November 15, 2021
By Dave Whitlock
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, John Voelker, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the June 1985 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Nymphing for Bass."
Nymphs, particularly the larger species of immature aquatic insects, are not only highly prized, as food for coldwater species such as trout, char, and salmon, bur almost equally favored by cool- and warm-water bass. Too few fly fishers, however, consider nymphing as an effective method for bass and for many years I certainly was among them. Except for the past five years, most large bass I hooked on nymphs were taken accidentally.
One of the largest bass I ever hooked cook a barbless #12 caddis pupa I was swimming across a big bed of blue-gill and red-ear nests on a small municipal lake near Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The bass came like a big car out of nowhere, scattering panfish like a covey of quail. Then it stopped and sipped in the tiny nymph more delicately than any hand-size bluegill could. With a chill running up my back and neck, I set the hook. The delicate action stopped immediately and a serious battle began. First, the big bass rushed off the shallow nest pocket-cover to deep water. Meer a few nervous give-and-cake exchanges, the largemouth came up for a thrashing, head-shaking surface vault.
Somehow the fine leader and little hook held for about ten more minutes, then, unbelievably, the fish headed toward shoreline. I was powerless to turn it. Then the movement began to feel odd. I soon discovered why. Off the cove's point there was a big submerged tree trunk. The powerful fish had moved through the tree's massive limbs, threading the leader through several branches. The tippet soon parted with that all too familiar dull snap.
Two winters ago I was fishing a lovely, small river in Missouri with big #4 and #2, 4XL, dark stonefly nymphs for wild brown and rainbow trout that share this largely spring-fed stream with an occasional walleye or native smallmouth. The river is full of large stoneflies. On a long, deep, dead-drift through an especially deep ledgerock pool the strike indicator suddenly twitched and dived. I quickly raised my rod, but the fly wouldn't budge. I assumed my nymph had found a ledge crevice, sunken root, or fallen tree limb.
As I was about to try dislodging the big nymph it seemed to move a little. "No, I guess it didn't move after all," I thought. I tried to dislodge the nymph, but suddenly, with the rod's prodding, the "snag" began to move down-stream. The fish was so strong and heavy it seemed to be attached to the bottom. I became suspicious. It did not act like a trout. I worked the fish hard to get a peek at it, but the more pressure I put on it, the deeper and farther it moved into the ledgerock pool.
I began to worry about wearing a hole in its mouth, so I backed off a bit on the pressure. I slowly picked my way downstream, below the fish, and gained some line. It seemed forever before the leader came close and I finally saw one of the largest smallmouth bass I had ever hooked on a fly. What a surprise!
Overlooked Fly Fishing Tactic for Bass
Nymphing for bass, including largemouth, smallmouth, Kentucky spotted, and other subspecies, is a delightful and unique experience for either trout or bass fly fishers. It is as unique for trout fishers as catching trout on bass bugs. Yet, in many waters it is extremely effective, particularly for large and selective bass who have been overeducated by the bass-boat and plasticworm brigade. Many fly fishers see bass as crude and gullible fish. Nymphing techniques will certainly change that mistaken impression of these intelligent, wild fish. Inch for inch, bass equal or exceed the fight of most trout on the same fly tackle. My experience has been that any bass over 15 inches is usually much harder to hook and land than trout living in the same conditions.
The popular preconception most anglers have about bass is that they prefer to stuff their big mouths with equally large minnows, crayfish, salamanders, frogs or, for that matter, any garish metal, plastic or rubber lure. Such ideas are wrong.
Soon after hatching, bass fry begin feeding on tiny aquatic larvae and nymph forms and continue catching and feeding confidently on nymphs that are nearly always available and plentiful. So those bass that survive nature and man by intelligence and selectivity often remain vulnerable to nymphing techniques. I often study bass by keeping them in large aquariums and find they eat small live shrimp and nymphs as much as minnows.
