Big Water, Bigger Fish, and What I done this Summer

After several decades of piscatorial success, it’s difficult to realize the only certainty is you can catch some fish with regularity, some are the result of good fortune, luck, or happenstance, and the balance can be explained by throwing a Big Mac and hook in front of a lot of foot traffic.

… it’s likely to be stepped on quickly,  scorned by those that have eaten recently, yet eventually consumed by some unfortunate that is either too desperate or in too much of hurry to care much about the marks left by other’s soles …

That notion haunts my summer, as I recognize I’ve veered onto the path less traveled, and found myself  in the deep end treading water.

My first failing was realizing that trout have occupied a place of great prominence because of their surroundings and the stunning mountainous areas they can be found. As a foe, they are largely predictable –and are are weakened due to a steady influx of federally funded variations that are less wary, climatic conditions that are less conducive to their survival, and the crush of forces present in the wildland-urban interface.

My second failing was thinking that the skills I’d spent so many decades accumulating while fly fishing for trout – would serve me in good stead when fishing in less pristine environments … some of those hard won skills transferred nicely,  many did not.

The science is the same, the reasoning and deduction, the mechanics of casting, the understanding of flora and fauna and their lifecycles are unchanged, but the physics of tackle, water, and how the quarry makes use of terrain and cover all have to be rethought. Most importantly, how to overcome the adversity of large bodies of deep water and their ever-present wind. How to get flies within visual range of an ambush predator …versus throwing exacting imitations at fish that move from safety into the open to feed on the same set of insects at the same time each evening.

Pure Heresy for most trout fishermen, but for those of us that delight in suffering unimaginable tortures, big open water is an area fly fishing has never dallied with  – and with good reason. Our tackle and its physical limitations, our unspoken preferences, and the genteelness of our pastime are ill suited to this environment.

Fly Tackle and its limitations

The weaknesses of fly tackle are well known.  Long limber rods that are magnificent at preserving fine tippets and reducing shock, but cannot punch an 8 inch long, soaked rabbit streamer into  even the slightest breeze. Wet marabou or fur strips combined with lead wire and heavy beads, strung on a heavy gauge 2/0 or 3/0 hook, and even experienced casters begin to blanch in the face of a breeze …

Sink rate is abysmal with fly tackle. The large diameter fly lines sink at a different rate than the monofilament tippet and heavy fly, and with each element of backing, line, leader, tippet, and fly, strange shapes are introduced between rod tip and hook point that add slack. Hook sets have to be exaggerated to move all that sunken line into a straight line capable of pushing a large hook through lip gristle.

Large open water has its own weather system, and an airless morning is promise of a stiff breeze in the afternoon. Casting physics means even the heaviest leader cannot sustain the weight of the large streamers and bulky poppers, and all casts (except those downwind) collapse at the transition from fly line to leader. Big wind resistant poppers work against the caster – as the properties that ensure they float – also guarantees their instability in flight. Big and bulky, guaranteed to puddle leader and prey to every gust of wind – rarely landing much beyond the fly line tip.

Terrestrial anglers are forced to fish in the direction that blows the fly line away from the body, as neither rod nor leader can control the instability of  a large fly buffeted by a stiff breeze. After a few encounters between large hooks driven through larger arse cheeks,  self preservation overcomes one’s lust of fish flesh.

Worse is that none of fly fishing’s quiver of tools can reliably determine depth, the kind and type of bottom substrate, nor cover enough water to prospect a large body of water with thoroughness. Fly anglers rely on a combination of bankside detritus and visual inference to surmise what they’re fishing over, and deep water isn’t always predictable given its opacity, the varied weed types, grasses, and sunken objects that may be present.

Not knowing what you’re fishing over also means you don’t know when to return there during periods of receding water. Disabled shopping carts and old Christmas trees are potential eyesores, but they provide surface area for weed growth and hiding places for minnows and other food, which draw in the big fish to linger.

Snobbery and the Proper Tool for the Proper Job

For large bodies of water the deck is already stacked in favor of the fish, so why handicap yourself by insisting on fly fishing purism? Big open water is perfect for fly anglers, but only after you know enough about the environment and your quarry to make the intersection of fish and fly tackle optimal.

