The silver dollar-size bluegill fins in place at the gravel fringe. Although its eye stares like that of a doll, its body quivers with a lively spark. It breaks its vigil and braves the sandy bowl, but finds only blackness and thrashing as the huge nest-guarding largemouth inhales.
Usually, this would have meant a quick death for the bluegill and a satisfying kill for the bass. Only problem is, this particular 'gill is more epoxy and hair than fish, and it is tied on bass pro Frank Scalish's drop-shot rig.
The drop-shot bluegill fly idea came to Scalish after observing bass when his conventional bedfishing presentations flopped. "I saw a bass just watch my lizards and tubes without striking, but then a little bluegill swam through the bed and the fish just smoked it" he says.
Combining his knowledge as a fly angler and fly tier with his out-of-the-box tournament bass tactics, he set to work creating a fly pattern to mimic every nuance of these nest raiders. What evolved is sure to make bass angling gospel.
After experimenting with materials and designs, he settled on an ultra-realistic pattern (see page 50).
Appearance is only part of the fly's power. Rather than just fall to bottom or flip on its side and flutter down, it actually "swims" down into the bed on controlled slack, remaining upright, just like a real bluegill. The vertically flattened body and epoxy head even cause it to dip nose-down as it glides, giving the impression of a nest robber ready to gorge on eggs. Meanwhile, water movement makes its lightweight materials ripple with life.
The design lends itself to a simply elegant presentation. Scalish positions his boat a short cast from a bed and, using a medium to medium-heavy baitcasting outfit spooled with 20-pound fluoro, flips the rig so the sinker lands on the far edge of the bed.
He treats the first cast as a reconnaissance mission. "More than anything, it should determine where the second cast needs to go," he says. "You have to find out where in that bed is going to trip the fish's trigger-that magical location that's going to make the bass come unglued. Every bed has one."
On taut line, the fly sits just off the bed's fringe. Scalish holds it there momentarily, then lowers his rodtip to give controlled slack, swimming the fly into the danger zone.
"Watch the bass," he says. "When it's interested-or more often irritated-the dorsal goes up and the pectorals start moving. It'll also tip sideways and watch the fly as if trying to see what it's going to do. When a fish does that, it's so catchable, it's not even funny."
If the guarding bass doesn't respond to the initial raid, Scalish lifts his rodtip enough to tighten the line, but not move the weight, which backs up the fly to its original bedside position. He repeats the process as many times as necessary, shifting his position and rod angle slightly each time to hit every spot in the bed. Scalish sweetens the deal by shaking the rodtip-it oscillates the fly's fibers, particularly the Angel Hair Flash, creating the illusion of a real 'gill fanning its fins.
The plus is that you can do all of this by making just one or two flips (depending on the bed's size), and that means you spook fewer fish.
When the bass shows the telltale reaction, you've hit pay dirt. Assuming the bass doesn't strike immediately, mentally mark the exact sweet spot, including its distance off bottom, and retrieve the rig for a knock-out-punch adjustment.
"The key to the presentation is finding the right distance between the fly and the weight," Scalish says. "I'll usually leave a long tag end at the weight because I'll adjust it so much based on what bass want."
Shift the weight as needed to keep the fly as close to the kill zone as possible, and it won't be long before the bass pounds it.
When it does, Scalish isn't shy about hooksets. "Because of the difference in lure and hook type, you have to set hooks with more oomph than with a normal drop-shot rig. Crack 'em like you would when fishing a plastic worm."
Although he starts with short casts, Scalish stays prepared to back off and make longer casts if he's busting fish. "Bass will dictate how long your casts need to be-they'll tell you everything you need to know if you watch them."
On the other hand, he says that pushing the personal space limits of bedding fish can actually help maximize this presentation. In other words, if you bust a bedded fish, the chances of catching it probably weren't great anyway. By passing up those fish then coming back to them later, targeting aggressive fish in the meantime, you'll catch more fish in the long haul.
"If a fish spooks off the bed but returns five minutes later, you can probably catch it later that same day. If it takes 20 minutes or more to return, then you probably want to wait till at least the next day."
Not The Only Way To Fly
Although Scalish quickly admits his drop-shot fly isn't going to make conventional drop-shot baits or other bedfishing presentations obsolete, it is sometimes extremely effective and serves as one of his most important springtime bass tools.
"It gives you one more option when everything else fails," he says. "Besides, it's just so cool. The fly looks so much like a real bluegill in the water and it's fun to watch bass respond to it."
He says the fly and rig are primarily a spawning presentation, but he knows they can sometimes unlock fish in any season. In fact, he caught a bass on the rig while being photographed for this article.
Apparently, he is his own strongest skeptic, because some of the privileged few who have seen the fly in action are already touting it as the next best thing in drop-shotting.
"I was fishing with a Japanese amateur during an event and he asked what I was using besides soft plastics on my drop-shot rigs, because plastics have been banned on many waters over there. I showed him the bluegill fly and he went ballistic-not because of bedfishing, but just as a new twist on drop-shotting."
And fresh angles like this are the things with which NAFC members start fishing revolutions!