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Check Your Fly

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Check Your Fly

I was like a kid in a candy store, frantically looking about at all the delicious varieties and flavors that surrounded me.  Longing to taste every single one, and knowing, at least on this trip, that it was impossible.  Yet my heart just wouldn't accept what my head already new.  I was going have to make some tough choices, and leave some of those delicious treats behind for another time.  There was just simply no way we could taste every current seam, sample every pool, or partake of all of the tempting piles of boulders strewn throughout the river.  My companion  for this adventure, my long time fishing partner of some 30 years now, Nate, was equally distracted.  We had about 6 miles of river neither of us had ever seen before.  Our hopes were further elevated by the knowledge that it contained both smallmouth and striped bass.  Nate had never caught either of these on fly, and he was determined to get one or the other, or maybe both.  

After the first 100 yards or so, we began to settle into a rhythm.  My focus narrowed as I picked a line that put Nate in casting range of where I thought the fish should be.  It was on a backhand cast behind a small pile of rocks that the first fish struck.  I saw him move from behind the rocks in the broken current and inhale the black sculpin streamer.  Nate set the hook and the fish went wild with end over end jumps and spit the fly back at the boat.  We laughed loudly.  The day held nothing but promise, and we had miles to go.  

On the next fish, Nate stayed connected and he landed his first ever smallmouth on fly.  He commented that he couldn't believe how strong they were for there size.  We shook hands and smiled.  Those smiles reflected years of crawdad fishing with hotdogs, lazy days floating creeks for redbreasts,  and late evenings on too many ponds to remember.  Over the last 30 years, I had been there for his first redfish on fly, his first snook in the everglades, and now his first smallmouth bass.  I was so busy basking in the glow of our success, that I failed to check the fly before we continued down the river.  

The sink tip, although rather horrible to cast, was doing well at keeping the rabbit and deer hair sculpin down in the water column.  Occasionally we would snag a boulder or submerged log, but that only told me the fly was in the zone.  As Nate erratically stripped the fly along a current seam next to a swirling eddy,  a nice chunky fish rolled on the fly and with a single jump came unhooked.  I stood and announced that it was my turn to show him how its done.  We swapped places and floated on down a small piece of good looking water.  I fished on a bit without any luck when suddenly a fish darted from cover in some push water above a ledge in the river.  I set the hook and after a brief fight he was off.  

We swapped again as we were approaching a little more technical water that Nate wasn't yet comfortable rowing.  I dropped the boat down throw a small chute and then began ferrying us across the shoal as Nate stripped and swung the fly through likely haunts.  I looked away for a moment downstream to assess our drift, and suddenly heard a large splash.  I snapped my head around just in time to see the bass, a solid chunk of bronze in the 3 to 4 pound class, breach the waters surface again.  The fish turned and tried to go under the boat, but Nate held her off.  She then drove herself back towards the boulders from where she had come.  Nate was holding on tight and trying his best to put just enough pressure on her to keep her out of there.  Suddenly the fly snapped out of the water and his rod went straight.  Nate sunk into his seat shoulders slumped.  After a quiet moment, and without looking at me he said, "That was a big girl."  It was only then that I asked to see the fly, and as I looked the hook over my heart sunk.  The hook tip was bent and mashed, and about as sharp as a spoon.  

I changed the fly to something similar, but tied with lead eyes in more of a slider pattern.  This allowed the hook to ride up, and would hopefully help keep the hook point nice and sticky.  I tried to encourage Nate, but I could tell it had little effect.  He was crushed, and I felt like I had failed him.  We passed under a bridge and before I could speak my thoughts out loud Nate was already dropping the fly into the swirly water below the bridge piling.  Nate stripped hard as he snatched the rod to his side.  It was a nice 15 inch fish, and he quickly came to the net.  He picked the fly up and rolled it right back along the same line.  This time the fish hooked itself as it turned hard on the fly when it swung downstream.  I lost count of how many times the fish jumped.  We never said a word during the entire fight.  Nate just kept tight to the fish and let the rod do the work.  As the fish slid into the net we erupted with excitement.  Fist pumps and high fives all around.  The fish wasn't the monster we had lost, but she was certainly a fine representation.  After a few photos we released her.  I surveyed ahead for our next drift, and as I reached for the anchor I paused and said, "Lemme see that fly!"  

