Whitlock’s Teachings on Nymphing for Bass

Whether popping topwater flies on a summer evening, or stripping bushy streamers through a deep hole, many fly anglers who target bass do so with a very active style of retrieve. There is something satisfying about pitching a big streamer into the water and stripping it back in. This style of fishing is engaging and fun. However, on some occasions, it may behoove the warmwater long rodder to put away the streamers and dust off some of the nymph boxes that are usually reserved for trout.

The Grubsteak is an original fly pattern that is intended to mimic larger aquatic insects like dragonfly nymphs.
Photo by Robert H. McConnell

In 1985, Dave Whitlock wrote a piece for Fly Fisherman magazine titled, “Nymphing for Bass.” In the article, Whitlock describes hooking into some of his largest bass by using nymphs. The methods Whitlock describes in the article are straightforward, and will sound familiar to most trout fishermen.

In flowing current, Whitlock uses a long leader and strike indicator. He casts into riffles or swift currents upstream, and lets the fly sink down through the water column as it gets carried along with the water. When the strike indicator starts to twitch, he knows a fish took the nymph.

In stillwater scenarios, Whitlock talks about fishing the nymph next to weed beds, log jams, rock piles, or ledges. He fishes the nymph on the drop, but will also slowly strip the fly with short 3- to 6-inch darts.

In the article, Whitlock suggests that some educated bass are wary of streamers and they won’t chase down an actively retrieved baitfish imitation. However, these same bass will be interested in a nymph that is presented slowly, in a non-threatening manner.

To add credence to Whitlock’s point on slow retrieves, A.D. Livingston offers similar sentiments in his book, Bass on the Fly. Livingston says that working a fly too aggressively can turn fish away. When fishing in flowing water, Livingston writes:, “The current itself imparts movement to the lure as a whole as well as to the feathers and hair. So use the current to your advantage instead of fighting it.”

The Grubsteak is an original fly pattern that is intended to mimic larger aquatic insects like dragonfly nymphs.
Photo by Robert H. McConnell

This past summer, I put both Whitlock’s and Livingston’s teachings to the test. I rigged a hopper-dropper setup with an original fly pattern called the Grubsteak for the dropper. The Grubsteak is intended to mimic a dragonfly or damselfly nymph. This setup fished extremely well on the creeks of the Pineywoods, as well as some of Houston’s urban waterways. As Whitlock and Livingston suggested, I let the current do all the work and allowed the fly to drift slowly downstream. The local largemouth bass and spotted bass were eager to eat the Grubsteak as it came drifting by.
The only adjustment that I made to Whitlock’s article was that I used a hopper-dropper rig, compared to the nymph-rig equipped with a strike indicator. The hopper was responsible for enticing a couple more fish when they took the topwater fly instead of going for the nymph.

Fishing a nymph for bass isn’t something that comes to mind for many bass-crazy long rodders. However, the next time you’re out on the water, instead of reaching for the streamer box, tie on a nymph instead. You may find that it’s just the trick for fooling bass.

The video below shows the fly tying recipe for the Grubsteak nymph. Enjoy!

Robert McConnell

Robert McConnell

Robert H. McConnell was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. It was in the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains where he developed an affinity for fishing and the outdoors. At college, Robert pursued a degree in geology, which was one of the only classes that offered frequent field trips to the great outdoors. After graduating, Robert began a career in the oil and gas industry, which brought him to the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. He began fly fishing in earnest after discovering the joys of hiking into remote freestone streams in pursuit of native brook trout. Spring and summer weekends were spent exploring the vast network of streams and rivers along the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania. In 2014, Robert and his wife, Ellen, moved from their home in rural Pennsylvania to the bustling city of Houston, Texas, the “Energy Capital of the World,” where they reside today. Robert continues his passion for fly fishing, but instead of chasing native brook trout, he now pursues the multitude of warmwater fish species that live in the surrounding waterways of Houston, Texas. Robert especially enjoys exploring the more remote waterways, including those found in the Pineywoods of East Texas. "Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas" will be in fly shops and wherever fine books are sold on February 7, 2023.

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