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Float and Fly for Lethargic Fish

If there is one fly fishing technique that I love to fish most that would be float and fly fishing. This is simple 101 fishing. Basically, it’s suspending a fly (usually a tied on a jig hook) underneath an indicator and fished like live bait. Any time of year this method catches fish like crazy but in cool or cold water it really shines.

In the colder water periods of the year the fish get really lethargic and do not move far or quickly to a bait. It’s like they have to think about it for a while if they really want to move any distance to eat something. So, the closer you can get and can keep your fly to their face, the better chance you stand of her taking it.

Craig_bass_3-1-17_1And oh, I am usually trying to catch “her”, the females tend to be bigger in the first place. Winter into early spring and the pre-spawn period of time is when the females are not only full of eggs but are fattening up in preparation of the spawn. This IS big fish time.

No other technique can put a fly in the fish’s faces and keep it there better than float and fly. Not only that but it also will detect the most subtle of strikes. Let me explain. Fishing with any other method, be it with a floating or a sinking line you develop an arch or bow in your line. You make a cast and the fly sinks to the bottom pulling the leader or sinking line with it. The slower you fish or especially if you come to a complete stop this bow is exaggerated as the leader or the fly line itself continues to sink. From your fly to your rod tip you end up with a half a bell curve or a full “L” in your line. This will negate any sense of feel from a strike and if the wind is blowing, good luck seeing a twitch in your line.

Not only that but if you continue stripping the fly to keep contact with it, you are moving it away from that lethargic fish. If you stop stripping, the fly will sink to the bottom and possible get hung up or disappear from view in any weeds that may be growing there.

But with a float and fly rig your fly is always at a straight-line connection from the fly to the indicator. If a fish as much as breathes on your fly the indicator will move. Plus, if you weight the rig properly that there is enough weight in the fly itself or with added split shots, the indicator will stand erect when the fly reaches its maximum set depth. Set this way even if a fish lightly picks up the fly and rises in the water column rather than turning or going down, the resistance removed from the indicator will cause it to fall over on its side. Any change in attitude to the indicator that you do not directly cause is most likely a strike…and hooksets are free.

Another beauty of this system is it takes nothing fancy or expensive to do it. In fact, the flies used for this are so easy to tie that you don’t mind putting them in harm’s way (close to cover) in order to catch more fish. All the patterns that I use are tied on ninety-degree jig hooks to help them hang perfectly horizontal underneath the indicator. That is very important to keep the fly looking natural like a small baitfish just suspending motionless in place. You do not want the pattern hanging either nose or tail downward.

float_n_fly_selection_3-1-17_3I have designed several flies to fish just this way. Patterns like my M & M, Wee Willy Wiggler, Big Willy, the Sonic Boom and the Magic Bullet are all designed specifically for float and fly. Not that you cannot fish them other ways but just their origins were for this method. This is finesse fishing so these flies are relatively small, one to three inches. Yet surprisingly these same small flies are responsible for some of my largest fish of all time, much less the largest of the year.

Any rod and reel will work doing this. The only thing to remember is that the deeper you want to fish, the further you have to set the indicator from the fly. Not only do you have to cast this but you must be able to reach your fish to land it when your indicator is butted up against your rod tip. This is the reason for the use of a slip indicator if you plan on fishing much below eight or ten feet. The longer the rod you use, the deeper you can fish easier. I will admit that I use a variety of rods from seven and a half feet to nine feet in length most of the time when fishing three to eight feet deep. It’s only when I want to exceed the ten-foot depth mark do I move up to a ten or eleven-foot rod. I have fished this method down to twenty feet with success. Again, being finesse fishing with hook sizes from #12 to #2 I typically fish rod weights between a 3-wt to a 7-wt. Tippet strength varies with fish size and cover. 3X or 4X are pretty standard with the little flies but I’m not afraid to jump up to 0X if I’m casting at bass.

Craig_crappie_3-1-17_4The fishing technique itself is simple. First determine how deep the fish are or the cover is that you wish to fish over. Then adjust your indicator (or as I prefer to say for this very reason, depth regulator) to the depth you wish the fly to suspend at. This should be slightly above the cover or fish as most species tend to feed up. At its deepest the fly should hover just off the bottom like some small creature swimming along and not dragging on the bottom. Yes, as in everything thing in life there is an exception to this rule but it applies most of the time. Then simply cast the rig towards the likely area and wait. I’m a fairly impatient person so I usually let it sit in place for about ten seconds without a strike before stripping it six to twelve inches and waiting again. I continue this for as long as I feel that I am still fishing inside the strike zone before picking it up and casting at another target. Sometimes when it’s really cold or a cold front has just pushed through, it pays off to let the fly remain motionless for up to a minute before moving it at all. You have to experiment with the timing and let the fish tell you what is right.

