Over the years we’ve talked about a lot of different watersheds in this column, but there’s one type of water that remains off of most fly angler’s to-do lists: large warmwater rivers. Rivers in this category share several characteristics. First, they tend to be the dominion of spinning and bait cast anglers. Wading opportunities are almost non-existent and you rarely, if ever, see drift boats. This is more the realm of glittering fiberglass bass boats, aluminum semi-vs, all manner of pontoon and pleasure boats. The shoreline tends to be on the developed side, as are the fisheries: the whereabouts and tendencies of system walleye, largemouth bass, pike, muskie, smallmouth and carp tend to be fairly well documented in bait shops and internet boards.
Exotic as such water may seem to the fly angler, in many cases this water is simply downriver of where you usually fish for trout and smallmouth. As in way, way downriver.
I’m more than a little partial to this sort of big, downriver water. My childhood home waters were the lower reaches of a vast watershed, just a few miles before the river finished its 250-mile journey and widened into its final resting place of large, shallow basin lakes. It was a world of old johnboats and older Evinrudes, where a fair amount of folks lived off the river, running set lines for catfish and loading up on walleye and whitebass during the spring and fall runs. Growing up I never touched a fly rod, partly due to the fact that I never saw one on the river. This was the 1980s, which I suppose makes that understandable, but now in the 2010s things have not much changed; I am year in and year out the only fly rod on the river.
So that’s the animal we’re dealing with this week: the big water with the jet skiers you tend to bypass on your way to smaller water. Before we talk tactics, let’s first look at why you might consider hitting this water.
You Have an Incidental Advantage
The guys vertical jigging in the red Lund might give your fly a strange look, but the fish you’re after are more likely to give it a curious one. In heavily pressured water, fish don’t often see flies, or things that move like flies. This makes them secret weapons, right? I always chuckle when I open a gear magazine and find “outside the box” articles touting the magical, stump-busting qualities of “hair jigs” (Clousers) and “marabou jigs” (woolly buggers). I even know a Midwestern fly shop that sells out of purple buck tail every April because a contingent of hardcore spinning anglers throw simple buck tails on heavily weighted three-way sinker rigs for white bass and walleye (get those guys a spey rod and a sinking line). The moral of the story is that your fly box has things these fish have never tasted before, and that can and will work to your advantage.
They Are Fascinating Ecosystems
Big warmwater rivers are pretty interesting from a biological point of view. Major and minor fish migrations, prolific bug events, an abundance of bizarre and ancient species are all par for the course. One of the things that makes these downstream riparian hinterlands unique is their preponderance of bayous, sloughs, oxbows, and other backwaters where mean-spirited fish like bowfin lead a mostly quiet existence. There are also compelling insect events that often go unreported because the spinning and baitcast anglers who generally bear witness to them aren’t equipped to fish them and so ignore the hatch. This means that those in the know can have quite a bit of bug bounty all to themselves. I have friends in eastern Minnesota that have a blast fishing gar on hex in the Mississippi backwaters before the bugs appear on the tributary trout streams. On another river system, carp go nuts during late spring on cottonwood seeds—just tie a tuft of cotton ball to your hook and you’ll be into your backing for days. The point here is that these unique windows of opportunity exist on big warmwater river systems, and I’m sure there are other secrets out there waiting to be discovered.
You Get to Fish at “Fishing Distances”
Another fun part about fishing warmwater rivers is that they tend to be on the more stained side of things when it comes to water clarity, which means you can enjoy fishing at “fishing distances” instead of “casting distances.” If you, like me, spend a lot of time on ultra-technical water, it can be refreshing—and educational in its own way—to work in closer to fish and structure.
Sometimes Big Rivers Fish Really, Really Well
I fished my own big water river about a week after a Mahseer expedition to India. That Mahseer trip was exhilarating, technical and challenging. Those tend to be my favorite types of trips, but I also need the occasional hand-over-fist level of action, and big water often provides me with that. You certainly don’t want sick, easy bounty all the time, but every now and again it’s just what the doctor ordered.
They’re Easy to Navigate in More Ways Than One
Big rivers tend to have lots of launches, which makes it easy to explore new water, to follow migrating fish, and to find more suitable water after a rain event or during a drought. So that makes physical navigation easy. But then there’s the more tactical sort of navigation: making your way through the fisheries themselves. The advantage here is that the fishing communities that ply these bodies of water tend to be pretty transparent about piscatorial goings-on. By checking a few web forums you can get a reasonable idea of what’s going down and what’s on the horizon.
As for the Fishing….
And that brings us to the subject of fishing this water. Obviously, there’s a lot more of it than you’re used to, so how do we stack the odds more clearly in the fly angler’s favor?
