Spotting Fish

Rainbow Trout in Flat, Shallow Water
A 14″ rainbow feeding in flat, shallow water

In some fly fishing scenarios, spotting fish is absolutely critical for success.  Fishing the saltwater flats for bonefish, redfish, tarpon, etc. or the freshwater mud flats for carp will provide little more than casting practice if you can’t see the fish.  In other scenarios, such as fishing a mountain trout stream, you can tell where fish should be by reading the water, and you can catch a lot of fish just by fishing likely spots.  But even when fishing trout streams, the ability to spot fish in the water can sometimes allow you to locate and target larger fish.  In the fall, this is particularly relevant in the Smokies as large brown trout begin moving into flatter, shallower water preparing to spawn.

Spotting fish can be difficult to learn and there is no substitute for years of experience and practice, but there are a few things that can help you get started.  The best place to start is with a pair of polarized sunglasses.  The next thing to understand is how trout see, because as you seek out vantage points from which to spot fish, you want to avoid spooking the fish in the process.  Here is an article on trout behavior that goes into a little more detail. Now we’re ready to go spot some fish.

Start by looking for fish in slower water.  The more broken the surface is, the more difficult it will be to see through it. If possible, try to find a higher vantage point from which to look.  This will greatly reduce the amount of light refraction from the water’s surface.  Just remember that the higher up you get, the easier it will be for fish to pick up your movement.  Avoid standing erect on a large boulder, as your silhouette will be far more pronounced.  A high bank with a wooded backdrop is ideal, but you’ll still want to keep your movements slow and minimal.  If you are on a large rock above a pool, get on your belly and peek over the edge. Remember the old westerns where the Indians were looking off the rocky bluffs about to attack the wagon train? That’s the idea.

Now that you’re in position, take your time.  It’s extremely rare that you’re going to step up to a pool and immediately see a 27” brown trout.  You have to methodically scan the pool.  Start by reading the water and looking for fish where they should be.  Look for obvious feeding areas in and around current lanes and foam lines.  Look for areas with obvious cover under and around big rocks and/or fallen trees.  They blend in REALLY well, so look long and hard and train your eye to look through the water rather than at it.

It’s hard.  You’ll spot plenty of fish that turn out to be rocks or pieces of wood.  I once spent 15 minutes casting to a plastic grocery bag hung on an underwater limb. It had the exact shape and movement of a trout!  I was in the water and my buddy was above me, watching from a bridge.  We were both certain it was a fish!

Trout Feeding in Slow Water
There are four trout in this photo. Can you see them?

Movement and shape really are the best giveaways and that’s why it’s so important to take your time and give long looks to those likely spots.  You may not see anything at first, then you see a little movement and suddenly the fish is visible.  And once you spot one, you often begin to notice others around him.  Watching the actual stream bottom, especially on sunnier days, can be helpful too.  The movement that you often detect is the shadow of the fish.

Another thing to look for is a flash near the stream bottom.  The eyes of a trout are positioned in such a way that they look slightly upward.  When feeding on nymphs on the bottom, the trout has to angle his body to see below and will often “twist” his body when he eats the nymph.  When this occurs, his white belly reflects light and produces a flash.  This is always helpful when looking for fish, but especially in faster water.

All of this is easier the more familiar you are with the stream bottom.  If you have a favorite pool, maybe one where you spooked a big fish before, keep going back there and looking.  You will inevitably begin memorizing the stream bottom and will more quickly and easily be able to differentiate between rocks and fish. Again, it’s not easy and it takes time but like most things, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, you’re starting to spot some fish… now what?  Don’t just jump in and start casting the second you see a nice one.  Keep watching.  What is the fish doing?  If you see a big fish just hugging the bottom, he’s not feeding and you’re wasting your time casting to him.  But good news… you found a big fish.  You might come back closer to dawn or dusk when he is more likely to be feeding.

Smoky Mountains Little River Brown Trout
This 22″ brown was spotted and observed for nearly 15 minutes before approach

If you spot a fish up in the water column, he’s likely feeding.  Keep watching him.  Is he looking up?  Does he consistently feed to his right?  Is he staying in one place or is he systematically rotating to different locations within the pool?  Pay attention to all of these things and then you can plan your attack.  Sometimes with big fish, you’re only going to get one shot and you want to make it count.

How much time you spend looking depends on you.  I know guys that do little more than target big brown trout, and they spend far more time watching water than they do fishing.  For me, it depends on where I’m fishing and the conditions.  If I’m fishing pocket water on a high country brook trout stream, I’m not going to spend much time, if any, looking for big fish. I’m going to cover a lot of water and hit the likely spots.  If I’m fishing a big pool on a brown trout river, I’m going to spend at least a few minutes looking before I jump in.  If I’m fishing that same big pool in late fall, I’m going to look a lot more thoroughly!

