Friday, March 13, 2015

Don't Be Afraid of Flash

If you can't tell, I love Flashabou.  It moves great in the water and is easy for fish to track down.  I caught my personal best steelhead swinging the tube fly pictured above - when the water temp was hovering right around freezing!  I call the fly an egg sucking prom dress.  The fly pattern stems from designs by Scott Howell, Kevin Feenstra, and Jeff Hubbard.  Funny story about this fly, I tied it because I was bored.  I like tube flies for patterns that are tied in the round, that is they look the same from every angle and do not have a clear top or bottom.  For example, the flash fly pictured above or a marabou spey.  This is a simple tie and is very effective.

First, secure the tube to the vice.

Second, create a small dubbing loop of arctic fox and make two or three wraps stroking the fibers back with each wrap.

Third, tie in a strung saddle hackle feather directly in front of the arctic fox, leaving no space between the two materials.  Palmer the hackle feather forward with 4-6 wraps.  The fox and feather form a base that keeps the flash from collapsing when wet giving the fly a fuller profile.

Fourth, cut a generous portion of Flashabou.  Tie in the Flashabou reverse or hollow style all the way around the tube.  Pull back the flash fibers and make a VERY small thread dam to hold the fibers in place.

Fifth, tie in and palmer a mallard flank feather in front of the flashabou - two or three turns.  Again, stroke the feather fibers back with each wrap.

Sixth, add clumps of ice dub.  If you wanted to add weight to the fly you could slip on a cone or add small dumbbell eyes.

The color combination pictured above is great in winter but experiment.  Don't be afraid of flash.  Think about a spoon or in-line spinner.  Those create far more flash and commotion than a this fly ever could and those are two of the most effective lure designs ever created.

Tie some up and give them a swim.

Tight lines.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Evolution of Modern Streamers

Large predatory fish such as bass, trout, and pike species eat smaller fish. Predatory fish are the target of anglers for their strength and sport and have been for centuries. Over time, fly fishermen developed flies to take advantage of a predatory fish's ferocious tendencies.  While I am no fly fishing historian, I believe it was Isaac Walton who coined the term artificial fly in his book the Compleat Angler written in the 17th century.  However, I understand fishing with feathers tied to hooks dates to earlier human history.   Isaac Walton referred to the palmer fly giving rise to the venerable Woolly Worm.  The Woolly Worm, evolved into the ubiquitous and ambiguous Woolly Bugger, which may be the most common or at least most recognized streamer available.

The Woolly Bugger can imitate a minnow or swimming insect depending on the size of hook and color scheme.  Suffice to say, the use of flies to imitate smaller fish or swimming prey dates back to the beginning of fly fishing history.
Beyond the Woolly Bugger, fly fishermen developed feather-wing streamers ("featherwings"), which were far more complicated and either represented a particular baitfish or worked as an attractor pattern such as the images below. 
(obtained from
Classic featherwings were as much pieces of art as they were fishing tools. The flies were sparse and tied on extremely long shanked hooks.  From my informal research, this style of fly represented a fly angler's attempt to engineer a longer streamer with a larger profile*.

A practical observation reveals a few structural weaknesses in these flies.  First, extra long shanked hooks create a lever which can pry the hook loose from a fishes jaw during the fight.  Second, these flies do not use materials which allow for inherent motion with or without angler encouragement. And third, the fly is relatively two dimensional with very little footprint in the water and insubstantial profile.  Featherwings simply swim horizontally through the water and if paused the fly will remain motionless and slowly sink; relatively static.  The Woolly Bugger incorporates marabou as a tail which never stops moving, each fiber appears to wiggle when in the water.  However, like feather-wing streamers, the Woolly Bugger swims horizontally through the water and its size is limited to the length of the hook shank.  Both feather-wing streamers and the Woolly Bugger and its family tree caught fish, however the effectiveness of the fly patterns was limited.

