Hook and land bronzebacks on the fly with these Wild West lessons
I live in one of the most trout-rich states. Idaho is chock-full of blue-ribbon waters, and fly anglers descend upon them every spring. I like to target trout as much as the next guy, but I can only dodge drift boats and outrun wading anglers for so long. That’s why I love smallmouths.
Because so many cold-water trout-fishing opportunities exist in the West, smallmouths are one of the most undervalued fly-rod gamefish here. This is ironic. If you look at the drainages of the largest Rocky Mountain trout rivers, the lower half is almost always prime bronzeback habitat, replete with a pebble rock and silt streambed, moderate water temperatures, and a big food supply.
For the past few years, I’ve had some of the finest smallmouth sight-fishing trips on water that’s barely 30 minutes from my front door, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. With so many anglers tossing spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and live bait, I’ve had to figure out ways to make flies stand out. To help you catch more smallies on the fly wherever you live, here are three concepts to remember.
Keep it Simple
I love fishing new flies, especially those loaded with modern materials designed to produce extremely lifelike action. I often reach for those patterns first, thinking they’ll be something the bass haven’t seen yet. Inevitably, after a hundred casts with maybe a few chases and a strike or two, I throw in the towel and reach for a Clouser Minnow.
In my experience, bass in moving water couldn’t care less about a fake minnow that moves exactly like a real minnow. Silhouette and motion trump realism and natural color patterns. That’s why a Clouser is my No. 1 fly. It’s inexpensive, simple to tie, and easy to see when sight-fishing in crystal-clear water. Want to simplify things further? Don’t get carried away with too many color combinations. Yellow over chartreuse kills it for me in a wide range of conditions.
Slow Your Roll
Many of the people I take smallmouth fishing for the first time strip flies at Daytona 500 speeds and get frustrated when a bass follows but never commits. If you think about it, bass see all sorts of fast-moving spinners and lipped crankbaits. Hard baits can appear unnatural, and fish can eventually become conditioned to refuse them. When you make a similarly speedy retrieve with a fly, expect the same reaction from the fish.
Train yourself to slow your strip speed. If it helps, use less weight on your flies to decrease the sink rate. My smallmouth buddies and I see so many fish strike on the drop that we’ve learned to occasionally stop moving the fly during a retrieve, especially if there’s a fish following close behind. Just let the fly (slowly) sink. Bass can hit before the fly meets the streambed, or when it’s motionless on the gravel for a moment or two. Make the fly behave like scared prey that knows death is imminent, and more bronzebacks will commit.
Catch the Early Bug
What many anglers don’t realize is a lot of slow, warm, shallow smallmouth rivers host the same sought-after hatches that get trout anglers jacked up in the wee hours of the morning. Even early in the season, you can encounter many of the same caddis and mayflies in the smallmouth stretches, particularly Hendricksons. As the spring sun heats the water, do yourself a favor and don’t sleep in. Grab a coffee, enjoy the fact that you’re the only trailer on the boat ramp, and spend the next few hours headhunting bass dimpling the surface. Even the slightest rings can be produced by heavy fish, and there’s no greater challenge than landing a 3- or 4-pounder on light tippet and a size 16 dry fly. I’ve caught some amazingly large bass targeting unbelievably small rise forms. If you’re not getting risers to eat, try working a small popper around the sippers, pausing often. You can also try swinging a Clouser through them.
Written by Ben Romans for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because the intricacies of a stream can tell you more that just where the fish are
Clapotis. That is the word I’ve been trying to scrape off the tip of my tongue for an hour, and it comes back to me as I cast a Purple Haze dry fly along a rock-walled stretch of Montana’s Spotted Bear River. The wall gives out where a boulder squats on the shoreline, pushing a bulge of clear flow into the middle of the channel, and it’s about the troutiest-looking 20 feet of creek I’ve ever seen. The leader straightens, the fly drops, and I ready myself for what will surely be the jolting strike of a serious cutthroat trout. Only a big fish could manage life in the clapotis.
