In lieu of fishing reports during the COVID 19 pandemic and given that all fishing in Washington State is closed for the time being, we're going to highlight some of our favorite fisheries close to home until that eagerly anticipated day when we can safely go fish once again. My goal is to entertain you, enlighten you and hopefully spark a glimmer of excitement during these dark times. Please note that we are still operating as mail order only and really appreciate all the business we can get right now. Take advantage of some of our sales and save some cash or order a gift certificate for later use (they don't expire). We are offering free shipping on orders over $30. Thanks for all the kind words to date and the moral support as well during this tough time. Best wishes to all. We miss you!
We're going to kick off this series with one of my favorite four-letter words. It could certainly be "fish" and there are definitely occasional days where it could be another beginning with "F", but today it's going to be BASS. And bass remains, to this day, a four-letter word in a lot of fly fishing circles. Most of us from around these parts probably grew up fishing for trout. I too love them dearly and still spend countless hours in pursuit of these bejeweled and acrobatic salmonids. But it's hard to beat bass and their diminutive cousins, the panfish, for a no-holds-barred good time without having to fill up the gas tank.
Having been into the fly fishing bass and panfish thing for some time now, I've come to realize that there's a subculture of local warm water fishing and a number of folks that share the same passions as we do, from the self-scribed Bellingham Bass Brigade to a small circle of friends that I frequently fish for bass with. One of my favorites, the one we've come to know simply as "Pan Fry" is down to fish at just about any opportunity and relishes both bass and bluegill with almost equal fervor. Though I'm quite convinced that he favors the bluegill over just about anything. I don't blame him. These fish have the uncanny ability to bring out the kid in all of us. And ever-seeking that greener grass on the other side, most of us long to be kids again, at least in spirit if not body.
Largemouth bass rank as the number one gamefish in North America. This may come as a shock for those of us surrounded by trout rivers, salmon and steelhead. Bass are widely distributed and have far less stringent water quality needs than many other species of fish. This means you'll find them most everywhere from the quiet pastoral lake in the county to the rank drainage ditch behind Walmart. And probably some panfish too. We have innumerable lakes around Whatcom and Skagit Counties that support bass and panfish, some of them even have bragging sized fish patrolling their depths. Terrell, Wiser, Fazon, Clear, Big, Campbell to name a few, not to mention the scores of off-the-grid ponds and puddles that shall remain nameless. They are literally all over the place.
From a fishing perspective, the bass, even a large one, is not going to peel yards off backing off your reel at a feverish clip, blitzing across the swamp like a bonefish. It probably won't pull any line off the reel either. If you give them that chance, you've likely already lost the fish. But despite their general incapacity to make your reel scream, bass and panfish make up for it in other ways. The first notable draw for me is in the take itself, especially top water or near the surface. Bass eat whatever, whenever and have a dietary regimen that may include frogs, mice, birds, dragonflies, salamanders, snakes and the like. These critters typically don't go down like a dainty blue winged olive drifting helplessly in the current before getting delicately sipped by a nice rainbow. They get hoovered in at the last foreseeable second by an unseen predator that judiciously hung on their every movement and then engulfed them with a fury, violence and degree of explosiveness that leaves you, both expecting and unexpectant onlooker, undeniably shaken. Your fly sits, twitches, chugs, pops and skitters in the likeliest of bass haunts. You make up your mind that nobody is home and just as you begin to move your fly to recast the water blows up around it in a nanosecond and your heart is pounding. The take can be different each and every time and for me never gets old.
Another thing I love about bass and panfish is the casting game. Rarely do you need to make a very long cast. Oftentimes, 10′ is more than ample, but the importance of accuracy cannot be understated. You’ll be invariably fishing around a lot of structure and vegetation and the line between dropping your fly into that prime plate-sized clearing in the lily pads and having to gingerly unsnarl your leader from a rotting tree is paper thin. It’s fun to challenge yourself by casting into such places. I often wonder if I can make that same cast count twice. Sometimes I can, sometimes it’s a bust. It is an exercise in precision and will make you a better fisherperson, whether you transfer these skills to pitching a hopper under the overhanging streamside brush for a wary brown trout or drawing a baby tarpon out of the mangroves in the Yucatan. Bass casting will hone your accuracy skills over time.
