Monday, August 11, 2014

Confessions of a Western Fly Troller

     Trolling with flies & fly tackle is a form of our sport that has long been practiced in the Northeast, & with great style. The artful Maine & Adirondack guide boats & the transcendental streamer fly patterns of Carrie Stevens reflect a rich tradition rooted in the Atlantic salmon tradition of the British Isles, yet adapted & evolved in the fertile waters of the creative North American crucible to meet the dictates of the unique brook trout, mackinaw, landlocked salmon fishery present in the deep, glacier-carved lakes of northern New England where trout grow to fine proportions feeding on freshwater smelt, the principle forage of the lakes. A practical people, the Yankees discovered that trolling with fly tackle & streamer flies designed to imitate the native smelt was an effective & fun way to go. And, as that is a region of boat-builders, the fishing presented an opportunity to design some sweet boats for the purpose – resplendent with wicker-back seats for the sport to recline in while he or she drags the fly & the guide rows. 

 So what happened to this entertaining branch of our sport in the West? It is true that there is a pocket of fly trolling in the waters around Puget Sound, particularly in B.C. waters, yet beyond that it seems trolling in the far West is, for the most part, the furtive practice of sore, tired, lazy (content), or half-froze kick-boaters who keep quiet about it, as dragging the fly is not generally regarded as “real fly fishing”. However, the West is full of irony, & based on the number of anglers I see doing it (dragging the fly) from their float tubes, I have to suspect that western folks must secretly think it is fun & sporting enough.

 Personally, I love to troll & mooch with flies. If & when my casting ability is lost & I am too feeble to clamber or wade, I’ll be content dragging my fly behind the pram, enjoying the scenery, musing on new, creative trolling fly designs to tie when I get home while anticipating that honking strike.

And to those who say it is not fly fishing, I say: It may not be fly casting, but it certainly is fly fishing, in every other regard – & also the opportunity to learn & expand our bag of entertaining & useful tricks. And with sinking line systems now making it possible to fish 60 feet deep fairly comfortably, & the advent of UV enhanced materials to make our flies more visible in the dark depths, we see the ability to use fly tackle as an effective method for taking deep-dwelling lake trout (mackinaw) & kokanee, species not often pursued by western fly anglers.   

Most of us prefer to cast & I am no exception. I love fishing the shoreline weeds in the early & late season when trout are shallow, casting & retrieving nymph, leech & midge imitations. But there are times & places trolling will prove the most productive method. Like when it’s too windy to do anything else. I’ve seen guys arrive at Eastern Washington lakes & be dismayed at the windy condition, seeking out protective coves where they might cast, or in some cases simply giving up & leaving, overlooking the opportunity to troll or mooch using the wind to advantage as propulsion. Trolling is a good approach mid-summer when trout are holding 20 to 30 feet deep or deeper. Trolling can be very effective on lakes where baitfish are a primary food item, as trout & salmon often follow baitfish for some distance before striking – too great a distance for a caster to cover – & trolling allows us to cover infinitely more water than we can still-casting.

 Northeastern anglers know that lake trout & landlocked salmon will be located fairly shallow in early spring following ice-out on the lakes & that is a favorite time to troll the shoreline with streamer flies in the Northeast. Yet we have a nearly identical situation at several of the lakes I fish in NE Washington which host mackinaw & landlocked kokanee salmon, & though the caliber of the fishing might inspire envy in a New Englander, it is extremely rare to encounter anybody pursuing these western fish with fly tackle.

And one more thing: Trolling is an excellent way to introduce kids & other non-casting novices to flyfishing.

Trolling Tackle

As an all-around trolling rod for trout, I like an 8 to 9 foot 7-weight. Of course one could go lighter or heavier as the size of fish one might encounter dictates, but the 7wt covers most of it. If you own a fast-action rod that you find a bit stiff for casting, you have a trolling rod candidate. For casting I prefer moderate/slow action rods, but for trolling, ideally, I want a fast-action rod that loads up & shuts off quickly toward the tip portion of the rod, which results in better hook sets.

