Looking for the perfect trout stick? An understanding of how rod performance determines price will help you pick the best rod no matter how much you want to spend
Walk into any fly shop from the Rockies to the Catskills and you’ll see a wall or two full of trout rods. Most shops carry a half-dozen brands at least, and the prices range from the bare-bones value of rods like the ECHO Base, all the way to the pricey G. Loomis Asquith. I’ve spent my entire life chasing trout in the American West, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about “good” trout rods. I’ve also had the opportunity to fish many different rod brands across a wide spectrum of price ranges. Of course, “good” and “bad” are subjective terms, but using them to describe rods boils down to whether or not a fly rod puts your fly where, how, and when you wanted it. It’s the performance aspect of fly rods that creates the price disparity. But does that price difference automatically mean an expensive rod will put your fly on the water, exactly how you want, as accurately as possible, every time? Not entirely. A competent angler can work with an incompetent rod. If you’re in the market for a new trout rod, here’s what to consider when figuring out which one is right for you, based on everything from budget to your preferred style of fishing. First and foremost, you have to understand that what creates the price differences among trout rods comes down to these three features:
A high price tag almost always correlates to a fly rod blank that’s lighter and stronger than cheaper rods. Winston’s new AIR rod family is a great example to use here. The AIR utilizes Winston’s blend of boron graphite and a new resin (the glue that holds graphite together), which supposedly dries lighter, meaning you’re fishing a lighter rod. The AIR retails for $950 – a hefty price tag. But when compared to the company’s new Kairos—which goes for $475—you can immediately notice the difference in rod weight and overall feel. Blank quality is the biggest factor in pricing a rod.
This is a tricky aspect to quantify because performance is such a subjective term, and it’s devilishly hard to accurately measure. What is measureable, though, is how a blank tracks and deflects. A rod with high torsional stability (meaning the tip stays in a relatively straight line as it moves on your front and back cast) that doesn’t oscillate will, in the right hands, be more accurate than a rod that’s not built with those major features in mind.
Just like the majority of flies are tied to catch fishermen more so than fish, rods are built to draw attention while on the shop rack. From the bright green of the Sage MOD to the trademark unsanded finish on Scott rods, every company has some signature build quality meant to make a rod fit for the classiest of tweed-clad trout anglers. Joking aside, the quality of a rod’s cork, guides, thread wraps, and hardware quickly add up to a bigger price tag. They don’t drastically impact how a rod performs, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t appreciate well-built rods. It’s a lot like hunting rifles, honestly. A composite stock doesn’t make a gun better than one with a real wood stock, but something about solid mahogany or walnut just feels better.
Now that you have a better understanding of what sets the price of a fly rod, consider these factors before walking into the fly shop:
How much are you willing to spend on a rod? Go in with a firm idea because that will hugely narrow down your search for the perfect rod.
What do you plan to use this rod for? Is it your .30-06, ready to tackle just about every situation you come across? Five-weight rods are the go-to for most trout anglers, myself included, and are largely considered the best all-around weight. Four-weight rods are lighter and a top choice for devout dry fly anglers, and a heavier, faster 6-weight is the standard stick for guys that like to strip larger streamers all day or dredge nymphs on weighted rigs. When you clearly define the use of the rod you’re going to buy, your options will narrow even further. However you fish, make sure the rod you buy matches your style. You’ll appreciate your investment that much more if you buy something suited exactly to your standard trout fishing needs.
Once you’ve answered the above questions, and taken into account what aspects of a rod are most impactful in rod performance, you’re ready to start shopping. The following list is a great starting point for finding the rod you want at the right price. I’ve personally fished each and every one of these sticks, and while there are many, many others on the market, my field test findings may help guide your decision. Whichever rod you end up with, make sure to keep it clear of car doors, clean the dirt from the ferrules, and catch some trout with it. No matter how pretty or expensive a rod is, as late master rodsmith Tom Morgan himself told me, “Rods are meant to be fished.”
Written by Spencer Durrant for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spun-hair files are secret weapons for bass, pike, and trout. Here are the best fly patterns, fly-tying tips, and big-fish tactics
Everything about modern flyfishing is fast. We’ve got fast rods, fast-shooting heads, fast-drying UV resin, and even premade wings, legs, and tails that let you whip up flies faster than ever. This might be why spun-hair bass bugs aren’t commonplace in fly boxes today. Everything about them is slow. They need to be fished with patience, you can’t knock them out at the vise, and their air-resistant bodies made Granddad’s slow, noodly fiberglass rod the perfect hair-bug delivery tool. Thing is, spun-hair bugs haven’t lost an ounce of potency since Granddad’s day. And while it’s true that a well-made hair bug isn’t cheap, if you know what to do with one, it’ll repay you with more giant fish.
1. Soak It In
Not only is Pat Cohen the man when it comes to tying hair bugs (see “Spin Class,” below), he’s also a leading expert on fishing them. It’s important to remember that a hair bug behaves differently than a similar fly with a foam, cork, or balsa body, which is why Cohen says you don’t want to just tie one on and slap it down. A little bit of hair-bug prep goes a long way.
“I prefer to fish hair bugs that are waterlogged,” says Cohen. “I’ll actually soak them for up to an hour before fishing to make sure all of that hair absorbs as much water as possible. Just before I start casting, I’ll squeeze the bug out. What you end up with is a fly that will naturally ride lower in the surface film.”
According to Cohen, a hair bug that’s riding low produces a deeper gurgle and pop that simply can’t be matched by topwater flies with solid bodies. This sound can be a dinner bell for huge bass if you present the fly correctly. Cohen says it’s important not to overwork a topwater hair bug. He always lets the splat-down rings dissipate before moving his fly. “I give it a couple of pops and let it sit for three to five seconds,” he says. “If there’s a bass in the area, it knows your fly is there. Bass are naturally curious and will come scope it out.
