Landing a Double-Digit Bass 'On the Fly'
Truth be known, it's one of the rarest of all feats in warmwater fly fishing, the task of successfully hooking and landing a double-digit largemouth bass while fishing with a fly rod.
It's a rarity because not many anglers ever land a 10-pound largemouth with any type of fishing gear, let alone fly fishing gear.
Leading to the oft-used cliché that many aspire and yet few obtain, at least where the rarely visited angling territory of a double-digit bass is concerned. And that includes yours truly.
But I keep trying every year, buoyed by the quality of the water that I'm privileged to fish, not to mention my near misses. Like a huge bass that I hooked, and lost, while kayak fishing at Lake Fork a few years ago.
The big sowbelly came up, smashed my popper with abandon and proceeded to tow me around for bit in a kayak sleigh ride, before coming unbuttoned, that is.
Then there was the big lunker that I hooked at a small unnamed lake in North Texas - sorry, even writers keep a few secrets close to the vest - a couple of springs ago.
Fishing a frog imitating fly, the huge bass exploded on my cast and gave me a run for my money before burying up in the thick vegetation and coming free.
Despite my own shortcomings at landing a bass in the 10-pound class by fly, I keep trying. And I keep getting encouraged each year by the rare tales of those who have lived in the territory where I dare to tread as a fly angler.
Like my friend Rob Woodruff, an Orvis endorsed fly fishing guide on East Texas' famed lunker factory Lake Fork (www.flyfishingfork.com; (903) 967-2665).
Woodruff, a Texas A&M entomology grad who has been a full-time fly fishing only guide since the early 1990s, has lived my dream more than once.
In fact, as of this writing, the Quitman-based guide has successfully landed a total of five double-digit bass on the fly while losing a handful of others that were in the same size range.
He also routinely guides clients to the feat on Lake Fork and other East Texas waters. That includes Georgia angler Christian Robertson, who landed a double-digit near miss bass a few years ago while fishing with Woodruff at Lake Fork.
The bass that Robertson landed after a tense skirmish would tip Woodruff's Boga Grip scale at 9.80 pounds, just shy of double-digit territory.
Big flies - even articulated ones - are often a key in catching huge bass on the fly. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Near miss or not, that’s still pretty tall cotton for a fly-caught bass, especially since the Lake Fork fly rod record is a 9.52-pound fish caught by Johnny Walker on March 27, 2004.
“(That bass caught by Christian) was a tough fight,” said Woodruff, who noted that Robertson and his father landed 14 additional quality bass on the day while missing several others.
“I actually thought it would go 10 pounds when I first saw it,” continued the guide. “She actually wrapped Christian’s line around a stick and came back toward the boat. If he hadn’t been an experienced fly fisher with a tarpon or two under his belt, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a good enough hook-set so that we could get the fish unwrapped and eventually get her to the boat.”
Which caused me to ask Woodruff a key question in this whole process: once an angler hooks such a fish, how does that angler then go about getting the double-digit hawg into the boat?
To start with, an angler needs the right equipment set-up to tangle with big bass. Woodruff typically fishes with a nine-foot Orvis Helios II fly rod in either eight-weight, nine-weight or even 10-weight versions.
Hooking – and landing – a double-digit-size bass on the fly rod is one of the rarest feats that can be accomplished in warmwater fly fishing.
Attached to that rod, he’ll add an Orvis Access mid-arbor or a Mirage large arbor fly reel; an Orvis Hydros Bass/Warmwater weight-forward floating line; and a stout eight-foot leader that tapers down into a tippet in the 16-pound test range.
Beyond the right gear, an angler must also use a good big fish fly, one aimed at coaxing bites from the biggest females that swim.
Most days, that will be a four to six-inch sub-surface fly at the end of Woodruff’s line, either a Daniel Soltau's Wet Bandit or a Woodruff tied pattern like Rob’s Patassa, the Dizzy Shad or the Woodruff Diamond Shad.
After that, it all boils down to getting the fly in front of such a fish, enticing a strike and coming tight.
The latter requiring the proper completion of several key chores, all in the blink of an eye.
“The first key is a solid hook-set with a proper strip-set motion,” said Woodruff, whose best Lake Fork bass on a fly is 11.75-pounds.
“A couple of years ago, one of my clients had a fish probably over eight pounds eat the fly but he only got a tip set. In other words, he just lifted the rod like you would on a trout and that big bass didn’t get stung good enough. She eventually just opened her mouth and spit the fly out.”
Woodruff said that’s an understandable reaction since most fly fishers have trout fishing somewhere in their background.
What is a strip-set motion on the initial hook-set?
“If you were trying to elbow someone who had walked up behind you hard into their sternum, that’s the motion of a strip-set,” said Woodruff, a three-time finalist for the Orvis Guide of the Year award.
“It’s a hard, driving, straight-back motion with your line hand, all as you hold the line and pull it hard and backwards.
Georgia angler Christian Robertson caught this nearly 10-pound largemouth bass while fishing on Lake Fork with Orvis endorsed fly guide Rob Woodruff. (Rob Woodruff photo)
“As for your rod, you’re keeping it down until your off-side elbow is all the way back, then you are lifting up and out with your rod hand so that you use the butt of the fly rod to drive the hook point even deeper into the fish’s jaw.”
One key principle that Woodruff heartily recommends, in addition to constantly monitoring the leader for nicks, is to make sure that the hooks on an angler's flies are razor sharp and that the barb is mashed down.
“When you’re tossing flies tied with big 2/0, 3/0 and 4/0 hooks, it’s too big of an impediment to effectively drive the hook and the barb all the way home and through the jaw,” said Woodruff.
“Often the barb won’t get all the way through the jaw and the fish will eventually come off.”
By the way, Woodruff notes from personal experience that it also helps out if big flies have barbless hooks just in case an errant cast is made and the hook finds its way into human hide.
OK, so what does an angler do once they actually hook-up with a giant bass on a fly rod?
“The main thing to remember as you’re fighting the fish is that you’ve got to do so with upward pressure,” said Woodruff. “If you try and fight the fish with side pressure like you would on salt water, they’ll go down, wrap you up and break you off.”
In other words, fighting a huge bass on the fly in a timber-choked lake like Lake Fork is a short, brutal fight that is won or lost in just a few seconds.
“That’s right,” agreed Woodruff. “You surrender line only if absolutely necessary. You never try and get a big bass on the reel, you just hang on tight and only let line be pulled from your fingers.”
Woodruff, who has lost a fish or two over the years that he estimates would have been in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's ShareLunker range (13-pounds or better), says that his clients probably hook a half-dozen double-digit sized fish per year. But they typically only land two or three of them.
Why is that?
“Because a lot of anglers panic when they hook a bass like that,” said Woodruff. “They just freeze up.
"It comes boiling up out of that water and they go crazy and either clamp down so tightly that they pull the hook out or they just let the fish free-spool them, wrap them up and break them off.”
How does one avoid such panic?
“It comes with time on the water,” said Woodruff. “You’ll finally do it enough times that you will eventually get one in and that takes the pressure off of you."
One can only imagine, including yours truly, which is why I plan to keep casting a big fly into likely looking bass water this spring because one day, Lord willing and the creek doesn't rise, I'm going to know what it's like to gently cradle a true-blue Texas lunker bass the other side of 10 pounds.
A real, live Lone Star State bucketmouth caught, and released, on the fly.