Releasing a caught fish isn’t as simple as tossing it overboard

Releasing a caught fish isn’t as simple as tossing it overboard

Thanks to a burgeoning conservation ethic, many saltwater anglers choose to release their catches. Others do so because of fishery-management rules, or because it’s required in tournament regulations. As a result, anglers release many, many saltwater fish every year. But just how many?

In my home state of Georgia, anglers released more than 1 million red drum during 2018, according to the Marine Recreational Information Program. For the entire United States, that number climbs to 18 million redfish released. The MRIP estimate for the number of released fish of all species during 2018 is an astounding 605 million.

While we optimistically believe that most of these fish survive, the reality is much more complicated.

Multiple factors, often combined, determine the fate of a released fish, such as how the fish was caught and handled, the fish’s environment, and ecological conditions—including predation. These interactions are unique to each species and situation.

Given the importance of the angler in this complex interaction, biologists and regulators have expended much effort to develop guidelines for catch-and-release fishing. These angling best practices, when used, markedly increase post-release survival. For many years, these methods remained simple and were based on common sense, such as handling a fish with wet hands.

Today, after hundreds of studies evaluating the effects of everything from hook type to handling devices, these best practices have evolved. The studies validate the benefits of some well-known techniques yet reveal that some methods and behaviors are more harmful than once believed.

The Point of the Matter

Hooking injury is considered a primary cause of post-release mortality. Ideally, a fish should be hooked in or around the immediate area of the mouth—lip, tongue, jaw hinge—or just inside the oral cavity. Most lures with single or treble hooks achieve that outcome. However, treble hooks also can injure a fish’s eye or result in foul-hooking.

Using circle hooks, when applicable, is one of many best practices anglers can follow to help improve the survival of released fish.
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Conventional J hooks, when used with natural or synthetic scented baits, can be swallowed deeply into the throat or digestive tract. Pulling on a hook lodged in such a location can cause injury to the heart, liver, gill arch, kidneys, stomach and intestines. Attempts to remove the hook only increase the severity of such injuries.

Research backs up the long-standing belief that removing hooks that are not easily accessible in the mouth region should be avoided. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in its guidance for fishermen, references an agency study that showed four of 12 deep-hooked snook died when anglers removed embedded hooks, compared with zero mortality when leaders were cut and hooks left intact. Fish can dislodge, expel or simply render a hook inert, especially if it’s made of a material such as bronze, which degrades quickly from the combined effects of salt water and the fish’s body chemistry.

Happily, the number of deep-hooked fish has declined dramatically in recent years due to the revival of an ancient hook design. When rigged and used properly, circle hooks penetrate the lip or jaw-hinge area, causing minimal anatomical damage yet producing a strong connection point. Furthermore, studies show that inline circle hooks—those having the point aligned with the shaft—prove most effective at reducing deep-hooking.

In a 2007 South Carolina Department of Natural Resources study, researchers compared the performance of a J hook, an offset circle hook and an inline circle hook used on subadult red drum. Inline circle hooks attached in the jaw, tongue or inside of the mouth area in 90 percent of the fish. Offset circle hooks resulted in mouth- or jaw-hooking 80 percent of fish, and J hooks, 60 percent. Inline circles also generated the lowest rate of subadult mortality: 2 percent. Researchers found similar results with adult red drum, where the circle hook performed better than the J hook.

Despite these conservation benefits, circle hooks don’t work in every angling situation. When J hooks are needed, anglers should opt to use the smallest size—in length, width and wire diameter—to minimize fish injury. They should also consider barbless versions because removing a barbed J hook usually takes longer, thereby increasing handling time.

Time Matters

Fish lead active lives chasing prey and escaping predators. At the same time, they must adapt to varying extremes in their environment. Every species has its physiological tolerances, but those tolerances have limits.

Once a hooked fish starts resisting, a stress response begins that can interfere with normal respiration and alter the fish’s body chemistry. The longer the duration of the stress response, the more likely there will be long-term or permanent negative effects.

Research shows that holding fishes, particularly larger ones, horizontally and supporting their bellies improves postrelease survival.
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A 2010 Florida study compared several stress-indicator blood-chemistry parameters in subadult and adult tarpon caught on hook-and-line gear with that of tarpon resting at a holding facility. Experimental treatments included holding the hooked fish vertically versus horizontally, and exposing them to ambient air for 60 seconds compared with leaving them in the water. In this study, the duration of time between hooking and landing had more effect than handling time and method on stress-indicator levels.

A fight of even short duration can exhaust a fish, impairing its ability to evade predators and carry on with life as usual. Research has shown that a significant source of postrelease mortality in tarpon and bonefish is shark predation. The time needed to recover full function varies from species to species and can be greatly influenced by factors such as water temperature.

Holding a lethargic fish in the water with its head into the current can help accelerate its recovery. Once the fish resists, release it.

