Monday 25 August 2008

Bass Fishing on the Fly - P9 - Doing it and Improving

Saltwater fly-fishing fundamentals

Part five – Doing it somewhat!

We have already covered various topics such as when and where, including the best times, tides and places to fish near. Part two dealt with some of the pitfalls likely to be met along the way to success, and I made some general suggestions regarding equipment, gear, training and flies. In this post I hope to clarify some of the more technical elements of fly-fishing equipment, mainly the fly lines, the fly rod and the flies which you will be fishing with. Fly fishing technique, or the ability to properly cast a fly and put it where you want it, is the heart of fly-fishing. Without the ability to cast well and confidently, all the rest - such as your gear, your clothing, your flies - is rather useless. Ultimately, the ability to properly cast a fly while fly-fishing will make or break any fly-fishing outing. Choosing the right equipment and a proper instructor will help you in all of this. Please remember that this is not an expert’s opinion – but one based on years of very hard work.

It was over a period of many months that I had made my choices regarding tackle purchase, based on reviews and expert opinions, budget and angling requirements including training, and the technical arena of line and rod type. My choice of rod was the Shimano XTR biocraft range a SW#10, the reel was an Airflo T7 again a #10 suitable for use in the sea, and line was an Airflo saltwater weight forward #10 floating. I have subsequently heard more opinions regarding all of these pieces of equipment that I simply don’t worry whether I had made the right decisions or not. They all still work and they have caught me some superb fish over the last number of years including many Big Bass. I can fish confidently with these pieces of equipment even if they are a little heavy!

One of the biggest issues that the saltwater fly-fisherman will have to deal with is wind. Generally speaking, no matter where we go along the Irish coastline there will inevitably be some breeze blowing. This will range from the ‘moderate to fresh’ to ‘light and variable’, and it may be no harm to visit the met eireann site to understand these definitions. A lot of weather information can be had at many websites which can prove very useful to the angler. Looking back now over April and early May of 2002, (during this time I expected to catch a Bass on every cast) I realise that I was subconsciously looking for areas sheltered from the worst of the wind or worse still, even when the wind was light I would position myself to favour my cast. Doing this cut down hugely my chances of ever catching a fish. The equipment I had purchased was more than capable of throwing lines good distances with big flies in most wind conditions, the problem was, that I wasn’t. Andrew Ryan at the Clonanav fly fishing centre confirmed this to me when, after the second cast with my equipment he cast all the fly line from the reel into a head wind of force 4; At least I had done something right! Andrew was quick to point out to me that casting a #8 or #7 in the same conditions was entirely possible – provided the technique was correct!

Regarding lines and rods and things – It is, in my opinion, important for the would be saltwater fly angler to understand the basics of the ‘science’ involved in fly lines and rods! Now I don’t mean you should put on your white lab coat, carry a clipboard and wear an absurdly coloured tie, but study and understand the principles and mechanics behind some of the terms like – AFTMA, weight forward, shooting heads, tapers, running line, belly etc. This is recommendation number eight; get a copy of a good book on the principles of fly-fishing! This should cover the basics of fly lines and rods, knots, leaders, and some casting techniques. It doesn’t have to be an encyclopaedia but should contain enough information for you to ‘visualise’ some of the principles. You may remember from part one that I suggested the purchase of a number 9 or even 10-rod, line and reel, some of you might be saying this is over kill, but what I wanted to do was match the equipment to the requirements. Lets just quickly look at the requirements again

1. You want to catch fish in the sea using fly fishing techniques
2. You will more often than not be casting into a strong head wind.
3. If your target is Bass then the flies you will be using will be quite big, some very big; you will need to cast them safely and efficiently!
4. There will often be rocks, seaweed and other obstructions where you fish.
5. On occasion waves and current will wash your line into these and you may need to exert some force to free your line.
6. You need to subdue your quarry as quickly as possible to prevent lactic acid build up and undue stress to ensure a positive catch and release.
7. Sometimes you may have to ‘bully’ your quarry through weed or rocks.
8. If you are targeting Bass and Pollack in deep water you might need some butt power .

