Monday, April 22, 2013

The Basics of Fly Fishing for Bass - Gear

Over the next few days I am going to try and cover the basics of fly fishing for bass in a series of posts.  This one will cover gear.  Next flies and presentations.  Then fishing different types of water - rivers and lakes.  I hope y'all enjoy!

If it swims in freshwater, I have probably chased it with a fly rod at one point or another.  I am not a total addict, like some folks.  I find no shame in fishing with conventional gear.  I enjoy the balance between the methods and consider myself quite good at each. However, the '50 Chunks on the Fly' challenge will definitely shift my techniques toward the long rod, feather chucking variety this year.  Here is a good introduction to the gear - rods, reels, line, leader, etc. - that I use to target bass.

For those of you not familiar with how fly rod sizes work - they are called 'weights'.  A 1-weight would be a very light rod suited for small flies and small fish.  An 11-weight is a very heavy rod suited for bigger flies and bigger, stronger fish.  Some rods may be rated for multiple weights such as a 3/4-weight Orvis trout rod that I own. 

Most bass rods fall within the 6 to 10 weight range, with the most common being 7-8 weights.  I own a 5/6 weight Albright GPX rod that does the trick on smaller bodies of water with smaller bass flies.  It is a perfect choice for the Eno River that flows through Durham.  I also own an 8-weight Cabelas Prestige rod that is a great all-around rod.  My newest addition is a 9-weight Temple Fork Outfitters BVK series rod that I will be using to chuck mega-flies toward big bass and stripers.  I am super stoked to finally take it for a test drive.

You want to choose a rod that best fits your conditions.  For small rivers and creeks, an 8-weight or higher is overkill.  On those bodies of water, you typically use smaller flies, find less heavy cover and on average the fish are smaller.  The opposite is true for larger rivers and lakes.  Anything smaller than a 7-weight can be a chore to cast all day on bigger water and may not have the backbone to get fish out of thick vegetation or heavy cover.  The key is finding a balance between casting, fish fighting and comfort.  For some folks, it might mean owning two rods.  For others who want that one, all around rod, I would recommend the following:  smallmouth bass:  6-8 weight; largemouth bass:  7-9 weight; stripers:  8-10 weight; multi-bass species:  7-8 weight.  The TFO website rates each of their rods in 3 categories, so that they can easily be compared.  The categories are casting distance, presentation and lifting (lifting = backbone).  Those are the three biggest factors for most fly anglers, so that feature is very handy and worth a look.

The Albright and TFO BVK...very different rods, but both can fling it


For bass I prefer a 9' rod.  I find that is the ideal combo of casting distance, leverage for fighting and accuracy while casting.  Longer rods typically help add some distance to your cast and improve leverage.  Shorter rods tend to be more accurate.  You will also find that fly rods come in multiple sections - ranging from 2 to 8.  I own 2 and 4 piece fly rods and like both, but some folks prefer a 4 piece to a 2 piece, or vice versa.

Two more things to consider are rod action and comfort.  This is where it is important to take each rod for a test drive before you buy it.  Some folks prefer a rod that loads faster and has a quick tip.  Others prefer slower rods.  Each rod is different and no single rod will be the best choice for all anglers.  The same goes with comfort.  Some rods just don't feel comfortable for everyone - whether the cause is the way it loads, balance, grip or something else entirely.

And finally, you should not ignore price.  Fly rods typically follow the, "you get what you pay for" adage.  Personally, I have a hard time stomaching a price tag over about $250.  However, there are lots of great rods available above and below that price point.  Remember that the rod is the backbone of your entire set-up.  If you are willing to spend an extra dollar, do it on a rod rather than other pieces of gear.

Some brands I would recommend checking out are TFO, Allen, Orvis, Rock River Rods, Beulah, Redington, Albright or Sage...but there are many others.

For me, there is one must that all good fly reels have - quality drag!  A smooth, strong disc drag is essential.  There are reels without drag, there are reels with clicker drags and there are others with plastic component drags.  When fighting big bass and stripers, a quality drag is your best friend.