You can start by seeking out beats of narrow water, places where geology forces an extended compression of the river bank, speeding up flow and creating those things you’re already so good at recognizing: seams. Now these seams are not likely to be as obvious or severe as we’d find in cold- and cool-water systems (since they tend to have faster flows), and they are likely to be found downstream of some sort of structure, but seams on big water will still hold fish. So where do you find narrow water? On GoogleEarth, that’s where. Not only do these narrower stretches possess more obvious ambush lies for both the fish and the angler, but during the peak of summer they will in fact afford fish a touch more dissolved oxygen—always welcome when water temperatures climb above the 80-degree point, which happens quite a bit during the dog days of summer.
The next part of the program involves looking at river structure you might not be accustomed to fishing: vertical sea walls (often made of wood, sometimes metal), rip-rap, and elevated docks/piers. The first two are important places for feeding, the last is important for resting. In all cases, access to deeper water is essential for these spots to fish well. Let’s take a look at a few tactics you can use for these three types of structure.
Wood walls are prime places for predator fish to hunt minnows, and for good reason: chase a bait ball into a seawall and suddenly there’s no place for them to go except into a larger fish’s gullet. I’ve found that predator fish tend to rush vertical walls in waves, and for that reason they are best fished slowly, from an anchored position, watching the surface for signs that a sortie is underway. Sometimes this will be a subtle subsurface roil, others times a full-on eruption.
For fishing wood walls, you want a fly that begins fishing immediately, like the venerable Clouser. Action is not as important as immediacy and accuracy. Cast directly where you saw a fish eat, strip immediately, and be ready for a quick strike.
Once you’ve caught the active fish, or if you’re passing time between feeding rushes, focus on fishing the first drop to deeper water with a neutrally buoyant fly and sinking line. This is where fish waiting between rushes can be induced to attack a fluttering, swooning offering hanging right in their face.
Rip-rap banks aggregate crayfish, which attract a variety of warmwater species. Because they tend to be steeply angled, fish will often hold just a foot or two beneath the surface, tight to the rocks. This can be a great place to fish “the fall,” which essentially means making a cast that ticks dry rock, then manipulating your fly only as much as is needed to keep it walking down the rocks without hanging up. A lightly weighted fly with an upturned hook allows you to explore that water slowly and without worry. Takes will often be detected by watching the tip of your fly line, in which case an indicator style line with extra buoyancy and color will help you know when your fly has been taken. If the tip of the line ticks forward, moves left or right, or does anything out of the ordinary, set the hook.
If you find you need to speed up your descent or achieve greater depth, change your leader before you change your fly, since a heavily weighted fly crashing down can put fish on the alert instead of on the feed, and it’s the ability to land lightly that is one of your key advantages as a fly angler. You can get down quicker and deeper with the same fly by swapping out your tapered leader for an untapered one (say, an 18-inch butt section of 2olb Maxima followed by 6-8 feet of straight mono or fluoro). That same fly that gained depth slowly on a tapered leader will gain depth much more quickly on an untapered one, and will land just as softly on the cast. (Note: your casting stroke will need to be modified slightly. Bigger loops are your friend.) This presentation is easiest at short to medium casting distances.
Docks are another man-made form of cover that can collect fish, especially during times of high overhead sunlight. If you’ve watched the Bassmaster’s Classic, you’ve seen bass anglers skipping soft plastics deep beneath these shadowy overhead structures. You can duplicated this by fishing a high-density sinking line with at least 24 feet of head, a long tapered leader (9 feet), and an unweighted synthetic fly, like a Murdich minnow. The sinking line will allow you to achieve terrifically high line speeds, the near weightless fly allows for very tight loops, the long leader will catapult your fly deep beneath the dock, and the natural hydrophobic quality of the synthetic materials ensures your fly will skip across, not stick to, the water’s surface. Use a side-arm cast, and get your fly moving the instant it hits the water for reactionary strikes. Bass love it.
One Last Tip
If your water is particularly snaggy and you’re losing too many flies to the murky depths, try tying your big river patterns on a Daiichi 2461 whenever possible. I was turned onto this hook by steelhead swingers on the wood-filled rivers of Western Michigan. If you get fatally hung up, a slow, steady pull will straighten the hook to the point where it is easily dislodged, provided you’re using 10 pound test and above. Simply bend it back into shape, give it a few strokes on the hone, and get fishing again.
Dave Karczynski is the author of From Lure to Fly: Fly Fishing for Spinning and Baitcast Anglers, an Orvis Series book published by Lyons Press. He is also the co-author of Smallmouth: Modern Fly-Fishing Tactics, Tips and Techniques, published through Stackpole Press. A regular contributor to Outdoor Life, The Drake, and many other magazines, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan.