Tip of the Week: Prevent runaway line when you’re changing flies

If you fish a two-handed rod, or if you use a modern shooting head integrated line (like Rio Outbound or Airflo 40+) with your single hand setup, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this scenario. You want to change your fly, or check the hook point, so you tuck your rod under your armpit and gather in the line. Problem: while you’re fiddling with the fly, the current grabs the line — those shooting heads have a lot of surface area — and downstream goes your head, taking your running line along with it. Now, you’ve got to re-strip 60, 70, 80 feet of line again — time you could be fishing.

Solution: wrap a couple loops of the running line around your off-hand wrist. I like to gather in the running line till the shooting head is just outside the rod tip. The orange running line below my wrist remains inside my shooting basket. This way I’m ready to cast as soon as I change flies. That’s more time spent fishing, and that means more potential time catching.

Tip of the Week: Save your welded loop with a heavy mono butt section

Many, if not most, modern fly lines come with a factory welded loop for an easy leader connection. The problem is that if you’re using a straight shot of leader material that’s under 40lb. test, the diameter of that leader can cut into the the welded loop while fighting a big fish, trying to free a snag, or inducing any other stress that puts extreme pressure on the connection.

Solution: create a short mono butt section to act as a buffer between your welded loop and leader. I’ve been using a foot-long length of 50lb. or 60 lb. mono. Just tie a perfection loop (here’s a great tutorial from Animated Knots) at both ends, and you’re good to go! I’ve been using this system with my two-handed shooting head for over a year.

If you want to catch more stripers, learn presentations other than cast-and-strip

One of my goals with currentseams is to help you become a better angler — and hopefully catch more fish. So if I could somehow distill a “Top Ten Tips” out of my brain’s fly fishing storehouse, one of them would certainly be: Learn presentations other than cast and strip. Especially if you want to catch more stripers.

When I see questions like, “How fast do you retrieve the fly?” or “Do you strip with one or two hands?” — and I see these questions a lot — I despair. Rarely does anyone ask the question, “Does it have to be a retrieve?” The answer would open many doors to greater fish-catching glory.

Even if you were going to fish for stripers using only retrieves — and there are many outings over the course of a season where I do just that — there are an abundance of retrieve options that are rarely used or discussed. For example, for sand eels, I like a hyper short (1-2″) rapid pulsing strip. For a large squid fly like the Mutable Squid, I like a slow hand-twist retrieve. Last week I fished a large deer-hair head fly with a fast strip-strip-strip-strip….pause….wait for it….then strip action. And there’s always the surface popper trick of landing the fly with a splat….then doing nothing. Once the landing rings dissipate, give that bug a twitch. You could present in randomly timed, spaced, and distanced strips, creating the drunken action of wounded prey. The list goes on. And the stripers will always tell you when you get it right.

Ultimately, you’ll need to learn presentations other than cast-and-strip for those outings where the stripers will not chase. One of my recent trips included a puzzle where school bass were cruising and feeding, but would not move to a stripped fly. The answer was found within traditional salmon presentation tactics. Those willing to invest in the floating line — I’m not talking money, but rather in taking the time to learn how to harness its power and master a few basic presentations — will see their catch rates soar. And while you’re at it, pick up a used copy of “Greased Line Fishing for Salmon [and Steelhead] by Jock Scott.

Fly fishing is all about line control. So take charge. Presentation is not difficult to learn. Remember that a fly rod and line is only, as Ken Abrames once observed, “a stick and a string.”

Learn presentation and start bringing your fly to the fish — not vice versa.

Proof That The ASMFC Doesn’t Get It (this time it’s menhaden)

The dumpster fire that is the ASMFC continues to burn brightly. If you want evidence that their conservation model appears to be based on the theme, “Kill more fish,” look no further than this week’s meeting of the ASMFC’s Menhaden Board.

I’ll let the ASGA pick up narrative. “Disappointing news coming out of this morning’s meeting of the ASMFC Menhaden Board, which had a great opportunity to show the public its commitment to recognizing menhaden’s critical role as a forage species. Despite the Board’s August decision to adopt Ecological Reference Points (ERPs), today it adopted 2021 and 2022 catch limits that have greater than a 50% chance of exceeding the fishing mortality target, undermining the intent of ERPs and disregarding public comments urging a precautionary approach to menhaden management. ‘Decision: Move to set a TAC of 194,400 metric tons for 2021 and 2022. 13-5-0-0 Roll Call.’ More details to follow in our full debrief of the ASMFC meeting.”

Stupid is as stupid does, and when it comes to conservation and fisheries management, nobody does stupid better than the ASMFC.

Tip of the Week: When nymphing, set downstream!