A final thought on what enamors me with bass and panfish are the flies we use themselves. They look like nothing and everything at once. They sputter, they gurgle, kick, slither and rattle. I’ve been an avid steelhead fly tyer for many decades and love the elegance, form and creative license that accompanies making these flies. But there is plenty of zen to be found also in painting poppers, affixing big googly doll eyes and engineering new ways to make noise and push water into your patterns. Rubber legs darting every which way, furled tails, weed guards, articulation and sometimes custom paint jobs that would rival the body work of a tricked out 70’s muscle car. Bass fly tying is glitter and glam and outright fun. If you don’t tie, the flies are still plenty nice to look at and pick out of a box. Better yet, most of them will last you a season if not years. It’s seldom excusable to break off a bass fly. I attach most of mine to the leader with something akin to rope, often 12 or 15 # Maxima. Most of the time Mr. or Mrs. huge bass is going to cut you some slack in the presentation department if you don’t use 7x tippet to connect your fly.
Now that you’re hopefully at least mildly intrigued, let’s talk for a moment on what you may need to make all this bass-tastic fishing a reality. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a mullet or a souped up glittery bass boat with twin 240’s and massive subwoofers. If you happen to have these things already, by all means revel in them and use them to your full advantage. If not, don’t sweat it. We do however, have lots of opinions to share on equipment that will help you to be more successful or better your enjoyment of the experience.
Rod wise, I like a stout fly rod for most of my bass fishing. Sure, small bass can be landed on rods as light as 3’s and 4’s, but you’ll have a much easier time casting big bass bugs on a 7 or 8 weight. Keep in mind, when you hook a big largemouth deep in the heart of a weedy jungle, the first thing that fish will do is skillfully attempt to turn right back into the cover. You need to exert a fair bit of pressure on a 4 or 5 pound bass to keep its head oriented upwards and extract it from the danger zone. That’s nearly impossible to do unless you hook a fish in open water. Note that you will typically find far more bass in tangled weedy areas congested with sticks and debris. While your standard 9′ 7 or 8 weight salmon/steelhead rod is a good place to start, I favor shorter rods if you can find them. Why? Short rods afford greater casting accuracy than long ones and tend to have more backbone. Make the cast that counts and stick it to them! The old Sage Bass and Bass II series were absolutely incredible bass rods. The new Sage Payload that replaces these series is phenomenal as well. The Echo Badass Glass Quickshot is also a great rod that we recommend.
As for reels, honestly any old thing will do. As long as it’s balanced and fits the fly line, you’re golden. You’re seldom going to use the reel at all to play bass. For lines, I like the Sage Bass Line, Rio Mainstream Bass Line and Rio Outbound Short quite a bit. You’re going to need a short, squat weight forward taper to effectively turn over your average bass fly. Rio’s Bass Leaders in 10, 12 or 16 # round out the equation. These are 9′ out of the package. I usually cut about a foot and a half off of the butt section and tie a perfection loop to attach it to the loop in my fly line, so I’m working with a seven and a half foot leader. Again, the shorter leader is going to propel your accuracy game. While you can easily tie your own leaders, I prefer the knotless tapered ones as they hand up much less frequently in thick cover.
Our focus has been pretty bass-centric so far, but let’s talk panfish for a moment. There are multitudes of panfish species across America, each with its own look and personality. The two most commonly encountered around these parts are bluegill and pumpkinseed. One thing most panfish have in common is that they tend not to be super big. Don’t let that fool you, however. I often say that if bluegill got to be 5 lbs. they’d be nearly as popular as permit. You probably wouldn’t land them most of the time, at least not easily. Panfish leverage every square inch of their wide body profile to swim sideways and pull pretty darn hard relative to their size. The key to having a really good time, I mean really good time chasing a fish that seldom exceeds a pound is to size down your equipment.
My favorite panfish rods are 2’s and 3 weights. Most of them cast the size 10-14 flies I throw very well and bend substantially under the weight of a portly bluegill. Using this ultralight gear really accentuates the fun factor and can even make you sweat a little when a nice fish bulldogs for cover. I’ve even touched a handful of 3-4 pound largemouth on this set up that took little nymph patterns. Talk about an Old Man and the Sea story. The little rods make this fishery fun and are also well suited to fishing small wild trout in the mountain streams of the North Cascades during the summer. But that’s a topic for another discussion. The majority of 2 and 3 weight rods are shorter by definition, which again, lends itself to an accurate cast. Some of my favorite panfish rods are the Redington Butterstick II series and the Fenwick Fenglass 3 weight. Both are of fiberglass construction so even a smaller fish puts a nice bend in the rod blank but they still have enough teeth to steer a fish away from a submerged brush pile. The Echo Carbon XL 2 weight is another fine panfish rod and very reasonably priced. The Sage Dart 2 weight is the absolute Cadillac of panfish rods, capable of doing things you wouldn’t expect from such a tiny rod with a power and grace that is simply hard to match. If you have champagne tastes and an unquenched desire to appreciate the under-appreciated in fish species, look no further. A number of lines will do the trick to round out these set ups. My favorite is Rio’s Creek Special. It’s designed to load the rod with very little line out and has just enough mass to the end of the taper to turn over even small poppers really well. Attach a 7.5′ 3X leader on the end and you’re ready for action.