Bass Flies and Tackle for Nymphing
Mature bass prefer the larger nymph sizes. I've seldom seen sizable stream or lake bass actively feed on nymphs smaller than a #10. The mature nymph stages of the larger dragonflies, stoneflies, damselflies, Dobsonflies (helgrammites), craneflies and burrowing mayflies really turn bass on.
Often the waters bass inhabit are heavily populated with overly-enthusiastic panfish. Larger nymphs, tied on wide-gape hooks with nylon loop snag guards, discourage all but the largest panfish from stealing your nymph before a more conservative bass can cake it. Number 8 to #2 hooks are most practical and effective. These hefty 3/4- to 3-inch-long nymphs also allow the use of practical, heavy leader tippets and fly tackle required to hook, control, and subdue large fish in typical bass structure.
Bass are often hard to hook well on fly cackle: They have large, tough-skinned, bony mouths and usually bite and hold the fly firmly. To compensate, I file my hook points shore with very sharp points and three edges. Equally important, I lower the barb angle and reduce its size, assuring fast, deep hook penetration. I now hook and land more bass than I did with "out-of-the-box" hooks. I'm convinced most bass I've lost on flies escaped because the hook point and barb lacked skin and jaw penetration.
For stream bass, 8- to 9-foot rods for 6- or 7-weight lines are ideal. For lake bass I might add an 8-weight outfit, especially for those waters that have larger fish and dense structure cover such as moss beds, lilypads, brush, logs and root clumps. In either type of water a larger bass will victimize you quickly if allowed to run very far. Bass are not polite, clean fighters, like most trout. They are skillful guerrilla fighters, and only a stiff powerful rod, strong tippet and a strong arm can stop them.
I prefer knotless leaders with 6- to 10- pound tippets. Give a big bass an inch at the wrong moment and it will snatch your nymph away from you.
Stream Bass Nymphing Techniques
Nymph-feeding stream bass are usually found in three places–fast pocket water, slow pools and tailwater and sloughs or banks.
Fastwater pockets and run dropoffs are usually good spots to nymph for smallmouth bass. Fish generally hold right on the bottom in these areas. Look for dark-water areas or structure such as rubble, boulders, ledges, or logs in these areas. Cast up and across well above the structure and let the nymph sink and tumble downstream to it.
I use a floating line with long leader and a strike indicator in these situations. I watch the indicator for any unnatural movement; when I detect such movement, I strike. The nymph must bounce along bottom to work effectively, so weight the nymph and add lead shot to the leader if needed.
As the nymph drifts through these areas, mend and strip in line to prevent excess drag and slack from developing. Often I let the nymph drift downstream then swim it upstream until it surfaces. This sudden swimming, emergent, or escaping movement often triggers a strike from a reluctant bass. On a tight line and leader the take is seen or felt, or both.
I prefer soft, dubbed-fur-bodied, suggestive helgrammites, stonefly nymphs or cranefly larvae patterns for this type of bass nymphing. Weight the nymph so it will ride hook up or use a nylon-loop snag guard. Dirty black, dirty brown, olive or gold and yellow seem to be the best colors for these flies.
Slower-moving pools and tailwater areas are more likely to hold spotted bass and largemouths. Smallmouths also use the deep side of the pool or work the pool tailwaters during early morning, evening or at night.
Rather than fish the whole pool, look for shade lines, over-hanging trees, fallen trees, logs, boulders, ledges, or aquatic weeds. Fish these areas with dragonfly or damselfly nymphs by casting to or just above the area and letting the fly sink to the bottom. Then slowly twitch the nymph along the bottom in 3- to 6-inch darts and pauses. You will usually see or feel the strike. When possible, locate the bass visually and fish the nymph directly to it.
Tails of pools are productive early and late when the light level is low, and at night. Cast the nymph across and down to feeding fish. Let it sink, then swim it up and across the tail.