Any fly reel will function as a trolling reel in a pinch, but as a designated trolling reel, a larger diameter, narrow-spool, large-arbor type is ideal. The reel I’m using on the 7wt rod is rated for 8wt lines, allowing a bit more diameter for quicker line retrieval.

The line system I’m using is simple & inexpensive. I use 30lb test mono for a backing/running line. The mono has a long enough loop tied into the end to accept a coiled sinking head for quick rigging. I purchase 30 feet of Rio T-20 (for about 30 bucks) which has a sink rate of about a foot per second – cut the 30 foot section into 2 equal 15 foot sections – then cut 5 feet from one, which makes 3 heads of 5, 10 & 15 foot lengths. I affix a camo loop to  one end for easy handshake loop connection to the mono running line. The 5 foot head fishes the top 10 feet of water; the 10 foot head fishes 10 to 20 feet deep; & the 15 foot head will fish 20 to 40 feet deep, & even down to 60 feet. I prefer the 30lb mono to braid as a running line, as it is easier to handle, doesn’t saw the guides, & provides shock-absorbing stretch when big fish hammer the fly – & it has much less water resistance than an integrated sinking line, so less line belly & buoying.

For leader, I nail-knot 3 feet of 15 lb test fluorocarbon to each head section & tie a tiny black barrel swivel to that for fastening the ‘tippet’ to, usually 20-30 feet of 8lb test fluorocarbon – though one might go lighter or heavier, depending. The long leader allows the fly to swing & swim free from line drag & angle. The little barrel swivel allows for easy tippet change & prevents line twist should the fly roll or foul.


Flippering from a float tube is fine, yet exhausting for the long haul. Rowing, with the rod set in a holder, or better still, holding the rod while somebody else rows, is the first choice. Trout are shy of motor noise, necessitating dragging the fly a long distance from the boat. Also, flies don’t require the speed it takes to buoy hardware (one reason they are usually more effective than hardware) & fish at slower speeds than hardware – an easy feathering of the oars is usually all that’s required to maintain the right trolling speed. An electric motor would be my second choice, & last, a low horsepower, 4-stroke gas motor. But the oars allow a more nuanced range of speed & motion in addition to stealthy silence.

Ideal speeds for dragging streamer flies are as follows: slow walk, walk, & fast walk – estimated by watching the shoreline.  

Dragonfly/damselfly nymph & leech imitations can be effective trolled at very slow speeds, a slow walk & slower, & are good choices for mooching (drifting, using the breeze for propulsion). Got mackinaw 40 to 60 feet deep? try mooching or slow-trolling a 4 inch long purple & black leech behind the 15 foot T-20 head.


Though not an absolute necessity, a depth/fish finder is a handy tool for trolling, particularly on bigger lakes. The advantage of having a meter is obvious, of course. My favorite is a compact, portable unit that runs on D-cell batteries & simply clamps to the rail of a pram, or any small boat. They sell for a little over a hundred bucks & perform very well to reveal the depth & location of bait schools & fish, eliminating a lot of guesswork on big water.

If possible, it’s good to have two lines out working at different depths until fish are located. Baitfish follow the contour of the shoreline & trollers should do the same. Don’t troll in a straight line. If you are consistently finding the fish suspended at, say, 20 feet deep over a 30-foot bottom, then follow that 30 foot contour line relative to the shore, using the meter to keep you over the right depth (30 feet) while your flies are working at 20 feet. If fish are concentrated in a certain area, keep turning back & trolling through, gridding the area.

Using an outboard motor requires trolling flies at least 70 feet behind the boat, but the use of an electric motor or oars will allow trolling at much shorter distance. That said, 70 feet behind the boat is about right to achieve the best hooking angle, the line angling down at between 35 to 45 degrees. A 15-foot T-20 head will troll at a 40 foot depth at ‘walk’ speed with about 70 feet of line out. I control the depth by counting the number of ‘pulls’ from the reel. Pulling the line from the reel to arm’s length gives me a little over 2 feet. When fish are in the top 10 feet, the 5 foot sinking head works fine at 12 pulls of the running line once the head & leader are beyond the tip, which puts the fly out about 50 feet.