Earlier I talked a little about flies and my love affair with tying bass bugs. Fly selection for targeting bass and panfish can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. I divide my bass box into three primary categories. Baitfish, Leeches and Topwater. For baitfish, Clouser Minnows, baby bluegill and bass patterns and such work well for targeting edges of weed beds and along drop offs throughout the season. I’ll fish leech patterns much the same way but also like to get them up in the weeds quite a bit too. Woolly Buggers, Bass Turds and Gully Worms are excellent leech imitations. If you’re going to swim the fly through heavy cover, a weed guard is imperative to prevent your fly from snagging on vegetation and submerged logs. I swear by double mono weed guards on many of the flies I tie for this purpose. Most commercial patterns use a single guard, which still works better than nothing but if you’re tying your own, double down. My Big Ol’ Bass Worm and P9 From Outer Space flies work exceptionally well for crawling through the vegetation to attract hefty bass and they’re pretty fun to tie. One of the qualities I look for in most of my bass flies is the ability for the pattern to activate, move, breathe and look alive on even the slowest of dead slow retrieves.
Bass are ambush predators and will sometime scrutinize a fly for a painfully long while before deciding to annihilate it at the eleventh hour. Rabbit fur, rubber legs, marabou and other soft materials ripple at the slightest movement and can pique the interest of an inquisitive bass as your fly creeps through its territory. The Topwater bugs are arguably the ones I like to fish best. In June and July, when the weeds are thick, your lake feels like bathwater and bass are fully in their element, a popper or various surface presentation is often the way to go. A big part of the appeal is that you see and experience everything: the subtle movement of a fish in the lily pads, the quick darting wake as it rushes the fly, the gaping maw that erupts to envelop it. Popper fishing is extremely fun. Plop your fly in the spot. Let the rings dissipate after it lands. Point your rod tip straight at the fly and give a sharp strip, forcing the cupped face of the fly to make an audible pop. Let the commotion settle again and repeat the process. Black bodied poppers are hard to beat anytime, but you’ll want a selection of natural toned and bright ones too for sunny days or clear water.
Sometimes the noise a popper produces on the water can be off-putting to skittish bass. Sliders are excellent change ups in this situation. They float like poppers but with the cupped popping face reversed, they glide through the water and produce a small wake when retrieved. Divers are a great follow up style to expand your arsenal as well. These behave much like sliders in the sense that they create a wake and push water but make far less sound than a popper. They are designed to dive just subsurface on the retrieve and then casually rise back to the top when you remove tension from the line. Have you ever seen a frog do that? You probably have! Tying poppers is an art form and I’ve seen lots of people get way into it. Most are either hard poppers, fashioned from foam or balsa wood and meticulously painted or sculpted from spun deer hair. It’s worthwhile to have some of both in your collection, sometimes it makes a difference. If you’re tying your own The Zudbubbler Popper is a pretty straightforward one to start with. And if you shamelessly spiral down the rabbit hole of popper painting as I have, talk to me about getting a Copic Airbrush Kit. It’s become one of my favorite toys in this venture.
For panfish there are a variety of flies that I regularly employ. Of course, smaller poppers are very effective and exciting to fish as the water warms up. The Bluegill Gurgler is another hard to beat surface pattern. Underwater, Bluegill Bullies, Woolly Buggers and the bastardized Woolly Bully are fine choices, as is falling back on your trout match the hatch sensibilities and using damsel, leech and even chironomid patterns. My friends Jack and Errol are living proof that you’re never too old to enjoy panfish. One day I fished with Errol on Fazon and he put on an absolute clinic on the water, catching 10 big bluegill to my every 1. When I asked him what the secret weapon was, he patiently cast my direction so I could see the now tattered #12 Pheasant Tail Nymph as he stripped it back his direction. The Black Ice Cream Cone chironomid works equally well. Don’t fish it under an indicator as you might on Pass Lake. Strip it back in short deliberate pulls in and among the lily pads and wait for that line to go tight. This technique has produced some pretty big bass for me while panfish fishing. Despite the iconic mental image of a giant bass wolfing down a duckling, I imagine they probably graze on smaller insects more regularly than waterfowl or bullfrogs.