As an old sport, fly fishing carries with it many traditions, customs, and ingrained romantic notions that may or may not hold forever true. Fly fishing is not alone—the swaggering pirate on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post long ago traded in the cutlass and brash belt buckle for an AK-47 and an outboard motor. “The times, they are a changin’,” as Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan warned in song.
There are still the holdouts fighting the good fight, smoking pipes and fishing cane rods along mountain trout streams, but the image of who we fly fishers are, what we look like, and what we do is changing rapidly. Apart from television advertisements for brokerage firms and natural male enhancement products, the only time the public sees us is when we are wading in a back-nine water hazard, or lurking near a suburban culvert with a 7-weight and pocket full of bass flies. Some of us may even have dreadlocks, tattoos, and sun gaiters over our faces. Many of today’s fly fishers are too young to know who Norman Rockwell was, or realize that we look more like buccaneers than characters from A River Runs Though It.
The change began when the next generation of kids busing tables at the corner diner in Middle America traded in the pills our parents had us on in exchange for rods and reels. As it turns out, it is okay to be hyperactive and scatter-brained in fly fishing—it’s how we find focus. The change continued when these trout bums got married, got jobs, started making two-legged love trophies, and stopped swearing they’d never move back to the city. Life and responsibility snuck up and rear-naked-choked every spare hour except the two between day-care drop-off and the start of the workday.
Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, having affairs, and binge watching New Zealand fishing DVDs, we now take our fly rods to gravel pits behind auto dealerships, overflow ponds alongside freeways, and municipal ponds, and come into work with a smile, traces of mud on our shoes, and hands smelling slightly fishy. We don’t have to put away happiness, fishing poles, or any of those other childish things. We don’t have to own our own property on a blue-ribbon river to continue living the dream, either.
The writings of John Gierach justifiably glorify the notion of fishing and falling in love with a home water. Gierach has the St. Vrain, and I also fish it regularly and it is cool and quirky and beautiful in all the ways a mountain trout stream should be, but Anyone’s St. Vrain more often than not has a name like Ditch A or is simply known as the place they found that body that one time. There are likely not wild 11-inch browns waiting in a riffle to pounce on a size 14 Adams—instead we revel in warm mud, lily pads, and popping bugs.
Bass are America’s gamefish, after all—just like the Broncos are America’s team (sorry, Dallas). Largemouth and smallmouth bass are plentiful in every one of the Lower 48 states, and both are prone to crushing big topwater flies.
The urban waters near where you live, work—or maybe somewhere conveniently between the two—are not even always named. These should be the first places you look for fish: the municipal parks with ponds and playgrounds. These are the obvious spots, so you will have company on weekends. Every forked wooden stick and empty chicken liver container you see along the manicured banks means there are more fish in freezers, and fewer that will take your fly.
These places are a good start, but soon you’ll feel compelled to get braver and search deeper into the sketchier parts of the city, or farther past the outskirts. Just as there are some of the most real and interesting people living on the poor side of the tracks, there are some of the hardiest and most energetic fish living in the oddest places.
Go in search of unassuming water. Golf course water hazards are favorites of mine, mainly because when you’re on the course, there are several “ponds” to hit in one session. The less high-end the course, the better. It seems like scraggly roughs also mean fewer pesticides and herbicides, more bugs ’n grubs, and healthier fish.
Also, there is the added bonus of finding errant golf balls. It’s almost as much fun as foraging for wild mushrooms, but you shouldn’t eat them. I have never been a golfer, but friends tell me Titleist Pro V1 balls are the real prizes (they’re $4 a ball!) so think of them as the chanterelles of the whack-the-ball-over-yonder-world and stow them in your fishing pack for whoever helped you gain legal access to the course.
Gravel pits filled with water are scattered randomly over the country, and some of them are quite old and now close to housing developments or industrial areas. These gravel pit ponds are often deep and full of life. Forgotten reservoirs and old canals sound unlikely, but depending on where you are searching are not entirely out of the realm of possibility—I have been rewarded by both at one time or another.
Any bass-friendly backwash you can find at the end of a cab ride is welcome. The hard-nosed, “street-smart” largemouth ghetto bass is what you are after, but keep in mind you are really just searching for fishable water, not one fish species in particular . . . bluegills are common, but sometimes there are surprise gems—rock bass, green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, and the occasional slab crappie.
Finding good urban water to fish is often not as simple as strolling into your local fly shop with a six-pack, handing it to one of the feral guides loitering by the coffee pot, and getting the scoop in return. That can work, but what if you don’t live in a place where rod vaults and ski racks are common? What then? You are going to have to sniff out your own spots, that’s what. Using Google maps is the best way to get a spy satellite’s view of the surrounding area.
