How do you set the hook with a striper dropper rig?

Here’s a great question from Will: When you are running your gurgler/eel dropper setup, how are you setting the hook on a dropper take? Trout land tells me to set down and across the direction of the drift, but saltwater land is telling me to strip set. He’s referring to my suspension dropper rig where I’ve got a floating fly on point and two smaller flies on dropper tags.

This is a question to which there is no simple answer. My best attempt at a distilled response would be: Strip set. (Kindof.)

Here’s why it’s a little complicated. There are multiple factors to consider, such as conditions; current; the type of take (feeding frenzy slam, gentle sipping take, greased line swing inhale?); the position of the rig relative to you, etc.

When I’m fishing a suspension dropper ring, I am rarely using a stripped presentation (the closest I’m getting to stripping is something akin to a slow gathering of slack line) — so I’m not doing a traditional strip set. Instead, when I need to set the hook, I most often hold the line against the cork and thrust the rod back toward my hips, essentially mimicking a strip set. Depending on the ferocity of the take and the size of the fish, I may set the hook in this manner multiple times. I always set and reset multiple times with a large bass. Even if I am doing a static presentation like a straight dangle, I have the line in one hand and am ready to spring into action.

Sometimes the striper eats the fly, turns and swims away, thus setting the hook himself. (This is why I preach sticky sharp hooks, and checking your hook points often.) You may need to reset; wait until the fish stops moving, then point the rod at the bass, and set as outlined above.

And sometimes you feel the pressure of the fly being sucked in, or maybe a just a small tap. You should wait to feel the weight of the fish before you do any setting — otherwise you may come up with nothing. This is especially true during a greased line swing or when you’re on the dangle.

A near-slot bass taken this summer on an Orange Ruthless, part of a three-fly team. The strike came just as the presentation transitioned from swing to dangle, about 50 feet below my position in a moderate current. In this case, she was feeding with confidence and blasted the fly, setting herself. I executed a thrust set to drive the hook further home, and a couple minutes later I was taking this photo.

A Wet Fly Hen Hackle Primer

I get lots of questions about tying wet flies, and Jim B. recently sent me this one: Do you use hen saddle or hen cape feathers for your wet fly ties? My answer: hen cape feathers, primarily Whiting or Hebert Miner.

Then it occurred to me that some of you may be wondering, what’s the difference? For starters, capes and saddles come from different areas of the bird. The saddle is located on the lower back just in front of the tail. You’ll find the cape on the back of the neck. Both produce useful soft hackles with varied degrees of webbing. For me, the difference maker in favor of capes is their shape, and most importantly, the range of sizes of the feathers. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to limit this discussion to the Whiting and Hebert Miner (not “Herbert”, as I often see them mistakenly called) genetic lines of wet fly hackle.

Whiting (left) and Hebert Miner genetic hen capes. The Hebert Miner cape is specifically marketed as “wet fly hackle,” and as you can see it’s a little longer than the standard Whiting cape. Like the Miner, the Whiting genetic packaging says “hen cape” at the bottom; that graphic is obscured by the feathers. Both capes come stapled to the thin cardboard sheet; if you remove the staple, do it carefully. Otherwise you’ll rip the skin patch if you try to pull the cape off the sheet. The Whiting cape is white dyed dark dun; this is the color I use for the Dark Hendrickson winged wet. The HM cape is a natural medium brown dun.

Capes give you the widest choice in feather size and colors. The feathers tend to be longer and narrower than saddles. But where capes really shine is that they give you feathers to tie bigger soft hackles (8 and larger) as well as the smaller ones you’d need for patterns like tiny BWOs and midges. (For one of my favorite tiny soft hackles, Smut Number 1, I use a Whiting cape for hackle; likewise with Pat Torrey’s Tiny BWO Soft Hackle.) That’s a huge range of sizes, and those tyers who value both extremes will be in hackle heaven. Even if you’re never going to tie size 6 steelhead or bass soft hackles, you can use the larger feathers for tailing material.

A tale of two feathers. Both of these hackles came from the same cape. Both have their uses. You can see that I’ve already begun taking some of the fibers from the larger feather for tailing material. Once removed from the patch, I keep these feathers in a ziplock baggie and store it in the back of the original packaging for easy access. Note that the larger feather has a generous amount of webbing; typically, the webbing becomes less prevalent as you work your way down the patch toward the smaller feathers. This is why I always recommend buying capes in person; you’ll want to rummage through the bags and find the capes with the webbiest feathers throughout. The smaller feather would make a fine hackle for a midge or a tiny BWO soft hackle.

