Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chernobyl Crab

The Chernobyl crab is a modern day classic saltwater pattern designed by Tim Borski.  I love dynamic patterns that you tweak slightly to cover a range of food sources and fishing applications and this fly fits the bill.  The basic design is beautifully simple: a splayed hackle wing tail, flared deer body hair tips as a collar, followed by hackle fibers palmered through loosely spun and trimmed deer hair body for a head, then finished off with some bead chain eyes.  Though named "crab", the fly is more impressionistic and can imitate a minnow, crab, or shrimp all at the same time.  However, changing the amount or positioning of the materials can make the fly more suggestive of one food source over the other.  For example, the pictured fly has splayed hackles that can imitate claws if the fly is fished slowly.  Also, the deer hair collar is large and fanned over the back of the fly like a carapace.  Yes, this fly is intended to be fished more like a crab i.e. retrieved slowly in sight fishing situations.  However, the beauty is that even with crab-like aesthetics, if fished blindly and more erratically, this fly could easily be confused for a shrimp or a mangrove minnow such as a mud minnow or molly.  To be more suggestive of a shrimp or fish rather than a crab, I would tie the hackles cupped (curved in) rather than splayed and I would reduce the size and spread of the deer-hair collar.  This technique would create a narrower profile, suggestive of a minnow or shrimp rather than the wide footprint of a crab.

This versatility also makes the fly a great winter pattern for the back country in southwest Florida.  Typically, during the cooler months, the primary forage base shifts from bait fish to shrimp and crabs.  That is not to say that bait fish aren't present or that predator don't eat bait fish or even key on bait fish during this time but rather that bait fish are not in as high of numbers and the crabs and shrimp presence increases.  So, using a fly that covers a range of food sources can help you cover water more effectively.

Additionally, because of the deer hair and overall design, the fly can be fished slowly in shallow water which allows for proper presentations to cold slow moving fish during winter's negative tides.

Tie up some Chernobyl crabs/shrimp/minnows in olives, tans, blacks and whites with dumbbell and bead chain eyes and be confident that you have a fly that every southwest Florida fish will eat.

Side Bar: If the deer hair body seems like a pain, then large tan, black, olive or pearl crystal chenille is a suitable alternative.  In fact, if you intend to fish the fly deeper in the water column, then crystal chenille may be a preferable alternative.  On that note, if you are fishing a deer hair CC, be sure to squeeze out any trapped air before use.  This is done by gently squeezing the body under water.  By forcing the air out of the fly it will track true and sink faster.

Tight Lines.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Streamers For Browns in Cold Water

Fall is a classic time to throw streamers for Browns.  Before and after the fall spawn Browns throw on the feed bag and it's a great time to stick a big one. However, in winter the giant fly and aggressive strip approach that works early in the fall season and early spring becomes less effective.  Browns seek out soft lies when the water gets cold. These lies mostly consist of soft water on the inside of deep bends and at the elbow of log jams. When I say "elbow" I am referring to the spot where the wood meets the bank. This junction typically creates a soft spot or small back eddy where Browns will sit.  I also love soft flats with wood on the bottom. These spots are some of the primary targets in winter conditions and they require a particular approach to be fished effectively.

With that in mind, the fly selection must change. As an obsessed streamer junkie it pains me to say that the perfectly crafted, double hook, deer-hair head killer needs to go back in the box. The better fly is a smaller pattern designed to sink in a hurry. A smaller weighted pattern is better at this time for a few reasons. First, your fishing window is very small in these circumstances. A deerhair head steamer relies on a long sink type to get down. It takes time and therefore distance/space for this set up to get the fly into the fishing zone. Even then a big fly doesn't get very deep and you need an aggressive fish to come up after it. Conversely, a smaller pattern with heavy weight dives right into the zone into the fishes face. A couple pops of the rod or short strips activate the fly and should trigger a strike. If not, pick it up and fire it at another spot. You could add a bullet weight to the front of the big streamer but  casting starts to get pretty tough to handle at that point.

Second, monster streamers need to fished aggressively to swim properly.  A smaller weighted pattern with breathable materials has inherent movement so it will continue to move while at rest or paused.  This is important because a cold brown is not prone to chase for very long. A slow jigging strip with pregnant pauses has a better chance of getting the bite than a power jerk strip. 

