I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.
From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!
Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.
Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.
In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.
One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.
Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day. So that is when trout are most likely to see them.
In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
As many of you know, I spend nearly 200 days a year fishing and guiding on small mountain streams in the Smoky Mountains. Creel surveys indicate that approximately 90% of (unguided) fishermen never catch a fish here. Meanwhile, the 10% who do catch fish tend to catch A LOT of them. When fishing small streams, it’s a fine line between getting skunked and catching 50, and most of the time, the difference isn’t what’s in your fly box. In the Smokies and other similar small mountain streams, approach and presentation is the name of the game and to have success, you may need to adjust a few of your techniques. Listed below are 10 tips that may make your next small stream fishing trip more productive.
Dress for Success: As simple as it sounds, one of the biggest keys to being successful is not spooking the fish. There are a number of ways you can spook a trout but it all starts with what you wear. Leave the coral casting shirts at home. Instead, dress in earth tones like olive, tan, and grey. You don’t need to be a fly fishing commando with face paint and twigs in your hat but you do need to blend in.
This doesn’t matter as much on big, open rivers because you’re usually casting farther and your backdrop is the sky. On small mountain streams, you’re closer to the fish and your backdrop is usually trees, bushes, and rocks. Brighter colors stand out against that backdrop and allow the trout to more easily detect your movement.
Wade Quietly: Think Great Blue Heron and not Labrador Retriever when you’re moving through the stream. Step slowly, quietly, and try not to drag your legs through the water. Again, you’re closer to the fish in these streams and the fish are going to be sensitive to splashes and rocks scraping together. For this same reason, I don’t encourage wearing studded wading boots on these streams.
Move Upstream: Trout are going to be facing upstream watching a current for food. By moving upstream, you will be staying behind the fish making it more difficult for it to detect you.
Stay Low: A trout has a cone of vision that allows it to see things above it. The closer and higher up you are, the more the fish will be able to visually detect your movements. As before, you don’t have to be a fly fishing commando and belly crawl from spot to spot. Just try to crouch more when approaching a run and take advantage of natural barriers. For example, if there’s a boulder in the water, stay behind it rather than standing on it.
Read the Water: Trout won’t be just anywhere in the stream. Aimlessly casting your fly around the creek is not only unproductive, you risk spooking the good spots by throwing your line across them. Most of what you’ll find in small mountain streams is pocket water, which is just faster water interspersed with large rocks. Almost everywhere a current breaks over or around a rock creates a holding area for a trout, usually on the edges of the current and directly above and below the rock.
Reading water becomes very instinctive with a little experience, but at first, you’ll have to think about it a little more. Look at each spot you’re approaching and consider that trout need three basic things: food, cover, and comfort. Food is typically going to be concentrated more in the currents rather than in still water. Cover is typically going to be found in deeper water and/or under things like rocks. Comfort is going to be found in places that don’t stress the fish, like slower currents rather than turbulent white water, or shade rather than sun on a bright, warm day.
Position First, Cast Second: Making a good presentation is the other biggest key to success on small streams, and one of the most challenging. Many anglers mistakenly stay too far back from their target and cast way too much line. In smaller mountain streams, you typically have a fairly large volume of water moving downhill through a narrow area. Everyplace the water breaks around a rock creates a velocity change, resulting in dozens of different current speeds. Making long casts puts line across all of these currents and creates drag on the fly. Drag on the fly means you don’t catch fish.
Attempting to overcome this exclusively by mending line is often impractical. There are too many varied currents and you simply don’t have time to do that much mending when casting to such small target areas. Your best course of action in pocket water is usually to get closer to the target where you can keep most of the line and leader off the water. This eliminates the need to mend altogether. At the very least, it will be easier to mend a short length of line on one current than a long length of line on five currents.
To get closer and keep from spooking fish, keep something between you and the fish. Stay behind a boulder or simply a fast current. If you want to drift a fly on the inside edge of a current, you’re going to approach from the lower outside of the current, using that current to conceal you from the fish on the other side. Try to get close enough to use the length of your arm and rod to reach across the current and keep line completely off of the faster water. A longer rod will be beneficial because it’s going to give you more reach, allowing you to stay back a little farther. Of course, utilizing steps 1-4 are critical to making this work.
As you move up the stream, you’re constantly repositioning yourself for the next spot. Sometimes you’re repositioning yourself within the same pocket by fishing the near current first, moving closer, then fishing the far current. Remember, it has nothing to do with how far you can cast. Rather, it’s where you need to be to control line for the best drift. In pocket water, I’d estimate that 80% of the fish I catch are with less than 4’ of fly line past the rod tip.
When you come to a bigger, slower pool, you may not be able to get as close because you don’t have the faster currents to hide you. You also don’t have the faster currents to screw up your drift. Stay back and make slightly longer casts here. Just be careful not to make long casts to the head of the pool before fishing the tail or you can spook half the fish by lining them. Everything gets broken into pieces here. Whatever you’re going to spook first, fish first.
Minimize False Casting: Or just don’t do it at all. Most of the time when fishing small streams, you’re making very short casts. In pocket water you’re often using a fixed amount of line. Repeated false casting is unnecessary and is movement above the fish. Wild mountain trout are in the middle of the food chain. They typically associate movement above them with a kingfisher or heron swooping down to eat them.
