Bass on the Fly
The serene sport of fly fishing gets a lot more exciting when Brazos River bass are involved.
By Tom Behrens
A popping bug gently drops down on the water in a small eddy close to the bank, a perfect cast by a fly angler who methodically works his way down the gently flowing green river. A couple of short strips of line and suddenly the serenity of the quiet stream is broken by an explosion of water as a fish annihilates the bug. While it may sound like a scene from one of the famous trout streams of Montana, we are talking about catching bass on a fly rod in Central Texas — on the Brazos River.
This section of the Brazos begins in the tailrace of the Lake Whitney Dam and winds its way among granite cliffs and outcroppings. At some places, pure spring water cascades down the hillsides. Oak, sycamore, pecan and other hardwoods line this 38-mile stretch of the river near Waco.
“In 2000, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fishery personnel went below the Lake Whitney dam and electro-fished as far as they could go,” says John Tibbs, District 2B Supervisor for Inland Fisheries. “They found populations of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass, in addition to some catfish, and some very large sunfish. Largemouth bass was the predominant sport fish that was electro-fished, but good populations existed in all the fish families.”
The extra water discharges from Lake Whitney, a by-product of the dam’s hydroelectric power generation, have helped produce the fishery in the Brazos. “I would say across the spectrum it probably has benefited from the higher flows, which obviously benefits the fishery,” says Tibbs. “What we found was quite an intriguing fishery.”
Chris Shafer is a veteran fishing guide on the Brazos whose specialty is fly-fishing for bass. Shafer was formerly a professional tournament angler in the ’80s. He guided on Lake Whitney exclusively for largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass. “My knowledge of bass fishing came from the conventional venue; I have transferred it to fly fishing,” says Shafer. “Fly fishing on the river was one of those developmental type of things. I had to learn what it took for a fly fishing presentation to be effective consistently. That’s a learning curve that we have gone through the last 10 years.”
The combination of good populations of bass and shallow water makes the Brazos a fly angler’s dream. “A bass is the perfect fish for a fly rod presentation,” says Shafer. “He is a superior fish, meaning that his lower jaw extends further than his upper jaw. When a fish has that, it means the fish feeds upward. Fly presentations are generally designed to be fished on or at the surface.
“When you get him in riverine situations, especially where the water is shallow, he feeds at the surface continually. He can go left and immediately turn back right. He can jump straight up 3 feet in the air and shake like it’s nobody’s business and give it back to you. He can run at you so fast you can’t catch up with him. But with a fly rod, if you know what to do by keeping that fly rod loaded and the angle of attack like it’s supposed to be, it’s a gas. We are on the cutting edge on fly fishing for bass,” Shafer says.
“Most guys who fly fish relegate their efforts mostly to trout or salmon. It is a different type of presentation, because those fish eat different types of food sources. Primarily for trout it is a small offering: bugs, nymphs and things of that nature. A bass is a garbage can. He eats fins, feathers or fur. He is looking for a larger offering, because that’s what he normally eats. He eats bluegills, shad, crawfish — all things of a larger size. Where most people make the mistake, when they go to pick a fly for fishing for bass, they choose too small of a fly.
“Then they say, ‘Well I like to bass-fish but I just can’t catch any big fish on a fly.’ It’s because you are not fishing with the right bait. Predominantly the average size bass in most Texas rivers is 2 to 3 pounds. Down here on the Brazos, I have a unique situation where our fish range from 3 to 5 pounds. Our bass, for a river, are pretty large.”
Shafer doesn’t have any secret flies. Whitlock Hair Bugs and Porky’s Pets are two of his favorites. “This is all a hair-bug deal,” says Shafer. “We are using Number 1s, 2s.” The Whitlock Hair Bug comes in several different colors. Fruit-cocktail color produces smalleys in clear water.
“We have no problems getting bites, but the difference between getting them to bite and getting them into the boat separates the true angler from the novice,” says Shafer. “Most of my fly anglers, if they get a 50-percent catch rate versus the number of bites, they are doing good.”
“You have to know what to do once that fish takes the presentation. You have made your cast, and your bug is sitting on the water where you want it to be. At that time you want to keep your rod tip as low to the water as possible when you are making your strip. That way when that fish hits you, you have sufficient amount of movement to be able to set the hook. If you’re fishing with your rod at a 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock position and he hits you on a fly rod, you won’t even get the hook set before you run out of room. You won’t be able to generate any leverage because you have come to the edge of your arm,” says Shafer.
“You keep your rod pointed directly in line with your fly. I keep my rod tip right at the water. When he fires me up, I have plenty of room to make that adjustment with that 9-foot rod. Once he hits me, which way I go with that rod depends on the fish. By having that rod tip out in front of me and pointed downward, if he comes straight to me I have the ability to pull the rod straight up and catch up my slack. If he runs left or right of me, I have the ability to lay my rod over either to the left or to the right so that I can keep constant tension on that fish,” he says.
“Because of a fly reel, you cannot catch that line up as fast as that fish can swim. It is impossible. You have to learn to use that rod to change the angle of attack from your rod to that fish to be sure that line is tight. If that line is not tight, that fish will use the weight of the line to cam the hook out of his mouth and throw your bait back to you,” Shafer adds.
The worst thing you could do is pull up on the fish to set the hook, he says. “When you pull him upward there is no better way for a bass to generate slack in line than to clear the line out of the water. By keeping the fish’s head down and keeping as much line in the water at all times, if he makes a radical change in direction on you, just the weight of the line dragging through the water will help keep tension on the line where he can’t generate slack. When the bass starts to surface, bury your rod tip in the water,” Shafer says.
“We use straight 20-pound monofilament, about 5 feet worth. That way the fish won’t break off when you are around logjams, boulders and things like that. That heavier straight line helps turn that big bug over. They are looking at the reaction of that bug. When they hit that puppy, they will crater it.”
Shafer claims that on an average day, two people in his boat can expect to catch about 20 fish apiece. The bass run between 2 and 6 pounds. “We designed this so that you are fishing out of a boat, similar to what the experience would be if you were drift fishing out in the West,” he says.
A shallow draft boat such as an aluminum johnboat, canoe or kayak is the best means of transportation down the river. Wade fishing is severely restricted because of limited river access. A popular access point is at the Lake Whitney dam, with another located on County Road 3650. The third public access point is the Brazos River RV Park at Gholson. Cameron Park at Waco is the last pickup and drop-off point. Privately owned watercraft can be put in or removed for a fee at The Outpost/Dicks Canoes. Canoe rentals and shuttle service are also available. The Outpost is located 12 miles west of West, Texas, on FM 2114, and 8 miles by water from the Lake Whitney Dam.