The Silver King. In my extremely humble opinion this fish is the epitome of saltwater fly-fishing. Of course I am talking about the Tarpon. These unique mysterious fish are simply breathtaking. I recently had an opportunity to travel to the Florida Keys to fish for Tarpon and these are my thoughts about the experience.
Now I consider my self a pretty confident and competent fly fisherman let me rephrase that, I consider myself a pretty confident and competent trout fisherman. However I learned quickly that saltwater fly-fishing is a totally different ballgame. Instead of throwing size 20 Midges on a 4wt I found myself using a rod unlike anything I have ever really utilized before. Comparatively 12wt fly rods are a gargantuan and the flies utilized are much the same way.
In preparation for this trip I did quite a bit of practicing to try and familiarize myself with the larger saltwater gear. I felt as I had done a fair job for preparing for this experience but alas I was gravely mistaken. Casting on top of a milk crate in a grassy field with little to no wind was beneficial but once I found myself on the front of that skiff with the boat rocking and the wind blowing directly into my face I knew I was in for a humbling trip.
The highlight of the trip was definitely the sight of a Tarpon 30ft away engulfing my scantly looking crab imitation. However I strip set the hook too early and found myself staring at the backside of a fish going the other way. Honestly that sight freaked me out and I nearly jumped off the front of the boat and that is probably why I screwed up my best shot. I was disappointed yes, but that 40 second experience has to be one of the greatest I have ever had with a fly rod in my hand. I was left standing on the front of that boat in awe of what actions has just transpired before me. The consolation was that I had an opportunity to see some eye-opening places and get a nice tan. So in all reality I am okay with that.
Overall this experience is exactly what I expected going in. Anything that you do for the first time in life is probably not going to turn out pretty and most likely is going to leave you wanting a different outcome. I know thing is for certain. I will be back to tangle with the Silver King. This experience has opened up the metaphorical Pandora’s box of fly-fishing and the best way I try to explain my thought is these fish and the waters in which they reside are new frontier and new way of challenging me as a fly angler. My hat is off to those who have put the time and practice in to become masters of this whole different venue of fly angling. Finally, next time I will be better prepared and will have practiced a lot more. Because we all know that old motto, practice makes perfect. In this case perfection is embodied in the form of the majestic Tarpon on the end of the line.
In my right pocket on most days, I am carrying a knife. It isn’t a particularly lethal blade even though its carbon steel can be honed enough to shave the hairs from your arm clean as a babies bottom. The craftsmanship is what you would expect from a mass produced circa 1975 hardware store pocket knife, a brown plastic handle that is slightly off center on one side, the name stamped crooked. Imperfections abound on this treasure and I would venture to say that if you were to find it along the side of the road you would submit it to a junk drawer if you bothered to pick it up at all. But this knife holds a great deal of significance to me.
This knife was the first thing I ever purchased with money that I had earned. I was ten years old and was going door to door asking for people to vote for a man that was running for school superintendent in my home county. For my half days work I think I was paid ten dollars, and part of that cash payday was used at Smith Hardware to buy myself a Barlow Pocket Knife. My Grandfather carried a Barlow and so I assumed that it must be the best knife to have on hand. It was many years before I realized the truth.
I still carry this blade because it means something to me. It holds significance in that it represents a milestone, a rite of passage, and at the same time it gives me a direct link to the childhood that has long since disappeared into thin and sometimes clouded memory. Now, I also see the potential future of this knife as I am preparing myself to hand it over someday to my son. In some respects, he will not carry it with the same significance as I. The memories he will have surrounding this blade will be of me and not how it came into my possession or what it represents. Then, many years from now it may go to my Grandson; the memory will be diluted further and perhaps he will place it in some easily forgotten drawer or box, but that is for him to decide.
