fly fishing for bass

More Monster Largemouth on the Fly – Bass Opener Day 2

May 25, 2014

early morning bassin

I was on the water at five again this morning. Noah decided the sunrise and possibility of a good predawn bite was too much to miss, so he joined me on the water, half awake yet eager to hit the lake. It was still dark and a bit chilly when we starting tossing flies at the river mouth, me armed with a big articulated concoction and Noah with a simple conehead rabbit strip leech in purple. They were about as different as streamers can get, but they both had their charms and did a decent job of catching fish.

Noah hadn’t been fishing for more than three casts when he came tight to a solid fish. I scrambled to grab my camera and the net in the predawn darkness as Noah battled the largemouth. She jumped, and for that moment that seems like eternity when you have a big fish on, both of us held our breaths as we realized just how big she was. Successfully fighting larger fish on a fly rod is by no means an accidental feat (both of us have learned plenty of tricks and have suffered plenty of heartbreaks over the years), but Noah played her perfectly and soon slid the old bass into the net – another fantastic largemouth and a personal best on the fly rod! noahs big fly rod largemouth Twitter

We were pumped. I snapped a few quick pics and popped a couple high-fives before she shot off into the dark waters. She taped around 19″, but she looked far bigger. Looking back, I wish I’d taken the time to grab the scale and get a quick weight. sunrise on the bass lake

 

I’m not exactly sure why, but after that first good largemouth I couldn’t get another bite. The water is quite stained this year compared to last year’s Opener, and I suspect the warmer, brighter weather might have something to do with it as well, but there’s no clear answer. I tried all sorts of flies and baits and retrieves on the fly and spin rods without any action. Nothing. The lake was dead. I even hopped in the old row boat and hit the docks, but the bass just weren’t having it. It was a gorgeous morning on the water, though, and Noah’s one big largemouth was definitely worth the lost sleep.

Grandpa casting for bass

Grandpa casting for bass

A front moved in later in the afternoon, followed by some better fishing. I got a decent 14 incher on a fly I tied to imitate the “stupid tube” that produced so well last year. A jig hook, conehead, double rabbit strip tail, some flash, a bit of estaz, and some llama fur in front turned out pretty nicely and did a good job replicating the erratic dragging action of the tube. The fish seemed to like it well enough, and that’s all that really matters.

There was about an hour of daylight left when I hit the water again. By this time the lack of sleep from two early mornings on the water was starting to take its toll. I was in one of those stupors induced by too little sleep and too much caffeine, and I nearly didn’t fish. But the calm lake looked too good to pass up, so I grabbed the fly rod rigged with the jig fly from earlier and hit the river mouth. I’m glad I did.

On the second cast I nailed a good fish. A bass. A real nice largemouth.

She peeled some line off at first, but honestly it wasn’t that dramatic. A few of those flops that bucketmouths do when they’re too fat to make it out of the water, a few hard tugs, and she was in the net.big bucketmouth fly rod

It was another great bass and my biggest on the fly, a fat female that stretched around 19 inches with a big, gaping jaw.

I pounded the river mouth for another half hour without another bite to show for it. I should’ve ended on a high note, but like most anglers, the hope of catching another fish was just too much to bear.

The next morning was rather uneventful. I set out in the rowboat hoping to catch a few bass on the fly. I poked one good largemouth that quickly came unbuttoned, which ended up being the only bass action I had all morning. The panfish were thick and ravenous, though, and I also happened upon a few carp with bellies the size of watermelons. They completely ignored my hybrid worm fly. It was the first time in a long while I found my knees shaking while fly fishing.

Bass Opener 2014

I don’t think there’s a more highly anticipated day in our fishing season than the bass Opener, though this year it nearly didn’t happen. The plan was to hit the North Shore in hopes of catching the early stages of the steelhead run, but, like any event in nature, it’s a fickle phenomena that depends on a dizzying number of variables that even the best of anglers still don’t quite understand. The fish hadn’t yet entered the rivers, so we ended up calling off the trip with no small amount of anguish. It was a bittersweet decision, but it meant that we got to hit the lake for bass Opener, which isn’t exactly a horrible consequence if you ask me.