Use a Longer Rod: There’s a common misconception that you need to have a short rod to fish small streams to stay out of the trees. Again, the idea here is not to make the longest cast possible up the stream without hanging a tree limb. You want to move closer, make short casts, and reach to keep line off of currents. A longer rod will better allow you to do that. I like to fish as long a rod as I can get away with. In the tiniest, rhododendron-choked mountain streams, that may only be 7’. But for typical mountain streams in the Smokies, it’s 8 ½’ – 9’. And yes, even longer tenkara rods can be highly effective for fishing this type of water.
Accuracy is Everything: All of the best small stream fly fishermen I can think of have two things in common. They know exactly where to position themselves before making a cast, and they are great casters. Unfortunately, great casting is often associated with double-hauling 110’ of line, and that’s hardly what I’m talking about. These fishermen aren’t making long casts. But they can put the fly exactly where they want it the first time, the second time, and every time. In pocket water, if your first two casts are off target and/or drag a little bit, you still might catch a fish on the third cast, but you’ve probably already spooked the big fish of the hole.
If you’re not one to practice casting in the backyard, you should be. If you are, don’t just try to cast it as far as you can. Instead, practice with 20’ of line and less and try to hit a small target. Try to do it with an overhead cast off both sides of your body. Then try to do it side arm. Now try to do it with a roll or circle cast. You’ll find that the more you practice off the water, the “luckier” you’ll be on the water.
Keep Moving: In small streams, especially in pocket water, you’re going to catch more fish by covering more stream. Identify the likely spots in a pocket or run. Put a half dozen drifts in each spot and catch your fish. If you miss a couple of strikes, put a few more drifts through and move on. If you don’t get a strike, don’t spend an hour there changing flies until you do. Move on. This doesn’t mean speed fish the stream, as you still need to be methodical in your approach. But when you get good at reading water, positioning and casting accuracy, you’ll be able to cover the water quickly and efficiently.
October is the time of year I start wearing waders again in the mountains. For much of the year, usually from May through October, water temperatures are comfortable enough to wet wade, wearing only the wading boots and neoprene socks. But in winter, early spring, and late fall (or any time of year on tailwaters), you better have a decent set of waders if you want to stay comfortable on the stream.
In the 30 years or so that I have been fly fishing, I can’t think of any fly fishing product that has improved as much as waders. Early on, your only choices for wader materials were canvas, rubber/plastic, and neoprene. All three of these materials were pretty heavy and pretty warm. And any time you were doing anything active, like hiking or just climbing around on rocks, these things would sweat you to death. Even with less active fishing, like standing in a tailwater, these materials would roast you on a warm day.
Waders made of breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex started showing up in the mid 90’s and are now the standard. Early breathable models were not terribly durable and were prone to leaking but today’s models are not only comfortable, but when properly cared for, can withstand years of heavy use. If you’re in the market for a pair of breathable waders, here are a few things to keep in mind.
First, there are a few different styles of breathable waders. Chest high waders provide coverage all the way up to your chest. Pant waders provide coverage to your waist. And hippers provide coverage to the upper part of your thigh. When wading small mountain streams, you rarely stand in water much above the knee so hippers will handle most situations. But it seems that when wearing hippers, there is always that one deeper pool of water that you have to cross to get to the other side of the stream. It’s the same thing with tailwaters. Since you rarely wade much over the thigh in tailwaters, pant waders would be adequate most of the time but there always seems to be that one deeper spot…
I don’t like my gear to determine where I can and can’t go when fishing. For that reason, I stick with chest waders to handle all situations. Of course, if the water is too deep for my chest waders, I shouldn’t be trying to wade it anyway! And on warmer days, I can always roll the bib down on my chest high waders, essentially converting them into waist highs.
One thing to consider with breathable waders (or any loose fitting wader) is the possibility of falling in deep water. Particularly with chest high waders, this is a safety concern because the waders could fill with water and essentially drag you down. Wearing a belt around the outside of the wader will create an air pocket to prevent this from happening. Pretty much any chest wader sold today will come with a belt. Wear it!
Another big difference in waders is whether they have a boot foot or stocking foot. Boot foot waders have a boot attached to the wader. They’re convenient because you can just slip the waders on and you’re ready to go. However, this is typically just a loose fitting rubber boot. They are heavy and clumsy, and they provide very little in the way of ankle support. If you’re standing still most of the day, these will probably be adequate. But in places like the Smokies where you’re moving a lot from spot to spot, usually over very uneven terrain, you will hate these. You’ll be compromising comfort and safety.
I prefer stocking foot waders. These have a neoprene foot to provide a little insulation on your feet. You wear a separate pair of wading boots over this neoprene boot. Going this route allows you to wear a lighter, form fitting boot that you lace up just like a hiking boot, providing far more comfort and ankle support when walking on uneven terrain. Additionally, you can wear the boot without the wader in warmer months when you may choose to wet wade. I’ll talk more specifically about wading boots in a future article.
If you’re fishing in colder weather, it is important to remember that breathable waders are designed to keep you dry but, other than the neoprene foot, provide very little in the way of insulation. You will want to layer accordingly under the wader based on your weather conditions. Just keep in mind that breathable waders are only as breathable as the fabric beneath them, so synthetic fabrics like fleece or nylon are recommended over something like denim. Find tips on dressing for cold weather in the “Winter Fishing” article on my web site.
