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Edition 3 Archives - FFI Magazine

This lucky ingrate, in my salt-stained eyes, had landed the fish of a lifetime. I’d just returned from my first epic saltwater foray on the edge of a barrier reef, via Southwater Caye, Belize. We’d spent a week sight casting under azure skies and exploring flats, mangrove-lined lagoons, and the outer atolls of Lighthouse Reef. We burned evenings while huddled around a thatch-roofed shack, relating the day’s events, with palms swinging overhead in the breeze. An occasional ray, porpoise or tarpon stirred up bioluminescent algae in the bay. Permit had eluded me, which I rather expected, but what really stuck in my craw was a missed opportunity to catch a big barracuda on the fly. As I interrogated that fellow angler from my San Pedro barstool, he inquired quizzically. “Wow, you’re really interested in barracuda fishing?”

Barracuda often swim where there’s unique scenery, whether that’s a beautiful coral head, a remote sand flat, or an interested bystander.

              “Yes, sir, I am,” I said. “I’ve caught tarpon and bonefish on this trip and it has been awesome, but I have been shut out on barracuda. That is my primary goal, to catch one like yours.”

              As we yammered over a couple of chilled Belikins, his eyes lit up as he related details of the encounter. Turns out, his original, solemn report belied reality: He was ecstatic to catch that ‘cuda. Likely, some other lodge guests downplayed the experience, and filed that barracuda away as bycatch, meaning wasted time in their pursuit of a Grand Slam.

              That exchange happened 20 years ago. The fly-fishing court of opinion hadn’t accepted the lowly barracuda as a worthy quarry. Today, anglers posing with barracuda grace the covers of fishing magazines and fill up Instagram feeds. Rightfully so—this apex predator possesses all the admirable qualities of a premier fly-rod gamefish. For example, barracuda occur in beautiful, intriguing habitats and present sight-fishing opportunities, playing to the hunter in all of us. The take and ensuing fight from a ‘cuda is often spectacular and tackle testing. Barracuda have broken my rods, snapped fly lines, and left me quivering in the wake of heartbreak. Additionally, barracuda are a highly successful species and can be found in subtropical oceans worldwide.

             On February 14, 2013, Thomas Gibson, of Houston, Texas, caught a 102-pound barracuda while trolling for tarpon near the mouth of the Cuanza River in Angola. While Gibson’s chance encounter is typical of tangles with the largest barracuda, fly anglers looking to specifically target big beasts would do well to begin the hunt off the beaten path. Having the capability to access less-pressured flats, cuts, and reefs greatly improves your odds of hooking a granddaddy. Consider packing a standup paddleboard (SUP) on your next foray to the Yucatan, Belize, or the Bahamas. These days, SUPS are highly transportable and can be reduced to the size of a carry-on, complete with a sand spear/push pole combo to “park” the SUP on flats for a final pursuit on foot. Savvy anglers pack snorkel gear on their SUP for scouting reefs and drop-offs, where big barracuda tend to hang out between tides.

You can catch and eat barracuda but you better be careful if you do so. Some barracuda carry heavy toxins. Most anglers choose to release these unique predators.

             Barracuda are both scavenger and predator. While the biggest are often found around reef edges in deeper water, these same fish venture onto the flats to hunt, particularly on big tides and full moons. When a large barracuda is spotted on a bonefish flat, utilize the element of surprise by landing the fly ahead of and to the side of the fish. Once your fly hits the water, give it a hard yank to garner the fish’s attention. That’s when the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Strip fast to imitate fleeing prey, set with a hard strip, and do your best to clear the line ahead of a reel-screaming run.

             Easier said than done, as I learned on a recent foray to Exuma, Bahamas, when I stumbled upon pay dirt in the form of an inland lagoon. That crystalline pond belonged to a shadowy figure patrolling in a figure-eight pattern. Under a high sun, the skinny water warranted a cautious approach. I slinked into position behind the fish and fired a cast. That ‘cuda immediately took interest and carefully stalked the fly. I stripped frantically and it was like a switch flipped in that fish—all but my leader was in a heap near my feet when the speeding ‘cuda grabbed the fly. That fishes’ speed outpaced my attempt to clear the line and I knew I was doomed. A loop of line wrapped around my reel and with a loud “snap” the fish went skipping across the lagoon with my entire shooting head in tow, leaving me despondent, and a fly line poorer.

              To fish barracuda, you don’t need elaborate gear or flies. Yak-hair streamers, four-to eight-inches long and armed with a trailer hook, are my go-to flies. An 8, 9 or 10-weight rod and a floating line or intermediate sinking line cover the bases while fishing the flats and cuts. For a leader, I use a loop-to-loop connection with 40 or 50-pound fluorocarbon and an 18-inch piece of the heaviest wire I can get away with. I’ve had a big barracuda gnaw through 30-pound, so 40-pound is a safer bet. In areas where fish have not been pressured, I think single-strand stainless steel, like shark anglers rely on, might be the way to go.

Big ‘cuda stalk the flats, looking for needlefish and bones. Take the author’s advice and the next time you see one of these beasts, give it a throw—you’ll be amazed at how fast these fish travel over a flat, and you’ll be equally impressed by that backing tearing off your reel.

            Barracuda are unpredictable and a chance to cast at one can occur anytime, anywhere. The biggest barracuda I’ve ever hooked was on that trip to Exuma. We were en route to a flat one afternoon when the sight of terns bombing into the water interrupted our commute. Upon investigation, the feeding frenzy was composed of small jacks. When the mayhem subsided, a scavenging beast arrived to clean up the scraps.

            Fortunately, I had a 9-weight rod, pre-rigged with wire. To mimic a floundering sardina, I plucked a five-inch long, red and white articulated fly from the box and threw at the fish. Without hesitation, that ‘cuda ate. I held on for a couple blistering runs. Unfortunately, when I tried to swing that fish to the stern the wire broke and the fish swam away to the depths.

            I took solace in having hooked a big barracuda and enjoyed a wild ride. Barracuda are always on my brain and one day, I’m hoping the pendulum swings my way.

COVER & FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAT FORD

My first serious exposure to flats fishing was in Key West back in 1971. I was stationed in the Navy and had a small center-console boat that wasn’t really designed for the flats, but it was too small to do much else. So I took it out on the flats and learned a lot about the movements of bonefish and permit.

That’s a face only a mother could love . . . unless you love fishing the flats for big bonefish. Miami’s Biscayne Bay used to provide the motherlode of big bones; today it offers only a few big bones and they are hard to find. Fortunately, the Bay’s permit fishing is very good.

              For example, I figured out that good numbers of bonefish would move onto the flats outside of the Barracuda Keys at the start of an incoming tide. I also learned that dead low at the Barracuda Keys occurred at the same time as dead high tide in Key West harbor. Bonefish were hard to come by in the Lower Keys, but afternoons found me wading the Barracuda flats as the tide began to trickle in. As the water level inched up, fins and tails would appear. There were some deeper gullies on those flats and the bones would push through ultra-shallow sections until they hit them. They’d swim down a gully till it ended, then hop back up into the shallow stuff. If you knew where to stand, it was like fishing a trout stream.

              Fast forward a few years and I was in Miami, a member of the Miami Beach Rod & Reel Club, and still pursuing bonefish on the flats. In the late 1970s and 1980s Biscayne Bay was one of the best places in the world to catch big bonefish. I had friends with flats boats and we would often go to the outside of Sands Key at dead low tide and wade along the shoreline, much like I did in Key West. The first thing I noticed was that the Miami bonefish were much larger than the Key West versions . . . they averaged eight pounds and a 10-pounder was not that uncommon. I really don’t recall ever catching one under five pounds. Captain Bill Curtis was my idol and mentor back in those days and we became lifelong friends.

If you’re looking for a big permit that’s willing to eat, Biscayne is the place to be. Local guides hunt these permit in channels leading into the flats.

             Curtis was fishing out of Key Biscayne and we would meet at Crandon Park Marina and run south till we hit Stiltsville. Curtis was not adverse to chumming with live shrimp because many of his customers were novices and/or wanted to catch their first bonefish on a fly. Curtis would find a white spot, anchor about 40 feet up-current, throw out a handful of chopped up fresh shrimp and wait. If a bonefish didn’t appear within 20 minutes, he moved. Curtis and I never did much chumming, but he always put me on bonefish. In fact, one day in the mid ‘80s I caught nine bonefish and three permit with Curtis . . . most of the bones were caught on fly gear, but the permit were on bait. We were into huge schools the entire day and never went south of Soldier Key. Back then the Bay was alive.

            Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and things changed. Suddenly there were very few bonefish from south of Stiltsville to just past Soldier Key. Nothing appeared to have changed on the flats; the bonefish just weren’t using them anymore. There were still big fish to be found, but not as many as there used to be, and they were elusive.

