Fly Fishing, Bass, and the Sick Wildebeest

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kevin VanDam is without a doubt the most successful bass tournament angler of all-time.

If you don’t already know the following, consider these facts about the Kalamazoo, Mich. native: he’s the winner of four Bassmaster Classic titles; the owner of seven B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year titles; the winner of 20 B.A.S.S. events; has 96 B.A.S.S. “Top 10” finishes so far in his career; is owner of one FLW Angler of the Year title; and is a tournament pro with more than $5.6 million in combined career earnings.

When Kevin VanDam talks about how to be a better bass angler, it pays to listen closely and take notes. Even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool fly fisherman.

Put simply, KVD is the undisputed king of modern tournament bass angling.

Big deal you say? Yeah it is.

The man is a bona fide bass catching machine no matter where he fishes, the time of year that he is on the water, or what the conditions are like while he is there.

And believe it or not, KVD can teach a fly fisherman plenty about gaining more hook-ups with black bass.

As long as you’re willing to listen to what he (and other bass fishing pros) have to say and then figure out how to transfer that information to the skill set that you need while you are on the water with a fly rod in your hand.

Take, for instance, these tidbits I gleaned from angling writer Steve Price and the story he authored in the April 2010 issue of “Bassmaster” magazine

During that piece, Price queried KVD about whether or not irregular lure movement can be critical in triggering a bass to strike.

KVD’s response is one that both a lure fisherman and a fly fisherman should take to heart:

Absolutely. Bass are very much keyed to any irregular movements out of their prey, so I either use lures like tubes that have this irregular action built into them, or I add it myself.

“I’m going to jerk it, twitch it, stop it, start it, speed it up, slow it down – all the things I can do that are out of the ordinary. And I do some of them on every cast or flip. When I can combine an irregular action with speed, it’s even better.

“I’ve seen so many times when bass don’t show any interest in a school of baitfish or bluegill unless one shows a weakness, and that’s the one they pick. It’s no different than a lion chasing a wildebeest; the predator is looking for something that offers it an advantage, and bass are very good at using their habitat and the existing conditions to do that.

So how does that play out for a fly fisherman?

Simple. Don’t get caught up in the motions of making a rhythmic cast, laying your fly into a “bassy” looking area, and then methodically retrieving it back with a steady “strip, strip, strip” motion.

The same retrieve that 99% of all fly anglers seem to fall into by default.

The type of retrieve that a bass looks in the direction of before offering a yawn.

Instead, follow KVD’s advice.

Or my paraphrase of it: let your fly become a sick wildebeest.

Get the fly in tight to the places where a bass might lurk. Get the undivided attention of a big old mama bass as you strip the fly back erratically like a drunken sailor. Bang the fly into objects. Stagger it. Stop it. Start it. Rip it, pause it, and let it fall down. Vary the speed of the retrieve, fast one minute, slow the next, then somewhere in between.

In short, do all that you can to make your fly look like an easy pickings meal that a big predatory bass simply can’t refuse taking a swat at.

Do that once on an outing and you might hook a good bass.

Make that type of attention grabbing, strike triggering retrieve happen often enough and you might have an outstanding day on the water.

Learn how to incorporate such tactics into your arsenal each and every time that you take to the water and maybe one day, you’ll be known as the KVD of fly fishing for bass.

If I don’t beat you to that title first, that is.

Thanks to figuring out how to make my flies look like the sickest of all wildebeest.


Bass: Poppers, Porcelain Thrones and Bowling Balls

I cast a big Near Enough deer hair froggie to the edge of a five-foot-wide pothole of open water, let it sit there for two, three, maybe four minutes and then gave it a twitch. The fly went down in a rise that looked like a toilet flushing. That’s what bass fishers say. It’s not the prettiest analogy in angling, but, I’m sorry, that’s exactly what it looks like.” — John Gierach, “Texas” essay in “Dances with Trout”

There is just something terribly satisfying about watching the chug-chug of a bass popper get violently interrupted by a falling bowling ball.” — Louis Cahill, “The In-Law’s Bass Pond” essay on


What is the take of a bass hitting a topwater popper like?

Porcelain thrones and bowling balls.

As in the former flushing and the latter falling from the sky.

This morning, yak fly fishing on one of my local bass waters, I got to experience both methods of take.