You just have to vary your retrieve cadence and speed to figure out how to make it eat.”
2. Sinkers and Floaters
Hair bugs are surface flies, so you’d naturally want to cast them on a floating fly line. Most of the time, anyway. If you’re looking for a leg up on trophy pike, bass, or even trout, Cohen recommends ditching the floater, particularly when you’re using a hair diver. Pair these buoyant bugs with a heavy-grain sink tip, and the results can be positively stunning.
“That sinking fly line wants to go down, and a floating fly wants to come up. So you get this up-and-down jigging action, along with this really crazy, erratic side-to-side motion,” Cohen says. “It’s almost similar to a crankbait’s wobble. You can fish it just like a streamer, and it’s absolutely deadly.”
To dial in exactly the action you want, Cohen says, all you have to do is play with leader length. The longer the leader, the more time it will take the sink tip to pull the fly down and the more subtle the action. If you use a short 2- or 3-foot leader, the fly will drop faster and you’ll get increased action on the strip. By varying sink-tip weight and length, you can also fine-tune exactly where in the water column you want that diver to work or suspend.
3. Pop and Drop
Deer-hair poppers might have the uncanny ability to draw in bass, but that doesn’t always mean those bass are going to commit. This is one of the reasons why Cohen often hangs a dropper under his flies. He says the method makes the play more often than not when bass are being finicky.
“What I do is take a 24-inch piece of leader material and tie it to the bend of my popper hook,” Cohen says. “Then you tie a small sinking fly to that leader. A little Clouser Minnow is one of my favorites. As you work that popper, that Clouser is bouncing around below it, and it looks just like an injured baitfish. So you’ve got the unique sound of the popper to call the fish in, but also a smaller target if a bass won’t hit the bigger meal.”
If you tie up Cohen’s “popper-dropper” rig, just don’t forget to alter your casting a bit; fail to open up your loop, and that little Clouser can create some gnarly tangles or end up in the back of your skull.
Back in the day, spinning hair to create a popper was practical; in today’s world of myriad prefab foam-popper heads, it may seem outdated. The reality is that in many cases, a hair popper gives you an edge. The difference lies in the sound it makes in the water, which is a much deeper, more “gurgly” one than your average foam popper. Add in hair’s ability to move more water, and you’ve got a hog caller.
Much like a hollow-body plastic frog, there aren’t many places a spun-hair frog with a weedguard can’t go. You can find hair frogs with popping bodies and diving bodies, but those with more streamlined slider-style bodies are some of the most versatile. They’ll glide over the tops of lilies and grass mats while producing a strong V wake to call in the biggest bass and pike hiding in the salad bar.
Designed by renowned angler Larry Dahlberg, the diver’s magic lies in the head design, which tapers from slanted at the front to a wide, flared collar at the back. Give it a hard strip and it will dive a few inches under the surface, and as water moves over the flared collar, the fly will wobble and shimmy seductively. Strip slowly and a diver will get smoked as it wakes and gurgles across the surface.
Even a small bass can easily suck down a hefty hair mouse. If late-night brown trout hunting is your game, however, you only tie one of these bushy fur balls on when you’re after “the one.” It takes a big mouth and strong commitment for a trout to eat a hair mouse, but when it happens, make sure you feel your line tighten before you set. Otherwise, you’re just going to yank the midnight snack away from the fish.
Pat Cohen of Super Fly is the modern-day hair master. So exceptional is his work that many of his fans consider his flies more art than tackle. It’s no secret that making quality hair bugs is meticulous work that takes plenty of practice to perfect, but if you’re thinking about giving it a shot, Cohen says understanding these three hair-spinning rules is critical before you get started.
“I think a lot of people mistake bass bugs as being made of bucktail,” Cohen says. “Bucktail doesn’t flare properly. I also see a lot of folks trying to use deer body hair, but it’s soft and absorbs a lot of water. The flies don’t always float correctly and often flip over on their backs. To make a good bass bug, you always want to use quality deer belly hair. It’s stiff, flares correctly, and has the most buoyancy.”
“One of the biggest issues tiers have is thread control,” says Cohen. “When it’s time to cinch a stack of hair in place, people are afraid to put too much tension on the thread because they don’t want to break it. But you have to break thread now and again to learn how much tension you can put on it. If you don’t use enough tension, your fly will weaken and fall apart after a while. I use gel-spun threads for all my bugs because they can handle a lot of tension.”
“Carving bass bugs takes a lot of patience,” Cohen says. “When you’re ready for shaping, the trick is not thinking of the final shape. You want to envision a body in its most basic form. As an example, if you break down a popper to its basic fundamental shape, it’s a rectangle on a hook. Trimming the hair into an even rectangle is easier for people to do. Once you have that shape completed, then you can go back and round it into the popper you want.”
Written by Joe Cermele for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Fly fishing is often a solitary sport, and many anglers like it that way. The experience of being alone on a pristine river with just a gentle breeze and the swish of the line playing out, not to mention the glory of reeling in a big one, is an almost religious endeavor for some outdoor lovers.
However, there are bound to be the encounters that are memorable for the wrong reasons—and not just because the big one that got away. Instead, it's the fellow fishermen (and women) who sometimes are to blame for a less-than-enjoyable encounter on the water.
So, with plenty of great fishing days still up for grabs this summer and into fall, here's a look at the unwritten rules of fly fishing etiquette. Put them to use around Wyoming or wherever else the fish are biting.
Respect the space of others.
Unless you want to catch a fly in the back—or catch plenty of flak for being the one to land a fly on someone else's back—give your fellow fisherfolk plenty of room. If you walk down the river and find someone already there, find another spot a few runs up; generally there’s enough space for everyone. As Tim Wade, owner of North Fork Anglers in Cody, notes: “Just because someone is fishing there doesn’t mean that’s the only place to catch fish.”