Well there you have it in a nutshell, the basics of float and fly fishing. Nothing can be simpler or more effective most of the time. The big bonus is that you’re never quite sure of what you might get hooked into on the next cast. Even with the smallest of flies you could catch a three-inch bream on one cast and the trophy of your life on the next. This season so far alone these flies have accounted for an eleven pound plus largemouth bass, a three-pound crappie and a fifteen-pound catfish. So just remember to keep a good grip on your fly rod every time your indicator dips under because you never know what might be on the other end of your line!Adrian_catfish_3-1-17_2

The Rise of the Darth Baiter (or I am not your Hairy Fodder)

I am not a black woolly bugger!Da dant da-da dant da-da…don’t you already hear the theme song to Darth Vader just by the title? Maybe I’ve been unknowingly hanging out with members of the Sith to have done something so sinister to move fly fishing closer to the dark side. I’m sure Yoda will not be happy with me. OK, enough dramatics, what in the hay am I talking about?

What else? I’ve got a new fly or at least I call it a fly, the Darth Baiter. Some of you “purists” my have different thoughts about it. But then we all have our own ideas of what is or is not a fly so I will continue on. Ever since moving to the glorious south I have done well catching bass, big bass on flies but even on some of my best days have been humbled by my dark side fishing buddies and their plastic worms. Let me be first in line to say that you just can’t beat those things in their fish catching abilities. So I finally did something about it. I can hear you already, “Oh Craig, what did you go and do now?” No I didn’t go thread a Yum Trick Worm on a wide gap hook and toss it on a fly rod…that truly would be sacrilegious. I just created a PLASTIC fly rod worm fly that looks, acts and feels like something coming straight from the dark side of fishing. But it’s not factory molded, scented, salted or sold in bags of twenty-five. It is hand tied (for the most part) and the majority of the parts are available in fly shops plus with a little help from a larger cousin of the Wee Willie Wiggler (let’s see how up on things you are) I’ve created, probably a monster but the most dang bass catching fly one could ever ask for.

Darth Baiter will lure you to the darkest side of fly fishingMy new creation, which I’m calling Darth Baiter for its proximity to dark side fishing, and its uncanny resemblance to the Overlord, comes with my standard interchangeable weighting system so you can fish this pattern at any depth or speed combination you can think of. Ironically I use more weight when using a floating line to get a jigging action to the fly and no weight at all on a sinking line when scratching the bottom at deeper depths. The stretchy plastic tail is nearly indestructible but is replaceable if it did get damaged. With a double weed guard it is capable of crawling through the thickest of weeds or over logs without hanging up (too much). Tied on a #2/0 or #2 Gamakatsu hook it is streamlined and light, easily casts with a seven weight rod. The smaller version casts well even with a five weight. As with all bass fly fishing, learning to strip strike rather than lifting the rod will get you many times more hook ups.

Choose your Darth Baiter colorFished on a floating line it is more of a jig fly as it sinks to the bottom and any stripping will cause it to hop upwards then dive back down. On a sinking line it crawls across the lake bottom the same way as a standard plastic worm with a slip sinker. Or a Rainy’s Boobie Barbell Eye can be put in place of the weight causing the fly to float and it can be fished on a sinking line much like a Carolina rig or as a top water with a floating line. With any of these methods, always fish it with your rod pointed directly at the fly to keep a straight line connection to aid in strike detection. Strikes can vary from a hard thump to a soft tap-tap or simply the line starts to move off in some direction you didn’t cause it to. Follow any of these with a strong strip strike and the battle will be on.

Just how well does it really work? Let me tell you a fishing story from last season and I’ll try to keep the exaggerating down to a minimum. I got an invite to fish with someone from down state who at the time I only knew from internet fishing sites. He knew of my flies and was relatively new to bass bugging and wanted some pointers. He happens to live on a hunting plantation with several private bass ponds on it so I eagerly jumped at the opportunity. Let me tell you that Southern hospitality still lives for he put me up for the night in their private hunting lodge and invited me to dinner along with his wife, kids and granddad. They had fried up some fresh caught bass fillets (told you I’m no purist) and homemade hushpuppies.