Trolling with flies opens a whole new world of possibilities for western anglers. A fun game with no shame. Ask any Mainer.  

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pinky ~ A Yarn Body Flymph

     When fishing the water in the season of small flies, we choose a fly pattern which will serve to simulate at least a few of the available food items. Much of what the trout are eating are emerging sedge & mayfly nymphs, & the preponderance of these are #14 to #18 in size – & in some locations insects smaller than #18 are important. If you look closely at the abdomens of sedge pupa & mayfly nymphs, you may notice a pinkish-tan coloration or a slight pink blush, particularly on the lighter underside of some. Pink is an attractive color to trout, known to be a ‘reaction’ color to rainbow & cutthroat. So my idea was to create an all-purpose flymph in an all-purpose shape & size that might look attractive wearing pink. This one has been working out & getting a lot of play lately.


Hook: #14 Daiichi 1150 – this makes about a standard #16 fly, & I’ll sometimes downsize the fly to about #17-#18, using the #14 hook

Thread: Rust-brown UNI 8/0

Abdomen: Medium-light rusty-pink yarn (earthy-pink, not fluorescent) – a single strand separated from the hank – after tying in, twist counter-clockwise before winding, which will give a segmented effect to the finished abdomen

Thorax: Dyed-brown hare’s mask dubbing – wind a short thorax

Hackle: Brahma hen (brown partridge can substitute) ~ & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Season of Small Flies

     By the end of July we find ourselves immersed in the season of small flies. Every day is different. The river changes, rising & falling. Though evening sedge hatches are a constant, they are in flux. Hubcap bright days of 100 degree temperatures push the emergence, & the fishing, right up against dark. Mild, cloudy days are golden. Low light brings everything on, & in low light the trouting can be good all day. The major hatches of drakes & PMD have passed, though there are still some around & the bigger trout have good memory of them. There are some olive stoneflies. Smatterings of small mayflies. Several species of small sedges in all stages & in numbers beyond imagination.

Pinky - an all-purpose soft-hackle - when wet it looks like everything.
 There are a lot of spent insects, & many kinds, present in the water.

Trout are grazing the top of the water column & finding all they want.

This is, simply, the best time of year to swing small soft-hackle flies. Now is when the flies & the method really come together with the natural condition of things. This is a good time to fish those new designs we’ve been wanting to try out. And old stand-by, all-purpose simulators like the Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Turkey & Starling, Leisenring Black Gnat, Partridge & Orange, or any of the old Partridge & Whatever combinations in #16 will turn the trick.

Or maybe two to a cast will turn the trick even better. 

You can put away the bobber & jig. Time to flyfish, in the classic sense. High summer & it's time to swing.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Black Quill Emerging Nymph

The Black Quill (Leptophlebia) isn’t a mayfly that is usually considered among the great hatches of large western drakes, still, it can be important to trouters angling the rivers of the Columbia drainage – the Flathead – & also the Columbia mainstem above Lake Roosevelt, my home water, where it is, by far, the most prolific large mayfly species, producing the best dryfly fishing of the summer season. We usually begin to see Black Quill at the end of June – emerging through the day on overcast days, though generally evenings right up against dark, into early August. We anticipate this large mayfly, as it brings up some of the biggest trout of the year. 

Black Quill nymphs are active, long-legged crawlers & can also swim. Nymphs are #8-#10, uniformly mahogany-brown with bright yellow banding between the abdomen segments, a stand-out feature. Also prominent in mature pre-emergers are the large, elongated, black wing-pads & unfurling wing. Like March Brown, the wings of Black Quill begin to unfurl from the holsters prior to emergence, the unfurling wing aiding in buoying the emerger to the surface. The wings are striking, dark slate, almost black.