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Down And Dirty

As I sit here staring at the screen trying to conjure up another blog post, I have to admit that my life has become increasingly complex.  My 40th is birthday is looming weeks away, and I'm in full on child raising, middle aged family man mode.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad thing.  I love this stage of my life with all it's highs and lows, and there are plenty of both.  What it has caused me to do is reprioritize in many areas.  One of those areas is my fly tying.  I no longer have hours to sit at the vise watching videos and dreaming up new creations.  Most of the time, if I can make it to my desk at all, I have about 15-20 minutes before two handsome boys are arguing over whose turn it is to sit in my lap and help me tie flies.  I wouldn't trade it for anything.  What this phase of life really boils down to from a fly tying standpoint, is that I have to work quickly to bang out a handful of simple, effective patterns.  My time at the vise is limited, and my time on the water even more so.  This has driven me to focus on time tested patterns developed by master craftsman.  I need flies with no more than three materials that are quick to tie, and slay fish.  When considering some of the most effective patterns ever developed, there is no argument that the clouser minnow is certainly at the top of the list.  The clouser minnow, by all accounts, probably has more species of fish to its name that any other pattern.  My purpose here, however, isn't to start a debate.  My purpose is to arm you with some down and dirty tips for tying the clouser minnow.  Both Bob Clouser, and good friend Lefty Kreh, have some subtle slight of hand that not only makes the fly faster and easier to tie, it gives the fly the action and profile that make it so deadly. 

The clouser was originally developed as a smallmouth bass pattern.  Bob Clouser needed a fly that would get down to the fish, and have a darting erratic action.  Before painted dumbbell eyes were available, a split shot was placed on the leader, or pinched directly to the shank of the hook.  One of the most important aspects of tying the clouser is placing your dumbell eyes 1/3 of the way back on the hook shank.  This allows the fly to swim the way it was designed, as well as allowing the for a nice tapered head.  Seat your eyes firmly with cross wraps, and apply glue to your wraps to lock it all in.  

Hair selection is vitally important on two fronts.  The first is selecting the right type of hair from your buck tail.  The hair in the first photo is from the base of the tail.  This is NOT the hair you want.  The hair at the base of a buck tail is more course and hollow.  This causes it to be more stiff, thereby reducing the action of the fly.  It also flares horribly, disrupting the intended profile of the fly.  The hair halfway down the sides, and near the tip of the tail, is more fine and much softer.  This gives the fly great movement as the angler strips the fly through the water.  

 

The next step is to select the proper amount of hair for the bottom wing.  Remember, less is more here.  The consensus is about half the thickness of a pencil.  Once cut, hold the fibers 2/3 of the way back from the base, squeezing them firmly.

Gently pull the shorter fibers and fluff from the hair bundle.  This is critical to both the profile of the fly, as well as a clean tapered head.  

Measure your buck tail against the length of the shank.  Bob and Lefty both agree on two to two and a half times the length of the shank. 

Next, squeeze the bundle into a more oval shape, and trim back on angle.  This provides for a nice taper once you start to cover the hair with thread wraps.  

Before tying in the wing, Lefty Kreh dabs the butt ends with glue.  This is a step Bob Clouser omits.  I'd have to agree with Lefty on this one.  In my opinion, the glue really helps make the fly ultra durable.  

Tying buck tail down neatly can be a real struggle.  Bob offers a tip here that has revolutionized my clousers.  He takes two loose wraps to gather the hair, and then pulls straight up with thread tightly to seat it firmly in place.  This is hard to demonstrate and photograph by yourself.  However, you can see how neatly the hair is tied in here.  Also, notice how it tapers toward the hook eye.

When you cover everything with thread wraps it creates a nice slender cone.  Remember to use firm pressure here, but don't pull so hard as to flare the hair.  The idea is to create a nice vertical profile with the wings to give the illusion of a baitfish.  

This next tip is vital to that aspect of the fly.  After moving your thread behind the eyes, take a few firm wraps while holding slight upward pressure with the hair pinched between your fingers.  

