Some fish eat bugs; some eat each other. At times when bug-eaters reach a certain size they begin to eat other fish as well. Sometimes insects are so plentiful, fish that normally eat each other gorge themselves on bugs to the virtual exclusion of other things.
When fish are eating bugs nothing beats a fly rod for catching them. That, however, is not necessarily the best or only time to use a fly rod. Fact is, once you get the hang of it, and under the right conditions, fly fishing is simply the most satisfying way to fish. Period.
You can say, "Well, that's your opinion, but..." But nothing. Every single human being I have ever met who has become skilled with all kinds of tackle, and is therefore qualified to judge, agrees. Hands down. Fly rodding is the most fun way to fish when conditions are perfect.
Plus, fly fishing offers several advantages that increase your success rate. First, you're casting a "lure" that can land on a fish without disturbing it. You can also manipulate the line to control the path of the fly, and a fly's small mass allows it to be more easily "sucked in" by a fish.
Once you develop your skill with a fly rod you can put a fly in places you just can't put a lure. Plus, because you don't have to retrieve a fly all the way back to the boat like you do with conventional tackle, you can make fives times as many presentations in a given period of time when working cover or a bank.
Despite what may be implied in the hardcore fly fishing magazines, 99 percent of all fly fishermen I know spend the majority of their efforts fishing flies on or just below the surface using a floating line. The reasons are simple; it's more fun because you get to see the fish bite, and flies that are unweighted are more enjoyable to cast.
STATIC VERSUS DYNAMIC
Flies can be broken down into two broad categories: Static and Dynamic. I am speaking in generalities here, but for the most part, the following holds true. Static flies are usually imitations of insects that work best in current when critical portions of the retrieve are presented with a drag-free drift. In other words, for long periods they must "dead drift" at the mercy of the current.
In order to accomplish this, the angler must manipulate the line on the surface so it doesn't cause the fly to move faster than the current. "Mending" is a simple process of throwing an upstream loop in the line, either just before or after the fly lands, so it can dead drift for several feet before the current catches the line and causes the fly to accelerate downstream. You must also follow the drifting fly with the rodtip to delay the downstream belly from occurring.
The objective is to dead-drift the fly into the current funnel where you imagine the fish's nose to be. When drag occurs, it lifts the fly toward the surface. After a second mend, the fly slows and is swept down by the current. During the mend you will impart movement to the fly because you are moving the line. That's okay, the sudden acceleration might actually trigger a strike.
But, most of the time, insect imitations presented either above or below the surface will get bit when they are in a drag-free mode. I used to practice the dead-drift technique by trying to snag a bright orange Brillo pad and clip-on weight off bottom with a fly. It was a good way to learn how current affects the line and the path of the fly, and how to manipulate the line to compensate. A rod at least 9 feet long and leaders up to 15 feet provide an advantage.
When fishing a static fly in still water, it should imitate the movements of the insect it resembles. This is accomplished by making short line strips, followed by pauses. With a floating line, the fly rises when you move it. When you stop, it sinks slowly.
With static flies, the most important qualities are size, color and profile. The clarity and speed of the water, and often the level of fishing pressure, dictate the degree to which you must "match the hatch."
On the other hand, the most effective "dynamic" flies I know of don't look like anything in particular when held in your hand, but when placed in the water and manipulated, they appear to be alive.
Most gurgle, pop, create a wake or flash. They exhibit many of the same qualities as the most effective lures and, I repeat, do not directly imitate anything specific found in nature. They appeal to a predator's natural selection instincts.
The angler manipulates dynamic flies so they appear alive. Fish them as you would a surface lure or floating minnowbait on conventional gear. The majority of dynamic flies are used for predators like bass, pike, muskies, tarpon and very, very large trout.
Understanding the differences between a static fly and a dynamic fly is critical. It is, in my opinion, the reason why most trout experts have trouble catching bass, muskies or tarpon. It's also the reason most bass, muskie or tarpon guys struggle with trout. It is one of the real secrets of fly fishing.
There is an additional category of flies I should mention that, in a way, overlaps the two categories. I call them jigging flies, and their existence is, in large part, due to the dumbbell-shaped lead eyes invented by Tom Smuecker, founder of the Wapsi Fly Company in Mountain Home, Arkansas. They come in sizes from 1/100 to more than 1/8 ounce and when added to any pattern, they make the fly sink like a rock, which is at times, lethal.
Not so obvious to the beginner, however, is that a fly becomes more difficult to cast as its weight increases-just the opposite of conventional tackle. When one of these babies hits you in the head, it hurts. Wear a helmet and safety glasses.
The truth is, most of the time when a jigging fly out-produces other flies, it's more effective to make the transition to a long, lightweight spinning outfit with 4- to 6-pound line and a 1/64- to 1/4-ounce leadhead jig dressed with marabou, Flashabou or a soft plastic body.