The take-home message: Choose tackle that allows you to bring the fish to hand in the least amount time yet provides for the enjoyment of successfully angling the fish. When I target adult red drum, I plan to have them to the boat in five minutes or less. If you choose to use light tackle for large fish, do so with the recognition that you’re consciously increasing the chances that the fish will perish.

Landing Gear

Once anglers subdue fish, they have a responsibility to release them in the most expedient manner. Some species can be more sensitive to the effects of handling than others.

In contrast to the 2010 study on tarpon, mentioned above, a 2016 Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences study showed that removing white marlin from the water and exposing them to air had a more pronounced effect than fight duration on postrelease survival for that species. Research also has revealed that warm air can quickly dry delicate gill filaments, causing them to become nonfunctional.

If you must capture a fish, using a ­knotless, coated-mesh landing
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If you choose to bring a fish into the boat before release, preferred options include the use of hands to lip grippers to landing nets—never gaffs. Wet, gloved hands or a handheld wet towel can effectively control small- to medium-size fish such as seatrout and bonefish but can be inadequate for larger, more vigorous animals. When using hands, always keep the fish in a horizontal position supporting its weight, and avoid any contact with the gills and eyes, which can be easily damaged.

Lip grippers, such as the BogaGrip, have steadily grown in popularity, but their design often tempts anglers to support the entire weight of the fish vertically. Research has shown that doing so can cause debilitating injury to mouth parts, internal organs and skeletal structure, especially for larger fish. When using grippers, support the fish’s weight with a hand under its abdomen.

A 2009 Australian study of barramundi (20 to 40 inches in length) handled with lip grippers provides some perspective. Researchers lifted 10 fish vertically without any additional support—all the fishes’ weight was supported by the mouth parts. Eleven were lifted in a horizontal position with a hand supporting the belly of the fish. Lifting fish using grippers without support increased the severity of mouth injury and altered the alignment of vertebrae, which did not return to normal for three weeks.

Landing nets, used frequently for small- to medium-size species, offer many advantages such as reducing fight time, controlling fish movement to allow for hook removal and preventing the fish from being dropped. Yet landing nets also can potentially harm fish by removing the protective mucus layer, dislodging scales and damaging fins.

Recognizing this, most net manufacturers offer a knotless rubber model, some with the further modification of a flat bottom to prevent fish from rolling in the net and damaging fins. Another study of barramundi in 2008 showed that a landing net of this design resulted in significantly less fin damage and abrasions when compared with a traditional knotted net.

Pressure Drop

Many species most prized by saltwater anglers live near the ocean bottom, sometimes in extreme depths. Granted, we usually pursue them as table fare, so catch-and-release is not typically the targeted outcome. But in today’s world of restrictions on size, quantity and season, releasing reef fish has become part of our new reality—as are the challenges of ensuring postrelease survival for an animal pulled up from 20 fathoms.

Species such as snappers and groupers have air bladders, which allow them to make fine-scale adjustments in their buoyancy. However, when we rapidly pull these fish from the seafloor to the surface, an uncontrolled expansion of their air bladders can cause barotrauma.

Bulging eyes suggest this bottomfish suffered barotrauma. This fish was kept, but if the goal is live release, leave it in the water rather than hold it vertically.
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Most anglers know the symptoms: bulging eyes, stomach protruding from the mouth, a distended abdomen, and lack of equilibrium when returned to the water. When released, these fish can’t submerge, which makes them easy pickings for predators. In addition, prolonged barotrauma causes irreversible anatomical damage and extended physiological stress, often leading to death.

For many years, anglers have been advised to treat barotrauma in a fish by venting—puncturing its air bladder with a hollow needle. However, venting causes injury, creating additional stress and an opportunity for infection. If you choose to vent, be sure to do it properly. There’s no doubt venting beats simply discarding a fish with severe barotrauma, but there’s a better way.

An angler prepares to fasten a descending device to a Goliath ­grouper prior to release.
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Several devices on the market now allow anglers to lower the fish to depth, allowing it to recompress, alleviating the effects of barotrauma (visible and nonvisible). Additionally, these devices return fish to an environment of optimal conditions while hopefully bypassing some of those hungry predators. Collectively known as descending devices, these products have proved to increase postrelease survival in bottomfish.

In a 2015 Gulf of Mexico study, red snapper returned to the seafloor with a descending device fared better than fish that were vented or untreated. Survival rates for descended fish rose during summer, when sea-surface temperatures exceeded those at the seafloor. Research has also shown the benefits of descending devices for Pacific rockfish, reef fish in Australia and even walleye in freshwater lakes.

Descending devices hold such great promise for improving bottomfish survival that the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has requested the National Marine Fisheries Service make a rule requiring anyone who possesses or is fishing for snapper-grouper species have such a device on board. If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, this requirement will go into effect sometime in 2020.

Choice or Law?

