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When the Going Gets Tough

Craig with smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

Smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

I sat by my computer for a good ten minutes before I came up with this title. I could have gone several directions with the information I’m about to disclose. We were fishing for smallmouth bass in Door County, Wisconsin right after opening day of the season. The bass were in all stages of the spawn…pre, spawn and some post-spawn. The weather had been yo-yoing up and down twenty-five degrees. The wind couldn’t make up its mind on which direction to blow from but it had decided to blow hard from whichever was the direction of the moment. The warm tannic waters of the Mink River would be blown out of the river mouth and onto the rocky flat at its mouth only to be blown back up river several hours later. Plus, the word was out that the bass were in and there was a parade of boats of all sizes going up, down, in and out of the river. The conditions weren’t good and were constantly changing, rarely for the better.

There was a crowd at the lake looking for smallmouth

The word was out that the bass were in

How to deal with any of these situations individually is a story of its own. But the one thing they all have in common is the fact that they make the angling tough. Tough is tough and I’ve got a one size fits all solution to them. Just how good is this? In less than favorable conditions I managed one hundred smallmouth in three days with most bass over three pounds, a third over four and half a dozen at the magic five-pound mark. Got your attention now?

The greatest part of what I was doing was its simplicity. I guess that saying of keep it simple is true. All I was doing was an extension of my favorite way to fish, with a float and fly system. If you follow my website you already know of the Wee Willy Wiggler. Well, welcome his cousin, Big Willy and his brother Double-Wide. Before you go thinking I’ve been out in the sun too long, these are the names of two of my latest fly patterns.

Wee Willy is a size #8 jig type fly with a one-inch long rubber tail made from a child’s toy, a Googly Ball to be exact. A Big Willy is the same pattern tied on a #4 hook and made with a two-inch rubber tail from a jumbo Puffer Ball. While a Double-Wide is a #2 jig hook with twin three- inch rubber tails, yes from a child’s toy with a silly name. Despite the goofy names of the toys and the odd names of the fly patterns, these are the single most effective fly patterns that you could fish under tough conditions. This isn’t bragging, exaggerating or alternative facts but the cold hard truth. No fly pattern that I have ever fished has worked so well and consistently under tough conditions. It’s no slouch under favorable conditions either.

Original Wee Willy Wigglers (bottom right), Big Willys (left) and Double-Wides (top right)

Original Wee Willy Wigglers (bottom right), Big Willys (left) and Double-Wides (top right)

Googly Ball and Jumbo Eyeball Creature toys

Where the Wee Willy Wigglers, Big Willys and Double-Wides come from

Now that you know the what, here’s the how. As I stated, float and fly. The Willy’s are all tied on ninety-degree jig hooks and weighted to rest in a horizontal position when strung under an indicator. A half inch round indicator will support a Wee Willy and either a three-quarter inch round or a two-inch crappie float will hold the two larger versions suspended. A six to seven weight fly outfit will cast the larger fly and float easily. My personal choice is a Sage II 290 gr smallmouth bass rod. This outfit (comes with a specially weighted line) will readily cast your fly effortlessly even into a stiff wind. Plus, I feel that the 7’11” rod length is less fatiguing to cast all day.

As tied all three versions are weighted enough to get themselves down most of the time. If I’m fishing deeper than five feet or if there is a fair amount of water or wind current I will add a small clam shot six inches above the fly. Getting the fly to get to and remain at the correct depth is crucial. Most of the time the smallmouth bass are hugging the bottom. Under unfavorable weather, water conditions or extreme fishing pressure they become reluctant to leave it.

Craig with one of many smallmouth averaging 4 lbs

The closer you can suspend the fly to the bottom without dragging on it the better this will work. Being no more than a foot off the bottom is key when it’s rough going. You can suspend the fly at mid depth when conditions are good because in clear water the bass are always looking up. Knowing the depth of the water around you is critical. A depth finder is a great help but just sticking your rod tip underwater to find bottom is by far the most accurate way to know where to set your indicator in water depths less than the length of your rod. At times I alligator clip a weight to my fly to find the depth but I’m constantly checking to be sure I’m still fishing the zone.