Darth Baiter rules the galaxy...er... the lakeThe next morning we got on the pond only to find the water more than four feet low and most of the shoreline cover sitting high and dry on land. I had planned on trying my Shimmy Fish or my Dixie Wigglers (If you’re a bass bugger you should know these patterns) but quickly it became apparent that this would be an offshore bite. So staying true to my fly fishing background, out came the depth finder, marker buoys and sinking fly lines armed with my Darth Baiter. I spent the first thirty minutes of the day cruising around the lake with the aid of my 3 HP trolling motor scanning with my depth finder to learn the structure layout of the thirty acre pond. After settling on which areas appeared to be most favorable to hold fish, this narrowed down the search. In these areas I proceeded to mark any sunken cover I could find with a buoy then we made milk runs fishing them alternately.

Anchoring a short cast away from these “stumps” we’d cast our sinking lines past them then slowly crawled the fly over them hoping to get a thump. My friend said in the end it was a tough days fishing for this pond due to water conditions but I can only dream of what a good day there must be like. He was disappointed that I only got eight bass between two and five pounds. Personally, I thought it was a great day because he offered me to come back when the fishing was better to make up for it. Want to know the best part? My friend was having a tough time with the sinking line so he went back to his standard casting gear and “real” plastic worms expecting to clean house. He only got two small bass. I feel a disturbance in the force!

I may not be your father but... who's your daddy now

Bluegill Done Right

I guess the best place to start these articles is “in the beginning”. Once upon a time when we all started our fishing careers, it probably was fishing for bluegill. It didn’t matter if our first pole was a cane pole, a spinning rod or a fly rod the target was bream, oops! I mean bluegill. OK, let’s get this out of the way right now. I’m a Yankee living in the south. A damn Yankee at that because I like it here so much that I won’t leave so give me a break if a little southern influence comes out and I switch between bluegill and bream sometimes, all right? Anyway the “B” fish were numerous and easy to catch back then…at least in the spring.

But we all have a fond spot in our hearts for these feisty little fighters. Who among us wouldn’t trade a day away to feel the pulsing of a light rod as a bull bream pulled deep circles against your best effort to get him off the bottom? Then have the thrill of repeating that feeling over and over throughout the day. Of course we all would. But it isn’t spring and even the second spawn in the summer has past, how could we still catch big bluegill?

I’m glad you asked because I know just how to do this. I’ll admit that I’m a bluegill addict. I don’t care what I’m fishing for, if big bream start biting, I’m all in! Sometime early in my addiction I developed a fly and a system that effectively catches bluegill, big ones, all year long. I call it the Wee Willy Wiggler and the Depth Regulating System. Or float and fly fishing for short. Little has changed since I caught my first bream sometime in the last century. A bait under a bobber just kills bream. But how and where you fish it makes a difference.

Gone are the slimy night crawlers, gooey wax worms and even the pieces of hot dogs. These have been replaced with an only slightly more sophisticated type of bait, the Wee Willy Wiggler. These are small, brightly colored (for the most part) worm bodied jig flies. Almost a gummy bear on a hook, I guess. But they have everything to attract a bull bream into biting. First they’re small and bite size as even a big bull has a small mouth.

A selection of Wee Willy Wigglers and different indicators

Second, they sink relatively slowly giving them a good chance to see them, plus they’re colorful and attract attention. How fish perceive these colors and how we do is not necessarily the same, especially in low light or dirty water. Either way bream are a curious beast and lucky for us they don’t have fingers. If they want to test something to see what it is they have to bite it. Then the softness of the plastic body keeps them holding on long enough for us to detect a strike and set the hook. What they could think the flies are ranges from nymphs, blood worms, grass shrimp or plankton to small bait fish or fry. But basically Wee Willy Wigglers draw attention to themselves as something small, edible and helpless, the trifecta in bream baits.

