I came to the shocking reality of the largest winter in California recorded history in February of 2023: Most of the places I love to fly fish in the Sierra Nevada will not fish well (because of runoff) until August or later this year. And some of those places just will not be accessible at all this year because the roads are destroyed (or will become destroyed when the big runoff comes in June). I know my way around a trout stream. I have been fly fishing for trout for decades. So, in the beginning of 2023 the writing was on the wall: I would not be able to do my annual springtime fly fishing trips for trout in the Sierra Nevada and I’d be lucky to do any fly fishing in the Sierras by August. If I wanted to fly fish I would have to find alternatives.
So, I made it my quest to learn as much as possible about freshwater fly fishing for Bass with popper flies. In the fly-fishing club that I serve as president, The San Diego Fly Fishers Club, we have quite a few experts at “the bass thing”. And we have many lakes in and around San Diego County that support healthy populations of largemouths, smallmouths and many other fresh water fish species willing to take a fly. I have caught plenty of freshwater bass in my time. I have fished for bass on top plenty of times successfully with Huck Hoppers. But, I had heard these legends of popper fly fishing and was intrigued.
So, with a ton of internet research, reading books and magazines, and many discussions with the experts I had access to, I learned as much as I could. Then I put what I learned into practice on 6 fishing days over 3 different lakes during the months of April and May, 2023. This is my account of that journey from February to May of 2023.
I have an obsessive personality. I’m not obsessive/compulsive where obsession ruins the rest of my life. But, when I set out to learn something…. Well, let’s just say I don’t half-ass it.
The first component I got obsessed about was building, painting and tying popper flies. We use them religiously for the dorado in baja. But, when talking to the experts like Jim Brown (long time San Diego City Lakes Manager and godfather of fly fishing for bass in san diego), he mentioned that fishing with popper flies is the ultimate in fun when fly fishing for bass. It’s pretty obvious why: you fish on top like a dry fly and the bass rise to the popper. The thing that is different from trout, I was told, is that “Some of the takes on top are viscous”. So, I made a little visit to the man-cave of my friend and expert John Ashley. He showed me the popper flies he made, painted and tied. I was shocked. He showed me his Copic Airbrushing system. Well, $100 later with a small compressor then turned into ~$200 in supplies. I was worried because I have very little artistic talent. I’m an engineer by trade. And there is very little guidance on the painting part of popper flies on the interweb. but, through some practice I managed to paint some trout and frog popper flies. They looked pretty good, I must admit. Which made me worried that they wouldn’t work.
With the popper flies I had made and the knowledge I’d gained from the experts I headed out for 6 fishing days spread over 4 weeks with some confidence. I had success. But, I was humbled during many points. Here is a short chronicle of my adventures:
April 21-23: Squaw Lake
Every year the San Diego Fly Fishers Club does a weekend of camping at Squaw Lake. Because of calendar conflicts… and because it’s right in the heart of spring trout fishing in the sierras (in every year but this one), I had never got the choice to join. I really had no idea what or where this place was until after I decided to join in and go. After staring at google maps I could see that it was part of the Colorado river system right on the California side of the border with Arizona (the river being the border). But, I had no idea what I was in for.
On the guidance of my fellow club members, I did the dawn patrol thing so I could get there early and secure a decent campsite. So, I was in the water in my kayak by 10am. I was fishing alone. The first thing I noticed was the current. It really is part of the Colorado river and a float tube would be almost impossible except for close to the camp. I fished a popper for a good couple hours before I gave up. I failed to fool anything to come up to the top of the water column. I fished what looked like really good water with tons of vegetation on the banks. So, I switched to a medium sink like and more traditional clouser like patterns and started catching fish. in the main channel while drifting under current and doing a very fast retrieve I caught a striper. They pull like crazy but don’t jump like a largemouth does. I caught a few largemouths here and there but, I wouldn’t call the fishing crazy good. There were long periods without takes. It was during one of those long periods I noticed what looked like an entrance to a protected lagoon. I stared at Gaia maps on my phone and sure enough it was a 100 by 100 yard lagoon behind brush. You’d couldn’t see through to it by looking. But, there was a tiny entrance protected by weeds underneath and brush on both sides. I made a run for it and made it through. And that is when it got nuts. I was fishing water that didn’t see a lot of flies, if any, and was killing. Really I should have switch back to the popper. I could kick myself now for not doing that. But, I was having so much fun raling largies I didn’t. after an exhausting day of fishing I got back to camp and John Ashley, my bass fishing mentor and friend was there. he said, “I know the lagoon you are talking about. Just wait until tomorrow.” Little did I know at the time.