How Stuff Works: Floatants

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams dry fly

One of the worst things you can do to a dry fly is catch a fish on it!  They slime it and submerge it and swim it around… Just in general, keeping a dry fly floating better and longer seems to be an ongoing quest for many fly tyers and fishers.

There are a number of factors that can go into how well and how long a dry fly continues to float high. Certainly the materials from which the fly is tied will play a big role, as will the skill of the angler.  The more you allow your fly to drag across currents, rather than drift on them, the more waterlogged your fly will become. Where you are fishing will make a difference, too.  It’s easier to keep a fly floating high in big, open rivers where false casting is an option than it is in a small, tight mountain stream.  In any case, an endless number of products exist for this task. We lump them all into the category of “floatants.”

As with many products in the fly fishing world, if you ask ten different anglers which one is the best, it’s entirely possible that you will get ten different answers. Sometimes those answers will come in the form of a specific brand of floatant. Others will come in the form of a specific style.  When it comes to brand, I believe that is a matter of personal preference and you’ll just have to try a few different ones to see if one in particular earns your loyalty.  But when it comes to different styles of floatant, the specific task at hand may determine which will be best.  In fact, you may want to have more than one style of floatant to perform different tasks. Listed below are a few different common styles of floatant and a description of how and when they might best be applied.

Loon Hydrostop Fly Floatant
Liquid floatant

Liquid Floatants
While many anglers use them in different ways, liquid floatants are probably most useful before you ever get to the stream.  Whether dry flies that you tie yourself or buy from a shop, you can use a liquid style floatant to “pre-treat” new flies in much the same way as you might “Scotchgard” your sofa.  Exact application may vary. Read the recommendations for the specific brand you purchase. You typically soak the flies in the liquid for five minutes or so and dry them overnight.  In theory, after application of the product, water will better bead and roll of the fly material rather than absorb into it.

Orvis Hy-Flote Fly Floatant
Orvis gel floatant

Gel Floatants
Gel floatants are probably the most common and popular style of floatant.  They come in a small, very portable bottle and, like the liquid floatants, are designed to be a pre-treatment to an already dry fly.  The big difference is gel floatants are designed to be used streamside, immediately before fishing the fly.

It is important that you don’t “over apply” the gel.  Rub a small amount  into the fly and any remove any excess.  Gels are also frequently mis-applied – after a fly has already become waterlogged.  If a fly is already saturated, applying a gel floatant will essentially trap moisture into the fly and make it worse.

Loon Fly Spritz Fly Floatant
Spray floatant

Spray Floatants
Also normally applied while the fly is still dry, spray floatants are basically just a variation on a gel floatant.  Spray floatants come in a bottle with a pump top and apply much like you would spray an eyeglass cleaner.  They are not as messy as the gel but are sometimes more challenging to completey coat the fly.

Loon Payette Paste Fly Floatant
Paste floatant

Paste Floatants
These are basically just a thicker version of a gel floatant.  They really create a mess on smaller dry flies. Use paste for larger dries like hoppers and stoneflies.  A lot of people prefer a paste floatant to apply to yarn strike indicators or even on a leader to keep it floating better.

Shimazaki Dry-Shake Fly Floatant
Powder floatant

Powder Floatants
Use these less as a pre-treatment and more as a means to revive a saturated fly.  As mentioned above, when a dry fly becomes oversaturated and begins to sink, applying a gel or spray can often make it worse by trapping moisture in.  Powder floatants absorb and remove that moisture from a fly.

Typically they will come in a bottle with a wide, flip-top lid.  Keep the fly, on the tippet, put it in the bottle and close the lid.  Shake the bottle a few times to remove moisture from the fly.

At this point, there is a lot of debate on whether to re-apply a gel or spray type floatant. You’ll just have to find what works best for you.  I usually don’t re-apply another floatant unless I’m using a synthetic (like foam) dry fly.

Frog's Fanny Fly Floatant
Brush-on floatant

Brush Floatants
Brush floatants are essentially another version of a powder floatant.  Rather than shaking the fly inside the bottle, use a small brush to apply the powder to the fly.  Again, it’s personal preference but with brush floatants, expect a little frustration on windy days!

There are countless styles and floatants on the market today and all have their place.  And unlike the homemade lighter fluid and paraffin concoctions of days gone by, they are typically odorless and environmentally friendly.  You just need to find a system that suits your needs.

