Friday, February 19, 2010

Making the switch

I haven’t always been a fly fisherman. I still have my spinning tackle for trout but I never use it. I don’t even know where my box full of Panther Martins and worm hooks is. The last time I used my spinning tackle I was fishing for bass and big blue gill off my float tube. I strung up my line and broke the tip of a rod I had used since high school. I used to love that rod; it didn’t even bother me that I broke it. I wanted to learn how to fly fish but it seemed so arcane and obtuse to a bait fisherman. You cast the line? The fly hardly weighs anything? How does that work? There were more questions than answers. The different types of flies were so numerous I could barely keep straight what was floating and sinking let alone a baetis imitation or a midge. I would look at forums and see that someone caught fish on a GB prince nymph. I thought it was Great Britain….I was hopeless. If you saw me try to cast, it would make you want to duck and take cover. I took out more bushes and trees than trout that first year. I would bring my spinning tackle, catch a few fish and then switch to fly fishing to see how that worked out. It never did. Once I went fishing with my friend Mark. He was just learning to fish for trout and we were using worms. I think he caught one that day but I’m not sure. I caught a few on spinning tackle and switched to my fly rod. I needed to attach the tippet to my leader and was attempting a double surgeons knot. I say attempting because I never got it to work. It always slipped out. I finally gave up and became a decidedly sour fishing partner for a while. Mark has since switched to fly fishing and told me one of his funny beginner stories. He was sitting on the bank of a river in Montana (probably after paying something like $20 for a fishing license for the day) and couldn’t remember the knot to attach the leader to tippet. He finally gave up, tied the fly to the leader and caught a trout on a hopper pattern. That would have been enough to hook me on fly fishing. I have since learned that a baetis is a may fly and to not try to attach a thick leader to a tiny tippet with a surgeons knot. I now can catch way more fish with flies than I ever did with bait. I can tie most of my own flies and have more fly rods than most people have ties. And yes, my wife doesn’t understand why I need more than one fly rod let alone two 3wts a 5, a 7 and a 9. I sort of want a 0 but that’s silly.

My advise for learning to fly fish is pretty simple
Don’t take spinning tackle with you. If you go out to fly fish focus on that.
Don’t start with dry flies. Learn to cast a nymph, indicator rig.
Start with a small number of fly patterns but many sizes. (18-12 for most flies) Size is usually more important than the difference between a flash back pheasant tail and a natural.
Get decent equipment. If you have a $200 spinning rod and a $19.95 fly rod combo what are you going to want to fish with?
Don’t go overboard on expensive equipment either. You won’t know the difference between a Z-axis and a TFO for a long time.
Learn to tie flies. There is something great about catching/fooling a fish with a fly you tied. Most nymph patterns are pretty easy and it is a fun hobby. Like arts and crafts for adults.
Just go out and try it. Screw the books that say you can’t practice casting while you are fishing. I think the best motivation for learning to cast better is having fish right in front of you. Read about casting and maybe get a lesson then go out and do it. Learning on the water from a friend is the most common way people pick up the sport. For trout fishing you rarely have to cast more than 20 feet. Even I can do that.

I hope this helps, if I knew what I just wrote when I started thing would have gone better sooner.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chaos machine: The two fly nymph rig

I used to go to the science museum a lot when I was a kid. The Ruben H. Fleet science museum in San Diego had this device that simulated chaos. Chaos can be defined as: behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions
I agree that this is a slightly esoteric definition but it really sums up my point well. Chaos is not actually random but so many variables exist the outcome appears random. The machine at the science museum had a crank with an arm about a foot long. Attached to that crank were two other freely rotating arms. One attached to the crank and the other attached to the one attached to the crank. All of them were different lengths and thicknesses. When you turned the crank the arms seemed to go every which way and all would turn at different rates. Apparently, mathematics could not predict what the motions of the arms would be even if the input force and velocity were known. I hate maths. At this point you may be wondering why I am talking about a chaos machine on a fly fishing blog. The reason is that I created my own chaos machine two Saturdays ago.

I decided I wanted to fish a two nymph rig setup. I wanted to put a small (size 18) midge nymph trailing off my bead head. So, I had a strike indicator, about 3.5 feet of tippet (6x), a #16 pink squirrel, another 1.5 feet of tippet tied to the hook bend, then a #18 midge nymph (unweighted). I though I had a great setup. I could have a midge emerger nymph flowing through the current while the bead head was bouncing along the bottom. I have cast two fly rigs a lot in the summer. Dry-dropper setups and stuff. So this setup should have been easy. Not so. I neglected to understand how a strike indicator would factor into the equation. From the tip of my fly line I had built a perfect chaos machine. At no time could I predict where the strike indicator, the bead head, or the emerger would land. If they landed at all- I caught my share of brush behind me too. The emerger would dive for the deck during every back-cast and constantly snag. If I accelerated the cast prior to a rapid stop to shoot some line all hell would break loose. After a few casts of fearing for my life, hooks flying everywhere, I took off the nymph and order was restored. I know it is possible and even fairly easy to cast that rig if it is setup right but I failed, miserably. I should have tapered my leaders down. I needed a 5x 7.5’ tapered leader, the strike indicator, 6x tippet, the bead head, 7x tippet, then the nymph.  5x, 5x then 6x would be fine too.    It would have turned over much nicer.   The real key is to open your loops and relax your casting stroke.  Shoot tight loops with dries and open them up for nymphs with indicators and especially with two fly rigs.

