Tuesday Tips: 3 Keys to Catching Bass on Topwater Bugs

This chunky largemouth fell for a deer-hair slider, the Umpqua Swim Frog diver.
Photo by Reid Bryant

Catching largemouth bass on surface flies is a lot of fun, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Bass aren’t like northern pike, almost always willing to chase down a big meal. In fact, bass can be quite picky and will often ignore big, noisy topwater flies. Here are a few steps you can take to improve your odds.

1. Fly choice

Traditional deer-hair bugs and balsa poppers look cool, are fun to fish, and make a lot of commotion on the water. Sometimes, however, all that noise and splashing is too much, especially when the surface of the water is dead calm. In these situations, I much prefer a smaller slider, such as a Sneaky Pete or small Dahlberg-style diver, which slips under the water when you strip it. And when I do choose a popper, I usually go counter to the “big fly, big fish” rule and choose smaller patterns. The largest bass I ever caught on a fly was on a Gaines Bass Duster that’s about an inch and a half long. (Sadly, I don’t think Gaines makes this bug anymore.) Don’t forget Pencil Poppers, either. These offer a much less bombastic action, and work great for fishing holes in weedbeds—just cast the fly into the open water and twitch it a few times. Finally, dragonfly imitations work great in the heat of a sunny day when larger topwater bugs rarely draw strikes.

2. Retrieve

A subtle, erratic retrieve will almost always outperform a chug-chug-chug steady strip. The traditional method of fishing a topwater is to chug it two or three times and then let it sit until the rings disappear. You’ll be amazed by how often a fish will strike the fly as it just sits there doing nothing. If you can see a fish under your motionless fly, try giving it just a twitch to suggest life. That’s sometimes all it takes to trigger a strike.

3. Going Big

The times when the big, loud poppers perform best are when you’re fishing deep water—such as on the outer edge of a large weedbed—or when the water is choppy. These are the times when you need to get a fish’s attention in a big way.

Experimenting with fly choice and retrieve will surely draw more strikes, and it makes the whole project of bass fishing more interesting and engaging.

10 thoughts on “Tuesday Tips: 3 Keys to Catching Bass on Topwater Bugs”

  1. Thanks, Phil. We had fun with sz 10 chartreuse boogle bugs in low visibility water on the Potomac on Saturday morning and switched to olive and black as the sun rose and the visibility improved. (I’m not too proud to admit that when the winds got up to 20 mph, we gave up fly casting entirely and switch to spinner baits.)


    — Greg

  2. How come no one ever talks about fishing sub surface or fishing at night

    Posted from the Orvis Fly Fishing App

  3. I have two fly rods rigged up–one for subsurface and the other for topwater. The topwater is more than adequately covered, but I’d add one more fly–the Gartside Gurgler in green with white rubber legs. For subsurface I have the most success with some form of crayfish-like fly. The current favorite is a tan “Bill’s Crayfish” in size 4 or 6. Let it sink free-fall and then begin a slow, jigging type retrieve. The strike normally comes on the fall, either initial or after a jig. Watch the end of your line closely to pick up the strike as there is slack in the line. The line hesitates or moves sharply, set the hook.

    1. Testing some trout dry-dropper and dry-dry combinations with a new fly rod on a local lake, I was amazed at how many decent bass and large panfish I was catching. Still bust out the six and eight weights with corresponding flies, but I’m throwing a #6 deer hair popper or diver with a trailing fly with a 4wt fiberglass rod more and more. (7wt on windy days), and catching more bass.

      Appreciate the article and the advice very much.

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