SiLLI Shad; Rob's Patassa; Rob's Keel Shad; and the articulated Woodruff's Dizzy Shad among others.
Several of those patterns, with intentionally designed neutral buoyancy built in, are often his go-to big fish flies along with a few others like Daniel Soltau's Wet Bandit articulated fly pattern.
Do they work? In a word, yes.
Take Woodruff's Patassa (a Cajun French word that means sunfish) for instance, a rabbit-strip Deceiver style fly that can be cast a mile, bounced off of timber and allowed to hover in the water with big fish tempting action.
I was fishing with Woodruff one recent spring when he bounced a bream-color Patassa off of two stumps, killed it and proceeded to land a 7-plus-pound and a 9-plus-pound largemouth in just a couple of hours time.
A couple of springs ago, I fished with Woodruff again and got to try the articulated Dizzy Shad, another carefully thought out pattern that mimics the underwater action that conventional gear anglers get with a jerkbait.
Tied with Fish-Skull Fish-Masks (by Flymen Fishing Company), the big fly was a deadly bass go-getter and produced a number of solid fish on a tough East Texas springtime day.
On days when the action is even better, the fly can get hammered by big Fork bass looking for an easy protein-packed meal.
I'll admit such flies aren't as easy to cast about as a small #6 bass popper might be on a quiet farm pond or small lake where bass might weigh 2 or 3 pounds.
But then again, an angler doesn't come to Lake Fork hoping to catch a 2- or 3-pound bass either, not when double-digit-size bucketmouths grumpily lurk in the shadows.
Giant fish that demand a heavyweight approach to fly fishing on an East Texas body of water that just keeps on keeping on, annually cranking out numerous fish that are the bucketmouth bass of a lifetime for most anglers.
A fish that at Lake Fork, at least, is always but a single cast away.