The word comes from a French phrase meaning “lapping of water,” and it describes a standing wave train that neither moves nor breaks, created by waves that bounce off a hard surface—like a rock face—and stack up against more incoming waves. I mend the fly line to keep it out of the tall whipped-frosting waves, giving the parachute fly a drag-free drift in the slick between the rock and the chop. When the big cutthroat slashes, I am so smug and proud of myself for sticking the fly in its face that I miss the strike entirely.
Which, of course, is not the point. The point is that I figured out ahead of time where a trout might live in this stretch of water, so I could drift a fly to its precise location in the current. Trout tend to feed in narrow lanes, unwilling to expend the energy to move out of their comfort zone no matter how tempting the fly. When you miss a fish in a tough lie like that one, you tell yourself that the important thing isn’t that you screwed up the strike. It’s that you were smart enough to read the water.
Like the act of fly-casting itself, reading trout water has taken on near-mystical associations. The practice of carefully studying the flow of water in a trout stream, and divining the most likely spots where trout hold, has been likened to some sort of performance art. But at its core, it’s nothing more than a studied understanding of how water reacts to stuff like gravel bottoms and weedlines and rocks—and how water that has reacted to that kind of stuff is going to affect the fish, fly line, and fly. You don’t need to know what a clapotis is to catch a trout. You just need to know that a fish is likely to be in the calm lane of water between the rock and the choppy place.
Reading trout water isn’t voodoo. It’s a skill. And like any skill, it takes a while to get really good at it. Like a lifetime.
Putting the Pieces Together
The Southern Appalachian streams of my native North Carolina have been my longtime trout-water-reading class, and there’s hardly a better laboratory. These creeks might be 3 feet wide or 30, but they’re rocky, steep, and twisty—and all small enough that the various sorts of trout water are right there at your feet: pools, glides, runs, riffles, pocket water, holding water, current seams, eddies. Clapotis galore.
The best anglers deconstruct the creeks for long, quiet moments before even thinking about a cast. They watch bubble lines to learn where swifts seam into calmer water. They push polarized glasses up to get a better sense of what stream glare suggests about surface flow. Before they ever look for fish, they look for the places where they should look for fish. You work the problem backward: If I think a fish is there, I’ll need to drop my fly to the right of the foam so the force from the riffles pushes the fly into the throat of the current seam. And more likely than not, the place where it seems simply impossible to put a fly is the place where I’d live if I were the boss trout of the pool. That brings on more study. More calculation. Can I sidearm skip a fly under the branches if I crawl out onto the gravel bar? Could I worm through the rhododendrons and dapple the fly along the undercut bank old-school style? Maybe the best cast is no cast at all.
All trout anglers have tied themselves up inside these Gordian knots of fishing strategy. It’s one of the things that makes trout fishing so much fun. But in untying these knots, water pulsing around my legs, fish just waiting to be caught, I’ve found a surprising benefit—one of the other reasons that make trout fishing such a surprising pleasure. I bet any trout angler—or every angler, for that matter—has experienced this. It’s often said that we fish to escape the real world, with its tangled webs of responsibility and challenge. But more often than forgetting about reality, this is what happens to me: I step into a stream with a head full of stress—what to do about two family cars with the CHECK ENGINE lights blinking, how to win the next round of Deadline Whack-A-Mole—and hours later, on the trail back to the truck, solutions begin to bubble up in my mind. By focusing so tightly, time and again, on the riddle of where a fish holds in a single seam of current, my brain seems to break free of all the torque that’s locked up the gears.
This might seem like dime-store philosophy, the sort of grist you’d pick up in a self-help book, but I guess I’ve been fishing—and living—long enough to look at the upstream reaches of my life and recognize that there’s just about always a way to float a solution down into the sweet spot.
