Journal – “Largemouth”

What’s not to love?

[by Russ Lumpkin]

AN OLD TURKEY HUNTER ONCE TOLD ME, “When the dogwoods and redbuds are blooming, turkeys are gobbling.” But by the time our turkey camp opened the first weekend of May—having to host it around the Masters and Easter and other considerations—the blooms were long gone. We figured the turkey hunting would be slow, but we had options. Wild pigs plunder in great numbers in the swamps of the Savannah River. In addition, the turkey camp is always about half bassfishing camp. The fishing is usually very good, and in fact, the dinner plans always include one all-out fish fry that usually leaves enough leftover fried bass for appetizers on subsequent nights.

After a beautiful April that ran cooler than usual, we thought the fishing would be ripe about the time May rolled in and temperatures began climbing toward 90. We had every reason to believe the camp would continue its string of yielding at least one largemouth that exceeds eight pounds.

“I made a short roll cast to the right side of a tree, and two strips later, I connected with a decent buck bass. It leapt a few times and put a heavy bow in the fly rod.”

The camp opened Thursday morning, and over the next two days of hunting, the action proved sparse at best. By Saturday afternoon, however, we had two birds on the ground. Even with the quiet turkey hunting, the bass fishing had actually been worse—especially for spring days, especially for largemouth bass. All we could imagine is that the fish were on the bed. Still, we kept at it.

At least initially. As Saturday afternoon waned into evening, I found myself alone on the lake and bore on my shoulders the weight of a skunk. I didn’t want to pack it in and kept changing flies: streamers, poppers, terrestrials, and Dragon Tails that are all the rage. Nothing.

Near sunset, I maneuvered my kayak amid a stand of pond cypress. In the past, a bug pitched near the buttressed trunks had yielded plenty of hard-fighting, leaping largemouths. But after a couple casts, I began to lose heart. So, I reminded myself what a beautiful day it had been. Around the lake, I’d seen ospreys, a bald eagle, and gators aplenty. Bobwhites, mostly a thing of the past in the Georgia coastal plain, whistled all around. Red-winged blackbirds, calling from the cattails, reminded me of fishing farm ponds with my father. Finally, I made a short roll cast to the right side of a tree, and two strips later, I connected with a decent buck bass. It leapt a few times and put a heavy bow in the fly rod. By the time I wrangled it in, my kayak had moved a good 25 feet from where it had been when I set the hook and still had momentum.

That leaping fish reminded me why I so enjoy catching largemouth bass on a fly. It also made me wonder: Why don’t more fly anglers target largemouths?

In the world of conventional tackle, bass fishing is big—huge, in fact. A short walk through the iCAST angling expo shows that fishing only for largemouths with spinning gear is larger than all fly fishing put together. The fly industry has made attempts to tap into that big bass market. For example, Sage and St. Croix offer rods designed specifically to lift heavy poppers and lay them back down near stumps and lily pads.

While most fly angling concentrates on trout, I’m of the opinion that it’s fly fishing, the process of it and nature of it, that attracts participants more so than any particular species of fish. Once an angler has the necessary skills to catch trout, he or she can apply and adapt those same skills to catch any game fish on the planet—and fly anglers are a traveling bunch. Yet the fly magazines and film tours and blogs seem to highlight only the salmonids or some salty destination. It’s rare to see a story or fly fishing film about Micropterus salmoides.

Among fly anglers, this anti-bass sentiment or lack of interest or whatever it is, is nothing new. Paul Schullery, in American Fly Fishing: A History, includes a section on bass bugs, which summarizes early fly fishing for black bass in the United States. One of the first denunciations of bass fishing appeared in The American Turf Register (March 1831), and the piece described bass waters as “turbid” and “sluggish.” The writer also mentioned alligators and “hissing moccasins” as reasons to dislike bass fishing.

In the late 1800s, James Henshall tried to change the perception of the largemouth. He wrote extensively on the many virtues of black bass and stated that American anglers had allowed themselves to be too heavily influenced by British writers to see worthiness in any game fish beyond the salmonids. He used the term black bass to cover the variety of the sunfish family of bass species, but even a brief reading of his work gives every indication that he spoke mostly of largemouths and even promoted the game qualities of largemouths as superior to smallmouths.

But soon after Henshall wrote The Book of the Black Bass (1881) and praised largemouths as a great game fish, he had detractors. One Chester, writing in The American Angler in 1882, called the fish “a porcine, snake-devouring rover of stagnant water.”

These days, perhaps the bias is due to the Bassmaster circuit, which treats fishing like a NASCAR event. Weigh-ins aren’t even on the water but in arenas packed with fans and complete with flashing lights and an MC who might as well be calling a WWE match. Each fisherman is heavily sponsored and festooned with logos from lure and boat manufacturers. Such competitions, with retrieves that skate fish across the water and fisherman strutting on stage while waving big bass, are anathema to the “quiet sport,” which is a pursuit for people who don’t mind manual labor. Most fly anglers explore water by either wading or paddling a canoe, kayak, or drift boat. Even in salt water, anglers who use enginepowered skiffs to reach distant fish then either wade hard-sand flats or pole the boat.

But I ask, what’s not to love about fly fishing for largemouth bass?

The above statements about bass and their home waters are partly true, but in my opinion, such characteristics aren’t negatives. The presence of gators and moccasins are proof that even a farm pond can be wild and dangerous. And if fly anglers hesitated to step foot in turbid waters, the carp craze would never have lifted off. And even if you don’t enjoy fishing for bass in still water, the native range of largemouth bass includes rivers from the St. Lawrence southward that drain into the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin. They are also found in rivers that terminate in the Atlantic, from North Carolina to Florida and into Northern Mexico.

Even before Henshall’s Book of the Black Bass was published, largemouths had already begun making their way around the world. In the 1870s, France and Belgium received transplants of largemouths. When Henshall wrote, “He [largemouth bass] has the faculty . . . of making himself completely at home wherever placed,” he had no idea what would transpire over the next century.

Today, largemouths have been successfully transplanted to every state except Alaska, and they can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And in fact, the fish that tied George Perry’s world record largemouth bass at 22 pounds 4 ounces came from a lake in Japan.

The joy in fishing for largemouths isn’t that they’re widely available, but that they’re everything a fly rod angler could want. They’ll eat just about anything. A friend of mine caught a seven-pounder while flipping a Stimulator for redbreast. And while largemouths are widely known for explosive takes on topwater, their fierce attacks on streamers are a fitting prelude to the acrobatics that will surely follow. Few game fish take to the air as readily and often as a largemouth bass. Their writhing, twisting leaps will remind you of tarpon, and if you’re close enough and hook a specimen of sufficient size, the rattling gills cement that comparison.

To top it off, their flesh is delicious. In many places, they are invasive. As a fly angler, you have no reason not to fish for largemouth bass—they’re fun, and you can catch and keep a few without guilt. Chances are high, there are some near you.