Targeting the “second-rate” species.
- By: Zach Matthews
Ask most anglers what equals summer fun for them, and they’ll answer, “Trout.” But what to do during a heatwave, or high water, or when your favorite stream gets hit hard by the angling hordes? When that happens it’s time to look past the glory fish to the less-loved species; they may provide the best options out there. Read on for a few suggestions to get you started.
Deep Fried Carp
CARP ARE COOL AND EVERYBODY from fly-line gurus to people designing trucker hats has gotten in on the craze. And good for them—carp are tough, probably most similar in behavior to near-shore red drum, but way more selective by an order of magnitude. And as carp have begun to see more flies being specifically flung their way, they’ve suddenly grown even more streetwise.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t get in on this game. Anyone can carp fish, just about anywhere, but in the South, especially in summer, they’re often the best thing going. In my home state of Georgia we’re blessed with a number of shallow lakes and rivers—prime carp habitat, especially in periods of low rainfall when the headwaters clear.
To successfully fish carp in Georgia, or anyplace else, you need to find access. The most ideal situation I’ve ever seen was on a flooded golf course, where 12-pound carp actively tailed in the fairway. (I blame them for a serious case of the shanks that day). If you’re a member of a club, simply show up near dusk and ask for permission to fish. Or try your luck another way. Apartment landscaping ponds often hold common carp and grass carp, too. Grassers are very, very difficult to catch, but will sometimes inexplicably decide to nail a fly; when that happens it looks like someone chucked a bowling ball into the water.
If golf and landscaping options aren’t available, you can check your local trout tailwater. In the height of summer, when the water warms, carp push up from downstream, an example being the Holston River, east of Knoxville (a different stretch of water than the more-famous South Holston, which ironically is farther north). Seek these fish in the clearest water. Because they naturally orient upstream, you’ll have an easy approach from behind if you work upriver. I’ve successfully targeted river-running carp with bamboo rods, casting Woolly Buggers and Crazy Charlie bonefish flies.
When you decide to get really serious about carp it’s time to walk on water. These days that means getting in a boat and that means poling, too. When doing so, locate shallow, flat bottoms. In Georgia these areas consist of silted-in oxbow bends like you’ll find on the upper end of Lake Allatoona, where it’s fed by the Etowah River, or parts of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. This is a sight-fishing game. See the fish, be the fish, Danny.
When you spot a carp it will typically be tailing, nose-down, or cruising high. Tailing fish need to be fed precisely; identify their direction of travel and drop a light, sinking nymph (such as a Flymph) a few feet away. Wait for the carp to cross over, then gently scurry that Flymph so it looks like a panicked waterbug.
Casting to cruisers can be more productive. Generally speaking, neutral-buoyancy flies that skitter along, just under the surface, work best. Lead the fish like Drew Brees leads a wideout, timing your strips so the fly crosses about two feet in front of his nose. Often they will turn and follow; tease the fish and hold on.
A carp’s rubber mouth means that once stuck, they tend to stay that way. As it turns out, carp anglers are the same. There are few more relaxing ways to spend an evening down South than on the deck of a carp boat, sipping cold Shiner Bock while listening to the cicadas competing for air-time with the Atlanta Braves’ radio call.
Chena River Grayling
Almost every dedicated angler sees Alaska on their life-list radar, but most often their attention is directed at the high-profile species, such as rainbow trout, salmon and northern pike. They often overlook the Arctic grayling, which is abundant in the Great Land and seemingly designed to please the dryfly angler.
There are scads of places to fish grayling but few are more accessible than the Chena River, which flows through the heart of Fairbanks, with 100,000 residents Alaska’s second largest city. The Chena begins in the White Mountains and is fed by five productive tributaries—the North Fork, South Fork, West Fork, Middle Fork and the Little Chena—before dumping into the Tanana River 50 miles later. The upper Chena is surrounded by the Chena River State Recreation Area, which provides 20 miles of great roadside access along Chena Hot Springs Road.
Grayling, as you probably know, can’t match Alaska’s glamour species for size, and not necessarily for their fighting abilities either, but the fish makes up for those deficiencies by eating almost every dry fly thrown its way, including the Elkhair Caddis, Thunderdome, Parachute Adams and more. Larger grayling may prefer meatier offerings, including Woolly Buggers, Zug Bugs, Muddlers and rabbit-strip leeches. Most of these grayling measure 10 to 13 inches. They are covered by catch-and-release regulations that went into place in the 1990s to protect the slow-growing fish.
