A long time bucket list of mine had been to participate in a fly-in fishing trip to northern Canada, and in the early part of June last year, I was able to finally check it off. If you are unfamiliar with these endeavors, they are all pretty much the same concept. Drive as far north into Canada that roads will take you, hop on a float plane to any of the hundred remote outpost camps on any of the million lakes up there and start fishing. As long as you can keep from being devoured by a bear, trampled by a moose or suffocated by a swarm of ruthless, evil, hate filled bugs…you will no doubt catch more fish than you can possibly imagine. Besides the obvious appeal of fishing for a week straight, the biggest pull for me was how remote these locations are. You’re out on your own, miles and miles from civilization, surviving off only the gear you bring in and the game you catch (sorry…no “keep em’ wet” happening there) all the while taking in nature that hasn’t been completely altered or trodden over by a herd of humans every weekend. It was an awesome experience that I would repeat in a heartbeat with the only negative memory being those damn bugs (pro tip: don’t let them get INSIDE your bug suit…nightmares). But as the resident new guy on this blog, I thought I’d share one of the things I’d do differently if I were to partake in such an adventure again; my approach and plan for catching fish. I’ll break it out for you.
Where we were fishing:
As with the vast majority of water in northern Canada, the two major species we would be pursuing (and living off of) were walleye and pike, of which I have very little experience fishing for. The particular body of water we were on consisted of a decent sized river opening up to a 7 mile by half mile lake with two other rivers that exited on the other side. Our outpost was located at the mouth of the river feeding in, and I was told that we would be spending most of our time around there for walleye and in the river and its tributaries for pike. The walleye were known to hang by structure in water anywhere from 10 to 20ft with pike patrolling the edges and shallow tributaries. We also would be taking a crazy adventurous day trip, 15 miles up river to a set of falls that are known for holding monster brook trout (trout rule, ‘eyes drool!).
How I planned on catching fish:
At the point I was planning for this trip, I had fully converted my fishing techniques to the fly and had all but rid myself of anything relating to gear fishing. I knew pike would be easy. I would treat them like hyper aggressive trout, slap some wire on the end of my leader and throw big, gaudy streamers at them. Walleye were another story. They aren’t known to be a regular target for most fly fisherman and finding large quantities of information on how to go about it was difficult. But the Internet is full of crazy people like myself and I was able to find enough articles to put a plan in place. My idea was this: I’d set up an 8/9wt rig with a long-headed 300gr sink tip line and tie up a bunch of weighted
leech and clouser patterns with colors ranging from black/purple to chartreuse/orange. I figured that if after I cast out as far as I could, I gave the fly ample time to sink before slowly stripping it in, I’d be close enough to the target depth to get in walleye range. Solid plan right? I should note, my father-in-law, who has been on countless number of trips to this lake, and would be with me on this one, thought I was a fool to only bring a fly rod. So much so, that he went out and bought me a spinning gear combo package so that I’d be guilt ridden into bringing gear with me. He wasn’t taking any chances as I’d be part of the equation of whether he ate dinner or not each night. What’s that they say about listening to those that have gone before you in life?
How it turned out:
Yea…not nearly as well as I thought and I was grateful for that spinning gear. The big thing I forgot to factor in was that I’m a novice who, at the time, couldn’t cast to save his life (an accurate metaphor given the circumstances) nor understood the fish or environment I was fishing in. Let’s break this down:
-When you are a very inefficient at casting, a 300gr line with heavy flies is not only a bear to control, but will wear you out lickety split. Add in that I’m a walking stick figure with a career that emphasizes typing speeds over strength, and I was well worn out after a full day behind my rig. This made my accuracy and distance garbage and I spent more time out of the fishy zone than in it.