Fishery management and catch-and-release fishing succeed only when a high percentage of released fish survive. Thanks to years of study and on-water experiences, we now have angling best practices that, when followed, maximize survival chances. The quandary becomes whether to mandate the use of some or all of these angling best practices or to rely solely on voluntary compliance. Not surprisingly, angler opinion is divided.

Government entities, conservation groups and the marine industry invest vast sums of money and effort in promoting angling best practices. In some jurisdictions and fisheries, these government entities mandate the use of some types of tackle and gear or disallow certain activities.

For example, circle hooks must be used for billfish, sharks, reef fish, and striped bass in some areas and situations. Federal regulations prohibit marlin or sailfish from being removed from the water, if the fish won’t be kept. Florida law also forbids anglers from removing tarpon over 40 inches from the water.

Whether by choice or legal mandate, anglers have the responsibility to use best practices and to advocate their use to others. This might mean changing behaviors and postponing the catch of the next fish for the benefit of the one in hand. After all, a fish that survives after release is a potential future catch. And we are always looking forward to that next catch.

Tagging Tales

Determining the postrelease survival of fish caught on hook-and-line gear can be daunting. The study methods themselves—taking blood samples, marking, handling, confinement—can mask or amplify the effects of the catch.

Ideally, the fish should suffer the least amount of additional stress and be released into the same environment from which it was caught as quickly as possible. Oh, and yes, the scientist must be able to determine if the fish remains alive or dies during a minimum of 24 hours—and, ideally, for weeks, if not months.

This was once thought impossible, but not anymore, thanks to technological advances in batteries, microcircuitry and satellite communications. Acoustic telemetry and pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs) have revolutionized scientists’ ability to document the fate of hook-caught-and-released fish.

In a 2015 North Carolina study, researchers used externally attached acoustic tags to document the fate of scamp, snowy grouper and speckled hind caught from depths of 200 feet and treated with a descending device. Previous knowledge suggested that any fish brought up from those depths perished. However, this study reported a 50 percent survival rate after 14 days, showing that recompression can increase postrelease survival in deepwater species.

PSATs have been used in multiple studies of billfish and tunas, species that are notoriously difficult to study with conventional methods. One such project using these tags on juvenile bluefin tuna revealed almost 100 percent postrelease survival, and concluded that the recreational catch-and-release troll fishery for school-size Atlantic bluefins does not represent a significant source of fishing mortality.

Best Practices

For more information about properly releasing fish, consult these resources:

About the Author

Capt. Spud Woodward retired in 2018 after 34 years with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources serving in various positions from senior biologist to division director. He is the vice chairman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Written by Capt. Spud Woodward/Sportfishing Mag for Popular Science and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Popular Science

Eight Rules of Flyfishing for Late-Summer Smallmouths

Eight Rules of Flyfishing for Late-Summer Smallmouths

Hit the water with these modified trout fly tactics to hook dog-day bronzebacks

Summer can be cruel to a devout trout fisherman. I found that out during the relentless drought of 2016. By July, flows on the Farmington River—my home water in Connecticut—were reduced to a pathetic 60 cubic feet per second. It looked more like a rock garden than a river, forcing its browns to huddle up in scattered cool-water refuges. I had no choice but to give them a rest.

Still, it was summer and I wanted to flyfish. Luckily the nearby Housatonic was there to give me a fix. It was warmer than the Farmington, but its natural flow was a bountiful 250 cfs. And it held a thriving population of smallmouth bass. Though I’d fished for “Housy” smallmouths on and off over the years, last summer I piled up my trout fishing chips and went all in on bronze. Focusing exclusively on smallmouths for an entire late-summer season gave me a true crash course in the methods and approaches that can make or break you on a summer bass wade. There are certainly similarities between targeting skinny-river smallmouths and trout, but you can forget about micro bugs and 12-foot leaders. Here are the most critical smallie lessons I learned.

Don’t Be Dainty

Have you ever thrown an articulated streamer into a pool of delicately sipping trout? At best, the fish will ignore it. At worst, they’ll scatter. Not so with smallies. Part of what makes them such exceptional fly targets is that going bigger, louder, and gaudier often draws more strikes when the action is slow than going dainty does. One evening, I was frustrated by a pod of bass that were taking small insects off the surface. Despite my impeccable drifts, they’d have nothing to do with my size 18 Light Cahill. Out of frustration, I tied on a big, ugly deer-hair streamer. Just before it hit the water, a 16-inch smallie exploded from below and snatched the bug clean out of the air. I was stunned. When was the last time you saw a trout do that?