In my opinion, the next major evolution of streamer patterns was the Clouser Minnow created by Bob Clouser for smallmouth bass.
Bob Clouser added weight to the front of a bucktail streamer two create a jigging effect.  This design allowed a streamer to dive when the angler stops imparting action to the fly, thus the fly could swim horizontally then vertically.   The added weight also allow the fly to be fished at a variety of depths.  Additionally, the jigging effect gave an erratic wounded effect to the fly, which would stimulate an attack.

While incorporating weight certainly advanced streamers and streamer fishing, there was still room to grow - enter Kelly Galloup and company**.  Mr. Galloup operated the now closed Troutsman Fly Shop out of Traverse City Michigan.  I believe that shop really started to change the streamer game.  Michigan trout streams do not generate the volume of big trout as western streams.  Probably because the western streams have more prolific bug life.  However, when a brown gets to be a certain size (in Michigan and out west) they primarily eat other fish and ignore insects but for a few select hatches.  Big browns do not eat very often but when they do they will eat other trout, lampreys, mice, frogs, basically anything that will fit in their mouth and Michigan fly tires started experimenting with streamer design to trigger a feeding instinct.  For instance, Galloup's Zoo Couger is a basic Muddler style pattern with an extremely large deer hair head that pushes water and a mallard flank feather along its back.  These two designs cause the fly to cut through the water in erratic and unpredictable ways, dipping, diving, wobbling, gliding at odd angles when stripped giving it both a large auditor footprint as well as a life like action.  Unlike the Clouser Minnow, the Zoo Couger didn't simply "jig" but it fought the water and struggled against the current giving it a truly attractive swimming motion.

Next came articulation.  By using a wire or monofilament loop glued to the hook, a fly tier could create a jointed fly that resembled the swimming motion of a deadly jointed Rapala and more importantly an injured baitfish.  This design was revolutionary for two reasons.  One, the articulation point gave the fly exceptionally lifelike movement in the water.  When coupled with materials such as marabou like the Woolly Bugger, and weight like the Clouser Minnow, the fly tier can design a fly that appear to swim mostly on its own without much intervention by the angler.  And two, the angler can make an extremely large fly with short shanked hooks, thus increasing the hook to catch ratio, thereby eliminating some of the structural issues of the classic featherwings.

The articulated streamer is the most recently evolution and tyers are continuing to tweak the design. A recent modification was created by Tommy Lynch, a fly called the Drunk & Disorderly ("D&D"). This fly takes designs from the Heifer Groomer (an articulated Zoo Cougar), the Swimmin' Jimmy (a Heifer Groom that uses an offset front hook).  Below are some of my versions of a D&D.

 What's different about this fly is the use of an inverted wide gap swimbait hook upon which the deerhair head is tied.  Also, the wide deerhair head is cut at a sharp angle causing it to dive and swim erratically.

I'm finding that the use of nontraditional fly hooks is perhaps the most recent small step in the evolution of the streamer.  With the flow of information now, I can't wait to see what comes next.

Here is a video which shows how to tie a D&D:

Tight Lines.

*There is a history to these flies, a history that has been well developed by academics and one that I am not qualified to discuss.  My observations regarding these flies are purely based on my fishing experience.

**Again, I am no historian and I am certain there were a number of creative streamer tying evolutions between the Wooly Bugger and Kelly Galloup, which I have omitted but such detail is for another post.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lessons From Late Winter Steelheading

Last weekend was spent swinging flies for steelhead in northwest Michigan.  Leading up to the weekend the fishing reports were sketchy, mostly because Michigan's rivers were choked with ice and not fishable.  When I arrived, the air temperatures were in the mid-teens and the river flows were tight with shelf ice - not promising.  

