Extending your long-distance dry fly drift, or: When not to mend.

I don’t usually double dip my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) and Currentseams posts, but I thought this one was worthy of a more in-depth discussion. It’s a video of a smallmouth blowing up on a dead-drifted Wiggly about 70 feet across the river:

Now that you’ve seen it, let’s get to what appears to be a problem. One sharp-eyed viewer made a trenchant comment: “Mend!” He noticed the long downstream belly in the line. It’s a fair point in the abstract, but it doesn’t address the situation or the presention in its entirety.

Let’s begin with conditions. We have very low, clear, slow moving water. That usually means spooky fish. Now, smallmouth are not known as picky eaters, but the longer you fish for them, the more you discover that they can be as difficult to entice as the world’s most finicky trout. I was fishing a Wiggly, which, if you’re a Wiggly purist, is supposed to be presented on a dead drift. Any angler-induced motion should include the legs only. That’s a daunting proposition, especially at 70 feet. It doesn’t mean that the fish won’t hit a waking or stripped Wiggly. It just means that you’re only going to get hits from aggressive, willing-to-chase bass. And sometimes, that eliminates the bigger fish.

Now let’s talk distance and tackle. 70 feet away is a challenging length to dead drift a dry fly. The 5-weight I’m using, although 10 feet long, isn’t enough stick to make a 70-foot mend with an 8-weight, weight forward long taper line. I could, of course, lengthen the leader if I was concerned about moving the fly on the mend. But that’s a moot point if you can’t make that mend in the first place.

So, how did I handle this situation? I began by determining where I wanted the fly to have the longest period of dead drift. I aimed my cast about 10 feet above that point. I made an aerial upstream mend, then a hard, full upstream mend with as much line as I could manage. The fly moved a bit, but that didn’t concern me — I was simply setting it up for where I thought the strike zone would be, well downstream. (I had seen this fish sipping bugs off the surface, and it appeared to be one of the larger bass in the pool.) As the fly dead-drifted downriver, I made another upstream mend with about two-thirds of the line — this was about as big a mend I could afford without disturbing the fly.

That sets up the large belly you see in the video. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessary evil to obtain the drift I wanted. What you can’t see is me tracking the drift with my rod tip, then pointing my rod downstream, and extending my arm as far out as possible to make that drift last just a…few…more…feet. (I could also have stripped out line and fed it into the drift, but that tactic makes long distance hooksets even harder.) And that’s the rub: with that much line out, and that much slack from the downstream belly, it’s a challenge to get a good hookset. You have to rely on a sticky sharp hook and hope the fish does most of the work.

When it all comes together, as it did here, you understand that while catching isn’t necessarily the best part of fly fishing, it most certainly doesn’t suck. In the end, we are presented with one of the most important questions in fly fishing: “What do you want the fly to do?” If you answer that question, and figure out a way to make it happen, you’re going to catch a lot more fish.

Gettin’ Wiggly with it.

I’ve been doing some reading on low water smallmouth and trout tactics — ’tis the season — and I came across a fly family known as wigglies. In case you’re a newbie like me, they’re basically long foam-bodied spiders on steroids. They go by all kinds of names (Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, Mr. Wigglesworth, etc.). They’re not poppers; rather, they’re meant to be strategically cast and drifted. You let the bug sit on the film, and the current (and all those rubber legs!) do the work. If you move the bug, it’s only to move its legs — not the body. Work that one out.

I have to confess that at heart I’m a natural materials purist. But I’m also not above trying new things. And I embrace the concept of there being many, many ways. So while I basically dislike rubber legs, I see the parallel here with soft hackles.

I’m also obsessed with learning. This has been a difficult summer for smallmouth — the painfully low flows aren’t helping — and being able to conduct experiments in a laboratory known as a river is its own kind of wonderful. Yesterday the bass were indifferent to the Wiggly as a searching pattern. At dusk, when I cast to a rise ring, they bull-rushed the fly.