If you're staking out your spot along with other anglers, all you have to do is either quietly observe which direction they're headed in, and plan accordingly. Or you can politely ask where they’re headed. “Communication is key,” Wade notes.
Respecting others' space also applies to boaters, too. “Proper etiquette is to give the fisherman around you room to fish," says Dave Crowther, a local fly fisherman and builder of custom rods. “Boat fishermen should make sure not to stop right where someone on shore is casting. There should be enough distance between the boat and shore not to overlap lines.”
Watch where you're casting (and back-casting), too, especially in more crowded areas: Don't be that guy (or gal) who's yanking and whipping his line like a cowboy with a lasso.
Respect the resource, too.
Trout are fragile creatures. “It takes a long time to grow a fish in this area," says Crowther. "A 24-inch trout can be four years old and then they only have another couple of years left to live.”
Anglers who are fishing catch and release must learn proper release techniques, as improper or sloppy handling can also mean a dead fish. Keep the fish out of the water a maximum of five or six seconds when you snap that trophy photo. Proper fish handling helps protect a delicate resource.
Keep quiet and calm.
One of the most beautiful aspects of fishing is the serene sound of the wilderness: the river, birds, and wildlife, and of course, that glorious sound of the fly whizzing through the air. Keep the peace by keeping your voice low and if you do land a big one, keep the hooting and hollering to a minimum. It's fine to get excited about fishing, and to celebrate your catch, of course, but do it with some decorum. Similarly, if you're fishing mid-river: Don't splash around and stir up the water.
Don't forget about the little things.
Keep in mind that something as seemingly insignificant as your shadow along the bank can alert the fish and disrupt someone's fishing; walk far enough off the bank to mitigate that issue. And, if your dog won't be winning any awards for obedience, it might be best to leave him or her home on this one. The only animals your fellow fishermen want to worry about are the ones with fins in the river.
Learn four powerful little words.
If you you spend enough time fishing, sooner or later you'll be the at the receiving end of some of the slip-ups mentioned above. And when that happens, don't get riled up or blow your cool. Instead, politely point out the problem, and if you're met with resistance, here's what you say: "You must be new." Then smile and keep casting.
Written by Leslie Tribble for RootsRated and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Essential advice from one of Field & Stream’s greatest writers
For three and a half decades, H.G. “Tap” Tapply dolled out hard-earned wisdom on all things outdoors in his monthly column, Tap’s Tips. Here, we have compiled 40 of his best fishing tips from the ’60s and ’70s. Tapply specialized in quick, clever solutions to common problems—many of which are sure to solve your modern-day woes. —The Editors
A plastic worm that has been torn or cut in half can be stuck together very easily. Heat the two ends over a lighter till they melt, then hold them together while the plastic hardens. The “weld” will be as strong as the original worm.
You can brighten tarnished spoon and spinner blades, or paint a glittery body on a streamer fly hook, with an “ultra-iridescent” sparkling fingernail polish. It can be found in copper and silver colors in a small bottle with a brush applicator, and costs only two bits.
When you find line-grooves in a rod guide, usually at the tip top, you can buff them away with thin strips of emery cloth. But this leaves a rough surface, so always finish the job by polishing the inside of the guides with crocus cloth (jeweler’s rouge).
When you return home after a day of fishing, make it a habit to leave your box of lures or book of flies open overnight so the contents can dry out. Moisture trapped in an airtight container will soon rust hooks and tarnish metal lures.
When you run your boat ashore after a day’s fishing, stop the motor by disconnecting the fuel line and letting the motor idle till the carburetor runs dry. This will eliminate the chance that fuel may leak out when you put the kicker in the car trunk.
A frozen fish should be thawed slowly. Either put it in the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking it or place it in cold water. If the fish is thawed too fast, the outside flesh may deteriorate while the inside is still frozen too hard to cook through.
To provide a contrasty background for tying flies, paint the tying table soft white or another light shade, or use self-adhering, shelf-lining material in a solid color (light green is ideal). It’s easier on the eyes when tying very small flies.
As a rule of thumb, fish should not be kept in the refrigerator longer than two days before being cooked, for they lose their flavor rapidly. If it is necessary to keep the fish any longer than two days, it is better to quick-freeze them instead.
Two tips for keeping rod ferrules from sticking: One, don’t lubricate them, because oil or nose grease collects dust and dirt. Keep both ferrules dry and clean. Two, take the rod apart as soon as you quit fishing so the metal can’t oxidize and lock.
Small leaks and briar-pricks in boots or waders can be plugged temporarily by melting the end of a plastic worm and smearing the hot goo over the hole. The plastic hardens in a few seconds and sticks well. (Suggested by Mark Knight, Kansas City, Mo.)
Of the many ways to prevent the mesh of a landing net from becoming entangled in brush, twigs, and barbed wire fences, this is the simplest: Slip a heavy rubber band over the handle of the net and tuck the tip-end of the net bag under it.
An old (but not broken) ski pole makes an excellent staff for wading heavy water. Remove the basket at the bottom of the pole and attach a cord to the thong at the top so you can let go of it when you have waded into position to fish.
Some trolling lures revolve one way, some the other. If you know the direction in which your favorite lures spin, you can change from a clockwise to a counterclockwise lure to prevent, or reduce, line-twist. Even so, it is wise to use a trolling keel.
L. F. Manning of Norwood, Pa., tells me he doesn’t use a bait bucket for carrying minnows. He puts them in a sealed, pint-sized Mason jar about two-thirds full of water; says a dozen minnows stay frisky all day if he changes the water every few hours.
When fishing high, cold water in the early spring with spinning gear, try casting diagonally upstream and retrieving just fast enough to keep the lure from hanging on bottom. This often takes sluggish trout that refuse to budge for anything else.
