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September 23, 2015 - Fly Fishing "Versus" Spin Fishing
The last two days have been very interesting. I guided two trips on the same stretch of the St. Croix between Danbury and Grantsburg.  Both outings included two guests.  All were experienced fishermen.  The water and weather conditions were the same.  Both trips ran similar lengths of time.  The main difference was that the first pair consisted of spin fisherman and the second pair was fly fishing.  The outcomes for the trips were both good, but very different.  

The spin fishers caught an estimated 60 smallmouth (after 2 dozen, I don't keep a particularly careful score) and a couple small northern.  There were 2 muskie bite offs at boat side and two follows.  The fly fishers caught 38 smallies, one northern and saw no muskies.  Sounds like the Team Spin out fished Team Fly, yes?  Maybe.

Team Spin mostly caught very small fish.  There were a couple that topped 1.5 pounds and one that looked to be about 2 pounds.  Team Fly generated (on average) decidedly larger fish, with several in the the 2 pound class.  The largest was a 19" fatty that weighed 4 pounds.  Now, who would you say had the better day?  Many would argue the fly casters did better.  

                                                                                           Why the difference in the days' catches?
-  One explanation might be that Team Spin got dialed in on the right bait sooner than Team Fly.  I had been on another section of the river spin fishing two days earlier.  After working on the puzzle for a while (top waters, spinners, various jig/tail combinations) we found the orange jig and white tail to be the most effective.  Naturally, Team Spin was using that bait pattern right out of the chute and it again (based on limited experimentation/comparison with a few other baits) proved to be the most effective bait of the day.  In contrast, Team Fly started with various deer hair and hard bodied poppers for a couple hours with modest success.  Noting the difference in success, I asked one of them to "do me a favor" and give the white Murdich Minnow a try.  This is a sub-surface fly.  Soon they were both using the minnow.  Did the head start on the right bait make the difference?  No, that is not the answer.  At lunch, Team Spin was 6 or 8 fish ahead of Team Fly.  Both days, the afternoon fished better than the morning.  The difference in fish totals expanded through out the day.  

-  Perhaps a jig/tail was just a better bait than a fuzzy flashabou trailing fly under these conditions.  This could be the answer, but it begs the question of the difference in average size of the fish.  The fly was the clear winner from that perspective.  

-  The Murdich Minnow has a profile easily 2 times larger than a jig/tail.  Does the "Big Bait = Big Fish" train of thought explain the lower production but larger average size question?  This seems doubtful.  Neither bait is "large".....the size of your index finger and smaller.  Smallies are very gutsy predators.  They routinely hit baits 1/2 to 3/4 their size.  Remember, the muskies chased and hit the jigs but not the flies.  

-  Another variable could be that Team Fly fished "used water" just one day after it had been pounded by Team Spin.  There could be some truth to this thought.  As a guide, I do tend to go back to the spots that have produced in the past.  In the area we fished, the river is not large, so it is very easy to criss-cross the river from one good spot to the next.  Again though, where were the big bass for Team Spin?  They had the first shot, but failed to find big fish.  They did find muskies, but those were not the intended quarry.

What else could explain the difference in results?  

Other than different casting mechanics, do fly fishers and spin fishers fish basically the same way?  Not at all:
Team Fly:  I guide a lot of good fly fisherman.  They can drop a fly within an inch of shore time and again.  Fishing to the shoreline is the norm in these waters.  Many fly casters intentionally cast into the grass overhanging the shore and then delicately pull the fly into the water touching the shoreline.  When using a floating fly (or slow sinking fly like the Murdich Minnow), the bait sits for a second or two before being retrieved a total of 3 to 4 feet.  It is then picked up and cast again.  The fly rarely gets more than a couple inches deep.  [Note: This is a self induced trait in the majority of fly fishers I guide.  They like to watch the fly and see the "eat".  There are no shortage of weighted flies with which to plumb deeper waters.  My guests generally don't care to cast those flies.]

Team Spin:  These guys cast well also.  The difference is that when casting a lead wrapped hook, aiming an inch away from the grass/rocky shore pocket/log edge is more risky.  That is because lead sinks faster than a proverbial rock.  The perfect cast for a fly will likely result in trouble for a jig.  Commonly, the reel is engaged for the retrieve a heartbeat before the jig hits the water.  Splash - swim away.  Of course, the jig gets fished all the back to the boat before the next cast is taken.  This produces more fishing time per cast.  Also, the jig is generally fished a foot or more lower in the water column.

