I got out this past Friday, but running behind on my field journal so I'm combining it with two mini gear reviews. This summer I’m putting emphasis on finding closer water to take advantage of those times I only have an hour or two to fish. So Thursday night I digitally scouted all the lakes in a 5 mile radius. The MN DNR does a good job of providing sampling reports, shore fishing details and topographic maps to make it easier. Coupled with that knowledge and local web chatter I decided to fish Holland Lake just north of me. This lake boast some of the best water quality in the area and a stocking program which includes brown trout along with a variety of warm water species. Shore access seemed plentiful and if all else fails a fishing dock.
I headed out at my customary 2:00 and made the short drive to the lake. I intended to fish for bigger game so I packed my 6 wt with SA’s SharkWave GPX line to field test and a bag packed with an assortment of streamers & poppers. The fishing dock overlooked the deepest part of the lake, but was occupied by a couple folks. I could have found some casting room, but decided to explore the bank. A small trail led me to a slight clearing where I set up shop. 40% of the lake was covered with algae so I had to pick my spots. Across the lake looked opened, but I didn’t have the ambition to find out, maybe next time. I started with a popper then a weedless streamer. Quarters were tight, but I made the best of it. After a bit I found myself amused by the blue gills darting in and out of the weeds.
Remembering I brought along a leader with a Strike Foundry coiled indicator I tied it on attaching a rubber leg stone to a section of 5x fluoro. A 6 wt was certainly overkill, but didn’t take away from the fun. This was the second time out with the GPX and while I know nothing cast like a new line I’m really impressed with it. It’s weighted a little heavier helping me feel the rod load. The package claims to casts flies of all sizes and in one trip I stretched it from a #12 Copper John to a #2 Clouser. The other product I really enjoyed was the coiled strike indicator. These things float, cast and detect strikes extremely well (as evident by the "below average" size fish I was able to catch). This coming Friday I hope to get them on moving water for trout. I’ll get full reviews out shortly, but so far these two products made solid accounts of themselves. It has been a while since I made a trip out of catching pan fish, but it was a blast.
As I search for more local water I realize the need to get a water craft. A couple years back I had a 14 ft fiberglass boat I pieced together, but since got rid of it. Now I’m looking for something more portable. There are a couple options I’m considering; Colorado Pontoon, Cuda Kayak and Northwood Inflatables. Open to any other recommendations or cautions. Not sure if it will happen this seasons, but will certainly open up more opportunities close to home.
Hopefully I gave enough full disclosure in the title. I prefer to fish a fly under the water rather than on top and I assume that puts me in the majority. It’s certainly an effective method and I’ll spare you the percentage of feeding habits subsurface. Success may be the reason it is so hard for us nymphers to trade in the indicator for floatant. Dry fly fishing can be intimidating, challenging and often not as productive. But you probably didn’t get into fly fishing because of its efficiency. I don’t however buy in to the hierarchy where the dry fly is king and a nymph the jester. Instead I think of it in terms of my taste in booze:
Folks have different taste and some are more appropriate depending on the occasion. With drink or fly they are all a means to the same end. It took me a while to educate my palate, but here are some steps which helped me (fishing not drinking).
Nymph with a Sighter – It may sound like an odd starting point, but learn how to nymph fish with a sighter built into the leader. It will get you more comfortable casting without an indicator and it’s easier to switch to a dry (I’ve used taking off an indicator as an excuse) when a hatch comes off.
Hopper Dropper – When you are ready to add a dry, start with a hopper trailed by your favorite nymph. Think of this like hard cider. It still kinda looks like beer, but it’s made from fruit. I recommend any high floating, synthetic terrestrial to support the weight of your dropper. Keeping your fly afloat is a frustrating aspect of fishing a dry and a foam hopper will help take it out of the equation. The trailing nymph allows you to continue fishing a familiar fly reducing your impulse to go back to the bobber. Confidence is key and while you’ll get some satisfaction seeing the top pattern sink on a nymph take it won’t match watching it get inhaled on the surface. That’s the high of dry fly fishing. The visual take of a fish coming to your offering often spoils the thrill of a bump to an indicator.