Black Quill UC Hairwing Dryfly
 In season, a heavily dressed western hairwing or Wulff style dryfly tied in appropriate colors gets the nod, & on evening excursions in summer I usually carry an outfit rigged with one. Yet, day in, day out, I take a lot more fish swinging the nymph. As trout are feeding wide open on sedges & digressing to eat the occasional big mayfly during the hatch period, I often swing the Black Quill nymph rigged tandem, a wee sedge pattern trailing. When it is too dark to see the dryfly on the water, I switch to the nymph, which is just as exciting as the dryfly, I think. A big UC redband wangs it at the end of a swing in the dark &, no question, the game is on. Adults are the same color as the nymph, conveniently, both top & bottom, so I believe the pattern is taken for a drowned spinner as well.

Though the Black Quill may be regional in importance, the elements of its design, particularly the emerging wing, are applicable (possibly fundamental) to many aquatic insects. Rabbit fur, when wet, serves to simulate the heavy wing-pads & wings of Black Quill (& also Green Drake), but CDC, marabou, hackle fuzz or fine poly work for smaller patterns. The winging of Black Quill & other half-wing designs can be dressed with floatant & the fly fished on the surface as a cripple or stillborn. Let your imagination fly on winging material.      

Black Quill Emerger   

Hook: #10 TMC 200R

Thread: Rust brown UNI 6/0 - BQ are robust, create a cigar-shaped thread build-up as components are tied in

Tail: 3 dark brown goose biots, divided – the tails of naturals are thick & prominent, spread in a defined trident, a keying feature, I think

Rib: Yellow ‘D’ rod wrapping thread – after ribbing over the abdomen, wind to the hook eye & back to the base of the thorax to provide build up & under-color through the thorax area. (Rod wrapping thread holds its color when wet or greased & serves as excellent, almost indestructible ribbing – metallic wrapping thread, available in a number of colors and diameters, is less expensive & superior to most tinsel offered for fly tying – try a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear ribbed with metallic gold rod wrapping thread.)      

Abdomen: Mahogany brown fur dubbing, tightly dubbed on a loop of the tying thread

Thorax: Dyed brown hare’s mask with guard hairs, twisted, shaggy, on a loop of the tying thread – spread winds slightly so that the yellow under-color winks through - or, as an alternative, the dubbing may be twisted into the yellow ribbing thread using the split-thread technique, & wound through the thorax area

Wing: Black rabbit, about a quarter-inch segment cut from a strip – measure the guard hair tips to extend to the tail, then tie in with the fur butt over the thorax, then fold back the tips & tie down spread over the top of the thorax

Hackle: Reddish-brown hen ~ & finish.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Jimmy’s Inner Light Sedge Emerger

Inner Light Sedge Emerger tied by James Veenstra 
     There is always room for improvement. Everything changes. And there is outrageous fun & gratification in the process, sometimes. We are lately seeking a spotted sedge emerging pupa fly pattern that will stand out attractively enough to compete against the impossible numbers of naturals raining from the home water on summer evenings, something with just a hint more flash than the naturals, something with an ‘inner light’ winking from beneath the flowing hackle – hence the idea for the Inner Light Sedge Emerger with tinsel abdomen. 

I recently had the pleasure of fishing with Jimmy Veenstra, a talented fish bum from California, who wanted to tie some ILSE’s for his trip but had no green tinsel, so substituted caddis-green diamond braid for the abdomen, & the result turned out to be the fly-of-the-week. I see the braided material as an improvement over tinsel which turns dark in low light, while the sparkling braid is multifaceted, gathering & reflecting more light, hence more visible up near total darkness. The diamond braid material is extremely durable, & creates a pleasing segmented effect wound as an abdomen.