Get Big and Weird

Subtle and sparse are not words commonly used to describe smallmouth flies. In-your-face is more like it. I knew smallies would hit Woolly Buggers and basic baitfish imitations, but I wanted more options. An online search led me to the TeQueely. With a flashy body, contrasting marabou tail, chartreuse wiggly legs, and beadhead, the TeQueely looks like nothing in particular, but the bass treated this mash-up pattern like their first meal in days. Aside from trying oddball flies, don’t be afraid to chuck larger patterns than you might normally use for bass to keep little smallies from attacking your bug before heavier fish can. I learned this trick from former Housatonic guide Torrey Collins. “My favorite streamer there was a rabbit-strip leech with a conehead,” Collins says. “I always tied them at least 4 inches long to get past the pipsqueak fish.”

Mix It Up

Trout will turn their noses up at anything but the perfect imitation of that moment’s hatch. Smallies don’t. That frees you up to use a variety of different patterns and presentations to see how the fish will react. During an outing, I’d switch from a conehead streamer to an old-school soft-hackled wet fly to a popper to a classic Catskills dry in the span of an hour—and I’d catch smallmouths on all four. Even when the renowned Housatonic white fly hatch was going off in August, attractor flies like an Adams or a Stimulator would get sucked down as quickly as a genuine white fly pattern. If you’re not seeing surface activity on dries or poppers in rivers with a strong crayfish population, Collins says, a dead-drifted earth-toned Woolly Bugger can be lethal. Nymphs can be fished deep along the bottom or as a dropper off a dry. No matter the approach, smallies don’t require a perfect presentation; in fact, they’ll go out of their way to chase down a meal. You’ll catch plenty of fish even if you’re lacking a bit in the accuracy department.

Fear No Frog Water

Smallmouths are ambush feeders, so unless there’s a hatch they’re keyed into, these fish are less likely than trout to hold in open runs. With that in mind, avoid featureless areas and extreme shallows. When you get to the river, target structures like downed trees, submerged logs, boulders, pocket water, and underwater ledges. One other major difference between trout and smallies is productivity in frog water. Stretches of still water tend to be worth fishing for trout only when they are rising, but that’s not the case with bass. Slow-water trout have a lot of time to look at a fast-moving fly, which makes them difficult to fool on streamers. Smallmouths are more likely to charge than study, and the reedy edges of frog water make great ambush points. Whenever you hook a smallmouth near a prime ambush point, keep fishing that area for a while, because where there’s one, there are usually more.

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Summer smallmouth bass Brian Grossenbacher

Work the Cafeteria Line

One of the best places to find smallies is in what I call the cafeteria line, and it’s easy to spot. Look for a distinctive foam line gathered on the surface, as such lines indicate the heaviest, deepest flow in any given section of river. This is significant, especially in the low, warm-water conditions you’re likely to encounter during the dog days. Compared with other parts of the river, the cafeteria line offers lots of dissolved oxygen, food, and cover. Focus your drifts and streamer strips through its softer edges. As long as they’re not too shallow, gravelly riffles and their dump-in points at the heads of pools are also prime smallie real estate.

Harness Magic-Hour Power

You can catch smallies at high noon, and there’s definitely something liberating about wet-wading a river on a scorching summer day. But dawn and dusk are truly magical times. Low-light conditions—particularly the first or last hour of light—turn smallmouths into reckless marauders. I’ve caught dozens of smallies at sunset in runs where I blanked a few hours earlier. In low light, you’re also more likely to encounter bigger fish that have spent the day lazily holed up. Once the sun dips behind the hills, the water temperature will begin to drop, and by dawn it will be at its coolest. It’s during these brief periods that the wise, old fish are going to grab a meal. If you must fish under the blazing sun, target shade lines from bankside trees, any area in full shadow, and deeper runs or holes.

Use a Trout Stick (With a Kick)

Last summer, I used a medium-fast-action 10‑foot 5-weight on almost every trip. Collins favors a 10-foot 6-weight or a 9-foot 7-weight. Choosing the proper setup really boils down to the flies you’ll be throwing, the size of the river you’ll be fishing, and the average size of the smallmouths you’ll be fighting. If you don’t want to bulk up your outfit, one way to keep your rod light and still throw fairly bulky flies is to fish a line that’s heavier than what’s printed on the rod’s blank. Last summer I used a long-bellied, weight-forward 7-weight floater with my 5-weight rod, and I was able to cast even larger articulated flies with ease. If you’re looking for an excuse to buy that new sealed-drag reel you’ve been eyeing, this isn’t it. Sure, smallmouths hit like a battering ram, cartwheel like steelhead, and dig in their heels like a stubborn teenager, but you won’t see your backing. My standard-issue trout reel handled every fish.

Lead With Authority

If you’ve ever been frustrated by diagrams of Euro-nymphing trout leaders, some of which require an engineering degree to decipher, you’re going to love the fact that your smallie leader can be a straight shot of 8- to 15-pound-test fluorocarbon. If you need help turning larger flies, add a simple butt section of 15- to 20-pound-test fluoro. Don’t want to build anything? Grab some 0X to 3X tapered leaders at the fly shop. For fishing dry flies, I’ll use a 7½-foot 1X leader and splice some 4X tippet to the end. The goal with any leader for any presentation is strength, not stealth, as smallies aren’t often leader shy. Your leader should be strong enough to withstand the shock of a punishing hit, and it should enable you to put enough pressure on a fish to land it quickly for a healthy release with minimum stress on the bass.

