“BASS-BUGGING,” wrote Ray Bergman, “is a type of fly-rod fishing that was born and raised right here in America. Considering that most fly fishing dates well back into English history, it’s a young sport, young enough that as a boy [Bergman was born in 1891] I was among the first to fish these big bugs in this way.”
Actually, bass-bug fishing is the oldest method of catching fish on hook and line in North America. In 1741, when William Bartram described how Florida’s Seminole Indians fooled largemouth bass (which he called “trout”) with a “bob”, it’s likely he was reporting on an angling method that had been practiced for generations before the Europeans invaded the continent.
“Two people are in a little canoe,” wrote Bartram, “one sitting in the stern to steer, and the other near the bow, having a rod ten or twelve feet in length, to one end of which is tied a string line, about twenty inches in length, to which is fastened three large hooks, back to back. These are fixed very securely, and tied with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some parti-colored feathers, all which form a tuft or tassel nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks; that are called a “bob.” The steersman paddles softly, and proceeds slowly along shore; he now ingeniously swings the bob backwards and forwards, just above the surface and sometimes tips the water with it, when the unfortunate cheated trout [sic] instantly springs from under the reeds and seizes the exposed prey.”
Today when we cast our sleek spun-and-clipped deerhair bugs onto the water for bass, we are practicing an ancient and uniquely American technique that takes advantage of the bass’s aggressive surface-feeding habits . . . and one that predates the use of cork and wood to float the lures. Modern fly-rod bass bugs — and the methods by which they are fished — are mere refinements of angling with the primitive bob.
Bass bugs have always been bass killers. It’s doubtful if the Seminoles were much interested in sport or artfulness. They needed fish to eat, and Everglades largemouths were their most available species. So if bob fishing hadn’t been an efficient way of capturing them, however much fun they had doing it, the Seminoles undoubtedly would’ve developed a deadlier method.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, bob fishing had expanded northwards into North Carolina, whose natives refined the lure into something that resembled a modern deerhair bug. Dr. James A. Henshall — whose Book Of The Black Bass, published in 1881, was the very first devoted to the subject of bass fishing — described his own experience with bobs:
“Happening to have a fish-hook in my pocket, I cut off a piece of the deer’s tail, and made a ‘bob.’ Then, cutting a long, slender pole, and tying the bob to the end with a piece of strong twine some three feet long, we got into the boat, my comrade paddling and I manipulating the bob. . . .
“As my companion noiselessly paddled the boat along the fringe of rank grasses and luxuriant aquatic vegetation, I danced the bob along and over the water, now low, now high, and now dipping in the water — skimming, leaping and flying — till it seemed an uncanny thing. . . .
“Several bass rose to it, and swirled at it, until one more active than the rest grabbed it by a vicious lunge, and the hook was firmly in his jaw.”
In Flies (1950), J. Edson Leonard explained how the North Carolina bob had evolved into something resembling a bass bug. Bobs were made, he reported, from squares of deerskin (“preferably from the skin from the shin bones”), which were cured, cut into strips “about the width of a shoe string,” and soaked to make them pliable. “With the tail fastened on,” wrote Leonard, “there remains only to tie the body in place and fasten on the wings. Taper one edge of the strip and tie it to the shank. Wind the strip around the shank, fasten it with the working silk, tie on the wings and the bug will be complete. The hair will project nearly at right angles to the body and will weave back and forth when the bug is retrieved.”
Whether Dr. Henshall actually invented the first bass bug made from spun and clipped deerhair, or whether the Henshall Bug was invented by somebody else and named after the father of American bass fishing, is uncertain. Leonard, for one, gives the doctor full credit. “Dr. James A. Henshall did more, perhaps, to exploit the first bass hair bugs than any other angler,” Leonard wrote. “He is credited with having made the original hair bug, one which bears his name to this day.” Others give the nod to Orley Tuttle, who concocted his Devil Bug in 1919.
I do not propose to resolve this mystery. Ray Bergman, who fished with bass bugs before 1919, is no help. He describes his childhood bugs as “big, beautiful artificials made of cork, feathers, and deer hair,” but it’s unclear whether any of them was the Henshall deerhair type, with no cork ingredients. The fact that Henshall never described anything that resembles what we now know as the Henshall Bug in his 1881 book suggests that if he did invent it, it happened sometime later. But we do know that the good doctor fished with bobs. At least in retrospect, spinning deerhair seems to be such a logical next step and obvious improvement over winding a strip of hairy deerskin around a hook shank that it’s easy to imagine Henshall, the consummate bass expert of his time, doing it. The Henshall Bug resembles a bob. It doesn’t look anything like a Devil Bug.
