Most summers, and especially during stretches of stable weather as we enjoyed all last week, largemouth bass will feed at the surface, making them quite easy to find.
These are typically “school-sized” fish, meaning fish in the 1½- to 3-pound range, and these fish are typically grouped together in packs of three to 20 fish working together to corral shad to the surface, trap them there and feed upon them.
Although these fish can be easy to spot, especially in the mid-morning when feeding seems to peak, actually catching these fish can be a challenging proposition.
I have often watched bass anglers chase schools of fish making cast after cast with not a single hooked fish to show for their efforts spread over anywhere from 45 minutes to well over 90 minutes.
Before I began guiding, I, too, chased after this exciting sight-fishing opportunity, and on occasions when I only have a single client aboard, I still enjoy doing so.
Some time ago, after experiencing the frustration of finding these fish but being unable to catch more than a handful, if that, I began to experiment with other than the traditional approaches of throwing flukes, Rat-L-Traps,or floating hardbaits like the Tiny Torpedo or Heddon Spook Jr.
In the ultra-clear water of Stillhouse, and under the bright, clear conditions brought on by stable, high-pressure weather, these large baits simply fail to produce well.
Further, after considering what these open-water fish are feeding upon, I realized I needed to significantly downsize my presentation. Those fish I did land were chasing young of the year threadfin shad which were all of about an inch and a half long. Once hooked, these bass would regurgitate these forage fish at boatside, so there was no doubt about their target.
I realized I needed to present a smaller, lighter bait which would imitate these young of the year shad, but a lure as small as these shad would be hard to cast any distance at all.
This is where I stole a page out of my saltwater brethren’s book and attached a small bait to a weighted popping cork (note I said a weighted popping cork, not just a popping cork). These are traditionally used along the Gulf Coast for speckled trout and redfish with a jighead and some manner of soft plastic grub or shrimp suspended below the cork on a leader.
The popping cork is made of hard foam with a lead weight imbedded in one end to which a swivel is attached for the purpose of attaching a leader. The cupped end also has a wire loop for attaching the line coming from your reel. The Comal Tackle weighted, 3-inch popping cork or similar is just right for this technique.
Going to my fly-tying bench, I began to fashion small streamers on both short-shank and long-shank hooks in the size 1/0 to size 2 range to imitate what I saw these schooling largemouth feeding upon.
The synthetic hairs I chose for these flies’ construction made them have a natural, undulating appearance in the water, with a slow sink rate, so the overall appearance was quite natural.
I tied the cork to my main line, then a 30-inch long, 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader to the opposite end of the cork.
To the terminal end of the leader, I attached one of my shad-imitating streamers using a loop knot to allow for freedom of movement.
The results were nothing short of amazing. Using casting gear with 12-pound test monofilament, I could cast these cork rigs a country mile with great accuracy.
Once the rig hits the water, I would reel at a moderate cadence continuously, while at the same time twitching the rod tip to make the cork “swim” erratically back to the boat. Long pulls with pauses in between which result in a loud burping or popping noise coming from the cupped face of the cork are totally inappropriate for this clear-water fishing.
The cork should twitch back and forth while making a wake due to its continuous movement.
I found that not only did the schooling bass readily take these offerings, but that the commotion caused by the cork would draw other fish in as they patrolled nearby.
This setup will not be found online or in a Bass Pro Shops catalog. It is something an angler will have to piece together and experiment with. I was fortunate to have a grandfather, my Pop Pop Shorty, who taught me how to tie flies as a kid while I was still in elementary school.
If you do not have the ability to tie your own flies, there is certainly nothing wrong with store-bought flies. Just remember to keep the size down so as to imitate what these bass are feeding on, and opt for softer, natural hues over tinsel and flash. The tinsel and flash tend to look unnatural and out of place under bright sunlight and in clear water.
Do not let the small hook size bother you. Tarpon, shark and other large, aggressive saltwater species are routinely taken on these same small hooks you will use for these shad-imitating streamers.
Finally, no matter what you choose to throw at these topwater, schooling largemouth, the faster and more accurately you cast, the higher your chances are at hooking fish.
When a largemouth makes a decision to charge after bait, it is at that moment excited to the point of recklessness. A well-presented bait will often be attacked regardless of its size or appearance. In fact, this behavior is what typically accounts for the few fish which anglers using oversized baits actually hook and land.
Now, add a true, shad-imitating presentation to that aggressive behavior and the recipe is right for consistent success.
For those considering this approach, a great starting point for shad-imitating flies can be found by doing an Internet search for “Orvis flies.”
I have exported this approach to Belton Lake, Lake Bastrop, Lake Georgetown, Decker Lake, Lake Texoma and others, and have found the results consistently outperform traditional approaches with oversized soft and hard baits.