                                                                                                              Mystery Solved
Therein lies the key difference.  Team Spin caught fish from some near shore cover, but more often from boulders and pools several (4 to 10) feet from shore.  The jig was rapidly swimming nearer the bottom of wherever it was being retrieved.  Team Fly dropped their flies right on shore or on the very edge of structure on shore.  The fly was routinely left to linger a moment just below the surface before being stripped and paused, stripped and paused then pulled and recast.  It rarely moved more than a few feet from cover.  The Fly and Spin fishing zones over lapped, but were not the same.

On average, the bigger fish came from the better protected hiding holes right near shore, with big rocks, log jams or simply the sharp drop off edge of shore to help protect them.  These are likely good ambush feeding lies for the bass as well.  As so often seen in nature, the dominant animals will procure and protect the better lies for themselves over their subordinates.  There are simply fewer of these larger fish to be caught.  

The larger number of smaller fish were caught further from shore, in less well protected lies.  Rather than hiding in prime tough cover, they hold in secondary locations and/or swim in schools around pools and deeper runs in the river.   Many of them will end up being muskie/northern food before growing to full maturity.  Mother Nature is not an gentle lady.

On these particular days, if you wanted numbers of fish, you did well to fish deeper in the pools and less well protected runs.  If you wanted bigger fish, you needed to present your bait in tight cover leaving a moment for the bass to inspect and pounce on your offering.  

However you fish, it was a whole lot of fun!


March 2015 - Lefty Kreh

I'm not usually one for hero worship, but but when Lefty Kreh showed up for the Fly Fishing Expo, I was pretty excited.  The man is a giant in fly fishing overall and fly casting in particular.  He is 90 years old, and still full of energy and enthusiasm (tempered with a sarcastic wit).  He gave an Instructors Class Sunday before the show opened.  His opening comments were "You IFFF instructors are doing it wrong."  He then spent over an hour making his point.  (More on this another time.) He called me out to be a casting dummy for a while.  My first thought was, "Holy Crap, which hand do I cast with?"  That was followed by a cast that elicited a "Now that's a terrible loop" remark from Lefty.  I settled down, and we spent the next ten minutes on learning not to overpower my casts.  It was such an honor to meet and cast with the man. 

February 2014 - New Zealand

New Zealand has been on my Bucket List for 30 years.  Finally, the excuse to make the trip presented itself in the form of our daughter attending college there on a study abroad program.  A week of hobbits, zip lines and underground rivers on the north island passed quickly.  My wife and I dropped our not so little girl off in North Palmerston and headed for the south island and it's Holy Grail fishing opportunities.  

Our first stop was at Owens River Lodge, an hour south of Nelson.  ORL is a small but absolutely gorgeous spot located on its namesake river.  The proprietor has the modest goal of providing the "finest fishing lodge in New Zealand".  At capacity, the lodge accommodates 12 guests.  During my time there, maybe half were fishing one of the 18 rivers in the area each day as the others took in the rest of the adventures NZ has to offer.

Prior to leaving the States, I had been warned by veterans that fishing NZ is a whole new ball game. By and large, I cannot agree with this assessment.   It is very much the same game, only governed by an obsessive compulsive adherence to the rules most veteran trout fisherman already know.

Granted, it took me a while to get the hang of throwing 18 to 20 foot leaders with/across/into the frequently heavy winds that chase around the Southern Alps adorning most of the south island.  It is also true that 95% of the time you only cast to fish that your guide or (on rare occasions) you have spotted in the stunningly beautiful clear waters that flow in NZ's rivers.  Sometimes you walk a long way between fish.

From this point on, the rules are all the same.  You cast the fly, get the drift, set the hook and land the fish.  Why then does the country own such a gilded reputation as a challenging place to hunt trout?  That answer lies in Mother Nature's teeth grindingly ridged requirement that you get your end of the bargain right before she puts out for you.  I had to relearn so many lessons I had learned in the past.  Do "it" even remotely wrong and the fish will be put down or lost.  The slightest presentation error and the fish will be on to your presence.  Game over pal.  Go find a new target.