A noisy approach can spoil a good fishing spot, so kill the motor and drift in quietly, then ease the anchor down slowly. When you start fishing, talk all you want, but try to avoid banging or scraping against the boat, for those noises fish can “hear”.
Ever knocked over your minnow pail and spilled your day’s supply of ice-fishing bait? It’s less likely to happen if you put a good-sized rock in the bottom; then if you accidentally kick the bucket, the rock may prevent it from tipping over.
You can keep a little cooler when fishing under a hot summer sun if you line the inside of your hat with aluminum foil, which acts as a heat reflector. It also helps if you wet your hair occasionally; it has a cooling effect as it evaporates.
October is the time when bass start to move out into their winter quarters. The larger ones, especially, seek out the deeper holes. One way to locate them is to scratch bottom in from 10 to 20 feet of water with a plastic worm fished very slowly.
You can often tell what type of mayfly has been hatching recently on a trout stream by looking for spider webs in the bushes and especially under bridges. A few flies always get tangled in webs, and you can match them if they hatch again.
Game or fish from the home freezer often doesn’t taste as good as you expected. One reason, it may have been kept too long. Another, more common, reason: It wasn’t quick-frozen. Many home freezers don’t run cold enough to quick-freeze food.
Recently I warned against putting mothballs in plastic fly boxes because they discolor and soften the plastic. But Col. J. R. Grey of Sacramento, Calif., tells me only those made with paradichlorobenzene do this; repellents with naphthalene do no damage.
Fly tyers prize the barred and black-tipped side feathers from drake wood ducks, so if you shoot a male woodie this fall be sure to save these feathers and give them to someone who ties flies. He’ll be so grateful he’ll probably force some flies on you.
Rod ferrules that fit too tightly can be loosened a little by polishing them with petroleum jelly. Swab it on the ferrules and put them together and pull them apart several times, then wipe them clean. The two parts will slide together much easier.
The sketch shows how Douglas Heathcock of Wellington, Ala., hooks a plastic worm to make it twist when retrieved. He reports that the spiraling action brings bass up from deep water and out of the weed beds even when the worm is fished on the surface.
You can usually keep your spinning and bait-casting reels in working order with a tiny screwdriver and a small crochet hook, one for making repairs, the other for picking out line tangles. Carry one of each in both boxes of lures and you’ll be ready for trouble.
Look for trout at the tail end of big pools at dusk. They drop down into the apron of slick, shallow water as evening approaches to feed on nymphs and hatching flies and are quite easy to take if you can get a fly over them without drag.
A barometer can really tell you if you can expect good fishing. Whether it is high (over 29.90 inches sea level pressure) or low isn’t nearly so important, however, as whether it is rising or falling. Fish bite best when the barometer is rising.
When ice-fishing for species that travel in schools, like perch and walleyes, cut your holes close together instead of scattering them. A light cluster of baits will hold the attention of a school of fish much longer than will a single bait.
Fly-tying feathers that have become matted and misshapen in storage can be restored by steaming them, just as flies can. Put a handful in a flour sifter, hold it over the steaming spout of a tea kettle, and shake it as if you were popping corn.
If your boat pounds when running into a chop, why put up with it? Bring the bow down by moving weight forward, or adjust the tilt of the motor to lift the stern a bit. You can also soften the pounding by reducing speed and taking waves at an angle.
It’s easier and safer to haul a big fish through the ice if you use a gaff. You can make one from a large (4/0 to 6/0) de-barbed hook screwed through the eye to a foot-long stick. Bind the hook shank firmly to the shaft with a strong line.
The sketch shows what I consider the best way to “sew” on a minnow for trolling. Push the snelled hook down through the lower lip, then down through the top of the head, then in and out the side. Tightening the snell curves a minnow and it flops over.
Trout often shy away from a fly or bait if there is a sinker near it, so always use the smallest sinker possible (none at all is even better) and clamp it to the leader at least a foot above the hook. Cast farther upstream, to give the hook time to sink.
Another good habit: when you stop fishing to rest or eat lunch, put your hat or cap on the ground and set the butt of your fly rod in it. This keeps sand and dirt out of the reel. Always lean the rod against something; never lay it down.
It’s easier to row a boat at night if you can “feel” the angle of the oar blade. This can be done by making the grip slightly oval-shaped instead of round, with the oval at right angles to the oar blade. (Suggested by Carl F. Hoberg of Mendon, Mass.)
Next time you cast artificials from an anchored boat, try this stunt: First lob out a live bait with a bobber and then retrieve the lure close to the bobber. Fish that follow the lure in without striking will see the bait and perhaps grab it.
If you use carbon tetrachloride to clean reels or to dissolve paraffin for making dry-fly floatant, use extreme caution. According to the National Safety Council, it is not only harmful if inhaled, but also if just the fumes are absorbed through the skin.
You’ll never lose the screw-on cap for a metal rod case if you attach it with a short length of heavy monofilament. Bore 1/16-inch holes in the center of the cap and near the top of the case; use small buttons inside the cap and case to hold the mono.
A quick and easy way to add or replace rubber legs on a hard-bodied popper is to thread doubled monofilament into a large needle and force it through the body, leaving a loop. Double the legs through this, pull through, clip, seal with a waterproof cement.
Written by H.G. Tapply for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
For most serious fishermen, it was their family and friends who showed them the basics of the sport. But not everyone was lucky enough to have been mentored to a lifetime of outdoor fun pursuing and catching fish.
The good news is, learning to fish isn’t difficult. And it offers never-ending challenges in the outdoors. Even old hands at the game can learn about new types of tackle, baits, and lures. What’s more, there’s an infinite variety of subtle nuances that can make fishing challenging enough for a lifetime.
