Fly Fishing the Water Column Effectively
images and article by Bill Byrd

Learning to fish the entire available water column has changed my whole outlook on fly fishing. I hope you will use the following information to improve your fly fishing skills and pleasure!

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I have fly fished since 1968, but beginning in the late 1980s through the past several years, I have become acutely aware that most fly fishers are focused on surface fly fishing - PERIOD! On the face of it there is NOTHING wrong with being focused on top water fly fishing. Like MOST fly fishers, I love to catch fish on top!

Conditions anytime will create a good example of when to fish subsurface. I have fished bodies of water with water surface temperatures ranging from 41.9F to 43F. In a river system I found water temperatures varying from 44.6F to 48.2F. Those temperatures suggest winter conditions. Otherwise, when I encounter water surface temperatures below 56F, I spend most of my time fishing subsurface. Spring and full summer will also find the motherlode of fish feeding subsurface, most of the time. I have also found that probing subsurface in ANY conditions usually yields nice fly fishing activity!

The same principles apply all year long. Why? It is estimated that only 10% of fish actually fish on surface at any given time. The only real exception I can think of from actual experience is when a true "feeding frenzy" starts. Then almost any fish in the area will activate and feed on surface if that is where the forage is.

By probing the subsurface waters I have caught plenty of fish in many varying circumstances. Using the subsurface system I describe in this article, you can do it, too.

There is a fundamental problem if you aren't ready to follow fish subsurface when the fish are holding below the surface - and that is most of the time! The issue is whether you want to catch fish or just catch fish on surface. This article will define a workable plan to help you catch those fish holding subsurface.

When I originally wrote this article, I had just returned from a fly fishing trip on a southeastern river system. Had I worked the surface, I probably wouldn't have caught anything. Instead, I probed fish holding spots and the productive presentation was black size-10 streamers bounced across the bottom. Fishing in really contrary conditions, I caught over 40 fish from 5 different species.

Because I had a subsurface plan, I fully enjoyed the trip. There are many articles on this website that contain tips about subsurface fly fishing, and I hope that they will give you additional insight that will help you build subsurface fly fishing skill.

Now when I approach a river, I probe subsurface PRIMARILY, but if I see top water action I'll try that out, too. My experience suggests that a subsurface presentation will be the most productive in a river system.

I keep a good fishing logbook and I have tracked my catch-and-release numbers since the late 1980s. Beginning in 1996 my totals better than doubled the preceeding two years. From 1996 forward my catch and release totals have stayed consistent or even increased dramatically. 1996 is the first year that I began to fish the ENTIRE WATER COLUMN! It makes a huge difference.

The number of fish that I caught isn't the important point. The point is when I developed a subsurface system that let me fish subsurface easily -- I caught dramatically more fish! In fact in 2001, I caught and released 10 TIMES the number of fish that I caught in 1993, the first year in the comparison. The better I become at fishing subsurface, the more fish I catch. It really is that simple. If you are interested in catching more fish more consistently -- read on. You can do it, too. Whether you fish a 4-weight for mountain trout, a six-weight for largemouth bass, or a 12-weight for False Albacore, this system will work for you every day in any season, because you'll have a plan to FISH THE ENTIRE WATER COLUMN!

What makes my system work? The right tackle, the right leader/tippet, the right flies, and the right presentation for a particular fly fishing situation.

ACCESSING FISH

You can fish the water column in most ANY circumstance. There are trade-offs, but you can access water and fish it ALL with great success. Your method of accessing the water will vary based on need. Of the choices (left) I really prefer a float tube because I can blend with the surroundings and spook fewer fish. In really shallow water, I quietly use my shallow draft boat. There is less disturbance and less siltation with my boat. Wading is THE MOST intimate access, but can really spook fish from an area. When wading, think ahead and employ every measure of stealth possible! There are pros and cons for all of these methods of covering the water. You can fish the entire water column with any of these access choices.

As new fishing platforms like the latest generations of rocker hull inflatable pontoon boats have evolved, a much more stable way to access more fish in even more remote areas has been given to us. My inflatable pontoon boats have replaced my old float tube in all but the most inaccessible areas.

In fact the latest inflatable pontoons allow me to carry full fly gear, food, camping gear, foul weather gear, and all the tackle and camera gear I need. I can't do that with a float tube.

The inflatable pontoons allow good river floats and large lake coverage to allow really good access to fish in out of the way places.

