Our First Mailbag

Welcome to the first edition of what will hopefully become a bi-weekly mailbag!  We got lots of good questions.  I'll do my best to give answers to help you become a better fly fisher.  In the mailbag this week, we'll answer questions about leaders, picking a starter combo, steelhead flies, and more!  Enjoy, and send in your questions for future mailbags ASAP!

Jay M. (@xjaylonielx) asks: “Do you tie your tippet direct to the fly line or do you use a tapered leader?”

In almost every situation I can imagine, use a leader! Tying a tippet directly to a fly line basically offers no advantage, aside from some very modest cost savings. That advantage of using a tapered (or knotted, or furled) leader is that you get some “backbone” in your rig to propel your fly out.  The butt section of the leader, or thickest part, is what turns the fly and tippet over at the end of your cast.  Without it, we end up with everything landing in a heap.  This can only cause tangles, spook fish, and prevent us from landing the fly where we want.  All bad things!

Adam D (@dvakmtb) asks: “What’s a good starter fly rod and reel combo to get?”

Unfortunately, like many things in life, the answer isn’t so simple.  In short: it depends.
The first thing to consider is what species you’ll be targeting.  Bass? A 6-8 weight is likely a good choice.  Carp? Think 7 or 8 weight.  Muskie?  You’ll probably want a 10 or 11 weight.  Bonefish?  8-9 weight.  Trout?  For general situations, a 3-5 weight rod works well. Steelhead or salmon?  At least a 7 weight, up to a 9 or even 10 weight for large king salmon. Panfish? A 3 weight is plenty.
Now you have to think about where you’ll be fishing.  Large, open bodies of water where you’ll be casting long distances? Go for a longer rod, up to 10 feet is reasonable.  Small streams you can nearly hop across?  Shorter rods from 6 to 7 1/2 feet are probably a better way to go.  Medium sized rivers you can throw a rock across? Go with a 9 footer.
Now, all this being said, the most widely recommended size for a first fly rod is a 9 foot 5 weight.  It’s not too much for trout, as it has the ability to handle delicate dry fly presentations as well as heavy nymph rigs.  When the water is up, a rod in this size has enough back bone to manage a large streamer.  It’s enough for many bass fishing situations, but not too much for panfish.  It’s long enough to high-stick a nymph and cast long distances, but not so unwieldly that it can’t be used on a small stream in close quarters.  The caveat here is that like any jack of all trades, it’s really a master of none.  Still yet, I’d venture that most every fly fisher started with a 9 foot 5 weight and still has one to this day.  It’s a perfect beginner rod.
Without getting into too much detail, choose a rod with a medium or medium fast action (mid to mid-tip flex, equivalently).  This will give you a good combination of power and finesse.
As far as specific rods to look at? All of the big-box outdoor retailers offer quality starter combos at good prices.  I’ve heard good things about the White River line at Bass Pro Shops, and have owned and enjoyed several combos from the Three Forks line at Cabelas.
If you want to step up to a more quality set up, check out Risen Fly’s ITB rod combo. See them at http://www.RisenFly.com/ You can get an attractive, high-quality set up from backing to line to leader, and from rod to reel for nearly the same price as the big companies.  At the same time, you’ll be supporting a small business!
Finally, let me offer up some advice: unless you’re going after drag peeling big-game species, spend your money on the rod and get a cheaper reel.  In many fly fishing situations, the reel does nothing but hold line.  We end up pulling the fish end by hand without ever winding it up on the reel, so expensive reels with advanced drags are unnecessary.

Travis J (@tajohns02) asks: What are some suggested flies for…spring steelhead fishing?

Travis’s question was specifically about Michigan steelhead fishing, but for the benefit of our readers, I’m going to answer a little more generally. Obviously I’ve left some stuff out, but hopefully have offered a good starting point.
Eggs and worms
The go to fly patterns for steelhead are almost universally egg patterns.  Look into “crystal meth,” sucker spawn, and the Blood Dot.  This is because not only are steelhead laying eggs that are continuously washed into the current and devoured, but also many species of rough fish (suckers) travel into the streams during the spring to spawn.  This creates a smorgasboard of food for hungry steelhead that have been in the streams all winter.
Aquatic worm patterns, like the San Juan Worm (see our tying tutorial HERE) are also excellent patterns for steelhead.  Whether the waters they inhabit have aquatic worms or not, there’s just something about a worm that no fish can resist.  San Juan Worm patterns are often also incorporated into egg patterns such that we end up with a hybrid pattern.  They’re dynamite!
Spring steelhead also often live in streams that have substantial levels of aquatic bug life.  While it’s usually the case that the fish have returned to the oceans or lakes from which they came by the time mayfly and caddis hatches really get going, they’re very much still around when stoneflies begin emerging. Work stonefly nymphs through rocky runs.  Truly, we are matching the hatch here.
Also consider adding “hot spots” of bright dubbing into these stonefly patterns.  It doesn’t necessaily mimic anything natural, but is a great method of mimicking both an egg and stonefly at the same time.
Woolly Buggers, especially white
Woolly Buggers catch fish all over.  The story is no different for steelhead. White variations are especially good for steelhead as they are good imitations for dead or dying minnows or shiners drifting in the current.  Why does this work?  To answer, we must consider the life of a steelhead outside of its spawning stream.  All summer long, they gorge themselves on various minnow and shiner species in the bodies of water in whcih they live.  As such, they’re hardwired to eat them, and a dead or dying one looks like an easy meal.  Take advantage!
Woolly buggers in other colors work well, also, just as they do for other fish.  Black, olive, purple, pink, and combinations therein are especially effective for steel.

Hayden (@hurricanehayden) asks: I’m having trouble getting a good drift while nymphing.  Any tips?

Certainly!  As I’ve harped on over and over and over again:  the first and easiest suggestion I’ll offer is to use a strike indicator!  They help your rig track much more reliably, and give an anchor point on the water’s surface.  This greatly reduces the tendency of line tension from the angler to transmit to the rig.
Another technique that’s helpful in close quarters is “high sticking.”  What we do here is approach a “run” or narrow seam with a long rod and sufficiently weighted nymph rig.  Flick the rig to the top of the run, holding the tip of the fly rod basically directly above it.
Generally, it’s easier to hold your arm out away from your body for added reach, and to keep the rod parallel to the water’s surface.  From there, “lead” the rig as it drifts down stream. When I say “lead”, I don’t intend for you to pull the fly in any particular direction. In fact, while you should maintain a taut line, do your best not to “steer” your fly or flies. Instead, keep the tip of your fly rod slightly ahead of the rig as it drifts. In this way, a hook set will firmly lodge the hook into the corner of the fish’s mouth, right where we want it.
Keep your fly line off the water!  In this way, we get a nice, drag free drift.  If it stops, set the hook!  Oftentimes it’s a rock, but many other times what you think might be a rock is actually a fish.  Never assume a snag.

Tara (@ttown543) asks: How’d you get to be so darn good-looking?

Well…I guess chicks dig the beard?


Wrap up

Thanks for all your questions this week.  It was fun interacting with you and helping with things you specifically want to know! I hope I’ve answered your questions and added some knowledge that will help make you a better fly fisher.  Send in those questions to Andrew@flyfisherscorner.com or on Twitter @FlyFisherCorner.  Until next time, tight lines!
Article Name
The Mailbag: First Edition
We answer questions from Twitter followers in the first installment of our mailbag including those about steelhead flies, leaders, starter combos and more!