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.

Currentseams Q&A: Multi-fly striper rigs

Q: Just wondering how you rig to balance strength on the dropper and still allow movement in the fly?  Blood knot with a long tag?  Or surgeons knot with a long tag towards the tippet end? What do you think your hook-up ratio is for the front fly versus the trailing dropper?

A: I think you’re referring to a tandem rig; when I fish multiple flies for stripers, it’s usually a team of three. I build all my multi-fly teams with 20, 25, or 30# Worldwide Sportsman camo mono. The mono size depends on where I’m fishing and what flies I’m using. For example, crystal clear water or small flies would have me leaning toward 20. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll use a triple surgeon’s knot to form the droppers. If I suspect larger fish may be in the mix, I’ll use a double uni knot. I had a “bad” experience many years ago with a school of high 30s bass — if I hooked two, the bottom fish would pull the triple surgeon’s knot right out from the top dropper. Now, if I’m targeting larger stripers, I go with a single fly.

If I am fishing multiple baits ( i.e. grass shrimp, peanut bunker, silverside) the fly that gets eaten most is usually the one that most closely matches the naturals the fish are feeding on, regardless of position. One night a small peanut bunker fly saved my bacon. It happened to be the middle dropper. It still worked when I re-rigged with a single fly.

If I know what bait is present, I’ll hedge my bets. This June I fished two small grass shrimp droppers with a small clam worm on point. The water was infested with grass shrimp. 3/4s of the bass I caught came on the shrimp patterns.

My three-fly team from early June 2014, top to bottom: Grease Liner variant, pink Crazy Charlie, Orange Ruthless. The bass liked all three flies. These tags are about 5-6″ long.

Striper ShrimpDropper Rig

In early July, small sand eels were on the menu. I rigged a dropper system of two sparse sand eels suspended between a corkie and a Gurgler. This setup was fished in barely any current at a dead drift. Even though the bass were keyed on the sand eels, I still took one on the Gurgler (the point fly) while it was just sitting there.

This Golden Knight is tied on a small freshwater hook, but on an Atlantic salmon hook, it’s the kind of fly that I like to have when I’m fishing multiple sand eel patterns.

Sparse Golden Knight

Currentseams Q&A: The Leisenring Lift

Q: Fished White Clay in Pennsylvania, after April and May. I tied some size 18, 20 wet flies using just yellow or orange floss and light Hungarian partridge or grouse. I noticed that the trout either hammer the wet fly as it swings; or, after it swings, as I pick up the line trout hit it and I didn’t know they were on it? Is this the idea of Leisenring Lift? Just finished reading your article (“Wet Fly 101”) in the Nov/Dec 2013 American Angler. Good stuff!!!

A: Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for reading. The Leisenring Lift is one of the most misunderstood of the wet fly methods. According to Dave Hughes, Leisenring would present to a fish, or to a lie that was in the two-to-four-foot depth range, in a slow-moving current. He’d make his cast 10-20 feet above the lie. He kept tight to the fly, tracking the drift with his rod, making sure that the line and the fly weren’t dragging. At the point of where he thought the take would occur, he’d stop tracking with his rod. This would cause the fly, which had been naturally sinking (Leisenring did not use weighted flies) to come off the bottom and start swimming toward the surface. So the lift comes from the physics of the fly lifting off the bottom due to drag, not from the physics of actually lifting the rod. What I think is happening in your case is a trout is following the fly subsurface — or holding at the point where your fly dangles — and as you begin to lift your rod, it sees a potential meal escaping (much like it does an emerging caddis). The trout decides, “I want that!” and you’ve got a fish on. Good for you. 🙂

 

 

Introducing Currentseams Q&A

I get a asked lot of questions about fly fishing: from clients on the river, people in forums, club members I speak to, followers though email, etc. I’m happy to answer them, and flattered that someone thinks I might be able to help. In the spirit of help, I’d like to introduce Currentseams Q&A. When I get a question that I think might have broad appeal, I’ll post it and my answer here.

We’ll kick things off with a striper question.

Q: I finally will be getting to fish salt a few mornings next week up in Maine.  It’s an area I’ve fished a fair bit, but most often, using fairly substantial 5-8” flies – like the Grocery Fly (a harbor Pollack imitation), bigish deceivers and clousers and my favorite, a big Ray’s Fly.  How big?  6-8” on a 2-3/0 gami hook. That said, normally I’ve gone out a few times and have some hands on “data”… this year… no luck.  So, my “research” has been scanning surf talk threads in the maine/nh forum… which results in what looks like a likely ticket right now – 3-3.5” sand eels. So, I humbly ask…  Big Eelies and variants or small bucktails/deceivers, or even small “candy” like flies? If you’re open to it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on solid flies in smallish sizes. Point blank, for some reason in the surf I have a brain block on tossing little stuff… It’s a big ocean man, how will they see it?

A: Stripers are not humans. What you or I might find hard to see can be a billboard to a striper. I couldn’t possibly count how many striped bass I’ve caught on 1-2″ long grass shrimp flies (in murky water) or sparse (30 bucktail hairs and couple strands of flash) sand eels tied on #8 hooks. Bass also eat things like crab larva and isopods that are a fraction of an inch long. They find them just like you’re able to find M&Ms. The Big Eelie is a good bet, as is anything that is sparse and thin and matches the profile. Try Eelies: two thin saddle hackles over 30 fine bucktail hairs and a braid body. 2-3″ long. Maybe a couple stands flash. Small Ray’s Flies to match the bait. Play around with colors: the stripers will always tell you what they like. Ray Bondorew has a small sand eel fly made of marabou. Simple. No eyes. And effective. I fished hard/epoxy/tube bodied sand eel flies for years. I caught fish on all of them. But they all seemed to me like they were trying too hard to be an exact replica of the bait, right down to the detailed eyes. I haven’t fished a sand eel fly with eyes in years. Impressionism is more my style and energy, and I like to fish flies that don’t give the bass credit for being anything other than the primitive animal they are. (Thanks to Bill McMillan for that last line.)Have fun, experiment, and fish with confidence.

Here’s a sparse sand eel I call the Golden Knight. Two-and-a-half inches long, 30 fine bucktail hairs, a few strands of blue flashabou and black Krystal flash. This one is tied on a hook for small streams; for stripers, I use a TMC 7999 Atlantic salmon hook. This is a very effective fly to imitate small sand eels; I like to fish it as a team of flies near the surface, suspended between a corkie and a floating fly like a Gurgler.

Sparse Golden Knight

L&L Special Big Eelies. No matter what colors I tie the Big Eelie in, stripers love it.

L&LBIg Eelie

Things you can catch on sparse sand eel flies. This girl is nearly 40 inches long. Look at that tummy spilling over my right hand! Also dig the Jimi Hendrix guitar-on-fire psychedelic halo. The bite was incendiary that night.

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