Heather Smith scored this nice bone in Biscayne Bay. This is an average size fish, certainly not the size that anglers recall from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

            Even so, in December 1997, while fishing with captain Rick Murphy, I caught a 15-pound bonefish on eight-pound spin gear and a 14-pound monster on a fly. Also that month, while fishing on my own boat, I landed a 27-pound permit on a fly. Naturally, that month used up all my flats mojo for the next few decades.

            And the Bay continued to change. We’d grown accustomed to seeing massive schools of bonefish during winter, but there were reports all along the coast of commercial fishermen mistaking those bones for mackerel and killing thousands at a time. There was no market for bonefish so the carcasses were simply dumped back in the water. A noted decrease in bonefish numbers was instant and appalling. Around 2000, captain Bob Branham told me that all the flats around Stiltsville were empty. Up until that time it was one of his “go to” spots. Now, only “secret” spots produced with any regularity, and he started seeing bones in deeper water than usual, mostly singles or doubles. A big school was now a pod of six-to 10 fish.

            By 2005, the huge bonefish schools on the oceanside of Elliot Key were gone. We wondered if those schools, which numbered between 100 and 500 fish, were a pre-spawn aggregation like you might see in the Bahamas. Netters couldn’t have killed them all, and netting had been quickly banned. But, still, you suddenly couldn’t find a school of 20 fish and those big schools still remain absent today.

Every angler’s dream—a happy Biscayne permit cruising for crabs.

             Shrimping in the Bay was also a concern. There was no commercial shrimping because most of the catch was too small to be profitable but recreational fishers used wingnets, aka surface trawls, to catch shrimp. This catch was so extensive that the Florida Wildlife Commission imposed a bunch of regulations, none of which did much good. By the time Curtis retired around 2000, he said the Bay’s remaining bonefish represented just 20 percent of the numbers he’d seen in the 1970s.

             On top of this, in 2010 south Florida experienced 10 days of temperatures in the low 40s. There were massive fish kills, especially snook, everywhere. There were reports of bonefish kills, too, especially on the west side of Biscayne Bay. I think that the bonefish close to the ocean simply moved out to deeper water as the temperature dropped, but the ones along the mainland coast couldn’t make it out in time. Branham said those bonefish didn’t come back to the west side of the Bay until 2019.

              Captain Carl Ball fishes the Bay on a daily basis. He too has noticed declines and said the areas that still produce bonefish on a regular basis are being hit so hard that they are beginning to feel the pressure—fewer fish and they’re getting harder to catch. Ball also points out that the turtle grass is dying at a rapid rate and being smothered or replaced by some form of algae that clings to the bottom. This has been especially apparent on the west side of the Bay. Back in the day, he recalls catching three-to four hefty bonefish a day. Now a guide feels triumphant if he gets his angler three-to four shots a day.

Captain Rick Murphy holding the author’s 14-pound bonefish, landed in Biscayne Bay in 1997.

            Basically, over the past three decades we’ve seen the numbers of bonefish decline steadily in an area that was once the most prolific big bonefish grounds in the world. The average size went from seven-to eight pounds, to five-to six pounds, to three-to four pounds, with periods when even getting a shot at a bonefish of any size became a big deal.

            But there are reasons to be very optimistic. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the numbers of bonefish decreased dramatically in Biscayne Bay. After Katrina and Wilma hit the Middle Keys, the bonefish numbers there dropped significantly. Then between 2008 and 2011, they simply disappeared. From that point on more and more anglers targeted Key West for bones and, fortunately, about five years ago people started finding them in numbers never seen before.

            In addition, today, bones are definitely coming back to the Islamorada area. Anglers are seeing large schools of smallish bones, which is very encouraging. The record-size bones that used to frequent areas like Shell Key are still few and far between, but the numbers of small bonefish are definitely on the rise.

            Will we see that same trend in Biscayne Bay? We can only hope that we’re just a few years behind Islamorada.

            While bonefishing in Biscayne has declined, its permit fishing is as good as it’s ever been. I fish regularly with Ball, the permit master. He has his “secret” spots where the permit always show up. They are huge and it’s pretty easy to get one on a crab. Most shots occur near the channels, meaning deeper water, and the fish eat. You’ll get more shots at permit on the fly down in Key West, but even there, you have to find one in “jack” mode, rather than permit mode, to get an eat.

            Biscayne Bay is still a world-class fishing destination for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and it’s worth a traveling angler’s effort any time they are in or near Miami. A trip with Branham last July sorta proves my point.

            It was cloudy and windy, far from ideal flats fishing weather, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that spotting a bonefish was going to be next to impossible. So we moved on to Branham’s permit spots.

Biscayne Bay doesn’t hold many fish like this anymore. But, you know, fishing is fishing—on any given cast you could end up with the fish of a lifetime, like Eric Herstedt is holding here.

            We were checking the edges of channels that snaked into the Bay from the ocean and eventually spotted a school of about a dozen permit. I flipped out a crab and it was immediately swallowed. Unfortunately, 20-knot winds put such a belly in the line that the permit spit the hook before I could come tight. When the clouds completely took over, we couldn’t see a thing. We found one more school of permit, but I blew the cast and they disappeared.

             Eventually, we moved onto Featherbed Bank to catch the incoming tide. The best permit fishing spots are all tide dependent and the trick is to know where to be on a specific tide. It wasn’t too long before Branham spotted a school of permit hovering around a white spot. I actually managed to see this bunch and sent a wind aided cast their way. The crab landed a bit behind them as they milled, but I felt a tug and hooked up. The fish didn’t look all that big, but its first run was impressive. I only had 10-pound leader so I could only hang on until it slowed down.

             We had been seeing a lot of sharks on Featherbed that day and I wanted to land this fish as quickly as possible. I worked it within 30 feet of the boat before we even got a look at it. My first impression was this: it didn’t have a black tail and it was long . . . maybe a barracuda. A few seconds later Branham said it was a huge bonefish. He jumped off the poling platform and frantically began digging his net out of the front hatch.

              I could see that it was a really big bonefish, and there were two seven-foot long lemon sharks hot on its tail. Branham got the net, and I horsed the bonefish over to it . . . about 10 feet ahead of the first shark. Branham scooped up the bone and the shark just about rammed the boat. Then a very strange thing happened—the sharks didn’t leave. They circled the boat, obviously waiting for us to release the bone. Branham dipped the fish-filled net back in the water to give the bone a drink and one of the sharks raced for the fish. Branham raised the net and the shark’s dorsal brushed the mesh as it passed. These sharks seemed programed to capitalize on an easy meal.

             There was no way this trophy bonefish was going to survive if we put it back in the water. Most flats skiffs now have extra large live wells, so Branham filled his and put the bonefish in it. These bait wells are like aquariums and very well oxygenated—our bonefish did just fine while we ran it a mile away onto a “sharkless” flat next to a channel leading to the ocean. We managed to snap a few photos before returning this magnificent creature to the water. Branham and I both agreed this guy was in the 12-pound-plus range . . . the biggest bonefish either of us had seen in many years. We hoped this was a sign of things to come.

Like everywhere, Biscayne Bay is not the same as it was 20 years ago. But the Bay remains an exceptional fishing destination. Tarpon are plentiful from February through July; permit are available year round; and the bonefish are coming back. If Biscayne Bay follows the same pattern as the Middle Keys, the bonefishing should improve each year. It’s still a pretty good backyard fishery for Miami anglers and guides, and it’s definitely worth hitting when you’re in town, whether looking for permit or possibly getting a shot at a really big bone.

The Skunk Leech is a slightly different take on the classic Green Butt Skunk, which was made popular by steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest. This fly is best fished on a sink-tip line in a traditional down-and-across swing. I always let this fly “dangle” a little longer at the end of my swing, as the soft materials it’s made of offer an enticing swimming action, even in a slight current. The Skunk Leech’s large profile and contrasting colors make it especially effective in higher, slightly stained water.

MATERIALS

HOOK: Partridge single salmon #2/0
EYES: Lead Eyes, white 1/24oz
THREAD: Uni thread black 6/0
TAIL: Red marabou
RIB: Silver mylar
BODY: Chartreuse Ice Dub/black Hareline Dubbin
COLLAR: Black hackle
THROAT: Black marabou
WING: White rabbit zonker
FLASH: Extra limp Flashabou holographic black

Step 1: Start with the hook right-side up in your vise. The fly will fish hook-point up, but the majority of the fly is easier to tie in this manner.

Step 2: Start your thread just before the bend in the hook and work forward, closing the return eye.

Step 3: Using a figure-eight pattern, tie in the lead eyes at the rear of the return eye. Make a few tight wraps around the base of the eyes to secure them in place.

Step 4: Select a full red marabou feather and pinch all the ends together by running your fingers up the stem.

Step 5: Tie in the marabou on top of the hook-shank, just before the bend, to create a tail about ¾” long.

Step 6: Cut off the excess at an angle tapered forward.

Step 7: Using wide thread wraps , lash the rest of the marabou to the shank to create a tapered body.

Step 8: Tie in a strand of silver mylar for the rib.

Step 9: Dub the body halfway forward with chartreuse Ice Dub.

