Monday, April 22, 2013

The Basics of Fly Fishing for Bass - Gear

Over the next few days I am going to try and cover the basics of fly fishing for bass in a series of posts.  This one will cover gear.  Next flies and presentations.  Then fishing different types of water - rivers and lakes.  I hope y'all enjoy!

If it swims in freshwater, I have probably chased it with a fly rod at one point or another.  I am not a total addict, like some folks.  I find no shame in fishing with conventional gear.  I enjoy the balance between the methods and consider myself quite good at each. However, the '50 Chunks on the Fly' challenge will definitely shift my techniques toward the long rod, feather chucking variety this year.  Here is a good introduction to the gear - rods, reels, line, leader, etc. - that I use to target bass.

For those of you not familiar with how fly rod sizes work - they are called 'weights'.  A 1-weight would be a very light rod suited for small flies and small fish.  An 11-weight is a very heavy rod suited for bigger flies and bigger, stronger fish.  Some rods may be rated for multiple weights such as a 3/4-weight Orvis trout rod that I own. 

Most bass rods fall within the 6 to 10 weight range, with the most common being 7-8 weights.  I own a 5/6 weight Albright GPX rod that does the trick on smaller bodies of water with smaller bass flies.  It is a perfect choice for the Eno River that flows through Durham.  I also own an 8-weight Cabelas Prestige rod that is a great all-around rod.  My newest addition is a 9-weight Temple Fork Outfitters BVK series rod that I will be using to chuck mega-flies toward big bass and stripers.  I am super stoked to finally take it for a test drive.

You want to choose a rod that best fits your conditions.  For small rivers and creeks, an 8-weight or higher is overkill.  On those bodies of water, you typically use smaller flies, find less heavy cover and on average the fish are smaller.  The opposite is true for larger rivers and lakes.  Anything smaller than a 7-weight can be a chore to cast all day on bigger water and may not have the backbone to get fish out of thick vegetation or heavy cover.  The key is finding a balance between casting, fish fighting and comfort.  For some folks, it might mean owning two rods.  For others who want that one, all around rod, I would recommend the following:  smallmouth bass:  6-8 weight; largemouth bass:  7-9 weight; stripers:  8-10 weight; multi-bass species:  7-8 weight.  The TFO website rates each of their rods in 3 categories, so that they can easily be compared.  The categories are casting distance, presentation and lifting (lifting = backbone).  Those are the three biggest factors for most fly anglers, so that feature is very handy and worth a look.

The Albright and TFO BVK...very different rods, but both can fling it


For bass I prefer a 9' rod.  I find that is the ideal combo of casting distance, leverage for fighting and accuracy while casting.  Longer rods typically help add some distance to your cast and improve leverage.  Shorter rods tend to be more accurate.  You will also find that fly rods come in multiple sections - ranging from 2 to 8.  I own 2 and 4 piece fly rods and like both, but some folks prefer a 4 piece to a 2 piece, or vice versa.

Two more things to consider are rod action and comfort.  This is where it is important to take each rod for a test drive before you buy it.  Some folks prefer a rod that loads faster and has a quick tip.  Others prefer slower rods.  Each rod is different and no single rod will be the best choice for all anglers.  The same goes with comfort.  Some rods just don't feel comfortable for everyone - whether the cause is the way it loads, balance, grip or something else entirely.

And finally, you should not ignore price.  Fly rods typically follow the, "you get what you pay for" adage.  Personally, I have a hard time stomaching a price tag over about $250.  However, there are lots of great rods available above and below that price point.  Remember that the rod is the backbone of your entire set-up.  If you are willing to spend an extra dollar, do it on a rod rather than other pieces of gear.

Some brands I would recommend checking out are TFO, Allen, Orvis, Rock River Rods, Beulah, Redington, Albright or Sage...but there are many others.

For me, there is one must that all good fly reels have - quality drag!  A smooth, strong disc drag is essential.  There are reels without drag, there are reels with clicker drags and there are others with plastic component drags.  When fighting big bass and stripers, a quality drag is your best friend.

