While fishing a local lake after work, I watched a fin break the surface and circle the foam beetle I was fishing. I gave the rod a slight twitch and the fish propelled out of the water onto my fly, almost ripping the rod out of my hand as he dove for the depths. That is bass fishing and will bring me to the lake for top water action on the fly all summer long.
The majority of bass found on Vancouver Island are smallmouth bass weighing up to 6lbs, but there are also largemouth bass in a couple lakes. You can differentiate between the two species not only by their size and colour, but on the smallmouth, the mouth ends before the eye, whereas on the largemouth it extends past the eye. Smallmouth bass, also known as bronzebacks or smallies, are a member of the Sunfish family and are a scrappy predator that is said to be one of the best fighting fish, pound for pound. Being aggressive, they are quick to take a fly and when the bite is on, you can catch a fish every other cast.
Understanding that the spawning cycle is temperature triggered can help identify what stage is occurring and what fishing techniques should be most effective. During spring, when the water temperature is still cold, the pre-spawning stage begins and feeding is the priority. Fish deep and slow with a nearly motionless retrieve.
May through June on Vancouver Island, the water usually warms up to 10 to 16°C and the bass enter the spawning stage when they protect their nests. At this time, they are highly aggressive, defensive, territorial and will bite just about anything. Year after year, bass migrate to the same spawning locations.
As the water temperature approaches 20°C, the bass enter the post spawning stage and begin feeding again, moving toward the top water.
Once the summer heat brings the water temperature over 21°C, the top water feeding frenzy begins. Poppers create addictive top water action for fly fishermen – to create a popping action with your fly, when stripping the line in, give the line a sharp tug and watch the fly hop on the surface.
I fish a 7 weight fly rod with 3 types of line – floating for surface feeding and top water poppers; intermediate for fishing streamers just below the surface; and a sink tip to get it deep.
Use a heavier leader than if trout fishing – bass don’t run far, but will run you into the entanglement of the bottom if you don’t move them to open water fast.
My top five bass flies include Woolly Buggers, leeches, topwater poppers, foam beetles and Clouser Minnows in red, yellow and black. Although I’ve never tried, I’ve even heard flies as large as tadpoles and frogs are like bass candy. On the West Coast, Clouser Deep Minnows are used primarily for salmon (at least by me), but Bob Clouser originally designed this fly in 1987 for Pennsylvania bass.
Flies should be on the larger side, 2-6” in length, to penetrate the thick cartilage of their mouths. When fishing bass, it helps to keep your rod tip down to minimize slack and maximize hook set leverage when you feel that freight train hammer your fly. Be ready for both entangling dives as well as scrappy jumps – while landing a fish on Elk Lake, a particularly small but feisty bass just about dumped me into the water when it charged out of the water over the bow of my old kayak.
Since bass are ambush predators, look for them hiding behind thick cover and structure. Lily pads, weed beds, woody cover, sunken logs, rock piles, edges/shallows, docks, and thick vegetation are normally where you will find bass. I’ve had the most success casting along weed lines parallel to the shore and over and across rock piles.
Observe the lake for indicators that give away a bass’s location. Cast the fly over the where you think the fish is and retrieve through the ‘fish zone’. The fly needs to be within a foot on the bass to entice a bite, so be accurate and cast close to cover (although not so close you lose your fly). Retrieve slowly to give the bass time to stalk then attack your offering.
Bass become highly aggressive on hot days, biting harder and moving shallower as the summer progresses. The low light conditions of dawn, dusk and overcast days seem to see the most activity.
For the largest smallmouth bass on Vancouver Island, be sure to fish Spider Lake. Shawnigan Lake is another famed bass fishery, hosting the 2005 Shimano Open BC bass championship. In fact, 3 Vancouver Island lakes are featured on World Fishing Network’s list of Top 10 Bass Spots in Western Canada. Other lakes to add to your fish list include Quennell, Holden, Long, Matheson, Langford, Glen, Prospect and Thetis Lakes, as well as St. Mary Lake on Saltspring Island.
Changes to the BC freshwater fishing regulations for 2017-19 have created a new early season fishery by lifting the April 15 to June 15 bass fishing prohibition on Vancouver Island. Also of note is that Ministry of Forests, Lands and National Resource Operations have issued an advisory for larger smallmouth bass on Vancouver Island, stating mercury levels may be above national guidelines.
To learn more about Vancouver Island bass fishing techniques and top locations, check out Island Angler’s Guide to Bass Fishing in BC by Andrew Kolasinski.