Double Dry – When you’re ready to take the next step snip off the nymph for another dry (if you need a step in between try an emerger or wet fly). Again I recommend something with plenty of float and/or high visibility. A Puterbaugh caddis is a great example. Hopefully by now you caught a couple of fish on the hopper which takes the place of your nymph as a confidence fly. You’ll start to notice some differences in casting without the extra weight. It will take a while to create the muscle memory to cast a dry correctly. Cast a little slower letting the rod load in the back cast. Fishing dries also makes you more mindful of the presentation and drift. You can’t mend your way out of a bad cast as easily as you can with a nymph.
Tried and True – When you’re ready to make the full conversion don’t get creative with your fly selection. Like wine you’ll develop a taste for what you like, but for now stick to proven patterns; Adam’s, Wulff’s, elk hair caddis etc. and especially those are high floating. If you’re noticing a theme you’re perceptive. Anglers who pride themselves on getting a nymph to sink quickly will drive themselves crazy trying to keep a fly floating. I wouldn’t pick a size 20 BWO to begin my dry fly journey. Attractor patterns are also a good starting point. They typically ride high, imitate a variety of insects and are easy to see.
Timing – Pick a time of year and day to increase your odds. For the best information on hatches and flies be sure to consult your local fly shop. While you’re there pick up some floatant. I prefer a powder like Loons Top Ride.
Leave the Nymphs at Home – I’m likely to fish the same nymph 30 minutes longer than I should, but switch dries after only a few casts. It’s too easy to fall back into your comfort zone when they are only a box away. If you can’t resist the urge to chuck weight, then leave them at home. You’ll figure out more about fishing dries in one exclusive outing than with all the other tips combine.
Fishing a dry fly is a lot of fun and will certainly make you a better situational angler. I still struggle committing to the switch at times, but when I swap the bead head for elk hair and get a take on a rising fish it reminds me why I should do it just as often. I believe different methods of fishing are mutually beneficial. Casting a dry makes me more conscious of nymph/streamer presentation and not just chuck and duck. Remember, it probably took a while to figure out the nymph game try to have the same patients with a dry. If all else fails you can always fall back on your favorite beer at the end of the day…
As mentioned in an earlier post I’m grateful to work for an employer who believes in summer hours. So when dismissed early I try to make the day count by wetting a line. This past Friday I intended to redeem myself for previous shortcomings on the Cannon River. I hedged my bets by heading to a stretch I had success on last season. In addition to bass last year I noticed a ton of carp so I was anxious to try my hand. At 2:00ish I was en-route to the Cannon. There is something therapeutic or maybe even nostalgic about wet wading in the heat of summer, either way I left the waders in the bag. Plan A – Carp, Plan B – Bass. What I learned, or knew, about myself is given options I’m likely to choose the one most familiar when faced with adversity. Without another fisherman in sight I had my pick of spots and while walking the bank white bellies rolled in the current like twinkle lights on a Christmas tree. Carp, and I had just the assortment of freshly tied flies for them. The only thing more frustrating than not catching fish is seeing the fish you’re not catching. Determined not to let the Cannon get the better of me a second time I switched to bass tactics after an hour or so. I was instantly rewarded with a small bass who hit a Clouser moments before I picked up to re-cast. After another hour and a handful of unremarkable fish I transitioned back to plan A, this time with a more heady approach.
I did a couple things today I don’t normally do. It started by packing gear I don’t typically take along. The forecast called for hot, muggy conditions so I grabbed towel and an extra shirt. For some reason I also brought my loksak bag to keep my phone dry. So a towel, spare shirt and waterproof bag; remember those items as they’ll be important later in the story. I headed to the stream about 7:30 and wet my line by 8:30. It amazed me to have such a nice day and only a couple cars in the lot which more than likely belonged to kayakers. Everything I read in the last week centered around hoppers so I started with a hopper dropper rig. This time of year the trail is choked thick with vegetation so I planned to stay in the water and out of the jungle most of the day. The water dropped significantly since I was last out and in several stretches reconfigured the stream. I found myself admiring new runs and holes as I worked my way upstream. At 10:00 I found a nice new cut which looked promising, longer and deeper than before. I caught one fish in the first couple casts. With the sun at my back I advanced through the run on my knees keeping a low profile. At 10:15 two kayakers blew through my hole, so much for stealth. Surely there would be more to follow. I understand sharing the resource I really do, but fishing doesn’t affect their float like their float affects my fishing. The equivalent would be if they had to stop, get out and walk around every fisherman they came to. But I digress. Fish came slow, but often enough to keep me engaged.
