Fly Fishing Basics

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Fly lines come in different weights. In general, the lighter and shorter the rod, the lighter the line.
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There's nothing like an afternoon fly fishing on a beautiful, still lake.
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A fisherman never forgets his very first fishing rod.

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 CompleatAngler — 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
18miles 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.