Fly Fishing Basics

On Lake Mattamuskeet, the fishing is good and the days are filled with the enjoyment of fly fishing. Tips on fly fishing rods, lines and technique.


There's nothing like an afternoon fly fishing on a beautiful, still lake.


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Thousands of years ago some benevolent god hurled a large meteor toward eastern North Carolina, and when it struck it scoured a long, shallow depression in the soil. The depression soon filled with water and the water soon filled with fish—bream and crappie and large-mouth bass—which today inhabit a lake 18 miles long, six miles wide, and an average of two feet deep. Or so one story goes. If true, that deity surely was the god of fly-fishing, and his gift was Lake Mattamuskeet.

In the past few decades the lake has become a shimmering mecca for long-rodders along the eastern seaboard. Recently, some friends and I decided to make our pilgrimage.

The mixing of religion and fly-fishing began in 1676—when Izaac Walton published his legendary volume on the subject, The Compleat Angler — and has continued through Robert Redford's glowing film adaption of A River Runs Through It,

one of the sport's finest epistles by Norman MacLean. But somewhere along the line —perhaps because of the great weight of fly-fishing literature— the sport has become burdened with elitist baggage. It has come to conjure images of bespectacled men sporting wicker creels and split-bamboo rods pouring over microscopic insect imitations that could tool a nearsighted entomologist. I don't know if the blame lies in the stereotype, the space-age materials of the tackle, or the latest line of fishing fashion from Orvis, but it seems a heavy toll for a fishing rod that is second cousin to a cane pole. The point is, you don't have to look like Robert Redford at 20, have a Ph.D. (or a Gold Card), or have read A River Runs Through It to get a big kick out of fly-fishing. All it takes is a little practice, patience, and, like all forms of fishing, a little prayer.

Fly-fishing for bass further erodes the sport's elitist sensibilities—pearls before swine some might say—which is one of the reasons I love it. Trout fishermen spend hours trying to match their flies to tiny insects hovering above a stream, hoping to coax a finicky trout to bite. Bass are never finicky. When they are hungry, they are just as liable to quaff a chartreuse spinner bait with hula skirts and spinning blades as something that looks more familiar. Trout are streamlined and bullet shaped. Bass sport huge beer guts. Trout are fast and graceful and fight like Sugar Ray Leonard. Bass are the George Foremans of the freshwater fishes.

Perhaps the root of fly-fishing elitism lies in the vast array of gear that goes with it. Rods alone vary in length from six and a half feet for tiny trout streams to 10 feet or longer for big rivers, lakes, and saltwater fishing. They are made of fiberglass, graphite, or a composite of both, as well as the traditional bamboo. Graphite and composite rods, ounce for ounce, give more power and responsiveness for their weight, but they also come with a hefty price tag. Bamboo rods, if you can find one, are priced like works of art. I've always had a fondness for affordable, flexible fiberglass, probably for the same reason that one never forgets one's first true love.

My first fly rod was given to me by a friend of my father's. He was a towering man named Dinksie (his brother's name was Boo Boo) who shaved his head with a straight razor, kept a slot machine in his garage, and had a reputation as something of a prankster. It was a weathered fiberglass South Bend rod, the color of amber beer, but to a 10-year-old, it could have been the scepter of Midas.

I remember Dinksie taking it down from its nook and handing it to me, barely concealing a mischievous grin. He proceeded to give me a few pointers about fly casting: "Remember boy, take it back to 10 o'clock, then forward to two, back to 10, forward to two. Ten ...and two... 10...and two. Think you can remember that?"

I said yes, because it seemed the quickest way of getting my hands on the rod, but meant no because I didn't have a clue as to what he was taking about. Until that moment I had no idea that you could use a fly rod for more than swinging crickets. Dinksie knew better.

There followed a long and tortuous period of learning to cast, which nearly every fly-fisherman describes as long and tortuous but which only seems so at the time. When you are 10, anything that takes longer than opening a gum wrapper seems long and tortuous.

Fly Fishing Rods

Although you can catch bass on any fly rod, those designed for the species are around nine feet in length. The rod I took to Mattamuskeet was a nine-foot fiberglass rod I built in college. (To say I "built" the rod is a bit misleading. I purchased the fiberglass blank, eyes, reel seat, and handle from a mail-order outfit and assembled it on my kitchen table, much to my roommate's chagrin. I bought the best blank I could afford at the time, wrapped the eyes on with a natty burgundy thread and ended up spending about $70 on the whole rig. It has performed admirably ever since.)