I don’t want to make the Irish coastline sound as hospitable as the surface of Mars, but it is a pretty demanding environment. It is perfectly capable of smashing your equipment and your emotions quite easily in a short space of time, we don’t want that to happen. Dare I say it but here is recommendation number nine; what you need initially from a line is good quality, one that’s not too expensive, has a short head and a weight forward profile and lasts well in saltwater. I would suggest that you start with a floating line then as you become more proficient purchase a clear intermediate line. Some fly lines are better than others, of that there is no doubt, but initially the right type rather than manufacturer is paramount. To a novice the difference between a Hardy line and an Airflo line is not really going to be detectable for some time, except in price that is! Remember you will need about 75 to 100 yards of braid to back up your reel and attach to your fly line; this is readily available and quite inexpensive.

The same principle applies to rods and reels the more expensive the rod or reel the more technically adept the equipment. Please remember - expensive equipment does not always automatically translate into long casts, and long casts do not always translate into more fish! I think you can work it out for yourself. You need a rod that does the job by throwing these lines and your flies where you want them to go as far as you want them to go, as safely as possible. Length and type (fast med) however, should be seriously considered before making your purchase. Saltwater fly-fishing does unfortunately require casting and re-casting, sometimes made while standing in chest deep water. So, recommendation number ten is; a minimum of a nine-foot rod is needed to be effective out there. Some individuals have gone to 10-foot or longer rods, but they can be hard on the wrist to cast, especially in the heavier weights of nine or ten, and they will tire you out much quicker than a nine-footer. The rod needs to be saltwater resilient, anything that is exposed to saltwater will, with time corrode and rust if not attended to. Please pay particular attention to the reel seat and the rings. A quick rinse in warm water and then a rub with a rag sprayed lightly with WD40 will add years to your equipment.

While rods and lines are very important, do not overlook your reel when considering saltwater fly-fishing. Recommendation number eleven is; spool capacity and rust/corrosion resilience are some of the main things to look for in a saltwater fly reel, (if you find a saltwater proof reel please let me know, I do know of one!) also extremely important is a durable, and smooth drag system. Big Bass and particularly Pollack are known for their long, fast initial runs and you don’t want your reel to seize or simply fall apart in the middle of one. Unlike trout fishing, where you can set the drag to nearly nothing and palm the spool, you will have to rely on the drag from time to time to slow bigger Bass or Pollack especially in currents. The reel holding your lines needs to be of a large arbour type (they also look sexier than the traditional type) to help take the memory out of your line and it also needs some capacity for backing - that’s the brightly coloured line you put on your reel before your fly line, you do get to see and feel it from time to time! So what’s next? We’ve looked at lines, rods and reels I guess that only leaves flies leaders and tippets, simple!!

So, flies are big? Small? Blue? White? Or that fancy one - chartreuse and white? Deceivers? Clousers? Poppers? Bangers? Flatwings and hollows? What’s going on here? Day, night, evening, dusk, and dawn. Hold it together now, we’ve come this far, remember always try and make it simple, break it down into easy parts. If you remember from part one, a long time ago I know, we decided that when we are beginning the best times to go fishing were early morning or late evening; well this has an effect on the colour of fly you should use at this time also. The following I will add as recommendation number 12; a list to help you make your decisions regarding colours, remember this is a very broad list and is matched to your early morning and late evening trips

1. Before the sun rises over the horizon use a white fly with some yellow like a deceiver.
2. When the sun is just above the horizon and it looks like becoming a bright day then switch to an all white fly again using a deceiver pattern.
3. When the sun is rising to just above the horizon and it looks like becoming a dull day then switch to a darker fly with some patterns in it. A possible change to a clouser or a darker more patterned deceiver of brown or olive.
4. If the day looks like its becoming broken with sunny spells then switch to a coloured fly like blue and white or olive and white or even red and orange again a clouser pattern.
5. During evening time before sundown go back to your white and yellow deceiver.
6. At night a black or darker fly works, so do white and chartreuse flies!