I’m not going to get into the multitude of other hen soft hackle options that are available to you, like India Hen, Bantam Hen, Coq de Leon, and American Hen. I own several of these types of feather patches, both saddle and cape, and while they all have their uses, the vast majority of my wet fly tying with hen involves Whiting or Hebert Miner capes. It should also be mentioned that I primarily use genetic hen hackle for winged and wingless wets. (Most of the North Country Spiders I like to tie use game bird or starling hackle.)

It would be nice if money were no object, but the current going rate for these hen capes is about $30. Still, that represents a tremendous value since you’re getting hundreds of usable feathers. (I have some capes that are almost 20 years old and still have many flies left in them.) If I had to start with only three colors, I would choose, from left to right, light dun, brown, and light ginger. You can expand your collection as you get more into the wonderful world of soft-hackled flies.

If you’ve read James Leisenring’s book The Art of Tying The Wet Fly, you know that he was quite particular about hackle. (Cockerel, anyone? In case you didn’t know, cockerel is a young-of-year rooster.) He even suggests making friends with poultry farmers so you can pluck their birds, preferably in February or March. A fine pro tip, but certainly not as convenient as buying a patch of good genetic hackle. Fortunately for us, modern wet fly hackle is pretty darn good in terms of color options, feather size range, and availability.

One of Leisenring’s favorite wingless wets, the Brown or Red Hackle, tied with a furnace hen hackle. Interestingly, “furnace” isn’t what the package is labelled — it’s simply called “brown” — but this particular cape was a variant with many feathers that were close the classic furnace pattern, which Leisenring describes as a dark list near the stem and on the tips of the fibers, with a lighter color in between. Grab one if you see it, or I will!

Striper fly fishing question of the day: “How do I know what bait is in the water?”

I get this question all the time. As with many fly fishing questions, the answers can be simple and complex. This post is designed to be a mini-article rather than a treatise, so I’ll keep it simple.

If you’re asking “How do I know what bait is in the water?” you’re probably trying to match the hatch. That’s rarely a bad idea, especially if the stripers are keyed on a specific bait. Just be aware that while stripers can be selective feeders, they aren’t always selective feeders. So a generic baitfish pattern like my Soft-Hackled Flatwing may work just fine even when there’s nothing like it swimming around. Still, you want to know what’s for dinner, so…

Get a large fine mesh dip net and go fishing. Or, if you have a drag net and a partner, use that. You can do this on a beach, or off a well-lit dock and night, or in an outflow or an estuary. Sometimes you don’t need to get wet: get a bright light and shine it in the water at night. If the water goes nuts, it’s probably silversides. This first step is obvious, but many anglers are either too lazy or oblivious to do it. I’ll tell you in advance that you may surprised at the volume of small stuff that’s in the water.

Research the bait in your area. Get a field guide, or use the web for research. You should know what the resident baits are, and be able to ID them. A mummichog is not a silverside is not a peanut bunker.

Know what bait is likely to be when and where. Again: do your homework. Discover the patterns. Know when herring come up the rivers off Long Island Sound to spawn. Know when the sand eels show up in Newport, RI. Know when the cinder worms are swarming in the salt ponds of SoCo. Every year is different, but nature is always right on time.

Not a silverside. Sometimes, when the bait is in thick, you’ll accidentally snag one of the critters. That was the case with this peanut bunker several years ago.

Question of the Day: Greased Soft Hackles and Sinking Leaders, or: things I don’t do

Most of you know me as a teaching guide. But fishing education is not just limited to time spent on the water. I received this question via email last week, and I thought it was such good one that I decided to share it here and expand on my answer. As always, no such thing as a dumb question!

Q: Do you usually grease your soft hackles to sink or do you just use a slow sink leader? 

A: I don’t, and I do not.

Ixnay on the easegray.

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Let’s start with the term “grease.” In wet fly fishing (or any fishing with mended swings) “grease” conjures up images of high-floating elements. Back in the day, a line was greased to make it float, therefore making it possible to mend. You can grease a fly, too, to help it float, and sometimes I do. Example: small stream fishing with a Stimulator. I’ll dust the hackles with silica powder, but I’ll use Gehrke’s Gink gel floatant on the elk hair wing.

