September 1, 2013

Allen Afield: Attempting to catch bluefish with fly rod? Try a little cleverness

By Ken Allen

For much of my adult life, I had fished for Atlantic salmon in Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where guides told me long-lining was illegal for the king of freshwater game fish. That law struck me as odd, even though I seldom resorted to using the tactic in Maine, where it's legal.

Some Mainers long-line for spring and late-summer trout in rivers, when the day is producing no fish, and those scenarios unfold like this: We're fishing flowing water diligently without a single hookup, and at such times, we ask, "Have foraging or spawning trout or landlocks entered a river or large stream yet from a lake or pond?"

That's the $64,000 question.

My solution: After sitting in a canoe or wading in flowing water for a long, fruitless period in a day, I may strip all the fly line off my reel and let the fly drift downstream over 100 feet below me, allowing the lure to swing back and forth in the current. Then, I reel the fly back steadily, which often generates a strike and tells me if salmonids have come into the river yet -- a tactic when all else has failed. This simple trick catches salmonids with lockjaw.

In my humble opinion, a fly fisher long-lining in a river looks remarkably similar to a bait angler live-lining in tidal currents in the ocean, the latter a tactic utilized by anglers with live bait. Saltwater fishers in a boat or on shore hook a baitfish such as a pogie, mackerel or eel to a bare hook on a line with a sinker, cast it out and let the fish swim near bottom. Some folks use a slip sinker, too. That's live-lining in a proverbial nutshell.

Circa 1974, after an absence of several decades, bluefish showed up in Maine -- and anglers within a two-hour drive of the coast went bonkers. Within a few weeks, anglers couldn't find a bluefish-sized rod and reel, large lures or 4/0 and 5/0 hooks to buy.

Fly rodders such as myself grabbed our Atlantic-salmon fly rods and reels and bunker flies and went at it, but a problem in the beginning had some folks swearing no one could catch bluefish on a fly rod.

Here's the enigma: To attract a bluefish strike, the lure or fly had to travel at a rapid speed, too fast for a single hand on the fly line to propel the fly swiftly enough to attract a blue. Anglers with spinning or bait-casting reels could easily achieve a high velocity by reeling fast, but fly fishers without that mechanical advantage just live-lined with baitfish.

Soon, though, fly rodders averse to baitfish learned or remembered a trick that fly fishers used in places like the Keys -- a two-handed retrieve. Maine bluefish anglers would fly-cast, point the rod tip at the surface, tuck the reel handle under the armpit and rapidly retrieve the fly line with two hands that moved in a blur. It looked ever so awkward but moved the fly plenty fast and drew strikes. In the process, it showed the fishing public that bluefish were indeed vulnerable to clever fly rodders.

It's odd how fishing tactics evolve. Folks damn such techniques as long-lining, live-lining, weighting flies and casting dry flies downstream instead of upstream. There are places in the world where fly rodders must avoid weighting a fly with lead or unleaded wire or must cast a fly upstream and never down. (Oddly enough to me, French tinsel for a body has always been legal, and unlike Mylar bodies, French tinsel by volume weighs nearly as much as lead wire.)

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