Make open spiral wraps, stopping short of the bend of the hook, and then wrap back forward in front of the eyes.  You can see in this picture how the buck tail is fanned vertically, and all of the hair is on top of the shank.  

Rotate or invert the fly in your vise, and repeat the same steps as described before.  

You'll notice I added some flash to the fly.  I didn't describe this step as my intent here isn't a "How To" article.  There are lots of videos out there on how to tie a clouser.   The point i'm trying to drive home is that there are specific techniques that won't be found in much of the information you will find.  Again, notice in this photo how all of the tips I have described have culminated in a nice vertical profile, and tapered head.  Build up a nice tapered head to your liking and then whip finish or throw in a couple of half hitches.  

Apply Salley Hansens along the bottom of the hook shank, over the eyes, and then to the head of the fly.  Rotate the fly slowly for 20-30 seconds to even out the glue as it cures.  

The finished fly is sparse, has a nice vertical profile, and looks great.  That's really an important note.  A fly that has a nice, clean, fishy look inspires confidence.  If you have confidence in your fly, you stay sharp, and you fish better.  It's a simple fact.  

Something you will often see both Bob and Lefty do is run a fly through their mouth to wet it out and expose its true profile.  This is a size 2 clouser I have tied and in my opinion has a great minnow profile.  I will readily admit many of my attempts at clousers over the years haven't turned out nearly as well.  That was mostly because I didn't really understand the design of the fly.  Furthermore, I didn't know any of these tips.  It's amazing to me how many of these new patterns are nothing more than material on a hook.  It may look good.  It may even catch some fish, but when you listen to someone like Bob Clouser describe how his fly was developed, you begin to understand that every little step plays a very important roll in the design and functionality of the fly.  It's track record is indisputable.  I have personally caught smallmouth on this color combination, and tied a purple and black version that redfish can't resist.  By varying the weight, and color combination, you can tie a fly that you can fish in almost any situation.  For a busy man like myself that's a winner all day.  Thank you, Bob Clouser, for sharing your Clouser Minnow.  

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The Beginning of the End

We pulled into Flamingo and made a few loops through the campground trying to decide on a good campsite.  It had been a long day in the truck and we were eager to pitch camp and relax.  We got setup, cracked a cold beverage and started going through the boat and getting things ready for the next day.  We spread the map out across the hood of the truck looking over the marked areas that several friends and generous folks had given us to check out.  Not spots mind you, but areas.  We didn't want charity, we just wanted an opportunity to figure this out.  

About a year prior a good friend, Rich Walker, had invited me to go with him and chase some redfish on his skiff.  It was 2009 and I had just graduated from Nurse Anesthetist school.  I had always fly fished , but mostly creek and pond fishing for bluegills and bass with a little trout mixed in.  I knew absolutely nothing about saltwater fly fishing and less about redfish.  I'd been catching bass for a while and having caught a few redfish on spin tackle I was eager to give it a shot.  I caught my first redfish that trip on a tan over white Ep minnow I had tied for a finger mullet imitation. I stood on the bow of a poling skiff for the first time.  I saw fish pushing and busting shrimp for the first time.  For the first time, I was introduced to the world of sight fishing with a fly rod.  

I spent all of 2009-2011 improving my casting, learning to pole a skiff, and chasing redfish with Rich as often as I could.  Be it low tides or in the grass I just simply couldn't get enough.  It was sometime around then that Rich suggested that I should come down to the everglades in late winter and try my hand at snook and tarpon.  He explained that he and good friend Capt. Jack Brown from Lady's Island, Sc, went on this adventure every year.  There was only one problem.  I needed a partner and a skiff.  I knew just the person.  Nate Hexamer had been one of my best friends since the 6th grade and we had grown up crawling through creeks and fishing any pond we could get access to.  Nate was always up for an adventure.  He also had a fifteen foot war eagle jon boat with a 25hp yamaha on it.  I spoke to Rich and he assured me that would be just fine for the glades.  I was going to bring along my fly rod, but we planned to fish conventional gear for the most part as Nate didn't fly fish and his boat sported a trolling motor instead of a push pole.    

