This place is a frog’s nightmare. Bank-eroded trees complicate the shoreline in various stages of decay, providing perfect ambush spots for finned predators. Farther out in this slow-moving river, lily pads bejeweled with yellow flowers contrast deepwater pockets the color of tea. Milfoil and other spindly weeds crowd the channel, which at its deepest reaches only four or five feet. All is peaceful now. I’m hoping to change that. I’m chucking a popping frog fly from my canoe, hoping to tempt a fat summertime bucketmouth to the surface.
I’m fishing early to avoid the heat of an August afternoon, when largemouth bass get lethargic and I get sunburned. I paddle past a warped wooden dock, then more casualties of erosion: oak and maple and spruce reaching out from shore. I’m trying to sell my homemade fly as a dimwitted frog, so I aim my cast as close to bass cover as possible. This time it lands with a splat near a branch that points like a gnarled finger, the kind of presentation that would send a skittish trout zooming to the next area code. But this is far from blue ribbon trout water; my fly’s splash-landing might be a bass’ dinner bell.
I rid the fly line of slack and impart a long, sharp strip. The fly’s concave foam head produces an audible gah-luump. The boil settles; remember the virtue of patience. Summertime largemouth are notoriously lazy and shouldn’t be fished in a rush. I slow my retrieve to match my quarry’s temperament: pop, pause, pop, pause. I watch the fly settle after each strip and anticipate an explosion that doesn’t come, yet.
Largemouth bass lack the glamour of other large-growing sport fish, and this is partly why I love them. They’re the fish of the culvert, the golf course pond, the mud puddle behind the shopping center. They thrive in nearly every state and tolerate warm, oxygen-depleted waters, like the one I’m fishing this morning. There’s a good chance largemouth prowl within a short drive of your home. You might even drive past trophy bass on your way trout fishing, as I often do.
A wader-clad trout enthusiast might raise his or her nose at bass. They’re an overlooked opportunity here in my home state of Maine. My choice to target bass in the heat of summer is partly an ethical one—by now most of my trout spots are too warm to fish. Temperature-tolerant bass, on the other hand, offer the topwater angler a willing summertime target.
Bass are not as aesthetically pleasing as, say, brook trout or rainbows. They sport large heads with bulging eyes, football-shaped bodies camouflaged by mottled olives and browns and yellows. They’re often associated with the run-and-gun, high octane nature of tournament bass fishing. But tossing frog or mouse flies from a quiet canoe might be the antithesis of the tourney scene.
If trout anglers were to wade this river—an act I would love to witness—they could expect to emerge wrapped in strands of invasive weeds. Their wading boots would stink of dead plant material and mud. Such is the nature of bass environs—they live where other gamefish can’t, feeding on baitfish, and crayfish, and frogs, and whatever else they can fit their oversized mouths around. For their resilience, bass are rewarded a long lifespan, up to 20 years in some instances, along with minimal natural predators. They don’t stop growing as they age, and their size and willingness to take artificial lures make them one of the most popular freshwater gamefish in the world.
Still, targeting largemouth with topwater flies is both overlooked and highly effective. The eagerness of large bass to garbage a well-placed frog imitation is what has me fishing this river methodically, optimistic despite my slow start.
It’s amazing how familiar water imprints our memory: here, near overhead power lines and an expanse of lily pads, my childhood best friend caught a 7-pounder on a walk-the-dog lure well after sunset some 20 years ago. I take a few casts but can’t resurrect his luck.
The sun is higher now but the eastern shore remains draped in shadow. I’m worried my window might be closing; already, I can feel the air heating up. I make a lousy cast and my fly and leader twirl around a tree limb. A lucky flick of my rod tip and the fly unfurls and falls to the surface. I play it back toward the canoe, but nothing doing. The canoe drifts with the breeze, which has picked up a little. I make another cast, this time landing the faux frog near a rotted stump. After one pop the fly disappears as though someone has flushed a toilet—no violent explosion, no splash, just a sinkhole where my fly used to be. When I strip set, the bass swims towards me and I worry I’ve lost it. But then it pulls line from my hands and slashes the surface, trying to throw the fly from its lip. It’s a good fish, but the fight doesn’t last long in the warm water.
A rod length away the bass tips on its side and I notice how poorly it’s hooked. The frog fly is like gaudy jewelry barely piercing its lower lip. A simple head shake now would surely disconnect my fly. I lift the rod high above me and reach for the bass, thumbing its open mouth—a sizable target. I pinch the lower lip with one hand, drop my fly rod in the canoe, and support the bulging belly. It’s around four pounds, all head and shoulders, bigger than any trout I’ve caught this summer. The bass cooperates for a canoe-side photo. I remove the frog fly and revive the bass slowly, which takes a while in this stagnant bathwater it calls home. Finally, it kicks off and out of sight.
I catch a few smaller bass before the sun crests the trees and the bite dies. My frog fly is still functional but missing a rubber leg—always a good sign. As I paddle back to my vehicle, realizing I’ve forgotten sunscreen, I’m grateful for the chance to toss topwater flies on a dog day morning to resilient bass I’ve chased since I was a boy. It never gets old.
Feature image via Ryan Brod.