DUSK FALLS PURPLE as the electric whirring of golf carts begins to fade, each note individually consumed as the carts disappear into a distant barn. The barn itself is aglow with fluorescents as steam hisses into the descending darkness, product of the course staff’s efforts to scour away the day’s mud and clippings. The lawnmowers are parked as the sprinklers kick on, whoosh-whoosh-click-click-click-clicking mindlessly into the night. Dragonflies as large as house sparrows swish low over the ponds, and the lily pads slowly quake with some subaqueous creature’s passing.
Now is the time.
They say every poacher knows his pool, but few would think to look for poachers here, amongst the flags and fairways. That’s right: on a golf course. The great American bourgeois pastime has dotted every community with vast tracts of clean, unspoiled parkland—mere lawns to those who don’t know the game. Even for the uninitiated, the opportunities for largemouth bass fishing should be obvious. Every golf course requires water hazards (if for no other reason than to provide a source of free water during droughts), and those hazards are the unintended repositories of nutrients, prey species, and most importantly, unmolested habitat. On courses all over the country, those ponds are quite literally chock full of bass, some of them absurdly large.
The problem, of course, is access. Golfers don’t take kindly to anyone impeding the field of play, and to the uninitiated, where that field of play may be is not always clear. It is one of life’s little heroic coincidences, then, that the best time to fish golf courses is the time when it’s most convenient anyway: at night. As a rule, nighttime access can be had in one of three ways: you can join the club, you can join the staff, or you can sneak on. The first will cost you money, the second your self-esteem, while the third may only cost a night in jail. I chose the worst option: I joined the staff.
As a club staff member, it was part of my duties to patrol the course during parties and tournaments, assuring our churchgoing membership that no clandestine activities (ranging from unauthorized golf and fishing to the things more usually accomplished in hourly-rate hotel rooms) were pursued. This was a bit like you tasking your neighbor’s pyromaniac teenager to make sure no one sets off the fireworks before the party can move outside. My fellow wardens and I perfected the art of “pond-sampling,” until the practice became so routine the managers were forced to authorize a fait accompli. Apparently some of the more fishing-oriented members could no longer stand their inability to take part, and memberships were placed at stake. Thus was revealed one of golf course fishing’s dirtiest little secrets. Golf courses don’t actually care if you fish their ponds; it is the inconvenience they despise.
Accessing a golf course for fishing, then, is as simple as making the management regard you as a harmless object. For those without the dedication or the lack of responsibility to sign up for a meager weekly check, I recommend beginning with membership, despite the cost. Nothing greases a course manager’s conscience (with his salary tied to new sales) like the thought of you signing his little book. And, on the balance, the “rod fee” is decidedly low. Anywhere from 100 to 200 bucks a month will buy you some of the best bass fishing you can expect to find anywhere—far better than most reservoirs—all while saving the cost of watercraft and providing the wife and kids a place to swim, socialize and, if desired, even play a little golf. Make the fishing an explicit part of your bargain with management, and, if possible, add a small clause to your contract guaranteeing your right to peruse the ponds for the hour after sundown each night. Most courses won’t close the gates until the last cart is washed (a nighttime task), while you can often find spaces between the final few parties in which to fish as the hour of sundown approaches.
Once you have secured access, the amusement park opens for business. Bass fishing on a golf course is not complicated. Borrow or rent a cart and begin “playing the course,” moving from hazard to hazard, spending a few minutes at each (eventually you will determine which ponds are worth the most effort). Typical tackle ranges from a 5- to an 8-weight rod and an appropriate reel, but the rod need not be any particular action and the reel doesn’t necessarily need to have been manufactured in the last half century. Floating lines are the rule, as are weedless flies. Everything else is very much anything-goes. After full sundown, I prefer to fish large, black Dahlberg Divers with a slow, chug-a-lug popping action and a long rest after the splat. If the sun is still setting, chartreuse and white Clouser Minnows stripped off (or along) banks and smaller, white poppers are the rule. My preferences, however, are rarely hard-and-fast; bass in ponds like these live in an ultra-competitive, limited environment. They may indeed grow large, but this is due to a lack of predation and competition. If a food source flits through their field of view, their first goal is to run it down and kill it dead.
With those general principles in mind, your most rapid path to success will hinge on your ability to pick the best ponds in the quickest succession. Skip over shallow, sterile, weedless hazards, or those with an overabundance of dye (some troglodytic greenskeepers have an unavowed but passionate fondness for the opaque teal Love Canal look). Instead, focus your efforts on ponds too deep to see the bottom, colder ponds or those with a healthy stand of lily pads (but open water around the fringes). The ideal water hazard is one with a cold spring feeding it, deep and long, with lily pads at the warm end and steep cut banks with reeds along both sides. In one such pond (lining the left-hand side of the short fairway on the par three Number Eight of my former employer’s course), I saw a nine-pound bass brought to hand no fewer than three times in one season by Vince, our most nearly redeemed greenskeeper.
As dark is falling and players are leaving the course, feel free to motor your cart right to the edge of the water (but keep in mind that disobeying cartpath-only or 90-degree rules will get you thrown off). After all, golf course fishing, like golf course golfing, is meant to be a relaxed past-time, best enjoyed with friends and cold adult beverages.
One unusual factor that becomes all-important in nighttime fishing is the presence of ambient light. Frequently, golf courses will erect small street lights near the fringes of the course (to assist in apprehending those who might sneak on.) These lights are bug-attractors, perpetuating the halflight of dusk and providing hunting environments for dragonflies. Bass will congregate at the lit end of any hazard in the vicinity, picking up damsel(flies) in distress, hatching mayflies or the unwary night dragon. Bass will also orient around mid-pond structure, such as aerating fountains, and many of those are lit as well. Never pass up the chance to plumb the rich, oxygenated depths of one of these aquatic oases.