I planned to leave by 12:30, home by 1 and off to the Dakota County Fair late afternoon, so the meter was running. While I drudged upstream and at times struggling through the dense forest I noted to allow extra time to get back to my vehicle. By 12 I should’ve turned around, but discovering the subtle changes of receding water and one more fish drove me deeper into the woods. I reached a section of the stream with a notoriously deep hole smack in the middle of the only sensible place to cross. I didn’t dare attempt during higher times, but given current conditions waded out. On tippy toes and slippery rocks I just managed across. Now at one of my favorite spots I begged for one last fish convincing myself that, if caught, I’d clip my fly and head running back to the lot. By now it was 12:30. Shortly into the tail of the pool I caught a fish. I quickly decided to go for another having cheated submerging myself to get here. If you ever wondered if there is punishment for staying too long on a stream when other obligations beckon read on. The very next cast I snagged bottom, breaking off not just the fly, but the middle of my leader. Even an obvious sign to pack it in didn’t deter me. Hastily I tied on a 5 foot section of 5x tippet with the fastest knot I could tie along with a cdc golden stone. Two casts later I heard the unmistaken sound of kayaks scraping bottom. Had they passed through I may have fished longer, but they pulled over just upstream of me like a road block. Yet another sign. Thick vegetation kept me out of sight so I made a couple more casts. I could only see one of the riders, but she was in communication with another. Then a man drenched head to toe drug a half-submerged kayak behind him. His wife, girlfriend or soon to be ex took great pleasure recording the aftermath. He looked unappreciative. Then we locked eyes. I kept a straight face as I read his mind “great an audience.” Inside I snickered, but roles reversed I’m not sure my demeanor would be any different. I looked at my watch, 12:45. I cut my fly and leader ensuring I’d hit no more holes on the way back. Remembering the deep drop off I debated heading upstream by the boaters and around to avoid it, but I didn’t want to add any further insult. So I ventured down deciding to stay on the high side.
The last thing I said to myself was “fishing may have been slow, but at least I’m having a better day than that guy.” The next step my feet didn’t touch bottom and cold water began rushing into my waders. The next two steps the same until I finally came to land. Now this stream may only have 3 places where overflowing your waders is a possibility. I managed a sense of humor about it secretly hoping the kayaker saw me getting comfort out of my misfortune. After getting up on the bank I de-pants. Just as I finished draining my waders the two kayakers paddled by. I don’t think either realized what happened to me. He still seemed shaken and she giddy over their own saga. Thankfully my phone was kept dry by the loksak and there was a towel and dry shirt waiting for me in the car. I hacked my way back and made it home by 1:30. No one seemed to care I was a half hour behind schedule especially since they were all napping, a sign I could have stayed out for one more fish...
In the second installment of Musky on the Fly Bill recalls some valuable lessons learned/taught from a day on the water with a client last year in late August...
The “dog days of summer” can be a difficult time to find active Muskies, especially with high water and a fast approaching cold front. My client from Wyoming, an excellent streamer angler, was up for the challenge, or so he thought!
We knew we were in for a tough day, all the odds were against us, 3+ inches of rain the night before blew out almost all the area rivers, and the temps and humidity were dropping all day long, I chose a smaller river that I hoped would not be out of it's banks - I got lucky.
The water was indeed high and inky black, but I knew the fish were there - somewhere, all we had to do was keep after them and we would be successful. We began pounding the banks with an Olive/Orange Paddle Tail on an Intermediate line, but the fly just would not get down enough to find a fish.
NOTE: * The new Musky Intermediate Lines for Rio are not very "Intermediate", they sink more like a "Hover" line and I do not recommend them, stick to the Clear Tip Outbound Lines, they get down much better, are virtually invisible and cast easy, use the "short" for smaller rivers and the "long" for lakes and larger rivers where your casting distances are greater. If you are going to purchase just one, get the "short", it will cover the bases best.
