Southwest Fly Fishing

By Jene Hughes

Puppeteer Jim Henson of Muppet fame first sang the line in his role as Kermit the Frog, and more than 40 artists—including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Diana Ross—have recorded it: “It’s not that easy bein’ green.”
   For confirmation, just ask any frog in any lake or pond where carnivorous fish dwell. Camouflage helps but works best if you don’t move. Remaining still is aided by having a sticky tongue that you can unfurl to one-third the length of your body and use to snare flying morsels, but as an amphibian you have to stay moist and sooner or later move—thus becoming potential
fish food.
   I’m sure I’m not alone as a fly angler who first fished a frog imitation on conventional tackle. My dad drilled me on casting “plugs” with a hexagonal steel rod and a huge Pflueger reel beautifully engraved with a fishing scene. I mastered clanking my Jitterbug into a coffee can at 30 feet and fished it daily as I whiled away long summers roaming the banks of our sizable farm pond. I expected that with age would come the patience to watch a bobber, but only stalking fish on the surface held my interest. By age 10 I’d converted to fly fishing and abandoned my wobbling, gurgling, frog-imitating Jitterbug. 
   However, once armed with a 9-foot bamboo fly rod, I abandoned frog patterns in favor of little poppers more suitable to bluegills, which provided faster-paced action. As a byproduct of chasing panfish, I still caught plenty of bass, and the long rod made them tenfold more exciting. I realize now, though, that I would have caught even more bass had I used frog imitations.
   When fishing talk turns to frogs, anglers are usually discussing the explosive top-water strikes of bass, especially largemouth, which don’t sip their food but attack it violently. Judging by some of the conventional baits, largemouth are willing to take anything, including the Bill Norman WeedWalker, a flat floating torpedo the size of a mousetrap with a paddlewheel propeller in a slot in the middle. Bass commonly respond to the commotion before actually seeing what they eat.
   Nevertheless, fly fishers shouldn’t ignore the distinctions that define different species of frogs. Membership in the order Anura (frogs and toads) requires being a tailless, carnivorous amphibian. To be a “true frog”— a member of the family Ranidae—a frog should have smooth, moist skin and strong legs, and inhabit wet places. Ponds and lakes are the most common, but slowly moving streams also work. As tadpoles, frogs get gobbled up just as baitfish do, but once their tails disappear they seek refuge ashore or on their signature lily pads, thus avoiding danger.
   In general, anglers need only concern themselves—if at all—with three frog species. As with insects and other fish food, frogs’ similarities far outnumber their differences, so hatch-matching subtlety is wasted.
   Regardless of where you fish, there is probably some type of leopard frog named for and living in your geographic region, either broad (northern) or specific (Ramsey Canyon). Be aware, though, that taxonomists are busily renaming frog species.
   Quite common, too, are bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), the quintessential frog for fictional characters and the recipient of virtually every cartoon
princess’s lips.
   The third common species, the modestly named green frog (Rana clamitans), inhabits the eastern half of the U.S. Like the other frog species—and fish, too, especially trout—green frogs have been introduced to areas far beyond their native territories. And all of them are at least somewhat threatened (population decline began in the 1950s and escalated in the 1970s).
   For angling purposes, my experience is that your choice of a frog fly should be determined more by the structure than by the species. Frogs generally live in shoreline vegetation, a fact anglers have struggled with for many decades. The quest for a truly weedless frog pattern has been heroic but often futile. If you’ve caught bass from the weeds, you know the most effective strategy: miss your target. Aim for that little scalloped indentation in the weed line and proceed to plant your fly firmly atop the nearby growth. To avoid retrieving pounds of weeds, twitch your rod tip to coax your fly into the water—and hang on. When it hits the water, all hell will break loose and you will have a thrashing bass to muscle through the weeds. It’s the still-water equivalent of slamming a hopper onto the surface next to a cutbank or bouncing an attractor off an exposed bolder. Fish are suckers for food falling naturally into the water, and in the case of bass bugs an upside-down tie (hook pointing up) is absolutely helpful. So are soft bodies that envelop and conceal the hook point. 
   I’ve enjoyed the most dramatic hits within a split second of my popper hitting the water. I fish out every cast, of course, but hookups diminish. I score higher by selecting imitations with active legs that simulate the distinctive frog kick better than the feather legs on traditional poppers. Rubber legs in various positions are also effective, and a touch of realism that is significant is matching what the fish actually see: the frog’s belly, which is usually white or yellow (the beautifully crafted topside patterns merely catch anglers).
   Besides common floating patterns, divers are vital in the bass arsenal. That first strip, with its attendant dive and stream of bubbles, can be as effective as hopping a popper from a lily pad.
   As a final observation, I can’t overlook a 2012 New York Times story that reported the discovery—with Yankee Stadium as the center of its range—of a previously unidentified leopard frog. The account noted that at the time the species was yet to be named, so if scholars are still procrastinating I’d like to chime in: it would be a distinct honor to hook a feisty largemouth on a pinstriped version of the frog that by all rights should be dubbed Rana yogiberra—whether it’s bein’ green or not.

 

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