Early on, fishing a shad colored Bob’s Banger over a submerged laydown that fell off the end of a main-lake point, the fly was there one minute before totally vanishing the next.

With a commotion and sound that could only be compared to…a toilet flushing.

What’s the take of a popper like as a bass comes calling? It’s like porcelain thrones and bowling balls.

By a big bass.

I’m sad to say that I was so surprised by the sudden turmoil in the water and unexpected absence of my fly that I failed to get a proper hook set.

Which was more than enough for a bass that was probably four to five-pounds or better to dive into the flooded jungle, gain some leverage, and throw the hook.

I won’t lie – it took a while for my jangled nerves to settle down after that furious swing and a miss. It was a big fish, the kind that rattles you for a spell.

But a half-hour later, I had settled down as I plied the shaded waters of a likely looking area – shallow water, a little vegetation, some timber, and a deep-water escape route nearby.

This time, I was more than ready when a bowling ball fell from the heavens and smacked the smithereens out of the black-and-gold popper that I was now tossing.

With a good solid hook-set, I was quickly buttoned-up to this bass no matter how much he protested. He jumped once, then twice, then tried to make my kayak swap ends a couple of times.

All the while as I smiled and remembered yet again why I love playing this grand game of fly fishing for black bass.

The fish showed plenty of courage – especially for one only pushing the scales to just under the three-pound mark – as I battled him to the ‘yaks side.

Once there, I admired him, slipped the hook from his jaw, and then let him slide away from my grip back into the dark oily water surrounding this shady spot.

Not a bad morning of popper fishing.

Complete with flushing toilets and bowling balls falling from the skies.

Which brings to mind a few other memorable takes of bass determined to turn my popper into their next Happy Meal.

Years ago, while fishing Lake Fork with my friend Rob Woodruff, the Orvis endorsed guide who knows the East Texas giant factory like the back of his hand, I tossed a frog-hued popper towards a wall of vegetation standing in three feet of water.

There was a soft plop as the fly found its mark. A brief pause to let the rings ripple away. And then a soft tug on the fly line.

That was followed by a ferocious splash as a solid four-pound bass decided it was breakfast time in the early morning gloom of a cloudy and humid late spring day.

There was a brief but intense fight during which the deep green bass vaulted skyward a couple of times and thrashed around as it desperately tried to throw the #1 hook on the Orvis bug.

On its second leap into the air, the bass flung its head in the direction of Rob’s Skeeter bass rig and  did just that before returning to Fork’s timber-choked depths.

Noticing a pattern here? Wait – it gets worse.

A couple of springs ago, I was kayak fishing on Fork as the evening sun made its way towards the western horizon. I had enjoyed a fair day of bass fishing but had never made contact with the big bruiser I was hoping to hook-up with.

That changed suddenly as I threw a big white popper near some flooded timber next to a small drop-off in the bottom contour. One minute the fly was there, the next minute it was gone as the darkening water swirled around viciously.

I’d like to tell you that I landed this big bass, one that I estimated at eight-pounds or better. Unfortunately, I did not.

But at least I had a good two-minutes of hand-to-fin combat as the big bass pulled this way and that, tried to jump into the air despite its jumbo girth, gave me a pretty good kayak sleigh-ride in the process, and put a deep-bend into my eight-weight.

Just before I reached for my net to land the fish, the bass dove again and the line suddenly went limp as my popper came unbuttoned.

Leaving me to sit there in a trance-like state for several minutes as I soaked in one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in warmwater fly fishing.

Notice I said one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had.

Because I’m not sure anything will ever top the close-encounter I had with a bass dubbed “Orca,” a big bucketmouth that came calling several years ago while I was fishing on Glass Lake in deep East Texas with Rob Woodruff.

We had already enjoyed a memorable day landing several good bass between us, most on topwater poppers. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling smug as we continued to work poppers along the hard edge of a weed-line.

So I was a bit unprepared for what happened next as I pulled the popper from the water, let it sail behind me on the backcast, and then propelled it forward as the fly line completed its unfurling journey.

In the exact millisecond that the fly touched down upon the water, a huge geyser of erupted to its side as a huge bass leapt out of the water.

Like a Discovery Channel shot of a killer whale arching above the H2O, “Orca the Bass” came up out of the water, turned hard to its right as it sailed up-and-over the popper, and then turned quickly downward as it sledge-hammered its way home to pile-drive the popper well below the lake’s surface.