Written by Steve Culton for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

How I Fish: Lefty Kreh

How I Fish: Lefty Kreh

One of the greatest flyfishermen of all time shares his angling wisdom, talks about his favorite fishing spots and fish to chase on the fly, and explains his four principles of fly casting

Lefty Kreh, one of the most accomplished and beloved flyfishermen of all time, died in 2018. He was 93 years old. Kreh was a prolific author and globe-trotting angler. Among his many accolades, Kreh was the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sportfishing Association and a member of the IGFA Hall of Fame and Flyfishing Hall of Fame. He was also a wonderful person—kind, warm, funny, and always happy to teach others. Field & Stream’s legendary fishing editor John Merwin once wrote of Kreh: “If America can claim a national flyfishing treasure, Lefty is it.”

Here, we’re reprinting an interview Kreh gave the magazine back in 2009. His stories, humor, and fishing tips are timeless—just like the man himself.

I’ve been fishing since I was old enough to walk to the Monocacy River, near Frederick, Md. My father died when I was young, during the Depression, and my mother had to raise four children. I was the oldest, at 6. We were so poor that we had to live on welfare. I’d catch catfish on bait and sell them so I could buy clothes and food to get through high school.

After World War II, I started fly casting when I got back from Europe. (Lefty fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945). Back then, I got a job at the Biological Warfare Center, where we grew and concentrated the bacteria that the scientists worked on. I was one of three people who got anthrax—on my hand and arm. My full name is Bernard Victor Kreh, and there is now a BVK strain of anthrax. I was doing shift work, and I’d hunt or fish between shifts. I started to get a reputation as a hotshot bass fisherman.

Joe Brooks, the fishing writer, lived in the Baltimore suburbs, and he was writing a column in the county paper. He came down with a fly rod one day. This was in September 1947. A big hatch of flying ants was trying to fly across the river, and millions of them were falling into the water. I’m using a 6-pound-test braided silk line, and Joe pulls out this fly line that looked like a piece of rope and swished it back and forth. There were rings out there—he was using a Black Ghost streamer—and he dropped this damn thing in a ring, and boom, he had a fish. He caught almost as many bass as I did, and you don’t normally do that to a guy on his own river.

The next day I drove to Baltimore in my Model A Ford and met him, and we went down to Tochterman’s Sporting Goods—it’s still there, third generation—where he picked out a South Bend fiberglass rod, a Medalist reel, and a Cortland fly line. We went out in the park, and he gave me a casting lesson. Of course, he was teaching that 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock stuff, like everyone was.

My favorite fish to flyfish for are bonefish, absolutely. In freshwater, I like smallmouth bass and then peacock bass.

The longer you swim the fly, the more fish you catch. Gradually I evolved the method that I now teach, where you bring the rod back way behind you on the cast. This accelerates the line, lets you make longer casts and, in turn, puts more line on the water.

I started fishing for smallmouths on the Potomac, at Lander, which is below Harpers Ferry. The river was full of big smallmouths. It was fabulous fishing.

In the 1950s, I went down to Crisfield on the bay. They had a crab-packing plant there, and at the end of the day they shoved everything they didn’t put into cans off the dock. It was the biggest chum line you’d ever seen. My buddy Tom Cofield and I knew about it, and the bass were all over the place. We were using bucktails with chenille, and the wing kept fouling on the hook. On the way home, I said to Tom, “I’m going to develop a fly that looks like a baitfish, that doesn’t foul in flight, that flushes the water when it comes out into the air and is easy to cast.” That’s how I came up with the Deceiver.

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Lefty Kreh got his nickname because he used to do everything left-handed—except write and cast. Chris Crisman

The first magazine story I sold was to Pennsylvania Game News. I got paid $89. We thought it was a fortune! It was on hunting squirrels from a canoe.

I teach four principles rather than a rote method of fly casting. The principles are not mine; they’re based on physics, and you can adapt them to your build. They are: (1) You must get the end of the fly line moving before you can make a back or forward cast; (2) Once the line is moving, the only way to load the rod is to move the casting hand at an ever increasing speed and then bring it to a quick stop; (3) The line will go in the direction the rod tip speeds up and stops—specifically, it goes in the direction that the rod straightens when the rod hand stops; and (4) The longer the distance that the rod travels on the back and forward casting strokes, the less effort that is required to make the cast.

My most memorable flyfishing experience was in New Guinea. There’s a fish there called a New Guinea bass—they spell it N-I-U-G-I-N-I. They are the strongest fish I’ve ever seen in my life.