Finally, there is the pesky little issue of price. Breathable waders are certainly not cheap. You can get a really good pair of waders for under $200 and you can spend upwards of $600. All of them will keep you dry. More expensive waders will sometimes be more durable with extra reinforcement in high wear areas like the seat and knees. Mostly though, you’re paying for extra features like pockets or zippered fronts that may be handy but not necessarily critical.
The life of any wader can be extended or shortened by how you care for them. Other than avoiding obvious things like walking through briar patches, try not to walk around in your stocking foot waders without the boots on. Either be prepared to step right into the boot when you put your waders on or carry a mat to stand on when getting dressed. Hang them up to dry after each trip and don’t store them folded. Clean them periodically according to the care label and from time to time, consider applying a coating of DWR.
When I first got into fly fishing, I didn’t have any money. At that age, you simply had to get what you could get when you could get it. That usually meant holding out until birthday or Christmas. I had a cheap rod and reel outfit and a box of flies. My fishing “vest” was my uncle’s old Marines shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bellows pockets on the front were plenty big to hold my one fly box and any other accessories. And I had a pair of fingernail clippers, Trim brand, hung around my neck on a piece of fly line. My wading gear consisted of cutoff Duckhead shorts and an old pair of Asics running shoes.
I slowly started to accumulate better gear. But it wasn’t until much later that I even considered buying actual wading gear. On the smallmouth streams of central Kentucky where I cut my teeth, it just wasn’t necessary. And when I did eventually start fishing the 50-degree tailwaters for trout, I guess I was just too young and full of testosterone to notice the cold. That changed when I waded the Cumberland River tailwater one rainy November day and somehow narrowly avoided hypothermia. On the top of my list the following Christmas was a pair of neoprene waders and rubber soled wading boots. I didn’t know much about felt soles and thought the rubber soled boots would be more durable.
In the mostly cobble-bottomed tailwaters where I was fishing, the rubber soles were adequate. All was right in my fly fishing world… until I went to the Smokies. That first trip to the Smokies provided me with countless views of the sky as I spent nearly every moment on my back. I’d get up, take a step, then slip again. Seems that even the best waders don’t keep you dry when they’re full of water! It didn’t help that my first Smokies trip was to Abrams Creek. It’s possibly the slickest stream on the planet. But it definitely made me begin to question my choice in wading gear.
I soon replaced the rubber-soled boots with felt, and eventually began wearing breathable waders when they hit the market. And I quickly realized why countless fly fishermen chose felt soles and had been doing so for decades. They are vastly superior to rubber when it comes to providing traction on slick, rocky stream bottoms. As a matter of fact, at the time, major fly fishing companies like Orvis didn’t even offer a rubber sole option in their catalog.
Fast forward about 30 years and look at an Orvis catalog, web site, etc. You’ll find almost all rubber sole wading boots with only one or two felt alternatives. Why the change? The spread of exotic organisms from stream to stream.
While there are a number of different ways these exotics can be spread, many scientists pointed to felt soles as a big culprit and one that could be controlled. It sparked a movement where some
Felt Soled Boots popular fly fishing destinations added boot cleaning stations at select river access points, a few states went as far as banning felt boots, and fly fishing companies began aggressively looking for alternative bottoms to their boots.
The result has been a variety of different tread designs, all created on a Vibram rubber sole or variation thereof. Some companies, like Simms, even went so far as to discontinue production of felt sole boots entirely, while most manufacturers chose to offer both. After a short time, likely due to a significant dip in sales, Simms returned a couple of felt sole options to their product line. The problem was, despite companies’ claims that these new soles were as good as felt, many fishermen didn’t agree. In fact, some fishermen in “felt ban states” even took the whole, “I’ll quit
Typical Vibram Soles wearing felt boots when they pry them from my cold, dead feet” approach!
To be fair, all of these new rubber sole designs are quite different and way better than those rubber sole boots I had 30 years ago, and they’re light years better than an old pair of running shoes. They even offer some real traction advantages to felt when it comes to trail use and scrambling up and down banks.
But the fact is, they are nowhere near as good as felt when it comes to providing traction on a slick streambed. I suppose you could just call that an opinion but I like to think it’s based on more than just preference as I routinely field test many of these new boots. As part of my field-testing, I will spend some days on the water wearing the rubber sole on one foot and a felt sole on the other. Time and time again, the rubber sole slips in places where the felt does not.
An alternative is to wear rubber soles with studs. This is probably the closest thing I’ve found to felt as far as traction on the stream bottom goes. However, these have a real tendency to slide and slip on dry rocks, posing another safety risk if you do a lot of rock hopping on smaller streams like we have in the Smokies. The other downside to studs is that they are noisy. That’s probably not a big deal on a larger, deeper, swift river, but if you’re trying to sneak up on a pool in a smaller, shallower headwater
Vibram Rubber Soles with Studs stream, you’re going to spook a lot more fish.
So, we’re kind of left with this whole responsibility vs. practicality debate. Most younger and/or newer fly fishermen are readily going with the rubber designs – some probably because they’re the current, cool thing, and others probably because they don’t know any better. They’ve never worn felt so have no basis for comparison. It’s the guys that have been around (like me) that are the problem. For us, trendy new designs aren’t nearly as important as staying upright!
