Bugging for Bass
T HE SHAKESPEARE FIBERGLASS fly rod was my great pride during the summer of 1959. I stood on the bank of Houston’s Hermann Park duck pond and again admired the trim, white blank and the clean red windings. No doubt, the Wonderod was an A-Team stick; I was only 13, but the great Joe Brooks would have been proud to wield such an outfit.
The rod flexed, a slow and pleasing push that turned the short loop and dropped the popping bug. The yellow popper landed with a light plop alongside the edge of “coontail” moss.
The bug floated, then twitched and gurgled and fluttered—and the green water boiled as a two-pound bass struck. The line came tight, and the fish twisted out in a jump straight from a Field & Stream or Outdoor Life cover.
I worked the fish close and with thumb and index clamped the lower lip. Well, maybe 1 1/2 pounds—but my first “real” fish on a fly rod. Bluegills and “goggle eyes” didn’t quite get it.
That long-ago bass and that long-gone rod helped launch a lifelong fly fishing adventure.
From Atlantic salmon to Pacific sailfish, I’ve caught pretty much all the fish that matter, but the basic drill of bass bugging remains a favorite. And summer is a great time to flog the nearest green shoreline.
This is because warm-water weed growth is spreading and shallow bass often are looking up, snatching small terrestrial prey and large insects (especially dragonflies).
Bugging may not the best way to catch a really big bass, but it is a grand way to make the most of average fish. A two-pound largemouth that blows up from nowhere and inhales a popper is about as much fun as you can expect to have on a farm pond or back cove—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Incidentally, “bug” is a catch-all term that refers to a variety of floating fly-type lures. The primary two are cork/foam/plastic poppers with dished-out faces, and bugs made of tightly spun deer hair.
Bugging not only is fun, it can be extremely effective. First, the small, lightweight payload lands with a soft “fuzzy” splat, a stealthy advantage over the clunk of a heavy casting lure in clear or calm shallows.
Second, bugging minimizes wasted time on empty water. The skilled hand can work the first 10 or 15 feet through the prime area, then pick up the floating fly line and with a single backcast redirect for another delivery—no lost effort cranking back to the rod tip.
Also worth noting, the caster can “overfly” a thick rim of perimeter weeds and drop the bug into a defined open pocket. Twitch, twitch, twitch, then pick up smartly.
Empty water aside, the idea is to pick up while sufficient heavy fly line remains off the rod tip to load the backcast. Retrieving all the way back forces the caster to make multiple false casts to get the weight-forward line belly moving again.
This efficient drill is aided and abetted by the fact that most casts with a bass bug are relatively short, say 30 to 50 feet. The blazing double haul needed to fire a laser loop 80 or 90 feet across a saltwater flat really isn’t necessary. A single haul on the forward presentation might add authority into the wind, but the tempo of close-quarters bugging is slow.
Come to think of it, a lazy-flexing fiberglass rod is a fine choice for this deliberate work. A good way to slow things down with a fast graphite rod is to over-line one size (say, a nine-weight line on an eight-weight stick), or to buy a specialized bugging taper with a shorter, thicker belly for close loading.
Large air-resistant bugs usually are overkill. The big wad is wretched to cast, and you don’t need a fluffy chicken with floo-floo flight characteristics to draw fire from most shallow bass.
Far easier to work with, is a bug with a head about the size of a fingernail. While you’re about it, use a pair of scissors to trim back any long rubber legs and excessive hackles. Make sure the gap of the hook is wide enough to clear the fluff and stick the fish.
Bass in tangled water are not particularly leader shy. A fairly short leader (six to eight feet) tapered to somewhere between 10 and 20 pounds (depending on water conditions) turns over a bug smoother than a longer, lighter leader.
Also, the trendy “strip strike” with a low rod tip is a bad idea when bugging. If a bass misses, yanking straight back with the line hand causes the bug to plow across the surface, creating a potentially fish-scaring commotion. Simply lifting the rod tip (as with a trout dry fly but with more authority) plucks the missed bug into the air, ready for a follow-up presentation.
And, on the subject of a high rod tip, a 45-degree angle during the retrieve is handy for fluttering, skating and jiving a bug across calm water or amid a tight pocket.
Finally, if a big bass clamps down, forget the mantra to “get him on the reel.” Trying to wind slack coils from the deck gives the burly sow time to dive for cover. Strip hard and hope the leader holds. Come to think of it, a costly reel with a powerful internal drag is a waste of money when bugging; a simple clicker reel works just fine.
All this might fly in the face of popular technique but proper bugging is a specialized game—and it’s one that makes the most of average bass in average water.
Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com