Denis Peirce: Float-n-fly for winter bass
January 10, 2019
We are experiencing the coldest water of the year in our lakes. Lake Oroville is 49 degrees and Shasta is 51 degrees. Some years they have dropped below these temps but I suspect we are seeing the lows of the season. I do not look for a rise in temperature until next month at the earliest.
In these conditions the fish are lethargic and the food chain is in slow motion. The key for bass anglers this time of year is a sloowww presentation. The fish are still in the lakes and they do feed, but they are looking for an easy meal rather than aggressively chasing down a school of bait fish.
I have heard it said that there is nothing new under the sun, just new approaches to previous ideas. The winter time bass fishing rage for the last few years has been the float-n-fly technique. It has its roots in the crappie angler's fishing a jig under a bobber. It has been updated and the "fly" is much more sophisticated with today's tying materials than the jigs of previous years.
A couple of years ago the first January bass tournament of the year on Lake Shasta was won by anglers fishing the float-n-fly style. After that the search was on for newer and better flies to outdo the competition. Bass anglers approached Tom Page at the Reel Anglers Fly Shop to see what he had or could come up with. The fly industry was producing a fly for trout called a balance leech which is fished like a jig. Tom began to look around and found a new hook style and tied what he calls his Stand Out Minnow.
New ideas do not form in a vacuum. In this same time frame fly fishing guides were looking for new waters to fish when the rivers were not fishing well for trout. The Sierra Foothill lakes were a local alternative to rivers. The bass populations were healthy and included some big fish. The guides experimented with various rigs and developed an adaptation of the float-n-fly for fly tackle and have been very successful. Both Tom Page and the guides that work through his shop have been taking an increasing number of their clients bassing on Lake Oroville, Collins Lake and Bullards Bar.
A common scenario for cold weather bass fishing is to fish a steeply sloping bank. The fly is often suspended with a float, a dozen feet below the surface. The object is to hang the fly a foot or two off the bottom. If there is a bit of a wind chop on the surface, this will make the fly dance without pulling it out over very deep water. It represents a bait fish paused just off the bottom in a very vulnerable position.
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Tom Page has been guiding at Bullards Bar this way. He says that commonly the bass can be 20 to 30 feet down and he has seen them on his fish finder slowly swim up to the fly, then his float on the surface will move indicating the fly has been eaten. That is when you set the hook.
It is the stationary bait fish that is seemingly unaware, that the bass can't resist. Under the right conditions Tom has had 30 to 40 fish days with his clients on Bullards.
Tom has a number of rules for successfully fishing bass in the winter. The float-n-fly has produced more bass on rocky banks than on clay or sandy bottoms. If you can locate incoming streams, no matter how small, the fish will be close by. This technique is visual and you need water clear enough for the bass to see the fly. Recently at Bullards the water close to the dam has had much better clarity than the water in the Dark Day area where Willow Creek flows in. The recent rains may change the water visibility.
Another positive factor for winter bass fishing is the rising lake levels. Typically the lake levels bottom out about Thanksgiving. This year the levels continued to drop until Dec. 10. The rising level comes with inflows that bring food. Also a month from now the water temps will begin to rise ever so slowly.
The second half of this month is predicted to be drier, with some good fishing weather. There are very few other boats on our lakes in the winter and it is a great place to spend a day and catch some bass.
If you want to know more about these flies and how to fish them drop by The Reel Anglers Fly Shop, 760 South Auburn Street in Grass Valley, 530-477-5397.
Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union's Outdoors section and is host of "The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report," which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at http://www.trollingflies.com.