But there are also gels that help stuff sink (like Gehrke’s Xink.) Here’s why I would never use something like that on a soft hackle: the last thing I want is to put any kind of coating on those precious, fine-stemmed barbules. I want them moving and quivering and creating the illusion that the fly is alive. What’s more, I mostly fish my soft hackles just beneath the surface film or perhaps a foot below; this is the place after all, where so many emergers get eaten. You do your best business on Main Street, right?

When it comes to lines, I only use floaters for wet fly fishing. My leaders (droppers) are constructed of Maxima. If I want to help sink the rig, I’ll use a brass or tungsten bead head fly on point. Mending — doable only with a floating line — helps introduce the slack required to let gravity do its thing. If I want to get the team deep for a nymph-like presentation along the bottom, I’ll attach a split shot to the leader just above the knot that forms the middle dropper. This will create a seat for the shot so it won’t slip down the leader. You can read more about the black arts of sinking your wet flies here.

Hope that helps, and thanks for the excellent question.

Sing it with me: “Get down, get down…” 

AddingWeightWetFlyTeam

 

Wet fly fishing questions answered

I had some excellent Q&A sessions about wet fly fishing at the Marlborough and Edison Fly Fishing shows (great job, people!) and I wanted to share some of what we discussed with you.

Q: What knot do you use when you build your wet fly team leader? A: I’ve been using a triple surgeon’s knot for years. It’s easy for me to tie, and it’s reliable — I don’t think I’ve ever had one fail. People also asked about the blood knot, and the answer is: use the knot you feel most confident about/is easiest for you to tie.

Q: Do you use tippet rings when you build your wet fly team leader? A: I don’t, mostly because I don’t see a need. The perceived need is that it would be easier to replace a dropper tag (rather than build a new leader) with a tippet ring and it’s hard to argue with that. This is a “what works best for you?” situation. I don’t use tippet rings because I rarely change flies on my leader system, and even when I do I’ve learned how to reattach a fly using a minimum of tag material. Speaking of attaching flies, here’s a nifty tutorial from my buddy Tim Flagler on the Davy Knot, which uses very little material.

Q: You say to pause before you set the hook. Aren’t you afraid the fish will spit the fly? A: No. I quote from The Book of Syl: “With the soft-hackled fly, the trout throws caution to the wind, because he’s not afraid to move under the water, and speeds to the fly with urgency.” The fish has made the decision to eat. He’s said “yes” to the fly. With an immediate hookset, you’re saying “no” to the fish. By pausing — asking, “Are you still there?” before you set the hook — you’re ensuring that the fish will turn away with the fly in his mouth, having neatly hooked himself.

This massive hen blasted the fly, an old English pattern called a Hackled March Brown. She hit so hard she ripped the line out of my hands. There was no need for me to set the hook.

Q: Is fishing wet flies a secondary tactic, or do you ever go to the river intending to fish wet flies? A: I frequently go to the river with the sole intent of fishing wet flies. In fact, I’d say wet flies account for the vast majority of my trout fishing — and catching — between late April and mid-summer.

Ask currentseamser Greg about how good the pre-hatch fishing can be with wet flies!

Q: You talked about using wet flies to catch trout feeding on emergers. Is there a point during the hatch, such as when you see duns on the surface, that you’ll switch to dry flies? A: What a great question! The answer is yes. If I am pounding up fish on wet flies and suddenly my hookups stop — but the river is still boiling with feeding fish — that’s my cue that they’ve either stopped eating what I’m throwing or may now be feeding on the surface. If I see the duns getting taken, and my wets aren’t catching, that is compelling evidence to switch to a dry fly. This scenario frequently plays out during the Hendrickson hatch. It’s wet fly gangbusters up until about 3pm, then suddenly the hookups slow to a crawl. Changing over to a dry usually solves the problem.

I hope that helps, and if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Currentseams Q&A: Of droppers, drop-shot, and indicators

Currentseams reader Steve M. asked this question on the Farmy Report post below. I thought the answer deserved its own thread. Thanks for asking, Steve.

Q: How about a refresher on your dropper nymphing method? Specifically how you use/position the indicator? 

First, some semantics. Dropper nymphing setups and indicator nymphing are two different things. You can nymph with droppers and not use an indicator. Or do you mean drop-shot? Same deal: you can fish a drop shot rig without an indicator. “Droppers” refers to flies that are attached to the rig by tags of leader material. “Drop shot” is a method that uses split shot suspended by a tag below the bottom fly. A drop-shot rig can have droppers or just one fly. Hope that clarifies rather than confuses!

