Bass in the Burbs

Bass in the Burbs

How to find largemouths in your backyard

  • By: Chad Mason
Finding Suburban Bass Surveys indicate that nearly two-thirds of all anglers now live in urban or suburban areas. In response to the urbanization of America, many state fisheries agencies and city parks departments have created programs to enhance urban fishing opportunities. These programs often require city planners to include ponds and lakes in the design of parks, sports complexes and other public spaces. Once they're built, agencies stock the ponds with fish.Additionally, fisheries in many existing ponds and lakes have been restored under these programs. In some cases, agencies even employ full-time personnel to oversee the management of urban and suburban fisheries. Consequently, many urban and suburban fly fishers can now find good fishing in their backyards. I'm one of them: I live in a suburb of a major Midwestern city, and within two miles of my front door are five public ponds that offer excellent fishing for largemouth bass. Three others are located in nearby private developments and, thanks to acquaintances living on the premises, I enjoy access to two of these private ponds. However, in my experience the public ponds offer fishing equal to or better than the private ones. Not every suburban pond will have a good population of bass. Even those that show records of initial stocking may prove barren if they lack proper habitat. When prospecting, I look for ponds with good water clarity and abundant weed growth, but not excessive mats of moss or scum. If rooted aquatic vegetation is visible shore-to-shore, the pond is probably too shallow to support bass year-round. But weedless zones indicate "holes" with sufficient depth to carry bass through hot summers and cold winters. Ponds surrounded entirely by manicured grass and rock rip-rap--such as those often seen in office parks--rarely offer good fishing. Look for aquatic plants like elodea, broadleaf cabbage, coontail, bulrush, water lily and cattail; these all provide important habitat for invertebrates, sunfish and frogs, all of which form the foundation of a food web that supports bass at the top predatory position. Without this foundation, you're unlikely to find good bass fishing. Ultimately, the only way to verify the presence of bass is to catch one. To that project we now turn. The Palomar Knot [images] Rigging Up For all my bass fishing I use an 8-weight, 9-foot, 4-piece rod. In my judgment, it's imp-ortant to select a rod that isn't too stiff. You need a rod that will load at short range, since you rarely need to throw a bass bug more than 40 or 50 feet. Leave the bonefish rod at home and reach for something with a moderatly fast action. [For more on bass rods, see page 36.] I use a weight-forward fly line designated as a "bass-bug taper," and find it perfect for muscling big bugs through the breeze at moderate distance. A traditional homemade leader, with several diameters of material knotted together, is a real handicap in a weedy bass pond. An angler might assume knotless leaders are the answer, but I haven't found one that will turn over a big deerhair bug with authority. Therefore I opt for a compromise. I use a very simple two-section leader. The butt section is three feet of stiff, 0.022-inch monofilament. The tip section is another three feet of 0.017-inch mono of the same brand as the butt. To the tip I affix an 18-inch tippet of 12-pound-test mono. Then, with a needle, I run the leader butt through the core of my fly line for half an inch, then out the side. I rough up the protruding mono with a file, apply a dab of Zap-A-Gap glue, then draw it back inside the fly line. This line-leader system lasts an entire season, will throw a kitchen mop into a gale, and has only two knots between me and the fly. To attach the fly, I'm partial to the Palomar Knot. The standard clinch knot has often failed me when a hefty bass dives under the blooming lilies. (See Palomar Knot instructional sketches.) Patterns and Tactics As darkness fell on a June evening, I lifted a four-pound largemouth bass from the water and removed my deerhair bug from its upper lip. I cradled the fish at the water's surface with my right hand and let it go. It splashed violently upon release, covering my glasses with fine droplets of pond water and making me chuckle in spite of myself. Meanwhile, in the buildings behind me, evening classes had ended and a procession of headlights was leaving the parking lot. Headlights? Classes? That's correct. My bass didn't come from a remote Florida swamp or a private Midwestern farm pond. I hoisted that fish from a decorative three-acre lake on the campus of a local college. And I've caught countless others in similarly civilized locations: in the shadows of office buildings, housing developments and public libraries, amid the hum of five o'clock traffic and in close proximity to the boisterous antics of children on playgrounds. I like wilderness fishing as much as anyone, but I think it was Stephen