Large, slow-moving, deep pools, banks, and sloughs are prime areas for largemouths, which prefer calm water. Nothing in these waters holds a big, smart bass better than a fallen tree or submerged log. With a floating line and long leader, case a snag-proof nymph past or eight against these structures and allow it to sink. Then slowly twitch and strip the nymph around each structure. Fish such areas slowly and thoroughly. Bass are seldom spooked but are often excited or angered by repeated presentation to the same area. Such waters have limited visibility due to water color and underwater structure, so several casts may be necessary to give the nearby bass more time and opportunity to find the nymph.
For these areas I prefer a dragonfly-type nymph or a large, long, soft-hackled Woolyworm with a short marabou tail. Black or dark olive are excellent colors. Rubber hackle legs and tails double the nymph's strike-provoking effectiveness.
Nymphing for Bass in Lakes
Lakes are most productive if they have stable water levels and abundant aquatic vegetation. Such waters support larger populations of aquatic insects which hold bass longer than normal on weedy shorelines. Shorelines, shallow bars, reefs, or flats are the two most productive nymphing areas.
Relatively clean fast-sloping shorelines, with sandy or gravel bottoms and aquatic vegetation, and abundant in boulders, rocks, rubble, ledges and reeds are smallmouth favorites. Shorelines strewn with downed trees, cattails, stumps, cypress, docks, lily pads, weedbeds–with gradually sloping sand or muck bottoms–are favored by largemouth. Look for Kentucky bass in lake waters that fit in between these two types.
Lake nymphing is usually effective only if water visibility is two or three feet or more. Shoreline areas usually have good populations of crawling and swimming nymphs, particularly dragonflies and damselflies. Although bass eat these nymphs year 'round, a good time to concentrate here is from early spring until the adult emergence in late spring or early summer. Fish these shoreline waters with a floating line and long leader. It’s important to use snag-proof nymphs and knotless leaders with 6- to 10-pound leader tippets or you'll lose flies and land few bass. Knot-less leaders prevent most structure hangups.
Concentrate on prime shoreline cover structure or spot a bass before you cast. Cast the nymph close to or past the structure; let it sink as near bottom as possible, then retrieve it slowly with short, erratic, strip-and-pause movements. Watch the line–either at the leader-tip junction or where it enters the water from the rod's tip–for any unusual or erratic movement. Some strikes are slow and soft, while others are frighteningly fast and violent. Use your vision and feel to detect and react to any nymph strike.
Individual structures such as large boulders, stumps, duck-blinds, or weed clumps near, but separated from, the main shoreline in three to ten feet of water are favorite big-bass ambush stations.
I learned an important nymphing lesson at a quiet spot in a Quetico Park lake. The first day I fished the spot I could get the smallmouth to hit a surface bug, but by the second day the bass got smart and refused the floaters. Yet the nymph was always effective during the five days we camped near the spot. Three or four times a day the spot would produce a sizeable smallmouth if I just passed a dragonfly nymph by the base of a few reeds located in four feet of water.
Shoreline bass nymphing, just like bass bugging in these areas, requires bossing bass out of their dens as soon as they are hooked. Otherwise be ready to tie or buy a number of new nymphs. Nymphing gives a bass a big edge over surface bugging because fish take the fly closer to cover when they are suddenly stung by the hook.
Effectively nymphing lake flats, bars, or reefs usually means being there during the emergence of large burrowing mayflies. As the big drakes or hexes wiggle from their bottom burrows and swim in hordes to the surface to hatch into adults, they trigger every bass in the lake to feed. These hatches usually occur in late spring through late summer, when mature bass have deserted their shoreline feeding and nesting areas for the cool solitude of offshore living.
Open-water nymphing lets me use more line and a 6- to 8-foot leader to get the nymph down deep and swim it up. A floating line and well-weighted nymph works okay if the bass are concentrated or feeding near the surface.
I also use a two-fly rig-a small yellow or tan hairbug (#6 or #8) and an 18-inch dropper tied to the hook bend with a Hexagenia nymph tied to the dropper. Bass grab either or both during a good emergence. The two-fly rig works faster than a single of either a nymph or bug.