How I use and how I position the indicator are also different things. Generally, I use an indicator when:
I want to cover water/get longer drifts;
It’s cold and the takes might be subtle;
I want to fish the bottom in deeper holes;
I don’t want to feel like my arm is going to fall off after keeping it raised above my shoulder for hours.

I use my own yarn indicators, dense, bushy creations, and I’m fairly dialed in to their nuances. The indicator need not go under for me to want to set the hook. (Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift and you’ll catch more fish.)

The general rule of thumb is to set the indicator at 1.5 times the estimated water depth away from the bottom fly or shot. I’m not sure I follow that so much as I estimate the greatest depth I’ll be fishing and place the indicator on the leader where I reckon the drop shot will be ticking the bottom. It’s more feeling than formula. Specifically, I want to find this equilibrium: the shortest distance between the shot and the indicator, and enough distance to make a natural drift along the bottom. I want to see that indicator bouncing along. If you’re not catching fish and you’re not seeing those bottom return tells, you’re not fishing deep enough. Adjust your indicator (which you can now refer to as a depth regulator) accordingly.

I often check my indicator. “Checking” means that if I feel the indicator is leading or dragging the nymphs downstream at an unnatural pace, I’ll mend the indicator upstream, literally lifting it off the water and placing it where I want it. Remember that current at the surface moves faster than current at the bottom.

Finally, a word about weight. I like to use as little shot as possible. But sometimes you’ve got to go heavier. In winter, the water’s cold, and things slow down, trout included. I’ve been using two BB shot on my drop shot rig this winter — not because the water’s deep or fast, but because that extra weight slows the drift to a pace where a trout has to move less for the fly.

Hope that helps.

Steve’s secret weapon: home brew indicators made from acrylic macrame yarn and a #36 o-ring. I build them dense, and treat them with Gink or Loon Fly Spritz 2 before each use. This is a color I can see easily, and this indicator is about as big as I’d ever use on the Farmington. I know, you want a video tutorial on construction. The answer is yes — I just need to figure out the when.

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Currentseams Q&A video debut: Adding weight (or not) to striper flies

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Currentseams Q&A videos.

I really like the idea of answering questions in a video/podcast format. It allows me to provide more comprehensive answers, and include visual elements in my explanations. Everyone learns differently, and I hope this covers more bases for more people.

What’s more, while the internet is a terrific way to connect with people many miles away, sometimes the written word can’t compete with a little face time. (Although you may see now why I have a great face for radio.) Victor Borge said, “The shortest distance between two people is a laugh.” I hope these will be fun as well as instructive.

If there’s a question you’d like answered, send me an email or leave a comment. In the meantime, I hope this helps.

Currentseams Q&A: streamer fishing for trout

Today we have two questions about streamer fishing.

Q: I am not strong on streamer fishing. Do you have any quick hints on how to improve?

A: It’s hard to offer suggestions when I can’t see where you’re “not strong.” Here are some observations that may help.

 When you’re streamer fishing, you’re targeting aggressive fish. If you’re not catching, and you know there’s a candidate nearby, change flies, change presentations – say, from fast strips to slow strips, or to a swing and dangle – and if that fails, move on. Cover water. Cover water. Cover water. The spot on the Hous where I caught a bazillion trout on streamers last month is a submerged rock field that stretches about seventy-five yards. I got nothing in the upstream fifty yards. The lower twenty-five was loaded with trout. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.

Fish will move as the seasons change. As winter approaches, trout often transition from faster water to slower, deeper pools. Having said that, I have caught Farmington River trout in January in brisk currents as well as languid black water.

 Bigger streamers often mean bigger fish, and fewer smaller fish.

Don’t get caught up in streamer hype and jaunty names. Many of the streamers I fish are semi-haphazard creations I make up as I’m tying them. Articulated streamers are all the rage right now. They work. So do unarticulated streamers. A lot of people get amped up about streamers that “push water.” Those streamers work. So do ones with slim, non-water-pushing profiles. Find your own truths.

This streamer doesn’t have a name like “The Dominatrix” or “The Skull Crusher.” It’s just a cone-head soft-hackled streamer in Mickey Finn colors. Trout don’t read magazines or hang out in fly shops, but they still manage to find plenty of things in the water that look good to eat regardless of nomenclature.

10:14 Housy Raindow

When the bite is on, I have yet to find a color (or colors) that the trout won’t hit.