Now I know you have become a naturalist over the last few months, especially with respect to the wildlife at your chosen fishing grounds. If you have local knowledge regarding baitfish like sand eel or gobies or young pollack and their patterns then use this to your advantage and experiment with chosen flies and fly colours. I like to use a particular colour that works for me. Two years ago I collected two Rapala J13’s off one of the local beaches after a storm. Both were pretty battered but both had a distinctive colouring – like that of a goldfish. I asked around and found out that local boatmen use this pattern all the time; it’s their number one choice. I subsequently use very frequently a fly that contains red, orange and yellow, particularly during daytime hours and it works very well. I still get blank days of course!

Regarding the type of fly when you are starting out, two or three flies come to mind, deceivers clouser minnows and surf candy. If you can, purchase 4 deceivers - two chartreuse and white and two white, then add 4 clouser minnows – two blue and white and two of olive and white. Finally get a mixed bunch of surf candy. This should set you back no more than 30 euros and it is enough spend for you to get started. Recommendation number 13; use this first set almost as a write off – an experiment if you like, don’t worry what happens to these first flies. Get used to casting the different types, feel the difference between the deceiver and the minnow. Drop them, attached to your leader of course, in the water in front of you. Watch how they behave when moving in a current or in slack water. Do they sink or hang, do they look natural and can you invoke some ‘life’ into them. Cast them into and across the wind – get used to how they feel when wet and dry on the cast. What do they look like at the end of a session? In part six we will discuss some methods I found of how best to fish these flies.

For some reason tapered leaders and tippets and co-polymers and fluorocarbons and all of these things still cause huge sense of confusion. I’m not really sure why but they do! At the end of my fly line I have a braided loop attachment. To this I attach about 5 feet of 18kg BS clear Rio alloy mono and then to this I attach about 3 feet of hard mono of 7kg BS, to this I then attach a tippet of flourocarbon then a fly using a rapala knot. I join the two lines using the surgeons knot. And that is about that as regards your equipment requirements to get you fishing in saltwater. Recommendation number 14; if you already have some fresh water fly fishing gear it is possible to use this in the sea. You may need to maintain your equipment more often and you might be restricted to certain less demanding species and localities but you will be already skilled in fishing with the lighter lines and rods so have a go this spring and summer!

Saltwater fly-fishing fundamentals

Part six – Improving on doing it somewhat!

I remember driving home from what would be one of my last sessions of the season. It was a calm, dull cold and overcast November Saturday. Already the days were getting dark at 4:30 and blue-grey smoke from fires lit in country houses hung low in the sky across fields of stubble. Geese had replaced terns on the estuary and the constant sounds of a thousand waders filled the air. As I drove home I saw some forgotten carved pumpkins lying tossed in gardens, their crooked smiles testament to the season passed. I noticed air temperatures (a constant hobby of mine) had dropped by more than seven or eight degrees and I told myself that maybe the warm sea might hold the fish into December. I was finding it very difficult to let go. I managed one more long session at the end of November on the fly – I had no fish – it was inevitably coming to an end!

And now it’s nearly beginning again! What does this year hold in store…. who really knows with fishing! Before we move on to some words about flies and things I just want to mention the importance of recording data that’s relevant to your fishing. Its March now and heading towards the start of the sea trout season. What I want you to consider doing is laying out on some paper or in a notebook from you local stationers, or indeed on a computer, a sheet that would look something like the one below.

I have this sheet laid out in Microsoft excel and it’s done in a way that I happen to like. You can add or subtract the columns and amend it as you see fit. It simply records the day, the date, the atmospheric pressure, maximum temperature, minimum temperature, sunshine hours, tides and so on, all the way across to the part on fishing activity. Start recording data into the sheet on a daily basis whether you go fishing or not. When you are fishing you can record the details of flies/lines used and fish catch. When you are not fishing you should still record data, and overtime you will achieve an almost intimate closeness with the weather and tides. If you hear information from friends who have gone fishing, put it in here too! Recommendation number 15 - I really can’t emphasise enough the benefits of this exercise. It is definitely another tool to help you succeed, now and in the future. If you require the spreadsheet in Excel please feel free to e-mail me at for a free copy.