Okay, maybe trendy designs aren’t that important to me, but being a responsible fisherman is, and that’s where it gets tricky. As an environmentalist, I take it very seriously. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the spread of exotic organisms, but again, I do want to stay upright. As someone who wades creeks every single day, I need to be as sure-footed as possible not only for my own safety, but sometimes for the safety of my clients. Fortunately, with a little planning and/or extra effort, you can wear felt soles responsibly.
The biggest issue with felt is that it dries slowly. So, if you pick up some weird organism in one river system and go to another totally different river system the next day, you could transport that organism with you because it can stay alive in that wet felt. As soon as the soles dry, any organism you pick up will likely die. For most fishermen who are fishing no more than once a week, those soles have plenty of time to dry. Even so, it’s a good idea to clean them to be safe.
For someone like me, who is on the water every day, my soles almost never completely dry until the end of the season. But I don’t worry too much about it because I am constantly going to the same “system” of streams. I’d be picking up something in Little River and transferring it back to Little River! When it is a concern for me is when I’m going to be in the Smokies on Tuesday, the Clinch River tailwater on Wednesday, and back to the Smokies on Thursday. Then I run the risk of transferring something from the Clinch to the Smokies.
My solution for this is multiple pairs of boots. I have one pair of studded rubber boots for tailwaters and another pair of felt soles for the mountains. But if you don’t want to purchase two pairs of boots, you want to own felt soles, and you might want to fish the Clinch one day and the Smokies the next, cleaning your boots in between trips is a must. Many experts will tell you that if you’re fishing multiple river systems in consecutive days as described above, thorough cleaning is the surest way to prevent the spread of exotics, even with rubber sole boots. So it’s just a good habit to get into.
Again, some popular areas actually have cleaning stations for this purpose. There is one at Little River Outfitters in Townsend. It’s accessible whether the store is open or not. Or if you’re going to clean them at home, thoroughly hose the boots off with water and soak them for about 10 minutes in a solution of about 5% bleach and hot water. I’d also recommend scrubbing the soles with a wire or stiff bristled brush. Then rinse one more time with the hose.
If you’re planning a multi-day fishing trip somewhere and will be fishing numerous river systems, just throw your soak bin, brush and solution in the car and you’ll be ready to go. If you’re going to a state where felt is banned, you can certainly wear felt and take your chances with the law, but that’s a pretty big risk. Yellowstone National Park just implemented a felt ban and the
Korkers Boots with Interchangeable Soles penalty can be up to 6 months in jail and a $5000 fine. All of a sudden, the cost of a second pair of wading boots doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Again, that’s the solution that works best for me. Or you might consider one of the Korker boot models that have interchangeable soles. You can quickly change from felt soles to rubber soles on the same boot.
As with everything I write, this is just one man’s opinion with a few facts mixed in here and there. Find a legal and responsible system that works for you. If you currently wear rubber soles and like them, by all means stick with them. If you mostly fish streams with a more cobble type bottom (like many tailwaters), you’ll probably be happy with rubber. For freestone mountain streams with larger, more slippery rocks, felt is tough to beat and continues to be my preference.
However, I am keeping an open mind and continually looking for that next great felt alternative. Technology and design for felt-alternative boots is getting better every year. I hope to personally be able to make the switch soon.
When you’re doing any type of fly fishing that involves stripping in great amounts of line after each cast, keeping that slack line under control can be a challenge. In streams and rivers, it’s usually not too big of a problem. The line will usually rest neatly in the water by your side. In a boat that is not equipped with some sort of stripping deck, it can be a little bit of a problem as your line wants to snag and tangle on absolutely everything in the boat. The biggest challenge is surf fishing because the constant rushing approach and retreat of the tide repeatedly wraps this slack line around your legs.
Stripping baskets solve this problem. I’ve seen larger, freestanding stripping baskets used in boats. But the most common stripping baskets are smaller and you wear them around your waste. After you cast and you’re retrieving line, you simply strip and feed the line into the basket. They are basically just a bin with a series of upright posts. The posts help prevent the line from tangling inside the basket. There are also baskets made of mesh, but many note that these are often not durable.
Stripping baskets are pretty simple devices. They’ve been around for decades and they can be purchased from most fly fishing suppliers. If you don’t want to fork over $40-$90 for a plastic tub on a belt, you can also make your own. I did and it works great.
Start with a hard plastic bin like you find in the storage sections at Wal-mart, Home Depot, etc. It should be approximately 16”x 11” and about 5 or 6” deep. You’re also going to need a drill, a sander, some zip ties, wire cutters, and a bungee cord. The bungee cord secures the bin around your waist, so the length depends on your size. You want it to be tight enough to keep the bin from falling off you but not so tight that it’s digging the bin into you.
Begin by drilling approximately ten 3/32” holes in the bottom of the bin near the edges. These will serve as drain holes for your stripping basket to keep water from accumulating inside. Next drill nine 3/32” holes spread equally in the middle of the bin. And drill another nine 3/32” holes right next to the ones you just drilled. These will serve as attachment points for your zip ties (the zip ties will act as the “posts” inside the box that help keep your line from tangling). Finally, drill two larger, approximately 3/16” holes (big enough to accept the hooks on your bungee) on the front of the bin, one near each top corner. This is where your bungee cord will attach. With light sand paper, smooth the front and back of each hole you drilled.
