Motivation to Use BIG Flies

Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Woodbury MN

Larger streamers, wooly buggers, and girdle bugs can provide exciting fishing. There’s nothing like the jolt of a large fish crushing a fly on the retrieve. However, as I have gotten older, my casting shoulder has become increasingly less enamored with throwing these larger flies for hours on end.

Then a couple of years ago I caught 29 fish that were 15 inches or bigger. That was my best year ever for larger fish. Over 80% of the fish were caught on a nymph including the 22 incher! The nymphs were sizes #16-#12. An additional 11% were caught on wooly buggers or girdle bugs sizes #10-#6. The remaining 8% came on #14 parachute Adams and #10 hoppers. I also fished larger streamers, wooly bugger, and girdle bugs over the course of the season, but none of my largest fish took any of those offerings.

This success in numbers and size shifted my strategy in subsequent years to focus on nymph fishing unless there was an active hatch. While I have not reproduced the number of larger fish, I have consistently caught the largest fish on a nymph in the intervening years. And, yes, I still put on larger flies for 10-15% of the time. This served to solidify my belief (or bias, if you prefer) that larger fish can be caught consistently on smaller flies.

However, this summer I made two on the river observations that have led me to reconsider using larger flies more! I am not talking about 2-4” streamers. No, these observations call for flies at least twice that size (my shoulder is aching even as I write those words). Here’s why I am changing my mind.

The first observation came about mid-August. It was about 4 p.m. and I had timed my arrival at this stretch perfectly. The western bank is a nearly vertical cliff that shades the run later in the afternoon. It runs 3-4 feet deep in the middle and has larger 2-4-foot diameter rocks scattered randomly throughout the stretch.  There’s plenty of good holding areas on either shore. I was using my standard dry-dropper set-up as there is sufficient current to cover lots of water. I was having decent success getting 12-14” browns every now and then.

As I was landing a 14” brown, I caught a flash of white out of the corner of my eye about 30 feet upstream. After releasing the fish, I saw another flash. I kept watching and every 15-20 seconds there was another flash. I eased up the river to see if I could get a better look and ended up about a rod length away from what looked to be an 18-19” brown holding a 10-inch brown about 3-4 inches away from its head. The flashes resulted from the larger fish violently shaking its head to kill the smaller fish. After each shake the brown would quickly open its mouth and grab its prey a little closer to the head. I am guessing the strategy was to get to the head and swallow its prey head first. The fish was completely focused on completing its meal so I was able to get within 3-4 feet. After 5-6 minutes the smaller fish somehow managed to escape during one of the regripping attempts and swam off quickly. The larger fish just sank slowly out of site. Pretty amazing – I had never seen anything like that before.

I took several pictures as I watched the incident unfold. Unfortunately, none of the pictures turned out as the lower light and angle to water obscured the two fish. No matter, the picture of that incident is permanently burned into my memory banks.

The second observation came during the last week of the season. One of my favorite big fish spots is just about half-way from the upstream and downstream parking spots. Consequently, not too many people get to the hole as it falls into the dead spot where it is too far for those who don’t like to walk and too close for those that like to walk. What makes this spot unique is that it has a short deep hole connected by a 30-40 foot narrows filled with dead falls to a downstream longer deep hole. I have seen or caught large fish in all three sections.

This time I came from the downstream side and fished up the long deep hole. There’s a nice eddy at the head of the pool that is predictably worth one and sometimes two fish that can be in the upper teens. I made the first cast. The floating beetle barely touched the surface when the water exploded as the fish slashed at the beetle. In my excitement I over set the hook (an all too common occurrence in these situations) and successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of success. However, my dropper fly caught the fish on the lateral line near the tail of the fish. At first, I thought the fish was on the beetle, but it became quite clear it was on the dropper once the beetle cleared the surface on the first of several jumps. I was being cautious until I got a clear view of the fish and determined it was an 11-12” brown. At that point I started horsing the fish in.

If you have ever foul hooked a fish you know that you lose leverage and the fish can fight strongly for some time. I finally got the fish within netting distance and reached behind my back to get the net. As I reached out with the net, I came eye-to-eye with a 19-20” brown with its mouth wide open in anticipation of a big meal. It saw the net and just like that, it disappeared. It took a couple seconds for me to fully comprehend what just transpired. Again, that is the first time I have seen anything like that in 49 years of trout fishing.