Third, because Browns aren't moving very far for the fly this time of year more accurate casting is required. I'm a decent caster but throwing an articulated behemoth into a target the size of a frisbee from a moving boat with little to no backcast room is a challenge to say the least. A little weighted fly is a dart. While still not easy, it is certainly easier to to deliver a smaller pattern to the target. 

Now, before you get all hot and bothered,  when I say small, I mean 3-5 inches rather than 7-9 (or bigger for some the crazies - myself included). Late season fish are hungry but also cold and tired from spawning. They are definitely in eating mode so it pays to make it easy for them. Put the fly in the face of a brown and give it no choice. 
For example, my last streamer trip I had to make a conscious effort to slow down. Every fish that ate, ate on a substantial pause after the first or second strip. I moved a few big fish with more aggressive retrieves but they abandoned the chase very quickly. If I had a do-over, I would have slowed way down for those fish too. I'm confident that if I had a shot at those big boys (or girls) again they would have been mine.

Something to think about before your next trip.

Tight lines.

P.S. There will certainly be occasions  where fish will be in the mood to chase during cold water conditions so it's always important to experiment with flies and retrieves and adapt to what fish are looking for on a particular day. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Steelhead - Teaching Some Lessons

We swung flies for steelhead last weekend in western Michigan. It is no secret that the run is unusually light this year. When we couple low numbers of fish, high sunny skies, and plenty of human traffic we've got our work cut out for us swinging the fly. The following are some strategies I've learned over the years for putting fish in the net in some difficult conditions.

Primer on Conditions:

In normal fall conditions the water is relatively warm and steelhead are in the river to feed rather than spawn. So, the fish hold in active lies such as the heads and tailouts of runs. They also tend to hold near to but off of structure and higher in the water column, which is conducive to a swung fly presentation. Moreover, since they are in feeding mode they are more prone to chase a steamer.

As we transition to winter, the water temperatures drop. The fish seek out deeper guts and troughs. Moreover, in the rivers I fish, the steelhead also begin holding very tight to structure. I suspect it's because the material warms ever so slightly and disrupts the current giving the steelhead a comfortable place to sit without having to expend energy. 

As a fisherman we need to be aware of these patterns in order to get the fly in front of fish. 

But what if the conditions throw you a curve ball?

In fall, bright sunny skies and people can quickly alter a fish's pattern. When faced with these factors fall fish will shift into a winter pattern particularly as to in-stream structure.  Here are some strategies I've found to be productive in the past.


Fish lowlight conditions. When the light is low fish feel safe in more open lies. For instance, every fish we hooked on the swing occurred when the sun was below the tree line. When the sun was high we coaxed some pulls but no solid grabs. The fish were there and we got bites on indy rigs but nothing on the swing during the middle of the day.

Early bird gets the worm:

People and boats put player steelhead off the bite. For instance this past weekend there were a number of people running and gunning for brown trout. That means lots of splats, oar strokes, shadows, and movement over the steelheads' head. There is no doubt they hide from the commotion in the wood. During high traffic times being the first fly through the run dramatically improves your odds of a grab.

Tight to cover:

If fish are holding tight to cover, try thinking about how to get the fly to dangle in front of that structure. This may require wading deeper and fishing deeper to allow the fly to be seen by fish holding in or under cover. Fish heavy tips and or heavy flies to get down to the fish in a hurry. We may hook some logs along the way but if the fish never sees the fly we really aren't fishing the water well.

Natural colors (be aware of flash):

Fish on bright days, at least here in the Midwest, key on natural tones. Sculpin or baitfish patterns tend to perform the best. Moreover, give them a chance to see the fly with generous amounts of flash. However, be aware that if the water is extremely clear, then flash can be counter productive. So, in regards to flash play it by ear and try to feel out what the fish are looking for.

Tight lines.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Swim Jig - FLY

When bass guys start talking about fall and spring fishing, the swim jig comes up in conversation.  It's a big, versatile lure that catches fish.  With that said, my mind wandered while I was cutting up some spinner bait skirts for my rubber legged steelhead streamers (topic of another post perhaps) and I began wondering if a swim jig fly was a possibility.  So, what are the essential elements of a classic swim jig?  The main components are: a long baitfish soft-plastic tail with plenty of movement; an upturned hook; a large silicone skirt; and a weighted head.  Ok, so once again the fly guy needs to get creative.  For the tail, 4 large schlappan feathers provide plenty of length, lots of wiggle, and some profile.  I tied the feathers to a short shank hook, which I could use with an articulation point allowing the fly to ride hook point up.  