Step 10: Wrap the mylar forward in evenly spaced turns—3 to 4 wraps—and trim away the tag.

Step 11: Tie in a black saddle hackle feather by the tip—try to find one with shortish, softer barbs.

Step 12: Wrap the hackle 6 to 8 times, keeping your wraps as close together as possible without overlapping.

Step 13: Tie in another piece of silver mylar for the second rib.

Step 14: Dub the rest of the shank with black Hareline Dubbing up to the eyes.

Step 15: Wrap the mylar forward in the same fashion as the first rib.

Step 16: Select another hackle feather similar to the first and tie it in by the tip, just behind the eyes.

Step 17: Again, make 6 to 8 close wraps with the hackle, just behind the eyes.

Step 18: Use a small amount of black dubbing, and dub around the eyes in a figure-eight to clean up the head.

Step 19: Turn the hook upside down in the vise.

Step 20: Select a fairly sparse black marabou feather and pinch the tips together.

Step 21: Tie the feather in on top of the shank so that the tips reach just past the hook point.

Step 22: Cut the end of a white zonker strip into a V. This creates a more natural taper to the tail.

Step 23: Pierce the point of the hook through the zonker strip about ½” from the V-cut in the end.

Step 24: Lay the zonker strip over top of the fly and tie it in just behind the eye of the hook. Don’t stretch the zonker strip too tight or it will be more likely to rip off the hook.

Step 25: Cut off the excess zonker strip and make a few more tight wraps to secure it.

Step 26: Tie in a full strand of black Flashabou on either side of the fly so they roughly line up with the tail.

Step 27: Double the strands over, creating a loop ahead of the fly, and tie the opposite end in. Same length only slightly higher on the sides of the fly.

Step 28: Cut the loops formed in the Flashabou and fold the ends back over the top of the fly. This creates 8 total strands of flash on the fly.

Step 29: Be sure to secure the Flashabou with a few tight wraps before cleaning up the head and whip finishing.

I even Googled “How To” and couldn’t find what I wanted. Nonetheless, I did receive materials and products suggestions, along with plenty of ideas on how to achieve the thickness and finish I was after. Still, I didn’t get any straight to the point suggestions, like, “Hey buddy, this is the product and the process I use to achieve the finish you’re looking for.”

             So I continued to scour the internet and paperback fly-tying books, hoping to find answers, or maybe even some step-by-step tying video. Nothing.

             You may be saying, “You’re trying to poach someone’s method and patterns.” But don’t judge me yet—I’m not someone who just started tying yesterday. I never wanted to be spoon-fed other people’s hard work. Instead, I armed myself with a handful of jigsaw pieces of information, purchased several different products, and tried to piece it all together. I experimented with multiple silicone brands and retardants, trying to break down the materials into a pourable and paintable consistency, while steering towards a low-fume mixture.

             It took some trials, but I finally found a suitable combination of products that are easy to find and mixed safely together. Now I needed to work a finishing technique to get the smooth, shiny finish I was after.

              A lot of people suggested dishwashing detergents, saliva, and Foto Flo solution. I found all three to work in some degree, but I still couldn’t get a finish I was happy with. In my attempts, the silicone was left with milky/cloudy streaks and a slightly uneven surface after I tried to smooth it out.

             Finally, I found a better way. By using a soft, flat-tipped paintbrush and mineral turpentine, I could gently smooth the silicone by brushing the mineral turps from the eye of the hook to the end of the silicone head. That process removed small bubbles and bumps in the curing mixture and allowed me to place the perfect fly in the rotary dryer until fully cured. No streaks. No bumps. No bubbles.

             I now use a three-step process to finish my flies. First I coat and let dry. I repeat that process and add eyes. Then I apply a final coat to secure the eyes and add strength to the body. Note: After each coat I brush with Turps to get the best finish possible.

TOOLS

1-Silicone sealant
2-Mineral turpentine
3-Soft, flat-tipped brushes. (1cm)
4-Mixer (or mix by hand)
5-Small sealable bottle to mix and then store the silicone product

STEP 1

Place the desired amount of silicone into a sealable bottle.

STEP 2

Add a small amount of mineral turps to the silicone.

STEP 3

Mix the silicone and turps together, gradually adding until the desired thickness is achieved. Add more turps until you get a constant, workable mix. I like a mixture with a consistency similar to thin syrup, but not too watery. A runny mixture takes longer to dry and affords a greater chance of tracking in the fibres before drying.

Living in the high-elevation icebox of Jackson, Wyoming, doesn’t lend itself to serious winter fishing.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t fantasize about warmer spring days ahead, and casting to rising trout. However, after a summer and fall spent dry-fly fishing, there are depleted fly boxes to deal with—in other words, an incentive to tie. This isn’t a bad thing because fly tying is a combination of creativity and anticipation, that little bunch of fuzz in the vise giving us visions of those perfect spring days ahead, when the trout are up and sipping. Fly tying, to me, is a way to revisit memories and dream of new adventures to come.

Spring hatches in the Northern Rockies are the most reliable of the year. From mid-March into May, these emergences provide great dry-fly fishing. My favorite spring hatches are midges, Baetis and small stoneflies. This tantalizing trio is endemic to most Rocky Mountain streams and they consistently occur before runoff.

Last April, I spent 20 afternoons on the water. I was casting to rising cutthroats on 19 of those days. The other day I sight-fished to those native trout with nymphs.
From years of fishing the Greater Yellowstone area, I’ve narrowed down the spring patterns that produce. I always run out of these flies because they work and I have confidence in them. These are the flies that I’ll tie this winter in preparation for spring. Many of these flies are crossover patterns that work well when hatches overlap.

As a rule, when tying small flies make sure your hooks have enough gap and strength to hold large fish. Also, sparser is better when tying small flies because tying sparsely allows you to use those stronger hooks. I’ve listed the hooks I use with each of these recipes. If you don’t have that exact hook, just use a similar model.

Start tying these flies this winter and you’ll easily have full boxes when the spring hatches pop. I believe you will enjoy tying and fishing these flies as much as I do.

TYING FLIES FOR SPRING

Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail

This fly looks like food and matches just about any subsurface larvae or nymph. Its origins are found in Frank Sawyer’s original Pheasant Tail herl and copper wire pattern. It was first tied in the 1930s for fishing England’s Avon River. Al Troth’s modern version, with a peacock herl thorax, is now the most common tie—it naturally evolved into beadhead and jig hook versions. I tie a majority of my PTs as soft-hackles. And I’m starting to tie more of my nymphs on jig hooks, because there’s nothing wrong with having a hook point up—I get more consistent hook-ups on these rigs. This is a great pre-hatch fly and works equally well as a dropper/anchor below a smaller nymph or subsurface emerger.


Hook: Kumoto KJ304 Wide-Gap Jig, sizes 14 through 18

Thread: 8/0 Rusty Brown

Head: Copper tungsten bead

Rib: Small copper wire

Tail: Pheasant-tail fibers

Abdomen: Pheasant-tail fibers

Thorax: Peacock Ice Dub

Hackle: Dark hen

Grouse Tail Nymph

This is my variation on the good old Pheasant Tail Nymph, and substitutes ruffed grouse tail fibers to create a grayer Baetis imitation. If you don’t have those fibers don’t fret—many duck flank feathers, such as mallard, teal and widgeon, work well. Like most flies, this one evolved to meet certain needs, and crosses over for midges. One bundle of grouse fibers are used for the tail, body, and legs. I’m becoming a big fan of jig-style nymphs but, unfortunately, those hooks aren’t made small enough for midge and Blue Wing Olive patterns. Fortunately, short-shank nymph and scud hooks make a jig fly when combined with a slotted bead. To do this, invert the hook and align the slot of the bead so that most of the bead is below the hook, and anchor with thread. Angle the legs upward (inverted position) to help the fly flip over. This a great sight-casting nymph, and I use it prior to midge and Baetis hatches, or on cold days when the trout just won’t come all the way up.


Hook: Kumoto K3761C 1X Short Competition Nymph hook, sizes 16 through 20.

Head: Slotted black tungsten bead

Tail: Ruffed grouse tail fibers

Rib: Fine copper wire

Abdomen: Ruffed grouse tail fibers

Legs: Butts of grouse fibers used for body

Neck: Gray dubbing behind bead

Para Midge Emerger

This fly is an old friend and is as close to a non-refusal midge as I have found. A high proportion of midge feeding is on pupae that are stuck in the surface film, and not on actual adults. The trout key on those emergers because they are an easy meal. However, this situation is often mistaken for trout feeding on adults. Here’s how to tell: see a nose—feeding on top; see a dorsal—feeding subsurface. The Krystal Flash tag and rib on this fly seem to make a difference. Is it an attractant, simulation of movement, or an air bubble? I don’t know, but it works.