These two incidents clearly indicate that larger fish are interested in “meat-eaters-delights!” That is the equivalent of the 24 ounce prime rib served at my favorite steak house (I got full just watching a friend of mine eat the whole thing!)

One of our local fly shops is run by a fly fishing muskie hunter. He routinely throws 6-10 inch flies for muskies. I think it’s time to invest in a couple of these behemoth flies and purchase a fork lift so I can bring them along with me on the river. It makes me wonder how many of these fish I have fished over and not triggered because my flies were not big enough?

I just had rotator cuff surgery on my casting shoulder in February this year. The thought of casting something that big makes my eyes water as I anticipate a throbbing shoulder. However, I may give this a shot just to know whether this could be the game-changer I have been looking for to get those even bigger fish in the twenties. I have two and a half more months before the 2019 season starts to think about this, to start doing some shoulder strengthening exercises, and purchase some stock in the makers of Tylenol and extra-strength Advil!

16 thoughts on “Motivation to Use BIG Flies

  1. Kelly Case

    After your should gets back to almost full range of motion, get a bull whip and practice getting it to “pop” or “crack”. It is a great shoulder workout that is easy on the joints until you build up some strength. It will develop the muscles to get you back out casting in no time! Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Joe Dellaria

      Hi Kelly, Thanks for the suggestion! Sounds like a good way to prepare for casting monster flies.
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
  2. Al Hermosillo

    I too have had the privilege to hook BIG browns. In my younger years we would head up to a lake just below Lake Tahoe. May was bout the earliest we could ever get though. Still we needed a Jeep. We would take the trailer off about 3-4 miles from the lake n retie the boat to slide it the rest of the way. This water was so cold when u thru an ice cube in it would get bigger not smaller.
    I knew how territorial brownies are, sitting around the camp bon fire that we all were talking n dreaming bout THAT BIG one. I pictured the hit in my mind. Cuz we were fishing leadcore line bout five to six colors down( around 100 feet down, not counting leaders n stuff), dragging Ford Fenders w/rubber snubbers and 6-9 inch rainbow trout broken back plugs w/ upgraded hooks. Territorial hmmm. So not telling anyone I tied a loop and put a big spinner in front of the plug, territorial !
    I landed brownies, lake trout, even a couple of bows. But I’m talking close to the 20 lb mark and a Mackinaw just over 30 lbs.
    Ok, what I’m talking bout is the fishing picked up about a bazillion. Key TARRITORIAL! bigger fish more territorial.
    So I tie on something like a wooly in deep pools and in front of it I tie a__________ yea a spinner. Bam, BAM, how many linker brownies in this pool? You might find out.
    Remember PLEASE release those big boys, I might be next in line to fish it.

    Reply
    1. Joe Dellaria

      Hi Al,
      Yet another interesting way to tempt those monsters. As I recall from my youth we used removable in-line spinners with a trailing hook for walleyes. Is that what you mean by a spinner or are you talking about a mepps type in-line spinner?
      Purists may balk at using the spinner. I like to use things that work – so I may just give this a try. Thanks for sharing the idea.
      My personal policy is anything over 15″ goes back in the river. If you want to catch upper teen fish and above these guys have to go back.
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
  3. Noslimeslinger

    Well written, and very enjoyable also. I am pushing 80, and have a suggestion which you might entertain.
    I converted a favorite 6wt., to a switch rod for use in throwing big flies. You never have to lift your arm higher than your shoulder, and can keep the elbow at your waist. It works well in salt or fresh water situations. You can convert a rod by adapting the butt end to accept an extension. Or if you are well heeled, just buy a switch rod. There are plenty of videos on the net demonstrating how effortless casting one is.

    Reply
    1. Joe Dellaria

      Hi Noslimeslinger,
      Great idea. I was unaware of switch rods – I will definitely look into this. I think it’s worth a try as tossing even a 4″ weighted bunny gets old pretty fast.
      It’s encouraging to hear that you are still out on the river – way to go! My plan is to be on the river until I can’t walk .
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
  4. Michael Vorhis

    Very interesting Joe, and first I echo NoSlimeSlinger’s idea of using a two-hander. I have a full-on spey rod I break out when I need to throw big Intruders or the like–and frequently I wish I’d bought a “switch” instead. I wish you well with the shoulder.

