Alternative Fly Rod Tactics
  By Joe Cornwall

Fly rodding has a long and rich history dating back several hundred years. Even today, at the dawn of the twenty first century many of the patterns we use to fish for trout, bass and pan fish have their origins in the work of the masters of the "golden age" of fly fishing, commonly accepted as 1900 to 1960. The Adams, Wooly Worm, Muddler Minnow, Grey Ghost, Pheasant Tail Nymph and Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear all are celebrating more birthdays than most of the folks who cast them.

There is, however, a hidden history of fly fishing that includes many tactics and "baits" not normally fished by contemporary anglers. One of the great advocates of these techniques was the late Tom Nixon, who's 1969 Fly Fishing for Bass and Pan fish is enjoying something of a renaissance. Several years ago I purchased Tom's book. Shortly after I was able to meet with this master of bass fishing and discuss his techniques. This led me down a path not taken by but a few fly fishermen.

This is the first in a series of articles where we will explore a different way of fly fishing. Different from our viewpoint of 2003, but not so strange if we were able to resurrect a fisherman carrying his split bamboo Chubb rod to the banks of the Great Miami in 1920! I have found these techniques to be very effective, sometimes to the exclusion of more accepted fly rod tactics.

Part One - Fly Rod Soft Plastics

It really wasn't until recently that a veritable cornucopia of soft baits suitable for use with a fly rod became readily available. While it is true that 1 to 2 inch "Mister Twister" grubs have been available for years, the current crop of designs, densities and colors have really opened a world of opportunity for the enterprising fly rod enthusiast.

No self respecting spin fisherman would hit the water without a selection of soft plastics. I suggest that there have been more fish of all species caught on soft plastic baits that any other single artificial lure. In the past five years a movement towards "finesse" baits has been underway. This movement has accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings at high level bass tournaments. Thousands of anglers regularly hook and land millions of fish using these simple techniques which may actually be easier to apply and more effective with a fly rod! Let's examine a few twists which can improve the outcome of your next outing.

The fly rod "jig & pig" is not new. Eighty years ago most warm water fly fishers (and many trout enthusiasts) regularly tossed a hackled fly tipped with a piece of pork rind. None other than the inimitable Uncle Josh  dominated, and still dominates, this market. I recall as a young fly fisher, taking many a white perch on the ponds of New England using a black or white "fly flick" tipped on a wooly worm. Take note, this set up still works wonders on Southwestern Ohio ponds and rivers! Rare is the day when I don't have a bottle of Uncle Josh fly strips in my master boat bag.

In the 1970's the bait caster's jig & pig took on new meaning. Tipping a big hair jig with a pork frog or soft plastic equivalent accounted for more hawg bass than there were pages in magazines to print the pictures. There is a reason for this - it is very effective. A jig & pig set up is a fine imitation of a crayfish - a beast that accounts for nearly ninety percent of a smallmouth bass' diet over the warmer months from late May through early October. Unlike a pure fly, a jig & pig set up provides both texture and scent to the normally sterile creation of fur and feathers. I fish a version of this bait mostly with soft plastics.

There is nothing secretive or special about this set-up. I like to use a Clouser minnow as the set-up for this technique, which has accounted for more than a dozen smallmouth over 18" in the last two seasons for me. First the fly. The Clouser can be a standard tie, but I like to make a couple small changes. First I tie the fly using a stinger style hook which provides both lighter wire for more positive hook-sets and a larger gap to facilitate the hook hitting home at the critical moment. A size 10 stinger hook is about right for most applications but for large fish or big water a size 6 is not too big (stinger hooks run larger that other designs using the same number - a size 10 stinger is about the same as a size 4 Mustad 3366). Use small to medium lead eyes and tie the fly in a bulkier fashion than normal. I like the Foxee Red Clouse for this. Tip the Clouser with a three inch slider worm in motor oil, olive or pumpkin and you have one of the most effective bass baits available - and one that can be cast easily with a six to eight weight fly rod.

Fish the fly rod jig & pig on a floating line during the hot months. Under adverse conditions or in fast moving water I might also use a ten foot sink-tip line for extra depth. It is important that this fly be fished ON THE BOTTOM and slowly. Takes are gentle, so be alert for any movement of the floating line. The retrieve should be a slow hand-twist of not more than 2 to 3 inches per second. Make the rig "hop" off the bottom like a crayfish popping up to take a look around. Most hits come on the fall.

Casting this set-up is easy. You can false cast, but like a nymph-and-split shot set-up, remember to keep the loop open. The soft plastic worm will not tear off, even on a double haul!

There are, of course, many other tactics that can be used with soft plastics. One easy one is simply to use the plastic by itself. Fishing a small soft plastic bait a la' finesse style can be a most effective fly rod presentation. I like to use a hook designed specifically for drop shot fishing made by Gamakatsu. I use this mostly in size 4.

Simply nose hook the plastic bait, tie it to three to four feet of fluorocarbon 8lb. test tippet and have at it. This is an excellent cold water technique for both bass and bluegill. Fishing this technique with a fly rod is far more effective than with a spinning rod as the fly fisher can present the bait more gently at distances of twenty to forty feet without additional weight. Often the sight of these small plastics free falling near a rock outcropping is more than a fish can stand. Using a floating line and Amnesia fluorescent yellow butt section, watch carefully for the take. This is not unlike nymph fishing and has proven effective for me on smallmouth, largemouth, and Kentucky spotted bass along with carp, channel cats, drum, bluegill and even a pike! 

Care to try a technique guaranteed to put bluegill in the basket? How about those tough trout during the winter months? Care to up your catch rate on the Mad River and perhaps put a small bee in a purist's bonnet? Try this technique. We all know the San Juan worm is an effective pattern. It can be far more effective when made of the right materials. The right materials offer plenty of natural motion, weightless drift, realistic texture and lively translucency. The right material is soft plastic and the right presentation can only be had with a fly rod. This set-up casts well even with a four weight rod.

I use a small Berkely trout worm  (click here) and "whacky rig" it using a standard size 8 Mustad 94840 dry fly hook. Remember to crush down the barb on all the hooks used for both flies and soft plastic fishing to prevent unnecessary trama to the fish. Whacky rigging simply means hooking the bait somewhere forward of the mid point so when the bait is twitched, both ends bounce and curl enticingly. I like to fish this without weight, the worm will sink slowly, even in the quick water of the Mad. I have found red to be a taking color for this application.

Cast the whacky rig upstream much as you would a nymph or San Juan worm fly. Fish it on a leader with a stout butt section made of stiff material, but use a very supple and long tippet. For this I like fluorocarbon (Berkely Vanish is an excellent choice and quite inexpensive when compared to standard fly fishing brands). I use 4lb test about four feet long. Again, there is no danger of ripping the worm off on even a robust cast. And if it does fly off, put on another one. They come ten to a package! Cast easily and aim high so the soft plastic 'tucks under" the line and enters the water on lots of slack so it can sink. Mend the line and follow the drift just like fishing a nymph. Watch the floating line for the take and don't be in too much of a hurry. Unlike a feather fraud, fish will hold these soft plastic baits a little longer. Don't wait too long, however, to prevent deep hooking the fish.

I hope I have given you something to think about. Next time you find yourself in a sporting "super store" be sure to visit the "hardware" side of the display and see what can translate to your fly fishing techniques. Like me, you just might find a whole basket of secret weapons guaranteed to make your season more productive.

Next time, fly rod spinner baits!

Tight lines and good fishing!

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