Hook: Kumoto 100C Competition Dry-Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Indicator: White, orange or black synthetic fibers

Tag: One or two strands of pearl Krystal Flash cut short

Rib: Pearl Krystal Flash

Body: Peacock or dark-olive colored Antron dubbing

Hackle: A few wraps of grizzly, one gap length

Split Top Emerger Grizzly Olive

This fly has its origins in my PFD Emerger. I added a split-foam wingcase for both realism and to hide the indicator. The hackle at the base of wingcase mimics a partial wing and legs. This is another one of those “everything” emergers because so many stuck-in-the-film emergers look alike. It could be a mayfly, stonefly, midge, or caddis. All have a shuck, a partial body, and messed up wings and legs. Why not have some crossover flies to cover a myriad of situations? I tie these in sizes 12-to 20 and in gray, olive and tan. For spring fishing, a grizzly/olive combo is great for Baetis and midges. However, I give the Para Midge Emerger (see above) an edge when strictly matching midges. For a small emerger, the Split Top floats well and is easy to see in bad light and/or choppy water. Dull orange or pale pink polypropylene are good choices for the post.


Hook: TMC 2488, sizes 12 through 18

Thread: Olive Dun 8/0

Shuck: Brown/olive Antron

Abdomen: Stripped grizzly hackle stem

Wingcase: Gray 1.5mm or 2mm foam

Hackle: 1 1/2 gap grizzly

Indicator: Orange poly (EP Fibers)

Thorax: BWO dubbing

F Fly Variant

This is a “stupid simple” fly for smart fish. I fish this Marjan Fratnik pattern more often each year. It features a simple dubbed or thread body, and a wing of CDC. It’s simple to tie in small sizes and easy to tie sparsely. This fly looks like everything—midge, mayfly, caddis, cripple, or adult. I like to tie it in natural tan/dun CDC. Close enough to match most insects and easy to see. I tie these on standard dry-fly hooks or emerger hooks to give it more of that emerger look and a bigger hook gap. Unlike the downwing original, I tie a bundle of CDC in the center and fold it back. I lightly post that bundle to make it more upright. Scraggly flies seem to fish best. With many wing materials, bulk makes the fly look too big and is less effective. Not so with CDC. For some reason you can tie it full and visible and it doesn’t bother fish. I use Loon Lochsa or TMC Fly Magic on the CDC and after catching a fish I blot it dry with a chamois. Then I fluff out the fibers and cast again.


Hook: TMC 2488 Emerger hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Olive Dun 8/0

Body: Tying thread

Wing: Natural CDC

Two-Tone Parachute Baetis

Seeing is believing. We all feel most confident when we can see our flies. Also, visibility helps us attain a drag-free drift. Visibility has to do with contrast and background. The classic white post on most parachute patterns can be hard to see when the sun is low and the light is angled, and in the frequent silver/white glare of spring. In fact, the Two-Tone’s wing can appear to be same color as the water. That’s why I like an orange/black post combo, since it is visible in most lighting conditions and it isn’t too gaudy. You can easily overdress this fly. Just remember, sparser is better. Try to keep the dubbing body very thin, or even use thread for the abdomen. This is a go-to fly when matching Baetis adults.


Hook: Fulling Mills Ultimate Dry Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Brown 8/0

Tails: Split Coq de Leon fibers

Rib: Doubled tying thread

Abdomen: Olive/gray dubbing

Wing: Orange and black Antron or poly

Thorax: Olive/gray dubbing

Hackle: Dark dun

Sparkle Caddis Midge Stone

This fly started out as my Sparkle Midge, back when I was in Livingston, Montana, and fishing the Yellowstone River and other area waters. The fly has evolved, and I now feel that the Sparkle CMS (caddis, midge, stone) is a better name and description. This is a useful pattern from the first midge hatches of late winter to the caddis hatches of later spring. You can tweak this fly to match each species by making the wing longer or shorter. The wing and post are made of the same strands of Krystal Flash, and the dark biot body is segmented for a very buggy appearance. I’ve added some CDC over the Krystal Flash for a more natural tint and to make the fly easier to see. That also adds floatation without too much bulk. I’ve tied the CMS in various shades, using medium-to dark dun hackles, and experienced similar results with each. This fly really shines during spring hatches of Capnia stoneflies. These flies are not easy to notice—they are small, dark, and flat. However, fish don’t ignore them, and often key in on them. If you see a bunch of them on the snow or on the riverbank rocks, take a closer look. These are often the flies that cause subtle rises in riffled water or runs. That water is usually a little faster speed than where you’d expect to see midges. So, when you see fish rising in that type of water, and you can’t get them on a midge imitation, your natural process should be to deliver the CMS and see what happens.


Hook: Kumoto Competition Dry Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Body: Dark brown or black turkey biot

Wing and Post: Pearl Krystal Flash with tan/dun CDC over it

Thorax: Black dubbing

Hackle: Dark dun

Moose Mane Micro Soft Hackle

Sometimes fish never learn. Such is the case with soft-hackles—trout still take a fly that’s almost 2,000 years old. These flies can be swung in wet-fly style or dead-drifted. Why do they work? Because they look and act like a lot of things. Could be an emerger, a cripple or a sunken spinner. When active Baetis nymphs and emergers are present, swinging soft-hackles is the perfect recipe for success. In most other applications drifting a soft-hackle in the film, or just below it, and allowing it to swing at the end of a drift is a good ploy. When drifting soft-hackles just below the surface watch the area near the fly and if you see a rise, gently lift up. It doesn’t take much of a set to hook trout on small flies. You can also use a dry fly to track the soft-hackle, setting up when the dry “indicator” fly twitches or disappears. The thin moose “quill” body on this fly is sparse and segmented, like you’d find on a real insect. Since small soft hackle is hard to come by, I tie loose hackle fibers forward and pull them back over the thorax before whip finishing.


Hook: Kumoto Competition Scud hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Abdomen: Tan and dark brown moose body hair, wrapped

Thorax: Dark brown dubbing

Hackle: Dark hen

Coffee

Yeah, that’s what I need. Exactly what I need. There’s a Thermos half full of it—aromatic and hot and laced with Bailey’s—tucked into my daypack at the top of the run. I can feel a slight chill on my neck and shoulders and the tops of my arms. My feet are a little cold, and I’m regretting not pulling on that extra pair of socks this morning. Coffee will fix this. Either that or a few pulls from the flask in my pocket. I opt for the flask and tuck my Spey rod into my armpit for a moment.

            I’m standing knee deep in the drink, halfway down a big run on the main-stem Skeena River west of Terrace, British Columbia. As I tilt my head back and enjoy the bourbon’s momentary burn, light slips beneath my sunglasses and I realize just how bright it is. All around me are mountains, impossibly white and sparkling in the midday sun, like something a Hollywood CGI team would produce, only better because it’s real. Up there, winter lingers, and beckons to the happy heli-skiers who buzz by above me every few hours, moving between lodges and power runs on these high peaks. But down here the tree-lined banks are showing signs of spring. And crashing through some thick brush to get around a logjam releases the scents of renewal. The day warms, and all around things seem to be getting ever better, moment-to-moment, filling with promise.

            This may all sound idyllic, until I tell you that my bladder is filling. It’s not quite at pee-pee dance volume yet, but we’re close. And that bourbon? Well, there are few moments in life when good bourbon is ever a mistake, but this might be one of them. I’m shifting my weight back and forth now, just a little, and clenching my jaw every few moments, distraction from my whining bladder. I could reel up. Relief is only 40 steps away. I could even drop my rod on the bank, and leave my line out and swinging.  I’ve risked this before. But I’m in the sweet spot now. I know this because yesterday a fellow stepping down the run ahead of me hooked a good one right here. I begin to shift my weight a little more rhythmically.

            I look at the beach; I look down my spey rod and follow the line to where it disappears into the Skeena’s deep green. Then something far out in the run tightens the line I have pinched between the bottom of the rod handle and my index finger. For a split second it releases, then tightens again, and all sensations and thoughts are silenced save one…

Steelhead

There it is. Again. Again. The take of a Skeena spring steelhead, each tug like the pluck of virtuoso fingertips on my heartstrings, each building on the other until that final Pete Townshend “windmill” moment when the rod is truly bent and the reel growls and there’s no doubt about who’s on the other end.

Mornings

Waking up at a spring steelhead lodge in northern British Columbia is like having a whole week of Christmas mornings. My alarm goes off earlier than I wake for work, but here there’s no problem swinging out of bed. Someone’s already put the coffee on and I shuffle down the hall to grab a cup.

            This week I’m “in camp” with an orthopedic surgeon, a judge, a heavy equipment marketing executive, and two successful entrepreneurs. At the end of several long flights we all had wardrobes to match our sense (or someone else’s) of how we should appear. But here in camp we’re all dressed like five-year-olds who’ve been asked to “go put something nice on”—mismatched socks; fleece pants; tee-shirts or fraying-collared fishing shirts; old worn hoodies or the fading colors of zippered mid-layers. Ball caps or wild, unkempt hair complete the ensemble. Over the week most of these comfortable camp clothes will be covered in bits of tying thread and dubbing, a sure sign of good fishing.

