By Tim Holschlag
I’ll be the first to say it: I’m not the kind of guy who believes that simply adding another piece of tackle to your collection will automatically solve every fly-fishing problem. For instance, if you don’t know the biological differences between largemouth and smallmouth bass, or if you haven’t taken the time to learn to cast properly, no amount of tackle will make you a good angler.
That said, I also believe that reasonably knowledgeable and proficient fly fishers who have proper tackle will have much more productive angling experiences than those who are poorly equipped. Here’s why.
The right rod is often more important for warm-water fly fishing than it is for trout fishing. Trout purists will howl at this statement, but consider
the facts. Most Midwestern trout creeks are wind-sheltered and narrow. The flies used on trout streams are diminutive and casts are short. Sure, the perfect combination of rod, line and leader might allow you to finesse a few more fish, but a trout-savvy angler will do okay with a variety of outfits.
On the other hand, casting a big, heavy fly 50 or 60 feet all day (and often in the wind) is truly demanding. Choose the wrong rod or line for these challenging conditions and you limit drastically your casting distance, hook-setting ability–and the number of fish caught.
Choosing an appropriate rod doesn’t mean paying attention only to the rod’s line rating. Rod length also is important and, generally, longer is better. Nowadays, 9-foot fly rods are common for warm-water fishing, but going to a 9 1/2- or 10-foot stick seldom hurts and often makes both casting and hook setting easier.
For example, many anglers use a 9-foot, 5-weight for bluegill fishing.This will do, but a10-footer allows for easier casting (especially when you’re sitting low in a float tube). For throwing big pike flies or for improved hooking power in a fast-flowing smallmouth river, a long rod can’t be beat.
In addition to considering weights and lengths, it’s essential to choose the most appropriate rod action. There’s no disputing that excellent casters can throw a considerable distance into a stiff wind with a fast-action rod (one with most of its flex in the tip). But, let’s be honest. Most anglers aren’t hotshot casters who have perfect timing and who can develop blistering line speeds. Especially if you’re a beginning-to-intermediate caster, a graphite rod with more flex (rated, perhaps, medium or medium/fast action) will be easier to use.
Experienced fly casters also know that it is easier to cast big flies if they use a line that is heavier than the rod’s rating. For 30- to 50-foot distances, many newer generation graphite rods load and cast much better with heavier lines. I always load my 8-weight smallmouth rods with 9-weight lines. For casting extra-heavy flies short distances, a line two weights heavier than the rod’s rating is even better. To find out which fly line casts the best for the type of fishing you’re doing, don’t be afraid to experiment with different line weights.
Undoubtedly the second most important part of your tackle ensemble is the fly line. Though some manufacturers now offer a dizzying array of fly lines, the old reliable floating bass-bug taper will do for most warm-water fishing. Some of the new lines with specialized tapers are nice for unusual conditions, but for most warm-water angling, a bass-bug taper or even a standard weight-forward line is fine. Though you probably won’t need a lot of different floating lines, you do need ones of high quality. Today’s high-grade lines are pricey, but they cast well, float well, are long-lasting and worth the money.
Of course, for extra-deep-water fishing, sinking lines also have their place. I’ve found that only a few fly fishers enjoy deep-water angling, so I’ll just briefly discuss sinking lines. For river fishing to depths of five feet and lake angling to depths of six feet, I prefer a floating line, long leader and heavy fly. But for getting deeper than that, I like a sinking-tip line, such as Scientific Anglers Ultra 3 Wet Tip, Type IV. With a 13-foot fast-sinking tip, you can get the fly down quickly and it will stay there, even in moderate current.
Based on my general tackle guidelines, here are a few rod recommendations for specific types of fishing. For bluegills on small, relatively wind-sheltered ponds, a 4-weight is great; it’s heavy enough to throw the small flies you’ll likely use, yet light enough so that even smaller fish give you a real tussle. If most of your sunfish angling is on large lakes, a longer 5-weight rod is better because casts will be farther and the winds stronger. The same rod is good for crappies and white bass, if you don’t use flies that are too large.
I also prefer a 5-weight rod for creek smallmouth. I don’t recommend it for fishing smallmouth in big rivers or lakes, but for small, protected streams, a 5-weight rod (with 6-weight line) is sweet. For big bronzebacks in big rivers and lakes, I like a fast-action 8-weight at least 9 1/2 feet long. These “muscle sticks” allow my clients to throw hefty flies even on windy days. If I had to choose one general-purpose smallmouth rod, I’d go with a 9 1/2-foot 7-weight.
When fishing largemouth bass, I like the same 8-weight I use for big -river smallmouth. For most largemouth fishing, a long 8-weight rod is heavy enough to cast bulky flies and has enough backbone to wrestle fish out of weeds. Those who concentrate on really big bass and use extra-large flies will do better with a 10-foot 9-weight. For the other end of the largemouth fishing spectrum–small ponds–a 7-weight rod is nice, especially if weed growth where you’re fishing isn’t excessive.
The lean and mean pike is becoming popular. If you’re going to chase giant pike in sprawling Canadian lakes or if you want to pursue muskies, a 10-weight stick is the way to go. If you’re mostly fishing pike in U.S. lakes, a 9-weight rod is appropriate. If you’re going after river pike, you can get by with an 8-weight. You won’t be able to throw those mega-divers and giant streamers, but an 8-weight rod will cast five-inch streamers, which are big enough for medium-size pike.
Before buying a new rod, cast it with the sizes and types of flies you’ll commonly use. This is a one good reason to buy tackle from a local shop, since most shops owners allow you to throw a few casts before purchasing the rod. A growing number of Midwestern fly shops personnel are becoming warm-water savvy. Seek them out and patronize them–you’ll benefit from the relationship.
By Tim Holschlag