 Know where your fly is. Does it need to be deep? Or near the surface? This is a good segue into question two:

~

Q: I wondered if you had some streamer fishing tips i.e.: weight /sinking line?

 A: Let’s start with some more questions. What do you want your streamer to do? Do you want it to sink to the bottom of the river and stay there? How fast is the current? How deep is the water? Are you performing a strip retrieve? Answers to questions like these will help determine your setup and presentation.

I have a traditional saltwater/striped bass streamer background. I draw upon those roots when I fish streamers for trout. Many anglers mistakenly think a sinking line is the big answer to presenting deep. Not so fast. We need to take into account the effects of current.

 Even with a full sink line and a weighted fly, the fly will plane up near the surface at the end of a drift on a strong moon tide current. I can see the splash of the striper’s take before I feel the tug. So while part of the drift is deep, not all of it is.

 I have a Jim Teeny integrated sinking line – I lost the box, so I don’t know its name or model number – that I use on the Farmington, mostly in the winter, sometimes in the summer when the river is high. It has, say, thirty feet of full sink (7.0ips sink rate?) at the head, then a floating running line. That is significant, because you can mend a floating line. And mends help to sink your fly, and keep it deeper longer.

 My fondness for traditional streamer presentations – mending to sink the fly, mending to perform a greased line swing – is why I use a floating line for the majority of my streamer fishing. Even at 1,000cfs, I was scraping the bottom of the Hous after a few strategic mends with my floater. (I was streamer fishing for stripers today with a floating line in a fast-moving estuary. Moon tide. The fish were hugging the bottom. So was my fly. A beautiful thing, mending.)

 I usually incorporate weight into my trout streamers, whether with brass or tungsten cone heads, heavy wire along the shank, or dumbbell or bead chain eyes. How much weight depends on when and where I’ll be fishing. Faster winter water means a heavier fly. Summer, maybe it’s just a brass cone.

 If you’re using a sink tip or a full sink line, make your leader short. Two to three feet is plenty. Otherwise you’ll negate the effects of the sinking line. Conversely, use a longer leader with your floating line to sink the fly. I think my leader this fall was between six and seven feet.

 Hope that helps.

Currentseams Q&A: attaching a soft-hackle to the hook shank

Q: When tying soft-hackled flies do you tie in the tip of the feather or the butt?

A: I’m almost always a tip guy. The stem of any feather is more flexible at the tip, and therefore easier for me to wrap. Also, feathers like starling are quite fragile — when I try to grip the tip of a starling feather with my hackle pliers, I often break off feathers to the point of rage. We don’t like rage when we’re tying. Maybe I just need to dial back the wrapping pressure. Or quit lifting weights.

Tying in by the tip is neither right nor wrong. It’s just the way I like to do it. I originally learned from Dave Hughes’ book Wet Flies, and he advocates tying in by the butt. I tried it that way, then tried it this way, and here we are. I encourage you to do the same in your tying and fishing: try different methods and pick the one that suits you. If I am tying a pattern like Stewart’s Black Spider, where I am starting at the head then winding the hackle rearward along the body, I will tie the feather in by the butt. This results in a tapered flow of hackle from large in front to small in back.

These hackles were all tied in by the tip. They look OK to me, and the trout certainly like them. So I must be doing something right.

Soft-hackles

Currentseams Q& A: Tying the bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail

Q: Can you give me the recipe for your BHSHPT nymph?

A: You betcha. As a point of procedure, it is not “mine.” People have been tying this fly for generations. I’m just another in a long line who discovered the magnetic mojo of adding webby brown hen to the mix. I’ve really got to do a video of this pattern.

The bead head soft-hackled Pheasant Tail:

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Hook: Size 8-16 1x short 2x strong scud
Thread: Tan or brown 6/0 or 8/0
Head: Copper brass or tungsten bead to size 
Tail/body: 6 (less as the hook gets smaller) pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire counterwrapped over body
Thorax: Peacock herl
Hackle: Soft brown hen

Tying notes: Old faithful, old reliable. Over the years. this fly has accounted for a significant percentage of the trout I’ve caught. Tying should be fairly intuitive. Lately, I’ve taken to tying in the hackle after I wind the peacock herl thorax. A few stray hackle fibers here and there on a nymph looks lovely to a trout. Once I get down to an 18 or 20 on this fly, I dispense entirely with the peacock herl. I also will use only three pheasant tail fibers on an 18 or 20.