Fishing can be done virtually anywhere there’s water, and for little cost. America is blessed with great fishing from coast to coast—in thousands of lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and sprawling reservoirs. The following fish species are common to many of America’s freshwaters. Each has its own habits, habitats, preferred baits, lures, and methods for catching them. If you’ve never caught a fish before, this is a good place to start.
This generic name covers a host of freshwater panfish. Technically it includes black bass and crappies, but those species are so purposefully fished for and so different, they are covered in another section below. Sunfish are a warm-water species, abundant and readily caught near shore in ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers throughout America. They can be large—up to several pounds in the case of bluegills and red ear sunfish. But most weigh well under a pound, and fish about the size of an open-hand are common.
Bluegills are likely the most prolific sunfish, followed by red ear sunfish, rock bass, and warmouths. But spotted sunfish, pumpkinseeds, green, and longear sunfish also are widely distributed and caught by countless anglers. Often several sunfish species inhabit the same water, and some species hybridize.
Sunfish are an ideal target for beginners because of their great abundance. Their near-shore availability also makes them easy targets for people who don’t have access to a boat. They have voracious appetites that allow even novice anglers to catch plenty. In clean waters, sunfish of suitable size are tasty catches. They’re easy to clean and simple to cook and eat. (The fish earned the generic name “panfish” because they are the perfect size for frying in a pan.)
In almost any warm body of water, panfish can be found near weed beds, grassy banks, and overhanging vegetation. Shoreline areas of ponds and small lakes typically teem with summer sunfish. Bigger lakes and reservoirs also hold sunfish, especially near docks and in pockets with flooded brush and weeds. Some panfish species abound in creeks and rivers. Redbreasts and warmouths are especially abundant there, though other sunfish species can thrive in moving water, too.
The Best Natural Baits for Sunfish
Sunfish are democratic in their food preferences, and they’ve been caught on almost everything, including dragonflies, grasshoppers, grass shrimp, beetles, ladybugs, caterpillars, crickets, roaches, small minnows, and even pieces of lunch meat and bread. The most common bait is a simple earthworm, the garden variety, which many bait shops carry.
Small pieces of nightcrawler are best, since a sunfish has a small mouth. Use a long-shank light-wire No. 6 or 8 hook and barb an inch or two of earthworm multiple times onto it. Bait like this works best when fished a few feet below a lightweight bobber with a small split shot attached a foot or so above the hook for casting weight.
The Best Artificial Lures for Sunfish
Artificial panfish lures need to be small, since sunfish have very tiny mouths. Occasionally sunfish will hit large plugs and lures intended for other species, like bass and crappies. But as a rule, small lures are best.
A tiny 1/16- or 1/8-ounce single-blade spinner such as a Mepps or Panther Martin works for sunfish, as do small jigs down to 1/32-ounce size.
If you’re using a fly rod, thumbnail-size poppers, wet flies, or nymphs also work well, and they can be “sweetened” with a bit of earthworm. Fly tackle can be used very effectively, especially when summer sunfish are in shallow clear water spawning on large, visible beds. You can also use flies and poppers with small bobbers or floats with spinning tackle.
How to Fish for Sunfish
Slow retrieves with bait and lures usually account for most sunfish, since they are careful, deliberate feeders. Bank fishermen using polarized sunglasses frequently see small schools of sunfish holding near weeds, brush, stumps, and grassy shorelines. Carefully casting to fish that you can see usually results in strikes, and anglers should land hooked fish quickly to keep from spooking others.
Long shank bait hooks make for removing barbs from fish easy, and it’s always a good idea to bring a set of needle-nose pliers to help unhook a sunfish.
Catfish get their name from the whiskers or barbels around their mouths. The whiskers are sensory organs that them to locate food in the deepest, darkest, muddiest water. Catfish are chiefly bottom feeders. While there are a number of American catfish (and similar-looking bullheads) the most important catfish species to American anglers are channel catfish, blue catfish, and flathead catfish.
The channel catfish is the most widely distributed, abundant, and sought-after fish in the group. Channel catfish are usually dark in color, with a gray to nearly black hue, often with liberal black spotting along their flanks. They sometimes are confused with blue catfish, but channels have deeply forked tails and a protruding upper lip.
Channel cats are commonly caught from ponds, lakes, and slow-flowing rivers. They are superb table fare, and are commercially raised in ponds for sale to restaurants and groceries. Thousands of farm ponds throughout America have also been stocked with fast-growing, fun to catch, and good eating channel cats. They can also grow to huge sizes, and offer stubborn fights for anglers using suitable tackle. Channel cats weighing more than 50 pounds have been recorded, but most weigh 2 to 5 pounds, though fish up to 15 pounds are regularly landed.
Blue catfish are the largest of the American catfish, with some recorded catches being over 100 pounds and measuring more than 5 feet in length. Blue cats indeed have a slight blue hue to their sides, and have a modest fork at the tail. They tend to live more in rivers than other species, and they thrive in deep rivers and sprawling reservoirs. They have also adapted to brackish waters, especially where they have been stocked in dozens of states.
Flatheads have an elongated, flat-shaped head, with a protruding lower jaw. They have a square-shaped tail and olive-brown coloration. They’re native to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage but are found through much of America—especially in the middle third of the country. Their distribution spans from the Dakotas south to Texas, southeast to Florida, and north to New York and Michigan.
Flatheads grow big. Fish over 100 pounds have been recorded, 50-pounders are caught regularly, and 20-pound flatheads are not unusual.
They are notorious loners, and adults favor live baitfish as forage. They frequent slow-moving rivers and deep reservoirs laced with channels. Flatheads have been stocked by many states, and like blue cats, they thrive in brackish waters relishing the abundance of marine foods such as crabs and small fish.