But first you must ask yourself: What are the pieces? How do the parts fit together? Solve the little puzzle inside the larger one, and watch what happens. The sweetest moments of life aren’t necessarily void of turbulence. They’re just holding in the calm places on the edge of the riffles. The ones you can’t see until you step into the river.
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
Want to take your fly-fishing to a new level? How about hopping on a seaplane, flying down to the South Sound, and chasing sea run cutthroat? Orvis offers monthly floatplane fly-fishing trips. It’s a unique experience offering anglers a “trip of a lifetime in a single day.” The plane can take them to areas that are too far to drive or totally inaccessible by car.
Expert guide Leland Miyawaki says the plane reaches secluded beaches that contain fish that may never have seen an artificial fly. “I am there to show anglers how to read and approach the water and present their fly correctly,” Miyawaki says. “If they hook a fish, I help them land it quickly, take a photo and make sure we release it safely. I hope they come away with a deeper appreciation of one of our most beautiful wild native trout caught on our most beautiful beaches.”
On the last trip it poured rain but the anglers still had a blast. “Three out of the eight people had never caught a sea run cutthroat. They were really excited,” says Miyawaki. “It rained hard, in fact, the heavens opened up. But we laughed our way through it all including a shoreline lunch out in the open with no shelter.”
It’s a relatively new program that’s had a great response. Orvis’s Bellevue store manager Reggie Harris says, “You don’t have to go to Alaska for this experience, it’s literally right here in your back yard. We have this beautiful pristine fishery right here.”
Participants get remote enough to encounter wildlife fascinated by their presence. “As we were fishing one of these very remote beaches that you can only access by plane, a seal popped up and looked at me, down at my fly and just stared at me for 3-4 minutes or so. Then he went down the beach and did the same thing with another angler, just seeing what the hell we were doing there in the first place because he probably had never seen anyone. We also had a couple of eagles fly around us watching to see if we caught anything,” says Harris.
The anglers practice catch and release and a keen respect for nature. “We have to practice good conservation because otherwise there wouldn’t be any fish,” says Harris. “Were’ struggling to get our populations back. If there are no fish, there’s no fly-fishing. It’s such a gift of nature to have the fish in the water and be able to go out and enjoy them.”
Orvis will be offering approximately one floatplane trip per month. Find out more on their Facebook Page , and call 425-452-9138 to register. Call early because there is often a waiting list. In June, they are offering a new option with a bass fishing trip to Eastern Washington to fish the Pot Holes.
Bring waders, fly rod, and reel. Orvis provides the flies and a box lunch that includes a sandwich, chips and fresh fruit.
Written by Leah DeAngelis 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.
Cooling temps and rising stream levels mean one thing—trout and landlocked salmon are on the run
The Yellow Conehead Woolly Bugger whistles by my ear and plunks in the river on the far side of a white plume. At the end of the swing, it glides into the slack water around my feet. A crimson blur flashes toward it—a brook trout trying to chase an intruder from the eddy. But then the trout sees me and vanishes into the clear flows of Maine’s Kennebec River.
Another 15 minutes of casting and turtle-hunching in the wind. Should I switch flies? I wonder, stripping in the conehead. Suddenly, a salmon is in the air, skittering across the rapids. My line snaps through the guides. I connect the dots—bingo!
Ten minutes later, a 20-inch landlocked salmon comes to net, glittering and strong. I know the fish resulted from my fly ending up in its path almost incidentally, but the early-morning salmon gives me a charge nonetheless. Luck and patience are big parts of fishing the fall migration, no doubt.
During this time of year, cooling temperatures and rising water levels activate the largest brook trout, landlocked salmon, and brown trout, drawing them upstream to procreate. Since food is not the point of the journey, bright streamers, like a yellow conehead, make a good choice for brookies or salmon. Other top patterns on the Kennebec include the Montreal Whore, the White Marabou, and the Mickey Finn Marabou. A similar streamer formula holds true for brown trout, though they prefer colors and imitations of creatures found in nature, such as leeches, sculpins, and juvenile trout. In each case, weight matters. You want your streamer to get down there, walk into the bar, and pick a fight.