I visited Fairbanks last year, during the last week of July, and made my way to the local fly shop for an updated Chena River fishing report, then drove north to Chena Hot Springs, which served as my base camp for four days. The plan was to fish the Chena’s upper North Fork, where the grayling are relatively unpressured and—reportedly—larger than those in the mainstem and other tributaries. Chena Hot Springs, as the name implies, is renowned for its mineral hot springs.
Grayling fishing on the Chena is good from the second week of June, after runoff, through September. In late July the North Fork can be quite entertaining, as the grayling congregate in deeper pools to sip dry flies all day. These pools may hold 50 to more than a hundred fish, so releasing 15 or more grayling in four or five hours is pretty easy, provided you play hooked fish in the shallows to prevent spooking the herd, so to speak.
Again, most of the Chena’s grayling average 10 to 13 inches, but I managed to net several larger fish in the 15- to 17-inch class when fishing the North Fork. I could see grayling to 20 inches in the deeper pools, but I couldn’t keep smaller fish from eating my fly before it had a chance to reach the brutes. I had a real hoot with these fish using a 7 ½-foot 4-weight bamboo rod that I’d wrapped myself. I cast flies I’d created at my own bench. With a smile on my face I had to pinch myself for a reality check—nothing sweeter than catching wild fish all day on a rod and flies made with your own hands. The smaller fish looked like stained-glass ornaments shining bright in the water. Scales were yellow, aquamarine and turquoise. The grayling’s sailfish-like dorsal fin was fringed in pink, with large, brilliant-blue spots on the trailing edge, color that can’t be accurately captured on canvas or fish replicas. I shot gigabytes of photographs, but few came close to the kaleidoscopic color visible to the naked eye.
If you fish the Chena after July, heed this warning: The grayling may not be eating dry flies as avidly as they would be earlier in the season. In fact, a grayling’s diet shifts from insects and small forage fish to eggs and decomposing flesh after migrating salmon spawn and begin to die, making egg patterns, plastic beads and flesh flies very productive in the late season, meaning August and September.
When I visited, the river was clear as gin and allowed sight-casting to specific fish. Watching a fish slowly rise from the bottom of a pool and eat your drifting fly is about as perfect as fly-fishing can get. This makes the Chena and its grayling ideal for anglers who need to boost their confidence, including young fly fishers, and the river’s tiny gravel makes wading easy. Again, access is abundant. Considering the remoteness of Alaska, this trip can be a doable adventure on a relatively small budget.
Sneaky-Deaky “Layover” Bass
EXCITEMENT TRUMPED SOUTH Florida’s humidity as, armed with two 6-weight rods, we steered a boat down a tight ramp, behind locked gates, preparing to launch flies for peacock bass.
The Florida Wildlife Commission introduced that Amazon species back in the 1980s as a controlled attempt to eradicate the Sunshine State’s more damaging invasives. Peacocks are voracious and eat all sorts of fish, and their favored water temperature—above 60 degrees—made them a natural fit. Today, peacocks are widespread and can be pursued in the middle of urban America, just off the backyards in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Despite easy access to these fish, a day pursuing them can be ripe with adventure, one bend taking an angler past an angry pitbull trying to gnaw through a fence, the next offering a pedigreed French poodle being led across a manicured lawn by a bikini-clad vixen of the most delightful stripe.
I digress. We—guide Alan Zaremba, who owns World Wide Peacocks, and I—were armed with weighted Clouser Minnows, heavy leaders and rods with fighting butts. As I quickly learned, we would need those fighting butts to tame peacocks that shot under the boat, or tried to wrap around bridge supports, or attempted to saw through leaders on dock pilings, or jumped into or over vegetation and debris. Fortunately, this is an experience that you, too, can enjoy as a destination trip or a few hours of diversion during a lengthy layover.
