On Memorial Day weekend, folks often fish for brookies, salmon, browns and rainbows in ponds and lakes – still-water fishing at its finest. When fly rodders think of this fishing in late May, an image may dominate – evening scenes with trout rising to hatching insects perched on flat, obsidian-colored surfaces splashed with streaks of red and gold from a setting sun.
Often, though, a Maine reality intervenes.
Those evening hatches captured in magazine photos occur more often from June through early August, particularly in the north country. In May, water may be too cold for hatches and wind may stand waves on their ends. In those conditions, salmonids often hold below the surface, even on the bottom in more shallow water.
For consistent success, knowledgeable fly rodders in a pitching canoe or boat use two anchors that are attached on each end of the craft.
This strategy stops the boat from swinging in the wind, which solves an irrefutable problem best illustrated when a caster with a sinking fly line stands on a dock, casting during a calm, sunlit morning.
With the right light to see the line and lake bottom, the caster can watch the line descending.
Then, if the caster swings the rod tip left or right for a foot or so, that movement stops the descent and may even cause the line to rise in the water column. If the caster swings the line multiple times to simulate a swinging canoe, it really slows the fly on its way to the bottom.
Still-water fly fishing by competent fly rodders is a methodical three-step process:
• Fly fishers cast fast-sinking fly lines and maybe weighted flies or split shot on the tippet to sink the offering faster. They cast the line as far as possible – 50 to 90 feet or more. Those booming casts cover more water, crucial when waiting a long time for a fly to sink 20 to 30 feet because fish seldom strike while the line sinks; it’s wasted fishing time. They smack a submerged fly on the retrieve, so the quicker it gets down, the faster a fly rodder can strip the fly back for a strike.
• After each cast, I like to feed out loose line so the sinking line makes an L-shape in the water. The side of the L extends from the rod tip downward, and the bottom of the L parallels the pond or lake bottom.
That way the retrieve comes back at the same deep depth for a longer distance, rather than moving upward diagonally while starting from the first line strip.
After all, we want to present the fly at a particular depth because fish often hold at certain level on the bottom or at a measured depth above. We discover the correct level with experimental exploration or a fish finder.
Fly rodders may not use a fish finder but instead choose a watch to time the descent of the fly. If a fly caster catches a fish on an L-shaped, 35-second sink, he or she may continue the presentation to catch more fish at that depth – or strike out. Then, it’s time to go searching again.
• When I first cast on water, I anchor and make 12 casts around the canoe – first to 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock and so forth until I reach 12 o’clock. I time the descent of the cast – say 10 seconds – before the retrieve. The next series around the canoe descends 15 seconds and the next 20 seconds until reaching bottom. This strategy usually finds the level where fish are holding – often dictated by water temperature or forage like a school of smelt.
A fish finder shortens the search – I applaud folks who have entered the modern age with this tool.
With nymphs, I roll the line over my finger to inch it along. With a baitfish imitation such as a bucktail or streamer, I strip quite fast. When imitating smelts, my stripping hand moves in a blur and recovers line two feet or more at a time. With fast retrieves, I hold the fly line loosely with my thumb and index finger in case a heavy fish strikes. With that method the line snaps from my grasp and doesn’t break the tippet.
While casting at different depths, I methodically switch the speed and strip length of the fly until something works.
For sure, varying speeds and stripping lengths or cadences will show the caster what retrieve works to keep a consistent bend in the rod, because the fly rodder has perfectly imitated the forage behavior.
Razor-sharp hooks help for obvious reasons: A well-honed point bites into the mouth better when a fish hits.
A test of sharpness works for me. I like to slide the hook point along my thumbnail. If it doesn’t immediately stick into the nail it’s too dull and must be honed. I like those three-sided, grooved honing stones. Running the point along the groove sharpens it enough to bite into the nail.
Everyone loves to cover rises when trout dimple the surface, but still-water success often requires a deeper presentation with sinking lines.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: [email protected]