What does that mean?  Just tick the water on your forward false cast and you are busted.  As often as not the trout may still be visible...perhaps even still merrily feeding away right before your eyes.  Don't kid yourself (as I too often tried).  That fish is on to the fact that something is wrong.  It will not be taking any artificial flies any time soon.  These are large and well educated fish.  As soon as something looks/feels/sounds remotely off track, their radar goes up and their carefree feeding is over. 

Pick up a mayfly just a bit too fast so it exits the water with a tiny "pop".  False cast once too often over their head.  Fail to straighten the leader and tippet so the fly falls on their head.  Pick up the next cast too soon so they see the nymph zip out off sight unnaturally.   Any of these errors will put the fish on to your presence.  I made all these mistakes and most any other you can think of from the Fly Fishing 101 text book chapter titled "Don't Do This".

There is no magic to getting the bite.  It is just delightfully more challenging.  I hope the preceding did come across as complaining.  The whole experience is wonderful. Just don't think that because you can light up the trout in Forestville and Ennis, the New Zealand trout are yours for the taking.  It is just plain tougher.  

You will get your share of bites, but be prepared for your batting average on landing fish to go down.  First, fishing with sharp eyed guides and super clear water confirmed something I had always believed.  We get more bites than we ever know (at least with nymphs).  Too often, the guide would yell "set" or I would attempt to set the hook in response to the some motion from the indicator only to feel nothing on the line.  The hook set would be too late or the fly simply slid out of the trout's mouth.  Two things just happened; 1) your batting average just dropped a point, 2) the fish has been notified of your presence.   Hit the road, Jack.

Now let's get to the good part.  You hook the fish.  The next stage of the game is pretty much the same as fishing at home.  This assumes you routinely hook 3 to 6  pound trout on 5X tippet.  Many of these fish have"been there and done that" when it comes to fight time.  Some take off like bonefish on a Belizian sand flat and break you off before you can say Fish On.  Some barrel into rocks or roots/limbs faster than a bunny playing with a fox.  Again, there is no magic.  You just really need to keep on you toes.  In the end, all the extra focus and finesse makes every New Zealand trout you catch all that much more special.  Three to four pound trout are the norm.  The big dogs are out there if you are lucky and skilled enough to get one.  

If the opportunity to fish in New Zealand comes your way, pounce on the chance.  You will learn so much and have a fabulous time in the process.  Please heed the following bits of advice:
- Practice, practice, practice your casting before you go.  Rarely do you need to cast more than 40 feet, but you need to be right on target while casting an uncomfortably long leader.
- Get a guide for at least the first day or two.  As outlined above, the game is tougher than at home and a little On The Job Training from a pro is essential towards getting you in the game.  
- Don't let yourself get discouraged if you strike out a few times on fish or just plain have trouble finding fish.  That is simply part of paying your dues to earn the privilege of catching those marvelous trout. 
- Save time for non-fishing activities.  New Zealand is beautiful.  The Kiwis are delightful people.  There are so many fun things to do that it is tough to choose between options.

Fly tiers beware: New Zealand is extremely ecologically conscientious.  Fear of invasious species  will prevent you from getting fur, feathers and any other natural products past the customs police.  Save yourself the hassle and either bring finished flies or buy the local flies.  Stu's Superior Flies (order from.    ) are locally made and very effective.  Stu Tripney is an IFFF Master Casting instructor and a very good guide as well.  

If you are on a budget, check out one of the RV rental options.  (Jucy brand vans are everywhere.)  They are affordable, come in all sizes and the country is very accommodating to campers. 

August, 2013  Brule River
I made my annual trip to the Brule for a little pre-season swim through some of the interesting steelhead holes.  This year I focused on the waters from Bachelor's (the path that travels north from the parking area) to the Rocking Chair.  The river was flowing at about 170 cfs.  This is down from over 500 cfs five days earlier.  Despite the reduction, the visibility was just 12 to 14 inches.  I "saw" as much with my hands and feet as with my eyes.  