            All of us have had fishless days this week; most of us have had multiple hookups. Within the hour we’ll have wolfed down a big Canadian power breakfast of pancakes, sausage, bacon and eggs. Then we will layer up and meet out front, breath condensing above our heads as we discuss our morning’s fly selection while the guides hook up the jetboats. Thirty minutes later we’ll be running wide open down the Skeena, faces rosy from the cold, holding the brims of our hats so we don’t lose them. Eventually one boat will pull ahead, round a bend, and be lost to our sight. We’ll see them again later at the launch. For now the river is ours alone, and by the time our guide eases back on the throttle, the still sleepy among us are wide eyed and ready to cast.

            The Skeena is known for big runs, and this is one of them. An easily waded cobble bottom, and clear water deepening to green make it the kind of water I want to spend the entire day in. It helps that this spot regularly puts out fish. I‘ve taken them here before. Our guide points out the sweet spots, and my partner for the day and I divide the water between us. We elect to fish relatively close together, in case one of us hooks up. We’ve been fishing together for years, and both know that on steelhead water it’s nearly as fun to watch a good friend wrestle with one as wrestle with one of your own. That one of us has a flask of bourbon and the other scotch makes fishing close by even more appealing.

The Season

I’ve spent six spring seasons on the Skeena. Every one has been different, and as memorable as the last. Beginning in March, waters cold enough to form sheet ice begin to roll off their chill, and the slowly warming waters signal the beginning of the springtime run. Fresh, bright steelhead enter the system, and sleepy locals begin to prowl the banks and test the waters, imagining that first hookup. Sometime in the middle of the month someone gets one and the season begins. It lasts through April, some years early May.

            When you come to the Skeena in spring, don’t expect the hoards of anglers and jetboats screaming up and down every run that often characterizes fall fishing there. While you won’t be completely alone, don’t be surprised if some days you don’t see anyone else, and expect to have beautiful runs to yourself much of the time. There’s so much water to fish that it can be fairly easy to find a place of your own, especially when weather and water conditions are favorable.

            Ah . . . weather and water conditions. Always the worry when winter turns to spring. Steelheading any time of the year is a mature angler’s game—that’s part of the appeal. While it’s impossible to hit it right all of the time, fishing with a knowledgeable local outfit, that knows the systems and what’s likely to be fishing well and where, gives you the best chance at a great week. In six seasons I’ve only had a few days when we couldn’t fish. No worries: There’s nothing wrong with spending a warm and sleepy day in the lodge, flipping through old issues of Grays Sporting Journal and maybe tying up tomorrow’s brace of Secret Killers.

Flies

Whenever I’m bound for a new steelhead destination I always ask ahead about the flies I should bring. It’s a silly question. Because when you look around you’ll notice that most steelhead boxes are full of lots of basically one thing. Now that one thing is as varied as the tiers who fish them, but it still comes down to the one fly that you really believe in. Because if steelheading is about anything, it’s about faith.

           I have faith in the Raging Prawn. It’s a rather fiddly and time consuming variation of the General Practitioner tied by my friend Tyler Kushnir. In various sizes, tied on tubes from as long as the span between my thumb and pinky to half the length of my first knuckle, it’s all I need on spring steelhead water. It might be all you’ll need, too.

           Still, it’s always a good idea to listen to your guide, and fish what they recommend. If they don’t like any of your flies, take the fly they offer, and fish it with confidence. Remember, their livelihoods depend on you catching steelhead. They won’t steer you wrong.

Tackle and Tactics

Spring is colder water steelhead fishing, so I’m not fishing the same gear or looking for fish in the same places I might in September. My spring default has always been a 15-foot long 9 or 10 weight rod cast over deeper runs with some structure. Thoreau once told us “it is a great art to saunter” and that’s the pace of water I look for in spring.

          But times change on steelhead waters. As anglers and guides learn more about Skeena spring steelhead, they are reconsidering their tools. Lighter 13-foot 7 and 8-weights are replacing the heavier rods, balanced by lightweight reels that hold 150 yards of backing and easy casting shooting heads and Skagit-style systems.

          Spring steelheaders are rethinking their choice of water as well. Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace and has guided anglers to Skeena chrome for over a decade. It’s rare to find his clients in deep water.

          “Most of the time we will be fishing in two feet of water so there’s no need to cast heavy tips,” he said. “We use full floating lines or light tips—intermediate, T-3 and T-6.”

          This shallow water, light-line approach might come as a shock to steelheaders used to fishing deep and heavy for the big fish. If your heavy sink-tips—your T-14 and T-18—give you courage, by all means bring them. But don’t be surprised to find them spending most of the trip in the front pocket of your waders.

          There are two schools of thought when it comes to hooking springtime fish. The first is basically the same as trout fishing: feel the fish, then hit it. Hard. So any sort of tug or pluck on the line results in a Bassmaster-style hook-set. Make sure your feet are well planted.

          The second is the simple. Wait. Wait for the line to tighten up and your rod to bend. After that you can basically do whatever the hell you want because you got ‘em.

          Wohe’s approach combines the best of both. “In the spring the fish can be very aggressive, but they like to pluck the fly,” he said. “When this happens don’t move your fly—let them eat it. You won’t get a second chance like you might in the summer or fall. You only get one chance, so you wait.”

          And then? Well, in Skeena country, the possibility that your line might be connected to the biggest steelhead of your life requires just a little bit more. “Big buck steelhead have boney jaws,” Wohe reminds me, “so lifting alone is not enough in most cases.”

When the line gets tight, set the hook!

Back on the Skeena I set the hook hard. The steelhead is in 18 inches of water and reacts as shallow water steelhead always do, with a sudden eruption and a reel-screaming run towards the safety of mid-river. I’ve forgotten about the coffee and my sloshing bladder for the moment, because a just-hooked steelhead demands more attention than a screaming toddler. I take a few steps to find solid footing and hear a splash below me. I look down and notice my flask drifting slowly away as my reel quickly unwinds. I drop to one knee and grab it, and as I straighten, yep, there’s the bladder again.

            By this time my partner has jogged down from the top of the run and approaches, camera in hand. He hasn’t hooked a fish in two days, and I’ve been doing well. The steelhead has settled now in the deeper water. I can tell it’s a good one. There’s a lot of line out. I consider my options.

            “Remember that time on the Dean when you were borderline hypothermic and you asked me to take over for you?” I ask.

            “I do. Lucky you were there. That was a big fish.”

            “Time to return the favor, brother,” I say, and hand him the rod. For a moment he looks puzzled, and as I turn away and head towards the beach I just hope he understands.

TRAVEL

Canada’s major carriers, Air Canada and Westjet, schedule daily flights into Terrace from Vancouver International. It’s a pleasant 100 minute flight over British Columbia’s rugged Coast Mountains. Bring your camera in your carry on . . . and your headphones, plus a good steelhead playlist on your smartphone—the Dash 8 aircraft that are the workhorses of these short flights are a lot noisier than the big jets that brought you to Vancouver. Once you’ve landed, it’s a short drive from the Northwest Regional Airport to Terrace-area fishing lodges.

TIMING

In Skeena country, fresh steelhead are waiting to crush your fly any time between mid-March and the end of April. Some years you can even push it into early May.

THE RIVERS

The main-stem Skeena is where you’ll want to focus most of your efforts. Giant, fishy runs that gently slope from knee deep to hat floater are too numerous to count. You could easily spend a whole day in many of them. But don’t despair if there’s bad water on the Skeena. Your guide can always opt for productive smaller waters like the Kitimat and Kalum.

TACKLE

When you come to the Skeena, bring along your 13-foot 7-weight and a quality reel with enough capacity to hold 150-to- 200 yards of 30-pound backing and your favorite Skagit-style line. Bring along your 15-foot Type 6 and Type 8 sink-tips for courage, plus an assortment of lighter MOW-style tips for shallow water. My leaders are 15-pound Maxima, and I bring a fresh spool along so I can also use a 12-15-foot length of that Maxima on a floating line, if needed.

GEAR

Springtime fishing on the Skeena may offer sunshine, wind, rain and snow—all on the same day. So come prepared. A newish pair of breathable waders that you’ve checked for leaks is a must. Metal studs in your wading boots keep you from slipping. Moisture wicking layers keep you warm, and a reliable rain jacket offers protection from a shower or a chilly wind. Hang a pair of Abel pliers off your wading belt and you can smash barbs and trim your tippet without fiddling around with dangly things on your jacket. A hip pack loaded with your fly box, a spool of Maxima, and your sink-tip wallet keeps things simple on the water. I also bring along both fingerless fleece and waterproof ice climbing gloves. A warm hat tops things off nicely.

Images by

Jeroen Wohe   |   Skeena River Lodge

I thought my Clik Elite Contrejour 40 Liter pack was a great system for carrying my photography equipment around the world. It holds a bevy of lenses, a flash, two camera bodies, and a MacBook Pro. The back of the pack unzips into a labyrinth of foam trays. There’s room for a travel pillow, hard-drives and all the toys. This system worked great, until I boarded a puddle jumper during an exploratory tarpon fishing trip in Curacao.