Next, attach nine 4” zip ties through the “double holes” you created in the bottom of the bin, allowing the end of the zip tie to point upward into the interior of the bin. With your wire cutters, snip the tips off each zip tie, leaving a 2” post standing at an approximate right angle from the base of the bin. Hook one end of the bungee into one of the larger front holes. Bring the bungee around your waist and hook the other end into the second hole. I actually use two shorter bungees because I think it’s easier to attach and detach. You’re ready to go fishing!
Where you position the basket is a matter of preference. Typically, I see them positioned on the front of the body. I prefer to wear mine closer to my left hip so I can feed line into the basket with a more natural stripping motion. I always use it when surf fishing and very frequently when I’m fishing from the canoe.
There are few things in the fly fishing world that provoke as much debate as strike indicators. The mere existence of strike indicators in the sport of fly fishing can inspire rants from fly fishing purists that rival any political rant of that friend you just hid from your Facebook feed. But even among the firmly pro indicator crowd, nymphers will argue fiercely about the superiority of one type of indicator over another.
For newbies to the sport, a strike indicator is something often used when fishing with nymphs (sub surface flies). It is a brightly colored, floating object affixed to the leader. It gives the fisherman a visual indication when the fish hits his submerged fly. Since you can’t usually see the nymph under the water, and since it is usually fished with a slack line to achieve a dead drift, the strike is difficult to detect without the visual aid of a strike indicator. Strike indicators are also helpful in making sure the nymph drifts properly (without drag) and at the desired depth.
The obvious question usually arises when hearing this description, Isn’t that just a bobber? Pardon the bobber pun, but that opens a whole other can of worms. There are a number of fly fishermen who will stop just short of taking a swing at you if you call a strike indicator a bobber. I assume this animosity stems from the association of bobbers with bait fishermen and fishing live bait. Fly fishermen don’t like to think anything they do might resemble bait fishing. So they call them strike indicators. The truth is that while strike indicators are typically smaller, lighter, and made from different materials than bobbers, they pretty much accomplish the same thing.
I use the term strike indicator because I think there is enough of a difference to specify. It’s the same reason I don’t refer to a hamburger as a sandwich. It’s just different enough. But I won’t be offended if you call a hamburger a sandwich and it won’t offend me if you call a strike indicator a bobber!
Getting re-focused specifically on strike indicators, there are a lot of different kinds, and that’s what I want to focus on here. As mentioned before, most fly fishermen have their favorites, and a lot about selecting strike indicators will boil down to personal preference. I personally don’t think there is such a thing as the perfect strike indicator. They all have pros and cons and I use different ones for different situations. Often I don’t use one at all, but that’s a topic for another article. Below is a list of some of the more common or popular strike indicators with a description of how they work and some of their strengths and weaknesses.
Hard Toothpick Indicators: They usually make these with cork, balsa, or something similar. They are typically round or oval with a hole drilled in the center. You insert the leader through the hole move the indicator to any position on the leader. Once you select the desired position, insert the provided “toothpick” into the hole to hold the indicator in place.
These are great because they are buoyant, highly visible, reusable, and can easily be adjusted up and down the line to set the nymph at different depths. However, they tend to make more disturbance when they land on the water and can spook more skittish fish. Additionally, their mass makes them difficult to cast when placed on the tippet portion of the leader for shallow nymphing, though smaller ones can be purchased. They are best for deep to mid-depth nymphing and for quick and easy depth adjustment.
Hard Rubber Band Indicators: These are typically oval in shape and made from the same materials as the hard toothpick type indicators. Instead of having a hole and a toothpick, they have a slit that contains athick rubber band. You insert the leader into the slit and rotate the indicator. The rubber band twists around the leader and holds the indicator in place.
They have pretty much the same pros and cons as the toothpick indicators. One additional advantage is they can be added or removed while the fly is still attached. However, they have a tendency to kink the leader when twisted on, and they come off the line more easily than other indicators when casting.
Balloon Style Indicators: The best known versions of these are the Thingamabobber and Air Lock. These are basically small, plastic balloons. They float great, are highly visible, and adjust easily. They are particularly good if you need an indicator that will suspend larger, heavier flies. The Thingamaboober attaches by looping the leader through a hole and around the indicator. The Air Lock has a slot in the base where you insert the leader. A separate piece screws on to hold the indicator in place.
Much like the other hard indicators, when you set this indicator in the tippet section of the leader for shallow nymphing, it is difficult to cast and creates more tangles. It also lands hard on the water. It is more durable and floats better than the other hard indicators.
Stick-On Indicators: These are small round or oval pieces of foam that peel off and stick on to the leader. Their greatest value is that they cast easily, even when placed on the tippet and they make very little commotion on the water. So they are a great indicator for shallow nymphing. They float great and you can add multiple indicators to the line to support more weight.
The biggest downside to these is they are not reusable and they are not easily adjusted. When moved they lose a lot of their stick and then have a tendency to slide down the leader. You can usually move them a few times before replacement is necessary. Some complain that they also leave a sticky residue on the leader but I haven’t found that to be a problem.
Yarn Indicators: They make these from a buoyant yarn, often pre-treated with a waterproofing agent. You can also apply floatant to them. There are a number of different versions of yarn indicators, but most attach by using some sort of slip knot or loop knot. Like the stick-ons, you can attach yarn to the tippet end of the leader without the worry of a hard landing or a lot of tangles. So this is another good choice for shallow nymphing. Yarn indicators are also very sensitive, so they are great for detecting subtle strikes.