My three favorite flyfishing spots in the world are Maine for smallmouths, Los Roques off Venezuela for bonefish, and Louisiana for redfish. The marsh near New Orleans is over 20 miles wide and 80 miles long. There’s very light fishing pressure, and it’s absolutely the best redfishing anywhere.

The three most important fly casts are the basic cast —you have to learn to use a full stroke; a roll cast, because you use it for all kinds of things; and the double haul. You need to learn how to double haul.

Up until seven, eight years ago, you couldn’t get into flyfishing if you didn’t have a lot of money. Now we have fabulous rods. If you buy any rod today that costs more than $100, it will probably cast better than the person who buys it.

Written by Jay Cassell for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

How to Catch Big Fish on Giant Streamers

How to Catch Big Fish on Giant Streamers

When someone says “flyfishing,” what pops into your head? If the answer is the delicate sip of a rising trout, the perfect drift over a soft seam, or total relaxation, I’d call you normal. Then there’s me. Most of the time, I measure a good day of flyfishing by the soreness of my shoulder. That’s because the kind I’ve become obsessed with involves trying to get meaty bugs in front of the biggest fish I possibly can. Throwing flies that can turn the heads of true tanks is a big part of this addiction, but for a full dose of my choice drug, I must have sinking fly lines.

Some may argue that sinking line and flyfishing don’t belong in the same sentence, but not me. When a sinking line yanks taut, it’s pure electricity, and more satisfying to me than a dry-fly take. You can call me crazy, or you can take the lessons I’ve learned catching some of my most memorable “dredge” fish and use them to put more hawgs, toads, and donkeys on the fly than you ever could with traditional fly tactics.

Brown Trout: Gain Weight

I had been using short sink tips to throw trout streamers for years, but when I fished with guide and noted streamer tier Brian Wise in Missouri, I learned that my usual 3- to 5-foot tips just wouldn’t cut it.

Wise prefers a long, fast sink tip regardless of water conditions for two reasons. One is that 99 percent of the time, he’s throwing unweighted streamers because he wants the fly to dart side to side and hang during the retrieve, not jig up and down and sink quickly when paused. More important, he wants to keep it fishing all the way back to the rod tip. A streamer hit on most rivers is going to come in the first few strips off the bank, but browns in the Ozarks’ Norfork River are just as apt to hold on midriver ledges and pockets. Without a long sink tip, the fly would pass far above the heads of these fish; with one, the fly hugs the sloping bottom all the way back to the drift boat.

All day we had worn our shoulders out with only one half-decent brown in the net. It was just about dark on the last leg of our float when out of nowhere—and with only a few strips left before a recast—the black-and-purple Double Deceiver I’d been pulling for hours got viciously plowed by one of the heaviest and prettiest wild browns I’ve ever caught. Since then, you won’t find me ripping streamers for browns without a 15-foot sink tip. And the number of fish I’ve caught well away from the bank by doing so has positively skyrocketed.

Striped Bass: Blown Away

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Fly: White-and-Chartreuse Peanut Bunker
Line: 30-foot 250-grain sink tip Jim Golden

The wind on New Jersey’s Raritan Bay was cranking that April afternoon and the surface chop was building. We were drifting so fast in my friend Eric Kerber’s skiff that I doubt I could have held bottom with 6 ounces of lead. Yet somehow, Kerber was managing to keep a weighted rubber shad in the zone long enough to occasionally smack one of the stripers we were marking 15 feet down. All I wanted to do was get a fly in front of one.

Heavy sink tips generally stink to cast, but in a stiff wind they do have an advantage because they have some punch power. My only hope was to use the wind to my benefit.

Instead of casting behind the boat into the wind, I wound up and laid as much line as I could straight toward the bow with the wind. By the time my hands were in stripping position, the line was sweeping past the boat. I let it straighten behind the boat for just a moment before I began stripping. I don’t think I moved the fly 10 feet before a fish big enough to put me in the backing took a shot. The 22-pounder that delivered the blow remains one of my top three heaviest fly stripers.

For the rest of the tide, every time we marked fish, I either connected or got bumped. Kerber would only hit with his shad every couple of drifts. My takeaway: It’s always worth trying the fly even in terrible conditions, because every once in a while, there will be something about the presentation that turns the fish on more than anything else.

Jack Crevalle: Reel Power

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Fly: White-and-Chartreuse Deceiver
Line: 30-foot clear intermediate sink tip Jim Golden

Jack crevalle don’t get as much respect as they should. They are one of the hardest fighters in the ocean—and the closest you can get to a giant trevally without a ridiculously long flight. For anglers looking to put meat in the box, they don’t hold much appeal; for a flyfisherman wanting to see lots and lots of backing, they’re a dream.