What I am asking you to try and achieve is an ever-increasing awareness of elemental factors and the more than probable effects they will have on your fishing. When you build data into the sheet over a season or indeed a number of seasons you can then perform some extraction analysis and build patterns that occur on the occasions when you have and haven’t caught fish.

The second and I promise this is the last of the homework that I would recommend for number 16 is to get the detail of your local tides and condense the information into something like the sheet below. I know some of you are thinking –‘ this a bit of overkill...?’, ‘I think Jim mentioned this before…’ I realise you probably have spent a lot of time in ‘set up’ mode and this is more of the same but I personally think the benefits for the beginner and even for the seasoned angler who has never done anything like this before can be enormous. It will greatly help your decision making process and guide you down the path to further success.

Start to mentally couple the weather and the tide in your mind and before you go fishing you will almost certainly get that primeval feeling of what to expect from your best angling marks. Subconsciously you will begin to make decisions about when and where to fish and even when not to fish. Then slowly begin to establish natural patterns and rhythms that represent success and when you notice them falling into place a few days before you know are the best tidal times, the anticipation of waiting to go fishing can be incredibly exciting.

So it’s Wednesday and its June 15th 2007. You know from your tidal guides it’s going to be a good morning tide on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th, the weather has been excellent with high pressure hanging over Ireland for the last 6 days, winds speeds are low, and air temperatures are constant at around 17/18 degrees. It looks like its not going to change either. The anticipation should start to build, a bit like a pressure cooker! You go home from work on Wednesday and get your rod, waders, reel, line and flies, clippers, forceps, ready. Now I know you have them ready since April but you get them ready again anyway, you make a few false casts in the back garden and get tangled in next doors telephone cable! Thursday the weather is good, you begin to want to go on Friday morning but you know you cant. You’ve told the relevant person/s where you are going at least twenty times and at what time and then finally we get to it.

You arrive at your venue at 4:15am put on your gear at ramming speed and charge to the spot, you make several casts (false and other) over your hotspots in a lather of sweat and shakes while you remember you forgot your sunglasses. Suddenly you spot some explosive surface activity twenty yards to your left, well within your casting range– I never really know who is responsible for the next guaranteed sequence of events but it happens - you pull too much line from the reel causing an overrun, when you are repairing this your favourite clouser gets the taste of freedom, likes it, and decides it wants to hide in a bed of bladder wrack and set-up permanent residence there, meanwhile your loose fly line winds its way around your ankles and as you bend over to sort it, whilst stepping on your leader, your fly box slips out of your jacket into the water, you watch it bobbing away when you spot a passing Bass veering slowly out of its path on its way to this mornings favoured hunting spot, which now looks like a boiling cauldron. Then and only then you see the other angler. A little bit away, he’s staring at you biting the inside of his lip, he has stopped reeling his surface lure, rod still pointing at the horizon he’s completely motionless, frozen in time, in fact he hasn’t moved since he saw your frantic arrival and first cast. You straighten up and wave and wish you were dead! He smiles (you think) and thankfully keeps his thoughts to himself, shakes his head, looks for his lure, locates it, and gives it a sharp pull, splashing it across the surface three feet from the hot spot and…. Then you cry!!!

Anyway I was going to tell you a few things about how I fish with the deceivers, clousers and other flies, well, recommendation number 17 is, slowly works for me. I learned this the hard way – a bit like the guy above. Take your time, get your gear on, if you have to walk a bit and you are using neoprene waders and temperatures are up then carry them in a rucksack, put your rod together, put your reel on but don’t pull the line through the rings yet and check that you have everything again. Lock the car. Put the keys away safely. Walk towards your venue. You know those little pairs of binoculars that you can buy quite cheaply? If you can, get yourself a pair. Recommendation number 18 is to study the venue from a distance before walking up to it. Are there birds about feeding in the area, can you see what they are feeding on, is there any surface activity, breaking shoals of fry, what state is the tide at, (which you should already know,) does it look like there is weed in the water? Sometimes what you are expecting may not actually happen. You arrive, put on your waders and walk into the water.

