Great bass fishing is hidden right out in the open.
- By: Beau Beasley
I SCAN THE EDGE OF A LOCAL FARM pond and find what I’m looking for—a small cedar shrub, the victim of erosion, leaning into the water. If I place my popper just right, I’ll quickly discover if anyone is home. Out goes the Walt’s Popper, a tan-bellied frog imitation, beneath the low branches of that bush…and a hungry largemouth responds. That bass is the finale of a fine evening and its capture represents a paramount moment in my angling education: if I hadn’t realized what was staring me in the face, I might have overlooked that pond, which practically rested in my backyard. You see, my church owns the pond. I’d seen it many times before, but never with angling eyes — an overlooked bass fishery in plain sight.
That bass pond isn’t an anomaly. Thinking most fishing trips must be a major excursion, we often overlook obvious opportunities. The truth is, anglers may find great warmwater action, throughout the year, on undiscovered waters close to home—streams, lakes and ponds overlooked by fly fishers every day. And these waters aren’t difficult to access, as long as you follow some simple rules and treat landowners with respect and gratitude.
If you live in the exurbs or a rural setting, farm ponds and other irrigation impoundments are probably abundant. If you don’t live in the country, don’t give up—good fishing might be closer than you think. Joe Healy, editor of this magazine, once told me about some great warmwater fishing in New York City. Surprising? Not really. You just have to look closely. Make local parks your first stop because many offer public fishing. To illustrate, I recently discovered a huge lake near my house—which I had neglected to notice for more than four years—just by flipping through the local paper. I didn’t routinely drive by that lake, so I simply didn’t know it existed. That hidden gem offers boat rentals, a concession stand and fishing-license sales, to boot. I never thought to contact the county parks service to see what was available when I moved to Virginia’s Fauquier County, so discovering this was an eye-opener.
Another fishing opportunity might be as close as your local golf club. If you’re a member of a club, chances are they’ll let you fish their ponds. As the residents of golf-course ponds are rarely disturbed—at least by lures and flies—you might well land a whopper from a lake you considered merely a golf-ball-eating water hazard. You might not be left in solitude, though. If you land a giant largemouth or bluegill, or even a modest example of either species, golfers tend to ask how one breaks into fly-fishing. (And there’s your chance to recruit others into our great sport.)Residential developments also provide fine places to fish. This is especially true of older neighborhoods, second home/vacation developments and retirement communities. If you find compelling water, write a letter to the homeowners’ association and ask for permission to fish. Because litigation is a fact of life, tell them you’ll sign a document stating not to hold the homeowners’ association or their agents liable for any injuries on the property. You might also offer free casting lessons to community members.
Mountains to Rivers
Ever notice that ski resorts own a lot of land that largely goes unused outside of winter? Yeah, you know where I’m going with that thought. Take, for example, the partnership between Virginia’s Wintergreen ski resort, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and one very successful fly shop and school in Harrisonburg. The Trow brothers, Colby and Brian, own Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing school. They regularly partner with Wintergreen and teach guests how to fly-fish.
The resort decided to put some of their ponds to good use during the off-season. Those warmwater impoundments, which are not readily seen unless you know where to look, are filled with bluegills and largemouth bass. The resort keeps the grass cut near the banks and tree lines are located well away from shore, which accommodates easy casting. The idea of using the ponds in the off-season was so successful that Wintergreen now offers all-inclusive summer fly-fishing getaways. Don’t hesitate to ask fly shops or resorts near you for hints on overlooked angling options.
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Not a mountain lover? No ponds in your neighborhood? Does that mean leaving town to fish? Probably not. Many municipalities have canals and other inviting warmwater impoundments. One of the most popular “fishing holes” in the Washington, D.C. metro area is the old C&O canal. I remember fishing near the George Washington Memorial Parkway one day as commuters raced past. As they jockeyed for position in passing lanes, I tussled with a quirky-looking gar.
Consult the guidebooks. Sometimes the best guidebook is the most obvious and overlooked— your state’s department of natural resources or game-and-fish department probably prints a winner. The Virginia Department of Fish and Game and Inland Fisheries, for instance, prints rules and regulations on the state’s streams and even breaks them down by category, such as delayed harvest and trophy waters. Those anglers willing to target whatever is available will fish more often than those locked into one species.
If you’re a diehard trout guy, consider poking around the warmer parts of your local river for species more adept at withstanding heat. I’ve fished trout streams in Pennsylvania that, in the warmer months, attract carp. A good friend, Steve Vlasak, was a trout bum par excellence. But in the dog days of summer he became a carp-catching machine. In fact, I have fond fishing memories of chasing carp with him on a Pennsylvania trout stream, long since abandoned by trout anglers. We had a great day of fishing, enhanced by having the stream entirely to ourselves. Vlasak also invested the time to snoop around and found places we could locate bass that didn’t hit you in the face. I cherish a photo of Vlasak holding a beautiful smallmouth bass he took from overlooked water. (Sadly, my friend lost his struggle with cancer a few years ago.)
Always ask for permission before you fish private waters. Make an inquiry at the house closest to the spot to find out who owns the pond. Simply knock on their door and introduce yourself. They might assume you’re trying to sell them something and, in fact, you are: You’re selling the idea of fishing the property. Like any good sales person, consider your approach an interview and, if not wearing your Sunday best, at least be presentable. Tell the owners you’re a fly angler, which may say something to them about your angling attitudes and conservation ethic. Invite them for a casting lesson, too.
If you’ve managed to find a perfect spot on private property, you’ll need to do a little extra work to keep your access options open. A simple thank you to a landowner may mean the difference between a future warm welcome or a cold shoulder. Try to thank a landowner in person, each time you fish their property. If you miss the owner, send a brief but personal thank-you card. I know what you’re thinking and I disagree — forgo the e-mail and break out the pen and paper for this. A handwritten note makes a lasting impression. Isn’t that prime piece of real estate worth a few extra minutes of your time and a first-class stamp?
Beau Beasley is the author of Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters. He is director of the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival (www.vaflyfishingfestival.org).