Here’s a tip about bass fishing and wind. Bass of all species love to be by or in weeds when they are available EXCEPT when the wind is blowing hard. This tidbit is worth the price of admission alone! Besides all the sediment and debris being tumbled about, the weeds themselves become the equivalent to sitting next to curtains by an open window on a windy day…annoying. The bass relate to hard structure in high winds. They relate to things like piers, seawalls, blow downs, fish cribs and oh, ROCKS!

The wind was blowing hard in Door County, WI

The wind was blowing hard in Door County, WI

All of Rowley’s Bay and the mouth of the Mink River is nothing but rock. The river itself has some rock but mostly sand and clay with substantial weed growth along the drop offs. There’s more places to hide and be secure along the weeds but only when it is relatively calmer. When the wind wants to gale, the many of the bass move out into the river delta or surrounding flats (which depending on water color and temperature). Smallmouth love current, so the wave action that is tossing your boat around and making anchoring difficult is heaven to them. This is also where you want to fish.

Picture of Craig with smallmouth caught on a Big Willy fished float-and-fly style

This was just a small one

There are always some scattered fish along the flats searching for their next meal but the concentrations of bass are along the edges of the drops along the river delta. Fish these areas just as if they were on your favorite stream. Suspend the fly to work the depth needed, be aware of which way the current is going. There is a strange seiche type current at this river mouth that changes speed and direction with no rhyme or reason. Then cast your rig so that you achieve a downstream dead drift. If the current is slack or slow, give your indicator a foot-long strip periodically. I guess I could add to set the hook if the indictor stops or goes under but that’s about it.

Told you, simple. Put a relatively small bait in their face and keep it there for the longest amount of time possible without gluing it to the bottom. I believe that the vertical presentation keeps the fly line and most of the leader out of the fish’s view in clear water. This cannot hurt your cause. That’s how you catch fickle fish. Plus, it’s addicting to anticipate the indicator sliding under water when a fish takes it. It brings you back to being a kid watching a bobber over a cricket while fishing for bream… except these are five-pound bass.

Craig with one of many smallmouth averaging 4 lbs

It’s never really tough when you catch over 30 fish a day averaging 4 lbs.

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

Staying Warm While Winter Fly Fishing

Just the title alone sounds like an oxymoron. I’ve pretty much become a wuss since moving south some years ago. I get cold at about sixty degrees nowadays, so much for my Canadian heritage. But we do get our fair share of actual cold weather here in the south. Maybe it’s not enough to freeze our lakes over but it does drop the water temperatures into the high or at times even the low forties. The fish do get a little lethargic in those temperatures but they still eat every day. So in the south it’s not a matter of if the fish are biting but rather just how much of the elements are you willing to endure?

I guess one of the biggest things to remember in winter fly fishing is to dress in layers. You can always take something off if it gets a little warmer but you can’t add on what you don’t have. Wear thermal underwear, preferably the wicking kind that draws the moisture away from your body to keep you dry. Moisture is the biggest problem with staying warm so do everything to avoid get wet in the first place. Put a tee-shirt over those and add a sweat shirt or flannel shirt next. Follow those up with an insulated vest then a hooded jacket.

Adrian catching fish staying warmBe sure to have at least one pair of gloves with you. There are two kinds of good gloves for fishing. First there are the neoprene ones that are water proof and keep you from getting wet and hold in heat like a wet suit. Then there are the wool versions. These you can get wet yet they still retain heat keeping you warm. Just wring them out if you do immerse them in the water and they’re as good as new.