-I was the only guy using a fly rod. And since piloting an outboard powered boat is near impossible while casting one, that meant the speed and positioning of said boat was almost always in favor of the hardware guys. When trolling, I couldn’t cast fast enough to accurately hit my zones or keep my fly deep enough if we were in walleye territory. When holding still, we were usually out far enough that I had to muster up monster casts to get to where the fish were. Again, my weak casting did not help me here. We had a 5th guy lined up to go with us that is a fantastic fly fisherman which, had he not had to bail at the last second, would have made this a moot point. But if if’s and but’s were candy and nuts, oh what a Christmas it would be. I was going to a camp designed around hardware…not sure what I expected.
-I didn’t tie nearly as flashy patterns as I should have. The water levels were abnormally high and strong winds had the water very cloudy. I obviously could not have predicted this, but you should prepare for everything on a trip like this. The only places I had any success were in the tributaries were the water was clear or low. But the name of the game that week was either motion (more than an articulated streamer can provide) or flash, neither of which my patterns overly excelled at. This was the most obvious the day we spent at the falls. I was the first in the water and on my fourth cast landed a real nice brookie on a white boogieman pattern. At last, I thought, it’s my time to shine! That was the last fish I caught that day. My boogieman was crusty leftovers in the eyes of the trout once they saw the Mepp’s my uncle’s were throwing. And they could cast them farther and faster than I could ever dream of. They put up some impressive numbers of some of the biggest brook trout I’ve seen and left me with my one measly fish and a sore shoulder on the boat ride home.
Did I catch fish on my fly rod? Is the pope catholic? I hooked up with plenty of hammer
handled size pike and even proved my theory correct with a few walleye. But I had to work my butt off to get them while my companions were kicked back slaying them one after another (literally) with spinning gear. And believe me…they let me know it. I eventually gave up and just switched to my spinning rod. I still refused to jig or troll…what a boring and uninvolved means of fishing. But I ended up having a fantastic time ripping stick baits for pike and spoons or spinners for walleyes and ended up with the record for most consecutive fish per cast by going 10 for 10 on pike one night. Quick side note here…the pike in that lake were some of the most aggressive, brutal predators I’ve seen. If it moved, it was food. They would come up and take chunks out of walleye we had on stringers and I swear to you, one even smashed a Rapala that was covered in a foot of weeds. Made for some fun times…but nature, you scary….
What I’d do differently:
Obviously, get better at casting. It’s coming up on a year since that trip and although I’m far from being Paul Maclean, I’ve made big improvements in this category thanks to some relentless backyard practicing and some great guidance from a friend. I also think I’d upgrade my fly rod. Over the summer I switched my Redington Crosswater 6wt over to a Mystic Reaper and it made a world of difference in my casting, especially for large streamers. I think if I did the same for my big streamer rod (combined with even more practice) I’d have a better time at it. But maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to have three Reapers in my collection. Also, I think I’d focus all time with my fly rod on hunting trophy pike and just be happy if a walleye randomly hits my fly. For walleye, I’d upgrade my spinning gear, chuck heavy spinners with ease and be happy doing it. Or pack in some steaks and leave the monotonous task of working a jig to others. Finally, I’d bring along a better assortment of flies. And I’m not talking about anything super fancy here…did you read the part about that pike hitting a grass covered lure? But maybe a little something more to get their attention and mix it up like some floating frog/mouse patterns or a pack of flashabou tied to a hook. That’d get it done.
So at the end of it all, these shortcomings with my fishing strategy by no means took away from an awesome trip. For that matter, it’s made me realize that living in Michigan, I’m limiting myself…just a bit…by swearing off gear fishing for life. The fall salmon run for instance has all be written off for me since I’ve given up the ol’ chuck n’ duck. So I think this September, IF the salmon come back up the river and I have an opportunity to get in there and battle it out, I’ll be throwing plugs and hot n’ tots instead of streamers and eggs. OK no joke…it was really hard to type that. But I’m trying to be open-minded and I promise I won’t be petitioning for this blog to be renamed michiganflyandgear.com. Fly or die people. But, in the meantime, I’m going to go look at pictures of steelhead sized brook trout, Bob Ross level Canadian sunsets and Fireball stealing in-laws to remind me of an incredibly memorable trip…and to keep practicing casting. So hey ya’ hosers, keep some tight lines eh?
