Think fly angling is just for trout? Think again.
The classic fly fishing scene that usually comes to people’s mind is a big wily trout slurping up bushy little insect imitations looped onto the surface of a cold rushing stream or chilly mountain lake.
But despite the Caney Fork’s prime reputation as a superior Southern trout fishery, it isn’t particularly known for its dry fly action.
Opportunities for casting topwater bugs to surface-feeding rainbows, browns and brook trout do arise from time to time, mostly in the middle and lower portions of the river. But consistently hooking up with fish of substantial size and numbers likely requires focusing your attention on subsurface presentations deep into the swirling tailwater currents.
So what’s an angler gotta do to pick a big splashing fight on a floating fly around here? The answer: Go bassin’.
The Center Hill Lake region is brimming with possibilities for bagging behemoth bass species specimens: largemouth, smallmouth, spots and stripers. And all are prone to savage attacks on the surface under the right circumstances.
Topwater bass action tends to be best when the weather’s warm — not too hot or too cold. As bass move shallower in late summer and early fall they often can’t resist what looks like an easy bite of live nourishment twitching on the surface.
One of the keys to fly fishing for trout is “matching the hatch.” That generally means casting adult insects or aquatic larvae that imitate what fish are zeroed in on at a particular time and place on the water. For persnickety trout, even when they are actively feeding on the surface, that can be tricky, complicated and frustrating.
When bass are in a dining mood, however, they’re usually less discerning.
If you see schools of shad skipping across the surface — or bigger fish splashing or sipping on top — there’s a good chance you can entice a bass in the neighborhood to snap at a simulated baitfish, bug or frog offering.
A floating minnow pattern or buoyant popper of similar color and size to running shad will likely elicit a hardy yank on your line.
But bass don’t limit themselves to aquatic creatures. Tasty-looking terrestrial imitations will put big fish in the boat, too. If their attention is focused upwards, bass are often tempted by anything that convincingly resembles a toothsome taste of protein.
“For all of my warm-water guides, a mouse pattern is always a great topwater pattern for both largemouth and smallmouth,” said Jim Mauries, who runs Fly South in Nashville. “Whether you are fishing a farm pond or larger lake or stream, as long as you have a grassy bank, a mouse is probably going to be really, really good.”
The mouse patterns anglers are tying these days “look like they’re going to crawl off the table,” Mauries said. To an opportunistic predator like a bulky bucketmouth or bronzeback, that means fresh meat.
Mauries grew up fishing in Colorado, but he’s been guiding trips, selling gear and offering fly casting instruction for 20 years in Tennessee. In addition to beginners, he loves to lure both savvy traditional rod-and-reel fishermen and trout junkies into taking up fly angling for bass.
“The conventional guys a lot of times don’t think you can catch bass with a fly rod — or they don’t think it is an effective tool, which is inaccurate,” said Mauries. “Then you have trout snobs who don’t want to chase bass. To them, a fly rod is just for trout.”
Both groups tend to reevaluate their outlook after wrestling a thrashing warm-water bruiser to capitulation on a fly rod, he said.
James Johnsey is another area guide who moved to Tennessee from out West and now lives to fly fishing for all the Volunteer State’s game fish species.
In addition to stalking big trout and smallmouth, Johnsey is keen on targeting the brutish striped bass that meander up the Caney Fork from the Cumberland River.
“If you get into one of those wolf packs of stripers, it doesn’t really matter what you are going to throw. If you get it near them, they are going to eat it,” he said. “We were catching them up to 40 pounds last year. That’s pretty insane on a fly rod.”
Like Mauries, Johnsey delights in introducing experienced fisherman to the art of fly angling.
“It’s pretty rewarding for somebody who’s had some success on conventional tackle, and understands how to catch fish, to then catch some on a fly rod,” said Johnsey, who spent two decades guiding in Montana and Wyoming before moving back to Tennessee, where he grew up.
“All of our big freshwater species live here,” said Johnsey, whose Fairview-based business is called Tennessee on the Fly. “In one week, I might fish for three different species. It is nice to break it up like that — it certainly keeps it fun.”
And Tennessee fly fishing is “blowing up” right now, which Johnsey said is largely due to people discovering that there’s more to it than just trout angling.
Mauries concurs. And Tennessee’s species diversity ought to, in the future, make it more of a destination fishery than it has already become, he said.
“I think that if you live in Middle Tennessee — or in Tennessee in general — and you limit yourself to one species of fish, then you’re an idiot,” Mauries said. “There are times of year when you have wonderful topwater bite for largemouth, and unbelievable small stream or big river fishing for smallmouth. There is great trout fishing. There is world-class striper fishing here. There are five different species of carp you can catch — and gar and muskie.”
“The nice thing around here is that throughout the year there is always something you can chase with a fly rod,” he said. “That’s our advantage.”