Welcone to the Jungle
Welcone to the Jungle
Wade-fishing weedbeds for warmwater quarry.
- By: Phil Monahan
- Photography by: Scott Sanchez
- Illustrations by: Fred Thomas
Everyone knows that bass love weeds, but to cover big weedbeds efficiently, you often need a boat (although not necessarily a sparkly one). Unfortunately, and most noted in the South, the lake bottom around most weeds is mucky, with a thick layer of decaying vegetation on top. But in cooler climes—the northern tier of the country and at higher elevations—sandy or rocky lakebeds allow wading anglers to get in on the action. And because fish often bury themselves too deep in the weeds for boaters to reach, in some situations wading anglers may have advantages over their floating brethren.
When I lived in southeastern New Hampshire—where there are very few trout streams, all of which are full of what I consider to be unexciting stocked fish—I spent a lot of time scouting the edges of ponds and lakes for good-looking, wadable weedbeds. My favorite spot was so good that my roommate and I were terrified someone would discover it, so we referred to that place by codename: “Goose Mill.” It featured a field of aquatic grass close to shore that transitioned into lily pads as the water deepened. Best of all, the weeds were next to a public beach, so the bottom was sandy and there was easy access. Largemouth and smallmouth bass and several species of panfish sheltered in the weeds, and they always seemed eager to take a well-presented fly. The lessons learned on Goose Mill proved useful on lakes from Georgia to Montana, and produced great fish that may not have seen another fly in their lives.
Finding fish in the weeds
Rather than looking for weedbeds that cover acres of water or whole coves, wading anglers should focus on smaller patches that border open water. You’re not going to enjoy slogging through lily pads—and doing so stirs up the bottom and spooks a lot of fish—so find a place where you can enter the weeds from two or three different spots and get into good casting positions. Some places I fish are so small that I cover the water in a dozen casts; then I move on to another spot. Pay attention to water depth and bottom composition, and any bankside trees or vegetation that could interfere with casting.
Approach a weedbed as you would a trout stream. Before you charge in, take time to observe the layout of the weedbed and look for signs of fish—swirls among the weeds, muddied-up areas, or even fish feeding on the surface. Next, plan your attack by figuring out the best entry points, those offering access to the edges of the bed as well as to pockets of open water in the middle. If there are seams of open water among the weeds, use those as travel lanes, but only after fishing that water completely.
Don’t wade in until you have covered the water close to shore, especially the inside edges of any lily pads. Bass sometimes hold in surprisingly shallow water if adequate cover exists nearby, and I suspect that such an ambush point lets them pick off minnows that cruise that inside edge. These are good panfish spots as well.
Once you’re in the water, move very slowly and deliberately to avoid stirring up the bottom and sending vibrations through the water and weeds. Work as much of the outside edges of the weeds as you can before venturing into the thicker stuff. The biggest bass usually hold where the weedbed stops and open water begins, which often corresponds to a drop-off. If you can cast to that deep-water edge from either side of the weedbed, do so. Otherwise, you’ll have to cast out to it from inside the bed.
As you work out, focus attention on any open “holes” in the weeds. Don’t try to cast too far, though, or you’ll risk getting the fly or line hung up. In the really thick stuff, try a little warmwater dapping: With a 9-foot rod and just a few feet of line outside the tip-top, you can drop a fly into a hole 15 or 20 feet away with a minimal amount of line on the water. Give the fly a few strips, and then pick it up and try another hole in the weeds. If the weeds are sparser, you can use the tip of your rod to steer the fly and the line through the weeds, which allows for longer casts.
Once you’re far enough out that you can reach the deep-water edge, you have two presentation options. First, you can simply cast as far as you can into open water and then work the fly back toward the weeds. The outside edge of a weedbed is not usually a straight line, and you should focus on the little inlets and channels that break up the outside edge. When the fly gets right to the edge of the weeds, pause the retrieve and let the fly sit for a few seconds. Then, give it a couple of twitches. Sometimes, this is all it takes to trigger a strike.
Scott Sanchez ties the Sluggo in a variety of styles and colors, the common thread being a strip of rabbit fur, coated on the bottom with silicone, that keeps the hook from pulling out and makes the pattern weedless—perfect when pulling bass from the pads.
Hook: Dai-Riki 899 black up eye salmon, size 2 through 3/0
Thread: Fl. Red 3/0
Head: Copper conehead
Body: Purple rabbit strip with silicone caulking and glitter on the back
If you can get close enough to the edge, instead of casting straight into open water, make a curve cast that hinges just beyond the weeds, dropping the fly off the side. This allows the fly to run roughly parallel to the outside edge, for a few strips anyway, which puts the fly in front of more fish. Practice the curve cast at home, using your favorite flies, and you’ll find that it comes in handy in many situations.
Conventional-tackle anglers fishing worms know that bass see through translucent lily pads and wait in ambush below a pad. Pulling a worm off a pad often results in a vicious strike. This works for flies as well. Drop a dragonfly, grasshopper, frog or worm pattern onto a lily pad and let it sit there for a few seconds. Then jerk it off the pad and into a hole in the weeds and hold on! Sometimes a bass is too excited to wait and may nudge the lily pad from below, an attempt to dislodge its prey.
Tackle and flies
You most likely own all the tackle you need to tempt bass from weeds. Any 6- to 8-weight rod should do the trick; the heavier the fish and the heavier the weeds, the more likely you’ll want the more powerful rod. Extracting a good bass that’s buried in the green stuff may require some serious muscle. Since you won’t be fishing deep water—and you want your line where you can see it to avoid the weeds—a floating line is your best bet.
Bass in the weeds are rarely leader shy, so use a 6-foot leader of 10- or 12-pound-test. When your 9-foot 4X trout leader becomes too short, save the remainder for a nice tapered bass leader. Before you go fishing in the weeds, coat your line-to-leader knot (and any knots in the leader) with Pliobond or a similar adhesive, which makes the knot less likely to snag or pick up any debris during the retrieve. For the same reason, use an improved clinch knot to tie on the fly, and be sure to trim the tag end as close to the hook eye as possible.
Any flies you fish in the weeds should be equipped with a weedguard—I prefer double loops of 20-pound Mason Hard Mono—unless the hook is otherwise protected by deer hair or some other part of the fly. While a double weedguard keeps the fly from snagging, hookups may be more difficult. You can ameliorate this by using light-wire hooks, which penetrate more easily than heavier hooks. If your fly gets wedged between two stems or caught on the edge of a lily pad, don’t yank it as hard as you can. Instead, pull slowly and twitch your rod tip. The fly often works itself out.
More often than not I fish topwater patterns in the weeds, just because I love to see explosive surface strikes. But, in my experience, sliders and Dahlberg Divers outperform traditional bass bugs, and their slithery action allows you to work them around and underneath lily pads with ease. However, any number of worm patterns, which are usually little more than a long strip of bunny or chenille lashed to a hook, are perfect for sliding through slick weeds. Scott Sanchez’s Sluggo and the Gulley Worm are productive examples of this style. During late summer and fall, when there’s often algae and floating weeds in the water, choose patterns without lots of junk like rubber legs hanging off them. Those accouterments frequently foul.
Wade-fishing weedbeds is a great way to spend a morning or evening during the dog days of summer and into fall, when many trout streams seem lifeless. So scout your local lakes and ponds to see if there are spots where you can get in the thick of it.
Philip Monahan is the editor of the www.orvisnews.com fly-fishing blog, and he has guided fly fishers in Alaska and Montana. He lives in southwestern Vermont.