The Henshall Bug features a tail of bucktail — white in the middle and a contrasting color on either side — flanked by splayed grizzly feathers. The body is built from flared and clipped natural deerhair, typically with a colorful stripe around its middle. The wings are fashioned from a bunch of bucktail tied in a downwing style over the clipped deerhair body and then divided and figure-eighted into position so that they stick out at right angles at the front of the hook. Most of our contemporary spun-and-clipped deerhair bugs are direct descendants of this design.
Orley Tuttle designed his bug to imitate the beetles he saw smallmouths eating on his local lake. He made it by laying a thick bunch of deerhair on top of the hook shank, lashing it down fore and aft, clipping the front into a stubby head, and leaving the rear tips of the hair to flare around the bend of the hook.
When Tuttle showed his odd creation to his wife, as the story goes, she declared: “Looks like the devil to me.” And thus it was named the Devil Bug.
If the Devil Bug wasn’t the first deerhair bass bug, it was certainly the first popular one. By 1922, Tuttle was selling 50,000 bugs a year in more than 800 combinations of color, size and design — moth bugs, beetle bugs, mouse bugs, and even a baby duck Devil Bug — and competing quite successfully with all the commercial cork-bodied bugs that had by that time hit the market. The Weber Life-Like Fly Company began mass producing Henshall Bugs sometime after that.
Both the Henshall Bug and the Devil Bug are easy enough to tie, and they’ll still catch bass, although I don’t know anyone who uses them anymore. This, I think, is too bad. You don’t need to be a curmudgeonly old traditionalist to appreciate the uniquely American roots of bass-bug fishing and have the urge to revisit them now and then.
For that matter, given the pugnacious nature and unselective appetites of largemouth bass, I bet you could convince one to attack a bob.
Aside from a few pioneers who imitated Indian bob-fishing strategies, American fly fishermen relied on Old-World trout and salmon flies and techniques to catch bass well into the 20th century. For example, all of the so-called “bass flies” described and pictured in Mary Orvis Marbury’s encyclopedic Favorite Flies and Their Histories, published in 1892, are simply larger and gaudier versions of the hackle-and-feather wet flies that Charles Cotton had written about two centuries earlier — or, for that matter, Dame Juliana before him. There is no evidence that non-native American anglers designed a single fly — topwater or subsurface — specifically for bass before 1910 or so.
Still, the effectiveness of surface-fishing for bass with a fly was well known. Those hackle-and-feather “bass flies” were typically fished on or near the surface. Dr. Henshall, in an 1880 magazine article, described the standard way to catch bass on flies: “The angler should endeavor to cast his flies as lightly as possible, causing them to settle as quietly as possible, and without a splash. After casting, the flies should be skipped along the surface in slightly curving lines, or by zigzag movements, occasionally allowing them to become submerged for several inches near likely-looking spots. If the current is swift, allow the flies to float naturally with it, at times, when they can be skittered back again, or withdrawn for a new cast.”
Things changed dramatically shortly after the turn of the century when, as Paul Schullery wrote, “. . . the bass bug experienced a startling growth in popularity, and most of the enduring forms were created. There have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands, but they follow a few main types.”
This sudden popularity resulted from two related factors. First, the effectiveness of high-floating cork bodies, in combination with feathers and other decorations, was discovered. Second, unlike feathers and hair, cork was a durable, easy-to-work-with material that lent itself to mass production.
In 1900 not a single commercially-made bass bug could be purchased. But by 1930, Schullery reports, “There was a bewildering assortment of bass bugs available, possibly even more than there are today.” It wasn’t so much that bass fishermen created a demand for commercially-manufactured fly-rod bugs. Rather, the production, distribution, and marketing of bass bugs created the sport of bass bugging. Designers such as Ernest Peckinpaugh and Cal McCarthy, manufacturers such as B. F. Wilder, and sporting writers such as Will H. Dilg worked together — and competed against each other — to popularize what had been a virtually unknown sport, and to create a burgeoning market for their products. By the early 1920s, what Jack Ellis calls the “Golden Age” of fly-fishing for bass had begun. And in those days, fly fishing for bass meant bass bugging.
Prototypes of the commercial cork-bodied bass bug had been used by the back-country “swampers” of Arkansas and Missouri, who lashed beer-bottle corks and turkey feathers to a hook and caught bass on them before the turn of the century. It’s uncertain who deserves credit for the first true cork-bodied bass bug. Schullery gives the nod to William Jamison of Chicago, whose Coaxer (wide, flat cork body, red felt wings, and feather tail lying flat over the top of the hook) was created around 1910. A. J. McClane nominates Tennessean Ernest Peckinpaugh, whose Night Bug (feathers, bucktail, and a double hook, all lashed to a cork stopper) was manufactured by the John J. Hilderbrandt Company and popularized in sporting magazines by Will H. Dilg.