Last year I spent the summer “drop shotting” the western side of Lake Berryessa, from the dam to the Pope Creek arm.  “Drop Shot” fishing is simply constructing a leader containing one large shot and one 4.5” plastic worm, and walking that bait back to you once flung into the lake.

Each time that large split shot touched bottom it told me how deep the water was at the spot. Since most of my time was spent on the points and contours, I quickly learned where the deep water was versus the shallow flats.

My visual inspection of bank and substrate entering the water was enough to clue as to whether the bottom might be sandy or rocky, but adding the drop shot data told me how deep it was and whether there were underwater timbers, weed beds, or rocky boulders and ledges.

What was down below I snagged – and often. When I recovered the tackle it would have weeds from weed beds, or simply break off when snagged on timber. Watching the line pay out while chanting, “one thousand, two thousand, three …” gave me an approximation of depth, and if I caught fish it taught me what was down there, and occasionally by inference, why.

Fly fishing is not part of a triathlon for good reason. All of the rigmarole associated with line management and wading means fly fishing is a slow process for scouting big water. Throwing weighted lures and big plastic top water baits isn’t affected as much by wind,  and an angler can cover a couple of miles of shoreline with an easy gait, where a fly caster has to constantly pause and strip out or reel in all those coils of line necessary to cast and retrieve.

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As a bonus to the data that different types of tackle provide, you’ll catch plenty of large fish, which is the hidden pot of gold of big lakes, they contain much bigger fish than small ponds or streams, and contain more of them as well. Where you catch them is as important as any other data element, given you’re looking to repeat that process with some consistency. Certain depths, or time of day, similar types of cover, anything that patterns where the big fish hold is essential to attempting to find them in other parts of the lake.

The outflow of Lake Berryessa is Putah Creek, which is the closest trout stream to San Francisco and the Bay Area. As such it has both New Zealand Mud Snails and is constantly pounded by an enormous contingent of fly fishing enthusiasts. None of which attempt the lake proper, and I’ve yet to see another fly fisherman plying the bank. I suspect it’s the big water as the source of their trepidation, given how many are wading only several hundred yards distant, yet none have ventured into the lake itself.

Bass aren’t like Trout, they’re moody, aggressive, and stubborn, sometimes all at once

We’ve all heard that Cutthroat’s are “stupid” and by comparison, Rainbow’s and Brown trout are finicky – yet all trout species share a great deal of similarities in their feeding behavior and survival instincts.

Bass species share some traits as well, but each species has unique traits that must be learned  to catch them consistently. In the comparison, we might think bass overly aggressive when contrasted with trout, but the real difference is their infuriating ability to be moody, finicky, sullen, and shy – sometimes all at the same time.

I’ve seen enough bass behavior to be humbled routinely, and have rethought everything I’ve heard about bass, given my experiences in the last couple of years.

Lake Berryessa contains three species of bass and two species of “mule”.  Spotted Bass, Largemouth Bass, and Smallmouth Bass  inhabit the lake, as well as two mule variants of Spotted Largemouth, and Spotted Smallmouth. Each mule resulting from the interbreeding of two of the three species.

Purebred bass can spawn again, but the mule bass cannot reproduce.

Bass decide not to eat and in the blink of an eye the entire lake appears barren. The infuriating part is they do this whenever you decide to go fishing, or when a storm front makes the barometer quiver, or when the Standard station up the highway runs out of Doctor Pepper. Understanding the psyche of this beast is likely to drive the rational angler to drink – and it’s a matter of enduring their fits of pique, versus truly understanding them.

Spotted Bass move around more than the other species, and can be present and absent within minutes. Smallmouth love rocky bottoms and rock outcroppings, and largemouth seem to be comfortable everywhere, except where you’re fishing.

The food chain is different, and you need to own big and blustery

While bass have access to many of the insects that trout covet, and it’s likely they dine on bugs when small, once they get larger their tastes run to fish, frogs, other bass, sunfish, small dogs, and unwary children. Bugs simply don’t provide enough protein to keep a large bass fed.

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Fish like this don’t eat bugs, they eat 6 inch plugs fished noisily, with much commotion

With baitfish being the food staple, suddenly our traditional caddis, midge, mayfly, repertoire is largely useless as we’re pressed into learning threadfin shad behavior, bait balls, and where minnows sleep at night.