GEAR

For local waters and normally accessable species, begin with a light weight to medium action two- to four-weight rod, eight to nine feet long, and a properly matched WF2F to WF4F line. For lighter fish species these fly lines will be heavy enough to help you build skill casting heavier sub-surface flies, and you can better feel what is going on with your fly. A good reel with a silky smooth, readily adjustable drag is essential. Have a selection of 7,9, and 12 foot knotless tapered leaders suited for your line weight, plus a selection of high quality tippet material from 6 down to 2 pound rating to lengthen your leader/tippet to as long as 14 feet and help your fly sink and stay at depth. For large fish like stripers, big largemouth bass, rowdy trout, or medium to heavy salt species, 6-, 8- to 10-weight outfits and flies tied on salt hooks are needed. Floating, intermediate sink, and integrated head sink lines are needed to match most conditions when fishing the water column deep.

LEADERS/TIPPETS

Leader length/diameter and tippet strength/diameter are very important in this system. If you choose a thick diameter tippet material, it will actually impede your fly's ability to sink. In fact that is one way to adjust sink rate. That is why I recommend a selection of 7, 9, and 12 foot knotless tapered leaders suited for your line weight, plus a selection of high quality tippet material from 6 down to 2 pound rating to lengthen your leader/tippet to as long as 14 feet and help your fly sink and stay at depth. If you HAVE to use stronger than 6 pound tippet, use as fine a diameter as possible. You should step down at least .002 to .003 inches in diameter from your leader to tippet. I normally fish a 9 foot tapered leader ending with a 6 pound .010 inch diameter. Then I lengthen the total leader/tippet by adding 24" to 48" of 4 pound .008 inch diameter tippet. This addition of fine 4 pound tippet helps to sink my fly, and it turns over as well as it can while casting.

Another important point is that I use mono leaders/tippet material. I have used braided leaders, and just don't care for them. I'm trying to eliminate ALL the buoyancy possible. Mono is easy to find in about any strength, abrasion resistance, and diameter you would desire.

For shallow subsurface covering the surface to 4 feet try a 7 foot leader ending in .010 inch diameter with 24 inches of .008 inch diameter 4 pound tippet. For mid subsurface covering 4 to 7 feet tie on a 9 foot leader ending in .010 inch diameter, and tie on a 24" to 36" 4 to 5 pound .008 inch diameter four pound tippet. To fish deep subsurface or 7 to 12 feet, use a 12 foot leader ending with .010 inch diameter and tie on 30" to 40" of four pound .008 diameter tippet. You'll get a 15 or 15 foot leader that will really get down. Set your leaders/tippets up using these guidelines. Fish small, heavily weighted streamers and you'll find getting a fly down to fish isn't so difficult after all.

FLIES

Generally when folks ask for fly suggestions these days I tell them to find small, heavily weighted streamers in black, chartreuse, crayfish, and other fish forage colors. You can fish subsurface with your current selection of streamers, wet flies, and nymphs to fish your current fly tackle with floating line to catch deep, feeding fish.

For the sunfishes including bass, plus trout probe the surface with size-10 to -14 poppers, size-12 to -14 sponge water spiders, and your favorite small dry flies. For shallow subsurface have a selection of size-14 to -12 leggy nymphs, and size-10 to -12 Clouser minnows, and other slowly sinking wet flies to probe the surface to 4 foot range. Then for deep water presentation, complete your selection with streamers, nymphs, and a selection of deep size-8 to size-10 heavy streamer patterns. That's all you need to start. You can fish most waters with these basic styles of flies for just about every fish you'll encounter from big bluegills, giant trout, smallmouth bass, spotted seatrout, even juvenile Tarpon! For larger stripers, hybrids, large black bass, and the salt water species that forage on large prey, larger flies tied on strong salt hooks are needed, but the principles of fishing the water column will remain the same.

Even for saltwater species, this simple process works. Look up my article on fly fishing St. Simons. We fished 3- and 4-weights for spotted seatrout with long leaders, the countdown method, gray/white Clouser minnows™ and caught trout in tidal creek mouths in 7 feet of water. The trout hit just two feet off bottom.

I have also caught lesser Amberjack and Bonita off the coast of Alabama in over 80 feet of water. I fished a 4 piece 10-weight with 300 grain line, big Lefty's Deceivers, and sunk the fly down 25 feet to schools of fish suspended over wrecks. Then fast strips received hard strikes for extremely strong fish! You can catch stripers and hybrids on area lakes the same way. Heavy fly tackle, sinking lines, and the countdown method to sink flies. This takes some patience, but IT PAYS OFF!

