Hey Buddy – Your Fly Is Down!

Guest blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

Being 67 years old, I can freely admit that I’ve walked around with my proverbial fly down more than once. My wife never fails to notify me of my predicament. Of course when your fly is down, it can easily be attributed to absent mindedness. Many an old timer here in Montana has suggested that keeping your fly down under your waders helps expedite things in cold weather.

However, having your fly down isn’t a bad thing when you are fly fishing. Since by most accounts, trout and other species feed mostly under the surface, getting whatever fly you are using below the surface is a great way to improve your odds of hooking up. Getting your fly down into the depths of water—lake or stream—where fish are feeding is an important tactic in improving your catch rate, regardless of where or what you are fishing for. To do so, we’ve adopted all sorts of methods—weighting flies with lead wire, adding beads, cones or dumbbell eyes are a few. Others include adding lead shot to the leader or using various configurations of sinking tips and lines. Whatever method we chose, the ultimate goal is presenting a fly to a fish at the right depth for the water being fished. Doing this consistently of course is the challenge.

Some ten to twelve years ago, I was fishing regularly a couple of times each summer on the upper Arkansas River with the Arkanglers guide service out of Salida, Colorado. On one of the trips, I started the day with woolly buggers and was connecting regularly with the prolific brown trout of the Arkansas. In mid-afternoon, with still several hours left in the float, a hatch of some sort started. Of course the guide suggested changing from buggers to some sort of dry fly. As I remember, he tied on a Royal Wulff. As the Arkansas is a rather rough and tumble freestone stream, keeping the Wulff afloat as we floated through rapids was difficult and I was getting frustrated. I clearly remember a section where my fly got dragged under water but was hit by a large rainbow well under the surface. So much for dry fly fishing and I quickly switched back to the bugger.

Distance, Accuracy and Depth – Tools for Getting Your Fly Down—Fast Rods and DC Sink Tips

Distance, Accuracy and Depth – Tools for Getting Your Fly Down—Fast Rods and DC Sink Tips

Where I really began to appreciate getting flies down in front of fish was on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers outside of Washington, D.C. fishing for smallmouth bass in the mid-1990s. Although smallmouth were great top water targets, getting baitfish or large nymph imitations down deep in front of fish was far more productive. Harry Murray of Edinburgh, Virginia on the North Fork of the Shenandoah is a smallmouth guru and he emphasized in his seminars, the need to get flies deep for smallmouth, especially on bright, sunny days. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that fishing with sink tips, short leaders and lightly or un-weighted flies is the best approach to get flies down consistently, especially in larger waters.

If you go to the stream or lake with only one fly rod, one line, and one leader, most likely you are fishing with a weight forward floating line. You have to adapt that setup to the flies you want to fish. While it may be perfect for top water or nymph patterns just below the surface, such a setup will bring limitations should you want to fish nymphs or streamers in deep water. The first adaption we’ve all made is the addition of weight to our flies. That cone head woolly bugger might sink fast, but it casts like a catapult on that 9’ 3x leader and has lethargic action underwater. Because your fly line is floating, a weighted fly on a 9’ leader probably doesn’t reach depths greater than 3’ as you retrieve the line, especially in moving water but even so in still water.

Add an indicator and casting become even more cumbersome. Cumbersome casting results in far less accuracy and/or distance as well as casting mistakes. Worst of all, when the mass of a tungsten conehead slams into your fly rod, it can do unseen but irreparable damage to expensive equipment. Accuracy and distance in fly fishing are related and it’s not as simple as saying longer casts will help you catch more fish. But accurate casting will help you catch more fish. In both lakes and streams, accuracy is always three dimensional. First there’s the distance from you to the target. Then there’s right or left of the target. And finally, the most challenging dimension is the unseen, the depth the fly must reach to be in front of fish.