Personally, I carry a gel floatant for pre-treating dry flies and a “shake style” powder for reviving them and get by just fine.  But I offer the disclaimer that I often offer in these newsletter articles… This is just one man’s opinion!

How Stuff Works: Forceps

Forceps
Forceps

In the world of fly fishing, there is an endless array of gadgets designed to serve every purpose, from threading a fly, to removing a fly from a tree, to tying knots… If you have any task to perform in fly fishing that you find the least bit frustrating or unpleasant, chances are someone has invented a gadget to make it easier.  But I’ve never been much of a gadget guy. I try to keep the number of items I carry on the stream to a minimum.

It’s funny how different folks have different priorities when it comes to what they carry with them.  For instance, I never go into the backcountry without a daypack that includes a first-aid kit and the basic necessities (fire source, water purification, etc.) to spend the night if I have to.  99.9% of backcountry fishing trips go off without a hitch, but things happen. And I like to be prepared for the unexpected.  I learned long ago that there is a name for people who go into the woods unprepared: “Statistics.”  Yet, I regularly encounter fishermen deep in the backcountry with no such provisions. But they have fifteen different knot tying tools hanging from their vest!

I’ve taken a really long way around the barn to say that there are only two fishing “tools” that I routinely carry with me when I’m fishing: nippers and forceps.  I’ve talked about nippers in another article.  They are responsible for most of the work I’m doing with my line.  Forceps handle pretty much everything else.

If you get in certain circles, mainly the medical community, someone might correct you and say, “Those aren’t forceps.  They’re hemostats.”  Another might refer to them as clamps.  Maybe there are subtle differences in the three – I don’t know.  But in fly fishing, the three terms are interchangeable and refer to a tool that looks kind of like a pair of scissors but with a nose more like a pair of pliers.  While they come in slightly different shapes and sizes, most are fairly long and narrow and have a locking feature.

Forceps have a number of different uses but I mostly use them to perform three common tasks.  If I need to crimp the barb on a hook, whether required by law or simply preferred, I use my forceps.  If I need to squeeze a split shot on a leader, I use my forceps.  And if I happen to hook a fish a little deeper in the mouth and the fly is difficult to reach without harming the fish, I use my forceps.

The locking feature is frequently used for hook extraction.  I clamp the forceps on the hook and carefully remove it from the mouth of the fish.  I also use the locking feature to clamp the forceps to my pack or shirt when they’re not in use.  For these reasons, I greatly prefer a pair of locking forceps to pliers.

Medical Forceps
Common “Medical Forceps”

I also prefer to have forceps with flat jaws.  Many forceps offered to you by your friend who works in the ER have grooved jaws.  Those grooved jaws are great for many of the intended tasks in medical applications, but they can be a hindrance when trying to crimp the barb on a hook.  Trout hooks are often so little that they work themselves into those grooves making it difficult to meet the barb with enough metal to flatten it.

The other downside to forceps made for the medical community is quality.  I know, it seems strange that a fly fisherman’s forceps would be superior quality to a doctor’s.  But medical forceps are often designed to be “single use,” so the metal used to construct them is inferior.  They bend and rust easily.  Forceps built for fly fishing are usually made of high quality stainless steel and built to last.  And assuming you don’t lose them, they should last forever.

Beyond that, the only real differences in fly fishing forceps are shape, color, and features.  Some designs have a variety of add-ons, such as scissor blades, which are great for anglers who use yarn for strike indicators.  Color is sort of personal preference but there are also practical considerations.

Orvis Trout Skin Forceps
Trout Skin Forceps

When fishing for spookier trout like those in the Smokies, I prefer not to have the bright silver or gold forceps. I think they “flash” too much when the sun hits them, potentially spooking trout.  But flat black ones are sometimes difficult to locate when you inevitably drop them in the water.  I personally like the the “trout skin” colored forceps.  Not only are the cool looking, but they’re dull enough not to reflect much light, yet light enough to see in the water.

As always, a lot of it boils down to personal preference. How do you want to carry them? How do you plan to use them? Do you care how they look? In any case, pick up a pair if you don’t have some already.  You’ll use them a lot.

Flies: Parachute Adams

Parachute Adams Fly Pattern
Parachute Adams

I was shocked when I realized that I had never included an article about the Parachute Adams in this newsletter.  Not only is it one of the best dry flies in the Smoky Mountains, it is arguably the best dry fly for trout in the world.  It doesn’t imitate anything in particular but just has a buggy look. Therefore, it serves as a great “generic” mayfly imitation.  In a pinch, it could also pass for a number of caddis and midges.