    Back to the main point of your article: It seems to me your results indicate that fish happy to take 2″-4″ buggers may be in a feeding mode that makes them ~equally agreeable to smaller fare–nymphs and such…and if so, regarding a 4″ streamer and a smaller nymph, one could be as good as another for fish in that “frame of mind.”

    And that by contrast, the most reliable way to tempt true leviathans out of the shadows could be presenting them with a feast they can’t refuse.

    Interesting, and plausible…watershed-dependent of course. If it’s accurate it may suggest that truly monstrous fish need feed only occasionally and only on huge meals, much like sharks and crocs do. It makes me wonder if I’m frequently fishing right over the heads of a few monsters in my familiar water, never knowing they’re there.

    (By the way, I’ve got a couple of memories in my own mind of large fish being eaten by double-large fish. Certainly makes you think, not to mention making you start frantically tying streamers on hay-baling hooks.)

    I enjoyed your article Joe! Happy New Year!

    – Mike

    Reply
  5. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Mike,
    Happy New Year to you as well.
    You got it – these observations suggest that an 8-10 inch fly could make it worthwhile for the leviathans to take a swipe at such a fly. A subtly, which I just realized, is that it may not be necessary to strip the fly quickly. Fortunately this requires more careful study and as I believe you pointed out last year, I am willing to “take a hit for the team” and study this as much as I can this year!
    If you also contribute to the study, let me know how it works for you!
    All the best, Joe

    Reply
      1. Joe Dellaria

        Hi Mike,
        I figured you would be willing to make the sacrifice – magnanimous as always! Welcome to the team.
        All the best, Joe

        Reply
  6. Mike Cline

    Joe, on the casting aspect, unweighted flies constructed of materials that shed water well and fished on short, stout leaders and sink tips will allow tighter casting loops—much less stress than the big open loops required with heavy flies and longer leaders. A fish that will attack a 4” fly is not leader shy. Short, stout (0X-1X) and use the line, not the fly for depth. Experiment with water shedding materials. Rabbit makes really cool flies but sheds water like a sponge. I think you will be pleasantly surprised how comfortable it is to cast unweighted flies throughout the day.

    Reply
    1. Joe Dellaria

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks. I realized pretty quickly that weighted bunnies are the kiss of death for casting fatigue and switched to unweighted bunnies which still run surprisingly deep. That’s probably due to the “sponge water shedding” effect of bunny fur, as you pointed out.
      When you say a sinking tip, do you mean adding a segment of sinking line to a dry line or using a different line with a sinking tip?
      Also, I am starting to wonder whether it is necessary to get larger flies down deep. Especially the last fish I described followed the snagged fish into less than 15″ of water. Any experience or thoughts on that?
      Thanks for the suggestions. Can’t wait to try them out. The preseason (catch-and-release) is open but it is -5 this morning. It will be a couple of weeks before I can give this a try.
      All the best, Joe

      Reply
      1. Mike Cline

        Joe, my go-to setup is a Sage XP 5 weight with 150 grain sink tip (SA Sonar 30 Cold)—30’ of sinking tip—with not more than 4’ of 1X or OX tippet. The short, stout tippet will take the fly to whatever level you allow the sink tip the go. They can be fished shallow with fast retrieves or deep with a slow retrieve. The depth required depends a lot on where the fish are holding. In many of the runs I fish on the Madison, Yellowstone and Big Hole the fish will hold in deep buckets just below riffles. In these cases you need the fly to be bouncing off the bottom as it spills off the riffle. In the fall, browns will hold in deep tail outs (24-48” deep). In these waters you want to swing the fly along the bottom to simulate sculpins and fry that are abundant in the rocky bottom. A third scenario occurs when fish are holding along deep undercuts in fast water. In these cases, you generally need long, accurate casts rather than depth. The speed of the flow will keep the fly shallow as it sweeps by and hungry fish will dart out and attack it.

        Reply

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