“Wrecking Beauty”

I’m not sure anyone can call a deer-hair bass bug—all bright colors, boogly eyes and dangly rubber legs—a work of art.  Then again, there are the bugs that flow, like an invasion of alien life forms, from Derek Darst’s vise.

Darst’s stacked and spun creations are immaculate blends of imagination, purpose and sheer perfection. The densely packed deer hair is razored to resemble sanded balsa wood. The hair is stacked to create stripes and spots. The head of the bug tapers off to a fringe of uncut deer hair and a tail that trembles in the slightest breeze.

These bugs look like they belong in a framed display hanging.

We humans have a tendency to collect precious, beautiful things—from paintings to stamps to sports cars—and tuck them away safely where no one can touch or use them. I guess this is a natural reaction to beauty. We don’t want to wreck a precious object with use.

Then again, there are those Darst bugs.

Their flat faces have coatings, so the hair has the stiffness to make those seductive gurgles that bass love to hear. A perfect monofilament weed guard gives an angler the courage to toss this bug (Darst charges $10 a pop) the courage to throw the fly into that bassy lair under pondside alder trees.

In short, Darst’s gorgeous, exotic, lurid bass bugs are moral dilemma. With apologies to Shakespeare, To use or not to use? It’s one hell of a question.

All of this raced through my mind a couple months ago. I was tying flies at the FFI show in Ellensburg, Washington, when my wife Heather walked over and dropped two of Darst’s bugs on the table.  Heather, who is addicted to popping bugs for bass, smiled at me.

“They are great,” she said. “This nice guy is tying them over there.”

I had to do a seminar in a few minutes, but I ran over there and saw Darst cranking out his masterpieces to a growing, awestruck audience. I bought a couple more of Darst’s bugs. I hardly noticed the $20 leaving my hand. Later on, I went back and bought a few more.

The next day, as we drove home to Hood River, Oregon, Heather began talking about going out to the bass pond and giving our new bugs a workout.

“Do we want to do that?” I said. “These bugs are museum-quality pieces.”

“Well, I think they will make the bass silly and eager,” Heather said. “Isn’t that why we bought them? That’s why I bought mine.”

I thought about this for the whole drive home, I even forgot to stop at Miner’s—my favorite burger joint in Yakima.

A few days later found us on the 14-acre pond in the old aluminum skiff. I tied on my usual painted-foam popper. Heather, who does not mess around when it comes to bass, tied on a Darst Popper—a frog-patterned one with yellow, black and green stripes and patches. She pinched down the barb and pitched the bug up against a weed island.

She gave the fly line a tug, and that Darst bug burped out a wet, seductive, helpless gurgle. It bobbed on the surface for a second—and then vanished in a swirling boil. A big, portly bass wallowed on the surface, as it was just too fat to jump.

“Yes,” Heather said. “This fly is gonna work.”

For the next hour, Heather sent her Darst bug to bassy spots—under overhanging trees, on the edges of floating weed beds and near rocks and stumps. Largemouth bass took the popper down in savage takes.

I managed a couple small bass on my foam popper. All the while, I thought about my own stash of Darst bugs in my tackle bag.

After seven or eight nice bass, Heather showed me her bug. It was in pretty good shape and had lots of fish left in it. Darst makes a sturdy fly.  I gave into temptation—and the evidence. I tied on my own Darst fly, and the bass got silly for me.

Toward the end of the evening, Heather hooked a monster. The bass wallowed at the surface, showing off a wide tail and massive sides. The fish then bored into a sunken tree, and there was no getting it out of the tangle, even though Heather had a12-pound-test tippet.

The tippet broke.

“My beautiful fly, it’s gone,” she said.

I went into a speech about how that fly paid for itself in less than an hour. I talked about how breaking off a huge fish is the best possible way to lose a fly. I ground on about how it is better to love and lose rather than never love at all.

In the meantime, Heather tied on another Darst popper and got back to hooking bass.

The next morning, two things happened: I went back to the pond, tied on a Darst popper, and got busy exercising bass. As I was rowing to a new spot, I found Heather’s lost Darst popper bobbing on the surface—more than 9 hours after that big bass ran into the snags and broke off. The bass must have gotten rid of the fly fast—barbless is always the way to go—and it just bobbed to the surface. It was amazing to see a deer-hair popper on the surface after being submerged for hours.

I fished that fly out of the water, took a picture of it with my iPhone and sent the photo to Heather.

“GOD DAMN,” Heather wrote back. She arrived at the pond a few minutes later to collect her fly.

Later that evening, I sent Darst—[email protected]—an order for more poppers. A lot more.

We’ve been fishing these bugs hard for a few weeks now, and they keep working. Some are a little busted up, but they’ve hooked a lot of largemouth and smallmouth all over the Northwest, and they’re holding together.

A good deer-hair bass popper is very different than a painted foam popper. The deer-hair fly lands on the water a little softer, and the gurgling pop they make sounds better than the harsher, higher-pitched gurgle of a foam popper. I carry both, but I like deer-hair poppers better.

These Darst bugs are heart-stopping beautiful and worthy of hanging on the wall. You can do that if you want, and no one will blame you.

Than again, these Darst poppers are really made to be wrecked in the mouths of big bass. Wrecking this kind of beauty is a lot of fun.