By Chad Wilde
If I was good when Ma was at the store, I could usually snatch a quarter to drop into the creepy-crawler vending machine. At our local Kmart, there was a row of vending machines by the exit that distributed treasures in small plastic bubbles. High-bounce balls, toy jewelry, and my favorites, the creepy-crawlers. These were hideous plastic toys, made in Japan, dragon-like horned reptiles and arachnid many-legged beasts. I collected them, keeping them all in a pencil box.
Today, my bass bug box is a bristling cacophony of rubber legs, bulging eyes, stacked deer hair, bright cork poppers, and colorful hackle feathers. There are patterns that imitate mice, frogs, and even birds. There are other patterns that don’t imitate anything specific, but when worked at the end of the fly line they imitate life in general. Still a kid with a cane rod at heart, these are my new creepy-crawlers.
At the bass pond, the sun has dropped behind a row of pine trees, turning them black in shadow. The first swirls appear on the inside of a weed bed and I know that the bass will be active in the failing light. I hold in my hand a heavy rod and my box of creepy-crawlers. Almost too pretty to throw, rows of deer-hair bugs look up at me.
Down the shoreline, a row of ducks paddle away from me. A larger, more aggressive swirl appears on the placid surface of the pond, and it suddenly feels like a merganser duckling kind of evening.
Fishing for bass using a deer-hair bug predates spin-fishing. The earliest reference I found was in a 1741 publication by William Bartram describing Seminole Indians using long, limber seedling branches to which they affixed short lines and primitive flies made from a series of hooks with deer-tail hair fastened to them. Fishing was done in a two-person canoe, one rowing and one dapping the fly along the edge of the river. I can only imagine the strikes of pure Florida-strain largemouth that were so green and innocent to angling pressure.
This early method was sustenance fishing. Fly-fishing as recreation arrived in the Americas with early European settlers. Bred from the fishers of delicate chalk streams and great salmon rivers, settlers soon discovered the sport of fish they had never seen before, fish that had never seen a fly. At times calling these fish “green trout,” they were in actuality black bass, small and largemouth, that naturally inhabited North American waterways.
Through the early 1800s, bass flies were simply larger versions of streamer flies prevalent at the time, but as anglers will, these early bass buggers soon began to observe their quarry and tailor their flies to meet the habits of the fish. What they saw was a fish that seemed to relish taking prey from the surface of the water with vicious strikes.
Anglers soon learned to flare bucktail on their hooks and clip it to shape. They found the resulting flies relatively buoyant and effective. Early records of spun deer-hair bass bugs date to the mid 1800s. Fly designers such as James Henshall, Orley Tuttle, Cal McCarthy, Earnest Peckinpaugh and Joe Messinger, were well aware of the willingness of bass to strike prey on top of the water, and like anglers today, surely enjoyed the savagery.
Early bass bug flies were tied with bucktail and hackle feathers. Fly design was utilitarian, and patterns created were meant to suggest such forage as mice, frogs, and moths. Information spread slowly at the time, but as anglers traveled, ideas were shared and successful patterns evolved.
Innovation occurred, cork was used to give buoyancy against the silk fly lines of the time that tended to sink when saturated, and durability since the cork could withstand multiple fish. Wings were added to disturb the water, and spinning and flaring deer hair allowed sculpting of form. Tails developed to waggle behind the floating form waking across the bass pond. The popularity of bass expanded, and the bass-bugging industry was born. By the early 1900s, Orley Tuttle claimed to have been producing 50,000 bugs a year for distribution. Today, bass are the most popular gamefish in the United States.
Bass are a very American fish. They embody much of what makes our country what it is. They are hard fighters when cornered. They are voracious, gluttonous, hard workers when needed–and somewhat lazy when possible. They are durable, strong, and smart. They are beautiful. There is no pretense to the bass.
My first bass bugs were mouse flies. My first memorable successes with a fly rod came on stillwater ponds for bass; there was no mend involved, no specific hatch to match, and leaders were simple. It was fishing that I could be successful at, even as a novice fly angler, and fishing that I still enjoy and practice many years later.
