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Bass On Top

by Philip Monahan

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Bass Popperphoto by elfrito

Question: I’m just getting started fly-fishing for bass, but I’m not having very good luck with poppers on the surface. Any advice?

Sean C. Orlando, FL

Answer: Catching bass on surface flies is a lot of fun, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Bass aren’t like northern pike, almost always willing to chase down a big meal. In fact, bass can be quite picky and will often ignore big, noisy topwater flies. Here are a few steps you can take to improve your odds.

  1. Fly choice: Traditional hair bugs and balsa poppers look cool, are fun to fish, and make a lot of commotion on the water. Sometimes, however, all that noise and splashing is too much, especially when the surface of the water is dead calm. In these situations, I much prefer  a smaller slider, such as a Sneaky Pete or small Dahlberg Diver, which slips under the water when you strip it. And when I do choose a popper, I usually go counter to the “big fly, big fish” rule and choose smaller patterns. The largest bass I ever caught on a fly was on a Gaines Bass Duster that’s about an inch and a half long. Don’t forget pencil poppers, either. These offer a much less bombastic action, and work great for fishing holes in weedbeds—just cast the fly into the open water and twitch it a few times.
  2. Retrieve: A subtle, erratic retrieve will almost always outperform a chug-chug-chug steady strip. The traditional method of fishing a topwater is to chug it two or three times and then let it sit until the rings disappear. You’ll be amazed by how often a fish will strike the fly as it just sits there doing nothing. If you can see a fish under your motionless fly, try giving it just a twitch to suggest life. That’s sometimes all it takes to trigger a strike.
  3. Going Big: The times when the big, loud poppers perform best are when you’re fishing deep water—such as on the outer edge of a large weedbed—or when the water is choppy. These are the times when you need to get a fish’s attention in a big way.

Experimenting with fly choice and retrieve will surely draw more strikes, and it makes the whole project of bass fishing more interesting and engaging.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • Hamlet

    I am no expert, but I do a lot of bass and bream (chicklids) fishing. One thing I have learned: it is amazing how effective one can be if he lets the fly set for a very long time. Cast it. let it set and set and set; then barely move (no not “move” wiggle) wiggle the fly. This has changed my success measurably.
    One more suggestion: Use a tantrum (spelling?) rig. Often called a “popper-topper” rig. I have success with a Diver as the top fly and either a wooly bugger or something similar.

    One last thing. The biggest bass I have ever caught is 6 and a half pounds. So I am not one of those big success stories. But, brother, I catch fish and love it. I am in love with chickled fishing as well. The only difference i have found in fishing them is using smaller flies – but these smaller flies catch bass just as well. I typically use a size 10 hook/fly. When you fish with a smaller fly you will give up the chance for the 5+ pounders, but how often does that chance come? I am happy with my 2 and 3 pounders.

  • Barracuda

    The biggest smallmouth I ever caught with the fly rod came while river fishing and just letting the popper drift through a likely-looking area. Not 10 feet from me an 18.5″ smallmouth exploded on it.

    I’d like to claim this was just brilliant tactics on my part, but the truth is that after I cast the popper, I got the end of my fly line looped around the rod butt, and it took me a while to unwind it and then take up the extra slack. Just when I had caught up to everything, the fish hit. Brilliant!

  • Bob

    No one mentioned fishing at night. This when the water and the world are quiet

  • Brackish

    Topwater isn’t always an option. As the days get hotter, early morning and late evening may be your only options for topwater flies. Try a clouser, bugger, or streamer when there’s no topwater bite.