I learned long ago to not form any serious expectations around fishing trips. Having a well-formed plan and high expectations (not to be confused with optimism, which is an entirely different and necessary animal) is as good a recipe for disappointment as I know, and the only way around it is to expect the unexpected, or just not care what happens, which in the the end is nearly the same thing anyways. Happiness is relative, and in some form or another, most people have the ability to at least partly enjoy themselves on a fishing trip.

Last spring was the best bass fishing we’ve ever experienced, and I honestly didn’t expect this year’s Opener to come anywhere close, though I was still quite optimistic. Bass Opener can be a lot like the first day of duck season – you fish it because it’s “Opening Day,” and not much else. Sometimes you might strike it lucky and a cold front will push some ducks down or the bass will still be prespawn and hungry, but most of the the time the action is only fair, although something usually happens.

There was still plenty of time left to chase some panfish when we rolled in to the cabin on Friday night. The crappies, still fat with eggs and still quite hungry before their spawning rituals began, were holding at the mouth of the river and feeding on tiny minnows. I coaxed a few to grab a small woolly bugger before switching to a #12 Pink Punch. That was a bit more to their liking, and I landed about a dozen nice fish in the nine inch range before calling it a night. I think the veil created by the ice dub did a nice job imitating the transparency of the little minnows the crappies were eating, though crappies just seem to have a hard time resisting anything pink.

I strung up a few rods – both fly rods armed with the trusty Meat Whistle and a Murdich Minnow and spin rods rigged with a crankbait and llama fur jig – in the dim light of the lamp with a good dose of excitement for the morning. Insomnia is a very real concern on the nights before big fishing trips, but fortunately I dozed off in time to get a solid five hours of sleep before my 5:00 alarm hit.opening day sunrise

The sun hadn’t yet reached the tips of the giant old oak trees on the opposite shore when I started casting my Meat Whistle. There was a touch of crimson in the sky, and every so often the eerie cry of a loon would echo over the lake. The only trouble was that the fish weren’t biting, though it was a gorgeous, picturesque scene, and it almost seemed greedy to expect to catch a fish in addition to the grace I’d already been given. I probed the mouth of the murky river for a few minutes before I tail-hooked a big carp (unintentionally, of course). I first thought I’d hooked a big bass, but after a minute or two of surging runs and hard bulldogging on the bottom it was evident that I’d gotten myself into a much tougher fight. He put a good bend in the six weight, and the hook popped free just after I realized he was pinned in the tail.morning on the bass lake

Prime predawn fishing time doesn’t last long, and the sun was just starting to peek over the trees, so I grabbed the spincasting rod rigged with the same crankbait that got my first largemouth on last year’s Opener (tradition, I guess). I’m no “fly or die” purist when it comes to bass fishing (I actually really enjoy gear fishing), and I guess I just like to catch fish, making a gear rod a fun and beautiful tool for efficiently covering water and finding the bass. But, like most anglers I know, I’ll almost always take them on a fly whenever I can get them.

I figured the crank would perform nicely in the murky water, and I was right. I stuck a feisty largemouth around one pound for the first bass of the season – not a monster, but a good start.

The obligatory picture of the first largemouth of the season.

The obligatory “first fish of the season” pic

I got one more bass before taking a hint from the bold, aggressive action of the crankbait and switching to a bigger articulated streamer that created a bit more commotion than the Meat Whistle. The bolder presentation and meatier profile turned out to be key in the dirty water, and I soon landed my first fly-rod bucketmouth of the season.

Bucketmouth on the fly rod

Bucketmouth on the fly rod

 

I stopped for a coffee break and Grandpa came out and got his first largemouth of the year on the crankbait. Noah and I fished for a few more hours and picked up a small bass here and there, but the morning bite never really materialized. I’m not sure if it was the weather or unstable water conditions, but something just wasn’t quite right.