Adams Dry Fly Pattern
Traditional “Catskill style” Adams dry fly

It is derived from the original Adams dry fly.  A parachute pattern is merely a method of tying a dry fly.  While traditional mayfly patterns had two upright and divided wings, with a hackle wound around the hook vertically; a parachute pattern has a single post with the hackle wound horizontally around that post.  Because the post is typically white or some other bright color like pink or orange, the angler can better see the fly on the water.  Additionally, with a hackle wound horizontally around the post, the fly rides flatter on the water with a more realistic profile.

The original fly has been around for nearly 100 years.  In 1922, Leonard Halladay, a Michigan fly tyer conceived the Adams as a general mayfly imitation. It was first fished by an Ohio attorney and friend of Halladay, Charles F. Adams on the Boardman River near Traverse City, Michigan. Charles Adams reported his success with the fly to Halladay who decided to name the fly after his friend.  While it is unclear exactly when the Adams got the “parachute treatment,” parachute style flies began gaining popularity in the U.S. in 1971 when Swisher and Richards published the book, Selective Trout, and advocated the advantage of dry flies that rode flush on the water.  One would assume that the parachute version of the Adams was born somewhere in that timeframe.

Since then, it has seen numerous  variations in the body color, post material, post color and more.  While many of these variations have been highly successful, it’s still tough to beat the traditional pattern.  Below is the recipe for the traditional version.

Parachute Adams

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) sizes #10 – #26
Thread: 8/0 black
Tail: Even mix of brown and grizzly hackle fibers
Body: Natural muskrat fur (or and modern dry fly dubbing in Adams Grey)
Post: White calf hair (synthetics such as floating poly yarn also work well)
Hackle: One grizzly and one brown rooster hackle, sized to match hook

Flies: Borger’s Fleeing Crayfish

Borger's Fleeing Crayfish Fly Pattern.
Borger’s Fleeing Crayfish

The Fleeing Crayfish was originated by fly fishing legend, Gary Borger in the 1980’s.  He noted that while many crayfish pattern with ultra realistic, outstretched claws and the like looked great, most fish would eat them as they were retreating or fleeing.  The design of his pattern imitates the crayfish in this moment.  It has unbelievable movement and motion in the water and is a killer pattern for smallmouth and large browns.

I’ve included the recipe for my most common version of this pattern, but I tie it in a number of different color combinations.  You should substitute colors that best represent crayfish in the waters you fish.

I should mention that this fly’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  The loose piece of rabbit hide that provides so much “action” in the fly will inevitable tear off after numerous fish.  Since the rest of the fly is so durable, I carry a package of rabbit strips with me so that I can replace that piece when necessary.

Borger’s Fleeing Crayfish

Hook: 3x long streamer #10 – #4
Thread: 6/0 Brown
Eyes: Barbell matched to hook size
Tail: Light green medium marabou
Body: Crayfish orange dubbing
Legs: Pheasant rump feather
Pinchers: Natural rabbit hide strip – medium
Other Materials: Super glue to secure eyes

Flies: Egan’s Headstand

Egan's Headstand Fly Pattern
Egan’s Headstand

From the creative fly tying mind of Lance Egan comes one of my favorite carp flies of all time.  I’m not too sure what it’s supposed to imitate but for me, that’s true of many carp patterns.  Most likely it represents a small crayfish… possibly a dragonfly nymph.

The bead chain eyes give it the perfect amount of weight to get down quickly to carp feeding on a shallow flat without the loud splash of lead.  And when the eyes are positioned correctly, it rides hook up, preventing bottom snags.

Present it by leading the carp slightly and retrieve it very slowly into carp’s path.  The take will be subtle.  Watch for the turn of the carp’s head, set the hook, and hang on!

Egan’s Headstand

Hook: TMC 2457 #8
Thread: 6/0 Black
Tail: Red fox squirrel tail
Body: Medium to dark brown dubbing
Hackle: Brown rooster, palmered
Rib: Fine copper wire
Throat: Peacock sword
Legs: Sili-legs pumpkin – orange – black
Head: Bright orange dubbing
Eyes: Medium silver bead chain, positioned just behind the eye.

How Stuff Works: Fly Boxes

Various Fly Boxes Full of FliesI’m a bit of an oddball. This is not exactly breaking news for most folks who know me.  But to paraphrase John Gierach, “If, from time to time, people don’t walk away from you shaking their head… You’re doing something wrong.”  I could certainly dedicate an entire article, or even a book, to my oddball qualities. But I am referring to one specific oddball quality.  I fish and guide with a set-up that combines a pack and fly boxes all in one contraption. You’ve seen it.  It’s my chest fly box, custom built by the Richardson Chest Fly Box Companyin Pennsylvania.  It’s awesome and I love it.