The Best Natural Baits for Catfish
Catfish are opportunistic bottom feeders, and can be caught on almost anything tossed their way. But native aquatic foods are usually best for catfish. Cut pieces of resident baitfish, earthworms, crayfish, clams, mussels, and similar indigenous baits are very effective. However, cats have been caught on everything from hot dogs to cut bars of soap. Commercially prepared catfish baits available from tackle shops are popular, and in brackish water, menhaden, crabs, eels, and shrimp are good.
Catfish are meat-eaters, and in the case of flatheads live baitfish are preferred forage. Native baits are best to specific waters, with shad and suckers being popular. Small live baitfish can be effective for blue and channel cats, too. Some anglers say small live sunfish species are especially good baits, but it’s important to check your local regulations to see if they’re legal to use.
These natural baits can be fished many ways. But, as a general rule, it’s wise to get offerings deep, using split shot, three-way swivel rigs, sliding-sinker-type Carolina, or fish-finder rigs. You can use bobbers or floats to indicate bites from cats, but suspended baits are usually not as productive as ones soaked at or near the bottom. Hooks should be stout, as all catfish are tough fighters. The bigger the catfish the heftier the hook you’re going to need. Common hook sizes are 2X to 3X wire, and size 4 to 4/0 bait hooks.
The Best Artificial Lures for Catfish
Catching catfish on lures is not easy, and when it does occur it’s usually incidental while fishing for other species such as bass, walleye, and trout. Jigs catch an occasional catfish, simply because such lures probe the bottom. Sometimes jigs tipped with baits such as shrimp, baitfish, or worms take cats, but mostly by accident.
In cool and cold weather, when food is somewhat scarce, catfish (usually channel cats) can be caught by anglers casting spoons around shell beds in large rivers and lakes. Some people believe catfish eat mussels, clams, and even oysters at times, and occasionally will hit a slowly fished spoon.
How to Fish for Catfish
Methodical, slow, deep bottom fishing accounts for most catfish. Often soaking a bait near a drop-off, channel, dam, bridge, jetty, or culvert structure produces fish. Some successful anglers drift dead and live baits in deep areas, or on flats and through current zones near river and reservoir channels.
Catfish are also notorious night feeders. They spend much of their time living deep, moving shallow in low light to feed in areas with structure like logs, flooded timber, brush, docks, and tapered banks near deep water. In some lakes and rivers, catfish are drawn to lights shining down from docks, bridges, and channel markers that attract minnows, shrimp, and other forage.
3. Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass
No fish is more American than the bass. While there are no less than nine different species of black bass, the largemouth black bass and the smallmouth black bass are the most abundant and widely distributed.
Largemouths and smallmouths are celebrated because of their speed, hard-fighting character, aggressiveness, and propensity to leap above the water when hooked. American anglers hold them in such high regard that for decades they have been enthusiastically stocked throughout much of the country.
Largemouth bass have the widest distribution, found in every state but Alaska. Much of the multi-billion-dollar American fishing tackle industry is dedicated to the species. Reels, rods, fishing line, leaders, and lures of countless varieties are produced specifically to catch largemouth black bass. Many boats, motors, and electronics such as fathometers have been designed to put more bass in the hands of millions of dedicated anglers.
Largemouths commonly grow from 2 to 5 pounds, 6 to 8 pounders are not rare, and fish over 20 pounds have been caught.
The overall shape of the largemouth is short, stocky, and broad. Bass vary in body coloration, as they react to their water environment. Some fish are so dark they are coal black. Other largemouths can be so pale they are almost chalky white. Still others are emerald green. Bass have bellies ranging from ivory white to pale yellow.
Though smaller in size than the largemouth, the smallmouth bass is no less of a gamefish. True to its namesake, it has a smaller mouth than the largemouth, with the rear hinge of the mouth never extending beyond the eye. They are also less widely distributed, but just as prized by anglers. Also known as “bronzebacks” or “smallies,” smallmouths are aggressive, tough, strong, and quick. They strike hard and never seem to give up.
Smallmouths average 1 to 3 pounds, 4 to 6 pounders are considered big, and fish over 10 pounds have been recorded. They are considered more of a northern fish than the largemouth, as they thrive in deeper, colder water.
In many waters smallmouths and largemouths mingle, but confusion between the two species is rare. Along with their smaller mouths, smallmouths have continuous or unbroken dorsal fins, whereas a largemouth’s rearward dorsal fin is almost completely separated from the forward dorsal fin.
Coloration also helps identify smallmouths from largemouths—although not scientifically. Smallmouths are browner in color (hence the nickname “bronzebacks” or in some locales, “brown bass”), while largemouths tend to be more green or black.
The Best Natural Baits for Bass
Bass have been caught on dozens of different types of live baits, from marine eels, frogs, and crabs to virtually any baitfish species of suitable size for bass to devour. Perhaps the best all-around natural bait for bass is a live crawfish, especially the softshell variety. Crawfish are relished by both largemouths and smallmouths virtually everywhere they’re found. Live native shiners also are very effective, particularly when fishing for largemouths. Smallmouths are regularly caught with leeches, and in rivers they have an affinity for hellgrammites (dobsonfly larvae).
The Best Artificial Lures for Bass
As a general rule, slightly smaller lures are better for smallmouths than largemouths simply because of the size of their mouths. However, anglers catch both species on a huge variety of lures, including many different kinds of plugs, spinners, spoons, soft plastic lures, and on a fly rod with bugs, streamers, and nymphs.
Smallmouths have a distinct preference for flashy lures, such as spinner-baits, in-line spinners, and wobbling spoons. Such lures also take largemouths, but smallmouths fall for them more regularly. Both species strike plugs, and surface lures such as the Heddon Zara Spook are a favorite because they produce showy strikes from bass on the surface of the water.
Perhaps soft plastic lures, especially worms and lizards, are the most productive artificial baits for bass. Rigged weedless with a bullet slip sinker (Texas style), such lures can be fished almost anywhere, deep or shallow, in thick cover or on barren bottoms. Bass also have been known to eat birds such as baby ducks and cattail-hopping redwing blackbirds, and artificial imitations of small birds and other animals are available.
