There's no getting around the fact that summer can be a tough time to catch bass. Once the sun's rays touch the water's surface, the early morning action slows and that first cup of coffee begins wearing off. It becomes hard to do anything but daydream.
The tranquility of a quickly warming morning doesn't help things — the fluttering dragonflies attempting to land on limber tules are mesmerizing while the sounds of countless chirping grasshoppers fill an otherwise silent landscape. The occasional head-buzzing bee is often the only thing keeping an angler on his or her toes.
As air temperatures rise, any semblance of a breeze disappears and the surfaces of favorite fishing holes turn glassy, the fight to retain concentration turns to a methodical search for that one lure that continues to catch quality fish throughout the tough part of the day.
Given the conditions, one alternative should be obvious.
"There are times when fishing with flies that imitate insects out-produces other options 15 to 1," says Bill Adelman, a San Francisco Bay Area journalist who has been chasing bass with a fly rod since the mid-'70s. "We've caught smallmouth on the Russian River for years on trout flies."
And don't believe anyone who says fishing relatively small insect look-alikes means sacrificing quality for quantity. Adelman's biggest bass to date, a 6-pound, 9-ounce largemouth, fell for an inch-long olive dragonfly nymph.
Even when conditions are just right, however, and bass are keying on some form of bug, there is a downside to fishing Adelman's favorite flies.
"Bass can't be taken as readily with fly gear because you're limited by time," admits Adelman. "You're lucky if your bait is in the strike zone for 15 minutes out of an hour with a fly — with a conventional rod it would be more like 45 minutes. It takes a lot longer to accomplish the same thing, so I may catch two fish to your 10."
Anglers who would rather cast with spinning rigs, and avoid the time constraints that fly fishing tactics present, can still capitalize on an insect bite. There are a handful of small bug look-alike hard baits available, representing everything from grasshoppers to beetles, ready to take advantage of the prevailing hatch.
"Today's insect hard baits, like the Big Ant and Bighopper, are underutilized," says Jeff Samsel, public relations coordinator for Arbogast and Rebel brand lures. "I began fishing them for bream years ago, but I would always catch bass in the process — now I keep insect baits handy as part of my regular bass arsenal."
One of the keys to success with insect hard baits is being aware of what you're trying to mimic. Some bug lures are designed to look and act like adults struggling on the surface, while others are intended to represent an insect's nymph stage crawling along the bottom or chasing a meal beneath the surface.
"Anyone who has thrown a grasshopper in a lake knows what happens," laughs Samsel. "The insect, after pausing a moment, begins scurrying toward the bank, often not making it to its destination. The same should happen when casting an Arbogast Hocus Locust — allow it to rest, then reel steadily so that it wobbles across the surface.
"Unlike most other insect-imitating plugs," adds Samsel, "the Rebel Hellgrammite sinks when not in motion, allowing it to get down to where insect nymph stages live. Let this bait sink, then crank it back slowly so that it wiggles just off the bottom."
Growing up a fly fisherman himself, Elite Series pro Byron Velvick, a Southern California native who now owns and operates Amistad Lodge on the Texas-Mexico border, is also a fan of making the most of bass that are feeding on bugs.
"When competing, I'm always looking for something that is a little out of the ordinary," admits Velvick. "Something that the bass are acclimated to eating, but at the same time are not used to paying the price by getting a hook stuck in them. Insect hard baits are the perfect tool because most guys aren't throwing them."
Insect offerings can, when conditions are right, take bass during the first few hours of light, but they are at their best during the heat of the day.
"From late spring through early fall, the insect ecosystem really comes to life," says Velvick, "and the evening bite is incredible. We unfortunately don't have the luxury of fishing late into the day during tournaments, but it (fishing insect hard baits) has always been an afternoon thing."
Regardless of the time of day, it's important to cast insect hard baits to areas where bugs are commonly found. Whether targeting streams, ponds, natural lakes or man-made bodies of water, look for nearby vegetation or dense shoreline cover.
"Some of the best places to fish insect-imitating plugs are along grassy banks," reports Samsel, "where grasshoppers abound. Deadfalls also attract a variety of insects."
"Whether you're talking about tules, grass or wood, dragonflies always seem to be around," adds Velvick, "but they like to be out of the wind. Try to get around to the backs of pockets and coves where the cover tends to be heavier and the breeze calmer —I've never had any luck with insect baits in open water."
Once a likely spot is located, take a few minutes to watch what the dominant insects are doing. Bugs can be very cautious, and emulating their behavior is often the difference between failure and success.
"We were in a grassy area in a pocket at Alabama's Lake Guntersville," recalls Velvick, "and the bass were obviously eating dragonflies.
"Whenever we would cast, the fish tried to get our conventional baits while they were in the air," he continues. "But once they hit the surface the bass didn't want them. My nonboater continued to use poppers with no luck, while I finally caught several largemouth by breaking out a River2Sea dragonfly and pitching it so that it hung just above the water on small branches or blades of grass — the fish would crush the thing!"
BUG BAIT HISTORY
At the turn of the 19th century, when anglers first went from fishing live bait to artificials, lures had to be made by hand. The one-at-a-time, meticulous process meant that the final wood or metal products had better catch fish.
"Most of the earliest hand-carved lures were topwater baits," explains historian Gabby Talkington, who operates antiquelures.com out of his California home, "because they (anglers) knew that fish liked to eat things that were struggling on the surface."
The power of observation, and a desire to avoid wasting time and talent, led early lure makers to three basic surface and subsurface bait designs: frogs, injured minnows and a variety of insect look-alikes.
And each of them, thanks to an incredible amount of detail for the period, was capable of catching its share of bass.
"The stuff that's coming out today is phenomenal, looking like the real thing," says Talkington, "but each of those early insect lures was a work of art in itself — most were ornate, colorful and made in very limited numbers."
Possibly the first handmade, glass-eyed insect artificial, created in 1883 by New York inventor Harry Comstock, was the Flying Hellgrammite. The lure, which looked more like an adult Dobsonfly than the larval stage that it was named after, was a preview of what early anglers could look forward to.
Pflueger continued the insect hard bait theme with the introduction of the May Bug in the late 1880s. Creek Chub climbed on the bandwagon sometime around 1927 with the Weed Bug, a beetle-type lure that was touted as weedless. The Jacobs Hoss Fly, which followed in the early 1930s, was one of the first baits with a wobble-creating bill.
BUGS A LA CARTE
Black bass are commonly known as opportunistic feeders — eating whatever is available, whenever it's available. A recent largemouth feeding study, however, conducted by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's Natural Resources Division has revealed that this is not always the case.
Bass stomach content analyses have shown that there are times when fish, all of a similar size, caught only feet apart, can have very different diets.
In one specific case, in early April, the stomach of a 4-pound largemouth contained seven juvenile sunfish and some crawfish parts. The stomach of a slightly smaller bass, taken about 20 yards away in the same grassbed, had only numerous dragonfly nymphs.
This example, and other similar cases, indicates that some bass for a yet to be identified reason become locked into eating specific prey — even when there are other food types readily available.
The take-home message here is that anglers should always have a variety of offerings, including insect hard baits, tied on and ready to go. Neglecting to use these bug look-alikes may mean missing opportunities to catch fish that are keying on insects.
Considering how effective insect hard baits can be, there are relatively few companies making them. These lures, however, will get you started stocking your tacklebox with a variety of bass-producing bug look-alikes.
Bass Pro Shops
Uncle Buck's Mini Hopper
XPS Extreme Beetle
XPS Extreme Locust
Sea Beeti' Crank