A lot of anglers leave the river after a nymphing session wondering why they dropped so many fish. It’s the hook set, baby! This is such a simple principle. Adhering to it will result in a noticeable increase in your catch rate. Check out this diagram:

A proper nymphing hook set goes downstream, into the mouth and the mass of the fish.

If you accept the proposition — and I feel strongly about this — that most fish are won and lost at hook set — a good set is critical to nymphing success. Picture your fly moving downstream, a few inches off the bottom. The trout is facing upstream, sees the nymph, and decides to eat. You detect the strike (look for a reason to set the hook on every drift) and set the hook. Don’t set upstream. Doing so essentially takes the fly away from a fish that has said “yes” to your offering. Instead, drive the hook point home into the fish’s mouth — downstream — using the mass of the fish against itself. What if you’re indicator nymphing and your drift has the fly 30 feet below you? On the take, sweep set off to one side.

Do this every time and you’ll be netting a lot more fish. And of course, you’re constantly checking your hook points to make sure they’re sticky sharp…right?

Tip of the week: find the tiny BWO the trout will eat

It’s fall on the Farmington, and that means it’s time for tiny Blue-Winged Olives. Depending on your point-of-view, this hatch can be a blast or a scourge. The flies are small (20-26), but when conditions are right (frequently overcast, damp days), the trout will line up and sip them for hours.

So, what do you do when you’ve got the hatch matched, the right leader/tippet (12-15 feet is a good length to start), your presentation is spot on a feeding lane, drift is drag-free, and you get…nothing? Or worse, a refusal? It might be that you’ve got the wrong fly. Experience has taught me that sometimes the same size fly in a different style makes all the difference. So carry a bunch of different style dries, and enjoy the tiny BWOs of fall.

My tiny BWO dry fly arsenal includes, from left, comparadun, comparadun with Z-lon shuck, parachute, Pat Torrey’s Tiny BWO soft hackle, and foam wing. The trout sometimes favor one of these over another, and the only way to figure it out is to cycle through patterns. By the way, this concept applies to other tiny hatches, like midges.

Which fly — and where — on a team of three?

“Can you recommend three flies for me to fish on a dropper rig right now?”

I get this question a lot. Of course the answer depends on many, many factors. Since I enjoy helping people figure out this whole fly fishing thing, I thought I’d give you some simple guidelines — the goal being that you’ll eventually be able figure it out on your own.

You can begin with my articles, “How To Tie and Fish Dropper Rigs for Stripers,” and “Wet Fly 101: Take the ancient and traditional path to subsurface success.” Those will give you a good working base to build upon. Here are three best practices for figuring out which flies to tie on.

If you know that tiny BWOs are likely to be out on a overcast, damp fall afternoon, you’re already ahead of the game.

  1. Know what’s hatching or swimming. You should familiarize yourself with local hatches and baits. Know that when the Hendricksons are out on the Farmington in late April, so are caddis. Know that in early fall in SoCo, baits may include silversides, anchovies, peanut bunker, and finger mullet. Get to the river or estuary or beach and do some good old-fashioned observing. What’s flying around? What’s on the water? Bring a net and find out what’s in the water. For years, I’ve been pre-tying teams of three (sometimes 24 hours or more in advance) for where I’m going to be fishing. I’ve simply gotten dialed in to what’s happening and when. It is not a special talent. You can do the same.
  2. Hedge your bets. Cover your bases. Blackjack players know there are certain hands on which to double down, essentially giving them a chance to multiply their winnings. Likewise, if you absolutely, positively know what’s on the menu, offer up seconds or even thirds. So, using the Hendrickson/caddis scenario, my team of three will have two of one and a single of the other, depending on what I’ve observed. If it’s July on Block Island, I may have three sand eel flies, or two sand eels and a squid. If I have multiple baits or bugs and no hard confirmation of what’s the featured entree, I’ll give the fish a choice: different sizes, species, colors — and let them make the call. Droppers are always the fastest way to find out what the fish want.
  3. Which fly goes where depends on what you want the rig to do. If you’re fishing a team of three in a traditional way — a swing or mended swing followed by a dangle — your top dropper should be an emerger (soft hackles excel in this position) or a bait that’s likely to be near the surface, like a cinder worm or a grass shrimp. If you’re trying to get some depth to start — then let the entire rig swing up toward the surface — then your point fly should be weighted. If you want to manage the team of three like a single unit, dead drifting at or very near the surface, then your point fly should float. I almost always place the largest or heaviest fly on point. It’s not rocket science, and once you get out on the water and see how all these flies interact with water and current, you’ll have a better appreciation for the awesome power you wield with a team of three.

One last thing. You’re using a floating line, right?

Pop quiz, true or false: If trout are feeding on little dark stones or midges near the surface, Stewart’s Black Spider would be a good choice because it matches size, color, and presented an emerging profile.

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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