Fly-fishing is usually associated with cold mountain streams, trout and salmon and a PhD in entomology. A rich tradition suggests this scenario. But many of the warmwater species can also be caught with fly-fishing gear. Many of these species don’t see fly presentations very often, if at all, which often makes fly tactics work magic when nothing else will. What’s more, practically any species is great sport on fly tackle, and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Most of the warmwater species will readily take a fly, but these are the most commonly sought after fish, along with some recommended strategies for catching them.
Five- to 15-pound pike are commonly taken on fly gear, and provide plenty of fighting sport.
In the last decade, interest in fly-fishing for northern pike has grown more rapidly than for almost any other species. The reason is easy to understand—pike take a fly aggressively and are tremendous sport. Fish from 5 to 15 pounds, the sort commonly caught on fly gear, are the teenagers of the pike world, rough-and-tumble, and well worth the effort. Trophies, rare by any means, also come to the fly. From personal experience, I can attest, a 40-inch pike on a fly rod is instant mayhem.
Eight-weight gear is a good place to start, and I like a 9-foot rod. With this equipment large flies can be cast and big fish can be landed. Weight-forward floating line is suitable for most pike fishing, but I also carry intermediate line in case the pike are holding on the deep weed edges.
The best flies include deer hair sliders and divers, minnow imitators like the Stu Apte or Lefty’s Deceivers, rabbit hide "bunny flies,” and Clouser minnows. Poppers, the sort preferred by bass anglers, also draw savage strikes from pike. While many pike anglers use flies 8 or 10 inches long, 4- to 6-inch versions are easier to cast and are very effective. Whatever size fly you choose, be sure to use a stout leader, preferably one with a wire tip on the end.
A mess of fly rod bluegills -- if these guys grew to the size of tarpon, no one would dare catch them.
Bluegills and the rich variety of sunfish across North America are prime fly rod quarry. If bluegills grew as big as tarpon, no one would dare catch them! They are plentiful and provide excellent sport. Urban ponds are an overlooked spot for bluegills. If you can get access to water hazards on a golf course, you may catch the bluegill of a lifetime. But just about every pond will have some variety of sunfish in it. These fish live in a fertilized environment and can reach nice sizes if fishing pressure isn’t too heavy.
For bluegills, a 4-weight or less is suitable, with a weight-forward floating line to match. Almost year round in open water there will be bluegills in 5 feet of water or less, so sinking line is not needed. A 5-inch bluegill on a 4-weight will put up a tussle that will provide sport to the most experienced angler. An 8- or 10-inch fish will tie knots in a fly rod!
Tiny poppers, no more than -inch across, with #8 or #10 hooks, work great. Terrestrials like ants, hoppers, beetles, and crickets are also good choices. Don’t overlook bumblebee patterns—bluegills have a particular preference for bees. In the last couple of years, I have had success with a #10 Madam X, usually thought of as a trout fly. The deer hair body and wing make this a buoyant fly, and I tie a chartreuse lump of foam to the back of the fly for visibility. Add a dropper fly to the popper’s hook (a #10 wet fly or nymph for instance) and you’ll often double up with a two-fish tag-team tussle! No need to twitch or jerk the popper. Bluegills will appear beneath the popper, examine it at leisure, then usually attack.
Largemouth, Smallmouth Bass
A nice Ontario wilderness largemouth bass taken on a fly rod.
While there are important differences between largemouth and smallmouth bass, there are sufficient similarities to consider them together.
Depending on the size of the flies and fish expected, gear between 4- and 8-weight, usually with a rod 8 or 9 feet long, is appropriate. Weight-forward floating line that matches the rod is the best bet.
Deer hair poppers, divers and sliders are good choices. Tube flies are excellent minnow imitators. Wooden or plastic poppers also are effective for both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Flies a couple of inches long are typically the way to go.
Fly rod fishing for smallmouth is an especially fun and productive method for stream fish. Many of the best places in North American for smallmouth are in rivers. The Susquehanna in New York and Pennsylvania; the New River in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia; the French Broad River in North Carolina and Tennessee; and the Potomac River from West Virginia to the District of Columbia are merely a few examples.
In general, fly rod approaches work well on bass when they are shallow, around cover, or in spots where streams enter a larger body of water.
Stripers, Wipers (Hybrids) And White Bass
Landlocked striped bass, white bass and their hybrid species are the "true bass," as black bass are members of the sunfish family.
Stripers and wipers can grow large in freshwater, and specimens at 15 pounds or more are not uncommon.They are, of course, stocked fish. If the fisheries managers near you do not stock stripers and/or wipers, you may need to travel some. Serious fly rod anglers need stout gear; 8-weight, 9-foot rods are a good start. White bass are smaller, with a 2-pound fish being a pretty dandy sample.
Stripers, wipers and whites are all minnow feeders, so flies that resemble baitfish are good choices. Deceivers and other streamer varieties work great. Tube flies are also effective. Any size larger than a #4 is a good place to start and a #2/0 is probably as large as required. Since the forage preferred by striped bass and kin is usually from the herring family, flies with large eyes make good sense.
Try fly-fishing in spring when these species are driving schools of shad toward the surface and feeding in frenzy. Diving gulls are an excellent clue to the presence of surface feeding fish.Cast a fly into the melee, and hang on. In reservoirs near my home, stripers, white bass (and where present wipers), and largemouth bass are often mixed together. Poppers and streamers are good choices here.
With the recovery efforts underway on the East Coast, striper populations moving upstream from the Atlantic Ocean have improved dramatically. When the stripers are in freshwater streams, fly-fishing is an excellent way to catch them. The stripers move from deep hole to deep hole. To catch them, a fly has to be close to the bottom. Sinking line, with a lead core tippet, stout leader, and a Clouser-style fly are needed. An example of where this fishing is found in spring is the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. Seven-pound fish are about average for this spring run of stripers, but fish up to 20 pounds are fairly common.
If you’re not sure what you’re doing when it comes to fly gear, there are lots of tackle shops and mail order houses that can recommend a combination of rod, reel, line and other gear. It is crucial in fly-fishing that all the parts fit one another. Ask around if unsure. And be sure to ask someone who knows; a specialty shop is the best bet.
Many local fly shops also offer lessons. Fly-casting is not magic. With a little coaching, most folks can become competent in a short time. Fly-fishing...it’s not just for the cold-water folks. It’s not only a deadly way to catch warmwater fish; it’s pretty darn fun too!