When it comes to fly-fishing for largemouth bass, Florida can’t be beat. The state is loaded with countless small ponds, marshes, lakes, streams, and other freshwater environments that are prime habitat for bass and it’s virtually impossible to drive very far without passing productive water. The vast majority of locations are shallow and, therefore, ideal for fly-fishing with a floating line. Although populations vary from one aquatic setting to another, largemouth bass are abundant in most bodies of water and a proficient flyfisher with reasonable knowledge of the fish’s behavior should have no trouble in finding plenty of action.
Largemouth bass in Florida (Micropterus salmoides floridanus) are a subspecies of the more widespread variety (Micropterus salmoides salmoides) to the north. At first glance, both fish appear to be identical, but a more detailed study reveals subtle differences. The main distinguishing characteristics of the Florida version are the scale counts at different anatomical locations and, more importantly to anglers, its larger average size. Trophy-sized fish weighing 8 pounds are relatively common and the largest specimens can exceed 20 pounds in rare instances. Although the Florida subspecies is native to Florida and the southernmost extremes of adjacent states, it has been successfully introduced into other areas of the U.S. as well as many international locations. They also commonly breed with their northern cousins in watersheds that overlap the ranges of both fish. Despite their minor physical differences, both bass have the same feeding habits and show a marked preference for habitat in the littoral zone.
The Littoral Zone
The littoral zone of a body of water is that portion where a sufficient amount of sunlight can penetrate below the surface for photosynthesis to take place and thereby promote the growth of various aquatic plants. The vast majority of Florida’s freshwaters are shallow with a large littoral zone that supports a complex food web. These fertile areas are the quintessential bass habitat; a mixture of emergent, floating, and submerged vegetation where large populations of crustaceans, worms, amphibians, insect larvae, small finfish, and other aquatic creatures provide an abundant forage base. To be consistently successful in these areas means keeping a fly “in the zone”, but fly-fishing in these salad bowl is not without its unique challenges.
Stout 7- or 8-weight gear matched to a bass taper line is standard for casting large flies and pulling big Florida bass out of the thickest cover. The Sage Bass II Largemouth model was engineered specifically with those conditions in mind and it’s my “go-to” rod for trophy-sized bass in the littoral zone. Where vegetation is relatively sparse and the situation calls for small- to moderate-sized flies, the Sage Bass II Smallmouth rod/line is a perfect match and even an outfit as light as a six-weight can be used effectively.
I prefer to use 4-1/0 topwater patterns in the littoral zone because of the visual excitement that comes from watching an explosive surface strike; but, large 1-1/0 subsurface patterns such as eel/worm streamers often attract the biggest fish, especially around floating leaf plants such as lily pads and spatterdock. Regardless of the pattern, mono and wire weed guards will significantly reduce hang-ups. Sturdy leaders, with a tippet size of 0X or larger, are necessary to turn over typically large bass flies. Since vegetation accumulates around the knots of hand-tied leaders, knotless versions are recommended instead. Regardless of whether a pattern is fished above or below the surface, a slow retrieve will usually draw the most strikes around plant cover.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to largemouth bass feeding outside the littoral zone. In Florida, one of the most electrifying occurrences, and my favorite, is when they gather in schools to attack pods of bait swimming near the surface. The water boils with excitement as baitfish scatter in every direction to avoid the voracious bass. When concentrations of fish are feeding indiscriminately in open water, almost any fly is productive as long as it lands in the middle of the fracas; however, the bass may become increasingly selective as they continue to feed during the course of several hours. In those instances, a match-the-hatch approach becomes necessary. Popping bugs and Clouser minnows in sizes 2-1/0 are deadly on school bass, even the choosy ones.
These melees generally last only a few seconds, after which another attack may take place in a different location, usually within close proximity of the previous one. Unless the fly is delivered during the feeding frenzy, the chances of a hook-up drop significantly. Consequently, a quick presentation is critical to success in these situations.
The combination of a Bass II rod, either largemouth or smallmouth edition, and the accompanying specialty line provide an enormous advantage over standard fly gear tackle for quick casts to schooling bass. I generally opt for the lighter smallmouth model when targeting schools because the fish are easier to play in open water than they are in thick vegetation and the smaller flies are easier to cast as well. Nevertheless, both these outfits significantly reduce false casting and in many instances a single backcast is all that’s necessary to make a presentation. A saltwater speed-cast can hasten the delivery as well.
Florida has a lot going for it in regard to fly-fishing opportunities. In saltwater, bonefish, redfish, tarpon, seatrout, permit, snook, sailfish, and a host of other species all vie for the title of “top dog” among flyfishers; however, when it comes to freshwater fish, largemouth bass are the unquestionable favorite. That popularity can be attributed to their statewide distribution as well as their penchant to readily strike flies. The fact that Florida bass can grow to large proportions only adds to that popularity and there’s always the remote possibility that the next bass to strike your fly will surpass the legendary world record 22-pound 4-ounce behemoth.
For more from our friend Jon Cave, please visit www.jonbcaveflyfishing.com