The foundation shank is a waddington shank.  If you're unfamiliar with a waddington shanks ("WS"), they look like this:
They are popular bases for salmon and steelhead flies.  The reason for the WS is that the side-by-side wire creates a wide base that will solidly hold the rubber skirt when you slide it on.  The skirt is just a regular old silicone spinnerbait skirt. The weighted head is accomplished by medium dumbbell eyes.  There are a couple tricks and techniques, which will be better shown in a video that I hope to post soon.

Let me just say, this fly looks killer in the water and is a proven fish getter too.  The negative is that it is heavy.  The fly is not too much for a 7 or 8 weight but in this size it would be a bear to cast on a 6 weight.  That being said, the fly is 5+ inches long so you are going after the big fish of the bunch.

Monday, November 16, 2015

First Lake Run Brown of Fall

This is my first fish on the swing this season.  She's a cute little lake run brown, pretty fresh from the lake.  Although she had some color, her fins were clean and it appeared she had not been on a bed yet so the brown spawning run isn't over yet.  The most clear indication that she had not transitioned into spawning mode was that she chased down and hammered a 3.5 inch bad hair day tube fly!

I had made a lot of casts that morning with nothing to show for it, so once again persistence pays off in the swing game.  Also, she was sitting in a classic fall holding spot for river bound migrating fish - the tail-out of a relatively long run with moderate current.  However, this particular run had never produced a fish for me - ever.  Even so, I loved (now, even more so) this particular run.  It has the right speed, that slow to moderate walking pace.  It has the right depth, about 4 feet.  There are a few boulders throughout the run that provide current breaks but don't hinder the swing presentation.  The run sits just up from and down from long shallow riffle water so it seems to be a logical holding spot for resting migrating fish.  In short, in a river with limited ideal swinging water it seems perfect.  The fly swings beautifully in the run and you have enough room to make a full true skagit cast (which can be a luxury in midwest streams).  So the run is not only sound on paper it is also a particularly fun run to fish.

Accordingly, in spite of the poor track record, each and every time I go to this river I fish the run.  At first, I fished it because in light of all of its attributes, I was certain I would catch a fish out of it.  Then, after putting up a number of goose eggs - I mean never even a pluck - I just fished the run because I enjoyed fishing it.  Then the other day, a bright sunny day I might add, I approached the run as I had so many times before with excitement but very little confidence.  I worked the run in close, then out further, and progressively down the run as I had so many times before.  With each step, I thought to myself, "there should have been a fish there...and there...and there" as I had so many times before.  But then, this time, at the tail out I made a cast, then a small mend, and when the fly started to swing there she was.  As the line tightened in the current I felt the exhilarating unmistakable pull of an active fish.

People often say "it's all about the grab!" That's true, the grab is addictive and what ultimately converts people to the swing game. But what I love even more is the chess match between the fish and the angler that often occurs prior to the grab.  Sometimes the fish just hits the fly.  I've had many a steelhead do that.  In fact, we had an epic day in Michigan where a number of steelhead just hammered the fly.  One moment the fly was swinging through the run the the next a steelhead was ripping line.  This sort of take often happens at the end of the swing or the first strip or two as you set up your next cast.  Many other times the however the fish plays with its food a bit.  This commonly plays out with a pluck, a jab, a pull, generally any sort of quick tug on the end of the line.  My favorite scenario occurs when a pluck occurs at the beginning of a swing.  At that point you can visualize a steelhead tracking the fly setting up the kill but you have no idea when its going to happen - the anticipation is awesome!  However, the grab is not guaranteed and I have come across a couple tricks that have helped me seal the deal when a fish plucked but wouldn't commit.

1.  Extend your rod a bit during the hang-down.  If you got a pluck during the swing the odds are the fish is still sitting behind the fly as it dangles at the end to the swing.  By extending your rod and dropping the fly back I've found you can trigger a strike (I don't pretend to know why but it works).
2. Pop the rod tip - just short quick pops.  This will make the fly accelerate forward and up in the water column.  Presumably this makes the fly seems like a last ditch effort to escape triggering the kill instinct.
3. Some people change color I prefer to change size.  My position is they've committed to the color but the fly may be too long or large such that if the fish was able to hit the fly but miss the hook.  The point seems to be easier to get a hold of on a smaller pattern.
4. Take a small step down.  I've found if a fish hits a fly particularly hard and does not hook up it often times drops back in the run.  If I was taking a 3 steps down through the run I switch to 1 step.  so I make sure not to fish over an active fish that has dropped back.
5.  Fish the entire run and start over.  If I've located an active fish I fish that run at least one more time.  This is when I change the color or style of pattern.

