April 25, 2022
A few weeks ago, I was almost ready to call it a day after proving—for one outing at least—that:
- There were no longer any largemouth bass in my home water.
- It was too early and the water was too cold.
- And/or, I really need to reconsider my ongoing quest to catch a 10-pound largemouth on a fly rod.
But just before I gave up, I saw a flick of a tail in a couple of feet of slightly stained water. Despite the gloomy, overcast day—hardly the ideal conditions for sight casting for lunker-sized springtime bass—I finally made out the rest of the bass’ thinly veiled form.
The first fly I tossed toward the shallow bass was promptly ignored. It was a shad-like baitfish pattern resembling the primary ingredient in the water body’s forage base. After a couple of other similar casts, there was no reaction and I decided to rummage through the fly box to see if I could find something else.
Figuring that the bass was on a bed, or soon about to be, I finally settled on an old purple rabbit strip pattern that resembled a lizard or salamander, a watery springtime enemy that sowbelly bass hate with a passion. Tied on a Mustad hook, this 15-year-old fly pattern had a 2-inch tail and a mono anti-fouling guard tied in, a body section wrapped in purple opal Estaz, a couple of medium lead dumbbell eyes, and even a cured red epoxy bead next to the eye of the hook.
The pattern was tied by my fly-fishing friend Rob Woodruff, and had been carried to Alaska back in 2006 for a silver salmon trip on the Tsiu River. While I don’t remember if I caught a big silver salmon or not, I was about to see if I could catch a chunky Texas largemouth after I retied and threw back in, even though I could no longer see the fish.
Two casts later, there was a solid thump, a quick strip-strike hook-set, and a strong battle to the net with a largemouth weighing more than five pounds.
Not a bad way to salvage a springtime day of fishing, even though the practice of sight fishing for bedded bass in the early months of the year can be controversial. Some question whether the practice is harmful to bass fisheries, a topic that was examined here at Game and Fish recently.
Others shrug their shoulders and go about a time-honored practice that has gone on for generations with negligible effect noted. Count Bass Pro Tour veteran Shaw Grigsby among those sold on sight fishing for largemouth bass each spring when they are at their biggest weights of the year.
Shaw was the focal point in a four-part series with us a few years ago, detailing his thoughts on sight fishing each spring; some of the tactics he uses to target such lunkers; how he caught a 13.6-pound largemouth sight fishing in a tournament one year, the biggest bass of his long and storied career; and some of the gear he uses when fishing skinny water each spring.
Certainly, in the conventional bass fishing world, the topic of fishing for bedded bass during the springtime spawn is well accepted, even if some others discount the practice.
That being said, should a fly fisherman try and catch a big bass on a bed during the spawn? For the answer to that, I turned to Woodruff, a former full-time Orvis endorsed fly guide on Fork who now lives on the Norfork River in trout rich northern Arkansas with his wife Jenny. After guiding in East Texas and southeastern Oklahoma for two plus decades—and management stints at the El Pescador saltwater fly-fishing lodge in Belize and the Rock Creek Lodge in southwestern Montana—Woodruff has thought long and hard about the topic.
“I think it’s situational,” said Woodruff, who has targeted big bass on the fly on Fork for more than 30 years. “If you do it — and land it quickly and don’t touch it with dry hands — if you do that, (then) you probably haven’t hurt anything.”
As a general rule, Woodruff targeted pre-spawn and post-spawn fish sitting just off the bank. Those tactics obviously worked since the three-time finalist for the Orvis Guide of the Year award has experienced lots of lunker success on 8-, 9-, and even 10-weight fly rods.
That success included guiding clients to several double-digit fish along with his own landing of seven double-digit bass weighing up to 11.75 pounds. While he didn’t typically target bedded bass, on a few occasions over the years, Woodruff made an exception, as long as he was the only angler in sight.
If that sounds like a bit of fly fisherman’s overkill, Woodruff politely explains his reasons why.
“An East Texas lake like Fork is quite crowded in the spring,” he said. “Fishing for a bedded fish might bring other anglers over who are also going to try to catch that fish. It may not be us in my boat that causes the problem, but the 12 other anglers that we are going to show that fish to (could be). So, I try not to hit a bedded fish when it’s crowded or there’s a tournament going on.”
Since fly anglers often take particularly good care of fish — including not flipping them into the boat or letting them flop around on a bass rig’s carpet — Woodruff understands that the occasional practice of tossing a fly towards a bedded bass is hard to resist when water temperatures are climbing, dogwood trees are budding, and a double-digit challenger is in mere inches of water.
If you are going to fish for such bass with a fly rod, here are some important things to keep in mind, according to Woodruff:
- First of all, use a sharp, barbless hook. In his opinion, flies tied Clouser-style are less likely to kill a big fish by gill hooking them.
- Next, use at least an 8-weight fly rod with heavy 16-pound or better tippet so you can play the fish as quickly as possible. “Yes, you can land big fish on a 6-weight, but the additional fatigue and lactic acid build up the fish experiences (during the long fight) will probably kill it within a few days,” he notes.
- Once you have the fish beside the boat, Woodruff says the best tactic is to unhook it without removing it from the water. “If you want to take a CPR style photo, hold the fish in the water until the camera is ready, wet your hands and bring the fish out of the water for no more than a few seconds, snap the photo, and then return the fish to the water,” he said. “Never touch the fish with dry hands or lay it on boat carpet.”
- Don’t use a landing net unless you must. Woodruff says that if you must, be sure to dunk the net into the water before netting the fish. I’ll add that you want it to be a soft rubber landing net — like the Nomad series from Fishpond — which is much less likely to remove scales or any of the protective slime layer on a bass.
- Be selective—Woodruff says don’t fish for bedded bass in heavily fished areas and avoid fish that are on exposed beds. He says that such fish can be caught more than once on a springtime day, which increases their risk of lethal injury and/or exhaustion.
- Woodruff urges anglers to never fish for a single male bass that is holding tight to one spot on a bed. “This indicates that he is guarding eggs that have been laid and fertilized,” he said. “Always look closely for a cloud of small fry around the head of the bass that you see moving about in shallow water. In both cases, the fish will be easy to catch, but the bluegills, crawfish, etc. will have a feast while you are having fun catching the fish.”
- Finally, Woodruff says not to spend the entire day fishing for bedded fish. “There are plenty of pre-spawn and post-spawn fish that are feeding and will readily take your fly.”
The bottom line for an experienced bass guide like Woodruff is that fly fishing for bedded bass on occasion each spring isn’t likely to cause any harm, depending on the situation of course.
But be careful, I’d add, because catching a big fly rod fish in skinny water and getting a quick photo can produce a powerful adrenaline rush that you’ll remember for the rest of the year.
Especially when that bass comes at the end of an otherwise fruitless spring day and after you find a purple salamander fly tucked away in the shadowy recesses of your fly box. After all, as author Chris Santella once wrote, the tug is the drug.