A simple-to-tie, but deadly effective, bass bug. In fact, one of the best bass bugs ever designed.
- By: Jim Bean
I’LL BET I’M NOT THE ONLY warmwater angler whose fly boxes are crammed with new deer-hair bass bugs that will never get wet. They would catch bass, too. But, oh, how those bugs suffer for their creator’s art. Many are ungainly to cast, or so stunningly realistic and time-consuming to tie (expensive, too, if you buy them) that I hold them in reserve like traveling exhibitions in a clear, plastic museum. Alas, the occasion to use them never seems quite worthy.
Look more closely, though, and you’ll find a few compartments crammed with well-chewed bass bugs that seem very much out of place amid all that pristine glamour. These hard-fished bugs all share the same very simple design, and their beauty is apparent only when I fish them.
What makes this relatively nondescript surface pattern so special? I like to think of it as having been designed backwards—from fish to angler—a near-perfect, and wonderfully versatile, example of fly-fishing form following function. Fished with an occasional tremble, it looks like a half-drowned moth. Worked moderately, it delivers a delicious, bubble-trailing burble. Popped vigorously, it demands attention on big, wind-rippled waters. Even in large sizes, its flat bottom and streamlined shape make it easy to pick up at the end of a long cast, and it flies true to its target without sailing, buzzing, whistling, twisting your leader or landing upside down—rare qualities where utility has been sacrificed to display the tiers’ skill.
The flat bottom and wasp-waisted design also exposes a generous gap between the point of the hook and the body of the bug to ensure solid hookups and fewer lost fish—insufficient hook gap is a major flaw in many bugs. Furthermore, this deceptively simple bug is easy to tie and very durable. Best of all, no floating pattern
I’ve ever used will outfish it for largemouths or smallmouths.
What innovator has developed such a bug? His name is H.G. Tapply, and his contribution to bass bugging is nearing its 70th anniversary. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Tapply was a long-time editor, writer and originator of“The Sportsman’s Notebook” (which included“Tap’s Tips”), a monthly feature that he began writing for Field& Stream in 1950. Indeed,“Tap’s Tips” was so popular that it continued to be reprinted in the magazine for many years following Tapply’s retirement as associate editor in 1985. It was, however, in the late 1930s while he was editor of Hunting and Fishing magazine that he developed his now-classic bug.
At that time, Tapply frequently fished the wide, tranquil meanders of the Charles River between Waltham and Auburndale, Massachusetts, well upstream from where it flows into Boston Harbor. On lazy summer afternoons, he liked to scull his 12-foot, canvas-covered Penn Yann with one hand and cast with the other, his 8-foot split-cane fly rod flashing in the waning light, the greased silk line gently dropping a bug beside lily pads along the shore. When I spoke with him shortly before his passing, he recalled catching largemouths up to 4 pounds, and some nice chain pickerel, too.
“At that time,” Tapply said,“I was using Joe Messinger’s handsome deer-hair frogs, and although they caught fish, the splayed legs made them difficult to cast and they seemed almost too pretty to use. Then, Roy Yates of Toledo, Ohio, sent me some bass bugs he had developed. He called his bug the Deacon. It had a floss body and closely trimmed head of deer hair about the size of an acorn. It cast beautifully, but it didn’t create enough disturbance on the water to suit me. I began to fiddle with the pattern, and the bug I developed evolved from that.”
Tapply tied some of his first variations with four flared hackles as tails, but he didn’t like the way they buzzed past his ear, so he swapped the flared hackles for deer hair, which also improved the bug’s buoyancy. He soon abandoned the floss for a body tied entirely out of spun, tightly packed deer hair, trimming it to a triangular shape with a flat face.
The first Tapply bugs I ever saw were given to me about 25 years ago by Matthew Hodgson, at that time director of The University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill, and an old friend of Tapply’s. As an avid bass-bugging enthusiast and student of early bass-bug history, Matt had been tying and fishing with replicas of many older bug patterns, and he thought the Tapply bugs were the best of the bunch.
Late one afternoon a few days later, I launched my 12-foot johnboat on the dark waters of an ancient mill pond rimmed with arrowroot and studded with stumps. Out of habit, I began fishing with a large cork popper, but it attracted little attention beyond an occasional bulge that indicated a possible refusal.
Thinking I needed something a bit more subtle, I knotted one of the Tapply bugs to my leader and began to fish it along the edge of the arrowroot. I had made only a couple of casts when the bug simply disappeared—subtle strikes are not uncommon on calm water—and I set the hook half-heartedly thinking that a small bluegill had grabbed the tail and pulled it under. The leader sliced the water in an audible sizzle, and the line burned a groove across my index finger. At the end of a 20-foot dash, there was a massive boil, and I could see the long, pale belly of a bass. A moment later, six ponderous pounds of largemouth cleared the water. That bass towed me around the lower end of the pond for what seemed an eternity until I finally got my fingers locked on its lower lip. Before dark, I landed several more nice bass, and my appreciation for Mr. Tapply’s accomplishment began to grow.
Over the years, I’ve fished with countless patterns, both old and new, but I’ve never found another floating bass bug that incorporates so many desirable features quite so well. You can easily learn to tie your own, and that’s good because commercial versions of Tap’s Bugs that were once offered in a variety of colors are no longer available. The bug’s originator, however, had a definite favorite.
“Any color will catch bass as long as it’s yellow,” Tapply told me, perhaps with tongue in cheek.“Actually, I don’t think color makes much difference, and the only reason I tie my bugs in so many colors is to avoid boredom. I believe action is more important, and I think these bugs work best when yanked hard so they make a real loud‘glug.’ A sink-tip fly line helps the bug create even more disturbance, a trick I learned when I began using such lines so that I could quickly change to a streamer when that was more appropriate.”
One of the greatest assets of Tap’s Bug is its versatility. If you’re on a big lake or river, especially if the water is choppy or muddy, a colorful bug that can create lots of noise will often bring those smallmouths and largemouths to the top. No deer-hair bug I know of will kick up more fuss than Tapply’s creation, and his favorite tactic was to fish it in a sequence of vigorous pops with intermittent pauses.
On small lakes, millponds, farm ponds and sedate rivers, largemouths may sometimes prefer a more subtle approach, and I’ve generally had better luck working Tapply’s bugs a bit more gently—even sometimes leaving them motionless for long pauses.
Smallmouths also sometimes prefer a quieter presentation. I seem to have better luck with subdued colors on these relatively calm waters, and my favorite Tapply bugs are tied with either an all white or all-natural, grayish-brown deer body hair on a Size 2 hook. One modern variation that you may want to add is a monofilament weed guard. These work quite well, and will reduce frustration if you fish weedy waters.
If you don’t tie flies often, this is a bug for you: Simply tie in a deer-hair tail, and spin clumps of deer hair up the hook shank. Tie off, and clip the bug to Tapply’s inventive wedge shape. That’s it.
Like most bugging enthusiasts, I fish diving and sinking flies when necessary, but I prefer to catch bass when they’re eating their meals on top where I can keep an eye on their table manners. And of all the surface bugs I’ve used—classic or modern—I’ve never found a more popular snack to serve them than H.G. Tapply’s simple little deer-hair bass bug.
Jim Dean lives in North Carolina and has a passion for warmwater fly-fishing.For detail tying instructions, click here.