Richardson Chest Fly Box
Chest Fly Box

So, that makes it a little more challenging for me to give advice on individual fly boxes.  But I have over the years used about every kind of box and pack known to man.  And along the way I have learned a few things. Hopefully, they’ll be helpful to you when purchasing or organizing your flies.  At the least, it might get you thinking about it.  And who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll come to your senses and buy a Richardson!

While chest fly boxes like mine are more common in the Northeast, they are hardly common.  Most folks go a different route.  They have a variety of different fly boxes that they stuff in a vest, hip pack, chest pack, sling bag, or some other carryall.  No matter how you decide to carry them, fly boxes are essential organizational tools in our sport and it helps to know a few things about them.

Fly Box with Slotted Foam
Medium Box with Foam

First, they come in a number of different sizes. There are large, briefcase size boxes for boats to ultra slim boxes not much bigger than a smartphone.  When choosing a fly box size, you have to consider how many flies you need to carry. Also consider how you’re going to carry them, how big the flies are, and how you want them organized. For instance, a big, briefcase size box may hold every fly you have but it won’t be very portable when wading creeks.  Or a small, ultra slim box might be convenient to slip in a pocket, but if you plan to store bass bugs in it, you’ll only be able to carry a couple and you won’t be able to close the lid.

In addition, you’ll have to consider how you want to organize your flies within your box. There are countless options for securing your flies from slot foam, flat foam, and nubby foam to compartments, clips, and magnets.  Some boxes might even have a combination of both. A box might have foam on one side of and compartments on the other.  Certainly personal preference plays a big role in you box interior of choice, but there are practical matters to consider as well.

Fly Box with Compartments
Compartment Box

Compartments tend to lend themselves well to beefier patterns, or large quantities of the same fly. For instance, if you fish a lot of Pheasant Tails and carry a lot of them with you, it’s far easier to dump them all into one compartment rather than trying to line up three dozen Pheasant Tails across multiple rows of foam.  I find foam more useful when I am trying to organize a lot of different patterns but small quantities of each.  It’s easier to see what I have.

Ultra Thin Fly Box with Magnetic Compartments
Ultra Thin Magnetic Compartments

The type of fly may also determine the best way to store it.  Thin foam or magnetic boxes can be great for midges and nymphs. But they can crush the hackles on many dry flies.  On the other hand, trying to carry midges in deep compartments can be a waste of space. It can also be difficult to grasp them with your fingers when removing them from the box.

Finally, when you’re on the stream, you don’t want to spend your time hunting for flies or digging through your pack for fly boxes.  Try to have a designated area of your pack or vest for boxes rather than burying them under a rain jacket somewhere.  And if you carry five fly boxes on the stream, try to make them five different, or at least different looking, fly boxes.  This will save you all kinds of time when trying to locate a specific box of flies.

Flies: Stimulator

Yellow Stimulator Fly Pattern
Yellow Stimulator

Most people like fishing dry flies because they can see the fish take it. But fishing dry flies in the Smokies can be a challenge, especially in pocket water. Besides being difficult to keep afloat, they can be difficult to see in fast water. But the good thing is trout aren’t often selective in this kind of water. Therefore, you’re choice of dry flies usually doesn’t have to be so “precise.”

When it comes to fishing dry flies in the Smokies, I am typically looking for two primary things in a pattern. It needs to be visible and it needs to be buoyant.  Beyond that I can begin focusing on a few more details like color and size.

In general, trout in the Smokies don’t see heavy hatches of individual insects.  Sure, there are exceptions. But they mostly see small quantities of a lot of different insects.  So, if you can present the fly naturally and without spooking fish, most any all-purpose, “prospecting” fly pattern will do the trick.  As mentioned above, if you can get a little more precise with size and color, your pattern will be that much more effective.

Matching size will require more observation of bugs on the water or simply having general knowledge of what should be hatching.  The same two things can help with matching color. Having a broad knowledge of how seasons impact color will also help. With some exceptions, aquatic insects tend to blend in with their surroundings.  So, in winter months when trees are bare, most of what hatches is dark because the bugs need to blend in with the darker branches. As foliage comes in, most of what hatches is brighter.  Because the bugs need to blend in with the leaves. It’s nature taking care of itself.