Unlike other types of fishing in which the reel plays a vital part, in fly-fishing for bass and panfish it's damn near superfluous. The reel simply stores the line to keep it from getting underfoot when wading or from piling up on the bottom of the boat. Most have a simple drag feature that slows the speed of the line as it goes out, but the same effect can be achieved by applying a finger or palm to the back of the spool. A good reel should have enough capacity to hold the line and balance the rod at mid-handle.

Fly Fishing Line

If you talk to enough fly-fishermen, sooner or later one will tell you that you cast the line, not the lure, which is true. The line is the blood of the beast and it is here that things start to get complicated. The line (with its various sections) consists of four parts: the backing, the fly line, the leader, and the tippet. The backing is usually 20-pound-test braided Dacron, wound around the base of the spool. Theoretically, it's there in case you hook Moby Dick in the farm pond and it takes 40 yards of backing to slow him down. In reality it provides a cushion for the vastly more expensive fly line, keeping it from forming tight coils oil the spool and extending its life in the bargain. Then again, you never know when you might need it.

Fly lines come in different weights, shapes, and buoyancies. Line weights vary from about three weight to 12 weight; in general, the lighter and shorter the rod, the lighter the line. A light-action, seven-foot trout rod, for example, might take three, four, or five weight line, while a nine-foot bass rod is better suited to seven or eight weight. Heavier lures require heavier line as well. Fortunately, most rods have the appropriate line weight printed on the back to eliminate confusion.

But this is just the beginning. Most lines are either level throughout for general use, tapered at both ends (double tapered) for short, delicate casts; weight forward for longer casts with heavier flies; or shooting taper, with a heavier forward section that decreases to a level running line for very long casts. They also come in floating (F), in which the entire line floats, sinking tip (F/S) in which the first 10 feet of the line sinks, or sinking (S) in which the entire line sinks.

Sinking lines and tips are most often used in fast rivers or large lakes when the fish are deep and you need to get the fly down to them quickly. For bass, weight forward, floating line works well. Here's where you will sink some cash. High-quality fly line costs from $20 to $50, but with proper care and cleaning it can last for years.

The Leader, Tippet and Lures

While the fly line does most of the heavy lifting, the leader and tippet do the fine work, rolling the fly over to land deftly on the water. The old-fashioned leaders were made by knotting together increasingly smaller monofilament lines. Today, preformed, tapered monofilament leaders are standard. Leaders are measured at the smallest diameter of the tippet—the section at the very end—and range in diameter from 0X (13-pound test) to 7X (2.4-pound test). Bass leaders are relatively short (four to six feet long) and are usually 0X to 3X in diameter. You can also buy a short, braided leader and tie tippet material onto it.

Another thing that sets the bass fly-fisherman apart from the rest of the breed is the lures used. Trout lures are called "flies." Bass lures are aptly called "bugs." These lures can be made of deer hair or cork and come in a variety of colors and sizes. White, red, yellow, black, and green are common plug colors. They also come in various patterns that look something like favorite bass foods such as frogs, mice, bees, minnows, and spiders.

The beauty of a bass bug is purely in the eyes of the beholder, and everyone has their favorite. I like small yellow, white, and bumble-bee pattern poppers. The week before our trip to Mattamuskeet, my friends and I scoured the local tackle stores and catalogs, compiling quite an assortment. We even found some rather exotic deer-hair bugs with long feathery tails that were supposed to look like floating worms—a classic Mattamuskeet bass lure for bait—casters. I also took a huge saltwater popper, about two inches long, thinking I might try it just for fun. One never knows. I have seen a 10-inch bass attack a stick-bait more than half its size with impunity.

Lake Mattamuskeet

Lake Mattamuskeet is more than just a fly-fisherman's paradise. The shallow lake is a magnet for thousands of migratory ducks, geese, and swans on the Atlantic Flyway each year. It also drew the attention of speculators in the early 1900s who made several attempts to drain it and plant crops in the lake bed. One group built an elaborate pumping station and a series of large drainage canals and dikes based on those in Holland. They actually succeeded in planting part of the lake for a couple of years, but the cost of continuously operating the massive pumps to keep back the water eventually bankrupted them. The lake was acquired by the federal government in 1934, and a waterfowl sanctuary was established there.