Traveling anglers land at Miami International Airport and can be picked up by a guide. A few minutes later they can be on the water, as the MIA lakes offer some of the best flyrodding in Florida, performed under the take-off and landing performances of massive 747s. And the Tamiami Trail—a canal system running east/west along Highway 41—provides opportunities for on-foot and boat fishing. One of the most productive places for walking/wading access is the H. P. Williams Picnic Area, located at the intersection with Turner River Road. You can also visit the International Game Fishing Association’s Hall of Fame and Bass Pro Shops’ Outdoor World prior to or after fishing the nearby C-11 roadside canal. When fishing the Tamiami anglers should carefully time their backcasts to prevent the dreaded loss of flies—and maybe entire fly lines—to passing vehicles. Snapper Creek Canal is another popular destination, and boat-accessible side canals add miles of productive fishing.
On the northern edge of the peacock’s range is Lake Ida, in Delray Beach. This public park provides lots of productive shoreline. If you choose to fish Ida do so on weekdays; on weekends the jet-ski and wave-runner crowd have the expected impact on the fishing (they screw it up, that is).
Guiding since 1992, Zaremba has noted a few canals where the size of the peacocks seems to have topped out. Most of these are waters near the species’ thermocline perimeter, at the north and west ends of the fish’s range. In contrast, the Biscayne Aquifer percolates a year-round ideal water temperature throughout the southern half of the Broward County and Miami-Dade County canals. These square-cut rock-base canals support a stable peacock bass population, with many fish that reach five pounds or more.
There’s productive fishing almost all year, the exception being on the tail of a cold front. Into late May anglers find peacocks paired up and protecting nests. During summer anglers find aggressive peacocks for as long as they—the fish and the angler—can stand the heat. Morning and evening hours are most productive and the fish often congregate near culverts. In late August the peacocks spawn again and sight-fishing to paired-up fish is productive. In fall and winter peacocks school up and take rapidly retrieved streamers in deeper water. No matter when you choose to fish them, the peacock bass is great sport on a 6-weight, and seems to be in Florida for the long run. —Michael Salomone
The Man in the Brown Suit
Most anglers hit the saltwater flats looking for one of the Big 3, that being bonefish, permit or tarpon. In doing so, they often overlook one of the most abundant and spectacular quarries that can be pursued with a fly—the Man in the Brown Suit, a.k.a. the shark.
Bonefish flats around the world, from the Bahamas to the Keys and beyond, are loaded with these fish, and if you can quickly switch out a bonefish rod for the heavier artillery you may end up landing the greatest memory of your trip. And there’s no reason not to do just that—lemon and black-tip sharks are found on the flats all year. Bull and spinner sharks are less common, but more frequently encountered during fall and winter. And if the stars really align you may be poling across the flats one day and see something that scares you: a hammerhead or tiger shark on the prowl.
To catch any of these sharks you can’t get away with your bonefish rig. You’ll need a solid 10-weight (or heavier) rod with a good reel and a floating line. Because a shark’s abrasive body can gnaw right through inferior leaders, I use six feet of 30-pound mono and attach 12 inches of single-strand wire to that.
I don’t get too fancy with fly selection for sharks. Some schlappen and palmered rabbit in a variety of bright colors (red, orange, yellow). Movement in the fly is key, and the rabbit strip achieves that.
Poppers also draw a shark’s attention and the takes are stunning, especially when a whole head comes out of the water to take a fly. But it’s harder to get a shark interested in a popper, and when a shark does grab their wake may push the popper out of the way, just like you may have experienced while tempting bull redfish. It’s frustrating, for sure, but also high entertainment.
To successfully fish sharks you have to be ready. That means you should have a shark rod strung, with the proper fly attached, before you see the fish. And you should be able to access the rod without banging around in the boat. Opportunities often present themselves quickly—an angler on the bow should be focused on bones, permit or tarpon while the angler on deck should help his partner spot fish and manage line. At the same time, however, the angler on deck should be ready to quickly and quietly grab that shark stick and start hucking.
Once a shark is spotted you need to get a fly close to it—sharks don’t see well, so the goal is to get a reactionary bite almost as soon as the fly hits the water. If a shark doesn’t jump on the fly right away, you may want to strip the fly slowly and steadily, imparting just a little life to the fly. Often a fish will light up and charge the fly only to turn away at the last second, realizing it’s been duped because the fly has no scent. If you cast often enough to sharks you’ll eventually find a brave one. And when you do, that visual of a shark elevating in the water to eat a fly will make you an addict. —Oliver White