In much the same way and same circumstances is the esteem in which we regard our Fly Fishing Gear. Each rod or reel has some sort of memory, some sort of story. An old worn out hat may reek of sweat and be faded and frayed, but held within the very fabric of the brim may be epic tales of angling adventure that have engrained themselves for a lifetime. Or perhaps it was handed down from the person who introduced you to the sport. The day that it passed from their hand to yours was a rite of passage that may be told to others, but never really shared with others.
Some of us have been blessed with the luxury of high dollar gear. Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars laid down for the very best, while others may have old, clunky equipment bought at yard sales or at a big box retail store. To argue the comparisons in craftsmanship would be pointless and to debate the merits of them would be a waste of breath. Within each high dollar rod with a historic company pedigree can be found a story, yet within a rod that might be valued equally as a tomato stick or such is at least an equal story.
From this train of thought we can perhaps conclude that the fishing isn’t about the equipment and its limitless accessories. It isn’t about brand names or price tags. Fly fishing is about memories and experiences. Fly fishing is about the moment, that one shining nugget that is as burned in your mind as a trip to the hardware store just to slap down your money for a knife. There is a life in our equipment that is dormant until we put it to use, and in the using is familiarity, memory, history. You just can’t buy those type things.
The smaller knife blade on my Barlow has a permanent glob of model car glue along the bottom of the edge side. I can look at that and remember, I had a Richard Petty model car that I was building and had used the blade to remove some excess glue that had seeped through the point where the Petty blue rear fender and trunk lid met. There again, that means absolutely nothing to anyone else but me. Same situation occurs with imperfections in our equipment. I may look at the deep gash in the cork handle of your fly rod and not give it another thought, yet you may look at the same gash and remember how you were on a trip with some friends. You may see a clear mental picture of how you slid down a grassy embankment and caught the handle on a piece of barbed wire…and think of the fish you caught that day.
I have a very old bamboo rod. If the hunches are correct, it was build sometime in the mid 1930’s which makes it as old as or older than my Dad. This rod has survived, and perhaps at times thrived through some of the greatest moments in human history, and also through personal worries and concerns. I sometimes wonder if any of the previous rod owners are still alive, where they were, where they fished. When I obtained the rod, it was found in the trunk of an abandoned 1950’s era Ford sedan that had spent several years rusting away behind this elderly couple’s barn. Trust me, when I fish this rod- the weight of its history (or potential history) is very present in my mind.
The relationship we have with our gear, no matter the price or the name is internal, and it should never be expected that anyone else should ever understand its significance. All that really matters is that we have something in the present which harkens us back to a time of which we will never return, and to a future that rests in the dimpled surface of a river where fish are rising and new memories await.
There’s something special about Spring. It’s so special in fact, that I frequently capitalize the word out of sheer joy. Dogwood trees in bloom, bass falling in love, and carpenter bees trying to duke it out for who knows what.
On a small dirt path that was once a road for jeeps and the like, I carry a fly rod, a small pack and a bottle of water. A few Canadian geese, who obviously missed the signs that spring was back, honk in the distance. As I turn the corner and the little pond comes into view, a Great Blue Heron takes flight. As he skims the surface, barely gaining altitude for a dozen yards or so, several bass are startled from the shallow grass flat.
“Hey now…just what I was hoping for…”
As I approach the edge of the shallow flat, two more “rolls” of water leave the bank to my left and I fire a quick cast in that direction. A small 4 inch worm on an equally small #4 hook sails across the sky, cartwheeling it’s way towards it’s own imminent doom. It’s almost as if the worm is in slow motion with the 6 pound test line trailing along behind it in ever widening coils.
The little black and purple worm lands with a splat and suddenly there’s a small, suspicious bulge in the water near it. I hold my breath and give it a twitch. Then another. Then a third. Nothing happens so instead of another twitch, I wiggle the rod slightly. Suddenly there is a bigger bulge and a whirlpool erupts where the line enters the water. The eager large-mouth rather miraculously hooks itself and high-tails it for a nearby stump. The line “tings” as it strains against the rod. I raise it high and begin a battle which, to the fish, is a life and death struggle.