“if you are up for it, tomorrow we’ll go to Imperial Reservoir.”, John said. I shot back, “we have to load our kayaks and drive somewhere?” “Oh no, my friend, we’ll do a jungle boat cruise against the current to get there.” Well, that mile long physical adventure of a journey turned out to be an epic day. I am pretty sure I landed over 25 and lost just as many. I caught a ton of largemouths including a couple stripers. But, my favorite part was when, in a small lagoon I found john and switched to a popper fly to fish with him. He watched me and immediately said something like, “What in the hell are you doing? No no no. that’s all wrong.” In all the guidance and discussions I had about popper fishing for bass I somehow failed to glean the most important information: how to strip back the fly. I was stripping it back fast like you fish for dorado in the open ocean. In freshwater bass fishing you cast the popper fly as close to the bank as possible. Then you let it sit for a painfully long amount of time before jerky slow strips. But, it was the end of day 2 and I still hadn’t caught a bass on a popper fly.
What a special oasis in the desert this place is. But, I have to wait until the winter to get back there. Understand you can’t just go out there to Squaw Lake any time of the year. It gets hotter than hell out there. It’s a winter and early spring fishery.
May 5-6: Lake Mead
When a business trip to Las Vegas for the startup I’m working with appeared on the calendar, I reached out to the las vegas fly fishing club for guidance on how to fish lake mead. What I got in return from Kris, member of the board at the Las Vegas Fly fishing club was incredible help. Especially on where to camp and fish. It’s faster for me to drive to Las Vegas than fly so I threw my float tube in the back of my truck and did another dawn patrol drive.
It took a small section of legit 4WD but when I got to the lake, I literally parked 5 feet from the shore in an oasis of coves of crystal clear water and had the entire place to myself; not a sole for miles in any direction.
This time armed with one of Jim Brown’s Fenwick fiberglass rods from the 70s, I tied a popper on and attacked… for hours without a strike before switching to a sinking line again convinced I’d never catch a largemouth on a popper fly. Discouraged, I was mentally ready to get skunked. But, with a medium sink line and a shad looking clouser I hooked up, battled and released a nice sized striper. “It took 3 hours, but I finally caught a fish.” is what I txtd my wife, Kelly. I caught a couple more fish over the next hour or two. There were smallmouths. Cool. But it was slow and I still had not seen a largemouth let alone a shad boil.
It was the end of the day so I peddled (My Hobie Lynx is a peddle driven kayak) back to camp, made myself a cocktail, cooked a steak and listened to my beloved Padres get whacked by the Dodgers.
“Today is a new day.” I told myself at sunrise. And I had until 3pm when I’d pack up camp, drive to the strip and clean up at Caesers before the software launch party I was to attend that night. As I staggered out of the bed in my truck, I noticed another truck about 200 feet away. I was not alone. After making myself a cup of coffee I spotted the guy. He was a gear fisherman and he started early. I walked over to where he could see me and shouted hi. Well, soon enough he wander into my camp and we chatted a bit about the fishing. He was a nice guy for sure. I didn’t learn anything though because he was a gear fisherman. For the next 20 minutes while I scrambled to get ready to fish myself he literally fished right in front of my truck. But, he didn’t catch anything. Hmmm…
By the time I got into my kayak to fish it was close to 8am. for the next couple hours it was slow. I caught a smallmouth and that was fun. My goal was to fish the shoreline and all its coves going north for at least 2 miles. Then it happened. I caught a smallmouth that barfed up a shad as I was pulling him in to release him. But, the shad was tiny. Like 1 ½” tiny. I was fishing shad patterns that were over 3”… over 2 times the size of the naturals. So, I scoured my fly boxes for a smaller shad pattern and found a small streamer in white that would have to suffice. It did. I started killing. And I was pleased because I figured it out. It took me like 6 hours of fishing to figure it out. But, I did. It got so good that in the process of unkinking my medium sink like I hooked into a big fish with the fly just sitting there skimming the bottom. After a significant battle it turned out to be a big catfish. In that final 2-3 hours I caught about a dozen fish. half of them smallmouth and half of them stripers. There were no largemouth to be found and I still hadn’t caught a fish on popper flies.
May 10 & 12: Barrett Lake
Barrett Lake in San Diego county is world famous. It is a very special place. It has been covered in fishing magazines and television shows for years. It’s so special that when reservations / tickets go on sale for Barrett each year, it has to be done on Ticketmaster. Jim Brown told me that many years ago, the late 70s I believe, when they decided to hand over the ticketing season for Barrett over to Ticketmaster it was the first time Ticketmaster collapsed because of scale. Realize, at the time Ticketmaster had already successfully handled tickets for the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra tours. So, now you fly fishers can relate to the young folks you recently saw crying in social media because Ticketmaster collapsed for the 2023 Taylor Swift tour.