Use your computer to zoom in on likely-looking suspects and mark them and their access points on your DeLorme printed map book. You will need to send the infantry in at some point, because the “drone view” is just a starting point. Boots on the ground (your boots) are the only way to truly learn the lay of the land and, of course, the water.
When I scout a new area, I scan the satellite images in the evening and spend the next day driving around, putting faces and personalities to anonymous blue spots on paper. If you don’t have an entire day, pop in on one or two of the spots after work. Try to do your exploring in the off season (or at least the slowest part of the year) so you are not wasting precious fishing time. Time and your individual situation may force your hand, but that isn’t all bad, as scouting with a rod in hand can be fun and is often the fastest way to know you have found a winner—however, fishing while scouting can become problematic if you are not sure if the land is public or private.
It sometimes takes time and a bit of sleuthing to figure out who owns a certain parcel of land crammed between an abandoned warehouse and an overgrown baseball diamond, so it is not always good time management to get permission to trespass on every property you circle with a pencil on your map. I am not condoning trespass, but I am not going to judge you, either . . . most of our lives are spent flirting with moral gray areas, and if you have spent more than 14 years as a human being you have already figured that out. Once you have determined the water is private and may hold fish, then do whatever you must to get written permission to be there. Some counties have property records online, but sometimes you have to do more legwork.
The bass and other random collections of fish you find in most of the urban, suburban, and other odd bodies of water left unattended do not tend to be lunkers. Sure, there are the occasional pigs in the rough, or diamonds in the blanket (or however that saying goes), but usually the best you can hope for is a largemouth in the 12- to 14-inch range. The size of the average fish and the scarcity of large fish play important parts in how these waters should be treated and fished. Some spots may contain only one or two good-size bass, so a careful approach can mean the difference between having a chance at metropolitan heroics, or none at all.
Once you have located a spot that seems promising, do your due diligence and properly scout the water. Wade into the pond if need be. Find out exactly how deep the deep end is, or if that really is the deep end. Reading moving water is easy, as the current gives you valuable clues, but stationary water guards it secrets. A fly fisher who has skinny-dipped in a pond knows where the rock piles and submerged logs are. If that pond had a collective consciousness, you’d know what it knows.
Weekday evenings in the spring and summer are the best times to be on these small bodies of water, so the after-work hours fit conveniently. Usually these places are small enough that an hour or two is all you need to cover them properly—more time than that is often wasted anyway. In that time, any fish willing to take a fly should have been landed or spooked.
The nature of the places you will be fishing for two hours or less may not require chest waders, but having a change of pants and a pair of wading boots stashed in the trunk of your car can save a suit and good shoes. If you are a lawyer, I am sure neither your clients nor the judge would appreciate strands of drying milfoil trailing the heel of either of your Guccis. If you have spent your entire workday shoveling concrete into the hopper of a curb machine and arguing with mixer drivers (as I have in the past), then you shouldn’t worry too much about the change of clothes—those yellow rubber overshoes probably could use a cleaning, anyway.
A stiff, 9-foot, 6- or 7-weight fly rod with a floating line is all the gear you need, and if a 5-weight is the heaviest you have, it will have to work. Lighter trout rods can work just fine for bass and bream, so long as you take your rod weight into consideration when tying or buying your flies. Smaller and lighter flies are easier to cast on a light rod, but those are the types of flies best suited for this exploratory, pseudo-ambiguous style of fly fishing anyway.
It is hard to know what you are going to stumble into on any given evening, even if you have fished a particular place a handful of times and feel you are getting to know it. It’s like playing poker with that drunk uncle who may have been to prison, or at least disappeared for a spell back in the early ’90s: You don’t really know what to expect. The best flies to have in the glove compartment are not big bass flies. You are searching for whatever is lurking, and in most cases the fish are not huge. The flies should represent the usual food sources found in the waters you will be fishing—small frogs, worms, crayfish, and baitfish are all typical fare.
The four flies I tie and always have available are the Booby Frog (a weedless, semi-topwater frog with large foam eyes that rides hook point up); the Finesse Worm (a 3½-inch attractor worm made by furring and trimming a loaded dubbing loop); the Ball Peen Craw (a small, suggestive crayfish imitation with a row of four black beadchain eyes across the head); and an old favorite I have been using since I was a kid, the Krystowski Minnow (a baitfish pattern tied using Icelandic sheep hair and painted lead eyes). Ghetto bass seem to love them all.
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