That being said, you don't have to break the bank to get a good fly reel.  I refuse to pay more than about $125 for a fly reel - mainly because there are so many good options below that price point.  I have an Albright GPX on my 5/6 weight rod a Cabelas Prestige on my 8-weight and an Allen Fly Fishing Alpha III on my 9-weight.  If I upgrade any of my reels in the near future, I will most likely go with another Allen.  I am super impressed with the reel and their customer service.

My newest reel (the Allen), oldest reel (the Medalist) and a tweener (Albrigh GPX).  What fly fisherman hasn't owned a Pflueger Medalist at some point?

Other than price and drag, I look for a reel with high quality components made from materials like high grade barstock aluminum.  I also want a lightweight reel.  And I want one that is the right size - not too big or too small for the rod/line weight.  On that note, balance is key.  Always try and put a reel on your rod before you buy it.  Make sure it balances and feels good.  Imagine throwing big flies in windy conditions for 10 hours.  If it passes that test, you should be good to go!

My recommendations on fly reel brands would include Allen, Orvis, G Loomis, Albright, or Lamson - among others.

Fly lines come in a huge variety of styles.  Some float, some sink and some partially sink.  There are different tapers, weights, colors, densitites, grains, and codes.  It can get confusing.

Let's start with weight vs grain size.  Some lines are sized just like rods and reels - using weights that match the rest of your gear.  Other lines are sized by grains.  The conversion from grains to traditional line weight is a debated topic.  Traditionally, an 8 weight rod would be best with 200-250 grain line.  But many of todays lines and rods would push that number closer to 300.  Again, if you can test a line with your rod before purchasing, it is a huge plus.  Sometimes, you may need to step up or down a line size to get the rod to work exactly the way you want it.  But if the line is too light it may not load the rod.  If too heavy, the rod may not be able to cast the line properly.

I consider a weight forward (WF) line the best all-around line.  WF describes the taper of the line and is by far the most popular among fly anglers as well.  It comes in a variety of densitites that float and sink.  Most folks fish WFF (weight forward floating) line, but you can sink it with weights or pick up a spare spool and put sinking line on it.  Depending on location, target species, and fly size you can vary your leader length and weight to make WF line work for most flies.  I use Cortland 444 WFF on my GPX and Prestige reels and love it.

On my 9-weight, I use sinking tip line - specifically Rio 24' Sink Tip Line in the 350 grain size (which they note corresponds to a 9-10 wt).  Sinking tip line is pretty self explanatory - the first 24' of line are a different color than the rest of the line and sink with the leader while the rest of the line floats.  It is a huge advantage when fishing big, sinking flies - especially in rivers or other areas with current.  Different size lines sink at different rates, so pick whichever is best for your needs.

Does liking Cortland 444 make me old school?

Lines these days run from $40 to $100+.  Remember that you get what you pay for, but most anglers need not venture above the $75 range.  The other thing to keep in mind is that this not like buying line for a spinning or baitcasting rod.  With proper care and maintenance, fly line can last a long time.  I have heard of some lines lasting 15+ years.

You also need to remember backing.  Backing is not cast, but is the last line of defense between a big fish and an empty spool.  Basically, it connects your fly line to the reel.  Most backing is made with dacron, micron, or some sort of magibraid and comes in the 20-40 lb test range.  You can also use braided polymer lines like PowerPro or Sufix.  The key with backing is putting the right amount on the reel.  Too much and your line won't fit properly.  Too little and you run the risk of being spooled by a trophy fish.  Every reel has a recommended backing capacity.  Stick to the recommendation and you should be just fine.  I typically use an improved slip knot to attach my backing to my reel (the Arbor is also very popular).  To attach the backing to the end of my fly line (make sure you get the right end), I typically use an Albright knot.  Other knots will also work, but those are easy and do the trick.

Some of my favorite line and backing brands are Rio, Cortland and Scientific Anglers.