Our first morning, as we watched all of the technical skiffs and flats boats launching at the ramp, we took our place in line making the run down buttonwood canal and out to coot bay.  We were wide eyed.  It was truly the most amazing place either of us had ever been.  We pulled up on our first spot and started working down the bank.  I was walking a bone colored zara spook along some drift wood in the water when suddenly the water imploded right behind the plug.  I paused and then resumed walking the spook and again someone threw a cinder block in the water next to my bait tossing it from the waters surface into the air.  I reeled in the bait and made another cast along the downed tree and before I had twitched the bait twice another explosion ensued and my rod was doubled.  The fish pulled hard and then breached the surface turning end over end shaking its big mouth trying to get free of the hooks.  

That was the first snook I had ever caught.  The sound a snook makes when sucking a bait down from the surface is very unique.  Even when you hear it from deep within the mangroves its unmistakable. I can still remember every detail six years later.  We went on to catch redfish, trout, and even saw some tarpon.  We fished hard.  We wanted to see it all so badly, but it was so big.  It was the most grand adventure we had been on in our lives.  Unfortunately it was cut a day short by a learning experience that took place on a very famous flat known as Snake Bight.  That's a story for another time.  The most monumental event that took place on that trip changed Nate's life forever.  This was the trip that nate would lose his life.  Well, maybe not his life, most definitely his soul.  

We stopped between some islands in whitewater bay.  There was a deep channel with shallow flats on each side and we were out of the wind.  I took this opportunity to get out my fly rod.  The lady fish were everywhere as were the trout and I was dying to try to catch something on fly.  I started chugging a small white popper over the deeper channel and out of nowhere small jacks began packing up like wolves and trying to destroy the fly.  I cast again and again stripping that popper as fast I knew how and hooking fish after fish.  Before long I noticed nate had stopped fishing and was just watching me.  I turned extending the fly rod to him and said, "Do you wanna give it a shot man?" With a big grin across his face he reached for the rod and said, "Give me that damn thing!"

Nate with his first fish on fly....

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The Grind

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Sometimes things get tough.  Work, parenting, marriage, finances.  We have all been there in one facet or another throughout our lives.  The unfortunate side effect is that sometimes when life gets tough fishing gets hard to come by.  Sometimes when your fishing, the fish get hard to come by.  My good buddy Rich and I had decided that we had, had enough of life and it was time to set things right by baptizing my new drift boat, and putting some fish in it.  Rich's dog Tucker joined us, as he has for many years now, to oversee the operation.  

We pushed out into the current and I pulled on the oars.  This was my first drift boat and my first time venturing out into moving water.  Moving water with lots of big rocks.  I back rowed along the bank to a nice shade line and Rich began picking apart boulder piles and logs in the crystal clear water.  

Several hours later, we had not even moved a fish.  I could tell by the current flow and low water things were going to be tough.  In my mind I began to doubt why I was even there.  My intent had been to show a good friend some good fishing and give him a new experience on the water.  Sure enough, it seemed this trip was shaping up to be the same as the life we were attempting to briefly leave behind.  A grind.

Rich is one of my best friends, and an experienced saltwater and freshwater fly angler.  He knew how the day was shaping up.  We both knew it.  However, instead of giving up and cursing the river god's, we set our jaws against the day.  We cracked a cold one, leaned on each others resolve and went to work.  We pounded rock piles, drifted ledges, and peppered deeper holes.  Nothing.  Not a follow, not a swipe, nothing.

We made the halfway point in our float, and with a thunder shower looming in the distance, I dropped anchor and we had lunch.  BLT's made with fresh tomatoes from the garden.  Tuckers ears perked from his command position on the deck as I opened a bag of chips.  My shoulder was throbbing and still weak from an injury months ago.  I silently cursed getting older.  With the first bite of my homegrown maters I forgot all about my shoulder as the taste of summer sun flooded my mouth.  We talked and ate and enjoyed the breeze.