On the downside, I find them difficult to add and remove from the line. When removed, they regularly leave kinks in the line. Larger yarn indicators can be wind resistant and difficult to cast in tight places and they require a little more maintenance to keep them floating.
Putty Indicators: Strike putty comes in a small tub and resembles Play-Doh. You pull out a small gob or big gob depending on how big you want your indicator to be. You then smoosh and roll it on your leader. One of the benefits is you can smoosh more on if you need more flotation for bigger, heavier flies. You can pick some off for smaller flies and spookier fish.
I’m trying to be impartial here but I don’t like this stuff. It always comes off, especially in warm weather. It leaves a permanent indicator-colored smudge on your line when you remove it. Finally, every bit of dirt in the vicinity attaches to it. What starts as orange strike putty soon becomes a greyish, brownish, greenish, orange strike putty.
Dry Fly: In the right situations, a dry fly can serve as an edible strike indicator by adding a nymph “dropper” to it. For many, this is the go-to method because you’re essentially doubling your chances… or so it might seem. Just like any other strike indicator, a dry fly has its pros and cons.
Obviously, one of the big perks is that you have the potential to catch a fish on the nymph or the indicator, since the indicator is a fly. However, most dry flies aren’t nearly as buoyant as a strike indicator. If you need to fish heavier nymphs near the bottom, the dry fly will routinely sink. In such a scenario, you’re not fishing the dry fly or the nymph very well, and hardly doubling your chances.
The best scenario for fishing a dry fly with a dropper is when you don’t need to get your nymph very deep. You can fish a dry fly buoyant enough to support the nymph’s weight. I immediately think of pocket water. Another scenario might be in flatter water during a hatch, where you could put a nymph with little to no weight behind a dry fly to suggest an emerger.
The takeaway from all of this should be that there is not one strike indicator that is going to be perfect for every situation. You will likely need a variety to meet a variety of conditions. As with most things, much of it will boil down to personal preference. You should play around with a few different types to find what best meets your needs.
Compared to most spin and bait casting reels, fly reels are pretty simple. Yes, there are always exceptions, but the typical fly reel has a single, direct drive. One rotation of your hand equals one rotation of the reel. There have, over the years, been multipliers and automatic reels. But all of the extra gears required for them add a significant amount of weight just to perform a task that usually isn’t necessary.
The drag on a fly reel is also fairly simple. Drag, as it pertains to reels, just refers to the amount pressure the reel puts on the spool as it rotates. If you’re playing a fish on the reel, when he runs, the reel will apply a preset amount of pressure. That is determined by your drag setting. Most fly reels will have some version of either a disc drag or a spring and pawl drag.
Disc drags are quieter, apply smoother pressure and allow for significantly more variations in resistance. They are often the choice for fish that may be larger or that make long, strong runs. Spring and pawl drags are lighter in weight and provide a classic “clicking” sound desired by many fishermen. They are often the choice for smaller, lighter rods and when fishing for smaller fish.
More expensive reels, particularly those used in saltwater, tend to have fairly sophisticated drag systems. Orvis had a reel a few years ago that touted a drag system modeled after the brakes used on fighter jets! That’s not a bad thing to have if you’re playing a 150 lb. tarpon. It may be a bit over the top for an 8” Smoky Mountain brook trout! The other thing that significantly impacts the price of a reel is how it is constructed and the material from which it is made.
Many inexpensive reels have plastic components in the drag system. They’ll also be made of a lower grade, softer aluminum that is cast from a mold. This will result in a reel that is a little heavier and a little more prone to denting or bending. In addition to non-corrosive, stainless steel (or similar) drag components, often in a sealed housing, higher end reels will be machined from a high grade, bar stock aluminum. This will result in a reel that is lighter, more resistant to the damages of saltwater, and much more durable.
Another fly reel feature that is becoming more and more common is a larger arbor. Traditionally, fly reels had a very small spindle to which the line attached. A significant amount of backing was put on the reel before attaching the fly line to fill space on the reel. Otherwise, the fly line would come off in smaller, tighter coils and be difficult to keep straight. Mid and large arbor reels are a little wider than traditional reels and have a much larger spindle. This allows you to retrieve more line in one turn of the reel. It also doesn’t require as much backing. You still want some backing as an “insurance policy” if you hook a bigger fish. But you don’t need 100 yards of it like you did on traditional reels.
If you’re going to be fly fishing in saltwater, the reel is probably THE most important piece of equipment you’ll purchase. However, for most freshwater fly fishing situations, the reel is one of your least important pieces of equipment. Certainly it still has an important function, to store all of your line, but that’s about it. Most of the time when fishing for trout, or bass, or bluegill, you’re going to be playing the fish by hand, stripping the line under the finger on your rod hand to bring the fish in.
So if you’re looking for an outfit for saltwater or even something like salmon or steelhead, and you have a set budget, put as much money in the reel as you can and skimp on the rod. If you’re looking for a freshwater outfit for say, trout or bass, put far less in the reel and more in the rod and line.
However, for many fly fishermen, reels are almost like jewelry. I know guys that fish for nothing but mountain trout and have $600 reels. They think they’re neat. Some reels even have elaborate artwork on them to appeal to the jewelry crowd. Sometimes we make choices because they’re practical, and sometimes we make choices because they make us happy. If you have the disposable income and want to buy a $600 reel with a drag system that stops fighter jets to put on your 8’ 3-weight trout rod, have at it! But you don’t need to.
