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Sometimes Success Has Deep Roots

By Joseph Cornwall


It’s not enough to have a top-of-the-line fly rod, silky smooth precision reel and perfectly matched fly line.  All those components don’t catch fish, though they do make casting a lot more enjoyable.  But that, in itself, isn’t fishing.  A perfect, hand-tied leader won’t put a trophy in your net, even though it’s the most important link between you and the business taking place “out there” in the water.  Even a fly so precise in its construction as to be indistinguishable from a natural won’t get the job done on its own.  All of these are merely elements contributing to presentation.  Despite our obsession with patterns and gear, they are just elements.  Without the right strike triggers presented in the right place, what you’ll have is a collection of fine fishing tackle and a lovely, but likely fishless, day on the water. 

Doug Stange, the piscatorially talented Editor-in-Chief of In-Fisherman magazine (in my opinion, the single most important freshwater fishing publication a serious angler can read) really drove this line of thought home in an article in the March/April 2011 issue of the magazine.  In an article about crank baits for crappie, Stange summed up a line of reasoning that’s been explored by many before, including many in the world of fly fishing.  Stange notes the following factors: “How deep are [the fish]? Depth control is paramount.  Speed control and the way you’re working the lure is secondary, but also vital.  All the other factors – lure size, color, profile, vibration pattern, and so on – you tinker with after the first two factors are in check. “

Think about this for a moment and you’ll begin to see how contrary this line of thinking is to the way most fly fishermen approach the water.  Depth is the critical factor in most situations.  You may be fishing over fish, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to come up for your fly. Most of the time they won’t and, unless you can see the fish react, you’ll never know for certain.  You also may be fishing under fish, though this is unusual for a fly fisherman.  Most of us don’t employ sinking lines and only a small percentage of fly fishers will even attempt a presentation below 5-feet deep – or roughly the typical practical depth to which a bead head woolly bugger will sink when using a floating line.

I’ve personally experienced many situations in which a fish will hit a fly on its own level, but is reluctant to nose-down or look up.  Once, while fishing for white bass on a large lake, I had a great day counting down streamers.  The linesides were staging for their spawning rush in mid April and were suspended 4-feet above the bottom in 10-feet of water.  If I let the fly touch the lakebed, the only reward I got was the occasional tiny sauger (locally called a “cigar”).  If I fished the fly less than 5-feet deep I was enjoying fruitless casting practice.  But using a Type 4 WF6 full sinking line and 3-foot fluorocarbon leader with an unweighted streamer resulted in hit after hit when the count reached “15”!

On a different occasion I was fishing for bluegill in a 50 acre impoundment during high summer.  Big bluegills, some up to 10-inches, are ubiquitous in the lake and they were sitting 10 to 12-feet deep in 18-feet of water, suspended in the branches of standing timber.  Again, it took a full sinking line and a precise countdown to make the whole thing come together.  Two feet too high or too low and not a single tug would be felt on the line.  In an interesting twist, the bluegills weren’t selective to color, with gray, olive and pink equally successful.  And they were only slightly selective to size and profile.  Anything in the size 10 or 12 range fished with a very slow hand-twist retrieve was fine as long as it could be presented without rising or sinking in the water column – in other words, a suspended bait. On that occasion a Type 2 WF5 line was the ticket.  Get the depth right… well, you get the point.

This is just common sense.  You have to fish where there are fish!  This not only includes reading the water to understand where they may be in relation to the two dimensions presented by the surface, but also includes the third, hidden dimension of depth.  It might not be a critical factor on creeks where the deepest pool seldom exceeds 5-feet, but on large rivers, lakes and ponds, understanding depth is as central to a successful outing as casting skill.  Did you ever wonder why most anglers fish ponds and lakes from a boat by casting towards the shoreline and ignoring the 90% of the lake at their backs?  It’s because they can see the structure! Simply put, fishing shallow, visible structure is easier (and often much less productive) than calculating the interplay of temperature, oxygen levels, light levels and weather conditions to find fish holding deeper than a few feet.

There is a whole world of success waiting for fly fishers who learn to employ depth finders.  Portable units for use on a canoe or kayak start at $100 and should be considered mandatory.  In addition to electronics that will expose the secrets hidden below the surface, enterprising long-rodders should include full sinking lines in their arsenal.  A basic selection includes an intermediate, medium and fast-sinking line.   I like a full sinking line over a sink-tip because a sink-tip will fish “up” as the floating line draws the head up through the water column.  Learn to manage depth and you’ll find that you’ve increased the water you can effectively fish by an order of magnitude.

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