11 Things to Learn about Fly Fishing from a Conventional Angler

I recently went bass fishing with a buddy of mine this winter. Which is rare because normally we have ice or its just so cold you wouldn't think about going bass fishing. It was mid-December in Michigan so we took advantage of such a mild weekend. Sitting here in mid March I've been thinking about that trip. We've had a relatively mild winter in southwest Michigan this year and ice-off will be coming soon. Most of our warm water rivers only iced over a few times. So my thoughts have been toward new techniques, flies and presentations I'm looking forward to experimenting with. Which leads me to how some of these hypothesis and ideas have come to be.


I think most of us make our way to fly fishing through some sort of natural progression. It probably started with a zebco or a spinning rod with bait, then progressing to artificial lures after you mastered bait fishing-- something a little more exciting and active.  Perhaps a little more thought put into presentation, retrieval speed, lure choice. Some of us end up pursuing walleye, bass, pike etc with primarily artificial lures. Eventually some of us become so obsessed we guide and fish amateur and pro tournaments and some just operate as serious weekend warriors. For those of us who end up with an affinity for the fly rod and reel, we usually never end up finding it the same way but none the less end up in the same place. If you were really lucky someone showed you the ropes with the fly rod. Most of us on the other hand get bits and pieces along the way and this can actually lead toward creativity as an angler. If there's one thing I I've learned about fish through studying fisheries biology is that hard "rules" don't always hold up. Fishing is a great way to gain an understanding of fish behavior but if you aren't flexible or observant you will miss the opportunity to witness behaviors that aren't laid out in a fishing article. Fish don't care how we've described them and will do something to challenge common human understanding. We are constantly learning and understanding more and more about fish through science and angling but fish evolve as well as fisheries.

I think we all like to think that somehow our progression to fly fishing is a process where we end up ultimately achieving fly fishing enlightenment. It's the way it's supposed to be. Similar I suppose to a big game hunter who starts out using a rifle or shotgun then picks up a compound bow and ends up with traditional archery equipment like the recurve or longbow. I've found myself before I go to the lake or steam saying, "ahh but I want to catch one on a fly" which is great challenging ourselves this way with a fly rod, but often we don't really "attack" the water with the fly - it's one presentation and that's it - no adaptation, we end up fishing the same way we would any other time. And worse yet we don't push ourselves to learn a new method that's outside our comfort zone.

Sometimes I think in today's world of fly fishing we get caught up in the idea of it. I'm guilty of it and  I'm sure you're guilty of it too. I've tried to steer away from this line of thinking but it seems to happen anyway. We all enjoy the ambiance of the fly fishing experience. I wouldn't want to take someone fishing if all they cared about was catching the most fish every time they went. There is so much more to fishing than just catching fish. But the definition of fishing is, " the activity of catching fish". We can use our competitive nature to help us grow as anglers. Too often we use the act of fly fishing as an excuse as to why we didn't catch anything. I believe most of us haven't tried hard enough or are locked into one style of fishing. For example if you are fishing a steamer don't just fish an unweighted streamer in the top 1/3 of the water column. Experiment with different styles and retrieves and cover different depths to target fish that may not be keyed up in a feeding lane. You still might be able to elicit a reaction strike from a fish lounging in a deeper pool or slower run that is resting. This might be the difference between stripping steamers all day without a bite or landing one nice fish- trust me that one fish will be the difference between just a boat ride or a trip that you can recall as a fond memory. It's ok to pride ourselves on being fly fisherman but we need to remember to think outside the box and to use everything in our "toolbox". I don't think fly fishing should be an excuse for not effectively catching fish. I'm sure many big fish flies these days are directly influenced by conventional lures and the need to effectively elicit results. Some of these flies are the dahlberg diver, zoo cougar, and D & D. This is also where sinking lines evolved from - necessity.

You see the thing I keep remembering about that trip in December bass fishing on the Kalamazoo River is how bad I got out fished. Not that it was embarrassing or that I'm going to put down the fly rod to hit the BASS trail but I kept thinking how effective he was compared to me. It's not like it was unfair, Joe had to work for those fish and he is an accomplished angler. He and his partner routinely win local tourneys in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The thing I was thinking about was how could I mimic those presentations with my fly rod.