How to Fish for Bass
Bass are ambush predators that often live in deep water. They can be caught deep, but many fish in holes, ledges, and river channels are not actively feeding, and they can be difficult to dupe. However, bass move to shallower areas to feed—especially around structure, like weed beds, brush piles, rock walls, flooded timber, and cover-strewn ledges. Such places harbor bass forage, like minnows and crawfish, and those are the best places to fish. Shallow areas in close proximity to deeper water are prime areas for bass fishing.
Trout are one of America’s great gamefish, and while there are many trout species, the primary ones of interest to most anglers are rainbow, brown, and brook trout. All three species are similarly torpedo-shaped, though their coloration, markings, habits, and habitats vary considerably.
Trout are highly regarded by many anglers because of their speed, grace, and remarkable fighting ability. The environments in which they live are usually pristine, tree-lined clear rivers and picturesque streams, where wading is often the most productive way to catch them. Some of the best trout waters are well off the beaten track—particularly in the West, Upper Midwest, and East.
The favorite foods of trout are readily imitated by fly anglers casting an assortment of flies. Trout will also take small spinning lures and baits.
The rainbow trout are the most widely distributed trout, and they have been stocked by anglers and fisheries departments throughout much of America. Chiefly a cold-water species that frequents swift, clear rivers, rainbows often leap high above the water when hooked.
Rainbows have extreme color variations, from almost a steely chrome (mostly from deep, clear lakes), to deep stripes of red, yellow, green, and blue on the flanks and deeply speckled sides. Rainbows grow quickly, and are commonly caught in the 1 to 3-pound range, though they’ve been recorded at over 50 pounds.
Brook trout require the most pristine, cold waters to thrive. Further, they are arguably the most beautiful of trout. Mature fish sport red spots ringed in blue on their flanks, ivory-tipped lower fins, colorful orange-yellow shading along the belly, and uniquely beautiful swirling worm-like olive markings along the back.
Native to the eastern United States, brook trout now thrive in clear waters in much of America, including Canada and the Rocky Mountains. Foreign stocking has brought excellent brook trout fishing to New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, and much of Europe. Most brookies are small, well under 1 pound. But in large rivers and lakes, they can grow up to nearly 15 pounds.
Browns are the brawlers of the trout clan. They are aggressive, cunning, notorious night stalkers, and notable baitfish predators. Brown trout are native to Europe and Asia and were introduced to America in the 1880s. They adapt better to slower, deeper rivers than rainbow and brook trout, and they also spawn in autumn. They are widely distributed since they can tolerate warmer water than other trout.
Brown trout have a distinctive olive-brown coloring, with large red and black spots along their flanks. They commonly weigh 1 to 3 pounds, but in larger rivers and lakes, fish weighing up to 40 pounds have been landed.
The Best Natural Baits for Trout
All kinds of trout take insects, crustaceans, and small fish. Large nymphs such as hellgrammites and stoneflies work well in some trout waters. Crawfish and earthworms are popular, too. Small native minnows can be used, with the sculpin minnow being a favorite on Western trout waters. In waters that are heavily stocked with trout, anglers use whole kernel corn and salmon eggs with great success.
The Best Artificial Lures for Trout
A wide assortment of lures are effective for trout. Flashy in-line spinners and spoons are preferred on many rivers and streams. Spinner designs such as the Rooster Tail, Mepps, and Panther Martin work well. Spoons are good, too, like the Kastmaster, Little Cleo, Krocodile, Johnson Sprite, and Dardevle.
Small plugs can work well for trout, especially when targeting larger trout on big water. Minnow-imitating lures excel like the original floating-diving Rapala and Rebel designs.
Fly fishermen catch trout on a huge assortment of dry flies, nymphs, and streamers. Dry flies and nymphs are used to match native insects’ size, color, and general silhouette. Streamer flies take plenty of trout, too, as they imitate native baitfish species. There are also generic flies that imitate a host of forage, such as the famed Muddler Minnow which works in almost all trout water. Popular patterns are usually regionally specific, and the color, size, and materials the flies are important.
How to Fish for Trout
In streams and rivers, it’s best to catch trout in places that deliver food to the fish. Experienced anglers learn to read water, noting current flows around rocks, at the heads and tails of pools, near undercut banks in the river, or stream bends. Almost anything that breaks current flow creates tiny funnels that channel insects and other food, and that’s where trout station. Cast across-and-down current and bring lures and flies through such areas. Often early morning and late afternoon fishing are most productive. And during warm afternoons, insect hatches excite trout and offer great fishing for a short window of time.
The walleye is an extremely popular sportfish, native to the northern tier of America and into Canada. Walleyes have been stocked in many waters throughout the country—as far south as Alabama and Georgia (they were once even stocked in Florida), west to California, and throughout the Midwest and Mid-South.
The Columbia River system touching the states of Oregon and Washington has superb walleye fishing, as does Montana, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other northern states. Lake Erie has a storied walleye fishery, offering Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, and Canadian anglers lots of opportunity for great fishing. They’re most at home in large lakes, reservoirs, and deep, broad rivers. Portions of the upper Mississippi River offer quality walleye fishing.
Most walleyes caught by anglers run 2 to 3 pounds, but 5 pounders are taken regularly, and the world record of 25 pounds came from Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee. Walleyes fight well and are highly prized as a fish to eat. They are olive-green in coloration, with a white belly and a distractive silver-tipped lower tail fin that’s easily seen in clear water.
Walleyes are skilled predators and they have a series of sharp, pointed teeth for holding forage. They have unusually good eyesight, with cloudy, opaque eyes that allow them to see in dark water and in low light. They are well-known night predators, and many anglers fish for them after the sun sets, at dawn, dusk, and in overcast weather.