Remember the old antique Heddon Lures sign of a bass doing exactly the same thing?

Well, as Woodruff looked on in amusement, I got to see the fly fishing equivalent of that tin advertisement.

After the initial shock of that explosive take wore off, I tried a half-second later to set the hook with bug-eyed wonderment. And for the briefest period of time – 10 seconds or less – I actually had the bass on.

Before the line suddenly went limp, leaving me with my jaw gaping wide-open once again.

Notice a pattern here?

I guess I’ll just call it field research as I continue to try to figure out which topwater take I like better.

The porcelain throne flushing.

Or the bowling ball suddenly dropping out of the sky.

I’ve had plenty of practice over the years as I continue my obsession with catching bass on flies. There have been plenty of catches. And more than enough spectacular failures.

So it it’s all the same to you, please excuse me from this space.

Because I think I’ll go back out in the morning and see if I can figure this whole thing out once and for all.

If you hear a big early morning yell from Texas, it will probably be me.


Monday Movie: Floating with Tapâm’s Silver Kings

It’s Monday Movie time again on FF365.

This week’s choice is a beautiful and mysterious short film that was the winner of the 2010 Drake Video Awards “Best Fishing” short film category.

Produced by Daniel Göz and Jan Bach Kristensen, it was filmed at an undisclosed location in Central America on a three-week trip in 2010.

Take one view of this film and you’ll understand why these two anglers left it undisclosed.

It’s a beautiful spot quite literally in the middle of nowhere, a place where big triple-digit tarpon greedily eat flies, rip line off fly reels deep into the backing, and give thrilling runs, leaps, and head-shaking fights.

To a couple of guys hooked up to these silver kings while fly fishing out of a float tube.

Yup, you read that right, a float tube.

This might be one of the best tarpon films ever made in my opinion, especially considering the fact that it was filmed almost entirely with Canon DSLR cameras, specifically Canon’s 5DMKII and 7D models.

That fact probably makes this short film one of the few ever shot almost exclusively (except for some underwater Go-Pro video) with digital SLR cameras sporting HD video capabilities.

It’s an extraordinary short film, one with breathtaking jumps of huge tarpon at very close ranges.

Watch it just one time and I think you’ll understand exactly why the tarpon is hailed as the “Silver King.”

Enjoy this week’s Monday Movie!





Tim Rajeff: Casting in the Wind

I absolutely love getting my weekly e-mail newsletter from the guys at Deneki Outdoors ( ).

From bonefish tips to salmon and rainbow fishing in Alaska to steelhead fishing in British Columbia to great fly fishing photography tips, the guys at Deneki produce an amazing amount of GREAT content each week.

Ok, so I rarely get to do any of those things mentioned above. But I can live vicariously through a newsletter, right?

And at least I’m prepared if and when the chance does come.

Like this week when the Deneki newsletter contains a sweet little video and summary article on casting in the wind.

The bona fide fly casting expert showing how it’s done is none other than Tim Rajeff, who in my opinion, is simply one of the world’s greatest fly casters in any conditions.

Rajeff – a retired competitive caster who has hosted the L.L. Bean “Guide to the Outdoors” television show and owns ECHO Fly Rods – gives a great lesson on Deneki Outdoors’ “You Tube Channel” on how to deal with and how to cast successfully in the wind.

Regardless of what direction it is blowing from.

If you’re chasing bonefish in the Bahamas; out for tarpon in the Keys; looking for permit in Belize; casting to carp on Lake Michigan; or heading to the Texas Gulf Coast for redfish; then you’ve simply got to watch this video.

It’s good stuff, trust me.

Better yet, trust Tim Rajeff and the staff at Deneki Outdoors.


By the way, here’s a cool little excerpt from this week’s Deneki Outdoors newsletter that summarizes what Tim is teaching in the video:

Here’s the summary of what Tim covers in the video.

  • For a right-handed caster, the easiest situation is when the wind blows left to right – the line is being blown away from you.  All you have to do is change your aim.
  • When casting into the wind, use an easy, open back cast and a hard forward cast.  On the forward cast throw a tight loop, generate high linespeed, and aim your cast down so the fly turns over just at the water.
  • With the wind at your back, consider a rollcast!  Otherwise use a quick, tight backcast and open up your forward cast.
  • The hardest situation is when the wind is blowing your line into you.  Cast sidearm if the wind is modest.  If the wind is stiff, cast with the line off your other shoulder, or present the fly on your backcast.”

