Fly fishing for bass
It's the fastest growing sector of the sport, and Simon Everett is not in the least surprised at how fly fishing for bass has captured the imagination.
Saltwater fly fishing is nothing new, but this fact often surprises even the most ardent practitioner of the art. Fly fishing in the sea has been documented as far back as a couple of centuries and in the Scottish Isles it has a long tradition as a means of catching saithe and lithe. For the sporting angler bass is at the pinnacle of our saltwater fly fishing list.
People more accustomed to catching migratory salmonids are often surprised by the sporting prowess of even a modest sized bass. The ferocity and strength of the fight of even just a 2lb bass will pull an #8 rod into a full arc and is certainly on a par with a grilse. A 4lb bass will give sport to satisfy the most dedicated of salmon anglers and with a realistic opportunity to catch bass into double figures this is one fish that should not be overlooked, especially given the ease of access to good bass fishing that much of our coast provides. It is no coincidence that saltwater fly rodding in Britain is the fastest growing sector of the sport as more and more fly fishers become disillusioned with the ubiquitous stocked rainbow trout and search out an altogether more challenging opponent.
Bass fishing, while by no means certain, is easily more reliable than salmon fishing as one is not reliant on rain for the presence of taking fish. Anywhere the tide comes in, bass will not be far away. With the influence of milder winters and warmer water bass are now caught regularly right around the islands of the UK, even along the coast of the far north of Scotland and around the shallow waters of the outer islands where fish often fall to flies cast for sea-trout in the sea lochs.
Bass are a beautiful fish and are rightly called the Salmon of the Sea. If the Atlantic salmon is the king of fish, then the bass is most certainly the queen. There is also a happy coincidence for those who wish to aim a fly at a bass, for when the rivers are down to their bare bones and migratory fishing is a dead loss, take your rod to the sea for this is when the fishing for the spikey backed bars of silver comes into its own. Like our game fish bass also enjoy legal protection in the form of nursery areas where the juveniles gather and also from a minimum landing size, currently 40cm, but this is still too small in practise as these fish will not yet have spawned. You wouldn't take a salmon or sea-trout smolt, so ignore the 40cm rule and go with the suggested 3lb one instead. It is also good for the fishery to release any bass over 5lb, as these are invariably mature females which contribute the bulk of the spawning success.
Bass are not difficult to catch, they just need to be located and this is where knowledge of their habits will help the newcomer to success. Bass are true predators and eat anything that swims, crawls or wriggles: crabs, worms, shrimps, prawns, small fish and shoaling fish to the size of mackerel are the staple diet of this voracious hunter. Find an area where food is plentiful with a large, intertidal movement of water and there, without a doubt, you will find bass hunting with the tide. Shallow, rocky reefs or boulder strewn beaches covered in weed with a good run over them as the tide floods, being the most productive places for the larger fish.
Seabirds are always a good indicator of shoaling fish. Terns diving for sandeels or brit on the surface are a sure sign of bass harassing the baitfish from below. A fly cast towards the edge of such activity will almost always prove immediately successful. Careful observation of the water, as in fishing for trout on a loch, will reveal moving or feeding fish. Water disturbance within the wave pattern, or on a calm, twilight water, the ringing on the surface or the unmistakable sight of an erect dorsal fin with its spines pointing skyward accompanied by the bow wave from a powerfully shouldered fish will provide the clues as to where to aim your fly.
Newcomers to bass fishing are always surprised as to just how shallow bass will venture when hunting. Water no more than ankle deep is quite sufficient for the spadelike tail to gain purchase. Wading knee deep before first light will often have fish around your legs if you move quietly and carefully and it would not be uncommon to have fish swim between you and the shore. In such situations casting parallel to, or at a shallow angle out from the shore is the best policy. Work your fly in an arc, searching the water, but don't linger too long in one place. Make a dozen casts and then move a little way and try again.
A good example of how close to the shore bass come to feed can be found in southern Spain, where the locals catch bass by leaving their worm baited hook on the sandy shingle to be washed into the water by the action of the waves. The bass come right into the shore break in search for worms washed out of the sand and this method has proved very successful, most of their bass being caught within one metre of the beach!
The stage of tide is more important than the time of day, although the low light hours are the best. Bass follow the tide and hunt over the newly covered rocks and beach in search for food items, it follows then that the flood tide can be the most productive on the rocky areas. In sandy estuaries vantage points that provide access to the tide pools at the seaward end of the river can often provide their best sport on the ebb tide as the bass congregate there for food to be washed to them on the out flowing current, just like trout in a river. You have to fish your chosen area at various times and stages of tide to discover the movements of the bass for those particular places. The above holds true for the places I know. One thing which is true though, is that like sea-trout, bass are bolder in lower light levels, or they need a good wave to give them confidence to approach the shallows in bright light conditions.
Tackle for catching bass on the fly need not be heavy artillery. An #8 rod with a fast action is the most useful as this will allow a large fly to be cast 20 yards and a good cast into a headwind is possible with smaller or more streamlined flies. However, as we have already talked about, distance is not crucial when targeting bass and 20 yards is perfectly acceptable and about the best I can manage.
The most versatile line for this fishing is the Cortland 444SL Ghost Tip. This super slick, floating line ends with a 15 foot clear intermediate section. I use a furled leader to my fly line and then about 9 feet of 12lb clear monofilament tippet. The intermediate tip is just enough to get the fly down under the surface, but equally can be left to sink a couple of feet if needed. You can even fish a surface lure successfully by beginning your retrieve immediately and not giving the tip a chance to sink. For those prepared to invest in a specialist line for the salt then a standard intermediate will be the best choice.
Flies are not difficult to tie for bass, or other saltwater species for that matter, they just require larger, stainless steel hooks and more materials. The favourite patterns are those which provide plenty of movement and water displacement and tend to be between 2" and 6" long. Two patterns are indispensable, in a variety of colours, these are the world famous clouser minnow and the deceiver baitfish pattern. Add to that a few sandeel imitations and you are equipped to catch bass anywhere and over any type of ground. The favoured colours for the clouser are chartreuse over white, orange over black and olive over white. For your deceivers, again chartreuse and white, blue and white, all white and for bright conditions or twilight zones all black with some silver flash, to provide a strong silhouette with some sparkle, will give you all you need to get into fish.
The secret when searching out bass on the fly is to choose your water carefully and keep moving. Spend no more than ten minutes in any one spot, cast and move, cast and move all the time keeping your eyes open for signs of fish moving or other clues as to their whereabouts. Have faith, it's a fabulous sport.