The Best Natural Baits for Walleye
Walleyes are meat-eaters, and they consume a variety of small fish and invertebrates. Small baitfish such as shiners are popular, but other baits like nightcrawler worms, leeches, and crawfish work, too. The best baits are often localized to a specific body of water during a particular season. Local knowledge of what bait is best for the water at what time is invaluable for consistent walleye success.
The Best Artificial Lures for Walleye
Jigs are one of the most popular luresfor walleyes since the fish are notorious bottom feeders. Getting a jig in front of a walleye is important for success, and at times schools of fish can be suspended off ledges and bottom structures 25 to 35 feet down. For that reason, heavy jigs perhaps up to a ½-ounce may be required, and “tipping” jigs with minnows, nightcrawlers, or leeches can be effective.
Trolling is a popular and productive way to catch walleyes. Diving plugs and spoons work, especially when fish are comparatively shallow, under 15 feet. At times, slow trolling plugs or spoons off specialized “bottom bouncer” terminal rigs can be very deadly.
How to Fish for Walleye
The best times to catch walleyes are at dawn, dusk, and at night. Overcast weather can offer great fishing, as walleyes will move shallow to feed throughout the day. Windy weather can be excellent too, which “chops” the water, reducing light penetration and prompting walleyes to move shallow where they are most vulnerable to anglers.
Structure areas such as channel and ledge drop-offs, points of land dropping off into deep water, and man-made structures like riprap, bridges, and dams are all choice spots for catching walleyes.
Slow trolling with live bait using sliding sinker Lindy-style rigs works well. Nightcrawlers on harness rigs are superb when slow trolled, and anglers who troll with jigs tipped with minnows, crawlers, and leeches will consistently boat walleyes.
There are two species of crappies, white crappies and black crappies. Both are oversized members of the sunfish family. They can be found in the same waters, and both are similar in color, being mainly silver-white, with abundant black spots. However, spotting patterns differ between the two. White crappie spots are less dark and distinctive than black crappie spots. White crappie spots are also loosely arranged in a series of vertical bars along a fish’s flanks, while black crappie spots are irregular and scattered along the fish’s side.
White and black crappies are nearly identical in shape, habits, and size. They have a small head, a deep body, and are thin across the back.
Most crappies weigh 1/2 to 3/4 pound. A 1-pounder is a nice one, and anything weighing over 2 pounds is considered a prize, or so-called “slab.” Crappies grow to 4 pounds, and sometimes to 5 pounds. They are very structure-oriented fish, and they spend much time suspended in brush, weeds, flooded timber, and around docks, boathouses, and pilings. Spring fishing for them during their spawn in shallow lake-side weeds and timber is a tradition throughout much of America.
While black crappies and white crappies can be found in the same waters, each has slightly different water preferences. Both species are indigenous to the Eastern United States, but they have also been stocked throughout America.
The black crappie is widely distributed from Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba south through Florida and west to California and British Columbia. Only in parts of the West and Southwest are black crappies comparatively scarce, notably Utah, Nevada, West Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho. Black crappies are found in large ponds, as well as clear, deep, weedy, and cold reservoirs.
White crappies are notorious for “suspending” in the water column, rather than being a bottom-dweller like some other species. White crappies can also tolerate warm, turbid waters, silted streams, and slow-flowing rivers. They’re widely distributed and rare only in a few areas, such as Florida and a few Midwest and Northern States. White crappies also are believed to be more prolific than black crappies, and they’re sometimes found in schools containing hundreds of fish.
The Best Natural Baits for Crappies
Crappies are highly carnivorous, feeding on insects, crustaceans, and small fish. Mature crappies are aggressive fish eaters, preferring small minnows over most other available forage. This trait is well exploited by anglers, who chiefly employ live fathead minnows, hooking them through the lips for trolling. If you want to “still” fish for crappies, it’s best to hook minnows just under the dorsal fin or at the tail. It makes them more active and appealing to crappies.
The Best Artificial Lures for Crappies
Jigs unquestionably produce more crappies for more anglers than any other lure. Crappies are well known for being fickle about lure color. Experienced anglers carry small 1/32- to 1/8-ounce jigs in many colors, and color combinations. Soft plastic body jigs are popular, but ones with marabou bodies, mylar, and other synthetic materials work well, too.
How to Fish for Crappies
Crappies are legendary for feeding during low-light at night, dawn, dusk, and in overcast weather. Because they are so discriminating towards lure color choices, skilled fishermen will often change colors regularly while fishing. Crappies also are very deliberate feeders, preferring slow, tantalizing lure presentations rather than fast, erratic ones. This is one reason small jigs (often fished in conjunction with minnows) suspended below a float are common crappie tackle choices.
Crappies are often found in large schools and frequently suspend at very specific levels in the water column. This is another reason why slowly fishing jigs beneath a float are so effective—as well as trolling with an electric motor. Anglers often “mark” schools of crappies suspended below pods of shad minnows before trolling jigs just above them.
If you’re working multiple lines and lures it’s wise to employ a wide variety of color combinations until one jig hue proves to be effective.
Light line and supple rods are best for crappie fishing. Such gear allows the spunky fighting qualities of crappies to shine, plus they’re needed to cast small, light jigs, and delicate floats. Light-action rods also result in more crappies caught because it helps prevent “horsing” fish, which easily can pull hooks through their light paper-thin mouths.
Crappies are extremely attracted to brush piles, making them very vulnerable to fishing there. Huge catches can be made on good sites. For example, a well-documented man-made brush pile (10 feet wide by 100 feet long) on Lake Chautauqua, Illinois yielded over 20,000 crappies in one fishing season. If you’re planning your first crappie fishing trip, it’s always good to get some local knowledge about what kind of structure there is under the water.
Written by Bob Mcnally for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.