Grandpa's first of the year

Grandpa’s first of the year

 

Braden was sidelined for most of the day with a baseball injury and a cast that couldn’t get wet (he managed to fracture his wrist in the outfield and ended up getting it cast – hardly a good combination for a solid day of bass fishing). It was nearly a very tragic misfortune, but after much searching he found a giant green rubber glove that protected his arm from the water. And it’s a good thing he did, because within his first few (fly) casts of the evening he hooked a monster largemouth…

8wt and an olive/brown rabbit conehead

8wt and an olive/brown rabbit conehead

It was a gorgeous fish, real fat and nearly over 20″, and it turned out to be Braden’s personal best largemouth on a fly rod. Not a bad start to his bass season (quite awesome, actually), though it makes you wonder how he caught it on his third cast when you’ve dutifully put in your time and tossed flies for hours on end. Fishing has an odd way of keeping score.

The rest of the evening slipped by quite uneventfully, though Grandpa hit a good crankbait bite and put half a dozen fish in the net in very short order. Noah and I got a few more small bass, but nothing worth mentioning. I felt a hint of disappointment as the sun slipped behind the trees and another bass Opener came to a close.

I spent quite a while thinking about the Opener and wondering what was different. Yes, the fishing wasn’t nearly as good as last year’s Opener, but there was no real reason to be disappointed. The fly rods produced some fish, the weather was beautiful, and Braden landed a spectacular fish (if you don’t get excited for a bass like that one you clearly don’t have any business fishing) that’ll likely be one of the best of the year. We caught some great fish and had a good time on the water, and for that I’m extremely grateful. But something was still missing, though after a while I realized it wasn’t the fishing at all.

I guess I just haven’t mastered the fine art of managing expectations.

 

 

Boundary Waters Pike and Smallmouth

I slid the canoe into the lake and stared out at the white caps. Across the bay, the pines were bending and straining to stay upright in the 30 mph gusts of wind. A light rain started to fall as Braden and I shoved off and headed for the tiny island a hundred yards off the campsite. Canoeing, let alone fishing, seemed downright ridiculous in the fierce, heaving lake. For the past two days, we were stuck in our tents as the wind howled and rain pounded our tent as temps approached record lows (in the high 30’s), weather more conducive to curling up and reading a book rather than fishing. But it was the last day. I couldn’t handle it anymore.101_5259

At first, the wind seemed manageable as we started out from shore. But when we reached the open water it was obvious that it would be all I could do to paddle and keep Braden in position to make a few casts before we were swept to the opposite shore. I figured the pike would be patrolling the reeds off the windswept little island, gorging themselves on minnows blown in from the lake. Braden pulled his spinner from the hook holder as we blew over to the island. Fly fishing was impossible in the wind. A few casts produced nothing. We circled it, pounding the shoreline with spinners, crankbaits, and even jigs, but not a bite. Confused, I switched to a diving Rapala and paddled out to deeper water. Trolling out to a point, we dragged our Rapalas through the rocks. The rain was still falling sporadically and the wind kept pounding the canoe. Just as I was about to get discouraged, Braden’s rod bent over. The fight wasn’t very long, and he pulled in a little walleye, just big enough to fry over the fire. It was all of twelve inches, but at this point we didn’t care. It was a fish, and we were pumped to get out there overcome the challenges that the lake threw at us when our instinct told us to crawl back into the tent.

A few days earlier, we decided to make a last minute trip to the Boundary Waters. The BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) is a huge canoe-only wilderness area in the northeast corner of Minnesota. The hundreds of lakes have some of the best warmwater fishing anywhere. Most are filled with smallmouth and pike and walleye that reach monstrous sizes in the large, clear lakes. Some have lakers and even stream trout. Besides a few of the entry lakes and motor routes, the pristine lakes are lightly fished and the fish can be quite aggressive. Canoes and your back are the only way of transportation in the BWCAW, so it tends to weed out the city slickers once you get a few portages in. It is one of my absolute favorite places to fish. The deep wilderness and the stunning solitude provokes a feeling of awe and reverence.