Today’s feature is from Kory Boozer, SW Michigan and Smallmouth guide extraordinaire. CLICK HERE to see more info about Kory and how to book a trip to elevate your Smallmouth game.
When fly fisherman think of Smallmouth Bass in Michigan, they think of hot Summer days spent tossing poppers at the rivers edge and while this is a great time of year to pursue Smallmouth Bass, it is far from the only time of year fly fisherman can enjoy chasing these river assassins.
While many anglers are still chasing Steelhead or Brown Trout on Michigan’s Rivers, Smallies begin to put on one of the biggest feeding binges of the year, typically once the water temps reach the mid to upper 40’s is when you will begin noticing a sharp increase in activity. They have yet to vacate their Winter holding lies and are still congregated in large groups which means if you find them you can typically catch a bunch of them. Look for fish to hold in deeper water in slack water areas, such as natural wing dams, sharp drop offs in the river bottom, eddies, etc… Any area that provides baitfish, slack current and deeper water with access to spawning habitat nearby while retaining access to food is the ticket.
As far as gear goes, this isn’t time to fish floating lines and light weight rods, I recommend Scientific Anglers Sonar lines in the 250-350 grain range depending on the rod you are using. Some days you simply need to get down deep and I will throw a 9 wt and 350 grain line. As the water warms fishing deeper water becomes less and less of a necessity though and for the most part 7 and 8 wt rods are all you need. When you fish weightless flies as I do a heavier line is necessary to get them down, lucky for us a good sized Smallie will fold a 7, 8 or even a 9 wt to the cork. You do not want to fish large streamers, even if you are targeting big fish, streamers roughly 3″ – 4″ in length are ideal to properly match the forage at that time of year. Fish them slow with short and fast strips to provoke reaction bites, some times very slowly swinging through an area with minimal action is ideal, others they want more action, this can vary by the hour so something you want to continuously play with to maximize your effectiveness.
Fly choices are dictated by the most available forage where you are fishing. For example if Chubs, Suckers or Gobies are the dominate food source where you are fishing, you want to match the colors, size and flash these bait fish give off as closely as possible. If young Trout & Salmon or Shad are the most abundant food source in the area, then that is the type of forage you want to mimic. A flies effectiveness for Smallmouth Bass is measured by how much motion they provide without movement, how closely the color and flash matches the natural forage and how fast and cheap I can tie the fly in my opinion. I want a fly that swims without being stripped, matches the size, hue and flash of the naturals while being slightly transparent and one that I can tie reasonably fast. I also when possible want it to be cheap so I don’t mind losing them and will fish them like I stole `em so to speak. You can basically get away with 3 flies, a white/grey hue, an olive hue and a brown hue, which would do a good job of matching everything from Shad, Baby Bass, Sculpins, Gobies, Suckers, Shiners, etc… A pattern called the Bad Hair Day, developed by my Friend and Wisconsin fly fishing guide Dave Pinczkowski is a great starting point for flies emulating anything in the baitfish form. It utilizes craft fur which is cheap yet has amazing action in the water, various types of flash and wool or dubbing as a head. Simple, Cheap and Effective… Simply match the materials you are tying with to the forage you are imitating, and get started.
The pre-spawn bite will vary in duration, typically it takes place until water temps reach the mid to upper 50’s and the fish begin to spawn. Depending on weather and location, that can lead to a vastly different window of opportunity. If your into hard fighting fish and don’t like fishing around heavily pressured areas, early Spring Smallmouth Bass might be just the thing for you!