LESSON ONE - Don’t take the advice from some blogger on what equipment to bring on your first trip to Musky Country, ask the guide you’re fishing with what he prefers and why! (HC: That's why I brought in an expert, what to bloggers know...)
We changed to a 325 grain, 10 foot sink tip on 9 wt. rod and prodded a bit deeper into the black water. In the faster areas where I was catching fish last week there was nothing, but as we got to larger, deeper flats that had a few 3 to 5 foot deep holes in them the river began to come alive. Our first eat came right at the head of a small pool where the water dumped down from a long, fast run. The "pocket pool" was just large enough to hold a fish, and it almost always does, my young client put a cast deep into the pocket and was retrieving at a fairly slow pace when the fish raced out at the fly just as it hit the fast water, when the fly paused on the seam, the fish made a lunge for it, opened it's mouth and was just about to eat when nerves got the best of my man, he set too soon and pulled the fly away. Vision is a wonderful thing, but when it's your first Musky and your nerves are on edge from anticipation, they can get the best of you! The fish missed, but continued after the fly.
LESSON TWO - Never take your fly out of the water with a fish in the vicinity!
As he pulled the fly up to re-cast, the fish came catapulting after it, missed again and was gone, I'm sure it saw us on that pass. Mr. Wyoming was amazed at the antics of our fearless piscatorial predators, he now understood what I had been telling him about Muskies being more like Grizzly Bears than fish! He commented that Musky fly fishing was really "Big Boy" streamer fishing and even though he chases lots of big Browns out west, it was nothing like this! He was addicted from that point on.
With that fish gone, we went on downriver into the next stretch. In the next pool we found no friendly fish, but right at the tail-out a big stump made another little pocket with just enough room for a few Smallies or one Musky, this time it was a nice Smallie that hit him and he was on the board, a decent 3 1/2 pounder that gave him a little boost and made him feel better - any fish that puts a smile on your face is a great fish - and all fish put a smile on my face!
We stopped for lunch, discussed a few more fine details of what to do with a fish at the boat, how to maneuver the rod and how I wanted the fly out in front of the boat with no more than 2 feet of leader between the rod tip and the fly - so it could be maneuvered quickly, easily, and with precision. After lunch in the flats his skills would again be put to the test.
At the head of the first big flat lies a nice long bend pool, actually more of a trough along the bank than a pool, but the water was slow enough to hold fish, we worked it slowly with topwater flies first since the air temperatures were still into the mid 70's and so was the water. Nothing would even look at a big Dahlberg, even though it was making enough noise not to be missed by anything in the water, no matter how dark it was. I pulled the boat around a small island, rowed back up to the head of the pool in a side channel, waited about 10 minutes then floated through again using an Olive/Orange Figure-8 on the 10' sink-tip, that got some attention!
Halfway down the cut-bank was a small Beaver run, the fly was expertly placed right in the run and retrieved quickly with a good "escape strip", allowed to pause and then just as he was about to strip again, the water erupted with a good fish, definitely in the 40's, but the fates were not with my intrepid angler, his hand slipped on the line as he went to make the set and the fish was off. With his wits about him this time, he kept the fly in the water and kept it moving, the fish came after it again, but this time just to look, not to eat. After it disappeared, we switched flies to a deeper running, smaller, darker fly and went back after it again.
NOTE*: the basic rule is "Deeper, Darker, Smaller" when you are after a fish that hit and missed or refused your first offering!
Another cast another swirl, but no hit, this fish was no dummy, we continued on downstream looking for another willing participant, I was sure we were on the right track and the fish had gotten blown out of the faster water into the flats from the rain of the night before.
We switched back to the Intermediate line and the Figure-8, another excellent cast was made into the wood a few hundred yards farther downstream, another 40 incher came barreling out of the timber, made a pass at the fly and missed it, my guy froze up, the fish was near the boat looking for the fly, I'm yelling "move the fly"!, finally he broke out of his "systems failure" and twitched the fly, but it was too late, the fish sulked back into the shadows. You could actually see the fish looking around for the fly, had my angler been abel to move his hands a bit I think the fish would have seen the fly and made a run at it.
