Guiding many fly fishers of various experience levels has been a revelation for me. One observation: most modern fly fishers are not comfortable with, and prefer not to fly fish subsurface below four feet. Most fly fishers have experimented with traditional trout wet flies, streamers, or nymph imitations, but most fly fishers are primarily comfortable fishing the surface, or just a few inches beneath. Why does it matter? Most of the time fish aren't available to us on the surface! and much of the time, fish are readily catchable suspended on drop-offs or on subsurface structure. If you want to catch fish most of the time, you need to be able to make the mental switch and fish subsurface structure. The rewards can be incredible! This is THE time of year to begin probing the depths for fat fish.
Here's a perfect example. During winter one year past, I was fishing a beautiful pond with three other fly fishers. It was cold. Two were guests from Vermont, at that time both were employees of Warmwater Fly Fishing, a magazine for which I used to write. They had graciously brought freezing temperatures, snow flurries, and wind with them to the Atlanta area when they flew down for that year's Shallow Show. One was wearing everything he owned to keep warm. He couldn't get warm.He even put on yellow dish washing gloves over his fishing gloves. It was a sight. (It must have been the humidity and the wind!)
At 10:30AM we slipped our float tubes into a chilly pond and began to probe the clear, forty-five degree water to five or six feet. Each one caught a nice big bluegill (in the 10 inch range) or a fat pound and a half largemouth, on our subsurface flies, but I wasn't quite satisfied with the activity we were experiencing. I politely excused myself and moved across the pond to a steep bank that marked a shelf and a drop-off to 14 foot DEEP water.
I lengthened my leader/tippet to 14 feet -- the tippet was 4 feet of .008 diameter four pound test, tied on a size-10 black streamer, and I lob cast to the steep bank.
Details: The steep bank drops to the water's edge. There is a shallow shelf in three feet of water that extends out into the lake four feet, then the bank drops almost vertically to 14 feet. On the bottom lies some woody cover. I cast the shallow shelf first, slowly probing that water, and caught no fish.
Then I cast to the front edge of the shallow shelf, let my streamer sink on the face of the drop-off, and counted it down to determine productive depth. Since the fly dropped a foot/second, I first probed water five feet deep by counting to "five". I made ten probing casts around the perimeter -- still no strikes.
I re-cast the same area, but this time on the drop at about "nine" I felt a tick, raised the rod, and a fat pound and a half largemouth roared off for the other side of the pond. I extracted my two inch size-10 black streamer from his mouth, quickly released him, and cast right back in there. This time my count got to "ten", and I had just begun my two inch strip retrieve when the rod was almost snatched from my chilly hands. A carbon copy pound and a half largemouth grudgingly surfaced moments later and was released. After the fourth bass in about 5 minutes, I yelled to the others to come over and fish where I was. They didn't seem concerned, so I kept on probing the depths.
For over an hour, I fished the steep drop-off, catching bass after bass, and when I probed shallower water to the left facing the bank, I caught giant (10 to 11 inch) bluegills, along with more pound and a half largemouths. Trying to be a good co-host I invited the others to come over again, but they were enjoying themselves and wouldn't join me.
Just before noon, we broke to relax and get some lunch. I had probed the drop-off carefully from 11AM until lunch and caught 18 bass. After a nice shore lunch, one of the guests and I fished more, and I caught 7 more bass and two big bluegills. Fishing deeper subsurface, he caught more fish, too. In all I caught 25 bass, and two large bluegills by 230PM. The rest of the party averaged about 5 to 7 fish each. Why do I fish subsurface so much of the time? Because most of the time that's where the fish are -- It works!
G E A R
Fish your favorite fly rod with floating fly line. If you prefer sink tip, or sinking lines, you can use them. In this sort of fly fishing, I don't find any advantage in fishing sinking lines. In my experience sinking lines add lots of weight plus drag, and cut sensitivity way down. The lighter the line, the more feel you have. The more feel, the better you will detect subtle "takes". For depths surface to seven feet, use a 7 foot leader with 4 feet of four pound tippet. For depths greater than seven feet, attach a ten foot leader and add 4 feet of tippet, giving you an extra long leader. You'll need it. The extra tippet helps your fly sink faster, and stay in front of the fish. Your light tippet will help your heavy, but small streamer stay at depth.
For depths to four feet, about any small suspending fly or streamer will work. To fish depths to 12 and 14 feet, use sparsely tied, heavily weighted streamers. They will allow you to work more water quickly, but still get your fly in front of the fish.
This style of fishing is simple, but it requires that you BE PATIENT! and be prepared to modify your cast. Small streamers can be cast mostly traditionally. Heavier streamers must be cast with an open "double haul", a "lob" cast, or even a single haul with an open loop. These are not delicate flies, and this is not tight loop casting, but it will deliver your fly to the water so it can sink to the fish.
On the water, drop your fly (already tied to your leader) in the water and note its sink rate. It should be a foot/second. Now, cast to the drop-off you want to fish. In water to four feet, count to three and begin retrieving in SHORT -- TWO INCH strips. Strip this way, pausing every two or three strips for 2 seconds, then continue to strip. This keeps your fly at depth, in front of the fish. Repeat the process all the way in. Be careful when you pick up your line to cast. You will catch a surprising number of fish that strike when you are pulling your fly out of the depths to the surface.
To probe water four to seven feet, and seven to 14 feet deep, simply use heavier flies, a longer leader/tippet, and a longer count down. Vary the count down, and vary the weight of the fly, but stay with the two inch strip. The food items you are imitating move in short bursts. With a heavy size-10 streamer, count slowly to ten or twelve. That puts your fly at about 10 feet (in still water, no wind.) Count as long as fifteen to get the fly to bottom and strip it (jig it) across the bottom. Fish will attack it! After seeing this happening, John Likakis (right) former editor of Warmwater Fly Fishing magazine suggested that I write this particular article. Because of the importance of this concept, you'll find many more articles on my website about fishing subsurface.
The next time there's no surface action, and you can't get a strike fishing shallow subsurface -- fish the drop-offs. I'll bet you'll catch fish! Become skilled at this process and you'll become really DANGEROUS!
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