Flies that Swim:
By Mike Fong
Given the choice, I would prefer to fish dry flies to rising trout or to present nymphs to sighted fish that are either cruising or holding in a specific lie, particularly if the trout is sizable. Because these trout offer a clearly seen target, and are often wary, it requires a certain degree of skill and perfect execution to be consistently successful. When an opportunity is converted resulting in a catch, the feeling that comes from knowing youve performed adequately brings about a certain satisfaction.
Through the course of a season, there will be many days when I can fish in this kind of setting and they are relished. Because Chris and I are always looking for new waters to fish, there will be more times when we have to be prepared to fish a variety of methods in order to catch trout consistently. Of all the methods available, I must admit that the one that has the least appeal is nymph fishing with an indicator. Is it just me, or does it appear to you that flyfishers are becoming rather single-minded in their approach?
Whenever Chris and I arrive at a stream where there are already anglers present, chances are better than good that our competition will be fishing with nymphs and indicators. With so many anglers choosing to fish in this manner, almost any other technique would be novel to trout. An alternative choice is fishing flies that are meant to swim, like streamers, leeches or Wooly Buggers.
There are many reasons to fish these swimming flies. One that I especially like is that when on a large river, Im able to cast for distance. What separates flyfishing from other forms of fishing is the joy that comes by feeling and watching as the fly is propelled through the air as the cast is executed.
For big rivers, my preference is for a # 7 system matched to a # 8 or # 9 weight shooting taper. A good all around density is a Type II. Using a system such as this, long casts are easily attained. Not only will it be possible to cover a lot more water, but the fly will be presented to fish that are unaware of your presence. In all trout fishing, fish undisturbed and feeding are much more likely to take a fly than fish that are aware that a predator is near. Depending on the stream, whether it is fast, slow, deep or shallow, I can quickly change the shooting taper to one of another density to meet prevailing conditions.
We spent one day being guided by Mike Guinn, "The Water Boatman". Even when there wasnt a hatch to promote surface feeding, he knew the river so well that he took us to places where fish were cruising on flats. These we coaxed to dries and if they wouldnt rise, we hooked them using nymphs. The fishing we had with Mike was wonderful, but for most of the days we spent on the river, the majority of the fish we landed were hooked on streamers.
Jim Dixon is a resident of Calgary. He is a long-time member of the FFF and has contributed his time helping to organize national conclaves. Jim likes the challenge of big fish, which are often caught on streamers. At one time, and perhaps still presently, he held many records for big trout on various tippet sizes. Chris and I have known Jim for many years. He and Laura, his wife, were our hosts during our stay in Calgary. On our first day fishing the Bow, Jim showed us why he liked to fish streamers.
The Bow is a big river, perhaps 100 yards wide. Fishing it is more like being on a steelhead and salmon river than a trout stream because the distance from one pool to the next can be a quarter mile or more. We saw a few fish rise, but Jim quickly demonstrated the worth of fishing streamers. His fly of choice on his home stream was a big White Marabou Muddler Minnow. When I say big, I mean tied on # 2 or larger size hooks. Were talking about a fly that will measure nearly three and a half inches when fully dressed. At the start, Chris and I used a large attractor dry with a bead head nymph mounted on a dropper five feet below, pretty standard fare on most freestone trout streams.
It didnt take long for us to switch to big White Marabou Muddlers, offered by Jim. We didnt catch any real big trout for which the Bow is capable of growing, but we caught a fair number of browns and rainbows to three pounds. Jim wasnt too impressed with our efforts, but Chris and I werent complaining.
My Two days later, Chris and I fished with Marcus Perron, a guide recommended to us by a subscriber of our newsletter. We started our day using large Stimulators with # 14 Bead Head Pheasant Tails tied on four-foot droppers. For a half hour we persisted with these set-ups without a strike. I decided to switch outfits and try one of Jims big Muddlers. Marcus said a good way to fish a Muddler was to cast it quartering upstream, allow the fly to settle and then begin making short strips. The idea was to make the Muddler act like a sculpin. If youve seen sculpins, you know they lay close to the bottom and kind of scoot, never swimming for any distance before returning to the cover provided by the sub strata. This is just the kind of action I was trying to impart to the Muddler.
To make this presentation as life-like as possible, I mounted a 1/32 ounce bullet sinker flush against the hook eye held firmly in place by a broken-off tooth pick. Immediately, I had some action. The first fish was a twenty-two inch rainbow, which nearly jerked the rod out of my hand at the strike. All the strikes fishing the Muddler in this fashion were violent and unmistakable.
Every time wed drift through a riffle, I made a cast behind the boat to where the riffle ended and deeper water began. To let the Muddler gain some depth, I would throw in some slack before tightening up the line. Strikes came regularly. Although I didnt have to resort to them, I also carried some 1/16-ounce bullet sinkers to make the Muddler swim even deeper. For the day, Chris and I landed twenty-six trout. Ten came to dries and nymphs, such as hoppers, Stimulators, Pheasant Tail Nymphs and caddis emergrs. The rest came to the White Muddler.