That being said, you don't have to break the bank to get a good fly reel.  I refuse to pay more than about $125 for a fly reel - mainly because there are so many good options below that price point.  I have an Albright GPX on my 5/6 weight rod a Cabelas Prestige on my 8-weight and an Allen Fly Fishing Alpha III on my 9-weight.  If I upgrade any of my reels in the near future, I will most likely go with another Allen.  I am super impressed with the reel and their customer service.

My newest reel (the Allen), oldest reel (the Medalist) and a tweener (Albrigh GPX).  What fly fisherman hasn't owned a Pflueger Medalist at some point?

Other than price and drag, I look for a reel with high quality components made from materials like high grade barstock aluminum.  I also want a lightweight reel.  And I want one that is the right size - not too big or too small for the rod/line weight.  On that note, balance is key.  Always try and put a reel on your rod before you buy it.  Make sure it balances and feels good.  Imagine throwing big flies in windy conditions for 10 hours.  If it passes that test, you should be good to go!

My recommendations on fly reel brands would include Allen, Orvis, G Loomis, Albright, or Lamson - among others.

Fly lines come in a huge variety of styles.  Some float, some sink and some partially sink.  There are different tapers, weights, colors, densitites, grains, and codes.  It can get confusing.

Let's start with weight vs grain size.  Some lines are sized just like rods and reels - using weights that match the rest of your gear.  Other lines are sized by grains.  The conversion from grains to traditional line weight is a debated topic.  Traditionally, an 8 weight rod would be best with 200-250 grain line.  But many of todays lines and rods would push that number closer to 300.  Again, if you can test a line with your rod before purchasing, it is a huge plus.  Sometimes, you may need to step up or down a line size to get the rod to work exactly the way you want it.  But if the line is too light it may not load the rod.  If too heavy, the rod may not be able to cast the line properly.

I consider a weight forward (WF) line the best all-around line.  WF describes the taper of the line and is by far the most popular among fly anglers as well.  It comes in a variety of densitites that float and sink.  Most folks fish WFF (weight forward floating) line, but you can sink it with weights or pick up a spare spool and put sinking line on it.  Depending on location, target species, and fly size you can vary your leader length and weight to make WF line work for most flies.  I use Cortland 444 WFF on my GPX and Prestige reels and love it.

On my 9-weight, I use sinking tip line - specifically Rio 24' Sink Tip Line in the 350 grain size (which they note corresponds to a 9-10 wt).  Sinking tip line is pretty self explanatory - the first 24' of line are a different color than the rest of the line and sink with the leader while the rest of the line floats.  It is a huge advantage when fishing big, sinking flies - especially in rivers or other areas with current.  Different size lines sink at different rates, so pick whichever is best for your needs.

Does liking Cortland 444 make me old school?

Lines these days run from $40 to $100+.  Remember that you get what you pay for, but most anglers need not venture above the $75 range.  The other thing to keep in mind is that this not like buying line for a spinning or baitcasting rod.  With proper care and maintenance, fly line can last a long time.  I have heard of some lines lasting 15+ years.

You also need to remember backing.  Backing is not cast, but is the last line of defense between a big fish and an empty spool.  Basically, it connects your fly line to the reel.  Most backing is made with dacron, micron, or some sort of magibraid and comes in the 20-40 lb test range.  You can also use braided polymer lines like PowerPro or Sufix.  The key with backing is putting the right amount on the reel.  Too much and your line won't fit properly.  Too little and you run the risk of being spooled by a trophy fish.  Every reel has a recommended backing capacity.  Stick to the recommendation and you should be just fine.  I typically use an improved slip knot to attach my backing to my reel (the Arbor is also very popular).  To attach the backing to the end of my fly line (make sure you get the right end), I typically use an Albright knot.  Other knots will also work, but those are easy and do the trick.

Some of my favorite line and backing brands are Rio, Cortland and Scientific Anglers.

