Written by: William G. Tapply
[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]
I grew up casting deer-hair bugs for bass, both largemouths and smallmouths, in lakes, ponds, and rivers all over New England. It was my favorite kind of fishing—even better, I thought, than casting dry flies to rising trout, or trolling streamer flies for landlocked salmon, or fishing for any trophy that lived in the ocean.
Nothing has happened in the intervening half century to change my mind.
In every kind of fishing there is The Moment. With trout, it’s when a fish tips up to sip in a dry fly. With salmon and tarpon, it’s that first catapulting leap into the air. When I fished with bait, as I did obsessively as a kid, The Moment came at the first shuddering jiggle of the bobber or the first twitch of the line before it began to slither out through the guides.
Those photo-like moments that signal the connection between angler and fish live forever in the scrapbook of memory, and once you’ve stored enough of them away, they keep you focused and happy while you’re getting skunked.
With bass, The Moment comes when the flat, dark, early-evening water against a fallen tree or beside a boulder or alongside a patch of lily pads or under an overhanging bankside bush, suddenly implodes where an instant earlier a bass bug had been quietly resting.
Despite James A. Henshall’s famous claim (“I consider him, inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims.”), once you’ve tied into comparably-sized trout or salmon—or any saltwater gamefish—you know that freshwater bass are not exceptionally swift swimmers or strong fighters or athletic leapers.
But nothing in the universe of fishing can beat the thrilling topwater strike of a big bass. It’s the visible moment of connection, the moment that proves you have fooled him, the moment when all the predatory pugnacity of the fish exposes itself. It’s a primitive, primal moment for fish and angler alike. I shiver at the memory of it. I’m sure it taps into a strand of my DNA that has survived for eons. It exposes me as a primitive hunter-gatherer still, a predator myself.
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Fishing with underwater lures and flies for bass is—well, it’s okay. Underwater techniques are surely effective, often deadly, and sometimes the only way to catch them. If catching bass were the main point of it, I would fish subsurface more often than I do. I’ve done plenty of it, actually—but hardly ever when the possibility of depositing the image of another topwater Moment into my memory bank was even remote.
Nowadays, when I go bass fishing, I cast floating bugs to shoreline targets. If I can’t do that, I rarely go bass fishing. I’ve searched my soul as objectively as I can, and I’m relieved to conclude that this is not snobbishness or purism. It’s just what I love to do.
My kids think I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, and I’m inclined to agree with them. I tell them I know what I like, and I admit I’m probably too old and set in my ways to change even if I wanted to. I just happen to love bass-bugging with a fly rod.
Native Americans practiced a version of bass-bug fishing before Europeans invaded the continent. Lobbing out something big and buggy with a long pole and dragging it across the surface of a warmwater pond, lake, or creek was an American invention, and the first way bass were caught. So I guess I am old-fashioned.
It’s really quite simple: I love casting deer-hair bass bugs into the shaded holes next to fallen trees on a summer’s evening around that magical time when the sun has dipped behind the hills and the sky is turning purple and a fuzzy mist hovers over my pond; when the nighthawks and bats and swallows begin to swoop and dart over the water; when the water’s surface lies as flat and smooth as a pane of black glass; when all is silence except for the grump of a bullfrog, the creak of an oarlock, or the dip of a paddle, and the occasional spat of a bluegill; when I am alone in a canoe or a leaky rowboat, or maybe in the company of a comfortable old like-minded partner who doesn’t need to talk to be companionable; when my bug lands with a muffled splat, sits there long enough for the rings to widen and disappear, and then goes ploop, burble, and glug when I give it a few tugs before letting it rest some more; and when, always at the unexpected moment, no matter how keen my anticipation, the silence and the water’s mirrored surface—and my nerves—are shattered by the explosive ker-SLOSH! of a big bass.
For me, this is the best way to fish for them.
Actually, the best way to fish for almost everything is on the surface where you can see it all, provided we define “best” as “most fun,” and not necessarily “most efficient.” I don’t know any trout fishermen who wouldn’t rather use dry flies. The only reason to fish for bluegills with anything but miniature topwater bass bugs is if you need to catch three bushels of them instead of only two. Pike and pickerel, which tend to lurk in bassy, shallow-water places, eagerly devour big, noisy topwater bugs, and the savagery of their attack is, if anything, more heart-stopping than that of a bass. Topwater fly fishing for bluefish and striped bass and other saltwater predators produces similar results—often from fish that weigh 20 pounds or more. I’ve caught 6-pound Labrador brook trout on deer-hair mice dragged across a current. Bombers and similar deer-hair bugs, waked across the currents, are proven Atlantic salmon killers.
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Bugging with a fly rod may not be the best way to catch the most bass, or to catch the biggest bass, although I’m convinced that sometimes it is. On a few occasions I’ve been manipulated into trying to prove it—which I’ve done, at least to my own satisfaction. But “most” and “biggest” are competitive terms, and they don’t interest me.
Fishing for bass with deer-hair bugs is straightforward and simple, but it’s not simplistic. It may be less than science, but it’s more than random luck. Doing it right and doing it well involves practice and knowledge and experience. Luck, of course, helps, too.
Bass, God bless ’em, do not behave with the absolute predictability that experts sometimes attribute to them. I’m not sure that bass have free will, and I readily acknowledge that they exhibit predictable tendencies. At different seasons and under different weather conditions, they tend to gather in particular types of water, and at any given time their collective moods tend to cluster somewhere along a spectrum from aggressive to closemouthed. Computers can factor all the variables and spit out reliable generalizations. Many helpful books have been written on these subjects. You can use the data to help you decide whether you want to go fishing, and if you do, where to park your boat and what to tie onto your leader.
Or you can just look out the window, sniff the air, and decide that it feels right. That’s generally what I do. And even when it feels wrong, if you have the urge to spend some time on the water, that’s always a good time to go fishing. Even under the least favorable conditions, you can usually find a few ornery bass who’ll refuse to be predictable and who will engulf a bass bug when they’re not supposed to.
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Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):
- Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany,
- Bitch Creek: A Novel, and
- Death at Charity’s Point (The Brady Coyne Mysteries Book 1).