Like what you see?

Then go to Deneki’s Web site at and subscribe to their weekly newsletter. Or go to their Facebook page and like them. Or follow them on Twitter at @deneki .



Tenkara…in Oklahoma!

Orvis endorsed guide Rob Woodruff is fishing Tenkara style.

On Oklahoma’s Lower Mountain Fork River.

And he’s guiding customers to experiences like this one:

Nice looking brown trout I caught on Spillway Creek in Southeast Oklahoma using a Tenkara rod and traditional Sakasa Kebari style fly,” says Woodruff.

Interested in trying out the Tenkara style of fly fishing?

Then give Woodruff a call at (903) 967-2665. Or e-mail him at . Or visit his Web site at . Or do all three.

But just be sure that you get in touch with him soon.

The Lower Mountain Fork is fishing red-hot these days for both brown trout and rainbow trout.

And having given the Japanese method of fly fishing a try myself, I can all but guarantee that you’ll have a blast trying out the Tenkara style of flinging a fly,

Orvis endorsed fly guide Rob Woodruff is guiding Lower Mountain Fork River clients to brown trout like this one with the Tenkara rod.


Bowman: Belize’s Mangrove Magic for the Silver King

Editor’s Note: Looking through some old files again this evening and I found this story that I had written a few years back.

It was written to preview an ESPN Outdoors television episode when Conway Bowman – the current host of “Fly Fishing the World” on the Outdoor Channel and the former host of ESPN2’s “In Search of Flywater” – traveled to Belize for some epic tarpon action

Conway Bowman, host of Fly Fishing the World on the Outdoor Channel, offers some insight to tarpon fishing in Belize.

Ironically enough, Bowman – the undisputed king of San Diego mako shark fly fishing – is back in Belize as we speak fly fishing for the silver king as he films a new episode of “FFTW.”

But my primary reason for posting this tale is that it’s tarpon season in many parts of the saltwater fly fishing world. And for many who fish the fly, there is simply nothing better than spending a late spring day on a Hells Bay skiff looking for a laid-up tarpon willing to eat a fly.

Because of that, I thought I would dredge this old story back to the surface, let it gulp some air, and allow it to live once again.

It’s hardly the stuff of Thomas McGuane and his timeless tarpon fishing tales in “The Longest Silence” but maybe you’ll find a little something to enjoy here nonetheless.


In his role as co-host of the popular ESPN Outdoors show, “In Search of Fly Water presented by Chevrolet,” fly guide Conway Bowman has seen some of the world’s best locations to cast a fly line.

But as viewers will see on this “Saltwater Sunday” at7 a.m. ET on ESPN2, there may be no better place to fly fish the brine than the Caribbean paradise of Belize.

While there might be places that offer bigger bonefish or more tarpon, few places in the saltwater angling world can top the sheer variety of fly fishing opportunity that this member of the British Commonwealth offers.

“There are other places to go for better bonefish,” Bowman said. “But with better bonefish, you will not get as many shots at other things like permit, tarpon, and snook.

“For multiple species, Belize is about as good as it gets.”

Conway Bowman has fly fished all over the world for everything from tiny trout to triple-digit sharks. But from the looks of the smile on Bowman’s face above, tarpon fishing must rank high on his list!

Take Bowman’s quest for a Belize tarpon for instance.

While the saltwater fly fishing guide has caught plenty of big mako sharks on the blue-water fly near his San Diego home, he had never done battle with Megalops atlanticus.

Until, that is, he visited the beautiful Belize River Lodge, just a few miles down the road from Belize City.

“On the first day I got one that went about 90 pounds,” Bowman said. “That was the first time I’d ever caught a tarpon.”

On that first morning out, it didn’t take long before Bowman and his guide spotted the Megalops cruising along the edge of an eel grass bed on the sandy flat.

“We tracked him and I got a 60 foot cast out there,” Bowman said. “I started stripping the fly, he turned, and I saw the whole thing happen.”

With a mouth as big as a “five gallon bucket,” the angler described the take of the fly as akin to watching “somebody flushing the toilet.”