Hours later and a mile downstream, my friend Jim and I loll on a sunny ledge eating sandwiches. The shoreline glows with yellows and oranges, rendering the river violet blue in contrast. As pleasant as it is, Jim likes this spot for other reasons—among them the cartwheeling, 5-pound salmon he landed while teetering on the ledge a few years ago.
But he hasn’t forgotten about the ones that got away, either. “I wouldn’t have minded landing that big brookie I had on last year,” Jim says. “She took my conehead into her little cave and wouldn’t come out.”
Jim isn’t the only one who has lost out. Several years ago, two pools upriver, our friend Shawn tussled with a big brookie for more than 20 minutes before it snapped the tippet on a headshake. A year before that, Jim’s English buddy Charles was grinning as he played his first ever American salmon, albeit a small one, until a huge brook trout floated up and snatched it away. Landing fish can be just as hard as hooking them at this time of year, but that’s part of the appeal.
After story hour, Jim grabs his vest and rod and heads downriver. “I’ll be back so we can hike out in the light,” he says over his shoulder, “and avoid getting stomped by a moose.”
I creak to my feet and start roll casting a pair of No. 14 and 18 beadheads out along a foam line, still mulling stories of big fish landed and lost.
Over the years I’ve learned that the smallest nymphs often account for the biggest fish, especially as autumn wears on. Beadhead Princes or Hare’s Ears, weighted stoneflies and, in particular, No. 16 to 18 Pheasant Tails dead-drifted in the right place seem to offer fall spawners a quick bite without their needing to stop or chase. Sometimes on the East Outlet, I use an indicator, a yellow conehead, and a No. 18 Pheasant Tail on a 5X dropper—an odd concoction, sure. But fall is like that. Dan Legere of Maine Guide Fly Shop, a top regional outfitter, has floated the East Outlet some 1,500 times, and I’ve heard him say, “In the fall, it may take 10 different flies to catch 10 different fish.” After all, fall spawners don’t know what they want; food is a peripheral concern.
Since autumn salmon and trout stay on the move, anglers must do the same to find them. The fish end up in resting places and favor side cover, such as fallen trees and ledges. They also tend to move at low light, and this is surely the case on the river now, with the black boulders casting shadows over the flow. Roll casting along the ledge, I glance upstream and watch as Jim, 200 yards ahead, plays a fish. My yellow indicator, meanwhile, bobs through the current like an abandoned life raft.
I hike 50 yards upriver and butt-slide down to a toe-scrunching ledge overlooking a run. I balance myself and start drifting my nymph rig. Just as I lift the rod to cast again, a fish is there. It bores into the deep water beneath the ledge, pulling in slow, heavy tugs. I extend my rod to get the fish into the open river, but that’s not happening. I raise the rod tip high. But just as suddenly as the fish was on, it’s off, and the weight releases into nothing. In a sense, I follow suit, deflating, and stare at the tippet floating in front of me. With the angling season in its twilight, I won’t have many more chances at a brook trout like that. Jim and I will soon hike out for the last time until spring. The fish, meanwhile, will continue upriver, another one lost for next year’s story hour.
GEAR TIP: Autumn Arsenal
The modified Conehead Woolly Bugger is a surefire pattern for spawning fall trout, thanks to its weighted tungsten cone, chenille body, and marabou tail. You can tie up a Bugger sans hackle or clip the hackle off a standard Woolly Bugger in a pinch. So unencumbered, the fly zigs and zags near the bottom in provocative motions. Stick with olive, red, white, and yellow, in sizes 4 through 8. With a floating line, cast upstream and slightly across. Retrieve so the fly moves a little faster than the current and taps the rocks along the bottom. You can also fish a conehead with a strike indicator, twitching it as it floats. —W.R.
This story ran in the September 2017 issue with the headline “Fall in Line.”
Written by Will Ryan for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.