Regardless of your budget, there are a couple of things that you’ll want to make sure that you get in a reel. One, make sure it has enough of drag resistance to prevent the reel from ‘free-spooling” when you strip line from it. Second, make sure that the reel is an appropriate size for your line and rod.
Most reel models will come in different sizes for this reason. Heavier fly line weights will take up more space on the reel so you need a bigger reel to accommodate them and the appropriate amount of backing. On a similar note, rods that cast heavier lines weigh more and need bigger, heavier reels to balance them out. It doesn’t matter how heavy or light your fly rod is. If you don’t have a reel that balances it out, it will feel awkward in your hand. It’s much like carrying two buckets of water rather than one. Two buckets might be heavier overall, but will be more comfortable to carry because they balance each other out. You can view the specs on any reel and see what its weight and line capacity is.
I once heard a highly regarded fly fisherman say that he considered polarized sunglasses to be his most important piece of gear. These sort of statements always amuse me. I can’t help to wonder how important those sunglasses would be if he didn’t have a rod or a line or a fly! But I definitely get what he meant. While polarized sunglasses may not be THE most important piece of gear, they are often the most underestimated.
Many fishermen, particularly those new to the sport, probably underestimate them because they don’t understand the difference in sunglasses and polarized sunglasses. They see sunglasses as merely a means of protecting your eyes from bright light. They may opt not to wear them at all on overcast days or in shade. Polarized sunglasses do protect your eyes and reduce eyestrain in bright conditions. But they have greater importance when it comes to tactical applications.
Light usually scatters in all directions. But when it’s reflected from flat surfaces, it becomes polarized. It travels in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates a serious intensity of reflected light that causes glare and reduces visibility. The more reflective that flat surface is, the more intense the glare will be. Consider how a signaling mirror works.
Water has highly reflective properties and acts like a mirror that intensifies those reflected rays even more. I’m sure everyone can think of instances when driving where significant glare was encountered. More than likely, the worst glare you ever encountered when driving was during or right after a rain. Pavement is a flat surface that can reflect light and cause glare. Wet pavement intensifies that reflection and creates more intense glare. With that in mind, it stands to reason that you will get even more intense glare when light reflects off the surface of lakes, rivers, streams, etc.
So, “regular” sunglasses will help in these situations by essentially darkening this reflected light, making it less stressful to your eye. But the glare will still be there and will prohibit you from seeing anything on, or in the case of water, under that surface. The chemical filter on the lenses of polarized sunglasses absorbs horizontal light waves, while still allowing vertical waves to pass through. Because light only travels in one direction through polarized lenses, glare is eliminated, or at least reduced.
Contrary to what many anglers expect, this technology does not create “magic fish-seeing glasses!” Fish don’t suddenly appear when you put on polarized glasses. But seeing through the water will definitely help you spot fish. However, there are two other more consistent benefits you will receive from polarized glasses. They’ll help see your dry fly on the surface. And they’ll improve your ability to read water by better recognizing slower seams and deeper troughs and pockets. Additionally, being able to better see the stream bottom will allow for easier, safer wading.
Just how well your polarized glasses eliminate glare often depends on the angle the light hits and reflects off the water. There will be times on bright sunny days when the light reflects at such a severe angle that even the polarized lenses don’t seem to help. During these times, your best bet is to change the angle the light is hitting your eye by repositioning. For example, you may be on the left side of the stream facing and fishing toward the right and encounter an insurmountable amount of glare. Often by fishing from the other side of the stream and facing/fishing the other direction, you can totally eliminate the glare.
Even on overcast days or in shady areas, you can encounter significant glare. I almost always wear polarized glasses when fishing. This is where lens color becomes important. Darker lens colors, like gray, will block more light, making them more ideal for bright conditions. They also work well on deep blue water and better maintain true color. But they block a little too much light in low light conditions. Dark lenses in low light can offset the benefits of polarization.
Lighter lens colors, like yellow or rose, allow more light in and are perfect for fishing in low light conditions. They often even make things appear brighter. But in bright conditions, you want something that will filter light, not magnify it. These are not good choices for sunny conditions on open water.
Do you plan to fish in a variety of different light conditions? You may want multiple pairs of polarized glasses in different lens colors. But if you’re looking for one, multi-purpose lens color, an amber, copper or brown color sort of fits right in the middle. And these lens colors work particularly well in shallow water where most fly fishermen operate.
The shape of the frames can also be a factor in how well the glasses work. Frames that “wrap” more will help prevent direct and/or reflected light from entering on the sides. “Straight” frames, like an aviator style, allow more light in from side and rear angles. While prescription polarized sunglasses are available they can be problematic in a wrap style frame. Essentially, you’re dealing with a bent lens on a wrap style frame. The stronger the prescription and the more severe the bend in the lens, the more distortion you’ll get when looking side to side. Straight frames are better for prescription glasses.