The Stimulator is a long time favorite fly pattern of Smoky Mountain anglers for all of the above reasons.  Its buoyancy and light colored wing not only make it easy to see, but make it a perfect “indicator fly” when fishing a dropper.  And if you mix and match sizes and colors, you could nearly fish a Stimulator 12 months out of the year!

Stimulators Punk Rock Band
Punk rock shaping the fly fishing world

The Stimulator was long thought to be the invention of well-known West Coast angler and fly shop owner, Randall Kaufmann.  While Kaufmann is responsible for the modifications that made the fly most of us know today, the fly’s true originator is thought to be Paul Slattery, who tied a stonefly pattern called the Fluttering Stonefly to fish on the Musconetcong River in central New Jersey.  This was in the early 1980’s and he soon renamed the fly after a New York City punk-rock band called The Stimulators.

Golden Stonefly Adult
Golden Stonefly

In any case, the fly seems to have been created to imitate an adult stonefly, but it is also a good suggestion of a caddis and sometimes even a hopper.  I most often fish it in yellow and in sizes #16 – 8.  I think the smaller size makes a great imitation for the prolific Little Yellow Sally Stoneflies. The larger sizes are good representations of the larger golden stones. They tend to hatch on summer evenings in the mountains.  In the fall, I often fish a #10 Stimulator in orange to imitate the large ginger caddis.

Whether it imitates anything or not, it catches fish and it floats well in heavier pocket water found throughout the mountains.  As one of the most popular dry flies of all time, it is available in most every fly shop in the country.

Yellow Stimulator
Hook: Daiichi 1270 #16 – #10
Thread: 8/0 orange
Tail: Stacked elk hair
Abdomen: Yellow floss
Abdomen Hackle: Brown rooster neck – palmered
Wing: Stacked elk hair
Thorax: Bright orange dubbing
Thorax Hackle: Grizzly rooster neck – palmered

Learn more about Southern Appalachian fly patterns and hatches in my Hatch Guide.

How Stuff Works: Fly Rods

An Assortment of Fly RodsThis should probably go without saying, but the fly rod is the tool used to cast the line when fly fishing.  It is also used to manipulate line on the water after the cast, to set the hook on a fish (usually), and to fight the fish after hooking it.  It is certainly one of the most important pieces of your equipment and likely the piece of equipment in which you’ll invest the most money.  So, what do you need to consider before making this investment?  The three most important characteristics of a fly rod are its length, its line weight designation, and its action.

Fly Rod Length
While there are specialty sizes on either end, most common fly rods are going to range from 7’ to 10’ in length.  Longer rods aid in keeping the line higher off the water. This can be helpful when trying to achieve longer casts or when trying to cast from a lower position, like sitting in a float tube or canoe.  Longer rods are also helpful when trying to reach to keep line off of faster currents.  If you’re planning to regularly fish from a float tube or canoe, fish open areas like wide rivers or lakes, or fish a lot of pocket water on medium to large mountain streams, you may want to consider a 9’ to 10’ rod.

Shorter rods are most beneficial in small, brushy streams where a longer rod will be hard to maneuver. If you’re planning to spend most of your time on tiny tributaries and backcountry “blue lines,” you may want to consider a rod in the 7’ to 8’ range.

Line Weight
The next thing to consider is the line weight.  Each rod has a line weight designation like a 5-weight or a 9-weight.  That just indicates what size line it is designed to cast. You typically want to match that to the fly line size.  For instance, a 5-weight line will properly load a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best in most situations.  Using an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod would over-load it, resulting in an awkward, “clunky” cast.  Using a 3-weight line on a 5-weight rod wouldn’t load it enough. The result is little line control and a significant compromise in accuracy and distance.

When you’re choosing the line weight of a rod, you want to consider what you will be fishing for. For trout, you are commonly using a 3 to 5-weight.  For largemouth bass, you might use a 7 to 9-weight.  The difference has little, if anything, to do with the size of the fish. A largemouth won’t snap a 3-weight rod. It’s more about the necessary fly sizes and the required presentations.

For trout, we are most often fishing with smaller flies on a dead drift.  Lighter lines allow for a more delicate presentation and create less drag.  On the other hand, when fishing for bass, we are often trying to “punch” flies into tight areas and quickly pull fish out of areas with a lot of woody structure.  And we are typically using larger, heavier, wind-resistant flies.  Often, there is simply not enough weight in a 4-weight line to effectively “turnover” a larger bass bug.  Rather than the line carrying the fly on a level plane during the cast, the fly travels below the line, often catching the rod tip or worse, the back of your head!