“He jumped four or five times – it was awesome,” Bowman said. “The fight took about 30 minutes. He was much stronger than the (world record) redfish I caught.”

Such brute strength requires, in addition to stout fly tackle, a couple of key elements in fighting the fish to the boat: applying plenty of constant side pressure and “bowing to the king” when they leap from the water.

“The thing about a tarpon is that once you hook them, they make an incredible first run and will jump several times and tail walk,” Bowman said. “Then it gets down and dirty.”

“They can gulp air and regain energy and the fight can be on again, so (once I hooked him) I didn’t let up and put as much heat on that fish as I could get away with all the time.”

“They’re the toughest fish I think I’ve ever caught.”

Lest you think that Bowman’s catch was simply a case of beginners luck, think again. So good is the fly fishing found around the Belize River Lodge area that before his stay was complete, Bowman was a tarpon catching veteran.

“Most clients go 2 for 10 (on tarpon hook-ups versus opportunities), but I hooked a bunch of fish after that,” Bowman said. “I think I got 15 tarpon on that trip and we really didn’t fish for them that hard.”

“We had lots of shots at tarpon in the 80 plus pound range. We also went back into the mangroves and took plenty of shots at baby tarpon, which was pretty cool.”

In fact, while Bowman was mighty proud of his 90-pound tarpon – caught on a 12-weight fly rod, a floating fly line, a nine-foot leader with a 20-pound tippet, and a 2/0 grizzly fly pattern, by the way – he admits that he may have enjoyed catching baby tarpon up to 25-pounds most of all.

“I’d prefer catching them on a day-to-day basis,” Bowman said. “They’re fun, they jump really high some three to four feet out of the water, and you can get them in quickly.”

“That allows you to get multiple shots at them,” he added. “Plus, you get to use lighter equipment like a nine weight or a ten weight and you’re fishing in the mangroves, so you can get out of wind.”

Not to be forgotten in this saltwater paradise – perhaps best known for its incredible permit fishing action – is the opportunity to hook up with a drag-melting bonefish.

Using eight-weight rods, a floating fly line, a 12-foot leader with an eight-pound tippet, and either a Crazy Charlie or Gotcha bonefish fly, Bowman got into a dozen or so bonefish up to five pounds.

But it isn’t any of the bonefish that he actually landed that he’ll remember most.

“I saw a couple of them about 80 feet in front of me (one day),” Bowman said. “They blend in so well and once I saw the fish, I thought there were four or five of them (in total).”

Actually, the southern California fly guide soon found himself casting at the lead fish in a school of some 300 bonefish.

When that bonefish felt the sting of the hook, it made a sizzling run through the school causing a virtual piscatorial explosion on the shallow flat!

Perhaps the greatest measure of how good any fly fishing trip really was is how strong the pull is to go back once an angler returns home again.

In Bowman’s case, that pull is as strong as a 90 pound tarpon.

“I’d like to go (back) there in April when they have giant 200 pound tarpon at the mouth of the Belize River,” Bowman said.

“They’re sitting in three or four feet of water and you’re sight casting to them,” he laughed. “Man, wouldn’t that be insane to cast to a 200 pound tarpon in three-feet of water?”

Not if you’re fly fishing in the Caribbean angling paradise of Belize.


Monday Movie: A River North with Andy Mill

Today’s “Monday Movie” brings four levels of greatness together in one remarkable short film.

First up is the incomparable wilderness of British Columbia, one of the greatest of all brushstrokes on the Creator’s grand canvas.

Next is the great Andy Mill, champion U.S. skier and one of the world’s most enthusiastic tarpon fly fishers.

Follow up that one-two punch by throwing into the mix the talents of superb fly fishing film-maker Jamie Howard (Chasing Silver, Bass: The Movie, etc.) and this MM installment promises to be a special one.

But it all comes together into a glorious mix of angling greatness when you add in the final ingredient.

And that’s the steelhead, the fish species that many call THE greatest of all piscatorial critters.

Partly because this chrome ocean goer is remarkably strong. Not to mention breathtakingly beautiful. And without a doubt because it is a wonderfully mysterious creature that inhabits some of the world’s cleanest, coldest, and greatest rivers.

Add it all together and you’ve got an incredible short film to start out a new week of fly fishing.