He brought a good fly pattern, & he also brought a sweet rod to swing it. Jimmy’s Meiser 2/3 trout switch is a gentle cannon able to reach out over the conflicted currents of the American Reach & touch someone. The lithe two-hander is a thing of awesome utilitarian beauty, the nearly perfect fly swinging tool, a coup stick for tagging big trout on big water.

Live big.

Jimmy’s Inner Light Sedge Emerger

Hook: #12-#14 caddis style

Thread: Camel

Abdomen: Wapsi olive pearl braid

Thorax: Brown hare’s mask with a bit of black mixed in – a few turns

Hackle: Brahma hen (brown partridge is a good substitute)

Head: Brown hare’s mask – a few turns in front of the hackle ~ & finish

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Turkey & Starling Nymph

     Though I find the study of waterborn insects fascinating from an angler’s perspective, & I think I have a fairly good handle on the important bugs present in my home water, I’ve come to the conclusion that exact identification of an insect contributes very little to creating an effective fly pattern for meeting it on the water. And knowing the exact taxonomy of what is there will not necessarily get you a long way toward determining what the trout are preferring to eat during an evening offering a spectrum of choices. Tonight there was a blitz of spotted sedge coming off the river, & a lot of fish, backs & tails out of the water, revealing that they were feeding on emergers under the surface film –  & the sedge pupa emerger patterns have been working good – yet tonight they (the fish) wouldn’t touch a sedge imitation. A break, & a closer look at what was on the water revealed that the spotted sedge were masking a hatch of little black sedge, & also baetis (PMD), blue winged olive & a #16 gray mayfly whose identity I’m not sure of. While I sat watching the water, an olive stonefly landed on my ear. I picked it off, a #12. So, I determined that the classic ambiguity of the situation might be properly met with an equally ambiguous fly pattern, something impressionistic to simulate the emerging nymph stage of at least a couple of the insects the trout might be eating. This simple, all-purpose soft-hackle flymph (emerger) proved to be the mojo needed to turn the evening around. What were trout taking it for? I don't know. Never figured it out. In #16, I suspect it is taken for spotted sedge, baetis, or the emerging nymph of the unidentified gray mayfly. Main thing is, whatever the trout were eating, this one covered it nicely.   

Turkey & Starling Nymph

Hook: #14-#16

Thread: Wine UNI 8/0

Body: Mottled turkey tail – choose a secondary feather with close mottling – (6 swords for a #14) twisted with the tying thread (I leave the tag end of my tying thread long enough to twist with the feather swords)

Hackle: Starling ~ & finish

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:   

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Inner Light Sedge Emerger

     It usually takes a few seasons to develop a new fly design to the point I feel confident about it – & some never get there, the idea discarded altogether as ill-conceived. But I love it when one works out to take a place among the distinguished company in the box, as a member in good standing. It is only when one makes it to the stage that I am able to regard & fish it without reservation that a fly design is given a name, & a spot in the box that is more than temporary. The Inner Light Sedge Emerger is a version of the Bunny Sedge tied with a tinsel abdomen that I started experimenting with last season. The design showed some promise last year, though I didn’t fish it much, favoring the old stand-bys. This year, as the sedge emergence season gains momentum, with spotted & grannom sedges coming off the river as of this writing, I thought to include the ILSE in the rotation of usual stuff, & over the past couple of weeks it has emerged as the bait of choice. The trout’s preferences for imitation (of the same insect) does trend then change, but for now this one’s having its day (note: it's been mostly cloudy); swung & dangled.

Inner Light Sedge Emerger

Hook: #12-#14 Daiichi 1150

Thread: Camel UNI 8/0

Abdomen: Green mylar tinsel – coat with head cement

Thorax: Brown hare’s mask

Hackle: Brahma hen (brown partridge or grouse will substitute) – one turn

Head: Brown hare’s mask twisted in tying thread – split-thread, dubbing loop or twist-dubbed so that the ‘head’ (actually a continuation of the thorax) appears fairly shaggy – about three turns in front of the hackle ~ & finish

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird