Pictured above: The author shows off a chunky early fall bigmouth that smacked a cork popper on an eastern Long Island pond.
Surface bugs tempt big bass when the leaves change color.
The small bass bug left barely a ripple on the surface as I gave it a light twitch, a slight pause and then another twitch. Filled with anticipation, I tried to outwait what I hoped would be a lunker bigmouth sizing up my offering. Slowly I counted, “three alligators, four alligators, five,” and twitched the bug again. Instantly, the surface erupted as a bass inhaled the imitation and rolled toward open water. I delayed my strike just long enough to let the husky fish turn and then set the hook with a sharp tug of the fly line. The battle that ensued included a head-shaking jump followed by a cartwheel. It was fall bass fishing at its finest and I was thrilled to be using a fly rod.
The simple mention of fly-fishing can be a conversation stopper in some serious bass fishing circles. For many who target largemouths with powerful conventional rods, 30-pound-test braided line, a tournament mentality and baitcasting reels favored for their ability to winch hawgs out of the nasties, the thought of gently presenting a neatly dressed deer-hair frog or rubber-legged cork popper can seem a little too refined. Turns out, however, that today’s fly gear has muscle enough to accomplish the task with ease. In some situations, such as fishing in the gin-clear waters of mid-October, it might even have an edge on more traditional bassin’ techniques.
Although it is true that fly-rod bass fishing calls for gentle presentations at times, it’s a far cry from dapping trout on tiny creeks you jump across or targeting stockies in the local mill pond. It’s also a lot easier to get started than you might think. You’ll only need a few basic patterns and simple gear to get in on the fun. Consider also that most bass fans already have a pretty good sense of where to find their quarry and you may already be halfway to besting your first bigmouth with feathers and fur. Once you do, you’ll be hooked forever on the early fall season because the bucketmouths are refreshed by dropping water temperatures, competition from other anglers is light, and most of the action takes place on the surface.
It’s no secret that largemouth bass will take a frog, mice and various cork popper patterns throughout the summer months. The problem is that warm water means beating the brush, fishing in tight quarters, and tempting blowdowns, heavy structure and thick weed mats with every cast.
Come the fall, however, retreating weeds create more open pockets, predators push out from the shore and, for a brief period in late September and early October, anything on the surface becomes fair game for bucketmouths of all sizes. That can lead to some awesome days like the one I had in the third week of October two years ago. Working cork poppers on that midday trip, I caught and released more than 30 bigmouths ranging from 8 to 19 inches in the span of just three hours. Last year, during the first week of October, I used a deer-hair frog to drill over a dozen bass up to 4 pounds and then tied on a small cork popper to top off the day with seven monster bluegills and a 15-inch crappie!
As with any other kind of fishing, choosing your battles is a good idea. I like to target bigmouths with the long wand under relatively calm conditions. An especially good time to give it a shot is after the wind has blown hard from the south or west for two or three consecutive days. That brings slightly warmer temperatures and piles various terrestrials like dragonflies, moths, crickets and any remaining grasshoppers along the windward shore. When the breezes drop off, the action ignites. As long as water temperatures remain relatively mild, the bass will figure out that these tasty critters are pretty much helpless and begin to slurp them from the surface. Look for your most impressive scores to come against a small shoreline point, deep inside shallow coves, or parallel to significant straight-edged weedlines where soggy bugs try to gain some traction.
Adding to the natural fall chum slick, frogs are generally active through mid-October. They swim slower and more deliberately at this point, however, making them especially vulnerable to big bass looking for a substantial calorie boost. Keep this slowness in mind as you try to imitate them and be sure to thoroughly work any stretches that lie between a swampy bank and remaining lily patches or small, isolated islands of weed mats.
Three Basic Patterns
While early mornings can produce well through the first half of September, I find that evenings are better late in the month and through mid-October. Through this entire stretch, I prefer fishing under overcast skies. By mid-October, however, I usually shift to the midday beat, with noon to 3:30 p.m. my favored time slot. As the waters grow increasingly chilly with the approach of November, a bright sun can warm up bankside shallows, expansive flats, and the surface area over deep water, encouraging predators in such areas to become more active. While bass often grow shy as underwater visibility improves, the gentle “splat” of a small frog pattern or cork popper tends to call them in for a look rather than repel them, as the heavier entry of a larger lure might under such conditions. The takeaway from this scenario is to approach quietly, slowly and with a low profile whenever possible. Fall is the one time of the year when I really pay attention to wearing clothing that blends in with my surroundings as I target bigmouths—that holds whether I approach them by kayak, wading or boat.
While there are dozens of patterns to choose from when it comes to fly-fishing for bass, all you really need to get started with these fall fish are three time-honored standbys. First and most versatile is the cork popper. This can be the rubber-leg variety that looks like a large panfish popper, or something with a concave face and feathered tail. Green, yellow, red and white are all suitable colors. Next in importance is a basic green or yellow frog pattern, followed by a simple brown or black deer-hair mouse. Although weedless versions of the larger patterns are not absolutely necessary, they may provide an edge on shallow lakes and ponds where thick weeds sometimes take most of the fall to fully retreat.
With these three basic patterns, it is possible to cover any surface fishing activity and begin to have some fun. Streamers and various crayfish patterns will also work, especially in waters where smallmouth bass are a bycatch, but they require a little more skill to use effectively. If you get hooked on using the long wand for bass, you’ll eventually add these patterns to your arsenal but there’s no need to carry them when first getting your feet wet.
Hooked For Life
In terms of gear, keep it simple. A 5- or 6-weight rod is powerful enough to get the job done and floating fly line works best with a slow-paced surface approach. As for the leader, keep it short and simple. I use a 5-foot length of 8-pound-test pink Ande monofilament connected to the fly line by a uni-knot. I like the Ande mono because of its superior abrasion resistance and, since the length of the leader is so short while bass bugs are relatively large, I have no problem with unfurling the fly at the end of each cast. Be sure to carry along a pair of long-nosed pliers, and crush the barbs on your poppers, frogs and mice to help make unhooking your catch less of a chore. The faster and easier you get your quarry back in the water, the better its chance of survival.
Keep in mind that cooling water temperatures will slow the metabolism of the bass at this time of the year. That means as the fall progresses you’ll need to slow your retrieves considerably to continue provoking surface strikes. In a warm fall, I’ve had surface action lasting nearly to Thanksgiving. Most years, however, the splashes stretch into late October. That’s plenty of time to become hooked for life on using the long wand for late season bass.