Today the lake and 10,000 acres of surrounding forests, swamps, and fields are part of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. The lake is open to fishing from March 1 to November 1. The old pumping station, with its distinctive observation tower, was designated a National Historic Site in 1980 and stands as a monument to man's earlier ill-fated endeavor.

I sensed some of the early industrialists' frustration as I drove across the causeway, spanning the middle of the lake in the waning afternoon light. For the last 30 minutes of the drive I had been teased by glimpses of the lake through the trees along the roadside. But my heart sank as the broad expanse came into view. A stiff, 15-knot breeze was chopping the lake surface into foot-high waves. Though great for keeping mosquitoes at bay, wind on Mattamuskeet churns the water into a cloudy soup and makes fly casting all the more difficult.

I met Phil Livesay and Wayne Sasser at a nearby restaurant and we headed for a small campground on the lake's edge. We pitched the tents within a stone's throw of the water and discussed our strategy. We had heard of a relatively secret spot in one of the impoundments — accessible only by canoe or small john boat — which had produced a few nice fish, and decided to give it a try. The plan settled, we drank a toast to the lake and turned in, serenaded by wind whistling through the cypress trees and waves lapping on the shore. Just before I fell asleep I thought I heard the distinctive plunk of a bass rising for its evening meal. It could have been a dream, or an omen for the morrow.

The wake-up call came at 5:30 A.M. when the first trucks began rolling down the path toward the boat launch at the other end of the campground. It seems the weekend we picked for our pilgrimage coincided with a local bass fishing tournament, and the crowd was hitting the lake at daylight. Our initial chagrin quickly evaporated, however, when Phil pointed toward the lake and said, "Check it out". It's surface was frozen in a mirrorlike calm. Not a breath of wind broke the stillness. We downed cups of hot coffee, loaded the rods and canoes, and headed for the canal that led to our secret spot.

One of the great advantages of fishing on a wildlife refuge is the abundance of wildlife one sees, especially if you are gliding along almost silently in a canoe. Although waterfowl populations have declined steadily in the last three decades, during winter the lake still provides refuge for some 12,000 Canada geese, 75,000 puddle ducks, 35,000 tundra swans, 5,000 snow geese, and about 35,000 diving ducks. A small population of Canada geese stay year-round and we could hear them calling on the lake. In addition to waterfowl, 240 species of birds and other wildlife make the lake their home year-round. As we paddled, we were escorted by Eastern kingbirds and red-winged blackbirds, while a northern flicker rattled out its Morse code on a hollow cypress nearby.

When we arrived at the designated spot, we hauled the canoes over an embankment and into a secondary canal. The canal traced the edge of a flooded impoundment dotted with small islands and stands of cattails and reeds. Lily pads spread across the surface creating pockets of green on the clear, teacolored water. Phil and Wayne paddled down the canal, making short casts from the canoe. I headed for the edge of the drop-off where the water depth shrank from six feet to two, and stepped overboard, feeling the cool Mattamuskeet mud ooze between my toes — another fringe benefit of wading.

Casting the Line

I assembled the rod, tied on a small yellow popper, and began casting to the far edge of the canal. It had been several months since I'd last picked up the rod and it took a while to remember the feel, but Dinksie's advice from long ago still echoed in my head. The trap many fall into when they first start fly casting is trying to cast the weight of the lure (which is almost nothing) instead of a loop of line. Others try to use the power of their arm instead of the inherent power built into the rod. As a result, they end up flailing around as if they were trying to swat a fly instead of cast one, or cracking the line like a whip, which is a great way to snap off lures.

Again, reams have been written about the proper technique, but the basics are pretty simple. I worked out a length of line with a couple of false casts and went over them one by one. Start with the line and lure straight ahead with the rod tip low, a foot or so from the water. Lift the line off the water until the rod is cocked at 10 o'clock, just past one's ear, and stop. Wait one count — maybe two depending on how much line is out — to let the fly catch up to the line and begin its turn behind you. Then when you feel the weight of the line on the rod, move it forward for the power stroke, stopping at two o'clock. If done right, the line sails forward in a graceful loop landing the fly, then the leader, then the line. If you take the rod too far back or whip it too far forward, the line piles up in a rat's nest at your feet. It's a natural motion, once it is understood, but it takes patience, practice, and a feel for when to apply the power.