When you get into saltwater species and some large freshwater species like salmon, you may be choosing a particular rod and line weight because of the size of the fish more than the size of the fly.  Yes, a 13-weight helps to cast bigger flies to tarpon. But mostly the larger butt section on that size rod is necessary to fight a 150 pound fish!

The other thing that can necessitate a rod with a heavier line weight is wind.  Saltwater species like bonefish, snook, redfish, etc. often aren’t particularly big and they don’t demand unusually large flies, but you encounter a lot of wind around the coast.  In the American West, you tend to encounter more wind and may consequently want a 6-weight rod for trout.  The accompanying chart lists appropriate rod/line weights for common game fish.

Compromise
So, you really need to consider what you’ll be fishing for and where you’ll be fishing to determine the best rod length and weight for your needs.  In this part of the country, most people want to fish for bass and bluegill in streams, ponds and lakes, and they want to fish for trout in the mountains and tailwaters.  But if you’re just getting into the sport, you probably don’t want to rush out and buy four different fly rod outfits.  Fortunately, there is a middle ground.

If you’re the person described in the paragraph above, your ideal rod lengths might range from 7’ to 10’. Your ideal line weights might range from 4 to 7-weight.  While it is impossible to get one rod that is perfect for everything, you can sometimes get one rod that is good enough for a lot of things.  An 8 ½’ rod is long enough to get by on bigger water and short enough to manage on smaller streams.  A 5-weight is light enough for trout fishing and ideal for bluegill. It’s adequate for bass fishing if you scale down your fly size.

Later, if you get really interested in bass fishing, maybe you add a 9’ 8-weight to your arsenal. Or if hiking into small brook trout streams becomes your thing, maybe you add a 7 ½’ 3-weight.  You can certainly get by with one rod, but the more diverse your locations and species become, the more necessary it will be to have multiple rod sizes.

Fly Rod Action
Once you’ve narrowed down the rod size, it’s time to consider the action of the rod.  The action of a rod is slow, medium, or fast.  A slow action rod feels softer and more “noodly” because it flexes closer to the butt of the rod.  A fast action fly rod will feel stiffer because it flexes closer to the tip of the rod. And as you might guess, a medium action rod sort of falls in between, flexing more in the middle of the rod.

Fast action rods are capable of generating more line speed and, in the right hands, more easily achieving greater casting distance.  With their stiffer butt sections, they also tend to have more “backbone” when it comes to apply pressure when fighting fish.  Most fly rods that are 7-weight or heavier will only be available in a fast action.

Fly Rod Actions
Fly rod actions

Slow action rods are more delicate in their delivery of the line and are more ideal for softer presentations.  You tend to feel the fish more on a slow action rod and because it flexes much deeper in the rod, it is capable of better protecting very light tippets. Most rods in the 1 to 3-weight range are slower action rods.  Typically, rods in the 4 to 6 weight range are available in a number of different actions.

Your own personal casting style will also be a factor in the best rod action for you.  People with a more aggressive casting stroke tend to favor a fast action rod.  People with a more relaxed casting stroke tend to favor a slow action rod. Experienced fly casters can pretty easily adjust their casting stroke to the rod.  If you’re new to fly fishing, you may not have enough experience to even know your preference.  In that case, it’s usually safest to stick to the middle and go with a medium action rod.

Fly Rod Material and Price
Bamboo Fly RodIn the old days, fly rods were made from bamboo and their price depended on things like who made them and whether or not they were mass-produced.  Some of the rods made by certain independent makers are extremely valuable today.  Most of the bamboo rods mass-produced by larger companies have little value.  Bamboo rods made today are mostly made by independent makers and have price tags in excess of $1000. This is largely because of the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into making them.

Today, bamboo rods definitely still have a following much like classic cars have a following.  When compared to more “modern” materials, they tend to be a little heavier and almost every bamboo rod will fall into the slow action category.  I wouldn’t recommend them to a beginner looking for a rod to get into the sport but for the more seasoned fly fishing enthusiast, they sure are cool!

Fiberglass replaced bamboo in the 50’s as the most common material for fly rods.  It was lightweight, and after the trade embargo with China (where rod makers got their bamboo), it was far more available and cheaper to produce.  Fiberglass rods have seen a recent return in popularity because of their soft, unique action (slow).  Many large rod manufacturers are currently offering select models of fiberglass rods built with more modern components.

Most rods today are made from carbon fiber (graphite) and that has been the case for probably forty years.  Carbon fiber is strong and much lighter than fiberglass or bamboo.  It can be made in a number of different actions. And it can be made in multiple pieces while still maintaining that action.

