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It’s A Buggy World

by Joseph D. Cornwall


Originally Published in Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide
June 2004


A nice largemouth bass the just couldn't pass up a bug.

Shortly after the turn of twentieth century, World War I marked the beginning of one of the most radical periods of change in the course of human culture; a change that’s pace has not abated since. At nearly that same momentous point in the past, the sport of bass fishing was forever metamorphosed by the introduction - by one Ernest Peckinpaugh of Chattanooga, Tennessee - of the first modern bass bug. Bearing a striking resemblance to a periodical cicada (Brood X was first documented in 1910), Peckinpaugh’s “night bug” quickly found a home with the John J. Hildenbrandt Company after being popularized by Chicago sporting author Will H. Dilg. In the 85 ensuing years black bass have shown an unending fascination with these floating feathered frauds. In return fly fishers have shown an unending enthusiasm for the often unbridled violence and all encompassing excitement of the splashy top-water strike of a big ole bucketmouth!

The Ohio-based fly fisher has much to celebrate in the warm months. Surrounded by more than 29,000 miles of rivers and streams, as well as several thousand bodies of still water ranging from gravel pits and farm ponds to huge impoundments measured in thousands of acres, the Buckeye basser suffers no lack of opportunity. Grab a fly rod – anything from a 4 weight to an 8 weight will do – and a hand full of deer hair bugs or cork-bodied poppers, and have at it! I guarantee you can find great fishing just around the corner, or just down the street. As will all things piscatorial, a bit of preparation will go a long way towards ensuring success.

The first rule for successful bugging is to fish where the fish are. Many aspiring anglers cast towards each and every piece of “structure” that looks like the photographs featured in slick fishing magazines, only to walk away dejected and swearing there are no fish left in the pond. Too often there were plenty of fish; they just weren’t where the fisherman’s offering was! So what should we look for to find active bass in late spring and early summer? The answer is “look for concentrations of baitfish, close to bass spawning areas, where there is easy access to deeper holding water.”

Bass, whether smallmouth, largemouth or spotted, utilize similar areas to spawn. They favor firm, sandy or gravel bottoms with lots of dead wood and weed growth, and where their nests are protected from predators. Good spawning sites are also protected from direct current flow in the case of rivers and streams. It is vitally important that such a location have easy and direct access to the deeper holding water where egg-laden females will wait for an opportune moment to come to the shallows for a tryst with their suitors. Even though the spawning period will likely be complete by early June, the bass will remain in vicinity. You will know you have found an appropriate area when you see the bright circular “sweeps” of the nests.

Once you have located a likely locale, the next step is to determine if there is a good source of forage nearby. In an ancient dance of survival, bluegill feed on the eggs and fry of largemouth during the bass spawn and in return the bass – which spawn before the bluegill – will happily feed on the small bluegill and bluegill fry during their spawning period. If you see small 2 and 3 inch long bluegills or shoals of bluntnose minnows swimming in the shallow water near shore, you have found a prime food source for bass. These little fellows don’t stay glued to the shallows because they like the sunshine! They are there because bass are holding in the deeper water just waiting to ambush an unsuspecting meal.

Now that you have confirmed the food source, the next step is to determine where the most likely ambush spot is for a bass to hold. That is the structure you need to look for, and once found you will have established a pattern which will hold for the entire body of water. Is there a shelf where the shallows drop to a deeper pool? Remember that deep is a relative thing; in a large impoundment ‘deep’ may imply ten feet of water, while in a small stream ‘deep’ might be a three or four foot cut along the outside of a bend in an otherwise knee-deep run. Bass will hold just outside the break from shallow to deep, where they will nail any little fish which makes the mistake of stepping over the line. Your presentation should place your top-water offering so that it drifts, or is retrieved, from shallow - over the break line - to the deeper holding water.

So you’ve found a likely spot and set yourself up so you can make a good presentation into the shallow water. What should you use and how should you use it? The answer to this is easier than many people will believe. In short, use a top-water bug that doesn’t make a lot of noise, offers a sharp silhouette, and has lots of inherent action from marabou or soft fur tails and pulsing rubber legs. A bass is an opportunistic feeder and doesn’t spend much time trying to identify its meal. If it is small enough to swallow and looks injured or careless, it is lunch to a bass. My favorite top-water bass bugs for early season work are a size 4 or 6 Madam X or marabou muddler in black or black-and-yellow. I have found that if bass won’t eat these, they probably won’t eat.

Many folks will work a bass bug too fast and with too much noise in the earliest parts of the season. While a splashy pop-pop-pop retrieve can bring bass up from the depths in July and August, May and June tactics mandate a slower and gentler top-water retrieve. I like to drop my bug on the water with a “splat” and let it sit. When I think it has been sitting long enough I make sure to hold my guns and let it sit a bit longer. The first motion should be no more than a ripple – if your bug moves more than an inch then you are fishing it too fast. Sometimes just tapping the butt of the fly rod with the palm of your hand is enough to impart a subtle motion to the bug. Then let your bug sit some more.

The second strip of the retrieve should be just a little bit more aggressive than that first wiggle. Let the marabou and rubber legs do their thing – a bass’s lateral line is incredibly sensitive to motion. If there is a bass at home, it knows your bug is up there. The bass is just waiting for the perfect moment to spring that ambush. Unfortunately for us, there is no clock or timer which tells us when that moment will arrive. That is the joy of bass bugging! Each little movement of your retrieve should be punctuated by a pause long enough to let all the ripples from the motion fade away.

When the hit comes, it will be splashy. The bass, sitting along the break, has been eyeing your fly until whatever triggers its aggressive instinct takes over. When the moment comes, the bass will be fully committed. A hole will open under your bug and it will disappear in a swirl which often throws water into the air. Unless you are on heavy tranquilizers your heart will beat fast and a rush of adrenaline will have you yanking back on your fly rod. This is where so many anglers experience real frustration. There is a great, splashing strike and you tug back, only to find that nothing is attached to the end of the leader! You pulled the fly right out of the bass’s mouth!

It may be the most difficult thing to do in fishing, but waiting for the fish to take the bug and turn is key to consistent hook-ups. Once you see that showy strike, say “you are my fish” to yourself before you set the hook. This will give the bass a moment to push the water in its mouth out through its gills, putting the fly squarely into the maw of the beast. That is the moment when the hook will find purchase, the penultimate moment when angler, fly and fish come together in one hear-stopping second of fishing perfection.

June is the perfect month for the long rod. Warm water, pretty sunsets, and aggressive bass all suggest it is time to go buggy. In a year when the periodical cicadas will have everything with fins looking up, you have a once-in-seventeen-year opportunity to experience what many consider to be the very pinnacle of fishing excitement. Bass on a bug, what a wonderful idea! Thank you Mr. Peckinpaugh, wherever you are…

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