Australian bass are one of my favourite species to target on the surface, particularly with fly gear. The surface strikes can be spectacular to watch and also very aggressive. However, before I even start this story, of important note is that it’s currently closed season for wild Australian bass in NSW and QLD; so why are we printing this story in the July edition? Because there is no point reading this when the fish are on and they’re firing, it’s too late! Learn how to do it now in the closed season and get your new fly gear and fishing knowledge ready for the September opening, It will add a whole new aspect to your fishing and you’ll love it! For new comers to fly-fishing, bass are a realistic target species that are generally quite easy to catch if you’re willing to do a bit of homework and put the effort in. Getting stuck into a few bass will not only boost your confidence it will also help hone your skills, preparing you for more difficult species you might aspire to target on fly in the future. This article will give you a great starting point of where and when to target bass on fly and what gear you will need to do it.
The most essential attribute you will require to consistently produce bass while surface fishing is low light. My best surface sessions are usually just on sunrise or sunset although low light throughout the day can be productive and is not entirely restricted to dawn and dusk. Even under a midday summer sun any dark shaded water is a potential target zone to catch a bass on the surface. Every system will have its own idiosyncrasies but most wild bass habitats are in the upper fresh reaches of a river that will have a lot of overhanging trees along its banks and large snags protruding from the water. Accurate casting will be duly rewarded, as bass will rarely venture out from the protection of shade to hit a surface fly.
Surface fly-fishing at night can be quite frustrating and difficult to fish; however, the full moon can provide enough light to surface fish relatively open areas. The biggest problem is that substantial accuracy is lost because of poor visibility when fishing in these conditions. Bridges that have bright lights shining onto the water can also prove to be hot spots. In lit up areas bass are usually stalking in the dark water often on the edge of light waiting for schooling bait to venture into the darkness. Casts are made into the light and often hit as the fly crosses over the ring of darkness.
It pays to be mindful of sudden changes in weather as these can cause bass to actively feed or at times totally shut down. The build up to a storm or rain, as with many other species, see bass really come on the chew. The first run off before a major flooding creates small streams that bring all sorts of food into the tributaries for fish to gorge on and this can set bass into a feeding frenzy, so is a great time to get out and have a crack.
Windy days are not ideal when surface fishing and particularly with fly gear. Glassed out days are a dream and there is nothing better than watching a bass hit a popper from the surface of a glassed out waterway. If I surface fish on undesirable and windy days I try to work small pockets of smooth water that are tucked behind wind breaks and try to avoid casting directly into the breeze.
On average, afternoons have proven to work slightly better than mornings especially when there are lots of insects flying about. Bass are usually not as finicky as trout so matching the hatch to the same degree is not all that important, however, downsizing to smaller flies similar to the insect can improve the strike rate. As the water cools leading into May the local bass in my area seem to slowly go off the surface bite and start to slurp at surface flies more so than aggressively smash them. Most of the fish I catch around this time are taken below the surface on sinking flies such Bass Vampires and the like. When the season opens and the water starts to warm from September onwards they are fairly feisty and willing to surface feed all the way through the hotter months until May the following year.
All great bass fishermen will have an above average understanding of the feeding and migration patterns of this species. I certainly do not proclaim to be one of the greats but never the less I have taken the time to research bass over the years out of curiosity and a desire to be more productive. Most species are impossible to consistently predict to perfection however there are definite times when you have much more of a chance of catching some fish than others. Although bass are predominantly a freshwater species they need to migrate down to the brackish waters of our estuaries to breed. This occurs during the colder months, which coincide with the closed season from June to the end of August. They can be an easy target in closed season as they school together and are often trapped at man made obstacles like weirs or dam walls. There is also a 400mtr no fishing zone either side of these structures for this reason. Once winter is over and bass have bread they tend to migrate back up the river system dispersing into the far upper reaches. My most productive surface sessions on wild bass are leading into the closed season from March to April as they start to school and the reopening from September to November until they disperse far upstream. However, wild bass are still a very viable target from December to February but are more scattered throughout the system.