Echo 4-piece Fly Rod
Multi-piece fly rod

Bamboo rods, for instance, had/have metal ferrules (joints).  To make a four-piece bamboo rod results not only in a lot of added weight, but “dead spots” at each of those joints.  Carbon fiber rods have carbon fiber joints. This is what allows a multi-piece rod to remain light and still maintain its action.  Most carbon fiber rods today break down to four sections, allowing for easy storage and travel.  Some break down into as many as seven pieces!

The prices of today’s carbon fiber rods are all over the place.  Some are mass-produced overseas using less expensive components (guides, reel seat, etc.) and can be found for well under $100.  American made rods tend to start around $200.  When you bump up to about $400, you’re getting a higher modulus graphite that will feel lighter and crisper. You’ll notice a difference. When you get into the real high-end stuff ($500-$1200), you are getting more technology as well as higher-end components, but most beginner to intermediate fly casters won’t be able to tell the difference.

Keep in mind that many of the things that influence the price of the rod won’t have anything to do with how it casts.  For example, a mid to high end rod might have some exotic, $150 piece of wood used for the reel seat. An entry level rod might use a $30 piece of walnut.  One might use titanium for the guides while another might use stainless steel.

In other words, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $1200 on a rod, have at it. Just don’t expect it to necessarily cast better or catch more fish!  Buy the best rod you can afford.  There are some great rods in the $100 – $300 range, many with an unconditional guarantee. That’s right.  Some of the major rod manufacturers provide an unconditional guarantee (or variation) on their rods.  Orvis, for instance, offers a 25-year guarantee on all but one series of their rods.  No matter how it breaks, they’ll fix it or replace it for 25 years!  To me, it’s worth spending a little more to get a rod with a good warranty.

Narrow down what size rod you need and what your budget is. After that, it boils down to personal preference.  If you decide that an 8 ½’ 5-weight is what you need and you’re willing and able to spend up to $400 on it, go to the fly shop and cast every 8 ½’ 5-weight rod under $400 that they have.  Any fly shop worth their salt will have a place for you to cast a rod. And they will gladly let you cast as many as you’d like.  And when you do, one of them will just feel right.

Flies: Sulphur Comparadun

Sulphur Comparadun Fly Pattern
Sulphur Comparadun

Hatches can sometimes be maddening. Fish feed aggressively and routinely on the surface. But sometimes, every single one of them ignores your fly. There are a number of reasons this can happen. It may be because of the style of fly you’re using.

In the Smokies, we are mainly fishing faster, choppier water and often choose bushier, more heavily hackled dry fly patterns because they float well.  In that kind of water, trout don’t get much time to study the fly and their view tends to be distorted by those choppy currents, so the bushier flies tend to do the trick.  Even when fishing pools in the Smokies, you usually have a defined feeding channel that will have at least a little chop to it.  In those situations, a parachute style fly pattern is usally adequate to provide a slightly more realistic profile.

But in flatter water like you commonly see on tailwaters like the Clinch, particularly weeks into a heavy hatch, an even more realistic profile is necessary.  Trout routinely refuse parachute style flies and probably wouldn’t even consider a vertically hackled Catskill style dry fly.

This problem isn’t new to fly fishers.  In the 1930’s, Fran Betters developed the Haystack to fool trout in slow moving spring creeks.  It consisted of a deer hair wing and tail and no hackle, allowing for a lower riding fly with a much more realistic profile.  Al Caucci and Ed Natasi introduced the Comparadun, a variation of the Haystack, in their 1972 book, Comparahatch.  The pattern is essentially the same but they were able to use more modern microfibbets. They provide a longer, slimmer, more durable split tail that aids in floatation.

Comparadun with Trailing Shuck Fly Pattern
Comparadun with trailing shuck

In the mid 1980’s, Craig Matthews and John Juracek took the Comparadun a step further and replaced the split microfibbet tails with a piece of antron or zelon.  It essentially turned the fly into an emerger with the antron or zelon “tail” suggesting the trailing shuck of an emerging mayfly.  Of course, in any of the patterns described above, the body, wing, and tail/shuck colors can be altered to imitate different insects.

I routinely fish the split tail and the trailing shuck versions, usually during a sulphur or BWO hatch.  And again, I am usually fishing them on the Clinch or possibly in a slow pool in the mountains.  They just don’t float well enough to fish them in faster riffles and pocket water. But on a slow glide on the Clinch, they can be deadly!

Sulphur Comparadun

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Light dun microfibbets ( or replace microfibbets with small tuft of brown antron for trailing shuck version)
Body: Pale yellow dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coasatal deer hair