As important as the fly is, the where and how you fish it means even more. Wee Willy Wigglers can be cast and stripped much like a streamer or nymph but I find them much more effective when fished under an indicator, or as I prefer to say, a depth regulator. Aiding in the detection of a strike is a bonus feature for as far as I’m concerned. The corks main purpose is to keep the fly at a specific depth or place for the longest duration possible without hanging up or leaving the strike zone. A cast fly sinks when you stop stripping and will hang up on the bottom unless you continue to strip the fly and then it leaves the strike zone quickly giving the fish only a brief moment to decide to eat it or not. (Which at times can be a trigger for more aggressive fish. That is another story for another day!) Where as a fly suspended under an indicator maintains a controlled depth and will stay in one spot almost indefinitely thus giving the fish a long time to make up his mind to eat it or to just get curious or fed up with the fly and bite it. Remember, bluegills are not an ambush feeder like top line predators, they’re more like grazers. They just slowly wander about seeing what type of food is just floating around for them to eat. So the longer you can keep the fly in front of them, the better chance you have that they will eat it. As the Wee Willie Wiggler hangs horizontal and looking natural under an indicator, any wind and wave action will add just enough life to the fly to make it seem alive without you doing a thing. 

Places to find bigger bluegill starts with deeper water. See I didn’t say deep water but rather the relative term deeper. By deeper I mean deeper than where the little guys are to start. Bluegill typically school by size so if you find a grass flat or weed bed full of small bream in say, in four feet of water you’re close. Small fish and large fish are both looking for the same thing, food and security. Just the bigger you are the more water you need to feel secure. Now start looking for the outer edges of the surface weeds or bottom grass you found the little guys in (you can sometimes visually see weed edges but electronics really help). This usually indicates the end of light penetration or the change in bottom composition. Sometimes deeper is just a depression on that weed flat the little fish are roaming on. The weeds all look the same on the surface but there is a pot hole on the flat that may be just a foot or two deeper. Bigger fish will gravitate towards this. So now you’re getting closer. Add a change in direction in the weed growth. An inside or outside bend in the weeds and you’re really onto something. If you can find this with a log, stump, rock, a dock or other obstruction on it, you’ve hit the jack pot. Put all of this in close proximity to actual deep water and you’re probably sitting on the biggest bluegills in the lake. Remember, the weed edge/bottom transition/cover does not have to be in “deep” water itself, just close to it to be the home of the big boys. They always want to have a quick exit if needed. I guess you could say that the bruisers tend to sit in the back row of the theater. Deep is relative to a lake and or area. In a shallow lake or pond, a two foot drop is huge! Really deep might only be eight feet in some lakes. In truly deep and clear lakes, look for coves with a dirty water creek inflow, heavy cover or fish the windy side of the lake to help draw the fish shallower into more comfortable fly fishing range.

To fish these spots, tie on your Wee Willy Wiggler under a half inch diameter indicator. For me, the starting depth is usually two-thirds the depth of the water (unless I’m trying to suspend over some underwater obstruction that rises off the true bottom. Then set the indicator as near the obstruction without getting hung up). Six feet of water means a four foot leader setting, twelve foot of water means setting the indicator at eight foot and so on. The bigger fish tend to hold lower in the water column. Shellcrackers tend to be right on the bottom so adjust for them. For open water suspended fish, set the indicator for a foot above them. Bream tend to be looking up when not directly on the bottom. I fish this technique down to about fifteen foot. This is a “starting depth” as insect activity or rising plankton later in the day could bring the fish shallower, a cold front or blood worms (midge larva) could put them on the bottom. Play around with depth more than color. Change colors when you’ve been on fish and they suddenly stop hitting or start “nibbling”.

Cast your rig into “the promised land” and wait. Let the fly sink fully under the indicator and just hang there awhile. The Wee Willy Wiggler with suspend horizontally and bob in the current looking alive and vulnerable while you’re doing nothing. Wait maybe ten seconds (sometimes less, sometimes up to a full minute in cold water) before giving the rig a six to twelve inch strip. Repeat this until you believe your fly is out of the strike zone then recast. If you notice that you’re getting most of your strikes before the fly sinks all the way down, you may have your indicator set too deep. If you’re not getting hits, try a little deep before moving to a new spot.

Well, that’s it. I told you its’ simple, bobber fishing minus the messy bait. Yes it’s my fly pattern and I’m partial to it and I sell them but that doesn’t change the fact that they work and well. Also, don’t be surprised with what other species of fish you may end up with while targeting bream with “Wigglers”. Give them a try and I’ll bet you’ll become addicted to this type of fishing too.

Good fishin’!

Wee Willy Wigglers also may attract bass!