To avoid a billy goat climb in diving boots along the east shore, I crossed the river over and back at the two willow trees (about 150 yards apart) that overhang the east bank. The first interesting hole was the set of three consecutive runs adjacent to the big land slide located on the west shore (Big Dutchman?).  All three had good deep (5 feet or more) water with consistently strong flows and visible eddys.  The difference between them was that the upper and lower runs had better rocks lining the bottom.  The upper run had good sized rocks (basketball +-) throughout.  The lower run had the same but mostly in the upstream portion.  The center section, lying at the foot of the slide, was filled almost entirely with gravel.  Big rocks and steelhead are great friends.  The lesson learned was that when I return in October, my fishing efforts will be focused heavily on the upper and lower sections of this part of the river.  

As I progressed downstream, I explored many of the classic runs that you find at the bends of the river.  Most were surprisingly deep (6+ feet) with the best rocks located at the heads of the runs.  On the insides of the bends, many suffered from the slow "frog water" that you must mend your line over to get a decent drift.  No surprise, nothing but sand lies under the slow water.  The outside edges of the bends are commonly near vertical rock piles underwater.  That makes for a good drift if you can avoid the underwater brush that almost always accumulates.  

The Rocking Chair was my main target of exploration for the day.  This run is made up of two distinct sections.  The upper section is a fast 15-yard long riffle leading into a deep flat run. Trees and a deep eddy line the opposite shore.  The river then takes a hard right turn into a less distinct but longer run with slower water.  A large landslide lies across the river on the lower run.

I always knew the upper section was deep but, Wow!  The riffle is pretty typical with good sized rocks dropping into the run.  The eye opener is that the rocks drop into about 9 feet of water. It is normal for the fast water of a riffle to travel over the top of slower water underneath.  At the Rocking Chair, the deeper water is so still it is almost stagnant.  Gross Out Alert....skip to the next paragraph if you do not want to read this part of the story. The water was so still down there that a leech nabbed the palm of my hand has I explored around the rocks under the riffle.  What's more, in the time of maybe 30 seconds that I was under, it left hundreds of tiny little baby leeches all over my hand.  It took a couple minutes of sand scrubbing to solve that problem.  I've never seen leeches in moving water. 

It makes sense to use a slinky rig to fish the bottom in this riffle and especially the deep run.  A nymph rig would need to be very long to reach the bottom and the water pressure on the fly line and indicator on the surface is going to cause the flies to move very quickly compared to the deep water the nymph is passing through.  If I do nymph there, I'll do so with a short heavy rig and keep it in the riffle/rocks.

At the turn, the rocks resume at 5 feet deep in a line parallel to the western shore.  Unlike the river bends mentioned earlier, the bottom slopes up gradually to the west shore.  Fishing from the east side, you are in the best water if your indicator is 2/3rds of the way across the river.  Beyond that line you are over sandy gravel and shallower water.  There once was a ridge of sand (to stand on) between the east shore and the good nymphing lane in the lower half of this run.   That has been washed out.

Something struck me about all the runs in this section of the river.  There were few really big (bushel basket sized) rocks.  Other areas like the runs in Red Gate and High Landing are loaded with them.  I have seen big steelhead and browns hide in and around these boulders.  Could this impact these areas ability to hold steelhead a little longer during the migrations?

It was 5:30 when I got back to the car.  There was not enough time for another long walk, so I decided to revisit an old familiar fishing/swimming hole; the run just below the Pine Tree Canoe Landing.  This is a favorite fishing run for half the steelheaders on the river.  Holy Hanna had this changed over the summer.  The west side of this run had silted in something awful the last few years.  You could very nearly stand in the middle of the river and nymph the east bank with a fairly short cast.  The high waters in April through June must have blown the area clean because the silt is gone and the rocks have reappeared. This is a deep hole with very large boulders filling the riffle, run and tail out.  I predict it will be dynamite this fall.   With any luck, the silt that buried much of the west side of Sprau Bend and the Falling House hole has been washed away as well.  They both needed a good cleaning out.  

Shame on me if I left out the bass and muskie.  I also swam two great rocky areas down from Nelson's Landing on the St. Croix river on Friday.  The good news is that there has been a good year-class of smallmouth bass.  Small bass were everywhere.  The bad news is that there were very few larger bass.  It looks like they have begun to head south to St. Croix Falls for the winter.  The muskies have been great this year.  We are heading into the best time of year for them.  Contact me if you would like to take a shot at one of these seriously large predators.

Enough of this obsessive compulsive diatribe.  I wish you all a great fall and tight lines. 

Peter Garretson

Trips & Outings

Guided Fly Fishing