On a trip to Mississippi, guide Sonny Schindler and I had chased wolf packs of jacks busting mullet around Cat Island all afternoon, but every time we got in range, the fish would vamoose. At last, we managed to creep up on a school that had pinned bait against a grass bank. My Deceiver sunk just out of sight, I stripped twice, and I was into my backing before I could even say, “I’m on.” That’s when I realized I’d made a very stupid mistake.

Although I had brought a large-diameter reel, it didn’t have a large arbor. A sink tip of any weight always increases slack in your line, as it creates a belly. That means you have to work a little harder to keep a tight line when fighting a fish. When the powerful jack turned and came at me, that standard-arbor reel couldn’t pick up line fast enough for me to stay tight. I don’t think I’ve ever reeled so frantically in my life. Luckily, I had stuck the fish pretty well, and despite a few seconds of completely limp line during the battle, the monster jack made it to the boat 30 minutes later. Had I been using a large arbor, I probably would have cut that fight time in half.

Lake Trout: Peel It Out

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Fly: Heavy Olive-and-White Flashback Clouser
Line: 30-foot 350-grain sink tip Jim Golden

If you can hack it, one of the best shots at a laker on the fly is in the dead of winter when the fish are feeding close to shore. Even then, the depths are not ideal, but they’re manageable with the right line. That line, of course, would be a heavy-grain (300 to 400) full sink or long sink tip. This is the route I took to secure my first whip-stick laker.

Drifting with guide Frank Campbell over the Niagara Bar on Lake Ontario, I could see the fish holding around humps on the sonar. Every time we dropped off the back of this one 25-foot rise, Campbell came tight on a white swimbait. I, on the other hand, was stripping with numb fingertips, puzzled as to why I couldn’t connect. After five passes down the money lane without a touch, I changed up the presentation. I made a long cast, then just started peeling out line as we drifted. I waited long enough to actually feel my fly momentarily hang on the bottom. Then I buried the rod tip in the water and started making slower strips. I only made about five before my first laker nearly took the rod out of my hand.

Even though my fly was probably getting to depth before I altered my approach, my faster strips plus the drifting boat meant that it likely wasn’t staying there long enough. Although feeding line isn’t as sexy as casting it, if you’re going to make the effort to target a deep fish, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to be sure your fly is staying in its face.

Northern Pike: Drop In (Slightly)

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Fly: 9-inch Articulated Olive-and-Orange Bucktail
Line: 15-foot clear intermediate sink tip Jim Golden

My heaviest pike ever on the fly weighed just north of 15 pounds and came from the Cree River in Saskatchewan. I’ll never forget that charge and take.

On our first day, our guide motored us into a small cove with an island. He told me to cast between the island and a patch of flooded grass about 20 feet away. The water was only 3 feet deep, and after the fly splatted down, I gave my line a few seconds to sink. After a couple strips, a wake of submarine proportions came pushing toward my streamer. I let the bug pause, and then gave it one hard tug. That was the trigger that turned the pike from a submarine to a missile locked on target. I could have surfed the wave it threw when it hit.

You might think that in water so shallow there was no need for a sinking line. To this day, however, I rarely pike fish without one unless I’m committed to using poppers. Letting a slow-sinking intermediate tip fall for just a few seconds creates a slight belly in the line. On the first strip, bulkier flies will dive, following the arc of that belly. I’ve come to believe that when you’re casting to a small zone, getting a larger fly to the fish’s eye level as fast as possible equals more strikes.

Largemouth Bass: Muskie Meal Plan

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Fly: 12-inch Articulated White Bucktail
Line: 30-foot 300-grain sink tip Jim Golden

For someone so obsessed with chucking monster streamers, you’d think I’d have several muskies under my belt. I have zero, but that’s certainly not for a lack of trying. Ironically, the most notable catch I’ve ever had while targeting muskies was a largemouth bass.

By the fourth day of a muskie quest in the St. Paul suburbs last October with my friend Robert Hawkins, my arms were like Jell‑O. All we had to show for the effort were a few pike. Then, as my giant fly sank along a lily-pad edge, I made one strip and saw it disappear. The hit was so violent we were sure I’d finally tied into a muskie. When the fish surfaced I couldn’t believe it—there was a solid 7-pound largemouth with the 12-inch streamer in its jaw.

After the laughter subsided, I realized what I’d done was no different than what trophy bass hunters throwing big trout-­imitating swimbaits have been doing for decades. While hair bugs, bunny leeches, and sliders are the patterns most anglers associate with largemouth bass fishing, you might consider taking a big piece of muskie meat to the bass pond. You’re probably not going to get a lot of bites, but they will likely be the right bites when you get them.