Two other fish showed themselves in that area, we got quick hits and no hook-ups, they always seemed to know exactly when the line was fouled on the rod or the strip was at the very end and the rod was out of position for a strike, neither of the fish were large, but they don’t have to be big to outsmart you!
LESSON THREE - Keep your line and rod under control at all times, if your fly is in the water, you’re fishing!
By now my guy was a wreck, he needed a few minutes to recompose himself and get his head back in the game - youth is wonderful and I wish I had more right about now, I envy those who do, but experience has it's blessings also, my blood pressure is always lower these days.
After things settled down for a few minutes, nerves were calmed, heads screwed back on tight and blood pressures back under control, we pursued our objective. I knew we were into fish in this flat, I could feel them all around us, and they were hungry!
Back up and at it, my client was poised and ready, another cast was made just below another log jam, the water erupted with a take and he was on it! A great hook-set was made and the fish came flying out of the water cartwheeling across the river, it made a run for the cover of the logs, but he turned it and got it back under control. Meanwhile I was back-rowing to get us to open water where we could finish the fight, all the while barking out orders as my guy made well with my requests. In a few minutes he had his first fish in hand, and a smile across his face that I’m sure they could see in Wyoming! Though not the 40+ inch fish that first came to his fly, the 32 incher was just as much a trophy to the angler, he had fought it well, learned quite a few valuable lessons along the way and paid his dues for it, now he IS a Musky nut!
A few “grip & grins” later, a short break and we were back on the hunt again with renewed hope and high spirits! Another couple of hundred yards farther down the flat we had another encounter with a big Smallie, this one never stood a chance, the hook set was hard and fast, the fish was whipped before he knew what was going on - my client had taken his lessons to heart and was putting a hurt on the fish now. When he set that hook, the fish could feel it all the way to the ends of their fins!
As we neared the end of the long flat, the shadows were getting longer and I could feel the air temp dropping significantly, I knew the day was coming to an end, even if we did have several hours of light left.
I picked up the pace to get us into position for the next log jam on a deeper corner, I had a good feeling about this one. I positioned the raft 40 feet off the logs, a great port side cast was made to the downstream side of the big logs, and allowed to settle down about 2 seconds before the first “escape strip” was made. The fly hit the seam and my client says, “Here comes a big one”! I tell him to keep the fly moving and not to strike until he feels the weight of the fish. I see the fish charge the fly turn its head about 3 feet out and make the lunge - GAME ON! This was a classic take - a real “Kurt Gowdy” moment, but my guy was a bit too anxious, he held together for a bit, but set a little too soon and definitely too hard! He had the hook-up, but when he rammed the hook home on his 11 weight GLX that fifth time, he literally tore it right out of the fish’s mouth. This was a good fish in the low 40 inch range again, probably around 20 pounds, it was the trophy I was looking for on this particular stretch of water, I really wanted him to land that fish, it would have been great for his ego.
LESSON FOUR - Once you have the fish hooked up, you will have to give them a little line to turn and run, then if you feel the need you can hit them again, but it probably isn’t necessary as long as you keep the line tight - never give them any slack while you are giving line.
The fish came back, but only to learn and try to figure out what happened, I knew it was over, but it was a great moment also! This guy came for Wyoming to get into Muskies, he did just that, he went into battle a bit less prepared than he thought he was, got a little bad advice on his equipment, got schooled and came away with great memories. You don’t win every battle, but if you learn from them, you will win more in the future.
We never saw another fish, the cold front had passed and the fish were totally turned off, we kept trying for that last mile & a half all the way to the landing, but it was not going to happen. I would call the day a success, not the perfect day by any means, but we got into fish on a very difficult day with weather conditions not in our favor, we made the most of what we had to work with and a new angler to this challenging sport came away with a whole new appreciation for Muskies and why we try so hard to get one in the boat.
These fish aren’t easy, it’s tough chasing grizzly bears through the woods and bringing them down with sticks and stones, don’t get discouraged, get back in the saddle and finish the fight, you’ll become a better angler and you’ll have a story to tell for the rest of your life about the ones that got away and the ones you beat fair & square on their home turf!