 I'm dedicated to swinging flies for steelhead - I love everything about it.  While I will employ other techniques such as using an indicator (that's fun too), and if the conditions require I will stoop to chuck-n-duck (although that is only a last resort), if given a choice I will swing flies.  In Michigan, the spring spawning run is not a particularly good time to swing flies.  Although you have high concentrations of fish, the fish are either concentrated on spawning or they have keyed on the nymphs and eggs that are kicked up by spawning steelhead and so they are not inclined to chase a streamer.  Moreover, the rivers get very crowded with people which tends to hurt the swing bite as even an aggressive, player, steelhead will get turned off by heavy human traffic. There is of course the drop-back steelhead but that's another topic all together. 

Gold of Winter
So, I like to head north at the end of winter to avoid the crowds and get some swinging in before the fish transition to their spring pattern.  The best case scenario for this pattern is a mild winter that lingers so the fish numbers increase in anticipation of the spawning run but the temperatures remain cold enough to keep the fish from hitting the gravel.  In that case you will have good numbers fresh aggressive fish and typically far less people. There are two worst case scenarios: (1) spring comes early with an abrupt late winter warm-up that blows out the river; and (2) the winter is brutally cold and the ice prevents both the fish from entering the river and the fisherman from fishing.  If the first worst-case scenario occurs, you will have no choice but to employ the dreaded and infamous chuck-n-duck!  Moreover, very high water early in spring will shorten the run as the fish may quickly and easily spawn in the high flows and drop back to the lake just as fast.  In the second scenario, you are very cold and there are just a few fish in the river, fish that have been in the river for at a month or more.  In short, you will have your work cut out for you.  I was faced with the second scenario.

On the water, the air was cold; mid-teens to start the day and looking forward to mid-twenties.   The river was cold as well and nearly covered in ice in some narrow spots. Water temperatures maxed out around 33.8 degrees!  Naturally, the water was low, clear, and appeared to be dropping as the river was contracting into a solid form.  The only positive factor was a lack of fishing pressure.  Swinging flies in these conditions is technical and will teach you a number of things.

First Lesson: You Don't Always Have to Make a True Spey Cast

For a casting junkie this is a hard lesson.  You are getting into the swing game.  You've become proficient at the snap-t cast and the double spey cast, which makes you finally feel legitimate and not just another poser with a two-hander.  The last thing you want to do is quietly slop roll cast your fly all day!  Don't let yourself get wrapped up in the process - you are out there to fish not just to cast. Many Midwest streams are small and narrow to begin with and with low water and shelf ice they are even more so.  A typical skagit head plus a ten foot sink tip and leader may be enough length to swing a hole or run (probably even too much).  Also, to fish a run properly you may be forced to stand right on the edges of runs; right on top of the fish.  In those conditions, the rip of a heavy shooting head to form a proper d-loop can and will spook fish.  Instead, simply roll cast the fly to your spot.  Such a cast is stealthy and will get the job done. Sure, the cast won't look pretty but do you really care?  When you approach a run in all but especially low, clear, and cold conditions think about distance and what it will take to get the fly in front of the fish.  Don't do more than you have to to get the fly to the right spot. 

Second Lesson: Don't Always Mend

In low, clear water, depth and current can be less of an issue.  When swinging flies you get into a routine: cast - mend - swing - repeat.  The cadence is hypnotic.  However, the mend has a particular purpose and is not always necessary.  The mend is typically used to allow a fly to achieve the proper depth before it begins to swing.  In shallow water a sink tip and weighted fly will likely get the job done without the assistance of a mend.  Unnecessary mends will cause you to snag and the added commotion on the surface may spook fish in low clear water.  At times in these conditions a mend may be necessary, but as with the first lesson, think "what do I need to do to get the fly in front of a fish?" before you cast.

Third Lesson: Fish Your Feet

This applies in all conditions.  I hooked the Buck pictured below with less than a full shooting head out of the rod tip.  He was sitting in the gut of a hole that begins with a steep ledge and tapers into a long tail out.  The gut is closer to the top of the hole.  The hole is in a relatively wide section of river and the tail out looks awesome - finally a chance to bust out a snap-t!  NO!  Especially in winter, fish seek out the gut of holes (especially alpha fish).  They will also sit at the base of a ledge at the head of a run.  Take your time and fish the water throughly.  When faced with a steep ledge dropping into a gut, fish close and let your fly drop over the ledge.  You never know when that stud may be right at your feet.  

