Topwater Fly Fishing for Bass

News & Tips: Topwater Fly Fishing for Bass

The deer-hair popper landed beside the lily pads with an audible splat. It bobbed for a second and, before the ripples had even subsided, the water beneath opened up and the fly disappeared within a sudden, ferocious splash.  


I raised my rod, tugged on line, and immediately felt the pull of a good fish. The first leap caused my buddy to yell, "Wow!"  


The second left us speechless.


Topwater fly fishing for bass, though sometimes difficult, can be very productive.

I played that fish as it bulldogged deep and tried frantically to shake the hook. But, its stubborn determination eventually submitted to the leverage exerted by my 9-foot, 9-weight rod. Soon, I was posing for a photo with that 20-inch largemouth in hand.  


Topwater fly tactics had worked again.  


Excitement on the Surface  

Few angling experiences compare to the thrill that accompanies a good bass breaking the surface to engulf a deer hair or foam offering.  


Top water action is abrupt, violent and – no matter how ready you are – always startling. Strikes like these incite whoops of joy or sorry tales of what could have been. Either way, I guarantee that you'll be looking for more opportunities to repeat the experience.  


Forget about the fun, however. There are practical reasons for fly fishing the surface, too.  


First, a topwater fly, in my experience at least, attracts a higher percentage of big fish. Second, in water filled with emerging weeds, downed logs or stumps, making a splash up top is often the best way to avoid constantly getting snagged.  


Of course, there are also times when this type of fishing is relatively difficult and unproductive – very windy days immediately come to mind. Even if you could effectively cast big top water bugs on days when the wind howls, their surface-disturbing action would be lost in the waves.  


Stops and Starts  

That's important to remember because the splash, plop, ploop or chug that you make with your bass bug is what gets the attention of predatory bass in the same way that a dinner bell gets the attention of a hungry teenage boy.  


Luckily, the versatility of this style of fishing allows for fine-tuning. With your bass bug floating on the film, you can take your time with the retrieve, control the commotion and length of pause. You can let it linger over a sighted fish or a potential strike zone on one cast and, if that doesn't work, move it along like a frog, mouse or injured minnow on the next. Mix up retrieval speeds and action and, eventually, the fish will tell you what they want in no uncertain terms.  


Most times, especially in shallow or clear water, I think it is best to start cautiously so as not to spook fish. For me, that means casting my bass bug near, but not over, a sighted fish or potential holding cover and then letting it sit for a tantalizingly long time - until the ripples completely calm down or longer. Then, I'll retrieve in small strips that don't create too much of a disturbance – again waiting until the ripples die down before the next strip. And I'll work it right to the boat.  


Sometimes this will incite immediate slashing strikes. Other times, especially if you wear polarized glasses, you will see fish cautiously stalking the fly. That's when you need to twitch the fly ever so slightly and then wait until the fish strikes or backs off – a tactic that's hard on the nerves.  


If no strikes occur, my next cast will be closer to the cover or fish. If this doesn't do the trick, I'll get more aggressive and make more of a commotion with each retrieve.


The idea is to work the cover thoroughly, the first set of casts at the edges, the next further towards the heart of the cover.  


Setting the hook can be a problem for if you don't keep a relatively taut line. So try to cast and retrieve with that in mind too.


Picking Fishing Pockets and Open Water

Bodies of topwater flies generally are made from foam, deer hair, plastic or balsa wood.

Most of us know that this style of fishing is ideal for working small open pockets in weed beds as well as channels and points along their edges. We're also aware that top water tactics are often just the ticket for fishing around stumps, logs and any other cover that fish utilize for shade and ambush. But fewer anglers seem to remember that top water tactics can also be highly effective along drop offs and the steep edges of shoals when fish go deep late in the summer or when the sun is high. Smallmouth, in particular will often rocket up from deep cover to take a jab at a top water bass bug.  


Try different retrieves and bugs to see what works. But, bear in mind that it's generally wise to start with smaller bugs in shallow or calm waters and large ones in deep or choppy water.  


The Fishing Gear  

Longer and stouter fly rods are the order of the day. One of my favorites is the previously mentioned 9-foot, 9-weight. It does everything I need a topwater rod to do. It throws any bug in my fly box with authority, even in moderate winds, and has enough backbone to horse a decent bass out of heavy cover. Needless to say, your reel should be loaded with a floating line, preferably one in a bass taper configuration. These make casting even easier.  


Sometimes I use fairly short lengths (6 feet) of straight 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon line. Other times I use tapered 1X or 2X leaders. Each works just fine since the weight of a topwater bug causes it to gain momentum anyway. These strengths might be light for southern anglers, but I live in Canada, where a 20-inch fish is still something to brag about.  


Topwater Flies  

The bodies of topwater flies are generally constructed in one of four materials: foam, deer hair, plastic or balsa wood. Each has different levels of buoyancy and unique advantages. Deer hair (or elk or moose) creates bubbles when rising back to the surface after having been popped or chugged forward. On the down side, they need to be dried out after several casts. However, silicone, Scotch Guard or other waterproofing agents help mitigate this.


Balsa wood bugs land lightly and float like the proverbial cork. Like foam, this material does not get waterlogged if sealed correctly. Plastic is relatively light and rugged and often finished in great colors and patterns.  


The shape of the bass bug is important too. This determines whether the fly pushes water forward or slides under and then rises to the surface again. There are many configurations, from concave and flat-faced to sloping; some chug violently when retrieved, others make less commotion. Every serious bass angler should have a variety. You'd be surprised how finicky bass can be with these things on some days.  


There are many great deer hair patterns that most people can learn to tie too. Kits that make construction of foam poppers relatively easy are also available. If tying your own is too much trouble, however, you can buy a slew of proven patterns – some of them almost too pretty to fish. Most try to imitate frogs, mice or injured minnows. Get a few in a variety of sizes and shapes but remember that you can't go wrong with classics like the Dahlberg Diver, any type of popper and a slider or two. All it takes is a stout rod and one fly box and a handful of these to have a great time on any bass lake. Those who have tried it do not need convincing. Those who haven't are sure to smile the first time a bass rises to the occasion.