Great Old Warmwater Patterns
Old Fly Rod Lures

Fly Rod Lures Rediscovering Our Warmwater Roots

By Jack Ellis

While the concept of vying an artificial fly with fur and feathers onto a steel hook is clearly of Old World origin, fly rodding for largemouth bass was, until recent years. an indigenous, uniquely American pastime. The first warmwater fly was tied not by a country squire in the hills of Devonshire, but more likely by a fugitive slave hiding among the Seminoles deep in the Everglades. When the naturalist, William Bartram, traveled through Florida in the late eighteenth century, he found native Americans and runaway Africans tying and fishing a crude fly that they called a "bob." Simply constructed with bits of red garter and white bucktail, the bob continued to take bass well into the twentieth century. That kind of functional pragmatism would characterize warmwater fly fishing until the "yuppiazation" of the sport two centuries later.

Bass fishing and fly fishing were not separate avocations to former generations of anglers, who unabashedly switched back and forth from the casting rod as conditions demanded. The fly rod was not a symbol of social status, nor was there any stigma attached to bait casting tackle. They were simply alternative tools for the same purpose. Today's rigid polarization didn't develop until the early 1970's, when a deep schism developed between bass and fly fishers. Whatever the causes - the invention of the spinning reel, the building of the big impoundments, tournament fishing - warmwater anglers fled to the casting rod in droves, leaving American fly fishing exclusively in the hands of northern trout fishers. When the Federation of Fly Fishers was formed in 1968, bass bugging was, for all practical purposes, a dead sport, and a stated goal of that fledgling organization was to encourage a renaissance of warmwater angling. But fly fishers continued to distance themselves from bass fishing, purifying and sterilizing warmwater fly fishing by encumbering it with all sorts of arcane trappings and trouting traditions.

This exodus of warmwater anglers led to a demographic restructuring of American angling along cultural and socioeconomic lines, and by the late 1970 the reorganization was complete. The Whitlock revolution of the early eighties failed to reinvigorate the fly rod among bass fishers, but did succeed in making the homely sport more acceptable to what had become a very elitist fly fishing community. The old pragmatism, represented by anglers like Torn Nixon and Tom McNally, was rejected. The use of miniature plugs, pork rind, spinners and soft plastic lures oil a fly line was no longer acceptable. This confinement of warmwater fly fishing within such parameters virtually ensured that the hoped-for renaissance would not happen. Due to a number of factors, including the feeding behavior of the species, fly fishing for bass became a form of angling asceticism, appealing only to a few ideologically-driven purists, myself included, who chose to ignore the fact that the lake-dwelling largemouth is vulnerable to surface techniques only for brief periods during certain seasons. When bass refused topwater offerings, my attempts at deep fly fishing normally yielded only ridicule from my bass fishing counterparts. The new refinements were simply unproductive for bottom-grubbing, lethargic, basking or non-feeding bass - which is the normal state of affairs on public lakes.

The warmwater philosophy of earlier fly rodders, respected trout fishers like Ray Bergman and Joe Brooks, was viewed as a quaint aberration from a different era. Bergman erected a philosophical wall between insect feeding trout and panfish on the one hand and bass on the other. It wasn't unusual for him to cast tiny dries to Catskill browns with a split cane rod one week, and chunk a strip of pork rind on the casting rod to Florida largemouth the next. And he did not hesitate to cast any sort of lure that his fly line would carry. As he said in his 1942 classic on bass fishing:

"Although I am a trout angler and have all the dry fly fisherman's prejudices, I forget them all when fishing for bass."

I didn't know about Bergman's wall when I started fly fishing in warmwaters in 1980 after twenty- five years of trout fishing. Dave Whitlock spoke my language. His artistically sculpted imitations of real food forms were aesthetically pleasing and permitted me to bass fish with my fly rod without compromising my coldwater principles.

I did not speak Tom Nixon's language. A contemporary of Whitlock, Nixon talked about spinner baits dressed with surveyor's tape and plastic worms, which he cast on a cheap glass rod with a foot cut off the tip to make it stiffer. I emulated Dave Whitlock instead, who cast only real flies, with tight, crisp loops on the finest graphite rod. I didn't realize at the time that Tom represented the mainstream of American warmwater angling, while Dave advocated a revolutionary new approach.

Tom Nixon's tactics seemed crude, corny and out of style. I rejected him out of hand. But after years of frustration and mediocre results, I grew weary of fly fishing martyrdom; weary of fighting awkward sinking lines and unproductive flies; weary of catching fish only at dusk and dawn. Most of all, I grew weary of putting ideology over pragmatism. I decided I wanted to catch some bass for a change. The time had come to learn Tom's language.

The second edition of his FLY TYING AND FLY FISHING FOR BASS AND PANFISH appeared in 1977, right at the beginning of the Whitlock Revolution and, although Dave himself acknowledged Nixon's contribution, the book was generally ignored by the fly fishing community at large. It sat on my shelf unread for a decade, until I rediscovered it last year. Learning to apply Tom's techniques has changed my fly fishing life. Fishing spinner baits, jigs and especially soft plastic lures on a fly line has produced results that are best described as awesome. The ridicule of my casting rod friends has turned to respect for the fly rod. Thanks to Tom Nixon, l am regularly outfishing them on their own waters



The article first appeared in Jack Ellis's monthly newletter, Refections on the Pond. The newletter is not in publication any more. The reprint of this article was granted by the publisher.

Jack Ellis lives in East Texas on the shore of a secluded private lake. Jack has published two books: The Sunfishes A Fly Fishing Jouney of Discovery (A must for any warm water fly fisher) and Bassin' with a Fly Rod.