Getting set up
I started out saltwater fly fishing many years ago with a JM Gillies 9 wt beginners outfit which was sufficient to knock over the fish I usually encountered. It was great to get a feel for the sport before splashing out on specialist gear. To target bass on the surface I prefer to use an 8wt fly rod (although a rod 6 to 9wt will do) with a light small capacity reel and a floating line. Some would say that an 8wt rod is over gunning it when targeting the average size bass encountered, and its true, most can be comfortably landed on a 6 wt, however, the sole reason I choose to use an 8wt is because I like to throw fairly large surface flies that have a lot of wind resistance when casting. Using an oversized rod like an 8wt will punch large flies much further through the air, giving you better accuracy, a far more natural casting style and will increase the all round enjoyment of your fishing. If you are intent on using a 6wt you are sometimes limited to smaller or compact surface flies to avoid compromising your casting. Leaders should be 9-12 feet long depending on your casting ability and experience. My advice to novices is to keep leaders a little shorter when learning to cast as it is easier to manipulate the line into lying out neatly. Using a longer leader will give extra stealth and is preferred but is not the most important factor to determine a successful outing. Tapered leaders serve a purpose and will help in rolling out a cast but once again they are not essential. I tend to use a good quality monofilament or fluorocarbon leader when surface fishing for bass of around 12 lb depending on the average size of the fish and the type of structure I am fishing.
There are so many ingenious fly patterns to work on the surface with such varied subtle actions that it is sometimes hard to make a decision as where to start. If I were only allowed one fly to use for a session it would have to be the humble gurgler, which is quite a simple pattern to tie and use. I also favour cup face poppers, wiggle minnows, small Dahlberg divers and other deer hair patterns tied on a #2 to 2/0 hook. The strike to hook up rate can be very poor at times on fly compared to using conventional surface lures. One single hook compared to two or three trebles equates to far less hook ups. This is just part of the challenge. I have experimented by adding assist or stinger hooks to some of the larger surface flies as of late and my hook up rate has improved greatly. There is a down side to using the assist hooks though. Firstly, hooking yourself when a bung cast shoots the fly at your body equates to a far greater chance of hooking yourself and I have also found that many fish end up foul hooked in the eyes and gills which is not good if the intention is for the fish to be released. Wild bass are one species that I always like to return to the water. Weedless surface flies are a good option for beginners to use as they will assist in dragging flies over structures that you may accidently cast over or into.
Fly fishing from a vessel is generally easier and more productive than bank bashing as you can cover more ground and position yourself to make for relative carefree casting. Smaller rivers or streams may constrict your casting because when casting a fly you need equal area to back cast otherwise your fly ends up hooking trees behind you. An electric motor is a great help to keep you on track and a huge advantage, however, it is still possible to fish without one. For most scenarios I fish about ten metres from the target zone and cast from the water toward the river bank aiming the fly as close to structure or shade as possible. If you are not a great caster hang in a little closer so that you’re reaching the target zone comfortably.
When I am fishing grass or reedy edges relatively free of major snags I like to fish close to and almost parallel to the bank casting up in front of the boat and working the vegetation line. Many fish hang right on the edges and at times you need to hit the fly right on them to entice a strike. When fishing like this the angler at the front of the boat has a distinct advantage for obvious reasons so taking turns keeps everybody happy. Kayaks, canoes and land based are all possible but I would recommend learning from a stable boat before venturing into these realms as there are many more factors to account for.
The fly basics are the same no matter what you are fishing from and that is to cast a fly as close to structure as possible or as far under shaded overhangs with out snagging up. Casting sometimes needs to be very accurate particularly in bright areas with minimal shade cover. In the middle of the day you would be wasting your time continually casting short of shade, on first and last light fish will be more willing to come out from shelter to attack a surface fly.
The most successful retrieve can only be determined on the day as it can vary dramatically from system to system and on a daily basis. I have had bass hit flies whilst they are motionless, when quickly winding in, popping, blooping or slowly pushing on the water surface. I usually start with a subtle pop and keep it constant, if that isn’t working make variations with pauses, harder pops etc. Experimentation is they key on the harder days and often a code can be cracked.
One should not be disheartened when a bass strikes and misses the fly on retrieval as they will commonly strike again on the next cast placed in the same vicinity or there may be other bass schooled that are also willing to have a crack. I have at times pulled half a dozen fish from the same snag and then not had a hit for the next hundred metre stretch. Certain areas of the rivers will regularly hold fish and only through practical experience and time on the water will these become known in your local water way.
Good luck and persist, Carter