            I always check my rods when flying, mainly because they’re cheaper to replace than my glass. And if I lose them, a lodge usually offers loaners I can throw. I checked my rods successfully on this trip, but this time my photo pack was turned down at the gate, deemed too large to stow in a tiny overhead luggage rack. I was forced to check that valuable kit and the end result was missing gear for three days and a broken $2,000 lens.

Want a great underwater shot like this? You’ll need a quality camera housing and they don’t come cheap. But, the reward speaks for itself.

           Fast forward to 2020. I now handle my gear differently and use a series of Patagonia dry bags and a Pelican Air 1485 briefcase, to harbor my goods. This system is equally effective in the air and on the water, allowing me to get my pricey underwater housing, and other equipment, to my destination and beyond.

            First the Pelican case. This case has customizable padded bays for housing two camera bodies, four lenses and a flash. Yeah, you look like you’re carrying a briefcase full of diamonds chained to your wrist, but if the contents are worth as much as diamonds, and in some cases more, it’s worth wearing that look. Should shit hit the fan and you have to gate check your equipment, the Pelican case locks. When allowed as carry-on, I store this case in the overhead. When I get to my destination, I unpack the Pelican and toss it next to the minibar. Game time.

            In addition, I wear a Patagonia Stormsurge Roll-Top 45L backpack. Inside, nice and cozy, is my Mac, numerous hard-drives, a passport and any other precious cargo. It stows neatly, cleanly in the carry-on metal frames at the ticketing desk, and under your seat once your onboard. When you get to Punta Gorda, Belize, or wherever else you might be chasing fish, you can use it on the water as you wade.

The author doing the work. Is that a shark below?

           Regarding my Ikelike housing, it fits perfectly inside my Patagonia Great Divider 29L boat bag. I do check that as luggage—best to keep the absolutely essential stuff—the camera bodies and lenses—by my side, and check the, albeit overpriced, housing.

            These Patagonia bags, except the Great Divider, are not padded. When you hit the water, place a face towel in your pack and wrap it around your other camera body. This prevents lenses and the camera body from slamming against each other. And that towel comes in handy when wiping down the dome port. Doing so keeps water spots out of your images. Keeping your lenses in cases also prevents damage.

            When I fish and shoot, I carry two cameras. One, the Canon 5D IV with a 12-24mm wide-angle lens, stays in the housing in a third (yes third) roll top Patagonia bag. Then, when the swordtail nears the boat I whip it out, jump in the water, and fire release shots. The other camera is a Canon EOS R5, with a 24-105mm f4 lens. It lives in the boat bag, nice and dry. I use it for landscape, profile, and action casting shots when shooting on deck. With a two-camera system, you’re set for that sailfish release photo (fins and mask not included), your hard-running grey ghost image, and everything in between. I’ve used this system to shoot trophy lakers in Manitoba, fall-run browns on Montana’s Madison River, and mahseer in India, among other locales.

Pelican’s Air 1485

           Let’s not forget the juice. Powering up all that gear is a daunting task. I rely on a Goal Zero Sherpa 100 battery bank. Yes, this tops off power with a solar panel, but I usually charge it from the wall (unless I’m doing something like Hurricane Dorian relief in the Abacos, which I did in 2019). This way I’m never without power. This beast is smaller than your high school yearbook, but charges my MacBook Pro twice, or camera batteries dozens of times. USB-C is the wave of the future, and it has two such ports, as well as an AC port for plug-in items, like the mini speaker you’ll bring along to jam Phish (pun intended) while you edit and write at night. And of course, it offers two old-school USB ports as well. Don’t leave home without it.

            This entire system allows me to work during those countless hours on airlines, and while sitting in airports. By doing so, I arrive home with a folder of edited photos and a feature article written. Then it’s back to my day job.

            Most of these packs have small zipper pockets for keys and all things easily lost. I even heard that they fit a dozen face masks. I look forward to testing that theory this spring.

            One last note: Shoot photos of your gear before you head out, and label all of it—every last bit—so you can recover that insurance claim if things slide down the tubes.

Patagonia’s Stormsurge Roll Top Pack 45L.

            I’ve spent weeks in the Yukon Territory, casting 18 hours a day to northern pike that were longer than an arm and sometimes as long as a leg. And I’ve shredded the trout-rich waters in and around Yellowstone National Park for up to 200 days a year (before kids, of course).

            Yet, if my doctor said, “You have a month to live,” I’d pack my gear in a skiff, including the best rain jacket on the planet, and cruise southeast Alaska’s sheltered inland waters, searching for spring steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout.

Fighting steelhead in tight places is a real challenge. Most southeast Alaska streams offer fewer that 200 returning metalheads a year. That means every one ought to get the shoulder treatment, so it can be fought, landed and released quickly.

            My fascination with Alaska steelhead began when I saw a picture of my father, dated 1967, in which he’s holding a 10-pound steelhead in front of a two-car garage in Petersburg, which served as our home during the first couple years of my life.

            By 17, I owned a fly rod and wanted to catch, more than anything else, a steelhead like the one my father held in that photo. At that time, I lived in Seattle, via Hollywood (don’t ask), but spent summers in southeast, working the canneries and boats, stealing any time I could to catch fish with that fly rod. I caught cutthroats during summer, but the steelhead were long gone, their outmigration from rivers and streams having taken place in May. They wouldn’t be back until March. So, I did the natural thing—I quit school that following spring, moved back to southeast Alaska, and worked the nightshift at a cannery, processing herring and black cod, so I could fish steelhead by day.

Few places on earth are prettier than southeast Alaska on a nice spring day. Steelhead are the goal; the southeast Alaska vibe and scenery are the reasons you go.

            I ran with a married friend at the time, someone who had an 18-foot skiff and a 30-horse outboard. We reached several great steelhead waters within an hour of town and did so as often as I could muster the energy.

            Spring in southeast is also a great time to catch sea-run cutthroat trout as they stack up near the mouths of streams, preying on out-migrating salmon fry that drift downstream. This was key to our efforts, as was the collection of spruce grouse (also called hooters or fool hens), which are fair game in Alaska during March and April. My friend and I considered it good fortune that his wife’s two favorite meals consisted of those sea-run cutthroat and spruce grouse; she wasn’t happy with our antics, or her husband’s time away from home, but we bought her off with that treasured wild game.

            Few roads lead to good steelhead fishing in southeast Alaska; most of the time anglers must access steelhead streams with a small boat and then walk the banks while fighting through thick brush, including the dreaded devils club, to reach the best runs. Once on a remote stream, anglers must carefully place each step, and they must keep an eye out for bears, which come out of hibernation about the time steelhead arrive.

You fish southeast Alaska during spring for the same reasons the region’s brown and black bears do—Alaska’s “panhandle” offers great rewards, whether in the form of food or a steelhead to put back into the river.

            Prince of Wales Island, in the far southern, southeast, is a little different. A significant road system allows anglers to fly from Seattle to Ketchikan in a couple hours, and then toss their gear into their rooms at Boardwalk Lodge. A couple hours after landing they could be swinging or drifting flies on the Thorne or Klawock rivers, with a real possibility of catching their first wild steelhead. That’s one thing that separates southeast Alaska and its fish from the Lower 48—Alaska shelved the idea of hatchery steelhead back in the 1960s and never wavered from that statement. These fish are born in freshwater streams, they cruise around the North Pacific for a few years, and they return to their birthplaces to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead may go back to sea, repeat the process, and spawn a couple more times . . . if they aren’t eaten by a sea lion, a salmon shark, a killer whale, or any other predator patrolling the high seas, including us.

            When the steelhead are in, anglers can catch good numbers. Good numbers to most “metalheads” means one a day. But one time my friend and I hit it just right; it was early April, the fish were in on the tide, and they were chrome-bright and eager to strike. By the end of the day, we’d hooked 32 and landed about half of them. One of those fish measured 42 inches long and may have weighed 25 pounds—a giant by southeast standards where eight-to 10-pounders are standard. But steelheading is fickle; that night it rained, and the deluge continued the following day. When we returned to the river, it was high and off-color and we didn’t hook a thing.

Metal. It’s why some of us live. Constant pursuit, hours at the vice, pouring over of maps, scheduling, kissing the spouse goodbye. Get one of these fish to the beach, adipose fin shining in the light . . . you’ve got something special.

              Periodically, I return to southeast to fish spring steelhead, and did so with my father a few years back. Steelhead and cutthroats weren’t the only draw; we fished in a king salmon derby, in which my father caught a 20-some-pound beauty; we climbed aboard a friend’s commercial boat and pulled pots full of spot prawns; we added those to a menu of fresh king salmon and Dungeness crab, which we’d pulled from the water with a friend’s pots, and enjoyed a classic southeast meal, all washed down with Alaskan Amber beer.