I have had eye-openers when using a small, soft-hackle wet fly, Woolyworm, or nymph behind a big popping bug. The big bug draws the fish's attention and the nymph entices even the most selective bass in the lake or stream.
Fishing a tournament-pounded, deep, clear reservoir lake with my son Joel, we accidently hooked some of the best Kentucky bass I have seen by bugging brushtops with #1/0 purple and blue hairbugs with #8 Dave's Damsel Nymph droppers. The damsel nymphs were for bluegill but the Kentucky bass did not know that, and nearly every good fish we hooked nibbled on the nymph.
Nymph Control for Bass Fishing
When the nymph is down in bass cover and you are pausing to let it sink among the structure, point your rod tip directly at the nymph and lower it to a foot or less above the water. Place the fly line between the index finger of your rod hand and the grip and with your free hand grasp the fly line between the rod hand and fly reel. Slowly pull or strip the slack from the line between the nymph and rod tip. Excess slack and a high rod tip prevent the carefully controlled nymph movement and prevent your sensing anything less than a violent strike. The slow-pull method prevents these problems.
Use your free hand to animate, swim or retrieve the nymph–never the rod's tip. Rod tip animation, so popular with fly fishers in flowing or still waters, causes excessive slack and drastically limits strike sensitivity and control of the swimming fly. If I am unable to see the nymph, I watch the fly line section between the rod's tip and where it enters the water for a strike indication during the retrieve. While watching, I also use the fingertips of my rod hand and free hand to feel any objects the swimming nymph encounters.
If a good fish swims up behind the nymph and takes it softly while he is moving forward, the strike is subtle, yet I will feel the rod and line get a bit heavier or lighter, depending on the bass's movement.
I usually strike with a firm, crisp line pull, then if I feel resistance I immediately begin striking with the rod. I rod strike with an up-and-back motion of the mid and butt- section of the rod. I repeat the motion several times until I feel the bass has been shocked enough to open its mouth and sec the hook. A rod-tip strike, however, often alerts the bass and the fish spies out the nymph.
Bass Nymph Flies
Bass are extremely sensitive to fly texture and animation. Soft-bodied, suggestive nymphs take more larger bass than hard, still, life-less, exact imitations. Soft, suggestive nymphs also may be taken by bass for shrimp, crabs, crayfish, leeches, or small fish. I use soft materials such as natural and synthetic dubbing, rayon Swiss straw, chenille, chamois leather, marabou, soft hackles and rubber hackle to tie my suggestive bass nymphs. Most of my bass nymphs are weighted and are weedless or snagproof.
By using larger nymphs and working to the best cover or by spotting individual bass, you can avoid most distracting panfish strikes. Also avoid fishing the nymph very close to the shoreline, where there are many small panfish and fewer large bass.
Heavily Fished Bass Waters
Nymphing might just be the ticket for those who must fish heavily pounded bass waters. Bass are quick to learn about lures they see regularly. Few if any will be suspicious of a skinny damsel nymph or fat spiderlike dragonfly nymph. Public-accessible bass waters are virgin territories for the open-minded, enterprising fly fisher.
Bass fishers tend to use boats and electric motors to move around the waters as they fish. That's okay for folks using spinnerbaits or crankbaits, but nymphing is only effective if you can maintain a stable position. The right fly presentation, control, and strike detection hinges on strict control. Drifting along with wind or motor power has the same negative effect on the bass nympher as dry-fly drag does to the spring-creek hatch matcher. Walking, wading, or float-tubing are the three best bass nymph approaches. Calm days, anchors, and a good paddle, oar or poling partner can make canoes and boats nearly as effective.
Bass are very special cool- and warmwater gamefish. Taking them on nymphs is a good way to make them even more special.
Dave Whitlock is a noted fly tier, fisherman and author from Norfolk, Ark.