 Photo: Melanie Jewell. Caught it in March this year, 2016.

Photo: Melanie Jewell. Caught it in March this year, 2016.

Fly fishing isn't always the most effective way to fish. It's harder to cast, you use more muscles, end up sorer at the end of the day, have a harder time with subsurface and short range presentation. Fly fishing can be more effective in certain situations like imitating emerging mayflies, caddisflies etc. but generally it is much harder to illicit the same results as conventional styles. However we all still love the sport, sometimes for just this reason. The point is there are many things we can learn from conventional fishing styles.

Which leads me to a few things or pointers for you to take away from your "lowly"conventional bass angler buddy.

Eleven things to learn about fly fishing from a conventional gear angler:

1. Have at least two fly rigs ready to go. Bass anglers have 6-10 rods ready to go. This way you can swap out a floating line and weighted streamer; for fishing moderate to shallower rivers and depths. A floating line with a floating fly; when fish are actively feeding on the surface.  A sinking line and unweighted streamer; for moderate to deeper stream sections or depths. A weighted streamer with a sinking line in order to dredge some deep bends and holes.

2. Fish deep. Use a sinking type line like a long streamer head or 300 grain sink tip. This will get your fly down in a hurry when fish are in winter or early spring patterns.

3. Vertical/semi-vertical presentation. What does this mean for the fly angler? Consider presenting a fly in a vertical fashion. This means using a float and some weight coupled with a long fluorocarbon or monofilament leader.

4. The bass anglers I fish with are absolutely meticulous. They pick apart cover, depth, and contour.
When I was in Alaska we used weighted streamers and worked breaks in glacial lakes to catch dolly varden that positioned themselves along break lines similar to bass fishing I had done back home. It reminded me of working a break line with a crankbait or a jig for bass. We gave our flies plenty of time to sink to the bottom and worked them where the fish were waiting to ambush. The point is adapt your presentation to the cover or situation and don't be afraid to mimic presentations that have worked with conventional gear.

5. Bass bite year round. Fish feed year round in order to sustain themselves. Some have much lower feeding rates at cold temperatures but the human limitations we impose upon them are false. Ice fishing has taught me this. If there's open water and its legal go for it. Pike actively feed especially since they spawn at ice out.

6. Cast to cover (this relates to #4). Don't be afraid to cast in cover or let current swing your fly under log jams, banks or docks. A lot of anglers don't cast at cover the way they would with spinning or bait casting gear. I'm not sure why we are way more reluctant to fish cover the way we would with conventional gear. Beef up your leader and let it fly.

7. Make your fly weedless just like a weedless jig or frog. When it's mid-summer and weed growth is at its height use 20lb. mono to make a weedless fly or buy them that way.

8. Get creative. I think there is a bass tournament 5 days a week on the lake I live on. I'm pretty sure those old northern bass have saw everything there is to offer by midsummer. A new fly, a new presentation sometimes something different is the only thing that works. Or when I fish pressured water I try to fish when no one else is around (i.e. nighttime).

9. Think about using a rattle in your fly. We use them in crankbaits and jerkbaits all the time.

10. Most of the conventional anglers I fish with fish when it's cold. You don't need to wait to fly fish when bass are actively chasing streamers. Steelhead and streamer fisherman do but we tend to forget to target bass when it's cold. One of the best times to fish for smallmouth is when the water temp gets around 40 degrees or more.

11. Sometimes the materials we use in our flies are preferred by conventional anglers and what that means is they know natural fibers move much better in colder water and seem much more lifelike. That can give us an advantage. Keep this in mind.

I'm definitely not giving up the fly rod and reel anytime soon but we need to remember that we can learn from conventional anglers and we shouldn't feel "superior" to them simply because we are using a fly rod. We should keep an open mind and remember we are all anglers and help to promote conservation and outdoor recreation. Angler dollars make up the majority of the money that state and local agencies use to protect, manage and improve our fisheries. And remember a lot of anglers get their start with conventional tackle.

-Brett Riser

The Fly Factor