Just one minute later I’m looking at the hungry bass eye to eye, face to face, man to fish. He put up a short but inspired fight, but ultimately I hold his fate between my fist and thumb. I removed the hook, admire him for just a few seconds and then slip him back beneath the glassy surface. He promptly thanks me with a flip of his tail, spraying water on my legs and, for whatever reason – making me smile in the process.
No doubt about it. It was one beautiful day.
“One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.” ― Edward Abbey
My teenage daughter, Kerri, likes to fish. Once a year, we catch a few crappie on spinning gear and she’s happy. Especially if I bring along her favorite junk food. However, she LOVES big, scary roller coasters. Or anything that sends her equilibrium for a loop – quite literally.
Last summer, I suggested a trip to Yellowstone Park. My exact words: “Geysers, waterfalls, white-water rafting, zip-lining – that’s what we’ll be doing.” She was excited. I also asked her if she’d like to try fly-fishing. From a boat… Drifting down at river… With rapids… She said sure.
I booked a float trip with guide Hank Bechard and asked him if he thought Kerri would be better off with a spinning rod. He replied, “When in Rome…” He was confident the fly rod would work.
We spent a day white-water rafting down the Gallatin River. And another day zip-lining over it. One afternoon we waded a gentle run and I taught Kerri how to roll cast, mend line, and control slack. She wasn’t Lefty Kreh, but she could flip an indicator rig 20 feet upstream and let it drift back down.
After a day sight-seeing in Yellowstone, I phoned the guide to check arrangements for the float trip. Hank told me our original destination, the upper Yellowstone, was still clearing up; we would be fishing the Boulder River instead. He promised whitewater rafting with fly rods. Kerri was pumped! (And so was I!)
The next day, we were in his raft, heading down the Boulder River. Big, ugly rubber-legged nymphs were hanging underneath big, ugly foam indicator flies. I have to admit that I thought I made a mistake for about the first ten minutes. I’d been in drift boats before but I wasn’t used to my rear end hanging WAY out over the back of the raft. The targets were zipping past as we bounced down the river; I had a mess of line in my lap and not much in the river. I had NO idea how Kerri was doing at the front of the boat.
Finally, I shortened up my line and starting dropping the fly where it was supposed to go. Hank stopped the boat in a calm spot and gave Kerri a few quick casting lessons. In no time, he had her picking the fly up and slapping it back down about 20 feet away. (Forget about roll casts!)
The rest of the day was tremendous! The raft rocked and rolled through riffles and rapids. The casts were short and the fish were eager. Kerri caught her first fly rod fish – a 15” ‘bow – and at least 6 or 7 more.
Crappie fishing will never be the same…
A few years ago I saw a foam wing salmon fly nymph pattern that was killer looking and very popular on the Yellowstone River in Montana. The fly was called “Real Black Stone” if I remember, but I never found the pattern available commercially and never saw a recipe or a tutorial. The fly was more complicated with eyes, individually cut wing case segments, knotted rubber legs, and all black dubbing of some sort. This is my version, but I added the tan dubbing, and brown rib for better contrast and realism, and simplified the pattern by deleting the eyes, the knotted legs, and forming the wing case out of one piece of foam instead of several pieces.
Notes; if you are worried about the foam adding to much buoyancy, don’t. The added lead more than makes up for the foam. If you are still worried, add more lead, if you are still worried add a 3.2 mm tungsten bead behind antennae, if you are still worried use .5 mm foam for wing case instead of 1mm, and if you are still worried use thin skin and forget about the foam altogether.