I didn’t really learn this lesson all at once. I think the first time I did any serious fishing with a full sinking line (not density compensated like we have today) was in the 1990s in northern Minnesota. In the bright days of summer, Northern Pike would hold along deep (20-30’) rocky points in close proximity to shallow weedy bays. You couldn’t get them to take a fly that wasn’t at least 15’ below the surface. At the time I had 7 weight loaded with a full sink line and a 7.5’ mono leader. We’d cast 4-5” un-weighted Deceivers toward the rocky point allowing the whole thing to sink for a minute or so before starting the retrieve. The full sinking line was a pain to cast and after sinking, there was usually a pretty deep belly in the line. The connection between the angler and the fly was at best, soft. We’d miss a lot of strikes because we could neither see nor feel the fly. Of course our trips to Minnesota were only for a couple of weeks each year so I made do.

In 1996 when I retired from the Air Force, we settled in Montgomery, Alabama and I started fishing several reservoirs that had healthy populations of White Bass and Hybrid Striped Bass. In one of the lakes there was a very large submerged tree sitting about 50 feet offshore in 25 feet of water. When the reservoir was down a few feet in the fall, it was easily visible under the surface and there was a visible scar along the shoreline where the tree originated. It was probably a very large oak that had been torn away from the shoreline during one of floods this river experienced. If the light was right, you could barely see a few limbs 5-10 feet below the surface when the reservoir was full. This was a lake with reasonable water clarity for a southern lake and large schools of White Bass and Hybrids would hold at the bottom of this tree which lay in a good current stream when the power plant was pulling water.

Once I discovered this structure, I faced the same issues I had with the Northern Pike in Minnesota. Getting a fly deep enough with some feel to detect strikes was tough. Somewhere I had read about density compensated sink tips and took a chance by purchasing a 30’ 200 grain sink tip from RIO. This was the ticket. I could stand off from the tree and cast lightly weighted Clousers getting them down into 20 feet of water with ease. With a short, stout leader (1X or 0X) I had almost a straight line of no stretch fly line and leader from rod to fly. Strikes were easy to detect and with careful fly placement, I could target the larger fish that held near the bottom of the tree. The real key here was a short, stout leader, not more than 4’ and usually 1X or 0X. Even if the fly rode slightly higher than the body of the fly line, it stayed deep because of the short leader.

Hey Buddy 2I’ve since pretty much abandoned floating lines for my 5-6-7 weight rods if I am going use any kind of streamer pattern in a large to medium size river. Unfortunately at the 3-4 weight range there are no full sinking lines available. But for 5-6-7 weights, everyone should have 150 and 200 grain full sink lines such as SAs Streamer Express or RIOs 24’ Sink Tips. These lines cast well at distance, sink like rocks and generally can be spooled on a smaller reel than a comparable floating line. They completely eliminate the need for heavily weighted flies which can be a pain to cast accurately at distance.

What most folks don’t realize until they try one or see it in action is that they are equally effective in shallow water along the edges of the river, in tail outs, and where riffles spill into runs and pools. As long as you begin your retrieve within seconds after the fly hits the target, un-weighted flies can be safely chucked into extremely shallow water and then retrieved at a pace commensurate with the water you are covering. When I fish from a drift boat with other anglers, I much prefer the rear position where I can make long, accurate casts with a 5-6-7 fast rod. Even if the fly snags, the short, stout leader usually allows the fly to be cleared without losing it.

My experience in drift boats when the front angler is using a floating line, fishing the same patterns I am fishing with the sink tip, the front angler catches fewer fish. This is especially true in deeper river sections because they just can’t get their flies deep enough or if they are fishing heavily weighted flies, they can’t make long, accurate casts to reach promising water. The fall brown in the photo was taken in just inches of water along the edge of a rocky shoal on the Yellowstone River at least 80 feet from the boat using a 200 grain sink tip on a 7 weight.

For those readers who consider themselves decent casters, the best way to see what I am talking about is side-by-side casting of weighted and un-weighted flies with floating and sinking lines respectively. Just for example, take a #6 un-weighted woolly bugger with a 3-4’ leader on a streamer express line and test your ability to cast it accurately at distance. Then take a #6 weighted (cone or bead) bugger on normal leader and floating line to see if you can get the same accurate distance. Once you see that casting un-weighted flies is much easier, you should be encouraged to add these long sink tip lines to your repertoire. Remember where the fish live and feed and “Hey buddy your fly is down” will have new meaning and something you can be proud of.

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