You can go to just about any tackle shop and buy a pre-made leader for bass fishing.  The key word with leaders is 'tapered'.  Tapered means the leader gets thinner and thinner as you move toward the end with the fly attached.  The taper helps the fly turn over - a necessity for proper presentation. 

Leaders are rated either using a pound system (e.g. - 8 lb test) or an "X" system.  The pound system refers to the last length of line that you tie the fly too.  This is also called the tippet.  So an 8 lb test leader will start at 50-60 lb test at the top and gradually taper to an 8 lb tippet.  The "X" system corresponds with a poundage-tippet diameter system.  I have no idea how it came about (I suspect long ago in Europe) but it is the traditional rating system.  For largemouth and smallmouth bass, a 1X, 2X, or 3X leader typically what you want.  For stripers, I would recommend a 01X, 0X, or 1X. 

Buying pre-made leaders can get expensive.  So, I tie my own.  I start with about 2 feet of 50 lb test. I then use 18"-20" lengths of 40 lb test, 30 lb test, and 20 lb test.  That gives me roughly 7 feet of leader.  At that point, I may tie on one more section of roughly 2 feet long or two sections, each roughly 1 foot long.  I typically fish tippets in the 8-10 lb range.  I will bump to 12 lbs and even 15 lbs sometimes as well.  This isn't a perfect formula and I regularly alter my leaders as needed.

The top row is backing & bottom is leader/leader material.  Notice the Orvis pre-made I got for free a few years ago is still unopened...HA.

If you do the math above, you find that I like to use leaders around 9 feet in length.  I may go as short as 7 or as long as 10 depending on the situation.  Few people fish bass leaders over 10 feet long, but some will fish them down to 5 feet.  Personally, I think longer leaders get more strikes, so go with the longest leader you can handle and effectively fish.

I almost always tie my top 3 sections with monofilament line.  The bottom 2-3 sections I interchange between mono, fluorocarbon and braid.  Mono is the only one of those three that floats, so if you are fishing surface flies, stick with mono.  If fishing subsurface, I like to use fluoro, especially because I fish a lot of bottom bumping flies.  If you are fishing really heavy cover - whether surface or subsurface - braid may be your best bet.  You can even use wire leader, although that is typically reserved for pike, musky and other toothy fish.

The last thing to note is knots.  Everyone has their favorites, but knots are super important if you are tying your own leaders.  A few popular knots to tie mono to mono or mono to fluoro are the surgeon, albright, double uni, turtle, and blood knots.  There are a number of others that would also work well including a bunch of variations on those I just mentioned.  Always remember to wet the line before you tighten these knots together.  A broken leader knot is the worst way to lose a fish.

This should get you out the door of a fly shop with a much lighter wallet.  But it is about to get a little lighter.  Come back tomorrow to read about fly choice and the different presentations that catch big bass.  And if you have any questions or have any suggestions for things I might have missed, please let me know.  Until tomorrow, tight lines!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Giant Bass & Repeat Champs - 2013 Duke-UNC Charity Bass Fishing Tournament at University Lake, NC

I am a lucky man.  Yesterday I was able to hit the water and fish the 3rd annual UNC Charity Bass Fishing Tournament.  It was a day of ups and downs, tough fishing and a lot of work.  But for my partner Santosh and I, it paid off and for the second year in a row we brought home the victory for the good guys.

When the inaugural event was announced in 2011, the hope was that fishing teams/clubs from NC State, UNC-Greensboro and others would join in the competition, but that never materialized.  So it has been a  Duke-UNC rivalry, although not nearly as fierce or competitive as the one that takes place on the hardwood.  However, I can assure you that every team there wanted to win...and wanted to win badly.  I wasn't able to fish the event in 2011, but last year Santosh and I put together a solid post-spawn bag and took the victory by nealry 5 lbs.  Originally I didn't think I would get a chance to defend the title, but as luck would have it, things worked out and I was able to join Santosh and the rest of the Duke team at the lake.

