Friday, November 27, 2009

It’s Time to Start Tying Flies for Spring

The nights are getting cold here in southeast Nebraska, water temperatures are falling
and your chances of catching anything on a fly rod are getting pretty slim. On top of that, it’s getting harder to find a place to fish. The last time I was out I found duck decoys floating in a couple of my favorite spots. I’ve decided it’s time to stick a little closer to the fire and concentrate on tying flies for next year.

The first flies I’ll tie will be the Improved Black Gnat and the Improved McGinty, two of my favorite panfish flies. Both are easy-to-tie wet fly patterns, just what I need to get my aging fingers back in shape for four or five months of intense tying.

The Improved Black Gnat and the Improved McGinty are my versions of two traditional wet flies – the Black Gnat and the McGinty – created to take trout. I call them "improved" for a couple of reasons. One is that each of the original patterns requires more materials, each is a little more difficult to tie in its original form, and each of the original patterns takes a little longer to tie than my down-and-dirty variations. I also believe that bluegill and crappie are less selective than trout and in my experience they like the more-simply tied versions at least as well as the originals. To me, that’s an improvement and I renamed them, not in an attempt to claim any ownership to the patterns, but to identify them as being knock-offs of the originals. In answer to the obvious question, I have not tried the improved versions of either of the "improved" versions for trout fishing and I don’t have any idea how trout would respond to them. I’m just really happy that bluegill and crappie like them.

I’ll start fishing again next spring just as soon as there is open water and panfish move into shallow water looking for forage. Fishing in the spring can be pretty tough, thanks melting snow and ice which raise water levels and turn normally clear waters the color of semi-stout coffee. Then, just as the water starts to clear again, roller-coaster cold and warm fronts produce strong spring storms that result in high winds and heavy runoff that again result in stained water.

In stained water, bluegill and crappie can see dark-colored flies such as the Improved Black Gnat, easier and at greater distances than lighter-colored patterns. I’ve also found that larger flies, such as size 8 or 10, produce more fish than those size 12-14.

The Improved Black Gnat Wet FlyThread: Black, pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 3906, sizes 8-14
Tail: Black goose biot
Body: Small black chenille
Weight: (Optional) 3-5 turns of small lead wire
Collar: Black hackle
Head: Black thread
I don’t know if this pattern imitates any insect in particular, but it seems to be easy for the fish to locate when it is retrieved slowly with a short jerk-stop-short jerk motion near some type of cover, such as vegetation standing in shallow water.

The Improved McGinty Wet Fly
Thread: Black, pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 3906, sizes 8-14
Tail: Red hackle feathers
Body: Small black and yellow chenille
Weight: (Optional) 3-5 turns of small lead wire
Collar: Yellow hackle
Head: Black thread

The Improved McGinty roughly resembles a honey or bumble bee in shape, color and size, and though I've never seen a bluegill eat a bee, they sure go after this fly. Its three colors – red, yellow and black -- seem to attract bluegill.

I prefer to use the Improved Black Gnat in stained water, but when the water is clearer and visibility is better, I change to the Improved McGinty.

When spring does finally roll around, fly anglers can start taking bluegill on flies shortly after ice-out. Concentrate your efforts in shallow water with vegetation or other cover near shore on the north and west sides of the lake or pond because those spots will warm quicker than other areas.

Later in the spring, when the water warms and vegetation begins growing, I can usually find bluegill around healthy, green weedbeds in water two to eight feet deep, where the fish congregate because of the shade, protective cover where they can hide from predators, and because the weeds provide forage such as zooplankton, insects and small minnows.

My wife, Maggie, is shown with a few bluegill she took on an Improved McGinty while fishing near shallow-water vegetation last spring.

I think that a 4 or 5-weight graphite rod with a weight-forward floating line and tapered leader is an ideal setup for spring bluegill fishing. I like a weight-forward floating line and a 7½-foot tapered leader with 7X tippet for both bluegills and crappies in shallow water. You can cast accurately and comfortably with this combination all day, and it doesn't overpower the fish.

In the early spring, I use an unweighted fly because it sinks slowly to about two feet below the surface and hangs there, shimmering in the water. Later, in early summer when the fish move to deeper water, I often use a weighted fly.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Big Fish Eat Smaller Fish

Most warmwater fish routinely feed on smaller fish, including those of their own species. During the spring and summer, fish also feed on insects and other assorted food items, but in the fall the availability of most insects quickly declines as air and water temperatures cool, making minnows and small fish an important food source.
From the time leaves start changing colors and falling from the trees until the pond or lake ices over, I use streamers and other types of minnow-imitating flies to take largemouth bass and crappie.
Among my favorite fall largemouth bass flies are the Gray Woolhead Minnow and the Gray Woolhead Marabou Minnow. Here’s how I tie them:

Gray Woolhead Minnow
Thread: Gray or white pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 9672 or comparable, size 6 or larger
Tail: A pair of matched pale gray hackle feathers
Collar: Light gray or pale yellow wool flared back towards tail
Eyes: Black/white doll eyes in appropriate size
Head: Gray wool
* I’ve had good luck fishing this pattern along the outside edge of vegetation growing in shallow water. Cast beyond the weed line and retrieve the fly slowly and erratically along the outside edge of the bed.

The Gray Woolhead Marabou Minnow
Thread: Gray or white pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 9672 or comparable, size 6 or larger
Body: Small, dense bunches of marabou hackle fibers in various colors, such as yellow, orange, green and purple
Wing: A pair of mallard breast feathers tied flat to cover marabou fibers
Gills: Red hackle fibers tied below hook shank
Eyes: Small (dumbbell) black lead eyes
Head: Gray wool
* I really like the way the marabou fibers move in the water and give the illusion of light reflecting off a fish’s scales. I’ve taken several bass by fishing this pattern along the sides of submerged logs, and along the edges of shallow flats where the flat drops sharply into deeper water, such as along the steep side of a creek channel.