Think again. I cant say how surprising this might seem but if you can cast 20 yards make your first cast is made 15 yards from the shoreline away from your chosen spot in such a way as to cause a minimum of disturbance. Then let the fly work its way to the correct place by using the tide and natural flow of water. Watch your shadow and sky profile. Remember during the previous few hours fish will have spent the time in darkness, they will often still feel secure in the pale early morning light and will lie very close to shore.
Move slowly closer to the shoreline, quietly, working your fly further and further out nearer any hotpots that you know are there. Cover as much ground as possible. It is here I still have a lot to learn; by a lot I mean a huge amount. But I will tell you what I like to do. Using a floating line and a leader of about 9 feet. If the tide and flow is moving from right to left and I know where the ‘hotspot’ is, rock or other underwater obstruction, then I make a cast uptide in such a way and at a distance that I know by the time the fly is carried down towards the ‘hotspot’ without retrieving and with some mending the fly that it will start to lift and swim in the tide. It is then that I will often make a sharp short pull and stop on the fly line, maybe a foot or so to cause the fly to streamline and then open enticingly and then turn and drift back. Let it drift back more slowly than the tide include a few ‘short tugs’ and then repeat with a pull of about two feet and so on. Impart random life into your fly and separate it from other ‘non natural objects’ etc. This method has worked well for me using both the deceivers and the clousers. Retrieve rates and movements are best determined on the day I’m afraid. I think from my own experience, fly selection and fishing method is still where I need to spend most time learning.

If you ever have the opportunity to watch Bass or other predators like mackerel chasing baitfish at close quarters then do so. I had such an opportunity to watch mackerel chase sprat up a long narrow yet deep inlet this summer. They were rapidly followed by Bass mopping up on stunned sprat and not really bothering to work for their supper. It was the action of baitfish hit, and then missed by mackerel that interested me most; their action was very similar to one that I could impart in my deceivers. A slow moving twitching and turning baitfish that moves randomly and enticingly in the tide. Alternatively fishing with an intermediate line and a sparse closer minnow with similar methods allows you to fish deeper and closer to the bottom. The unique nature of the upside-down swimming action of the closer allows this with minimal tackle loss.

But my real favourites are the surface lures, the poppers and crease flies. When I started trying to cast these at first, all my old mistakes came flooding back. I was flaying about like a mad thing! Because they look so big, mentally, I was trying to cast the fly like a spinner, but of course the original principles I had learned held through and eventually I managed to get it somewhat right. One morning early in May and purely by accident I used one of these flies. I had tried every other fly in the box and I had had no hits. I knew there was fish moving through on a regular basis and a local angler had landed and returned four on spinning baits. So I sat down, growled to myself and tied on one of these big guys, I knew they floated and I had on a floating line, so I tied on a shorter leader (six feet) and I slowly walked straight into the middle of a complex rocky reef structure and made a goodish enough cast. I applied the same thinking as the ‘traditional’ plugs and things I use, and pulled the lure through the surface water, splashing and spitting the fly and then stopping and waiting. I counted to ten and then repeated the sharp pull when wham, it was smashed into by a very nice fish of about 5lbs. Such is the ferocity of a Bass when hitting these lures that a strike is unnecessary. When you experience these surface attacks it remains with you forever and it does nothing but to further increase the deep obsession, excitement and sheer enjoyment that is bass fly-fishing.

Since the summer of 2003 I have guided a lot of people from all around the world along the Wexford coast. I have some brilliant photographs of various clients and their well-deserved fish but this year, if I have the opportunity, I am definitely making a conscious effort to photograph the faces and reactions of people as they experience that first surface lure Bass hook up. From a slightly raised eyebrow to simply falling over in the rush of excitement, I have witnessed many and I hope to continue to witness many more

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Forwarded to - The Irish Bass Policy Group (David McInerny, John Quinlan, Shane O Reilly, Mike Hennessy, Dr William Roche, Dr Nial O'Ma...