Hammered an egg sucking prom dress tube as the fly passed through the gut of the run in 33 degree water

Tight Lines

Monday, March 9, 2015

Chuck-n-Duck Gravel - There is More to Steelheading


Time for some ranting and rambling from atop my high horse. While fishing this past weekend I witnessed a guy attempting to chuck-n-duck gravel (the water was 33-34 degrees) with a Sage Z-Axis switch rod and a Hardy reel - COME ON!  I am confident I know how this scene came to be, let me tell you what happened.  The following is a hypothetical.  Guy likes fly fishing for trout and bass here in the Midwest and wants to try steelhead - you go get some Guy.  Guy goes on the Internet, googles steelhead fly fishing rod and reel, and up pops a beautiful two-hander and a classic click-pawl reel - great, that was easy and Guy is nearly set.  Guy goes to Fly Shop and buys the best two-hander in the store and that sweet Hardy reel.  Fly Shop is very happy ($$$$) and Guy is equally happy but confused - now what!?  Maybe Guy talks to Fly Shop about how to use the rod and reel but more likely, Guy goes to Friend.  Friend has been "steelheading" for years, and every March and April he returns with stories of days of huge numbers and pictures of big dark green steelhead with deep red gill plates, and awesome bold red stripes. Some fish are bright silver but most look like giant toothy rainbows that remind Guy of the eight to twelve inch rainbows from Guy's local trout stream.  So, naturally, Guy goes to Friend for advice.  Wise and experienced Friend, shows Guy how to fish for steelhead using a chuck-n-duck technique. Perhaps, Guy thinks about the technique and wonders why this technique is so different than the fly fishing Guy knows and loves but who is Guy to argue.  So, Guy goes out and loads that Hardy with Zip Line (a thin running line), buys a bunch of slinkies, lead, swivels, glo-bugs, and purple egg-sucking woolly buggers.  That April, Friend takes Guy to some revered steelhead grounds.  Friend points to a shallow riffle.  Beneath the surface, Guy sees a massive pod of fish that appear to be jockeying for position.  Loaded with lead weight and egg fly patterns, Guy and Friend start wailing on that pod of fish.  Sure, some of the fish Friend and Guy land are hooked in the tail, the back, or on the gill plate but some are hooked in the corner of the mouth.  And oh the fight! That Hardy reel is screaming with every fish as the fish thrashes and rolls on the surface heading down stream with the current.  There appear to be so many fish, Guy and Friend even take home a few.  Another Midwest steelheader is born.

What is wrong with this hypothetical?  First and foremost, Guy and Friend were fishing for actively spawning steelhead on gravel.  Steelhead spawn on gravel beds.  Most strains spawn when the water temperatures are around 40 degrees.  When fish are on gravel they are easy to see and since they are interested in spawning the fish don't spook easily so anglers can fish for them tirelessly.  In predominantly wild rivers, those fish are creating the next generation of steelhead in a fragile ecosystem and should be left alone.  In stocked fisheries this is less of a problem.  Second, they are using a chuck-n-duck technique, which is, as explained below, at best quasi-fly fishing.  Third, the steelhead, exhausted from spawning, is hardly at its peak fighting form and the "reel screaming" runs result from  an improperly used click-pawl reel, which relies on the angler's hand to apply drag in combination with the rivers heavy spring flows rather than the fishes strength.  Plus, fighting a spawning fish puts unnecessary stress on the animal - steelhead can be repeat spawners if we let them.  Fourth, keeping a fish obviously kills the fish and snagging a fish may kill it as well.  Finally, the nature of the chuck-n-duck technique ends up leaving a ton of snagged monofilament and hooks on the river bottom and in the trees in the riparian zone.  This waste inadvertently kills a lot of other fish and wildlife.  While Guy and Friend may have caught a lot of fish, if they were irresponsible and disrespectful they may have done a lot of damage as well and employed few skills other than perhaps good vision.  Nevertheless, they have lots of trophies.

