Photo of the Month: Summer Speck

Photo of the Month: Summer Speck

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealth Mode: Light and Shadows

The original idea of "Stealth Mode" was created for an article I did in the Little River Journal quite a few years ago. Yesterday, while on a guide trip, something happened that is quite common, yet it struck me in a special way. It reminded me of the original premise of Stealth Mode and so I decided to expand on that original idea.

There are a multitude of opinions and ideas about the importance of stealth in fly fishing. Probably more accurately, I should say there are lots of opinions and ideas about the importance of different elements of stealth, such as whether clothing color matters. Thus, for this article, I'm going to mention up front that I'm writing mostly from the perspective of fly fishing in the Smokies. Furthermore, I'm quite interested in differing opinions or ideas because I can always learn more, so please leave a comment if you have similar or other ideas on the subject!

The moment that motivated this particular "Light and Shadows" version of Stealth Mode happened when my client and I were faced with a choice: cross the creek where I normally do, or continue working up the bank we were already on. I had already mentioned to him that we should cross when I looked upstream and noticed the distinct difference. The far (east) bank was lit up by the late afternoon sun slanting in from the southwest. The near (west) bank was shaded by the overhanging trees and rhododendron. Plenty of light was coming through increasingly bare branches, but there was definitely a LOT more light on the other bank. If we moved up that side of the creek, we would practically be glowing. Not a good way to approach fish if you ask me! 


Fly fishing from the shady bank on Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains


So, I mentioned our options to him, and we decided to stay on the near side of the stream. Turns out it was a good decision as we caught a fish shortly just upstream. If we had been on the other bank, I'm not so certain that a caught fish would have been the result. In fact, based on all the fish that I had seen spooking out ahead of us in the seasonally low water of fall, I doubt we would have caught any fish in that pool. 

I should take a minute to add a caveat. This advice applies more than anything to flatter water such as the long pool we were approaching when this moment happened. In broken pocket water, you can often get much closer to the fish, especially as long as you stay relatively low. The fast water helps hide your approach. That said, we continued on up around the bend on the shady side of the stream, and I think it helped us out. The difference between the two banks was at times striking and at other times less obvious, but staying in the shadows is generally a good idea in the Smokies.



In addition to considering which side is sunny or shady, you should also consider your own shadow. As we moved upstream, the late day sun was slanting across the river from our left. At times, our shadows were falling across the stream in the direction we wanted to fish. Sending a big dark shadow over a pool is as good a way to spook fish as anything I know. Instead, fish from further back. In fact, it would probably be better to cross over and fish from the sunny bank instead of casting a shadow across the pool. 

So, next time you are out fly fishing, consider being stealthy as more than just sneaking up behind boulders and crawling on the ground to approach a fish. Consider the light and how you interact with it. That consideration could make or break your fishing trip. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

How To Select the Perfect Fly Rod

As a fly fishing guide, I am asked about the perfect fly rod a lot. People have a variety of questions, but they all boil down to this: what is the best fly rod? These questions can be in the form of a beginner asking what the best fly rod for a beginner is, or they can be asked by intermediate anglers looking to upgrade. For example, "I've been fly fishing for a while and I'm ready for a better/nicer/more awesome/(fill in the blank here) rod. What fly rod should I buy?" Before I get into attempting to answer what is always a loaded question, I want to clearly state that this is an extremely subjective question. However, I'll try to give a reasonable answer based on what type of fishing you are looking to do. 

What I'm NOT here to do is to sell a certain brand or type of fly rod. There are lots of good makers out there, and probably the best advice I can give anyone is to go into your local fly shop and cast a bunch of rods. Do this even if you aren't experienced. The shop staff will probably even give you a free casting lesson if you need it. Wherever you are on your fly fishing journey, one rod will probably speak to you more than the others. Chances are good that it won't be that $900 high end model, but if it is and you can afford it, go for it. There are plenty of good rods being made these days that won't break the bank, so make sure the fly shop staff know your budget before they start lining up some rods.