The Super Silver Minnow
Thread: Black pre-waxed
Hook: Mustad 9672 or comparable, size 10 or larger
Weight: Three-five turns of small lead wire behind the hook eye to add weight to front
Body: Silver tinsel
Underwiing: A few marabou hackle fibers in various colors, such as yellow, orange, green and purple
Wing: A pair of mallard breast feathers tied flat to cover marabou fibers
* This is an excellent pattern for taking crappie in the fall. It is easy to tie and moves realistically when retrieved slowly and erratically through the water. Weighting behind the head helps the fly sink below the surface and move naturally through the water. I like to fish this fly along the edges of rocky flats or submerged rock piles, along weedy flats that drop sharply into deeper water, and near partially submerged brush piles, partially submerged timber and stump fields during the warmest parts of the day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Late Fall Action

I live in southeast Nebraska where daytime temperatures the last couple of weeks have been in the 40s and 50s and one morning light snow covered the ground. Many fly fishermen have put their rods, reels and other gear away for the year. Too bad, they are missing the chance to enjoy late season catches of largemouth bass, bluegill and crappie.

I’ve found farm ponds and reservoirs often provide fly-fishing for bass and panfish until they ice over. All the fly angler has to do is change tactics to be successful when cold-water fishing.

I’ve found the following to be useful for catching bass and crappie in the fall:
– lightly-weighted minnow-imitating flies in warmer shallow water areas
– more heavily-weighted minnow-imitating flies in deeper water areas
– dark-colored flies a size or two larger than used in spring or summer fishing
– flies with weed guards for fishing in or near areas of dead or dying vegetation
– floating, sink-tip or sinking fly lines to keep the flies at desired depths during the retrieve
– slower retrieves than I’d use in warmer water

I like to use weighted wet flies for late fall bluegill fishing and often choose a fly a size or two larger than I’d use in the spring or summer.

A few of the flies I’d recommend for late fall fishing are:
Largemouth bass – Woolly Bugger, Woolhead Minnow, Marabou Sculpin, Marabou Minnow
Crappie – Super Silver Minnow, Mickey Finn, Black Ghost, Marabou Minnow
Bluegill – Improved McGinty, Black Gnat, Lightning Bug, Leadwing Coachman

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Howdy, let's talk about fly fishing

I know what you’re thinking, "Why a blog about warmwater fly-fishing?" Right?

I realize that most people associate the term "fly-fishing" with fly-fishing for trout – primarily brook, brown and rainbow -- but that definition is far too narrow, fly-fishing is so much more than that.

I don’t mean to take anything away from trout, but the fact is, most people don’t live within easy driving distance of a trout stream, and with the present state of the economy, not many people can afford to travel to trout fishing areas as often as they’d like.

On the other hand, most people do live within a short drive of a pond, lake, reservoir, river or stream where they can fly-fish for a variety of warmwater species that are just as much fun to catch as trout, many of which grow much larger than trout and are just as enjoyable or better at the table.

Depending on where you live, a list of the warmwater species available to you will probably include all or some of these species -- largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, white bass, striped bass/white bass hybrids (wipers), buffalo, common carp, freshwater drum, black crappie, white crappie, muskellunge, northern pike, tiger musky, grass pickerel, chain pickerel, yellow perch, sauger, walleye, saugeye, bluegill, green sunfish, orange-spotted sunfish, pumpkinseed, redear sunfish, rock bass and maybe some others. All of these species provide exciting action when taken on fly-fishing equipment and flies.

I have been tying flies and fly-fishing since the early 1960s. I live in southeast Nebraska, not an area rated among the top fishing destinations in the country, or even the Midwest. But, although I have fished in different areas of the country, now I rarely travel more than an hour from my front door to fish, I have taken most of the species mentioned above on flies produced at my tying desk and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every catch and every outing.

I love to fly-fish and it makes a lot more sense to me to take advantage of what I can catch close to home whenever I can get away, than to wait and use my fly-fishing gear only a couple of weeks a year when I might be able to vacation some place where there are trout.

I like to eat most of the legal fish I catch. I know many anglers who practice only catch-and-release fishing and I think that’s fine if that’s what they want to do, but I know that the bag and size limits imposed by state game and fish agencies are made with an eye toward the realization that many of the fish taken will be consumed by anglers and their families. We shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping and consuming at least some of the fish we catch if we abide by those regulations.

I spend a lot of time tying flies to catch warmwater species, a lot of time in and on the water pursuing those species and a lot of time just enjoying being outdoors. If you frequent this blog you’ll find my thoughts about those same things – tying flies for specific species, techniques for fishing those flies, the fly-fishing equipment I like to use in various situations and why, how I fish different kinds of water, cover and structure at different times of the year, and some information on how I like to clean and preserve fish, my cooking methods and my favorite recipes. Along the way there will probably be some other stuff too, and it will all be related to fly-tying and fly-fishing.

If any of this interests you I hope you’ll stop by whenever you have time. If you have suggestions, criticisms or comments, I welcome hearing from you. There’s no one way to do anything in fly-tying and fly-fishing, but I think there are some ways that are better than others. I hope by talking about the way I do things other people will tell me about what they do and how they do things and why. Heck, nobody knows it all -- least of all, me – so I hope I can learn something from everyone who drops by.

And, in particular, I hope to hear from you soon.