The bulk of the Duke-UNC Crew
*Photo from Jason Wolonick of the Daily Tar Heel

The event is held at University Lake in Carrboro.  I like the lake, but have fished it only once before - at the tournament last year.  All of the teams rent jon boats from the lake with identical motors and gear so that the playing field is level in that respect.  This year, 18 participants hit the water - with 6 UNC teams and 3 Duke teams.  The bite was setting up to be completely different than last year with some bass deep, some staging in pre-spawn mode and probably a few scattered spawners.  Santosh and I came up with a plan to target points with wood cover, deep banks, drop offs adjacent to flats and other areas where fish typically stage.  We also wanted to use the wind to our advantage.  As we would find out, our plan wasn't perfect, but it worked.

Everyone launched around 7:45 AM.  We immediately headed to a long tapering point with stumps and brush.  But we didn't get bit there and knew it would fish better when the wind picked up later in the day.  So we motored across to a deeper bank and started flipping into wood cover.  Around 8:30 AM I got a good bite.  I felt my plastic snag on a stick and when I popped it off the fish inhaled it.  I knew it was a solid fish and after a fun fight and some acrobatics we had him in the net.  We estimated he went around 4-4.5 lbs and suddenly we were feeling good.  Santosh put him in the livewell - a large, water filled cooler with an aerator pump taped to the side - and we went back to fishing.

Within the next 20 minutes I had bite number 2.  I tossed my plastic worm toward a downed tree and let it sink.  I actually let out a grunt of disgust as my cast wasn't as close to the tree as I had hoped.  But apparently the fish didn't care.  I felt a slight tick and saw the line start to move toward deep water.  It was on!  Moments later I saw the fish flash and knew it was big.  Then came the slow-motion moment.  The fish was headed back toward the tree.  I leaned it into her with my Carolina Custom Rods - Finesse Special and was able to turn her away from the branches - but she was coming up.  As she breached the surface, Santosh and I let out a collective, "holy _____."  The rest of the fight was a blur, but she finally tired and Santosh provided a perfect net job.  As I unhooked her, we repeated the same phrase we had used when we first saw the fish jump.  Measuring 23", bass number two was in the livewell.

A boat (this might be us) working a shoreline at University Lake
*Photo from Jason Wolonick of the Daily Tar Heel

We then ran a few patterns that should have worked, but didn't.  I suspect some of it could be chalked up to right place, wrong time - areas that would have fished better after the water warmed more in the afternoon.  We decided to fish down a long bank that was good to us the year before.  Santosh had a couple of short strikes, but other than that it was dead.  We were beginning to worry.  We couldn't put our finger on a reliable pattern and there were enough boats on the water (both competitors and rec fishermen) that it was hard to get a good stretch of water to ourselves.

Just before noon we made a move up the lake to an area we had caught a bunch of 12"-15" bass last year.  We figured that if nothing else, we may be able to fill our limit with short fish.  On the way, we saw one angler catch a 3-4 lb fish on a jerkbait on a windy point - a pretty textbook pre-spawn bite.  The problem was that because of the lakes shape and the wind direction, windy points were hard to find.  But we kept that in mind and headed for a deep bank with scattered wood cover.  We fished the first 20+ blowdowns without a sniff.  I was beginning to day dream of a nap while regretting not having brought my depth finder.  Then came the day changer. 

While I was changing baits, Santosh was flipping into a large laydown with a plastic lizard.  The bait snagged, so I picked up another rod and said, "let me throw one cast in there before we go in and get it."  I cast toward the base of the tree on the deep edge.  The fish inhaled the bait on the fall and by the time I reeled in the slack she was trucking at full speed.  We both saw her at the same time and that familiar phrase from the morning was again being repeatedly spoken.  The fight wasn't nearly as long or intense, as Santosh came up with another awesome net job.  He scooped her and swung her into the boat.  I lipped her, unhooked the bait and let out a huge sigh of relief.  She measured right at 22" and had a gut that rivaled Santa Claus.  Bass number three was in the livewell.  After a couple of fist bumps we retrieved Santosh's bait and went back to fishing with just under two hours before the weigh-in.

