This March I hit the weather jackpot fishing with a guide friend in Islamorada. We had two consecutive days of warm temperatures and near slick-calm, enabling us to run far into the Florida Keys backcountry targeting early-season tarpon with flies.
We poled the skiff along a shallow bank near Flamingo where the water was muddy. The brown-green backs of rolling tarpon indicated that we were in the right place. My guide called out instructions from his platform.
“Put it five feet in front of these rolling fish and use long, slowwwww strips. That’s the ticket.”
Easy for him to say. Aside from countless botched casts the day before, my nerves had fueled a quickening of my fly retrieve. In other words, it had been difficult to watch a hundred pounds of silver waking towards my fly in two feet of crystal clear water and maintain the “long, slowww strip” resolve. My nervousness had transmitted through the 11-weight fly line and leader, directly to the 1/0 olive-colored fly. It moved too fast, and the fish refused it.
A rolling tarpon broke the glassy surface 80 feet from the bow. My guide pushed us forward silently and I cast five feet ahead of the disturbance. Against every instinct I let the fly sink, and with my guide’s command gave one long, painfully slow strip. Then the black fly disappeared in the mouth of a flashing 70-pound tarpon, my line went tight, and I set the hook. The fish launched itself from the water.
We landed the tarpon quickly from a dead boat with the sun barely peeking above the horizon.
“Can we try one of my pike flies now?” I asked, half joking. I’d brought along a stash of homemade flies from back home.
“Sure,” he said, without hesitation. “In this muddy water they aren’t too picky about the fly itself. It’s all about presentation.”
He tied on my bulky chartreuse ostrich herl pike fly that had proven deadly in the Belgrade Lakes, held the fly up and inspected it, chuckled, and tossed it over the gunwale. “That’ll work,” he said.
On my next cast — now sold on the long, slow strip — I hooked and landed a 50-pound tarpon on the homemade pike fly.
At the beginning of every Maine fly fishing season, there seems to be a buzz about a new, exciting fly pattern that fish have never seen before. Articulated flies with incredible movement guaranteed to get fish’s attention, or microscopic, tantalizing nymphs, or flies tied with new, scarcely used animal fur so lifelike underwater fish cannot refuse it. You get the idea.
And I love tying new flies. Part of the enjoyment is experimenting with new materials and new designs. Experimentation in fly tying has certainly lead to the development of highly effective, time-tested patterns. But whether you’re throwing a palolo worm fly to an ocean-swimming Keys tarpon or dead-drifting a caddis pupa nymph to bottom-dwelling brookies in the Rapid, what matters most — regardless of shape or size or color of your fly — is far and away your presentation. Despite what you may read on the interweb, and despite the prominent “hot fly” labels in fly fishing catalogs, there is no magical, secret fly. So before you order a half dozen of the newest must-have fly of the future, read on.
Let me offer more evidence for presentation, this time with a freshwater fish closer to home. Northern pike take flies well right before and after ice-out on a central Maine stream I frequent. They like white flies and black flies and chartreuse flies and orange flies. They’ll readily eat rabbit fur, bucktail, EP fiber, fox fur, and ostrich herl flies. They’ll take small flies, medium flies and, you guessed it, large flies. What they’ll rarely do, though, is eat any fly that is retrieved at a steady, pedestrian pace. They will follow that fly, often right up to your boat, but they won’t commit. After some observation, I discovered that pike almost always follow a fly before striking. By trial by error, I discovered a presentation that pike can’t seem to pass up. By speeding up the fly rapidly once a follower is noticed — mimicking prey attempting to swim for their lives — it was game on. This simple change in presentation has proven tremendously effective.
I continue to guide on Rangeley area streams and rivers despite the recent uptick in angling pressure. On countless occasions I’ll arrive in the early morning to find an angler or two in the spot I’d hoped to reach first. I’ll often sit and watch. Frequently, the anglers are stripping classic streamer patterns (usually smelt imitations) or wooly buggers with floating line and a steady, rhythmic cadence. Strip, strip, strip. Stop. As if they are silently counting to themselves: one, two, three, pause. Sometimes they catch fish. More often, they do not.
On one particular morning, I waited with a client as a single angler launched a large smelt pattern cast after cast into a small, historically productive pocket of water below a dam. He hooked a fish momentarily, then continued to cast again and again without success. About ten minutes later he gave up and left.
We approached the pool of water and I gave my client — a southern Maine angler who had never lifted a fly rod before — a quick tutorial on dead-drifting nymphs. In five minutes he could roll cast twenty feet. I taught him how to mend his fly line and pointed out the imaginary line of the drift that would most likely produce fish, which happened to be exactly where the previous angler had been beating the water for the past half hour.
He proceeded that morning to hook seven landlocked salmon, all on dead-drifted beadhead nymphs of various size and shape. When he failed to mend his line and the current imparted drag to his fly, the fish would not hit. But when the fly was presented well, at a dead drift with the aid of the current, they ate.
We then switched to a black wooly bugger with a conehead. He drifted it back in the current then stripped it erratically, imparting a slight waggle of the rod tip concurrent with each strip. He hooked a big salmon that jumped off under the falls.
One more anecdote: In my spare time, I often find my way over to the fly-fishing only section of the Presumscot River in southern Maine. This section of water gets absolutely pounded by fly anglers. The fish see lots of flies presented in various styles by a wide array of casters. The fish here are not particularly difficult to fool but paying attention to presentation and retrieve pays off. In this section of water, imparting an erratic, two-handed retrieve to zonkers and wooly buggers in the faster moving runs evokes vicious strikes from brookies, browns, and the occasional large salmon. I’m not sure why, exactly, but it works.
Presentation, more than any other factor, is key to catching fish on a fly. More often than not, the fish will tell you what type of presentation and retrieve work best. Spend time on the water experimenting with presentation and you will fool more fish this season.
Ryan Brod is a Maine Guide, mental health crisis worker, and contributor to “The Drake” magazine. He co-produced the 2012 ice fishing documentary “HARDWATER.” Raised in the Belgrade Lakes region, he now lives in Portland.