Jack Ellis contends that the first fly-rod popper was invented by none other than Theodore Gordon, but that fly-rod bassing was held in such low esteem among effete dry-fly anglers that to protect Gordon’s shameful secret (he fished for bass!), he and his contemporaries deflected credit for inventing the lowly bass bug to Peckinpaugh.
We do know that by 1930, with considerable help from Dilg and the Hilderbrandt Company, Peckinpaugh had become the name most intimately associated with bass bugs. Dozens of variations of “Peck’s Bugs” were made available in a highly competitive market.
Toward the end of his life, Peckinpaugh reflected on his first creation, the Night Bug: “I discovered that late in the afternoon,” he wrote, “and at dusk, if I could keep a bucktail fly on top of the water, I would catch more fish.”
“This gave me the idea of putting a cork on a hook, and tying the bucktail hair to the lure, and in that way making it stay on the surface. A little experimenting quickly showed me that a single hook could not be securely fastened to the cork, but I did find that by using a double hook, I could make a very solid bug. Therefore, all the first bass bugs I made were on double hooks. These bugs were designed for taking bream. I found that just before dark the bream would strike on the surface and I could catch them by using one of these little cork body bugs.
“There was practically no further development in these bugs until 1910 or 1911. I am uncertain about which year. Anyway, at this particular time, my work as a contractor kept me pretty busy and the jobs were always so far away from home that they interfered considerably with my usual periods of fishing. By the time I arrived at one of the lakes or ponds where I usually fished, it would be just about dark, so I was compelled to fish at night. I then discovered that bass would strike the same bugs which I had been using for bream. But the hook was small and I lost most of the fish. This inspired me to make a larger edition of the double hook bugs, and inasmuch as they were developed for night fishing, I called them ‘Night Bugs.’ I made these bass bugs in many colors of feathers and bucktail hair.”
When the Great War broke out in Europe in 1914, Peckinpaugh lost his British source of double hooks and was forced to adapt his Night Bug to the single hook. He tied for friends and sold them locally in Chattanooga. Bass-fishing tourists bought them, and thus Peckinpaugh’s bugs migrated to other parts of the country and eventually to the businessmen who would make them for the market.
Other popular cork-bodied bugs of the 1920s and ‘30’s were the Cal-Mac moth, a flat-winged affair devised by Cal McCarthy, and the Wilder-Dilg, the prototype for the still-popular “feathered minnow” or Sneaky Pete, which featured a pointed nose, bullet-shaped body, wound hackle at the butt, and a long tail of hackle feathers.
Around this time, Tom Loving of Baltimore invented his Gerbubble Bug, which Joe Brooks called “the best largemouth bug I’ve ever used.” Loving’s creation featured hackle feathers inserted into slits cut along both sides of the cork body so that the fibers stuck out perpendicular to the hook shank, creating the effect of dozens of legs kicking at the water’s surface.
Meanwhile, fly tiers were creating their own deerhair counterparts of the commercial cork-bodied bugs. Orley Tuttle’s popular Devil Bug and the spun-and-clipped deerhair Henshall Bug sparked the creativity of a generation of clever fly tiers such as Joe Messenger, who elevated the tying of deerhair bugs to an art form in the 1930s. Messinger crafted his realistic and utterly elegant frogs by stacking rather than spinning the deerhair body. This technique involved holding a bundle of hair in place to prevent it from twirling 360 degrees around the shank of the hook as he drew the thread tight over it to make it flare. In this way, Messenger created two-toned clipped deerhair frogs with pale bellies and green backs. To make protruding, kicking legs, he inserted a piece of wire into a bunch of two-tone bucktail, wound over the knees with thread, bent the wire into shape, and fixed the joints with glue.
By 1940 or so, bass bugs had become as integral to fly fishing as dry flies. Fly-fishing or fly-tying books were considered incomplete if they failed to include a section on bugs. Even a book as general and concise as H. G. Tapply’s Tackle Tinkering (1945), which covered baitcasting and live-bait methods as well as fly fishing, included detailed instructions on making both cork-bodied and spun-deerhair bugs. William Bayard Sturgis (Fly-Tying, 1940) and William F. Blades (Fishing Flies And Fly Tying, 1951), probably the most innovative and influential tiers of their era, continued to expand the art of bass-bug making. Both Sturgis and Blades gave the same attention to hair- and cork-bodied bugs as they did to trout and salmon flies. Their hair mice, frogs, crawfish, moths, and cork poppers were logical extensions of the art of bug-making.