Santosh weighs fish as everyone eagerly awaits the results
*Photo from Jason Wolonick of the Daily Tar Heel

 The rest of the day was slow.  In fact, we didn't get another bite.  We even tried small baits hoping for a couple short bass to complete our limit, but nothing wanted to bite.  At 2 PM everyone met back at the dock.  There were rumors of some 5 fish limits, a few boats with 4 fish and some big fish being caught.  We knew we were in solid shape, but weren't sure if our three bass would hold up.  The first few teams weighed in with limits under 8 lbs.  One team had a nice fish that was a little over 7 lbs, but only one other fish which was less than a pound.  The weight to beat, I believe, was around 10 lbs when we weighed in.  We tried to keep our fish a secret until the very last minute.  Only our Duke teammates had looked inside our cooler and we hadn't told anyone how we did.

I wet my  hands and pulled out the 4+ lber first, remarking, "I'll start with the small one."  That drew an array of comments from the crowd.  There were a couple exclamations of "holy crap" and a couple of folks that I don't think believed us.  Then Santosh pulled the 22-incher from the cooler and announced it as the second biggest.  Now we had everyone's attention.  Finally, I lifted the 23" fish from the cooler and put her in the weighing bin.  They weighed a combined total of 18 lbs 9 oz.  The biggest was 7 lbs 13 oz, the second 6 lbs 8 oz and the smallest was 4 lbs 4 oz.  It was a heck of a good day on the lake!  We snapped some photos and released the fish alive and kicking.  I should note that 7 lbs 13 oz ties, exactly, my personal best largemouth.  Since the other - a river bass, was a little longer, he gets the nod as the PB...but it was super close!

My two big fish (sorry about the blood).  Although it is hard to tell, the one on the right was the bigger fish.
*Photo from Jason Wolonick of the Daily Tar Heel

A couple more teams weighed in after us including one 5 fish limit that looked solid - including a big kicker.   In fact, they completed their limit with a solid 3.5 lb fish just minutes before the weigh-in.  But the 7 lb 8 oz kicker wasn't enough as the bag totaled 14 lbs 12 oz.  Santosh and I were back-to-back champs...and it felt darn good.

Eric Dean of UNC with his 7 lb 8 oz beast
*Photo from Jason Wolonick of the Daily Tar Heel

It was a tough day of fishing and a really good group of folks.  There was a lot of good spirited joking, trading of fishing tips and mutual respect.  Behind it all, that is what the Duke-UNC rivalry is all about.  Best yet, 100% of the proceeds of the tournament go to a charity of the winners choosing.  Santosh and I were torn between Schoolhouse of Wonder and the Ronald McDonald House-Durham.  We decided to flip a coin and it turned out that the Ronald McDonald House won.  Although I was rooting for SHOW, RMH is a really great organization.  In fact, I have been trying to get a program set-up with them to take folks kayak fishing and Santosh has been volunteering his time there this year.  He said that money has been really tight for them and that the donation will go a long way to re-stock items in the house.  That makes victory feel a whole lot better.

A big thanks to the UNC Fishing Club for hosting the event, the folks at the lake and OWASA for all of their help and hard work, Andy and Jason who reported for The Daily Tar Heel (click for their write-up - although some of it makes me shake my head), and to all of the other guys who came out to compete and have fun.  I am also really proud of all of my Duke teammates who went out there, fished super hard and brought fish to the weigh-in during some tough conditions.  Another thank you, to the companies who help me catch more fish - Carolina Custom Rods, Abu Garcia, Deep Creek Lures, Columbia Sportswear and Smith Optics.  And finally, to the beautiful Mary May Pratt for accepting my fishing addictions and loving me anyway.  Until next time, tight lines....and GO DUKE!