View from camp

View from camp

The only permit available (that didn’t require a 300 rod portage) the day before entry was the Fall Lake route. The unmistakable smell of damp pine forest greeted us as we reached the end of the road out of the canoeing town of Ely. Ely is a quiet little town, yet full of excitement and anticipation as it is the last stop before the wilderness. We launched our canoes from the Fall Lake landing on Wednesday and paddled across the lake and made a quick portage around the rapids. After paddling through Newton Lake, we portaged into Basswood Lake and set up camp.

Poor man's lobster

Poor man’s lobster

Rapids on the portage

Rapids on the portage

The three of us launched the canoe the next morning at a lazy ten o’clock after some scrambled eggs over the fire. The scenery was breathtaking. Pines and cedars and birches towered over the lake. A few stark rock faces jutted out from the clear, deep waters, rising steeply above the lake. To cover some ground quickly and get an idea where the fish were we tossed some hardware and started trolling for pike. It wasn’t long before my rod was bent over and I had a little pike in the canoe. He swallowed the spinner, so we kept him for a little shore lunch.

shore lunch in the bwcaw

A tiny island rose out of the middle of the bay, surrounded by reeds and cabbage. It wasn’t much more than a few rocks and scraggly bushes, stretching only a few canoe lengths long. But it was one of the most fishy spots I’ve ever seen. A light rain began falling on the quiet northwoods as I paddled closer to the shallows. Braden started casting his new eight weight toward the island, landing his Meat Whistle right up under the bushes. Only a few casts into the day, a pike came flying out from the rocks to intercept the fly, engulfing it as Braden started stripping.

Fighting a bwcaw pike on the fly

“Got him” he said as his line went tight. The pike, a decent fish of about twenty inches, bursted out to deeper water, but Braden pulled him up to the canoe after a short fight. Just before I could land him, he shot out of the water, severing the line with his sharp teeth, leaving us with a shredded leader and a grin on our faces. This was gonna be good.

I strung up my eight weight and tied on a llama fur clouser minnow. It only took a few casts to the edge of the weeds before I hooked up with a strong fish. At first I figured it was a big pike from the hard run it made when I hooked him, but the water flashed bronze and I landed a solid Boundary Waters smallmouth of about sixteen inches. It wasn’t a monster, but even the smaller bronzeback put up quite a battle and had my eight weight throbbing and took line a few times. This guy was very fat and muscular, obviously gorging himself on the abundant crayfish that are a staple food source for the fish up here.

Boundary Waters bronzeback on the fly

Boundary Waters bronzeback on the fly

I landed another smaller bass and Noah caught a little pike on the spin rod. Braden landed his first fish on the eight weight, a pike that smashed his Hog Snare. A thunderstorm started to roll in, so with one pike on the stringer we headed back to camp.

Pike!

The storm lasted for a few hours, and after dinner we hit the water again. A loon’s eerie laugh echoed over the calm lake as we paddled out to the island. Braden and I fly fished while Noah launched a spinner at the weeds. One small pike on the spinner was all we could manage after a full paddle around the island. The fish had seemingly turned off with the storm. But not completely.

Noah tossed his spinner up into the cabbage and it got nailed. He set the hook into what looked like a decent fish. The pike rolled on the surface, betraying its true size. It was a beast of a northern, at least ten pounds! Then all chaos broke loose. Noah’s little ultralight stick doubled over, his drag squealing almost as loud as he was as the monster pike shot off. Braden and I immediately calmed him down, and he fiddled with his drag until he got it right. It seemed like an eternity, but miraculously the six pound test held through the battle, enduring some powerful bursts and dives near the boat. I slid a hand under the monster and got her in the canoe for a quick hero shot. She taped at 36” and would’ve been close to twelve pounds according to a weight conversion. I revived her, and she slid back into the depths.