With both of these types there is then the consideration of full fingered, half fingered and ones with removable mitten tips. While they’re the warmest, with the full fingered gloves it can be difficult to handle fly line making the half fingered more casting friendly. With half your finger expose you have both feel and dexterity. But at times you can get cold with these and may want the full fingered ones to warm you up making the removable mitten ones appear just right. Yet the folded back mittens are magnets for catching fly line coils or at least they are with my casting abilities. Any glove beats no glove and then there’s always your pocket with a butane heater in it to warm you up no matter which glove you choose.

A good wool cap or Gore-Tex hat will go a long way in keeping you warm. Most body heat is lost through the tops of our heads so keep it covered. Some of us have more of a problem with this than others if you know what I mean. A wind stopping neck/face gaitor is great on windy days or when motoring down a lake. Wind chill is a big deal when the temps are already near freezing.

Don’t neglect your lower body when dressing for the cold. Again, thermal underwear and/or insulated pants will keep you warm and happy throughout the day. Even if it isn’t raining or snowing, wear your rain suit as a wind break to keep the heat in and the cold out. Sometimes I just wear my waders in the boat as a wind, rain and snow deterrent. Bib overall type rain suits are awesome for cold weather fishing. Just add a good pair of boots to keep your feet warm and dry. Staying dry is one of the keys to staying warm which will go a long way to keeping you happy on the water on a cold winter’s day. The fish cooperating can almost make up for being cold…almost.

And part two of a successful time out on the water is to make sure you’re using a cold water fly line and not a tropical one. Having the wrong line will aggravate you to no end as the tropical line will behave as well as a frozen garden hose being stiff and wound in little curls as it comes off the spool making it incapable of shooting through the guides at all. Even with a cold water line, after you pull it off the spool, stretch it. This one minute act will save you from tons of frustration. Stretch out three feet of line at a time and hold it tight for several seconds before slowly releasing the tension. This will ensure that you have a straight and limp line that will shoot through your rod guides smoothly.Staying warm in winter

If I were to add one last bit of advice from the, I wish I would do this myself file, it would be to pre-rig flies BEFORE you get to the lake. By this I mean to take several of your favorite fly patterns and a couple of spares and tie them to a length of tippet material with a loop to loop connection on the other end. Coil these in loops and put them into individual Ziploc bags for storage. Now when you want to change flies, colors or sizes, or even if you break a fly off, all you have to do to re- rig is loop the tippet to the matching loop on the end of your leader. This way you don’t have to try and tie multiple knots with stiff fingers. I always remember that I should have done this after I’ve been trying for ten minutes to make just one blood knot on a blustery day. You’ve been told.

It’s getting into the heart of winter but the diehards among us never stop fishing. In fact, many of the largest warm water fish are caught at this time of year! So prepare yourself and your gear for the cold and get out there and do me proud! Anyone else out there winter fishing, send me a photo of your catch (info@offthedeepedge.com) and I’ll get it out there for all to see. Good luck!

Welcome!

Hey ya’ll and welcome to Off the Deep Edge Warm Water Fly Fishing! My name is Craig Riendeau and I’ll be your host for these adventures into fly fishing. Not just any type of fly fishing I may add but specifically warm water fly fishing…all of it. I don’t care if you like bass, bream, crappie, musky, cats or carp or anything else for that matter, you’re welcomed here. If it swims in warm waters we’re going to look for the where and how to catch it and find the flies that do it best. And we’re going to do this mostly in less than exotic locations. We aren’t going to tell you that you need to go to Canada to catch a big musky or that you need to go into the heart of Mexico to have a good day bass fishing. We want to show that warm water fishing, good warm water fly fishing existing in each of our own backyards if we only look around a little and try some techniques you probably haven’t before. We’d also like to show those who are new to the sport that fly fishing doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to catch a decent fish, that it’s not a rich man’s sport. Not that it isn’t fun to or that we won’t ever go somewhere “nice” but show that warm water fly fishing is available to us all in one form or another. So again welcome and follow along with our articles and videos. With the help of a few friends hopefully we all can learn a new wrinkle or two on how to do better in the sport we all so love. Above all else, let’s have some fun trying!