If you wear corrective lenses and prefer the benefits of a wrap style frame or if you simply don’t want to fork over the money for prescription sunglasses, fitover” sunglasses are worn right over your regular eyeglasses.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about leaders without talking about tippet, and vice versa. However, we could go into an enormous amount of detail on either of them – so much so that it would defeat the intended purpose of a brief monthly article that attempts to provide a simple definition of how particular pieces of fly fishing gear “work.” So, consider this a broad introduction of how the two things work together as part of the overall fly fishing “system.” We’ll talk about each individually in more detail in future articles.
The leader is the monofilament (usually) connection between the weighted fly line and the fly. Most commonly 7’ to 12’ in length, the leader is typically tapered and consists of three parts: the butt, the taper, and the tippet. These parts are completely separate and easily distinguished in formulated leaders created by knotting different diameters of monofilament together. However, most commercially produced leaders are created with an acid process that results in a knotless, seamless taper from top to bottom.
In either case, the butt is the thickest section that attaches to the fly line. Its purpose is to “turn the leader over” with the cast. A leader with no butt, or too thin of a butt, has a tendency to collapse rather than extend and straighten. The tippet is the thinnest part of the leader that attaches to the fly. It allows the energy of the cast to dissipate. As a result, you’re less likely to crash the cast on the water. The tippet also allows for a less visible connection to the fly. The taper is the section between the butt and tippet that provides a smooth, progressive transfer of energy. A leader with a thick butt tied directly to thin tippet tends to “hinge.”
They size leaders by their length and tippet size. So, if you purchase a 9’ 5x leader, it has a tippet size of 5X and its overall length is 9’. As a general rule, longer leaders are advantageous for not only creating more distance between fly line and fly, but for achieving better drifts in “technical” currents. However, they are more difficult to cast and more prone to find overhanging limbs! A shorter leader can allow for more accuracy in tighter areas.
They size tippet by its diameter and indicate the size with a number followed by an “x.” The bigger the number, the smaller the tippet. So a 6X tippet is considerably smaller than a 2X tippet. Without getting too deep into the history of what now seems a rather antiquated system, it all works off the number 11. The tippet size subtracted from 11 equals the actual diameter measured in thousandths of an inch. For instance, 6X tippet is .005”. It works in reverse too. If the actual diameter of the monofilament is .007”, the tippet size is 4X: 11-7=4. Pretty weird, huh?
You don’t need to know all of that, though. Just remember that you usually choose tippet size based on the fly size. Small flies should have small tippets and big flies should have big tippets. Some leader packages will have cross-reference charts on the back indicating which tippet sizes match which fly sizes. Another neat trick is to divide the fly size by 3. So a size #12 fly would best match a size 4X tippet. Could you use a 5X tippet on a #12 fly? Absolutely. This is just a guideline. But the farther you stray from the guideline the more problems you’ll encounter.
So, tippet is part of the leader. But tippet is also purchased by itself on spools. Tippet material is pulled from the spool and spliced to the leader with a knot to rebuild or alter the leader. For instance, if you start the day with a 9’ 5X leader and you change flies a few times or break off in a tree, your tippet gets shorter and shorter. You can add tippet from a spool when this happens to build the leader back to its original size.
Landing nets enable anglers to land a fish more easily and safely. They are most beneficial when dealing with larger fish. Big fish sometimes make one last dart or head shake when you try to grab them. This often results in the tippet breaking. While in the Smokies, I rarely carry a net. The fish are typically not very large and can be landed by hand with little trouble. A net is just one more thing to carry. But I use a net regularly when fishing tailwaters and delayed harvest streams.
Traditionally, nets have been made with a wood frame and cotton netting and that style is still common today. However, wooden frames are more and more frequently being replaced by lighter, carbon frames. Rubber is replacing cotton for the netting. The rubber netting has a number of advantages over cotton. The most notable being that it is better on the fish. Cotton netting can catch and tangle in the fins, gills and teeth of the fish. With trout, cotton absorbs and removes some of their protective “slime.” Fly hooks also catch and easily tangle in cotton netting. Rubber netting eliminates all of these problems and holds far less odor than cotton.
Other things to consider when looking for a net are the size and shape. Obviously, if you’re expecting to catch bigger fish you’re going to want a bigger net. A 20-pound striper just won’t fit in a 16 ½” trout net. They size landing nets by the overall length, including handle, as well as the size of the head (the part that holds the netting). You should choose the size of the net based on the size of fish you’re pursuing. Choose the overall length (or the handle size) based on how you pursue them. For instance, if fishing from a boat, a longer handle may be desirable since it’s more difficult to get the fish close to you. If wading, a long handled net might be too cumbersome to carry all day.
If you plan to carry a net with you when wading, there are a number of options that will help keep the net out of the way, yet easy to access when needed. Most every fishing vest or jacket has a D-Ring on the back. The sole purpose of that ring is to clip your net on it. To make it even easier, there are magnetic connectors that include a section of plastic, “pig tail” type cord that allow you to utilize the net while it remains tethered to you. There are also oversized retractors that accomplish the same thing.
Folks who choose to use sling packs or hip packs tend to have trouble finding a suitable location for attaching their net. Attaching it to the pack with a traditional retractor or magnetic connector often leaves it hanging too low or in a location that impedes the casting stroke. I know many who have remedied this by using a type of net “holster” placed on a belt. Store the net with the handle down and draw from the holster when you need it.
Like most things in fly fishing, there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” solution to the type of net you use or the method you use to carry it. It’s a matter of finding something that best fits most of your needs and carrying it in the least obtrusive way possible.