Noah's monster Boundary Waters pikeNoah's 36 inch pike on Basswood Lake

We fished a bit more before heading back to camp and crawling into a warm sleeping bag. The next two days were just miserable. The rain poured and the wind howled, gusting up to thirty mph. It was cold, too, more like weather you’d find in October than the end of July. I did brave the squal and tried a little shore fishing Friday night. My first cast into the surf I hooked another big pike on the spinner. I battled the fish, a few inches shorter than Noah’s, right up to the rocks, but it popped off before I could get a picture. I stuck a couple hammer handles in the shallows before the fishing shut off and I couldn’t buy another bite.101_5247

The walleye was the only fish we managed to catch on Saturday. The weather was just as bad as Friday, keeping us in our tents for practically the whole day. On the paddle out Braden and I trolled Rapalas in a last ditch attempt to pull in some fish. I caught a little bronzeback and a hammerhandle pike, and Braden LDR’d a big smallie. It looked like a salmon jumping way out on the horizon with all the line he had out. Despite all the rain it was a good trip and it was great to get up there again. There’s almost nothing better than a few days of camping and fishing up north.

Tight Lines,

Conner

Bluegills, Bucketmouths, and Bowfin on the Fly

We hit the lake last weekend for a couple days of chasing some bass and panfish. The fish have moved into their summer patterns but there were still a few bass to be had in the shallows.

fighting a largemouth bass on the flyI caught this bowfin on a variation of Rich Strolis’ Hog Snare just before dark in the canoe. He put up a great fight on the fly rod.

One mean-looking fish

One mean-looking fish

I caught a good sunrise–but not much else– early the next morning. The mist and the super calm lake made a very picturesque morning.101_5099

101_5104 Braden and I got out in the rowboat and fished docks for bass with spin rods later in the morning. He thought he snagged a log on his Rattle Trap, but then it started moving….he managed to land this beast of a 20″ bass after a good battle in the weeds.

20" bucketmouth right up in the shallows

20″ bucketmouth right up in the shallows

We paddled up the creek a few times to the outlet of another small lake searching for some bluegills and bass. Moving water always seems to attract fish, and despite the crazy pressure from the local bait fisherman, the little hole below the culvert produced lots of ‘gills on the fly and a few bass. The bluegills were thick and ravenous. Braden rigged up a homemade tenkara rod with a stick and hammered the fish. He got some curious looks from the locals :)

A Flash Bugger streamer fooled this nice bluegill

A Flash Bugger streamer fooled this nice bluegill

101_5133

Nailed this 17″ largemouth on a chartruese meat whistle at the culvert

fly-caught largemouth

Grandpa caught this nice crappie while trolling for walleyes

27 incher

27 incher

The Bite:

Largemouths have started to move to deeper summertime haunts, but there were still plenty of fish in the shallows on the docks and shorelines, especially in low light. Fish jigs slowly crawled along the bottom in clear water or crankbaits in the murky water

Crappies were in the weeds in 3-8 feet of water

Water Surface Temp was 74

 

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

Day 3…Chasing Gold – Walleyes from the Deep

May 27, 2013

After two early mornings and some hard days of fishing, I was beat. I slept in a bit today and hit the water almost an hour after sunrise. The clouds had returned. Hopefully the bass crept back into the shallows with them, I thought as I rigged up my rod. I lazily tossed a small black/silver Flicker Shad on the spin rod from shore, slowly working the scraggly new cattail stalks and the flat adjacent to the river mouth. The familiar tap of a strike abruptly interrupted the steady wobble of the Shad, and a bass struggled at the other end. I pretty quickly landed a fat sixteen incher that inhaled my crankbait. As I released him, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I’d been out at sunrise.

I caught one more decent bass on the Float-Tail Worm bass fly before heading in for breakfast. A few hours and a cup of coffee later the four of us piled into the old row boat and headed toward deeper water looking for some walleyes. We puttered out to the dropoff with the old electric trolling motor, dropping Lindy rigs armed with nightcrawlers into the depths. We trolled the flat just off the dropoff, Noah keeping us in about eighteen feet of water. As we drifted just off a tiny point, Grandpa’s rod bent over.

“Got one?” Braden asked.

“Doesn’t feel like a weed,” Grandpa replied as he reeled it in. The water flashed gold behind the boat, and Braden put the net on him, a nice little fourteen-inch walleye! Not a monster, but it was a great start.