In 1947, Joe Brooks published Bass Bug Fishing, the first book devoted exclusively to that subject. Finally, it seemed, fly fishermen had fully embraced bass as quarry that deserved as much respect as trout and salmon, and fishermen in general accepted the fly rod as a deadly weapon for catching bass.
Then everything changed.
Spinning landed in North America shortly after World War II. It democratized fishing almost overnight. With spinning gear, anyone could make a long, smooth cast on his first try, with none of those backlashes that plagued level-wind baitcasters or any of that awkward back-and-forth flailing around that frustrated the beginning fly caster.
Spinning gave fishing to the people, and bass, particularly largemouths, were the people’s fish. By the middle of this century, both largemouths and smallmouths had migrated to every state in the lower 48. Almost every body of fresh water held bass. If it didn’t, somebody transplanted them. Bass were accessible and abundant, and they grew big. They were aggressive and impetuous, unlike the moody trout. Bass were blue-collar fish; trout were high-society. In a bar-room brawl, you’d put your money on any bass over the toughest trout in the joint.
It’s entirely consistent with the American spirit that bass fishing would become a competitive sport and a big business. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) was founded in the 1960s, and soon Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin and Bill Dance became household names. Industries competed with each other to invent artificial lures that bass would eat. Bass lures were called “baits,” and they had down-to-earth designations — “plastic worms” and “jig-and-pigs,” “stickbaits” and “buzzbaits,” “spinnerbaits” and “crankbaits.” They were made of rubber and plastic and metal, and they came in myriad colors, many of which could be found nowhere in nature, but which, their creators claimed, drove bass nuts. They all worked, of course. Bass eat anything. But an endorsement from a bass champion guaranteed big sales.
Other enterprising businessmen designed boats and motors and electronics specifically for bass fishermen. They adapted space-age materials to the construction of lines, rods and reels, and addicted bassmen bought that stuff, too.
With money on the line, competitive bass fishermen began to study the habits of their quarry and the ways that bass behavior correlated with season and weather and water temperature and other variables. They studied the habits and behavior of bass prey, too, so that they could imitate them with the shape, color, size, and action of their lures. They made a science of bass fishing. And they sure could catch ‘em.
Tournament bass fishing quickly spread north and west until, by the late 70s or so, bass clubs were sponsoring contests all over the country. Recreational, non-competitive bass fishing, or course, mirrored the exploding popularity of the tournaments. For every competitive pro, there were hundreds of amateurs who trailered boats, hunted bass obsessively with fishfinders and spinning rods, and dreamed of joining the tournament circuit.
The arrival of spinning in the 1940s inevitably produced a decline in the popularity of fly fishing in general, and in fly fishing for bass in particular. Jack Ellis calls the first three post-war decades “The Dark Age” of fly-rod bass-bug fishing. Throwing bugs from a clunky old rowboat, compared to the new high-tech methods, struck with-it anglers of that era as old-fashioned, ineffective, and vaguely amusing. Typical of the new attitude was that of outdoor scribe Jason Lucas, who wrote in 1947: “Bass bugging is an extremely crude form of fly fishing, if fly fishing it can be called . . . A child of average mentality should learn bass bugging in a few minutes.” Bass fishing, under the influence of Lucas and many others, was becoming a science for spin- and baitcasters, and while it wasn’t to become apparent until sometime in the 1970s, the bass-boat/high-tech/big-money tournament revolution had begun.
The commercial market for deerhair bass bugs dried up during the post-war years, but a few diehards continued to fool around at the vise. Roy Yates created a deerhair version of the Wilder-Dilg feathered minnow — a design he adapted from Don Gapen’s Muddler, and which he called The Deacon. A few years later, H. G. Tapply created his higher-floating, noisier, all-deerhair version of The Deacon. He never got around to giving it a name, so, by default, it came to be called Tap’s Bug.
Hard-bodied fly-rod bugs continued to be manufactured, and new materials such as foam and molded plastic were introduced. But the designs didn’t change, as lure manufacturers’ creative energies shifted to “baits” that could be cast with spinning and baitcasting outfits. That particular market was exploding.