Kory Boozer – Boozer’s Guide Service – www.BoozersGuideService.com
A couple years ago I was on a streamer trip with friend Joe Donati. It was a day in late May and the weather was warm and overcast with water a bit up and stained, perfect for pulling bugs. Joe had landed a few nice trout and we came into a straightaway with grass tight to the bank. I was rowing and Joe noticed a trout shoot completely out of the water for some right along the bank. We dropped anchor mid-river and watched for a bit as more fish along the bank proceeded to come flying out of the water with reckless abandon. We soon realized they were going after damsels hovering near the grass. We sat there for a while just watching one after another taking shots at these bugs that were obviously driving the trout mad. Neither of us had anything remotely similar to a damsel so Joe just went with a hopper pattern and was able to get one to go. I took some video that really doesn’t do the moment justice but worth sharing.
After telling Bob this story that evening he laughed and said that he’d just taken the two or three damsels he had parked in his dry fly box out because he never thought he’d get a shot at fishing them.
If you’ve been living off the grid for the past couple years and haven’t seen this amazing video of trout crashing damsels then check this out.
Nothing makes a fish bigger than almost being caught. ~Author Unknown
Far more often than any of us would like fishing outings conclude with thoughts of “what the hell happened” or “what went wrong” instead of the glorious celebratory end to the day that we all yearn for. As I look back upon my past few years pulling streamers I have experienced a fair amount of success and have been fortunate to come face to face with a number of quality trout.
Thats all fine and dandy, and I feel honored to have been able to put a fish in the net – but thats not what drives me. I am unequivocally motivated by the fish that I had brief encounters with. Those ones that showed themselves in a lightening quick flash as soon as my streamer descended into their habitation OR the ones that charged the stripped bug all the way to the boat and inexplicably turned away without commitment OR (and the worst ones of all) those fish that ate or tried to eat and in a fit of excitement and stupidity I trout set the shit out of and they quickly came unpinned.
I spend way more time than I should trying to figure out how to elicit a reaction from a predatory fish with a brain the size of a dime. I lose sleep at night because of it. It’s a sickness in which there are only 2 cures – more whiskey than my bank account could afford or more time spent on the water. The biggest problem is, far more times than not I have a brief encounter with a fish that undoubtedly in my mind looks somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 times larger than it really is if I were to actually catch it and get a tape on it. The fish that we don’t catch seem to always be potential record breakers that would land us piles of “thumbs up” on Facebook, never before seen levels of street cred, piles of endorsement, and an endless stream of friend requests from women not trying to sell us Oakley sunglasses (seriously, what’s up with that on Facebook right now?).
The persistent challenge that exists of cracking the code of trout drives me. If it were easy I don’t think I would do it as much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying that if I had the ability or opportunity to walk out my door and start railing 30″ giant browns one after another any day of the week, that I wouldn’t do it. Of course I would – I’d also probably be unemployed. What I’m getting at is that the ever changing challenge of catching these fish on streamers is what gets me going. If I could go out and rail 30″ giants, I wouldn’t feel the need to devote so much time and energy into figuring this stuff out.
The sad fact of this is….this is a game you can never really win. There will be days that you are ahead in the score column, but in the end the fish will always be victorious more times than not. So, the reality of this is I’m going to spend an enormous portion of my adult life trying to win at a game that is impossible to win. Sounds like a great plan to me.
Michigan differs from most other states that have a trout oriented fishery, unlike the landlocked states of the Rocky Mountain west we are fortunate to have a migratory fishery available to us. Another often overlooked opportunity to enjoy the bountiful resources in our state is targeting warm water fish.
This year I plan to spend a considerable amount of time pursuing bass, pike, and pan fish in many of the lakes that are in my immediate geographical area. Instead of settling into the same routine of summer which is smallmouth bass fishing every weekend, I’m excited about learning something completely new and different.
I’ve made the statement several times over, that “if you put me in a lake, you might as well blindfold me because I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” I said that to my wife not so long ago – and she surprised me with a guide that focuses solely on the lakes in our region.
Doing a fair bit of research between this guide and the internet, has more than peaked my interest this year – it has me really excited. I’m completely engulfed right now with gathering as much knowledge as possible to learn about how to fish these resources. Another exciting component is that while my normal trout/bass streamers will most likely work just fine, I have enjoyed seeking out new patterns to tie.