First, you need to consider what kind of fishing you plan to do. If you don't know the answer to this, then find your local fly shop or a local guide and take a lesson or guided trip to see if this is even for you. However, chances are that you have already done some research and figured out that you want to fly fish for trout or bass and panfish or maybe even saltwater. Whatever you plan to do will affect your rod choice. I'll tailor this explanation to middle and east Tennessee, but the principles will apply to wherever you want to go. 

Here in Tennessee, people fly fish for trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, musky, stripers, carp, and a few other random species. For fishing on moving water, your options will range from small headwater streams like we find for trout in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to large tailwater rivers like the Clinch River, Holston River, and Caney Fork River. These large rivers contain trout, bass, and other species. 

For fly fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains, streams range from tiny brook trout water choked with rhododendron, to good sized low elevation trout rivers that also contain a few smallmouth bass. For smaller headwater streams, your best rod choice will be in the two through four weight range and be between 7' 6" to 9' long. You can fish most streams with longer rods. Only the very smallest, tightest brook trout streams fish best with anything less than 7' 6". On those smaller streams, I actually tend to go heavier on the rod while also going shorter. A four weight will roll cast and bow and arrow cast into tight places better than lighter lined rods will. These streams are mostly hard to access and are not for most anglers due to the work required in fishing them. The average Smoky Mountain stream will fish best with a rod in the three to five weight range and range from 8' to 10'+. In my opinion, the best all around rod for most fly fishing in the Smokies is a 10' three weight rod. This rod works fine for most brook trout streams and excels in the low to mid elevation streams that feature large pocket water stretches. This advice applies to any higher gradient pocket water stream from the eastern US to the Rockies and beyond. 

This seems like a good time to address a common misconception about fly rods for the mountains. There are a lot of people who think you need a shorter rod to stay out of the trees. While there are certainly some streams where that applies, the vast majority of mountain trout fishing is easier with a longer rod. If you want to hit the sweet spot and get one rod that is a good compromise, then go with an 8' or 8' 6" rod. That said, there are many places on larger streams where a longer rod will help. 

With practice and experience, that longer rod will rarely be a liability. More often than not, the extra reach will help you get to fish that you otherwise would have missed. This is almost always true when you are high sticking. On larger pools where you have room to cast, the longer rod is also helpful for better roll casting although not mandatory. It also helps to make mending easier since you can pick up more line prior to each mend. The shorter you go on your fly rod, the better your line management skills better be. Things like mending, a reach cast, and other line management tricks come into greater focus with shorter rods. A longer rod is a tool that will make even below average anglers look good.

One other thing about a good fly rod to consider is the action. For fly fishing in the mountains, if you are getting a rod primarily for nymph fishing, get something that is on the faster end of the spectrum. The ability to quickly set the hook is essential, and a fast rod will help make this happen. For dry or dry/dropper fishing, you can fish something slower if you like. My all time favorite Smokies rod for small to medium sized water is a very slow rod that makes dry fly fishing a blast. That said, while the rod works okay for nymphing, it is probably not the best tool for the job. A good all around action for the Smokies would probably be medium fast or fast. Just remember, however, that personal preference goes a long ways towards making this decision. If you like a softer rod, go ahead and get one and learn to set the hook harder and faster. 

As we move away from the mountains and to larger streams and rivers, we need a rod that can handle some larger fish. If you are fly fishing primarily for trout on larger streams and rivers, then you will want a rod somewhere between a four and a six weight and ranging from 8' 6" to 10'+. Probably one of the best rods out there right now for this is a 10' four or five weight rod. The extra reach of the 10' rod makes mending a breeze and you can seriously air out some line with that long rod also. The longer rods are perfect nymph fishing but also handle dry fly rigs with ease. A standard 9' five weight will be a good all around rod for most situations on the tailwaters. If you want a compromise that will also do well for some streamer fishing and light bass, then go with the six weight. The six weight would also be a good choice if you plan on traveling a lot to fly fish out west. Anytime the wind starts to blow, a heavier rod is helpful. 