Hook; TMC 200R #6
Thread; 6/0 or 140 Denier Tan and Black
Tail; Black Goose Biots
Abdomen; Tan Micro Chenille, Waspi Antron dubbing Chestnut
Rib; Small Brown Holo Tinsel
Thorax; Light Tan Waspi Sow Scud dubbing
Wing Case; 1mm Black Foam
Rear Legs; Black Flexi Floss
Front Legs; extra-small Black Round rubber
Antennae; extra-small Black Round rubber
Weight; .025 lead wire
Step 1; tie on antennae, form a small head and whip finish if you are tying several flies or continue to step 2
Step 2; tie on lead wire down one side of hook shank, and leave a gap near the hook eye. If you want a heavier fly tie on an additional length of lead wire on the opposite side too.
Step 3; twist off extra lead and wrap thread several times to secure
Step 4; tie a long length of micro chenille on top of hook, this forms the anal gills and adds bulk to the fly
Step 5; tie on a long length of brown holo tinsel
Step 6; wrap chenille fwd and trim at the point of the gap. Note; wrap one wrap of chenille behind rib, so the rib doesn’t slip off the chenille and loosen. This is basic fly tying technique but a lot of tiers still miss this important step.
Step 7; tie in goose biots for the tail, stop the thread about 1/8 inch fwd of the end of the chenille to form the anal gills
Step 8; apply, chestnut Antron dubbing evenly and sparsely to thread
Step 9; dub fwd covering the tan chenille, stop dubbing at about ½ the hook shank length
Step 10; wrap the tinsel fwd about 6-8 turns and tie off
Step 11; tie in rear legs so that they angle back, trim to desired length. I leave them long for more movement
Step 12; whip finish black thread, and go have a drink, you’re about half done
Step 13; start your tan thread
Step 14; dub a sparse amount of tan dubbing to the end of the chenille
Step 14a; prepare a 1/4 inch strip of 1mm black foam at least 2 inches long and cut a small notch in one end. I use a small Chernobyl cutter
Step 15; tie in notched end of foam wing case, the apex of the notch should be at the transition point of the tan and brown dubbing
Step 16; tie in middle legs with flexi floss, angle almost straight out
Step 17; dub around legs with additional tan dubbing and whip finish
Step 18; start your black thread again, fold foam wing case back, loop forward and tie off at the end of your tan dubbing
Step 19; begin tying down foam fwd toward hook eye
Step 19a; advance thread to just behind hook eye
Step 20; tie in front legs (round rubber) and angle slightly fwd
Step 21; fill in the gap, and around the front legs with chestnut Antron dubbing
Step 22; fold foam wing case back and secure with a few wraps of thread
Step 23; add a small amount of chestnut Antron dubbing to cover thread wraps and whip finish. Trim off excess foam in a semi-circle shape. Trim all legs and antennae to desired length.
Here in the east, it’s been a mild winter, which has given anglers even more opportunities for cold-weather fishing. At the beginning of the month, I got a couple of days off from guiding for trout and working the shop here at Curtis Wright Outfitters in Asheville, NC and headed down to Charleston, SC, to chase some winter redfish on the fly. Through a mutual guide friend, I got put in touch with Scott Davis of the Low Country Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant (just over the Ravenal Bridge from Charleston). My fishing buddy Pat and I met up with Scott for drinks to come up with a game plan and the following morning at dawn the adventure into the coastal flats of the South Carolina coast began.
Unlike during the warmer months of the year, the redfish, also known as spot-tails, red drum, and channel bass, don’t venture as far into the spartina grass of the flats, where they commonly “tail” in the summer as they spread out from one another and root around for fiddler crabs and shrimp. Instead, they tend to group together in schools ranging in size from about fifty fish to hundreds at a time and, like a giant vacuum cleaner, work over the oyster bars and flats for shrimp, mullet, and whatever else they can find. For this reason, winter fishing can be both incredibly productive or incredibly frustrating; if you can find a school and keep up with it, you’ll have shots at lots of fish, but if you can’t find the school (this where having a great guide like Scott helps) you simply won’t have anything to cast at and you’ll return home smelling like a skunk.