  I’ll let you know how that works out next time. My money is on a slightly reduced chaos machine and a few more tangles than usual. It was the first time since September I had cast a fly rod; maybe I was just rusty.
I did manage to catch two. They were pretty small but I wasn’t fishing the best water on the stream. I’ll try down by the pasture stretch next time.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Winter Fly Fishing in Minnesota

Fishing for trout in Minnesota has a short season. First of all, winter lasts for approximately 13 months, and when the temperature is warm enough for fishing there are all sorts of other factors that make catching trout difficult here. It rains about once a week in the summer and by rain I mean torrential bust your windshield rain which means that the streams are clear for about 6 hours a week. On top of that we have the excessive heat and mosquitos that are so big most of the small trout, that apparently live in Minnesota streams, are so scared of the boieng 747 sized insects (about the size of a #8 humpty for you western anglers) on the surface they stay well hidden under the still frozen remains of the last guy who tried to fish for trout during the winter in Minnesota. Which brings me to my point: winter fly fishing in Minnesota is only slightly less dangerous than climbing mount Everest.

I am exaggerating a little about the fishing opportunities here in the tundra but all or some of those factors above do seem to work against you every trip out. Winter fishing is not new, in fact, many western anglers fish year around in the tail water fisheries where the water temp is constant year around. The same sort of thing happens around these parts but instead of huge dams and reservoirs keeping the water at a constant temp we have limestone springs. The driftless region of southeastern MN, southwestern WS, northern Iowa and about 10 square feet of Illinois was untouched by the last set of glaciers that blew through town about a brazilian years ago. The driftless region abounds with limestone bluffs and natural springs, which made the entire region a brook trout Shangri-La about a hundred years ago. Today, a few patches of hardwood forest remain, called state parks, and a handful of the original trout streams have been rehabilitated. Unfortunately, the streams were not stocked with the native brook trout but were populated with the more temperature tolerate brown trout. The area was devastated by poor farming practices and even poorer fishery management. The region is making quite a comeback and there are many beautiful streams to fish including a few that have thriving native populations of brook trout. If you can get someone to tell you where they are, good for you. Not going to happen here.
A select few streams in the driftless region of Minnesota are open for winter trout fishing. I’m almost sure this was done by the old walleye fisherman as some sort of joke on us feather and fur guys. In case you are from a warm climate and don’t comprehend how cold it gets up here I will try to explain (I’m from San Diego so I have a different prospective on the weather here than most natives). It gets so cold the ice on the lakes freezes so thick people can drive their huge trucks on the ice to their favorite fishing spot (they then proceed to drill a bunch of holes in the ice around their trucks to fish in. I never understood that logic). Some streams do end up freezing over. I have come up with a good rule of thumb you can use for picking a clear stream in the winter. Find out where I’m going and that will tell you, with out a doubt, which stream will be completely frozen over. I really know how to pick 'em. No, seriously, as long as you don’t go after a really cold snap (Ha, really cold. Its always really cold) some pools will be open. January and February can be a crapshoot but early March is the way to go.
The most common and universally infuriating nuance in winter fishing is iced up guides. Water sticks to your line and collects in the guides of your rod. Soon, you will completely freeze them shut and all line movement stops. This happens most often when a fish is on or when the fish are rising. At 30 degrees it will take about a dozen casts. 20, about 3 casts. 10, every cast. 0, I think your line freezes to the reel and won’t come off at all. I could be wrong. Even I will not fish when its zero. -10, go back to North Dakota.
Fishing tactics are a little different. You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. In fact, the warmest part of the day is the best and that is usually around 3 pm. As far as rods and stuff go, I like about an 8’ 3wt. You could go with a 5 but, unless there is a storm coming, the wind is pretty calm. Light and delicate presentations are the key. I use a 6x leader with either a 6x or 7x tippet. Theoretically, insects still hatch in the winter. There is actually a species of midge that has adapted to a winter hatch in Minnesota. There is a great article published a while back. The major scientific finding was that they had little purple #4 jerseys and came up to tailgate. A 70 denier purple thread with a fine gold rib and a purple plastic helmet makes a good imitation. The hard part is painting the horns on the size 20’s.

Hatches do happen and trout do feed on the surface but the imitations are small. Really small. I’m talking maybe 32s. Okay maybe not that small. A 20-22 will do but even that is pretty small. I stick with an 18. On principle, I don’t fish with anything smaller than an 18. Your best bet is sub-surface stuff. I go with a #16 bead head pink squirrel and a midge emerger trailer. The bead head gets down deep and bounces off of trout heads and the trailer sits up in the water column a bit for actively feeding fish. A soft hackle would also be a good trailer too. I’ve heard about a hundred times to down size flies in the winter. I do, I guess. I usually would go with a #14 bead head whatever to start but in winter I start with 16. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for a bigger fly. Winter/summer/and both solstices (yes, the plural of solstice) I catch most of my big fish off a #12 bead head prince nymph. 2x long so the body looks meaty. Fish are not as spooky in the winter as they are in the summer, which means you have a better shot at big fish. It probably has something to do with the fact that there are no ¾ oz rooster tails thumping them on the head in the winter.
Everything down there is hungry and ready to bite but only at a certain time of day or on a particularly warm day. It is not just slow fishing when it is too cold and fish are not feeding, it's like someone flipped the trout off switch. If you are out there at the wrong time or on the wrong day, just try to enjoy the beauty of the stream or the ice in your guides. If you hit it right through, a 37-40 degree day in March, you will be in for a treat. Remember- Barbless hooks or pinched barbs and all streams are catch and release only. Try to limit pictures and time out of the water.