Stills who sang, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." In spring, I find bass eager to take a fly as soon as the water temperature reaches 55 degrees (Fahrenheit). They'll stay active until autumn drops the water temperature back down to the low 50's. Pattern selection for bass need not be complicated, and most trout-trained anglers fuss more over their bass flies than necessary. In cold water--say, below 60 degrees--I like a big, slow-moving, subsurface pattern like the Bunny Bass Leech in black or purple (See recipe below). At water temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees, I'll use poppers or divers on the surface whenever conditions are calm. Favorite surface-bug colors are white, yellow, green, black or olive. If the wind stirs up waves, I'll switch to a baitfish pattern like the Clouser Deep Minnow in natural shades or chartreuse/white. When water temperature in the shallows soars above 80 degrees, bass will often retreat to deeper water, invading the shallows only in low light. My favorite time to fish sub-urban ponds is early on sultry summer mornings, half an hour before and after sunrise. Many times I've caught a dozen bass before work. Believe me, this has a way of enhancing civility around the office. Deerhair bugs are time-consuming and lack durability. I pack mine tight, treat them liberally with flexible cement, coat their faces with epoxy, then soak them with waterproofing spray. The whole process, including tying and clipping, takes almost an hour per bug. Despite all this care, one bug lasts about two outings. For this reason I've switched to soft-foam or painted-cork bugs for most of my surface fishing. Nevertheless, I still tie a few deerhair bass bugs and fish with them occasionally. They're beautiful, and I think a person should opt for beauty over efficiency on a regular basis. The poet and farmer Wendell Berry has admonished, "Do something every day that doesn't compute." For his part, Berry farms tobacco. For mine, I tie deerhair bugs. My favorite hard-body bugs come from Harry Murray's fly shop in Virginia (www.murraysflyshop.com; 540-984-4212). And I make my own soft-foam bugs from Spirit River's preformed bodies (see recipe below). I put monofilament weed guards on all my surface bugs, because I often need to walk them over floating mats of vegetation. Weed guards are also handy for dropping a bug onto the bank, then pulling it off into the water. I never put rubber legs on my bugs because the resulting "airplane" shape causes line twist that may weaken the tippet. Most urban or suburban bass can be reached by an angler on foot, but canoes or float tubes are often helpful on larger ponds and lakes. In some cases, vegetation or private property may render shorelines inaccessible to the walking angler. I generally opt for a canoe over a float tube, for the same reasons I tie deerhair bugs: A canoe is a beautiful thing. Keep in mind that bass will often lie very close to the shoreline, especially at dawn and dusk. Although bass are usually not line- or leader-shy, they'll run when they see a human form. So stay back from the water's edge if possible, and make your first few casts into the shallows. Several times I've caught bass with much of my fly line lying on dry ground. This is yet another advantage of float tubes and canoes: They enable you to stay in deeper water and present your fly into the shallows without spooking fish. Hotspots on suburban ponds include fallen trees, outside edges of weed lines, open pockets in floating mats of vegetation and outlets from storm drains. Recently I found a storm grate that drained cool, clear, oxygen-rich seepage from saturated soils into a pond gone tepid in the summer sun. I caught and released several bass by fan-casting around the outlet with a Clouser Deep Minnow. Dude, what are you doin'?" came the quizzical voice. I stopped my retrieve and turned around to answer. I saw a shirtless young man, perhaps 16 years old, with a deep tan and long blonde hair. His grotesquely baggy pants cascaded in loose folds from the exposed waistband of his underwear all the way down to his skateboard. He addressed me from behind the chain-link fence of a concrete skate park, which lies a mere 50 feet from the edge of one of my favorite ponds. "I'm fly-fishing," I answered. "Cool," he said. "Catchin' anything?" "A few," I said. He repeated his affirmation that my activity lacked temperature, and then returned to the earnest development of skills which, I suppose, are no less useful than mine. Five strips from the reel went out on a wide loop and landed softly near the far bank of the pond at the point where it narrowed to a deep channel. Soon the olive bug disappeared in a swirl, and the rod bowed deeply under good weight. After a short, thrashing fight, I lifted three pounds of bass and a pound of coontail from the pond. With the weeds pulled free, the green fish was lovely in the pink evening light. In fact, city bass are every bit as pretty as their country cousins. I love 'em.