The grab is exciting but enticing the grab is the fun part.  Once you know that there is a fish willing to chase a streamer it can be a challenge to convince it to eat but incredibly rewarding if you succeed.  In the case of this little brown the chess match was short lived.  She plucked early but sealed the deal a moment later about midway through the swing - love it.

Tight lines.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Craft Beer + Neighbor + Fly Fishing DVDs ='s Big Streamers

Rear Hook: 2461 Size 1
Rear Body: Reverse tied extra select craft fur (3-4 clumps tied from the hook bend to the hook eye)
Articulation: Beadalon and 3 small red craft beads
Front Hook: 2461 Size 1
Front Body: Reverse tied extra select craft fun (3 clumps but tied closer together than the rear body to add the appearance of bulk)
Gills: Red hackle flash
Head: Deer body hair over wool and a 3D eye.

So my wife had a girls night in the city this past weekend.  That meant the fly tying material could sneak out of the basement.  Fly tying is always better in the company of friends and beer, so I summoned my neighbor and fellow fly fishing junkie.  Nothing was on the agenda other than letting the creative juices flow.

We both started playing around with hollow tied craft fur.  The pictured fly started as a single then the beadalon came out.  But what to do with the head? My neighbor was using craft fur and flash for the head of his flies (he added some blue ice dub in front of a dark olive craft fur head, which looked awesome!).

When I got to the head stage of the process I wasn't sure what to do.  Initially, we talked about all wool, which would push a lot of water as with craft fur but would add undesired weight.  Then we discussed deer hair, which would add some movement to the fly but by the same token buoyancy.  After some additional thinking juice, I came to a deer hair over wool combo.  Fly designs incorporating this tying strategy have popped up on the web from time to time.  In fact, I believe Orvis carries a pattern with this style of head.  This design will push water and add some additional movement to the fly but in less tying time and with less buoyancy.  Moreover, The hollow tied body gives a cool, realistic "in the round" baitfish profile.

Fortunately, craft fur, wool and deer body hair are all materials that are cheap, easy to get a hold of, and come in a variety of colors so your creativity can go wild with this one.  As an added bonus, this is an articulated pattern that you can create without the end product using $30 of material.  As an aside, you can certainly tie this as a single rather than a double to have a 3 inch fly when 6 inches seems a bit excessive.

P.S. This is the prototype. For those into critiquing flies, I admit there are plenty of imperfections.  This one was more about seeing where the design went for fun rather than business.  Imperfections aside, I'm confident this dog will hunt.

Friday, July 10, 2015

9 months until Tarpon Season 2016

Ok, it's a long way away. But may as well start filling boxes. This fly is near and dear to me. Certainly nothing special, just a classic splayed wing keys style fly in the notorious black and purple combination.  Just a couple inches long but an absolute killer. I like to put eyes on everything but this style of fly; for no reason other than I like how they look without eyes.  Also, I don't like filling the shank with thread as some tiers do, again for no substantive reason. 

There are a couple things to keep in mind when tying these flies, which I believe enhance their fishability. First, try to tie the tail feathers straight back (or propped up slightly for a shrimpy effect) as inline and even as possible. When wet, these feathers wiggle all over the place so perfection is not necessary. However, feathers that are extremely off line may cause the fly to spin and that is no bueno. Also, the front hackle is made in two parts. The first hackle, which is fluffy, is the base or after shaft of a saddle hackle. The fluffy after shaft feathers are like short marabou fibers and when palmered they give the small fly some extra movement and bulk. The front hackle is the tip of the hackle. When palmered the tip creates a stiff front that pushes water. They combine to add movement and bulk helping the tail feathers swim when stripped. 

This pattern got me my very first poon and I have loved it ever since.

Hook choice is a matter of personal preference. However, when tarpon fishing  the weight of the hook can be a factor.  So, I like to tie flies on owner Aki hooks (heavy), sc15-2h (almost as heavy), and sc15 (light). The 2h hooks are big for their  size designation which is also something to consider.  Tarpon can be all over the water column and getting the flies in front of their face quickly is critical. And you never know what mood they will be in until you get there.

Whether you're fishing the beach or the back this fly is tough to beat.

Tight lines.