Everyone knows that bass loves weeds in the summer, but to cover big weed beds efficiently, you often need a boat (although not necessarily a sparkly one). Especially in the South, the lake bottom around most weeds is mucky, with a thick layer of decaying vegetation on top. Plus there are snakes to contend with. But in cooler climes—the northern tier of the country and at higher elevations—sandy or rocky lakebeds allow wading anglers to get in on the action. And because fish often bury themselves too deep in the weeds for boaters to reach, wading anglers even have some advantages over their floating brethren.
When I lived in southeastern New Hampshire—where there are very few trout streams, all of which are full of stocked fish—I spent a lot of time scouting the edges of ponds and lakes for good-looking, wadable weed beds. My favorite spot was so good that my roommate and I were terrified someone else would find out about it, and we referred to it only by a codename, “Goose Mill.” It featured a field of aquatic grass close to shore and transitioned into lily pads as the water deepened. Best of all, the weeds were next to a public beach, so the bottom was sandy and there was easy access. Largemouths, smallmouths, and several species of panfish sheltered in the weeds, and they always seemed eager to take a well-presented fly. The lessons I learned on the Goose Mill have proved useful on lakes from Georgia to Montana, producing great fish that many fly fishermen might never have cast to.
Beds, Bass & Beyond
Rather than looking for weed beds that cover acres of water or whole coves, wading anglers should focus on smaller patches that border open water. You’re not going to enjoy slogging through lily pads—and doing so will stir up the bottom and spook a lot of fish—so you want a place where you can enter the weeds from two or three different spots and get into good casting positions. Some places I like to fish are so small that I can cover all the water in a dozen casts; then I move on to another spot. Pay attention to water depth, bottom composition, and bankside trees or vegetation that could interfere with casting.
Approach a weeded as you would a trout stream. Before you go charging in, take some time to observe the layout of the weeded and to look for any signs of fish—swirls among the weeds, muddied-up areas, or even fish feeding on the surface. Next, plan your attack by figuring out the best entry points, those that will offer you access to the edges of the bed, as well as to the pockets of open water in the middle. If there are seams of open water among the weeds, use those as travel lanes, but only after fishing that water completely.
Don’t wade in until you have covered the water close to shore, especially the inside edges of any lily pads. Bass will sometimes hold in surprisingly shallow water if they’ve got adequate cover, and I suspect that such an ambush point lets them pick off minnows that cruise that inside edge. These are good panfish spots, as well.
Once you’re in the water, move very slowly and deliberately to avoid stirring up the bottom and sending vibrations through the water and weeds. Work as much of the outside edges of the weeds as you can before you venture into the thicker stuff. The biggest bass are usually holding where the weeded stops and open water begins, which often corresponds to a drop-off in depth. If you can cast to that deep-water edge from either side of the weeded, do so. Otherwise, you’ll have to cast out to it from inside the bed.
As you work your way out, focus your attention on any open “holes” in the weeds. Don’t try to cast too far, though, or you’ll risk getting the fly or line hung up. In the really thick stuff, try a little warmwater dapping: with a 9-foot rod and just a few feet of line outside the tip-top, you can drop a fly into a hole 15 or 20 feet away with a minimal amount of line on the water. Give the fly a few strips, and then pick it up and try another hole in the weeds. If the weeds are sparser, you can use the tip of your rod to steer the fly and the fly line between the weeds, which allows for longer casts.
Once you’re far enough out that you can reach the deep-water edge, you have two presentation options. You can simply cast as far as you can out into open water and then work the fly back toward the weeds. The outside edge of a weeded is not usually a straight line, and you should focus on the little inlets and channels that break up the outside edge. When the fly gets right to the edge of the weeds, pause the retrieve and let the fly sit for a few seconds, giving it a couple of twitches. Sometimes, this is all it takes to trigger a strike.
If you can get close enough, a more advanced presentation for fishing the deep-water edge can be very effective. Instead of casting straight out into the open water, make a curve cast that hinges just beyond the weeds, dropping the fly off the side. This allows you to make the fly run roughly parallel to the outside edge, for a few strips anyway, which puts the fly in front of more fish. Practice the curve cast at home, using your favorite flies, and you’ll find that it comes in handy in many situations.
Worm fishermen have long known that bass can see through translucent lily pads and will wait in ambush below a pad on which they see food, so pulling a worm off a pad often results in a vicious strike. This works for flies, as well. Drop a dragonfly, grasshopper, frog, or worm pattern onto a lily pad and let it sit there for a few seconds. Then jerk it off the pad and into a hole in the weeds and hold on! Sometimes the bass is too excited to wait and will nudge the lily pad from below in an attempt to dislodge the prey.
Tackle and Flies
You most likely already own all the tackle you need to catch bass from weeds. Any 6- to 8-weight rod will do the trick; the heavier the fish and the heavier the weeds, the more likely you’ll want the more powerful rod. Extracting a good bass that’s buried in the weeds can require some serious muscle. Since you won’t be fishing deep water—and you want your line where you can see it to avoid the weeds—a floating line is your best bet.
Bass in the weeds are rarely leader-shy, so use a 6-foot leader of 10- or 12-pound test. When your 9-foot 4X trout leader becomes too short and thick, save the remainder for a nice, tapered bass leader. Before you go fishing in the weeds, coat your line-to-leader knot (and any knots in the leader itself) with Pliobond or a similar adhesive, which will make the knot less likely to get snagged or pick up any snot during the retrieve. For the same reason, use an improved clinch knot to tie on the fly, and be sure to trim the tag end as close as possible.
Any flies you fish in the weeds should be equipped with a weedguard—I prefer double loops of 20-pound Mason Hard Mono—unless the hook is otherwise protected by deer-hair or some other part of the fly itself. While a double weedguard does keep the fly from snagging the weeds, it can also make hookups more difficult. You can ameliorate this somewhat by using light-wire hooks, which penetrate easier. If your fly does get wedged between two stems or caught on the edge of a lily pad, don’t start yanking on it as hard as you can. Instead, pull slowly and twitch your rod tip, and the fly will often work itself out.
I almost always fish topwater patterns in the weeds, just because I love to see the explosive surface strikes. In my experience, Sliders and Divers outperform traditional bass bugs, and their slithery action allows you to work them around and underneath lily pads with ease. However, any number of worm patterns, which are usually little more than a long strip of bunny or chenille lashed to a hook, are perfect for sliding through slick weeds. Scott Sanchez’s Sluggo and the Gulley Worm are good examples of this style. As the summer wears on and there’s more algae and floating weeds in the water, choose patterns without lots of junk such as rubber legs hanging off them, as the accouterments will become frequently fouled.
Wade-fishing weed beds is a great way to spend a morning or evening during the dog days of summer, when many trout streams seem lifeless. So scout your local lakes and ponds to see if there are some spots where you can get in the thick of it.