Teaching An Old Bass A New Trick

By Capt. Steve Chaconas

Photo of a fly fishing small bass catch

When I started fishing, around two years old, I didn't care what the wiggle was on the other end of the line. I was a military brat and traveled all over the country and the world. Bluegill, catfish, crappie and other freshwater fish were my targets. I found more fish in the sea: striped bass, bluefish, cod, haddock and anything that would bite. This continued until I discovered bass fishing. For the last 30 years, I've been a bass hound. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and the occasional snakehead were all I targeted. I had become a species, and tackle, snob.

Spinning and baitcasting reels are my weapons of choice. Using the heaviest line with the strongest and largest hooks I could get away with, I winch fish to my high performance Skeeter bass boat, powered by a 250 HP Yamaha outboard. It's a highly physical sport where anglers cast over 1000 times a day with lures weighing an average of an ounce. I had heard about other ways to fish and tried a few of them like ice fishing and saltwater fishing. They were interesting, but bass fishing was what did it for me. Guiding allows me to fish with anglers of varied skill levels and backgrounds. Sharing my passion and knowledge is fulfilling. Some anglers bring spinning reels. Some casting reels. But the dreaded appearance of a fly rod backlashes my mind.

Occasionally a fly fisherman comes aboard for a Potomac River bass trip. With eyebrows raised, I observe with interest as they piece together these 9-foot rods and thread heavy fly line to only tie on a light leader and a very small lure. Then the flailing and of course subsequent failing begins. Casting about 20 or at best 50 feet, they can't hit any strike zone. A spinning or casting outfit can easily, consistently, and effortlessly reach 100 feet. Their tiny fly lures are no match for the big, bad and boisterous bass plugs designed not to imitate but instead to intimidate bass into biting. Needless to say, fly rods are put aside in favor of bass tackle.

After many attempts by fly anglers to get me to cross over, I finally accepted the challenge from one of my friends to try. A trip to the Orvis store and meeting Master Certified Casting Instructor Dan Davala, my education began. They have a different rod for everything. Lots of lines too. Floating, sinking, different weights and tapers, the main line and backing had to be mechanically spooled on the reel with a special winding machine. Tapered leaders tie to the fly line. Tippets tie to the leaders. I use GAMMA fishing lines for bass fishing and was pleased to learn GAMMA specialized in fly lines. A call to fishing line expert Dale Black and appropriate GAMMA Frog Hair leader and tippets were on the way. In January my outfit was all set to handle smallmouth bass.

My fishing buddy, Alan Friedlander set up an Upper James River float trip with Capt. Matt Miles. No Yamaha in this body of water, where the boat bottom skidded over shallow rocks. It was Matt's rowing power. A few tips from him and my casting performed well enough to put the homemade Miles Slider topwater in front of fish. Soon I had a few rises, that's what fly anglers call bites, and finally a hit. Anticipating the hookset, I executed it to perfection and started to strip the line, that's what fly anglers call reeling the fish in. I had my first fish on a fly, but lost him at the net.

Enjoying the casting motion, which was therapeutic for my sore shoulder, I was getting more action and was able to bring in and land several fish, albeit quite clumsily. That too would improve under Matt's advisement. Among the many differences between fly-fishing and conventional methods were speed and quiet. Fly angling is more grace, less brute force. The quiet drift boat allows time to stop to hear the cicadas, the flow of water over shallow rocks and the occasional bird of prey boasting a catch.

While so different, the common angle runs through fly fishing, the geometry of my fishing triangle. The base is casting. Fishing success is dependent on casting distance and accuracy. Next is lure presentation. This was very interesting as the fish were in crystal clear water only inches deep. Well placed casts with the floating bug either produced action in a few seconds or another cast was required. Conventional fishing requires aggravating them into biting. Fly-fishing is choosing a size, color and shape to match what fish are eating. The fly rod allows the delivery of very small unobtrusive and lifelike natural baits, designed to fool the fish.

The first day of the James River trip I gazed at my trusty spinning rod, but never picked up this fishing security blanket. The second day, I never even looked at it. I made fly casts, then better fly-casts, focusing on accuracy and then increasing distance. Hooksets became second nature and stripping line to keep fish hooked felt natural. Through practice, persistence, patience and preparation, I made a well-placed cast under a tree and against a log creating an eddy. A huge smallmouth engulfed the Miles Slider. A solid hookset, controlled stripping and experienced rod work brought a beauty to the net. The culmination of two days watching and listening to Matt and Alan resulted in me hooking and landing a 20.5-inch citation smallmouth bass!

With tens of thousands of fish under my belt since my very first fish, something I don't even remember, it was still very exciting to accept the challenge to try something new and different. Learning and executing to success made this experience memorable. I caught my first fish all over again, but this time, I'll remember it.