Speaking of experiments: anyone imagining a smaller, black Mr. Wiggly with a piece of yellow sighter material on top and a soft-hackle or nymph dropped behind it? Black cricket season is almost upon us…and the trout are hungry.

Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, size 2 and 4. You need some in your box.

Tip of the Week: Fish the hot water

Hot’s got nothing to do with water temperature. Thankfully, the Farmington is running cool even thought they’ve dropped the level (currently about 170cfs in the Permanent TMA). No, I’m talking about the bubbling, boiling (figuratively), riffly whitewater sections of the Farmington. That water is is oxygenated and loaded with food. It’s also studded with small pockets and micro boulders — places trout like to hang out. If it’s at least a foot deep, it’s fair game, and you might be surprised to discover what’s living there. Swing wets, drift nymphs (no indicator), hopper/dropper — all of those are good choices for covering the hot water. Oh. And hold on. The chance of a big fish is always there.

This is what I’m talking about. The angler is one of my clients from a few years ago. On this day the water was far lower than it is today  — I think the flow was only double digits, and the riffle was barely a foot deep. Normally you’d shoot past it without another look. But on this day we banged up trout after trout. Note the method: tight line nymphing. Indicators aren’t necessary here because of the water depth; plus, you’ll feel the strike or see your sighter lag a bit. That’s when you set hard downstream. Please use the strongest tippet you can, and get those fish in fast.

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Fourth of July Follies, or: Don’t Drunk Dinghy

This past Fourth of July was a memorable one. For starters, I’d been battling a waxing gibbous moon for days — and it was only getting brighter. But on this night, heavy cloud cover was forecast over Block Island. I couldn’t wait to hit the beach to celebrate my independence from that bite-killing light.

Now, if you watched the old Hee-Haw TV show, you probably know the “Gloom, Despair, and Agony Oh Me” sketch — in particular the line, “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” I was thinking of this as I realized a most cruel twist of fate: there was a large group of people partying right where I wanted to fish. Three large families. Bonfire, music, fireworks shooting over the ocean, general drunken loudness, and specifically cackling moms after one too many hard lemonades. Sure, it’s fun, but dammit, why at this mark on the only night I’ve got significant overcast and the tide is perfect?

Since the three families weren’t practicing anything that remotely resembled social distancing, I decided to head to what I thought was a safe distance from the mayhem. Despite the racket and light show, the bite was on. I began taking bass after bass. Little did I know the real hijinks were about to start.

It began rather innocently. One of the kids noticed me amid the glowing spray of a fountain firework. She must have been around eight. Little Miss Precocious addressed me from the shore.

Who is that?

(Silence from me)

Who’s standing in the water!?!

(Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away.)

What are you doing there?!?

(Aren’t the parents seeing or hearing this? I’d never have let my kids wander down the beach at night unsupervised like that. Oh, wait. Right. They’re all drunk.)

Why won’t you answer me!!!!!?!

OK. I’ll play.

I turned around and faced her. “Well, hello there! I’m Mr. Culton. Who are you?

(Long pause while she processes, not being sure what to make of this new data…)

(still sounding unsure) …Samantha…

And with that, she turned and scampered back to the festivities.

That alone would make for a good enough story. But wait. Here comes the best part. A few minutes later, the dads decided that what with the receding tide (and their increasing intoxication) they should drag their dinghies a little further down to the water line. Except one of them forgot a cardinal rule of boating: always make sure your anchor line is secure. Five minutes later, I’m aware of a large oval shape drifting past me. About the same time, drunk dad recognizes his mistake, and runs helter skelter into the surf to retrieve his watercraft. After a sudden moment of realization, he delivers the punch line:

“Oh, (expletive)! I forgot my phone’s in my pocket!

The moral of the story is that drunks and boating just don’t mix. And, after all, what is a man profited if he should gain some beach but lose his phone?

A near-legal 4th of July bass. I think he looks a little surprised, which I get, because I didn’t expect the action to be as good as it was. As tradition dictates, my Fourth of July fly is the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie Variant.