You can go to just about any tackle shop and buy a pre-made leader for bass fishing.  The key word with leaders is 'tapered'.  Tapered means the leader gets thinner and thinner as you move toward the end with the fly attached.  The taper helps the fly turn over - a necessity for proper presentation. 

Leaders are rated either using a pound system (e.g. - 8 lb test) or an "X" system.  The pound system refers to the last length of line that you tie the fly too.  This is also called the tippet.  So an 8 lb test leader will start at 50-60 lb test at the top and gradually taper to an 8 lb tippet.  The "X" system corresponds with a poundage-tippet diameter system.  I have no idea how it came about (I suspect long ago in Europe) but it is the traditional rating system.  For largemouth and smallmouth bass, a 1X, 2X, or 3X leader typically what you want.  For stripers, I would recommend a 01X, 0X, or 1X. 

Buying pre-made leaders can get expensive.  So, I tie my own.  I start with about 2 feet of 50 lb test. I then use 18"-20" lengths of 40 lb test, 30 lb test, and 20 lb test.  That gives me roughly 7 feet of leader.  At that point, I may tie on one more section of roughly 2 feet long or two sections, each roughly 1 foot long.  I typically fish tippets in the 8-10 lb range.  I will bump to 12 lbs and even 15 lbs sometimes as well.  This isn't a perfect formula and I regularly alter my leaders as needed.

The top row is backing & bottom is leader/leader material.  Notice the Orvis pre-made I got for free a few years ago is still unopened...HA.

If you do the math above, you find that I like to use leaders around 9 feet in length.  I may go as short as 7 or as long as 10 depending on the situation.  Few people fish bass leaders over 10 feet long, but some will fish them down to 5 feet.  Personally, I think longer leaders get more strikes, so go with the longest leader you can handle and effectively fish.

I almost always tie my top 3 sections with monofilament line.  The bottom 2-3 sections I interchange between mono, fluorocarbon and braid.  Mono is the only one of those three that floats, so if you are fishing surface flies, stick with mono.  If fishing subsurface, I like to use fluoro, especially because I fish a lot of bottom bumping flies.  If you are fishing really heavy cover - whether surface or subsurface - braid may be your best bet.  You can even use wire leader, although that is typically reserved for pike, musky and other toothy fish.

The last thing to note is knots.  Everyone has their favorites, but knots are super important if you are tying your own leaders.  A few popular knots to tie mono to mono or mono to fluoro are the surgeon, albright, double uni, turtle, and blood knots.  There are a number of others that would also work well including a bunch of variations on those I just mentioned.  Always remember to wet the line before you tighten these knots together.  A broken leader knot is the worst way to lose a fish.

This should get you out the door of a fly shop with a much lighter wallet.  But it is about to get a little lighter.  Come back tomorrow to read about fly choice and the different presentations that catch big bass.  And if you have any questions or have any suggestions for things I might have missed, please let me know.  Until tomorrow, tight lines!


  1. I have a hard time reading a fly fishing post from you. I don't associate you with fly fishing. You're info is right on the money. I'm pretty lazy about leaders. For bass and other large fish I use one long peice of Mono. Usually 10-20lb. Reason is when you're casting big flies having them turn over isn't so much of a concern. The flies are so big they are going to crash down no matter how hard you try to finesse them. I'd really like to see you make the 50 chunk goal. I'm eager to see how it works out. I've caught one fish 17inches this year and another around 15. They are a lot harder to catch with flies. Especially on public waters.

  2. Haha - it's funny because until I moved to NC I had barely picked up a spinning/casting rod in about 4 years. Even after I moved, I rarely did anything but fly fish for about half a year. Then I picked up the conventional gear again and it was all down hill from there.

    And I agree about the leader. With bass it isn't as important as trout and other species. I still tend to be anal about it for whatever reason.

    I think the 50 chunks goal is still very doable. I wish I would have gotten an earlier start, but summer, river fish will make up the majority of my chunks anyway. If I don't make it, it will be fun trying!

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