I put it on a little too heavy this time and the fly lands in the weeds. Getting hung is part of the game, sort of like jumping offside in football. It's embarrassing, but you learn to live with it. A good friend of mine who was notorious for snagging trees used to say, "If you're not getting hung, you're not putting it where the fish are." I retrieve my bug and begin working it down the edge of the grassy bank, trying to hit open pockets among the lily pads that perch like emerald saucers on the dark water.

A lot of folks are so enamored of their fly casting that they forget all about the retrieve. They tug the line a time or two, twitch the rod tip to give their bug a little action, and then they're off to the next hole down the line. But to me, this is the defining moment, the raison d'etre. I guess it's a holdover from my boyhood days spent fishing with crickets on the farm pond. I'd study them intently as they struggled in the surface film, sending telepathic ripples across the water until a fat bream or bass would rise beneath them and in a flick of a fin turn them into lunch. It was such glorious anticipation. The trick is to make the popper do a suggestive dance. A legendary southern outdoorsman once compared the retrieval of a floating lure to the seduction of a beautiful woman.

After about 10 casts, I send the yellow popper toward a perfect opening in the lily pads on the other side of the canal and it lands like a raindrop, sending expanding circles across the water. I count to 10, col lecting the slack line in my free hand, and then give the line a slight tug. The bug takes a quick dive and makes a pleasant gurgle. Ten more seconds...another gurgle... 10 more seconds...a third. Just as I am about to lift the line and move along, a small depth charge explodes beneath the popper and it disappears, leaving the tippet racing through the water in its wake.

One of the advantages of a fly rod is that its length and limberness communicate the entire story at once. I feel the weight of the fish, its heavy beating tail strokes and the tension of the fragile leader as it scrapes past coarse stems of the lily pads. It fights like a good-size bass, not wasting energy on acrobatics but powering into the depths toward a denser patch of pads. If it reaches them, it'll wrap the leader around a maze of stalks and be off in an instant. This is the game played over and over by fish and fishermen: when to apply pressure to the line, how much to apply, and where the breaking point of the leader lies.

With a casting or spinning rod, the secret is in the drag of the reel, but with a fly rod it's in the fisherman's fingers, the pressure on the line as it races through one's hand, and the weight of the palm on the reel. I keep the line taut and the rod bends in shivering arcs, turning the fish away from the refuge of the pads and into the deep water of the canal. It comes up only once and swirls at the surface, revealing its dark back and translucent, moss-green sides. It makes a few more powerful runs, but they are not as long nor as energetic. Within minutes I am looking into its large liquid eyes only an arm's length away.

It is at this point that the perils of wading become apparent. The fisherman and fish are literally in the same element and what looks like spindly legs to one may look like fine structure to the other. Once when I was first learning the finer points of the sport I stared too long at a large bass swimming with my fly in its mouth a few feet away, only to recoil in shock as he dashed for my leg, imbedding the hook in the meaty part of my thigh. Such things leave lasting impressions. This fish had no such antics in mind. I eased him closer, grabbed him by his lower lip, and removed the hook. He was a respectable two-pound bass, a common size in the lake. After admiring the soft green colors and patterns of his skin, I released him back to his home in the pads.

We fished the impoundment and one nearby for the rest of the day, catching and releasing fish as we went. After covering the canal banks we moved into an area of flooded timber and began catching plump, rosy-breasted bream with regularity. By the end of the day, the count was nine bass, 30 or so bream, and a crappie or two thrown in for good measure. This was in addition to countless bird and animal species we'd seen, including ospreys, Canada geese, kingfishers, and tree swallows. A young raccoon even sauntered past the bow of my canoe as we were taking it out of the impoundment, completely indifferent to our presence.

As we paddled down the canal in the fading light we surprised two yearling white-tail deer grazing on the embankment. The female ignored us, but the male, still without his first set of horns, gave a brief, wobbly dance of defiance, then resumed his browsing. Just one more gift to the pilgrims of Mattamuskeet.

Editor's Note: Lake Mattamuskeet is North Carolina's largest natural lake, averaging only two feet in depth but 18 miles in length. If you're interested in trying out a little fly-fishing or boating yourself, you can send away for directions and more information to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, Route 1, Box N-2, Swanquarter, NC 27855.