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“Block Island, RI: One of the Last Great Places” from Eastern Fly Fishing

You’ve got to go way back into the archives for this one: the May/June 2009 issue of Eastern Fly Fishing. Block Island, RI: One of the Last Great Places was written just as I was beginning to gain some publishing traction. You’ll have to settle for a low-res black and white version of the article, but the work stands on its own. It’s a quick primer on fishing the Block from shore, and it’s about all you’ll get out of me in terms of where-to. Thanks to John Kelsey for tying the Orange and Blue Squidazzle! PDF link is below.

BlockIslandEFF

This used to be an L&L Big Eelie. An epic night of big Block bass on sand eels reduced it to a shell of its former self. They were still eating it when I stopped fishing at dawn.

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“Fly fishing is all about line control”

That’s what my friend Grady Allen, owner of UpCountry Sportfishing in New Hartford, CT, told me many years ago. We we out on the river. I’d just begun to fly fish for trout, and Grady was trying to explain the fundamentals of presentation to me. As I look back to that evening, his words still resonate.

Most trout anglers are keenly aware of the importance of line management and presentation. (You can tell because you rarely, if ever, see intermediate lines — a line you cannot mend — on trout streams.) Somehow, this gets lost in modern striper fishing.

If you won’t take my word for it, take Ken’s.

KenLineControl

I’m revisiting this subject because I received yet another question about stripers feeding on the surface that an angler could not get to bite. When I asked him what line he was using, his answer did not surprise me: intermediate. When I asked him what presentations he was using, likewise no surprise: variation on a stripping theme.

If you want to catch the stripers that everyone can’t, start with learning presentation. You’ll need a floating line and you’ll need to summon your inner trout ninja. Pretend those stripers are trout, holding in the current, rising to emergers or spinners. Mend your line. Present your flies to the bass where they are holding. Goodness! You may even enjoy not treating your fly rod like a glorified spinning rod.

After your first hookup, you’ll realize that this was no accident. And that you can repeat it. Hopefully, you’ll never look back.

Droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want. Learn how to fish a dropper rig on a floating line, and you’ll need to be registered as a lethal weapon.

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Last week’s ASMFC meetings: politics and striped bass

In case you missed it (I know I did), here are a couple good, quick reads on last week’s ASMFC striper meeting. First up is Captain John McMurray’s take. Next, Charles Witek warns of history repeating itself in this trenchant blog post.

I hope you’re all safe and well. These two fine pieces will keep you entertained as well as informed.

I’m going to be tying some of these (Crazy Menhaden flatwing/bucktail hybrid) soon.

Crazy CU

Tip of the Week: Fish are not smart. Stop treating them like they are.

Fish are not smart. They don’t get educated. They don’t think. They can’t reason or feel emotion. You are intellectually superior to a rainbow trout (brains shown to scale). True, this: once you stop treating fish like an intelligent adversary, you’ll start catching more of them.

The McMillan quote is one of my favorites.

Brains

 

How To Catch The Stripers Feeding On The Surface That No One Else Can.

I get questions like this all the time: “Last night, I heard and saw a ton of surface activity, but didn’t have a single bite. I was using the usual suspects: Clouser, Deceiver, epoxy baitfish, using every retrieve I could think of — but not a single bump. Can you help me understand what was going on?”

When I’m giving my “Trout Fishing for Stripers” presentation, this is the point where I reference highly frustrated anglers like this one. Scenarios vary, but the solution remains the same: it can be found within traditional trout and salmon tactics and presentations.

Let’s break this down. First: the last fly I’d use for this situation would be a dumbbell eye-weighted pattern. Just as you wouldn’t cast a tungsten cone head bugger to trout that are sipping tiny BWOs on the surface — please tell me you wouldn’t — nor should you plumb the depths with Clousers when the striper action is clearly on top.

So which pattern(s) to use? Well, what are the bass eating? This time of year (May, northeast waters) I’ve got a 20-spot on grass shrimp or clam worms or tiny minnows…essentially something small. Most Deceivers I’ve seen are far bigger than 1-inch long, so that pattern’s not a good choice, either. If it were me I’d fish a team of three, and those small baits I mentioned would be a good place to start.

Droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want.

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Finally — and here’s where the treasure is buried — let’s talk about presentation. We have a pretty good idea of what’s being eaten, and how the stripers are eating it (holding on station, feeding in a specific area of the water column, not willing to chase). Now we need to give them the goods the same way the naturals are behaving: on a dead drift.

Think of the current as a conveyor belt. Food is being delivered into open mouths. To make that dead drift presentation, you need to be able to mend, and to be able to mend you need a floating line. Sinking lines will drag, and drag is a death sentence for the dead drift. Forget about “which retrieve?” Your only retrieve should be when you’re at the end of a drift and you’re gathering your line to make another cast. (An exception would be fishing on the dangle, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The stripers are eating. They’re sitting there just waiting to take your fly. Answer the big four questions correctly (What’s the food? How are they eating it? What do I have in my box that looks/acts like that food? How can I present it like the naturals?) and you’ll be turning frustration into exhilaration.

Just don’t forget your floating line.

Wet Fly Questions Answered

I’ve been getting a lot of wet fly questions, and I thought I’d share my answers with the group. I’m excited that so many of you are interested in this ancient and traditional art. So here we go:

Q: What size and length rod are you using on the Farmington? A: My dedicated wet fly stick is a 10-foot 5-weight Hardy Marksman II. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it. It’s got a good backbone for helping manage bigger trout in snotty currents, but I wish it were a bit softer in the flex. What’s important is that it’s a 10-footer, which I find useful for mending. Note: I still take the 7’9″ Tonka Queen out for an occasional wet fly jaunt, albeit in moderate/slow currents. That cane pole is a dream for mending.

The Queen in action. This rod gives me an ultra-fine level of line control.

OptionsDangle

Q: Do you use an indicator? A: My joke answer is “yes” — the splash of the take, the spray of water, and the jolt of the rod tip all indicate a strike. The real answer is no, not in the traditional sense. The vast majority of time, you need no visual aid to tell you the fish has taken the fly. An exception would be when you’re fishing upstream, drawing the line toward you as the rig moves downstream. I’m watching the tip of the line like a hawk for stalls, shudders, or stoppage that would indicate a delicate strike well below the surface.

Q: Do you use a floating line? A: Yes. (I’m a line control freak.)

Q: When you’re casting and mending, is it basically a dead drift, then the flies start swinging and rising? A: Kindof. Unless you introduce slack into the presentation, you’ll never really have a true dead drift. So even when I’m doing a quartering down or straight across cast and mend, the flies are moving downstream and across, albeit in a slower manner than they would with a traditional wet fly swing.

Q: You’ve said that in spring, you focus more on pool-type water, and faster water in the summer. I’m having trouble finding the right type and depth of water. Any advice? A: Generally speaking, the colder it is, the greater the chance that trout will be in deeper pool-type water. That doesn’t mean you won’t find trout in 1-foot deep riffles in December. The bottom line is: there is no substitute for experience on the water. Get out and explore. Keep a log. Where and when did you fish? Were you catching? Were others catching?  What was the weather like? What was the water height? You can see where this is going. And finally, a wee plug for myself: take a lesson. I hear this a lot from clients: “I’ve driven past this spot a hundred times and never thought to fish it.”

Q: I fished wet flies and only had one bump. What was I doing wrong? A: (This person was out on the Farmington this week.) You’ve got a lot of elements working against you. For starters, I don’t like to fish wets in the Permanent TMA in any flow over 500cfs (it’s been 750cfs and higher). 250cfs-400cfs is the wheelhouse. Hatch windows also have a lot to do with the wet fly bite. For example, right now (Hendrickson and caddis hatches) you want to be swinging anywhere from 11am to 3pm-ish. You’re trying to entice the trout that are taking the emergers. And this cold, wet weather isn’t helping, either.

When you hit the emergence just right, the results can be magical.

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Keep on swinging.