Topwater Fishing for Late Summer Bass
I once had a friend who was a real skeptic about fishing in the lower water of August. I remember him saying “Fishing in August? The water is low, it is warm, and it is dead.” I responded with, “I’m going, come along. I think you might change your mind.”
We started in the lower canyon area of Pine Creek and he was right about two things: the water was low, and it was pretty warm in the shallower flats where we stood. And, to me, it was perfect.
I was using a nine-foot fly rod with floating line, a twelve-foot leader tapered to 5x, and had a Psycho Ant tied to the business end. Matt had an old six-foot Fenwick fiberglass spinning rod, a Shimano reel spooled with six-pound camouflage mono, and he had a green, jointed Jitterbug tied on and ready for action.
We slowly waded the low, at water until we were about a quarter of the way across. On the other side was a sedate current lazing along under the pine bows lining the steep bank opposite our position.
The water was crystal clear except for the distant, gliding current, where it took on a greener hue as it slid under branches and along boulders and slabs of rock.
“Cast to the top of the glide, half way across the moving water. They’ll be waiting,” I whispered.
Matt gave me a look that employed more than a bit of derision. He tilted the rod back and let the Jitterbug fly. He was relaxed and a little nonchalant, I thought, as his mono glistened in the light and the Jitterbug started its arc back to the water. It hit with a splat and, the second it touched, the surface exploded! Matt stood there, his bail still open and his mouth hung open even wider. He set the bail but was way too late. Thunderstruck, he slowly responded, “I never expected...that bass was huge...this could be very interesting...”
I simply smiled.
There are quite a few anglers just like my friend. But, if you internalize a few understandings of the low, clear water and the bass that are lurking just out of sight, it could become your favorite time to try for the bronze-back fighter. The low water has several effects that can be both positive and negative for the angler. The lower and clearer water makes the fish more wary than usual because it makes them more accessible to both feathered and furred predators. I once watched a palomino trout for over a year and a half as it swam, hid, and fed. I never expected that huge and very light-colored fish to survive more than a few weeks since it was so visible—it did just fine, though, living next to a rock overhang in a deeper run within a Pine Creek pool. Since the bass are more vulnerable, they are less easy for the angler to approach. The low water takes a little more patience to fish and a plan before rushing into the stream.
One thing the low water gives is a gift that keeps giving—a wonderful opportunity to learn the physical nuances of a creek and find its secrets! In the bare-bones creek it is easy to see channels, holes, rock ledges, flows, and currents that are still able to provide the bass with shelter and food. The same structure will also exist when the creek is several feet higher, and will still be providing for the fish but may be less obvious to the spring, late fall, or winter angler. That structure you can see in August will offer safe haven for the fish from faster currents and keep filtering food to the same holding areas. While you are exploring, please be careful of trout in stream-bottom springs and at the mouths of cold-water tributaries. Trout are using these areas to survive the higher water temperatures and have a hard time living if they are caught and pulled into the warm water. Observe where the springs are but please give the trout a break and leave them alone until the water cools in the fall and they disperse within the creek.
Aside from the skittishness of the fish and the careful approach necessary to fool the bass, the low water gives you an entry that you won’t get at any other time of the year in open water. In the story I just related about fishing with Matt, I told you how we slowly waded the low, at water. We were very careful not to make waves or disrupt the water in any way so as not to make noise that might be detected as a threat by the fish, and we stopped far enough from the target water so the fish would not notice our movement while casting. I once asked a friend to please not wear his old trusty white t-shirt—it seemed like a warning flag when viewed against the streamside greenery!
With all that fishy forethought, you are ready to present your offering. If you are casting into the top of a pool or in a current within a pool, pick a spot that is well above the bass’s holding area where he waits for food to be washed to him. I like to present about ten or twelve feet above the waiting fish. Let the offering float in the current to the fish, and be ready for the strike. After several casts, if you don’t have a hit, wait a few minutes and recast. This time, after the offering hits the water, twitch the rod tip to give the imitation some life-like action. Hang onto your rod!
I say try the natural float first because that won’t usually scare the fish, and they will continue to remain in their feeding stations. Also, a dry fly or popper naturally floating by will be less apt to spook a fish than bait or a lure underwater. My recommendations for the low water, surface action bass of August include large dry flies (Slate Drakes are always good and White Wulffs are great for late evening), Psycho Ants in a size ten, bass poppers with legs, and Jitterbugs (jointed give you extra action that is like magic). You can still go underneath with hellgrammites, worms, larvae, and subsurface plugs, although the low water doesn’t naturally deliver much to the fish underneath until it rains. If it does rain, catch the bass underwater when the stream is on the rise.
In the August’s bare bones water, I believe a surface presentation is best. Don’t let the bass know you are there, but definitely make them aware of your offering! Caution: you may just find yourself hooked on the incredible beauty, serenity, and amazing, explosive topwater action of August.