FLY FISHING MECHANICS
When casting conventional tackle, the weight of the lure loads the rod, the rod casts the lure and the lure carries the line with it. In fly casting, the weight of the line loads the rod on the backcast, the rod casts the line and the line carries the fly through the air.
To retrieve with conventional reels you just turn the handle. To retrieve with fly gear you control the line by holding it against the grip with the forefinger of your rod hand while stripping it in with your line hand. You can do long three-foot pulls or short, 1/4-inch pulls.
With popping bugs, streamers and divers I like to bounce the rodtip to give the fly additional action. But with small stuff I get the best results by holding the rodtip low and keeping still while stripping.
To set the hook, pull down on the line with your line hand and rear back on the rod with the other. Some fly anglers do this repeatedly. I usually set one time, letting the rod double up tight enough on the first pull to solidly lodge the hook.
During the fight, control the line with your index finger, then strip with your line hand. Between strips, pinch the line between your forefinger and the rod butt. Let the excess line fall at your feet, but don't let it tangle in case the fish makes a run.
Many anglers prefer to reel up all the slack immediately after the hookup, then fight the fish off the reel. I recommend this with larger saltwater fish.
Casting a fly rod is not difficult, but like anything, it takes practice to get good at it. We don't have room here to get into great detail, but I'll give a couple of pointers.
Your object is to keep the line airborne in the shape of a candy cane.
It requires a stroke much like you use when snapping a towel, only overhand. The trick is to get the line moving and gradually accelerating along a straight plane, then stopping the rod smoothly to let the line unroll in front of you.
To move from intermediate to expert it is critical to "stay on plane" during the back and forward casts. Imagine a 1/2-inch wide groove in the ceiling directly over your right shoulder. Visualize your rodtip is sliding back and forth exactly in that groove as you throw the line forward and back. If you allow the rodtip to travel off plane, you will lose a large percentage of the energy used to cast the line in the intended direction.
A technique called "hauling" involves alternately pulling down and slipping out line with your line hand during both the back and forward casts, and allows tighter loops and higher line speed.
I recommend learning to haul at the same time you are learning to cast. When you can haul, you will be able to throw a tight, high-speed loop that will not be bothered by moderate wind, and you will throw most flies 90 feet or more. Sure, you can catch lots of fish by looping out 30-foot casts, but you will catch many more, and have more fun fishing, if you take the time to practice so you can bomb out 90 footers when necessary.
Fly lines come in three basic shapes- level, double tapered (DT), and weight forward (WF). DT and WF lines cast better than a level line because the taper reduces mass at the end of the line, and allows a smoother transfer of energy when the line turns over during a cast.
The middle section of a DT line is identical to a level line, but both ends are tapered. You can swap it end-for-end when it begins to wear.
A WF line is like a DT line for the first 30 feet, then becomes very thin.
Once you have the front 30 feet of a WF line in the air on a backcast, there's enough weight to load the rod. If it maintains a tight loop on the cast, it will shoot forward, carrying the fly. The skinny, running section of a WF line reduces friction in the guides and increases shooting distance.
Lines also come in different weight designations, commonly from 4 though 10. The number relates to the weight in grains of the first 30 feet of the line. That section of a 4-weight line weighs 120 grains; a 10-weight weighs just over 300 grains. The rest fall in between, increasing 20 to 25 grains between sizes.
The best rod for 4-weight line will load with 120 grains; one designed for 10-weight line requires 300 grains.
Despite popular belief, the leader does not "kick over the fly." A wind-resistant fly runs out of gas after the line turns over. The tippet end of the leader tends to lie in a puddle- the longer the leader, the bigger the puddle. A bass bug will actually carry the leader and cause it to turn over. Complicated formulas don't make leaders turn over, but a tight, high-speed loop from a good cast does.
Choose a leader with a butt section approximately the same stiffness as the butt of the fly line to prevent it from hanging up on itself.
Connect it with a nail knot. Select a tapered leader that narrows to whatever tippet strength you need (or custom tie your own leader.)
For freshwater species, almost any simple reel will do. I like those with larger spools because the line comes off in more relaxed coils so it casts better and doesn't tangle as easily. Also, the larger diameter gives you a faster retrieve. Most people spend way too much on a freshwater fly reel. Instead put your money into the rod and line.
For most saltwater applications you need a sturdy reel that holds 300 yards of backing plus the fly line, and has a good drag.
If you've never tried fly fishing, or maybe are one of the many who got frustrated and gave up last go around, why not indulge the diversion? Dust off your old fly rod, or wander down to the tackle shop to wave a few new ones. Then, why not sneak out on the lawn and see how tight your loop is?