Structure and vegetation offer cover for small fish, but so does the muddy water churned off the sandy points by boat wakes, and the milky water resulting from the swells breaking when pushed by wind.

Big bass behave similarly to Stripers or similar ocean predator. They try to gather and bunch minnows against natural structure like bays and points, and then stuff themselves before the ball squeezes past them into open water.  Bait fleeing a big predator are visible as  minnows leap into the air, making the chase as visible as a rising trout.

The amount of surface commotion caused by baits is important. Big deer hair poppers get waterlogged, and chug through the water with less and less disturbance. Sinking flies are heavy as lead due to a combination of weighting, size, and waterlogged materials. Traditional bass flies leave a bit to be desired, as the size ranges they’re available in are too small. Custom ties are needed for big water, and closed cell foam, wine corks, or anything that keeps its noise level is preferred to the hair flies.

There’s little question that noisy flies that burble and pop are among the most consistent producers. The issue is their delivery and the understanding that large fish are often in shallow water based on the prey and their lifecycle.

A Summer of frustration and data gathering

Most of this summer has been spent learning all the details associated with successful bass fishermen, and watching them use conventional tackle designed for big water and bigger fish. The result has been a lot of frustration, a lot of perspiration, and great deal of fun.

Having spent a lot of my youth casting 3/8 ounce and 5/8 ounce plugs at the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club (under the watchful eyes of Jon Ray), I’m finally getting to hone those accuracy skills  in anger – versus GGACC’s static plastic targets.

Certainly the scorched hillsides are less scenic than piney woods,  but they’re only a quarter tank distant, therefore cheaper, there’s a lot more of it, it’s less than an hour away, and I rarely see another angler, all things not found in the Pristine upper elevations.

Summation of a misspent summer:

Developing the tool suite to harvest environmental data is the first requirement of open water.

Knowing the foibles, weaknesses, and strong suites of  your quarry is the second requirement of open water.

Knowing where the fish are and why they’re there is the third rule of open water.

Insects are not a factor, learn minnow behavior and observe them in the quiet coves to learn their swimming motion, their feeding preferences, and where the hide (when you throw a pebble).

Don’t use a screwdriver to hammer nails. Adapt and incorporate fly fishing only in those areas where it’s able to perform optimally is the culmination of the all the above, and the desired end game for us aficionados.

9 thoughts on “Big Water, Bigger Fish, and What I done this Summer”

  1. Your tolerance for making things difficult is . . . amazing. Flyfishing for bass in a large reservoir is akin to running a marathon in diving fins. Why? It’s difficult enough as is. And you want to make it even harder. Some folks need ever-increasing degrees of challenge, I guess. Once you’ve run a marathon, what’s next. Fins! I’ve stood athwart bait fishers and lure fishers in trout streams and, at times, out-fished them by ridiculous margins. This is one of only two circumstances that come to mind where a person handicapped with a fly rod can feel smug. Maybe bluegills on the bed being the other. But bass in a reservoir? Come on, man.

  2. I personally don’t enjoy large reservoirs at all.
    however I’ve fished them here and in texas from the shore and from canoes.

    i’ll only comment on the efficiency of prospecting with a fly rod. first of all you really don’t need to throw the equivalent of 6-8 inch baits.

    if you want to be sacrilegious just use a light wire hook and a plastic worm, you will soon find fish.

    I typically use a 7 or 8 weight rod, a floating line, a straight 12 pound leader about 6-8 feet long. most often I use a minimalist bonefish fly tied on a size 6 eagle claw l042. my favorite fly is just a size 12 and catches bass up to 5 and 6 pounds every season (for here that is big). I strip out as much line as I think I need and cast as a walk. get a strike, stop and prospect some more, find a spot that should hold bass cast a couple extra times.

    you can cover a lot of water relatively fast by not screwing around false casting or worrying about delicate presentations. roll casts will account for about 70% of my casting.

    anyway that’s what I do.

    have fun!

  3. I always like learning more about my favorite sport, regardless of the suffering involved. What makes this so much fun (for me) is that I see a glimmer of intersection between big water, big fish, and fly tackle – and once it’s documented it’ll take much of the fear away from the practice.

    Like ocean fly fishing, the scale and open water changes dramatically – but the fish in the ocean eat flies with as much gusto as lures and bait, and all that’s needed is a couple SOB’s that ain’t scared of blanking for the foreseeable future.