              The following day, my father and I steered the skiff to a nearby stream and hiked far up its banks, across open muskeg and through thick, nearly impenetrable alders and patches of devil’s club. When we parted the last brush, the world opened to reveal bright skies and a perfect 75-yard-long run, on a stream that sees only a handful of anglers each year. Almost immediately I saw a steelhead roll.

When you head away from the stream there are plenty of other rewards to be had on a southeast Alaska evening. Spot prawns, Dungeness crab (pictured here), king salmon, ling cod, black cod, fiddlehead ferns, steamer clams and octopus . . . . Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this.

             I tied on a fly, checked my knots, and walked to the top of the run. I looked at the mountains overhead, then downstream to my dad waiting patiently with a camera. I took a breath of sharp morning air, nodded, and gave the thumbs up, knowing that, whether we hooked that fish or not, we were right where we needed to be.

From living in Maine and touring the United States on the college bass fishing circuit, to poling a skiff across Florida flats on the hunt for tarpon, Cody Rubner has already lived an action-packed angling life in his 20-some years on the planet. Originally from Massachusetts, Rubner is always searching for unique fisheries and new experiences. Currently based in Florida, Rubner splits time between sharing the beautiful Florida coast with anglers, and prospecting for new fish to catch and new stories to tell.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey as an angler, from bass tournaments to guiding in Florida and working as an industry professional?

My love for fishing and the outdoors was founded at a young age. I grew up on Cape Cod, Mass., and would wait for my father to get home from work on weekdays so we could sprint to the bait shop before it closed, and get to the nearest beach to catch schoolie striped bass. Fast-forward 15 years and I began attending the University of Maine, to get my degree in marine biology. While there, I founded the UMaine Fishing Club and Bass team. We traveled the country for three years fishing the FLW Collegiate Tournament Series. Maine has some incredible fisheries that I believe deserve more recognition. Within a two-hour drive from the campus in Orono, Maine, you could fish for stripers in the surf, native brook trout in remote streams, giant northern pike in lake and river systems, landlocked salmon in crystal clear water, or indulge in some world-class smallmouth bass fishing.

           I left New England in 2017 and moved down to northeast Florida, to start working for the brand marketing team at Costa Sunglasses. I was extremely fortunate to work with and learn from some of the best anglers in the country on a day-to-day basis. It was incredible to experience a wide variety of backgrounds, lifestyles and fisheries in such a short window. I remember a one-month stretch in 2018 when I fished for cutthroat in Montana, migratory tarpon in the Florida Keys and spring-run striped bass in Massachusetts.

            I recently left the Costa team to work independently. I’ve completed all the requirements for my captains license and plan to start guiding out of my new Hells Bay Waterman. I’m an avid supporter of the water quality movement in Florida and I support Captains for Clean Water. I want to use my personal platform to promote stewardship of our natural resources. Nothing would make me happier, day-to-day, than having the opportunity to inspire the next generation of anglers who can join the movement to appreciate, respect, and protect our fisheries and their habitats. You do that by immersing people in a new environment, educating them on what’s happening around them, and putting a smile on their faces when they land a trophy fish.

When and how did you first catch the fly-fishing bug?

Towards the tail end of my college career. There were definitely a few missed hooksets, flies in trees, and vulgarities echoing in the woods as I transitioned away from the drop-back, full-body bass hookset and into more technical, finesse techniques. My progression was pretty standard. Caught the tying bug; realized my freshwater fly skills didn’t mean much of anything in the salt; refined my game over the years by being humbled by some well-educated fish. Nowadays I spend my days trying to slow-strip a black and purple streamer in front of as many tarpon as I can, and my nights thinking about that roosterfish I missed in the surf this past summer.

              I’ve always prided myself on being able to fish across all disciplines and environments. To be able to effectively operate a driftboat out West, a bass boat on tournament day, or on the flats down south is not something a lot of people can do. That’s because effective tactics in one of those scenarios are often contradictory to the most appropriate for the next. That being said, everything is a tad more satisfying if landed on some feathers.

All-time favorite species to catch?

My preferred target changes by the season. But, if I had to choose one fish to chase for the rest of my life it would definitely be tarpon. The gamesmanship of tarpon angling is addicting. The level of detail and nuance required is insane, relative to how big those fish get.

          My love for tarpon is all based in respect. We’re so focused on what photos we get of our fish, that we don’t take enough time to soak up its details, and appreciate that the fish in your hands may have been on this planet twice as long as you. I hope we all can become a bit more responsible for our role in taking care of them and releasing them properly.

First destination you want to travel to once the world returns to normal?

Vamos a Baja! I spent a week in La Ribera in Baja, Mexico, this past year chasing roosterfish from the beach with captain Brandon Cyr, captain Jared Cyr, and captain Nick Labadie. It was arguably the most fun week of my short time on this planet. The full-body cardio workout you get while sprinting down the beach, throwing backhand casts with an 11-weight, straight into the crashing surf, is absolutely exhilarating. The first follow I had that week, from a little two-to three-pounder at most, shot my heart rate on my Garmin watch up to 138bpm. The experience was action-packed and I have wild memories—running from a pit bull on the beach in an ATV, catching snapper and mahi from the Sea of Cortez, and even having a lit-up striped marlin slashing at a giant Game Changer fly, while fishing offshore one day.

            I ended up landing the first roosterfish of the trip, but it was on spin during an offshore morning guide trip. I chased one pair of roosters about a half-mile nonstop on our second to last day, and on about the twentieth cast, the larger of the duo came right up into the surf-line, wedging her 15-to 20-pound body in about a foot of water, where she lightly mouthed my mullet fly, almost like a carp eat. I was so surprised that my brain and body went into overload and I missed the set. That little 10-second experience has replayed in my head for over a year now and will be the reason I book those flights as soon as the world has settled down.

Is there an angler who you view as a role model, or someone whom you most look up to in the sport?

When you travel around the world and back with people, you become extremely close very quickly. Captain Mike Holliday, out of Stuart, Florida, has been a great mentor to me in recent years, whether that meant tapping into his decades of knowledge as a premium inshore fishing guide, or as a role model for someone who has navigated our industry for decades. I’ve always been in awe of the fishing guides who seem to have a spiritual connection to their fishery—knowing where things will be, when they’ll be there, and exactly how they’ll act—the type  of guide who seems like they can call their shot on any given cast, while being extremely humble in their approach and respect for their fishery. (Holliday) has always been this way during our times on the water. I aspire to have the same respect from our industry as he does, in the marketing boardroom, through a conservation movement, and on the water. The world needs more authentic people who have a heart of gold, don’t wager their ego against their performance on the water, and always do the right thing.

Is there anything you’d like to share with younger anglers who might be interested in following in your footsteps?

There are a lot of wrong ways to try to make it in the fishing industry. Those wrong ways can be alluring—followers, likes, and pro-staff titles. As an upcoming marketer who makes his living around these topics, it may sound contradictory to critique them. The truth is, social media is a tool. Industry relationships are incredibly valuable, and having a large following can be insanely powerful. But just like any tool, how it’s used determines its value. I want to inspire the next generation of anglers to make smart “cool.” Let’s glorify anglers who inspire others through positivity, who promote conservation, and who truly practice what they preach. My favorite quote will always be, “It’s a long road to wisdom and a short road to being ignored.”

This lucky ingrate, in my salt-stained eyes, had landed the fish of a lifetime. I’d just returned from my first epic saltwater foray on the edge of a barrier reef, via Southwater Caye, Belize. We’d spent a week sight casting under azure skies and exploring flats, mangrove-lined lagoons, and the outer atolls of Lighthouse Reef. We burned evenings while huddled around a thatch-roofed shack, relating the day’s events, with palms swinging overhead in the breeze. An occasional ray, porpoise or tarpon stirred up bioluminescent algae in the bay. Permit had eluded me, which I rather expected, but what really stuck in my craw was a missed opportunity to catch a big barracuda on the fly. As I interrogated that fellow angler from my San Pedro barstool, he inquired quizzically. “Wow, you’re really interested in barracuda fishing?”

Barracuda often swim where there’s unique scenery, whether that’s a beautiful coral head, a remote sand flat, or an interested bystander.

              “Yes, sir, I am,” I said. “I’ve caught tarpon and bonefish on this trip and it has been awesome, but I have been shut out on barracuda. That is my primary goal, to catch one like yours.”

              As we yammered over a couple of chilled Belikins, his eyes lit up as he related details of the encounter. Turns out, his original, solemn report belied reality: He was ecstatic to catch that ‘cuda. Likely, some other lodge guests downplayed the experience, and filed that barracuda away as bycatch, meaning wasted time in their pursuit of a Grand Slam.