While I’ll always be a trout streamer and steelhead nympher first – finding a new way to further immerse myself in the sport isn’t a bad thing.
In my latest readings of the book by Jason Randall, titled Trout Sense, a work that is subtitled “A Fly fisher’s guide to What Trout SEE, HEAR, & SMELL” the author draws an extremely interesting comparison. He compares fly fishermen in a sense to door to door salesmen – putting the entire act of chasing trout on the fly into an entirely new perspective. He writes:
We are marketing our wares to a skeptical consumer, one that is often not quite convinced it wants what we are selling. To help us make the sale, we need the equivalent of market analysis. A good salesman considers two things: the target audience and how the product appeals to the target audience.
Simply put, what can we do as anglers to cause an “EAT” reaction, instead of “DON’T EAT” response? With streamer fishing we are knocking on a lot of doors throughout the day – there are a extreme multitude of factors that play into enticing an “EAT” response that we must consider.
Size, shape, and color of the streamer often times plays an extremely important role in triggering a desirable response. Does the pattern that we are presenting to our ‘customers’ match or resemble what they want to ‘buy’? Also, action of the streamer plays an enormous role – does the pattern move or act like potential prey? Does the fly act like a fleeing or injured food item, making it an easy target?
The product that we are selling is ENORMOUSLY important – as any salesman will tell you, if you don’t have a good product that is marketable, it makes selling it much more difficult. However, I’d argue that at the very least equally important to the product – probably even more important – is the number of doors we are knocking on. In many sales type roles, it becomes a numbers game, streamer fishing is not any different. Simply put, the more doors you knock on the better your chances to make a sale. Even if your product is not the perfect offering, if you present it to enough fish the odds tip in your favor.
Get your bugs in the water and pull them around…..the more times the better. Don’t waste time making several false casts, don’t get caught up with frequent bug changes, and don’t waste time doing other things that prevent your flies from being in the water.
“Trout are either self-aware, intelligent, rational, educated, cunning, suspicious, choosy, fickle, fussy about what they eat, and are increasingly wise to our tricks – or they’re not.” -Bob Wyatt, “What Trout Want”
There are possibly hundreds of books and thousands of articles that go to great lengths to describe how ‘selective’ and picky of eaters trout are. There are essentially 2 camps of thought as it regards the feeding habits of trout and the effect that has on the fly fishing world and it’s approach to catching them. Camp #1 is that trout are highly selective creatures that have the ability to cognitively reason through their meal selection, thus making them (most of the time) very discerning eaters that often refuse an artificial offering in the form of a fly because it does not look exactly like ‘real food’. Camp #2 is more in the mindset that trout have to eat to survive and thus do not have the luxury of being uber picky eaters, while they will indeed become keyed in on a singular food source (hatches), they will gladly eat anything that mimics the general impression, shape, and size (GISS) of the food source they are keyed in on.
Selectivity vs Non-Selectivity is like politics, you are going to get people that are extremely passionate about their beliefs on both sides – and they usually will not agree with each other on most issues. I know some folks that are thought leaders in the Selectivity camp, and they are some of the best fishermen in the world. Likewise, I know folks in the Non-selectivity camp that are also some of the best fishermen in the world.
For me, I believe that I fall to the right of the Selectivity crowd, and firmly in the Non-Selectivity belief. I have seen too many times where fish that are feeding on (name your mayfly hatch here), but those exact same fish are happy to take a parachute adams that fits within the GISS theory. Think about many of the classic, time tested, proven fly patterns – Adams, Royal Coachman, Wooly Bugger, Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, and others – what are they tied to 100% accurately represent? The answer to that is EVERYTHING!
The arguement that those in the non-selective group would make is that, as long as your fly falls in the framework of the GISS philosophy, the most important thing is the presentation of that artificial to a trout. Finding a way to present your artificial in a manner that accurately simulates how natural food sources is more important than poorly presenting the fish with an accurate representation of a meal.
Essentially, better flies won’t make you a better fisherman – but, better presentation will.