YOUR APPROACH

How do you approach a body of water? First BELIEVE that fish are feeding at some depth BECAUSE THEY ARE! When you first arrive observe everything. Look for feeding birds, and fish. Look for insect hatches and subtle rises to those insects. Look for obvious features like points, shelves, flats with brush overgrowing the water, woody cover, creek inlets, oyster beds, and sandbars. Examine rip rap, creek inlets, anything that will normally hold fish. Look closely for signs of surface activity, but if none is noted, probe water and determine at what depth the fish are feeding. Then fish patiently, and the fish will confirm the right pattern!

THE COUNTDOWN METHOD

This is simply a method of sinking your fly into the strike zone for targeted fish. By knowing the sink rate of your fly you can estimate how long it will take to get to depth. Then you can cast, count while your fly sinks in the water column, then impart the appropriate presentation as you strip it back. The graphic (left) illustrates the countdown. At a foot per second sink rate, it will take about 7 seconds for your heavily weighted streamer to be down to 5 to 7 feet. Yes this is simple, but it takes thought and skill. Why? The tremendous variety of fly tackle, lines, leaders/tippets, and flies is endless. Current, leader/tippet diameters and sink rate, wind, all influence this process. What you use in a fly fishing situation depends on knowledge that builds over time. Once mastered, the applications and impact on your fly fishing will be amazing! You will catch more fish than you ever expected.

THE WATER COLUMN

SURFACE: Even if you don't see surface action, explore fish holding cover with your favorite surface fly. Experiment to discover an effective triggering action and fish it. Use poppers small water spiders, or dry flies to probe cover that should hold bluegills, bass, trout, or whatever species you seek. If you get strikes, proceed. If the action is very slow or you don't get strikes in ten casts, continue to watch for activity, but prepare to probe shallow subsurface.

SHALLOW SUB-SURFACE: Re-fish the same areas you just probed with top water flies, but this time probe from just below the surface to 4 feet. Tie on a light, slow sinking wet fly, or a nymph. Tie it on, then drop the fly in the water, and count the seconds to drop a foot. Then count the fly down to desired depth, and probe shallow fish-holding cover varying your presentation until you get a strike. Emulate the minute actions of small insects as if there were a fish watching -- there probably is! Try slow retrieves, then faster retrieves, but keep the strips to no more than 2 inches. Why? Everything needs to be to scale. If you catch fish, note the countdown time, repeat it, and work the pattern. If there are no strikes in 10 casts, go to the next step.

MID SUB-SURFACE: 4 feet to 7 feet. To probe deeper water, re-tie a longer tippet to extend your leader/tippet length to ten feet. Try a black 1/50th ounce size-12 or size-10 weighter streamer. Before you probe the 4 to 7 foot water with this fly, drop it in the water and note its sink rate. Now cast to drop offs along shoreline cover and count it down four to six seconds. If you drag along the bottom, shorten your count, but retrieve in 2 inch strips all the way back. Bump the bottom or keep the fly just above the bottom as you strip retrieve. If you still aren't locating fish, proceed go to the next step.

DEEP SUB-SURFACE: 7 feet to 12 feet. Re-tie your tippet to extend your leader/tippet length to twelve feet. The finer the tippet, the better the fly will sink and stay at depth. With floating fly line, you'll need the thinnest, heaviest, deep sinking streamer available, so tie on a black size-8 to -10 1/36th ounce streamer.

Verify your fly's sink rate. Then probe the next level of deepest available water in suspected fish holding areas. Cast the fly and give it a seven to fifteen count. Watch for strikes on the drop! Retrieve in slow 2 inch strips and pause between them 2 or 3 seconds to help the streamer stay at depth. You should contact fish in this deeper water holding on or suspended above structure. Once you make contact with fish, continue to fish the active pattern and enjoy! Watch for strikes when you pick the fly up, too.

This system works whether you are fishing for bonita on the Gulf coast of Alabama with a 10-weight system and 300 grain sinking line taking a big Clouser minnow deep to fish suspending over a wreck, or in a deep pool in a north Georgia trout stream with long leader, fine tippet, and a weighted streamer probing for fat trout.

See my article Fish Sinking Lines Better in technical articles for more details on the countdown method and a chart on relative sink times for sinking lines.

THIS SYSTEM WORKS!

Each fishing day one of my greatest challenges is to ensure that my guest fly fishers AND I catch fish EVERY trip. I use this system more than 110 days annually, and catch thousands of fish each year. My guests catch surprising numbers of quality fish consistently. The more skill and confidence you build with this system, the better you'll become with it! PLEASE - carefully release most fish. If you adopt this fly fishing system, and build skill using it -- you're going to catch many more fish.


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