    Who’s with me? (silence) …

  4. But almost all saltwater flyfishing is done visually – – casting to feeding fish or fish that have been sighted. Fly fishing for bass in a large lake (without the benefit side-scanning sonar, GPS positioning, and lord knows what else) is an act of faith, pure and simple.

  5. I really I love this post. I’ve been following your blog for a while now due to your attention to the “unloved and pedestrian” . I learned to fly fish as a kid in Kansas where the water usually fits that description. I don’t think I would have caught as many fish on flies if not for the knowledge gained by spin fishing for them. Large reservoirs are the hardest place to find fish, but coves, points, and creek mouths were always good bets especially if there was flooded timber nearby.

    I had the opposite problem as you. I had to learn how to translate my warm, dirty water tactics into something that would catch trout and Steelhead upon moving west of the Cascades some years back. It’s great to be well rounded, and I admire that you chose such a hard fishery to learn about when it isn’t your only option.

  6. I’d love to be a martyr – but the truth is California is still very much in the grip of a drought. As such most of the small waters in the state have dried up and blown away … including all the close by creeks I’ve been writing about.

    What few fish survive in the few deep spots are the brood stock to repopulate fishery, so I leave them alone.

    I think I’m pretty close to being able to reliably get fish from the reservoir with a fly rod. I’ll be testing that this weekend. I have fish behavior that is conducive to topwater flies, which puts fly tackle on an almost even keel with spinning gear (only the casting ease and distance gained is different) … All I need is to invent the poppers that will cast better into a stiff breeze to solve that last bit of the puzzle. I’m working with closed cell foam – as the shape and colors don’t matter.

    August isn’t “top water” time – so if I can produce the fish now, it will work all year (I’m hoping). Misery does love company, glad I’m not alone in this torture …

  7. Bass are way more difficult than trout, to my mind. Add that to big water, and it is a real challenge. In a stream the fish can’t go anywhere so you know you are getting the fly in front of them, most streams are not sufficiently rich that the fish can be picky eaters.

    In my local reservoir which has sm bass, I have managed to figure out a few patterns for spring and early summer. Summer and fall are mostly skunks, fish are deep and I can’t find them. LM bass are always mostly skunks. I have read about days when the bass are aggressive takers, but never yet seen a day like that in my forty-five years of fishing for them. Interesting that burbling noisy poppers work best on your waters, on all my local waters these are roundly ignored.

    Walleye are possible on the fly for a couple of weeks in spring and reputedly also in fall, though I have not managed to get a fall walleye yet. Me and the skunk, we get along just fine.

    The problem with big water is the same as with saltwater – with all that water, most of it is empty, most of the time. Usually I come home from a big-water skunk with the sneaking feeling that I might as well have been soaking flies in the bathtub, for all the fish that saw them. The consequences of this are that it’s impossible to be a successful casual big-water fisher. It needs large investments of money – for the boat, depthfinder, gas money for outboards, guides etc – and time, to figure out where and when the water will actually be holding fish.

    In twenty years of blundering around the local waters with a canoe, I’ve identified good places for three months of the year, mostly early and late in the year when the fish are shallower. Once they are down deep for the summer it’s a problem that I haven’t been able to solve with a cheap depthfinder, GPS, maps, and experience. That is, the many experiences of not catching anything.. ha.

  8. Great comments.

    What I’m attempting to leverage is a wind-based phenomenon. The side of the point (or lake) the surf is pounding on gets milky with sediment, and the bait fish use the discolored water for cover (observed, not guessing). Plenty of big bass (all species) move into the area due to the presence of the bait.

    The junction between the discolored water and the clean water is the “structure” that all the fish are eyeballing. Fish are stacked up looking for bait to come into view, and a minnow imitation (either dry or wet) is a good bet.

    Right now the floating poppers are the lightest way to deliver the cast (into the teeth of the wind), so I’m using those versus the heavier weighted rabbit or marabou monstrosities.

    Because of the wave chop and discoloration the bass are emboldened to slam anything, so I’m looking to leverage that with the right fly combination.

    This doesn’t occur in the morning as the lake is quiet. It’s an afternoon phenomena that lasts until the wind dies at dusk. That’s a good 3-4 hour fishing period each day that can be leveraged (hopefully consistently).

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