Most anglers go a lifetime without catching a bass over eight pounds. Performing the feat on a fly rod with a popper is a triumph reserved for a handful.
Not that the long rod can't handle such fish; nor do bass of these proportions need such Brobdingnagian meals that they can't be imitated with a castable fly. The difficulty really boils down to finding a place with enough eight-pound-plus bigmouths and water shallow enough that they'll come up and whack a fraudulent cork tidbit oxugging across the surface. t
Search no further.
Sprawled across the extreme southeastern corner of Virginia, weed-choked Back Bay is a fly rodder's dream incarnate. Chances of landing an eight-pound or better largemouth on a fly are probably greater here than on any other lake in the country.
There are 25,473 thin, weed-clogged acres here, brimful of muscular bass. The biggest largemouth caught in Back Bay in 1978 weighed 11 1/2 pounds. In 1979 a 10-pound, 9-ouncer topped the recordbooks. Already this year an 11-pound, 13-ounce specimen has been pulled in.
Eight-pounders are more common in Back Bay than in any other lake or river in Virginia -- even counting such nationally famous waters as Kerr, Gaston and Anna. Sixty-four largemouths over this minimum "citation" size were pulled from Back Bay in 1978; last year an incredible 174 bass over eight pounds were caught in the lake.
What's most intriguing about Back Bay, though, is not so much the size of its bass alone as the fact that these enormous fish live in such shallow water. Virginia's portion of the huge brackish sound that North Carolinians call Currituck, Back Bay has an average depth of 2 1/2 to three feet; maximum depth in the lake is eight feet.
As any astutue bass-bugger will see, this puts virtually every largemouth in the lake within earshot of the "ker-plug" of a chugging surface popper. And with as many eight-to 12-pounders as there are swimming in Back Bay, it's inevitable that some of these brutes are going to fall for the fly-rodder's topwater offerings.
And they do, John Crockett fished Back Bay last spring and pulled in an 8-pound, 13-ounce bass on a popper. The next day he returned to the lake and latched onto a 9-pound, 3-ounce fish on a fly.
Rare on most waters in the country, such catches barely raise an eyebrow on Back Bay. Surface-plug tossers using bait-casting and spinning gear also score heavily on such outsize fish, since virtually all angling is done in depths of one to six feet, where bass can easily home in on topwater offerings.
Mitchell Norman, supervisor fish biologist for Virginia, says, "I've never been associated with a fishery as successful as Back Bay in a long fish-management career." In 1978, Back Bay anglers harvested just shy of 40 tons of largemouths. The fish averaged a husky 1 3/4 pounds.
Many factors contribute to Back Bay's fecundity as a largemouth fisher. A 230-day frost-free growing season helps; weeds offer cover for young bass, forage fish and the big largemouths themselves; foods such as frogs, mud minnows, threadfin shad, bream, gizzard shad, menhaden, needlefish, shrimp and blueback herring are abundant. And finally, life-giving transfusions of sea-strength saltwater from the Atlantic are pumped into the bay at the rate of 800,000 to 1 million gallons a day. This keeps the lake's salinity level between 10 and 15 percent, which maintains clarity, improves fish growth and nurtures weeds that stabilize the lake's bottom.
Though fishing on Back Bay can be good from spring through fall, catch records show that May and June are among the best times to fool a bass that you'd want to hang on the wall. The bass are completing their spawning at this time and gorging themselves while water temperatures remain in the optimum feeding range.
But April wasn't exactly a sleeper, either. The Virgina Bass Fishermen Association held its tournament here on April 26, and contestant Jim Freeman, of Chesapeake, latched onto an 11-pound, 13-ounce bass on a gold Johnson spoon with a chartreuse trailer.
In many waters a single fish of that size would win the entire tournament. Not on Back Bay. The winning catch of eight bass for the one-day event weighed 24 pounds, 7 ounces, averaging better than three pounds per fish. Two fishermen, Lloyd Marks and Rich Martin, tied at that figure. Poor Freeman didn't even place in the top eight finishers, in spite of his extraordinary catch.
Spinnerbaits and Johnson spoons with curly-tails were used by the tournament fishermen, and these are telling baits on Back Bay's weed-infested waters. It's the topwater potentail of this huge lake that's most alluring to fishermen after sport, however.
But sport in this case does not mean light tackle and prolonged fights. Weeds are so thick that even the run-of-the-mill three-pounders in here can make mincemeat of eight-pound test line by wrapping the fragile nylon around beds of milfoil, redhead, widgeon and celery grass.
Sonny Gregory, who has guided fishermen on Back Bay for over 36 years, says 17-pound line should be the minimum. Some anglers even go to 20- or 25-pound test. The reason is that when you hook a nine- or ten-pound bass in here, the fish can't be played out in traditional fashion. He'll burrow in the weeds and shake free in seconds if you allow any headway. The bass must be pumped in hard and fought on top of the weeds if success is to be the fisher's and not the fish's.
If this sounds like poor sport, wait till you try it -- wrestling alligators is the closest comparison that comes to mind.
Jitterbugs, Devil's Horses and Hula Poppers are all good surface lures. Work them forcefully, with a vigorous twitching of the rod tip. Drive the hooks home with all the strength you can muster when a bass smashes into them. Gentility is not a redeeming quality of Back Bay's bass sport; rough-and-tumble action is.
Fly fishermen should also work their silver and white skipping bugs, black poppers and cork frog imitations with a loud, chugging action that will draw big fish up and out of the weeds on the attack. The leverage of the long rod and direct control of the line with the stripping hand makes this tackle quite capable of whipping big bass.
And there are plenty of them in Back Bay.