Lake Barrett is restricted to catch and release, single hook, barbless fishing; rare for a bass lake. It also is one of the many reasons the fishing is so good there. Its season is just 3 days per week (Wed, Sat & Sun) for 4 months starting in May. Tickets are released monthly on a controlled basis and the access is limited to a small restricted amount of anglers on those days.
I have been lucky to have fished Lake Barrett for the last 3 years. and I have had a lot of success there thanks to guidance given to me from Kim Jones, who I call, the “Queen of Barrett”. But, I had never popper fished there. and I had always fished in a float tube which basically limited me to about a mile from the dock.
Well, the SDFF club has the rare pleasure of renting Lake Barrett for a single day of exclusive use each year from the city of San Diego. It costs a bunch of money and hassle in terms of permitting and insurance and such. But, we know what a special thing it is for our members, so it is worth all the expense and hassle.
Back to Ticketmaster. I had the day/time of the go on sale for Barrett for months on my calendar. I got myself logged in on Ticketmaster at least 10 minutes in advance saying to myself, “This is the year I get to fish on opening day.” I seemed to be sitting in some form of electronic queue. By the time it was my time to purchase the first 4 dates were already sold out. sigh. Just like every year I bought the first available. Now I was pissed because the day I picked, Wednesday, May 10 was just 2 days before the Friday date that the SDFF club had the lake. I figured I’d give the tickets away until I said to myself, “what the hell. Even though it’s a huge drive there and back I’ll fish it a couple days before and provide that intel to the rest of the club who would fish it a couple days later”.
I talked to Jim Brown the day before my first shot of the season at Barrett and he said, “If I were you I’d fish poppers all day.” So, even though I had still yet to catch a largemouth on a popper fly I resigned myself to that plan. And yea, I was worried.
It was early like you are supposed to be and I headed out on my kayak. I had already lost my fishing buddy (jim Casteluzzo who I treated to the day) because he got in the water a good 20 minutes ahead of me. So, alone I attacked the western side of the lake in a northern direction towards Pine Creek. As previously mentioned, I have fished barrett before, but never in a kayak (which has a much larger range than a float tube). And I still hadn’t caught a fish on a popper fly. So, my mission was to explore places in the lake I had never seen before. And catch a barrett largemouth on a popper.
Well, I fired one of the rainbow trout poppers I made for the first 20 minutes with nothing. I said to myself, “I know the fish are here. I know I can catch them with a medium sink line.” I didn’t think you could be too early in bass fishing. I was carrying two rods so I switched and immediately caught a huge black crappie and then a largemouth. So, I grabbed the popper rod again with resolute. Within minutes I had my first largie on a popper! I was stoked. Within two hours I had lost count of how many takes I had. At one point I was all by myself laughing, all by myself, and saying out loud, “It can’t get any more fun than this.” At the end of the day I figured I had landed over 25 on popper flies and lost easily that many to my lack of bass fighting skills and barbless hooks.
My favorite moment was a big largemouth that struck my popper fly on the way up on a jump….and jumped clear out of the water with the popper. I set on him in the air. You can do that with bass. That would cause calamity with a trout. Well, it was close to 4pm now and I was txting back and forth with my buddy Kim Jones asking her how late I could stay on the lake. But, the reality was my over 60 year old body was killing me from all the fights with fish. I could barely cast my arm hurt so badly. So, I called it a day… a very good day and peddled it back to huktruk for the battle on the 5 north home.
Well, I had intel alright. And that word spread throughout the club. 2 days later I decided I’d try the Hauser arm of the lake because I had not been there either. Since I had so much success 2 days prior I also decided I’d be in no rush and be happy with whatever happened. But, it seemed like the entire other 50 fly fishers went down the Pine creek arm…. Seemingly armed with my fishing report of a 2 days prior. I basically had the entire hauser arm to myself. I marvelled at the calm water and the nature all around me. I caught a lot of fish. but, I wasn’t as “agro” about it like a couple days prior. I probably caught half as many as the couple days prior. At one point I chased a huge largemouth chasing a bait ball of shad for over an hour. It was futile. By the time I got to where he struck, him and the bait ball were 100 yards away. I fished a popper fly all day. And was really happy about it.
I have this saying. I bet I have said it a thousand times: “Nothing fights like a Trout.” I know I said it about the Corvina of Baja in the article I wrote here.
As it turns out, fly fishing for bass can be just as strategic as it is for trout. And I learned the hard way that “matching the hatch” when it comes to fly fishing for bass, is just as important as it in in trout fishing. It’s just not about bugs; it’s about figuring out what they are eating and matching the size and color. Just like in trout fishing you have to observe, adapt and overcome. I liked that part of bass fishing a lot. I also found myself loving fishing on top for largemouths as much as I love drifting a dry fly down a river.