As far as action goes, I would recommend staying away from super fast rods for this application. They cast line a mile, which is nice of course, but can be tough to get a hook set with the 6x tippets that are usually required on our tailwaters. A rod with a slightly softer tip (medium fast action) will help protect that fine tippet much better than the ultra fast cannons many rod manufacturers are making these days. If you plan on fishing mostly out west, then you can disregard this advice and go for the faster rod. Again, this is for the wind that one would expect out there.

Moving into fly fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, we need a rod that can handle larger fish and especially larger flies. I routinely use a rod in the four to six weight range for wading smaller streamers for smallmouth, but once I'm in the boat on a larger smallmouth river, I want a minimum of a six weight rod and more often will be throwing a seven weight. Don't be afraid to go even heavier. Anything in the 8' 6" to 9' range is fine for this task. Personally, I prefer a faster rod when I'm throwing big wind resistant bugs. The ability to power through wind and cast farther in general means a fast or at least medium fast action is required for this type of fishing. A good 9' seven weight rod is also an excellent streamer rod for trout when you are fishing high water out of a drift boat. My seven weight rods have the option of floating or sinking or sink tip lines depending on the fishing I'm doing that day. I've caught everything from trout to bass to stripers to musky on a seven weight and have also used it in the saltwater when chasing snook and other species. 

Speaking of stripers and musky, these apex predator species are probably the largest fish most people will ever catch in Tennessee on a fly rod. Overall, fast action rods in the eight to ten weight range are ideal for these species. You'll be throwing large, wind resistant flies most of the time. Be prepared to have a sore arm by the end of the day when chasing these critters with heavy rods. While the rod is important, a quality reel is probably even more important for the stripers in particularly. Make sure you have a quality reel with a smooth and strong drag. The stripers will generally show you your backing very quickly on the first run. For musky, not so much.

With these larger rods and reels, I recommend getting a setup that can handle saltwater because at some point, you're going to want to try that out. A good eight or nine weight striper and musky rod can also make a good rod for redfish, snook, and even smaller tarpon. This same advice also goes with the six and seven weight rods if possible. The more versatile your equipment, the more enjoyment it can bring you over the years. 

Speaking of tarpon and other saltwater species, I'm going to leave selecting a good saltwater fly rod for another day. There is a lot that goes in to the selection of a good fly rod, and I'll stick with common fresh water fly fishing for this article. 

About that 9' five weight... If you have done much research at all, you've probably found the advice that a 9' five weight is a good all around rod for trout fishing, and it is. For most of our fishing here in Tennessee, that rod will do great for you. However, I would suggest that a slightly lighter rod will probably be even more enjoyable for fly fishing in the Smokies. Thus, we are back at my advice that you decide what type of fly fishing you primarily intend to do. If it is the Smokies, then look in the three to four weight range and get a rod that in the 8' to 10' range. Go towards the shorter end if you intend to do a lot of brook trout fishing and the longer end if you plan to spend more time on larger streams. If you are just planning to fish the Clinch River or Caney Fork River, then a 9' five weight is a great all around rod.

Willing to buy more than one rod? A great piece of advice I read many years ago was to get a rod for every other line weight. In other words, if you already have a five weight, your next rods will be a three and a seven weight. This gives you some excellent versatility. Make sure and get spare spools for the reels on your heavier rods. You'll want to be able to switch between floating and sinking presentations with those heavier rods at minimum. If you plan on doing a lot of still water fishing, then this advice also applies to lighter rods as well where sinking or intermediate lines will be used a lot. I generally get spare spools for all my reels. I can use the same reel for my two, three, or four weight rods. I just change out the spool to the one with the correct line. 

If you aren't sure where to start shopping for a fly rod, check with your local fly shop if possible. Build a relationship with the local shop and you'll get great advice and help along the way for many years. My local shop that I spend a lot of time in is Little River Outfitters, but there are some other excellent shops in our area. Still not sure what rod you need? Let me know what you are wanting out of a rod in the comments and we can discuss what will work best for you. 


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