One of the dangers of using streamers, leeches and Wooly Buggers is that they can be such effective fish catchers that it is easy to discard other methods and begin relying on them entirely. Fishing swimming flies is usually associated with bigger rivers, but this isnt always the case. Spring creeks, the domain of selective trout, can be fished effectively with swimming flies too. For streams of the size of lower Hat Creek in California, a sink-tip line is all that is needed to cover the water effectively. You can use a variety of flies and catch fish on many of them, but my choice is a black leech tied on a # 10, 3x long hook.
I have two different patterns on which I rely. I begin dressing each pattern by wrapping the hook shank with medium lead wire. On the marabou version, I tie in bunches of marabou on the top of the hook starting at where the bend begins and work forward. Three bunches of marabou are usually sufficient.
The second version is made with a strip of black dyed rabbit fur. To prepare the strip of fur, I use an Exacto knife. With the skin side up, I cut arrow point-like pieces with the hair naturally lying toward the pointed end. The width at the front or widest part is about a quarter of an inch and the total length is about an inch and a half. To secure the fir strip to the lead wound hook, first tie on the pointed end with about a half-inch trailing beyond the hook bend. The rest of the strip is tied on like one would tiea Matuka-style pattern.
Neither of these flies would be candidates for a fly tying contest, but for catching fish, they pass the supreme test. I wouldnt go fishing unless I had an ample supply of each in my streamer wallet.
Fishing Black Leeches
The best places to fish these black leeches is where there is some depth to the water. Undercut banks at bends in the stream are places worth your efforts. Most of the time, the undercut is more severe at the outside of the bend, but dont overlook the inside of the bends too. Another place you should try are runs with submerged weeds that form a channel. The very best times to fish are during low light conditions with evening just a little bit better than at dawn. At least this has been my experience.
However, Ive had some fast action during the middle of the day too. There isnt anything tricky in the presentation. Stay as far away from the water as you can and quarter your casts downstream. Wade only if you have to. After the leech swims across the current and it is not taken, allow it to swim in place and jiggle the rod tip a few times before starting a slow, irregular retrieve. A trout can strike at anytime from as soon as the leech alights on the water to when retrieving. Because this strategy can attract large trout, I wouldnt use anything smaller than a 3x tippet.
Just recently, Chris and I made a visit to Depuy Spring Creek near Livingston, Montana. The late autumn weather was very unstable. There was rain and wind and it was right on the verge of snowing. Baetis were showing, but not consistently. We were fortunate one morning to have a break in the weather after some rain. Skies remained overcast, but with the absence of wind, Baetis began to emerge.
We had challenging fishing over rising fish for most of the day before the wind came up in the late afternoon to put a stop to the fun. In the deteriorating weather, we drove back to the fly shop located at the top end of the property. Buzz Basini, the owner of the shop, called us over because he wanted to show us something. That something was a secret fly he said could be counted on to catch fish on Depuy Spring Creek when other flies failed. When he opened his hand, there was a small olive sculpin fly.
In our travels, Chris and I have had excellent results fishing streamers, leeches and Wooly Buggers when other methods were unlikely to produce. In some instances, fishing swimming flies was our first choice because the stream was known to harbor big trout that could be attracted to these kinds of flies. When I refer to big trout, I mean those that are measured in pounds, not inches.
A short list of streams where weve had success:
The Williamson River in south central Oregon This stream has some of the largest rainbow trout in the western United States. They winter over in Klamath Lake and migrate into the Williamson River during the season.
The Wood River in south central Oregon The Wood is the sister stream of the Williamson and flows into Agency Lake, which is the upper part of Klamath Lake. Because most of the land bordering the stream is private, acccess is difficult, but possible. Fishing is best in the autumn.
The Klamath River in south central Oregon The River flowing from Keno Dam to JC Boyle Reservoir is open to fishing from October 1 to June 15. It flows in a deep canyon where trails lead to the water. Some of the best fishing takes place in the winter when snow covers the ground.
Upper Klamath River - Northern California
The upper Klamath River in northern California The Klamath River above Iron Gate Dam is easily accessed by a road that follows the stream. It is lightly fished because the water fluctuates dramatically each day due to power generation upstream and the area is known for its large population of rattlesnakes.
The Green River in Wyoming Most anglers know of the Green River by Pinedale and the section flowing below Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah. When fish migrate from the reservoir, they head up the river toward Fontenelle and are found in the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.
The North Platte in Wyoming The Miraacle Mile between Pathfinder and Alcova Reservoirs has long enjoyed a reputation for producing large trout. Not so well known is the stream flowing downstream of Alcova Reservoir.
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