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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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