I am at best a hack fly tyer, so through Internet websites I contacted fly tyer Alan Corbin of Oxford, Massachusetts. I wanted some mouse flies, since I had caught a 19-inch smallmouth on one and couldn’t tie them myself. In addition, I harbored a deep hatred of the foul creatures for what they had done to my pop-up camper’s canvases and so loved seeing their effigies in the mouths of bass.
Alan tied up a handful for me and we eventually became friends. As we fished together more often, Alan began to refuse payment for flies. Also an accomplished rod builder, I had him working on a project for me, so I felt bad asking him to spin up some mice and frogs for the Corbin’s Mouse Fly Cohen’s Merganser coming season.
A quick Internet search for bass bugs turned up images of the flies of Pat Cohen. I reached out to him, bought some bugs, and struck up a conversation.
Pat’s first fly-rod-caught fish were smallmouth taken on Schoharie Creek in New York, north of the Catskill Mountains. He was (his words, not mine) a terrible spin angler. On a whim while fishing with his father and brother, he decided to try a fly rod. While he stood mid-river whipping the fiberglass Eagle Claw fly/spin rod around, something clicked, and a passion was born. He soon began taking fish on Crystal Buggers. His father gave him a fly-tying kit in 2009.
The same things that drew me to flyfishing for bass has drawn anglers like Pat and countless others to the sport. It is a grassroots pursuit; it is an easy and affordable way to get into fly-fishing. We bass buggers love the places where bass live and the solitude these environments provide and, most of all, we love their topwater strikes. It is a visual and challenging way to fish. As an angler, you are intimately in touch with the action imparted to the fly. You, not the drift of the river, are the driver of the action. A trophy bass on a topwater fly is a fish to remember fondly, and you will never forget certain strikes.
Cohen discovered topwater bass bugs at an LL Bean store but soon found that, while thrilling to fish, they were expensive and did not hold up. He sought to create his own flies, but his first creations were made of bucktail and didn’t live up to his standards. Pat visited a local sporting goods store and met Tom Brewster, who showed him the virtue of deer hair as opposed to bucktail. Like Joe Messinger in the 1930s, he experienced his “ah-ha” moment when he began to stack and flare deer-belly hair.
The advantage Pat had over early fly producers was the availability of information. His learning curve was shorter and he climbed it rapidly. He gained recognition through the Internet and learned techniques from YouTube videos. He quickly saw that the key to the art was found in the density of hair applied to the fly. The denser his hair was packed, the tighter and cleaner his final clipped versions could be. Furthermore, he was able to meld colors in outlandish patterns by packing different colors of hair stacked tightly together. His creations today are remarkable, drawing on his background as a tattoo artist and his education in fine art.
Cohen’s name and work grew in popularity and he was soon inundated with requests for his flies. He found himself burning the candle at both ends, tying in the morning before going to work all day. He was growing tired of tattooing and his true passion lied at his tying vise. He took a leap of faith in 2011 to launch his website (www. rusuperfly.com) and commercially market his flies, his products designed for making them, and the materials he uses to create them.
Like the fish he targets, there is little pretense to Pat Cohen. He is willing to help other fly-tyers out and he markets products to improve bass bug creation. Such is the case with his Fugly Packer. Pat found that he needed a tool to enable him to pack the hair to his flies extremely tight. His father introduced him to a machinist who created a prototype of this tool. It is a standard packing tool but larger, made in America from eighthinch forged steel with a spring steel bend and finger guards. Like his flies, it is a durable and useful tool.
When he applies hair to the hook, he tightens his thread wraps around it, causing it to flare outward. He then packs this flared hair backwards and applies another section, which is in turn pushed back against the prior stack. The resulting stacks of hair, once fully applied to the hook, are clipped tightly with razor blades to shape the form. Doing so, he creates remarkable mice, frog, and even bird patterns.
His tools for tying and the materials he uses are available at his website as are the flies he creates and instructional DVDs that provide step-by-step examples. Pat has continued to innovate the art of bass bugging and offers a full line of “Cohen’s Creatures.” He markets ready-to-tie frog legs, attractor tails, and even crayfish and hellgrammite bodies that are easy to tie and extremely effective. Pat spends up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, creating flies. His ingenuity, effort, and products are a rich addition to the storied history woven into the grand overall tale of American fishing for black bass.