The chuck-n-duck technique involves a fly rod/reel rigged with a thin running line attached directly to the leader (or even straight monofilament like conventional tackle).  Heavy lead weight is attached to the leader and one or two flies, typically eggs, trail behind the lead.  The rig is cast by "chucking" the weight overhead which propels the flies to the target.  The heavy weight gets the flies to the bottom in a hurry and keeps them there in deep and or heavy current.  How is this considered fly fishing?  I say it is not.  In simplest terms, fly fishing uses the weight of the line to flex the rod and propel the fly because the fly doesn't have enough weight to do so on its own.  Your spinning rod relies on the weight of the terminal tackle or lure to generate enough flex in the rod to propel the lure to the target.  While the typical chuck-n-duck rig uses a fly rod and reel and flies, the rod is cast and fished just like a spinning rod.  At best you can call chuck-n-duck a hybrid between fly fishing and conventional tackle but it is not fly fishing.  Plus, people typically use this technique to fish actively spawning fish on gravel (giving rise to the local term "raking the gravel").  This is bad for the fish because the angler often ends up either snagging the fish or lining the fish. Lining the fish occurs when the line drifts into a fishes mouth and the fly is pulled into the side of the fish's face rather than the fish eating the fly and becoming hooked inside of the mouth.  Lining is an unacceptable form of fishing; it is dressed up snagging and should not be done.

My understanding is that this technique was developed in the Midwest as an effective way to present flies to fish in deep, heavy, and often swirling currents, which are common in Midwest waters.  Fly fishermen borrowed techniques from bait fishermen and an efficient technique was born.  Is it fly fishing? Is using a fly rod to cast a worm under a bobber a form of fly fishing?  No one cared because  chuck-n-duck caught fish, especially fish on spawning gravel. While fishing the gravel an angler can "sight fish" for steelhead but the angler ends up lining or snagging as many fish as he or she fairly hooks.   Next time you go fishing in the spring find the spawning gravel and observe.  There will be crowds of people and lots of action but most of the action is not legitimate.  There may be a time and place for the technique but only in extreme circumstances.  People overuse the technique and thereby limit themselves, their growth as anglers, their understanding of the water, and their understand of the fish and they litter the river in the process.

Hopping off my high horse, I am a fisherman first and a fly fisherman second and if the water is extremely high and fast when I have the opportunity to be on the water I will choose to fish over staying at home.  So, if the water is extremely high, dirty, and fast a fisherman has no choice but to chuck-n-duck.  I will use the technique, the technique is far and away the most effective if not the only way to catch a steelhead with flies in high, fast, muddy water, and like all pleasurable wrongs I feel guilty and dirty afterwards.  If I had more time to fish, I would have the luxury of being a purist.  I have the potential to be the most arrogant purist on the water but I'm not because I can't be.

All that said, the chuck-n-duck method is a great way to get your hands on a steelhead if you are getting into the sport.  It is not complicated, it doesn't require expensive equipment, and it will catch you boat loads of fish.  But remember the chuck-n-duck is just the beginning of a steelheaders growth.   Use it, get some fish under your belt, fall in love with steelhead and move on.  Trust me when I say the first steelhead that chases and hammers your swung fly, a fly which you tied with the intent that it will swim in a particular way, and elicit a strike.  When you refine your casting and mending, and your ability to read and cover the entire river.  When you can find and anticipate where a steelhead might be once it enters a river.  When all that happens and you get that beautiful chrome steelhead on the swing, a steelhead that you had planned for, a steelhead that is yours, you will never want to go anywhere near that gravel again.

Tight Lines