By Pat Ford
I really have to admit that most of my background in bass fishing is still ahead of me, but in the months after last winter’s South Florida “freeze” there were very few fish left on the flats to chase around. In addition every single peacock bass in the 100 acre lake behind my house died and the local canals were hit pretty hard but not to the same degree. All this left me with a lot of time on my hands and friends Alan Zaremba and Thadeus Ragan, both pro bass guides, decided that it was time for me to pay attention to what they did for a living. Both Alan and Thadeus can flip a lure into a tea cup 50 feet away and have so many ‘bass rods’ that they seem to have one rigged for every lure they might need to use on any specific trip, but deep down the pile, they both carry a couple of fly rods. They just rarely use them. Over the past year I’ve fished the amazing Everglades with Alan or Thadeus on a number of occasions over the last year and while I still don’t know much about bassin’ and still don’t dare to try to find my own way around the middle of the Everglades, I have picked up a few things about fly fishing for bass in the magnificent Everglades National Park, which I’m permitted to share.
Bass live in basically two areas: 1) along shorelines, usually in or under weeds and lily pads and 2) along rocks, ledges and drop-offs. In either area there’s cover and their plan is to lie in wait until something enters their ‘feed zone’. In the Glades most of your strikes will be within a few feet of shore and the rest will be along the drop-off just outside the edge of the vegetation. If you fish the middle of the channels, you will probably wind up with a mudfish which are big, ugly and actually pretty cool. A perfect cast puts your fly literally on the shore so you can creep it into the water like a frog, mouse, bug, snake, etc. and work it through the pads and along the drop-off. Bass, it appears, will eat anything they think they can fit in their mouth, but they won’t travel very far to get it nor will they follow a fly for a great distance. They attack on impulse as soon as they spot something in their ‘zone’. I don’t think that they care what it is – everything in their water is food, if it fits in their mouth.
Thadeus likes to use a bass jig with a pair of rubber claws that resembles a crayfish creeping along the bottom, Alan prefers to pull an unweight worm along the surface and these are the two methods that also work for fly fishermen. To fish effectively it pays to work every inch of water either on top or subsurface, so there’s a lot of casting involved; but you don’t have to cast very far, just accurately. Since most of the flies are either weighted or big and bushy, I use a stiff 9 weight rod overloaded with a 10 weight line. I use a bass taper for the floating line and a clear intermediate tarpon taper or teeny 300 for the weighted flies. Floating leaders are usually nine or 10 feet long, tapered down to anywhere from 12 to 20 lb test depending on the amount of debris in the water. Leaders for the sinking lines only need to be 3 or 4 feet to keep the fly deep.
You can spend hours in Bass Pro Shops looking at bass lures and never see the same lure twice, the same applies to bass flies. There are a fair number of commercial bass flies if you don’t count the small poppers and bugs designed for pan fish, but they can be broken down to several categories. First of all we have the frog imitations. They can have hard plastic, foam or deer hair heads, popper or slider style, most have numerous rubber legs and hair or feather tails, split to look like legs. Colors are limited only by your imagination and different days and different locations will find different color patterns that produce all the strikes. I don’t know why this makes a difference since all the fish are looking up into the sun so all they can see is a silhouette, but it does. Size is another consideration. The biggest poppers and sliders will catch the biggest fish and reduce the number of strikes from the smaller ones, but everything will eat the smaller flies and they are a lot easier to cast. The deer hair versions work really well but tend to soak up water, so be sure to carry some fly float ant with you. The “hard heads” float higher and longer but can be a lot more difficult to cast. In addition to frog imitations there are the standard deer hair mouse patterns, which are very effective, and obviously any giant bug or small critter that falls in the water is going to be on the menu – ie. dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, lizards, baby ducks (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen on many occasions), etc. – so you need several of those patterns.
The best time to fish the Everglades is from mid-October through May. This is Florida’s ‘dry season’ and low water and cooler temperatures concentrate all the bass and bait into the channels. If you want to try basin’ the Everglades contact Alan Zaremba at email@example.com or Thadeus Ragan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those guys really know how to find the fish, but it’s up to you to bring a fly or two that they’ve never seen – just to keep them humble.