If neither light nor fountain is in the cards, step back to Plan B and begin working the edges of any structure that offers. Lily pads are notorious bass houses, and few bass can stand the sight of a freshly-clipped Dahlberg Diver undulating just out of reach. Bass, in many ways, are like cats: they are capable of sitting tensed for inordinate periods of time, but once identified, few prey sources are allowed to leave unchecked. For this reason, I make it a practice to always leave my fly where it lands for minutes (whole minutes!) after I plop it down in a likely spot. More times than not, my
patience is rewarded. After all, just because I am not twitching the fly doesn’t mean it isn’t moving, enticing—all those little hackles are there for a reason.
The one unavoidable factor in golf course bass fishing is golfers. Golfers are some of the most unmitigated obsessionists the world has ever seen. Wives around the club don’t laugh about being “golf widows” and eye the pool boy for no good reason. Golfers will play through hail, they will play through snow and they will certainly play through a little darkness. Even when you can no longer see to tie on a fly, you may need to know some of the rules of golf course etiquette. Here’s a primer (seen through the eyes of a former arbiter of those rules):
Any foreign object within the field of play is more than fair game: it’s a target. This includes you. Few things excite the imaginations of golfers more than live firing at their fellow men, particularly when these men are clearly illiterate sods incapable of understanding that golfers must always play through anglers. Thus, if you are on a water hazard, and a golfer assumes his stance at the tee, you must waive him through. This typically involves the following exchange:
“Y’all fishing down there?” the golfer will ask.
“Yup,” you’ll say.
“Fly fishin’?” will return the golfer.
“Yup,” you’ll say.
“Tell you what, how bout y’all just play through,” you’ll suggest, with a false smile, as you reel up, noting the full moon. If you’re smart, you’ll also add: “I’m just wasting my time with this fly rod anyway,” and you’ll accept the golfer’s suggestions that you get a real rod and reel with polite attention.
In the summer months, nighttime seems to come amazingly late, and the hour of sundown can stretch out to two or even three. In this period, the concerns of the war at home may well prevent you from pursuing your newfound golf course passion with the attention it truly deserves. When you can’t avoid the preceding exchange (repeated three times an hour) before 10:00 p.m., it may be time to turn to other alternatives. This is where the decorative water emplacement comes in. Most courses choose to augment the natural beauty of their driving ranges, putting greens and entryways with functionally useless ponds. These false hazards can prove especially fecund, since they are more rarely mowed and frequently unplumbed by other night-time anglers.
Let’s be serious. No one goes fishing to mess around with bream-sized dinks, no matter how many beers might be consumed between alleged fights. Bass fishermen are after the Big One, the wall-mounter, the Sowbelly, whether on a golf course or in a reservoir. Chances are, that big one is probably in there, if you know how to look. Start with your overall course selection. New golf courses (those under a decade old) are unlikely to have provided the stable growing conditions necessary to feed and nurture a bass big enough to draw a crowd in the Wal-Mart parking lot. They may likewise have spent their early years a tad short on funds, unable to water the fairways with city water in drought years and therefore likely to drain hazard after hazard keeping the course alive. Therefore, you should choose from your region’s older clubs (which, alas, may also be more expensive.) Don’t go so upscale that you begin to get into the sculptured-hazard, PGA-tour category however; bass are a ramshackle, down-at-heel species, and they don’t take kindly to concrete banks with beautifying rock walls.
Once on a fully mature course, consider your options. The biggest bass are likely to live in the deepest pools, those most able to provide both excellent stalking grounds and a secure hiding place. You may catch your fewest fish in the one pool with the biggest bass, for the obvious reason that an apex predator like the one you want on your line will have Hoovered up the rest of the competition. Therefore, trust your judgment, not necessarily your results.
Big bass are a lot less likely to come to the surface seeking a small meal. They make their living lurking low, eating large, fast prey such as frogs and smaller, slow prey such as damselfly larvae. The big bass search is the one reason you may want to abandon floating lines. In a hazard with 20 feet of depth, a Type-III shooting head with an intermediate running line would not be out of the question. Keep the fly’s action in mind: Dahlberg Divers invert the usual jigging motion, since they float up after each pull, while Clouser Minnows behave much like traditional hair jigs, and will tend to grab the bottom. Stay further back from the banks than usual; golf courses are manufactured on layers of sand and sod, which are frequently wetted and can be an uncommonly good vibration conductor. Finally, give the big fish the time she deserves: if you see a suspicious wake or hear something being killed atop a distant lily pad, stick with the pool and make return trips.
One of the best times to target a pond that harbors big bass is after a grass cutting. Small ponds are especially prone to develop rafts of clippings, forming an awning over one end of the pool, luring big fish up to the near-surface zone. Use a sinking fly on a floating line (like a Clouser Minnow), but be sure to have a new knotless leader and a knotless line-to-leader connection. You want the line to slice through the floating grass, not drag it down like a host of pennants.
Golf course bass fishing is one of the most appealing methods of fly fishing I am aware of. Whether it’s the relative simplicity of the fishing environment, with few snags and clean surfaces, or the coolers of beer and the chuckles of friends in the dark, few pursuits offer more immediate happiness. And, if the land of milk and honey remains closed to you, no fishing challenge offers more excitement than that clandestine, ancient rite of passage: sneaking on and poaching your way between pools of light and roaming wardens. Whether you choose the easy-going country club route or the Escape from Alcatraz, bassing at night on a golf course is sure to hang with you, as few fly fishing opportunities so close to home can.