I’ve never really caught walleye from a boat before. Honestly, before the one I caught on the fly the only ‘eyes I’d ever caught were through the ice. Besides a few short bouts of drifting somewhere in the middle of the lake over “deep water”, I’ve never pursued them very seriously. For most anglers in Minnesota, a few walleyes wouldn’t be anything special, but we were pretty excited to get one on our first serious attempt at targeting these fish. Finding good structure, picking the right rig, and Grandpa putting a walleye in the boat gave me a great feeling of satisfaction.

We trolled for another hour without another bite. Later in the afternoon Braden and I trolled around the entire lake. For the first hour of our trip we dragged Lindy rigs along the dropoffs, over a few points, and through the flats but failed to interest any fish. Near the end of our float, we came to the same point where Grandpa pulled in his walleye earlier in the day. I picked up a baby twelve inch ‘eye and Braden caught the fish of the trip:)

Needed the net for this monster!

 

Nice fat largemouth

Bassin’ was pretty good tonight. Grandpa and I started the evening by soaking some nightcrawlers at the river mouth. Yeah, it was straight up bait fishing, but it was nice to just slow down a little and relax. A lot of (fly) fisherman get so intense in trying to match the hatch and stalk the fish that they often forget to slow down and enjoy the moment. Fishing this way allows you to do that and really enjoy the peacefulness and experience of the lake. Grandpa pulled in a nice largemouth, and both of us lost a few more worms. I fished a Meat Whistle and caught around eight in an hour. Nothing huge tonight, just bass around a pound that put up a good fight on the fly rod. I also landed another baby walleye, a cute little guy only about five inches long. Just after sunset I got perhaps the oddest catch of the trip on a fly, a little yellow bullhead! Bullheads don’t have great eyesight but rely primarily on their sense of smell to find their food, so I was surprised to find this guy on the end of my line.

 

Noah launched floating Rapalas into the dark of the night hoping for some walleyes. The fish have been coming up real shallow at night, taking advantage of the darkness to sneak onto the flats. He wasn’t disappointed, and caught two fish almost an hour after the sun slipped behind the trees, a solid sixteen incher and a smaller walleye.

Floating Raps are deadly on walleye in the shallows. This one ate a 4" monkey puke (chartreuse/fire tiger)

Tomorrow is our last day…should be another good one.

Tight Lines,

Conner

Day 2 – Sunrise on the Bass Lake and More Walleye on the Fly

I was up at five again this morning. Unlike yesterday, the clouds had thinned a bit, so we actually had a sunrise – and it was awesome. Standing knee-deep in the shallows of a lake or stream at the break of dawn on a cool morning is one of my favorite times to be outdoors. The lake is usually dead calm, yet frantic with feeding fish. Trout are rising in the creeks, bass are jumping, and every fish in the lake seems to take advantage of the relative darkness to snatch an easy meal.

Unfortunately, along with the sun came slower fishing. Despite pounding the river mouth and surrounding shoreline, I managed only two fish on the fly the whole morning, a decent largemouth that ran about fourteen inches and a smaller “pounder”.

Later in the morning, we hopped in the old van and scouted a new spot on a lower stretch of a favorite smallmouth creek. All the recent rain we’ve had put the stream running high and muddy, so it was a little tougher to figure out where the fish were holding. We tossed a variety of flies, but came up empty. The river was quite a bit wider here and very close to the confluence with a large lake, so there were undoubtedly some fish hanging around, maybe some bigger bronzebacks and pike. We backtracked and hit a favorite spot farther upstream. The creek here was unrecognizable from the last time we were here when low summer flows reduced it to practically a trickle. I only fished for a few minutes before heading back.

August

 

Late May

Once we returned to the lake, we set up at the mouth of the river for the evening bite. I nailed a nice 3 pound, six ounce largemouth on the Meat Whistle, my largest fly-caught bass of the trip. Fishing was a bit slower tonight, but all of us got some fish, mostly bass around the twelve inch mark. I also caught another walleye on the fly rod, a baby eight incher that smoked my Meat Whistle.

About 17″ on the fly rod

Gold on the fly

Overall, it was another great day of fishing. Tomorrow we’ll pull out the old row boat and hit some deeper water looking for some ‘eyes.

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

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