Lucky for Pat and me, we were on the boat of a truly expert guide and the sight-fishing conditions the first morning we went out were postcard perfect: sunny skies and glassy water. Within twenty minutes Scott had us poling toward a school of about a hundred fish on a two foot deep flat, and as the sun began to rise so did the snouts and tails of the fish, which is not a common sight in the dead of winter. As far as tackle goes, we were slinging sinking shrimp flies and diving mullet patterns on our eight weights loaded with Rio’s Redfish Line. The fish weren’t all that selective; the name of the game was anticipating the path of the school and then casting your fly on the right trajectory (like with bonefish) and working the fly enough to catch their attention, but not so much to spook them. Most of the time, we retrieved the fly the way you would work a big streamer for trophy trout, but occasionally we’d slow it down to give the fish an extra few seconds to see it if the school changed direction at the last-minute. From the get-go, the action was heart-pounding, with several especially nice fish boated and several more lost. An added bonus was the fantastic scenery, numerous porpoise sightings, and the simple fact that we didn’t see any other boats. The best part, though, was knowing that we got to do it all over again the next day. If you ever get a chance to fish for this hardy species on the fly, I highly recommend you go for it. When these bull-headed fighters take a run into your backing there’s no slowing them down…
If I had to think about the one style of nymph that’s caught more large fish than any other it would have to be… Well, being completely honest it’s technically not a “nymph”, it’s an annelid. Yes the mighty worm! From the simple San Juan to the heavily weighted pig sticker they simply get munched and by fish. I can’t think of a better time to fish worms than late winter through runoff. Since that time is coming up it’s always a good idea to have a few different worm patterns in a handful of colors, sizes and weights. Considering how easy they are to tie there really isn’t a good reason to not have a decent assortment in the corner of a box somewhere. This is one of my go to flies when I want something light and on the smaller side. It holds up extremely well and is very fast to tie with cheap materials. Good luck and happy worm dunking.
There was a time when I’d throw nothing more than a wader bag, a couple of rods, a hat and some peanut butter into the back seat and head for the trout streams. There was never any research or planning – not in my pre-trip rituals or in the actual fishing. I’d walk the river, casting at random to whatever looked “fishy.” I caught some trout, but I always suspected I was missing more than I was catching. If I went after bass, it was the same thing. Grab the rods and a tacklebox and drive to the lake. Cast everywhere. Try baits at random. It was less than productive unless they were really biting.
Then, I got a wild idea one day to “fine tune” things a bit. I subscribed to a few fishing magazines, did some research online, actually tried to learn more – even though I already knew it all, or at least thought I did. Instead of throwing a streamer all over the river, I’d sit and stop a while. I’d watch the water. I’d watch the birds. I’d turn over some rocks in search of nymphs or crawfish or whatever I could find.
In my spare time I’d read about “high sticking” and dry fly tactics. I poured over articles about fly fishing for bass and bluegills. I thought about each part of the fly fishing system and how I could improve both my understanding of the gear and the fish. I stopped using 6 lb test mono for a leader and paid more attention to articles on leaders, tippets and what’s needed to “turn over” a #12 hopper pattern. I spent time concentrating on understanding how and why fish feed, where they feed, and on what.
I was no longer just a guy going fly fishing! I was someone who was beginning to learn the in’s and out’s of the game. It wasn’t necessary of course – I could go on just floundering around out there while having loads of fun, but it was clear from the early stages of my fine tuning that concentrating on more than just the basics was paying off. I started to pick up fish more often, and the size of the fish seemed to be getting larger on average. In addition to that aspect of it, I found myself enjoying a deeper immersion in the sport.
The thing about fly fishing is that there’s always so much to learn, no matter how long you’ve been at it. And if you’ll put forth the effort to “fine tune” your learning, it will also fine tune your approach. Your cast, your ability to read the water, your fly choices even your appreciation of the great outdoors. Catching fish is fun. Catching more fish is more fun!