Written by Joe Cermele for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream

A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

A Father-Son Flyfishing Trip In Montana

I’m gonna ferry across the river,” my guide said. “Some pocket water I want you to hit.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I gazed downstream. Montana’s Bighorn River is big water, but it was flowing higher than usual, and I hadn’t seen much of what I’d call “pocket water” yet. But I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut. It was too early in the float to question the guide. What I did see, however, was a dark gravel bar rising under the drift boat and a plume of water pouring over the ledge into a deep green hole the size of my front yard. I didn’t want to scuttle the guide’s float plan, but I wasn’t going to pass up a giant fishy-looking lair either.

I cast a white articulated fly my guide had handed me earlier, and dropped it into the billowing pillow of water above the gravel bar. The leechlike blob rode the flow like a kid on a pool slide—I could see why he called his creation the Wet Sock—but the second it sank to the green abyss below, a fish hit and bent the rod. Not bad when the first fish of the day is a Bighorn brown trout just a smidge over 16 inches.

“Heck yeah, man!” my guide hollered. “I’ve been thinking about that pocket ever since we put in.”

That’s when I nearly stuck my foot in my mouth. You call that pocket water? I thought. But the guide was my son, Jack, and we had gone a first hour without a fish—and to be honest, neither of us were sure how this day trip was going to pan out.

Jack had just spent a week at Sweet­water Guide School, a hands-on, dawn-to-dark boot camp for aspiring guides. It was his high-school graduation gift—learning how to row a drift boat and field-fix a jet outboard and calm down cranky anglers. Jack had fallen in love with flyfishing when he was 14 years old, wading Montana’s Gallatin River. Over the next few years, he pelted guides with relentless questioning from Maine to the Florida Keys. One June, on Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake River, he heard that college students worked Western rivers over their summer breaks, shuttling boats and guiding. That was the end of his future as a summer lawn-care consultant. With his Sweetwater course now over, he’d bummed a drift boat from an instructor, and I was his first real client.

“Thank you, Lord,” Jack said. “I’m not going to lie to you, Daddy. I was getting pretty nervous until you caught that fish.”

“You’re not the only one, son,” I said. “And we need to talk about your idea of pocket water.”

Wild West

When Jack walked out from under the tall Bighorn cottonwoods at the Sweetwater school base camp, I hadn’t seen him for a week, but I could tell from his loping gait that Montana had changed him—that a week on the river had given him passage of a sort that he could not yet understand but that I could not deny. He’d been bitten by the West, and wherever his river would run in the future, it would run far from home for at least a portion of his life. This is the cruel contract of parenthood: Give them roots and wings, then pray that the former hold as your child spreads the latter in relentless freedom.

With the monkey off our backs, we settled in for perhaps the finest afternoon of fishing I’ve ever had. Jack held me in the current seam as I worked the fly all the way down the gravel bar, cast by cast. We caught fish at Grey Cliffs and Suck Hole and Mike’s Cabin, and we whooped it up with every strike. Did you see that? Holy cow, man, did you see that?

Jack spoke of these places like he might describe the local parks up the street back home. He was fully immersed in the magic of Montana, the fish and the river and the wild country, as the wild dreams of a 14-year-old were coming true right in front of him.

It was just one of those days that leaves you shaking your head and checking your heart. We all get them occasionally, moments in the field when you know that this is one you will carry to your grave. The fish were biting like crazy, yes, and their runs seemed stronger and their spots more finely chiseled than ever in the Bighorn light. But more than the fishing, it was the first day that we’d floated as equals, and the sadness that came with the loss of my little boy was baptized in the gratitude that from this day forward, I would fish and hunt with this man in the boat.

Big Finish

By midafternoon, we didn’t have much longer to fish. Soon Jack would have to hit the oars hard; we had a six-hour drive to Missoula still ahead of us. But then he slowed the boat one last time.

“I want you to hit that log,” he said. “See it?”

“I think so.” It was a giant sculpture of twisted driftwood, 8 feet tall, at least. Who could miss it? But as my mouth opened for a wisecrack, my guide tucked me into range. My first cast brought a ferocious slash from the largest trout we’d seen all day, but the heavy water carried the drift boat too swiftly for a second crack.

Jack slipped overboard and pulled the drift boat 30 feet upcurrent. “I’ll hold the boat,” he said. “You just catch the fish.”

We pulled two more fish from the hole, the second one running wild like a puppy in the yard. The water likely spent, Jack pulled himself back in the boat, rowed clear of the swift current, then stowed the oars and leaned back, soaking in the sun, the moment, the river, and his future, which unfurled just about as far as the next bend in the Bighorn. If there is a finer thing than to be 17 years old on a Montana river, I can only barely imagine what that might be.

“I don’t know, Daddy,” he said, kicking his Chaco-clad feet on the cooler. He grinned over a grimy sun buff and stroked a 15-day-old beard that I could actually make out in the right slant of sunlight. “I’m thinking of keeping the ’stache, at least. Think I can pull it off?”

I started to taste my foot again, but caught myself in time. I reckon if there’s anywhere in this world that a young man can still dream, it’s Montana.

Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

Featured image provided by Field & Stream