The pleasures of top-water fly-rodding for bass continued to be chronicled in books and magazines through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s by that era’s most respected fishing writers, notably Joe Brooks, John Alden Knight, A. J. McClane, Harold F. Blaisdell, Tom Nixon, Ray Bergman, H. G. Tapply, Charles Waterman, and Tom McNally. All of these esteemed angling gurus wrote fondly of fly-rod bass-bug fishing, but only Nixon fished for bass exclusively with the fly rod, and Brooks’ book was the only one that focused exclusively on bass-bugging. The other writers all fished widely, for a variety of species, and with whatever tackle promised success. You could catch bass on the fly rod, they insisted. But you could catch them other ways, too. As Bergman lamented, there seemed to be a “growing apathy toward fly fishing on the part of bass anglers.”
So in the “Dark Age” of the post-war high-tech revolution, bass bugging became a novelty in the popular mind, a harmless (and “crude”) sport that was being kept alive by nostalgic old-timers who’d sometimes rather flail around with fly rods than catch a lot of bass.
* * *
The revival of bass-bug fishing — what Nick Lyons has called “the bass-fly revolution” — began in the 1970s and can be credited largely to the efforts of Dave Whitlock who, in Jack Ellis’s words, “made bass bugging respectable.” Whitlock, says Ellis, “brought dignity, artistry, and class to bass bugging. He was the first famous bass bugger (there’s got to be a better term) in history who did not, with the lone exception of Messinger, occasionally use the casting rod.”
Whitlock’s bass-fly designs — subsurface as well as topwater — are colorful, sleek, and imitative, and he writes about fly-rod bassing with knowledgeable enthusiasm. “Fly fishing for bass,” he says, “may well be the most exciting, pleasurable, and consistently rewarding method of fishing that exists today in North America. . . . Bass are terrific fun on a fly rod!”
Whitlock devised bass flies and developed fly-fishing techniques, he says, by “studying and adapting the successful methods of the saltwater fly fishers and the spin and baitcasting bass fishermen.” His flies are complicated and eye-catching — to the angler, certainly, and probably to bass as well. They imitate not only natural bass prey, but also the lures that spin-fishermen cast in their tournaments.
Those who contend that it’s the wiggle, glug and burble that makes bass gobble flies might feel that Whitlock dresses his bass flies with unnecessary and redundant appendages and decorations. His Whit Hair-Bug Series, for example, are basic Tap’s bugs in a variety of color combinations, complete with eyes, multi-material tails, glitter, and rubber legs. Whether Whitlock’s elegant creations catch more bass than simpler, less imitative flies is debatable, but they surely have served the purpose of convincing an ever-widening population of anglers to take up fly-fishing for bass. His various deerhair divers, underwater swimmers, bottom flies and jigs look and behave even more like actual bass prey than their metal and plastic counterparts favored by the tournament bassmen.
Whitlock’s imitative hair-and-feather bass flies — along with his enthusiastic promotion of fly fishing for bass — have converted a generation of trout anglers, who are predisposed to the concept of imitation, to the fun of fly-rod bass fishing. His bugs and lures offer fly fishermen lifelike imitations of all known bass prey — and valid options to virtually every lure the tournament bassers can throw with a spinning or baitcasting rod. For every stickbait and crankbait and jig and rubber worm, there is a corresponding Whitlock creation for the fly fisherman — the Whit Hair Bug, Mouserat, Wigglelegs Frog, Snakey, Eeelworm Streamer, Hare Water Pup, Chamois Spring Lizard, Haregrub, Water Snake, Golden Shiner, Water Dog, Sand Eel, Deerhair Gerbubble Bug . . . the list goes on.
Other contemporary bass-fly inventors and practitioners such as Larry Dahlberg, best known for his innovative deerhair diver, John Betts, Bob Clouser, Dick Stewart, A. D. Livingston, Harry Murray, Jack Ellis, C. Boyd Pfeiffer, and Jack Gartside have made important contributions to the Whitlock bass-fly revival. Iconic angling writers like Nick Lyons and John Gierach chronicle the simple, poetic joys of fly-rod bugging. We probably don’t really need an arsenal of imitative flies to catch bass, but for the sake of the sport of fly-rod bassing, I’m glad we have them. Their variety gives us genuine respectability, the inspiration to experiment at the vise and on the water, and, when the fishing is slow, legitimate options to old-fashioned hair and cork bugs.
But on a soft summer evening I’m usually quite content to tie on something not much different from a strip-skin bob — a Henshall Bug, maybe, or a yellow Tap’s Bug. I’ll plop it near a fallen tree, watch the rings widen and dissipate before making it go ker-PLOOP, and wait for that sudden implosion of water. It reminds me that I am not that far removed from the Seminole Indians of the 17th century. I think it’s good for my soul to stay in touch with my roots.