On last week’s trip to the stream, Queen Anne’s Lace and the delicate blue flowers of Chicory waved in the breeze as I pulled on wet wader socks and boots. An 8½-foot 4wt. rod was chosen to deliver size-10 streamers on a slow sinking intermediate line. A tall, heavily forested west bank bluff shaded a long pool from the summer sun. I entered the cool water and immediately sought the comfort of a streamside log to watch for insect and fish activity. A hatch of size-16 caddisflies emerged to rise into the over-hanging tree branches while others danced just inches above the calm water. I wondered if my fly choice was wrong and considered changing flies despite the lack of any visible evidence of feeding fish. My contemplation was interrupted by a spray of minnows along the far shoreline trailed closely by bulging water which indicated a smallmouth bass was likely in pursuit. A Black Ghost Streamer was loop-knotted to 3X tippet and sent down and across the stream to reach 2-feet of depth as it swept past a submerged boulder. The first strip of line was interrupted by a solid hit, and the hookset sent the 12-inch bass into a series of frantic leaps punctuated by rod-tip bouncing dashes for freedom. Finally, in hand, the bronze battler glared at its captor through red eyes, conveying its willingness to continue the altercation. It was the evening’s biggest fish, but 10 other smallies demonstrated the same fighting spirit.
The bullfrog chorus heralded my arrival at a favorite pond. I assembled an 8 wt. under heavily overcast skies and knotted a size-2 olive Bully’s Diving Frog to 12-lb. tippet. From my float tube, I side-armed a skip-cast that landed the fly under an over-hanging willow branch. The first strip caused it to dive under the surface with wildly kicking legs where it was greeted by a water churning strike, answered by an aggressive hook-set. Employing the force fins, I kicked away from shore while stripping line to prevent the bass from returning to his entangled lair. Over open water, the huge predator dove for the pond’s deepest water before charging the surface to execute a gill-rattling tail-walk. A minutes-long head-shaking stalemate ended with a series of surface wallows before it was lipped and laid across the float tube’s measured apron. It measured 17 inches, but my celebration was interrupted by the nearby sound of another surface thrashing bass. It served as a moment of transition from that thrilling first fight to a memorable evening that left 15 bass from 12 to 17 inches with sore jaws. Each was admired and, of course, released to fight again and pass along the unique genetic makeup that enables them to grow to large sizes. I drove home toward a crimson sunset that faded into pastels.
Many fly fishers rely on only one hook-setting method, yet most fish species feed in different ways depending upon their distance from the prospective meal and the size and species of their prey. Most long-rodders use the “lift-set” method, which requires the angler to lift the rod-tip as they simultaneously use their line hand to pull the line downward. This hookset causes the hook’s point to be raised toward the roof of the fish’s mouth even as it’s pulled toward the rod. If the fish are feeding by rapidly exhaling water through their gills, it causes the food to be sucked deeply into their mouths. In that case, the lift-set method is successful a high percentage of the time. Often, however, fish will hesitate closely behind the morsel to inspect it. If they decide to eat, the take will be exceptionally light. In this instance, a lift-set pulls the hook out of the fish’s mouth before it’s able to make contact. If missed hook sets occur, it should be taken as an indication that the “strip-set” method is necessary. To execute the strip-set, simply point the rod tip at the fly, then when the strike occurs, use your line hand to pull the fly directly toward you without moving the rod. Paying attention to how the fish are feeding and adopting the correct hook-set method will improve our fish-hooking percentage and reduce the number of those frustrating missed strikes.
A Kingfisher clattered its annoyance as I stepped into the clear waters of a favorite stretch of river. I hoped to encounter some aggressive sunfish and possibly some smallmouth bass while casting my 8½-foot 3wt. Several rises convinced me to knot a Sponge Spider to the 4X tippet. A fourth cast delivered to the back of a slow eddy initiated an aggressive attack. Flashes of bright orange indicated that a Longear Sunfish had inhaled the bug. A dozen more of this beautiful species were captured and released before the sound of a splashy eruption in mid-stream caught my attention. Casts to the diminishing rings of the rise were ignored, and my efforts re-focused on the sunfish. Minutes later, the mid-river disruption re-occurred. I waded ashore and crept behind elevated shoreline bushes hoping to observe the fish. It didn’t take long. A foot-long bronzeback rose from submerged rocks to ambush a school of minnows that, in their panic, sprayed into the air as the bass slashed through them. The Sponge Spider was quickly replaced by a silver/white Mini Minnie, which was cast to the side of the rock pile and allowed to sink to the bottom before being retrieved in strips of increasing speed. The first two passes were fruitless, but the next cast brought an aggressive take. The resulting hookset put a throbbing bend in the light rod. Five leaps and a few bulldogging runs later, and the bass was lipped, admired, and released as darkness engulfed the pool.
As an enthusiastic consumer of all things flyfishing, I am regularly amazed at the streamside (or pondside) philosophers that endeavor to explain why we choose the flyrod. Some describe our efforts as a sport that implies competition. Surely our lives, even including our leisure, are saturated with enough competition. But, of course, our efforts to provide life’s necessities are nearly always based on how we perform our tasks compared to the efforts of others. Our hardware-slinging brethren have embraced competition, and some of our fellows would have us do the same. I hope those efforts ultimately fail. We flyfishers should be happy to define our own sense of pleasure and our own sense of success as opposed to assigning winners and losers.
Other philosophers engage in complex reasoning and utilize poetic language to convince us that flyfishing is an art form. They see the artistry in the cast and view it as the lynchpin for their explanation. Some select individual aspects of our experiences, such as insect replication through fly tying, elevating our pursuits to art. Others focus on the aesthetics of the places fish inhabit or the solitude we can experience. It’s hard to argue against fly fishing as art. At the very least, it offers an ego-satisfying theory to practitioners. But, despite all the various efforts to understand our appreciation of flyfishing, I embrace a much simpler explanation: it makes me happy. Does it really need to be any more complex than that?
Another round of frog-choking rains postponed my quest to wade my beloved smallmouth streams. I packed my float tube and both 8wt and 4wt outfits to fish a favorite pond to console myself. My despair was short-lived. To the business end of the 8wt floating line and 3x tippet, I loop-knotted a size-2 Diving Frog and cast to shaded pockets under overhanging tree branches. After delivery, the slack line was removed, followed by a firm strip which caused the fly to dive a few inches under the surface as the legs kicked wildly. When the line’s tension was released, the foam frog popped back to the surface, where it was often intercepted by a heart-stopping explosion. Difficulty in seeing the natural-colored frog imitation in the heavily shaded areas forced a switch to a yellow frog with red eyes. The fish continued to smash the fly with abandon, and my fly control improved. Twelve largemouths had been subdued and released in an hour of constant action that left the shaded structure exhausted. Two were 10 inchers, but the rest were all in the 12- to 16-inch range. I returned to the launch site and exchanged the 8wt for the 4wt loaded with floating line and a size-10 yellow Bully’s Sponge Spider. The action continued for another hour and a half as 2 dozen bluegills were captured after circular, twisting battles. Fittingly, a bullfrog chorus serenaded my departure.