Refreshed, we made our way around a big bend in the river where I had caught fish before.  I slid the boat across the swift current and smiled to myself at my improved rowing.  I came alongside the slower deeper boulder water at the edge of the main current and dropped the anchor.  Rich made a few casts and I surveyed the water.  I spoke up and told him to cast to the far ledge and just let the fly swing through.  Just as the black bunny leech passed over the the rock into a dark hole behind his line came tight. 

High fives and fist bumps didn't cover it.  The fish was so much more than either of us could express.  It wasn't just the first of the day, or the first smallmouth in my new rig, it was the culmination of months of hard work and never giving in.  It was our deep rooted resolve to never give up.  Never.  

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We rolled down the river through a short thunderstorm.  Rain poured over us but nothing could extinguish the fire that had been stoked inside of us.  We knew we could do it.  We knew that no matter how tough it got, we would simply embrace the suck and find a way.  After the rain cleared out we were running short on time.  Life was calling, begging my return to keep my boys while my wife enjoyed a much needed girls night out.  I had one more spot in mind as we neared the final push to the take out.  

I handed Rich a 6wt with an airflo sink tip and a big rubber legged bugger I call the "Fat Albert".  He had figured out the game and began drifting that fly like a seasoned veteran.  I gave my advice on a likely spot and once again called my shot Babe Ruth style.  A small bartrams redeye bass had inhaled the fly.  

The light had come on for Rich.  He fully understood that drifting wasn't just for trout.  Moments later another smallmouth came to hand.  Small in stature but fierce for his size he never gave up, even managing wriggle away as I was taking a quick photo.  We shook hands knowing that was the end of the day.  We both remarked at the tenacity of that little bass.  Life doesn't give them a thing.  They work for every bit of their existence twenty-four hours a day.  It seems for all of us, life is a grind.

          

 

 

 

 

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#SouthernDrift

Drifting isn't just about fly fishing, or rivers for that matter.  The word drift implies constant change, ceaseless movement.  It's the same in life.  We move from one phase to the next, each with its own set of challenges and rewards.  Recently I have found myself drifting.  Drifting back towards the place where my fly fishing life all started.  Light weight rods, a patch of water anywhere I can find it, and a handful of simple bugs to do the job.  It seems these days I am very content to ease into a small stream and just let myself drift.  Let my soul, my heart, and my mind.... drift.

I recently had the opportunity to finally meet Cameron Mortenson of The Fiberglass Manifesto .  As I'm sure you know, Cameron deals in all things fiberglass.  I had messaged him many times over the past couple of years seeking his advice when I began looking for a light glass rod that would be matched to my local waters.  He was eager to usher me in the right direction.  Sorta like a dealer to a suffering addict.  

Recently Cameron highlighted a one day sale on the Cabelas CGR rods on his blog, and I jumped. A beautiful little olive glass rod showed up a few days later.  I had an old Martin 63 fly reel in my tying desk and rigged her up with a fresh 4 wt line.  I messaged Cameron and, we quickly agreed a formal testing of the new glass rod was imminent.  I had the perfect little place in mind.  As I worked through the week my mind constantly drifted to summer afternoons spent crawling its banks, and wading through its deep pools.  Low and slow...thats what I needed.  Like good southern BBQ, this couldn't be rushed.

We stepped out into the stream on the afternoon of the afore mentioned meeting.  It was obvious that both of us were still wearing the long week and very eager to baptize ourselves in the cool waters of this nameless flow and wash it all away.  We talked and caught up like old friends as we rigged and readied the rods.  I pointed to a deeper run in the creek and remarked that it usually held a few fish.  Cameron wasted no time.  After a few swings he was rewarded with one of the gems of my local haunt.  The Bartram's Redeye Bass.  This was the fish I had hoped to show Him. The one I had hoped we could add to his long list of fish caught on glass.  The mutual admiration at the accomplishment of this task cut us loose, and set us adrift.  As the afternoon turned into evening, the talking quieted.  We moved to different areas and were both deeply concentrating on the task at hand.  While redbreasts are often eager and willing players, this afternoon was a little different.  They wanted our little bugs drifted.  Dead drifted.  The silence was intermittently broken with laughs and the sound of line ripping off of the water.  It was a fine evening, for a good #SouthernDrift.

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