              That exchange happened 20 years ago. The fly-fishing court of opinion hadn’t accepted the lowly barracuda as a worthy quarry. Today, anglers posing with barracuda grace the covers of fishing magazines and fill up Instagram feeds. Rightfully so—this apex predator possesses all the admirable qualities of a premier fly-rod gamefish. For example, barracuda occur in beautiful, intriguing habitats and present sight-fishing opportunities, playing to the hunter in all of us. The take and ensuing fight from a ‘cuda is often spectacular and tackle testing. Barracuda have broken my rods, snapped fly lines, and left me quivering in the wake of heartbreak. Additionally, barracuda are a highly successful species and can be found in subtropical oceans worldwide.

             On February 14, 2013, Thomas Gibson, of Houston, Texas, caught a 102-pound barracuda while trolling for tarpon near the mouth of the Cuanza River in Angola. While Gibson’s chance encounter is typical of tangles with the largest barracuda, fly anglers looking to specifically target big beasts would do well to begin the hunt off the beaten path. Having the capability to access less-pressured flats, cuts, and reefs greatly improves your odds of hooking a granddaddy. Consider packing a standup paddleboard (SUP) on your next foray to the Yucatan, Belize, or the Bahamas. These days, SUPS are highly transportable and can be reduced to the size of a carry-on, complete with a sand spear/push pole combo to “park” the SUP on flats for a final pursuit on foot. Savvy anglers pack snorkel gear on their SUP for scouting reefs and drop-offs, where big barracuda tend to hang out between tides.

You can catch and eat barracuda but you better be careful if you do so. Some barracuda carry heavy toxins. Most anglers choose to release these unique predators.

             Barracuda are both scavenger and predator. While the biggest are often found around reef edges in deeper water, these same fish venture onto the flats to hunt, particularly on big tides and full moons. When a large barracuda is spotted on a bonefish flat, utilize the element of surprise by landing the fly ahead of and to the side of the fish. Once your fly hits the water, give it a hard yank to garner the fish’s attention. That’s when the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Strip fast to imitate fleeing prey, set with a hard strip, and do your best to clear the line ahead of a reel-screaming run.

             Easier said than done, as I learned on a recent foray to Exuma, Bahamas, when I stumbled upon pay dirt in the form of an inland lagoon. That crystalline pond belonged to a shadowy figure patrolling in a figure-eight pattern. Under a high sun, the skinny water warranted a cautious approach. I slinked into position behind the fish and fired a cast. That ‘cuda immediately took interest and carefully stalked the fly. I stripped frantically and it was like a switch flipped in that fish—all but my leader was in a heap near my feet when the speeding ‘cuda grabbed the fly. That fishes’ speed outpaced my attempt to clear the line and I knew I was doomed. A loop of line wrapped around my reel and with a loud “snap” the fish went skipping across the lagoon with my entire shooting head in tow, leaving me despondent, and a fly line poorer.

              To fish barracuda, you don’t need elaborate gear or flies. Yak-hair streamers, four-to eight-inches long and armed with a trailer hook, are my go-to flies. An 8, 9 or 10-weight rod and a floating line or intermediate sinking line cover the bases while fishing the flats and cuts. For a leader, I use a loop-to-loop connection with 40 or 50-pound fluorocarbon and an 18-inch piece of the heaviest wire I can get away with. I’ve had a big barracuda gnaw through 30-pound, so 40-pound is a safer bet. In areas where fish have not been pressured, I think single-strand stainless steel, like shark anglers rely on, might be the way to go.

Big ‘cuda stalk the flats, looking for needlefish and bones. Take the author’s advice and the next time you see one of these beasts, give it a throw—you’ll be amazed at how fast these fish travel over a flat, and you’ll be equally impressed by that backing tearing off your reel.

            Barracuda are unpredictable and a chance to cast at one can occur anytime, anywhere. The biggest barracuda I’ve ever hooked was on that trip to Exuma. We were en route to a flat one afternoon when the sight of terns bombing into the water interrupted our commute. Upon investigation, the feeding frenzy was composed of small jacks. When the mayhem subsided, a scavenging beast arrived to clean up the scraps.

            Fortunately, I had a 9-weight rod, pre-rigged with wire. To mimic a floundering sardina, I plucked a five-inch long, red and white articulated fly from the box and threw at the fish. Without hesitation, that ‘cuda ate. I held on for a couple blistering runs. Unfortunately, when I tried to swing that fish to the stern the wire broke and the fish swam away to the depths.

            I took solace in having hooked a big barracuda and enjoyed a wild ride. Barracuda are always on my brain and one day, I’m hoping the pendulum swings my way.

COVER & FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAT FORD

My first serious exposure to flats fishing was in Key West back in 1971. I was stationed in the Navy and had a small center-console boat that wasn’t really designed for the flats, but it was too small to do much else. So I took it out on the flats and learned a lot about the movements of bonefish and permit.

That’s a face only a mother could love . . . unless you love fishing the flats for big bonefish. Miami’s Biscayne Bay used to provide the motherlode of big bones; today it offers only a few big bones and they are hard to find. Fortunately, the Bay’s permit fishing is very good.

              For example, I figured out that good numbers of bonefish would move onto the flats outside of the Barracuda Keys at the start of an incoming tide. I also learned that dead low at the Barracuda Keys occurred at the same time as dead high tide in Key West harbor. Bonefish were hard to come by in the Lower Keys, but afternoons found me wading the Barracuda flats as the tide began to trickle in. As the water level inched up, fins and tails would appear. There were some deeper gullies on those flats and the bones would push through ultra-shallow sections until they hit them. They’d swim down a gully till it ended, then hop back up into the shallow stuff. If you knew where to stand, it was like fishing a trout stream.

              Fast forward a few years and I was in Miami, a member of the Miami Beach Rod & Reel Club, and still pursuing bonefish on the flats. In the late 1970s and 1980s Biscayne Bay was one of the best places in the world to catch big bonefish. I had friends with flats boats and we would often go to the outside of Sands Key at dead low tide and wade along the shoreline, much like I did in Key West. The first thing I noticed was that the Miami bonefish were much larger than the Key West versions . . . they averaged eight pounds and a 10-pounder was not that uncommon. I really don’t recall ever catching one under five pounds. Captain Bill Curtis was my idol and mentor back in those days and we became lifelong friends.

If you’re looking for a big permit that’s willing to eat, Biscayne is the place to be. Local guides hunt these permit in channels leading into the flats.

             Curtis was fishing out of Key Biscayne and we would meet at Crandon Park Marina and run south till we hit Stiltsville. Curtis was not adverse to chumming with live shrimp because many of his customers were novices and/or wanted to catch their first bonefish on a fly. Curtis would find a white spot, anchor about 40 feet up-current, throw out a handful of chopped up fresh shrimp and wait. If a bonefish didn’t appear within 20 minutes, he moved. Curtis and I never did much chumming, but he always put me on bonefish. In fact, one day in the mid ‘80s I caught nine bonefish and three permit with Curtis . . . most of the bones were caught on fly gear, but the permit were on bait. We were into huge schools the entire day and never went south of Soldier Key. Back then the Bay was alive.

            Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and things changed. Suddenly there were very few bonefish from south of Stiltsville to just past Soldier Key. Nothing appeared to have changed on the flats; the bonefish just weren’t using them anymore. There were still big fish to be found, but not as many as there used to be, and they were elusive.

Heather Smith scored this nice bone in Biscayne Bay. This is an average size fish, certainly not the size that anglers recall from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

            Even so, in December 1997, while fishing with captain Rick Murphy, I caught a 15-pound bonefish on eight-pound spin gear and a 14-pound monster on a fly. Also that month, while fishing on my own boat, I landed a 27-pound permit on a fly. Naturally, that month used up all my flats mojo for the next few decades.

            And the Bay continued to change. We’d grown accustomed to seeing massive schools of bonefish during winter, but there were reports all along the coast of commercial fishermen mistaking those bones for mackerel and killing thousands at a time. There was no market for bonefish so the carcasses were simply dumped back in the water. A noted decrease in bonefish numbers was instant and appalling. Around 2000, captain Bob Branham told me that all the flats around Stiltsville were empty. Up until that time it was one of his “go to” spots. Now, only “secret” spots produced with any regularity, and he started seeing bones in deeper water than usual, mostly singles or doubles. A big school was now a pod of six-to 10 fish.

            By 2005, the huge bonefish schools on the oceanside of Elliot Key were gone. We wondered if those schools, which numbered between 100 and 500 fish, were a pre-spawn aggregation like you might see in the Bahamas. Netters couldn’t have killed them all, and netting had been quickly banned. But, still, you suddenly couldn’t find a school of 20 fish and those big schools still remain absent today.

Every angler’s dream—a happy Biscayne permit cruising for crabs.

             Shrimping in the Bay was also a concern. There was no commercial shrimping because most of the catch was too small to be profitable but recreational fishers used wingnets, aka surface trawls, to catch shrimp. This catch was so extensive that the Florida Wildlife Commission imposed a bunch of regulations, none of which did much good. By the time Curtis retired around 2000, he said the Bay’s remaining bonefish represented just 20 percent of the numbers he’d seen in the 1970s.

             On top of this, in 2010 south Florida experienced 10 days of temperatures in the low 40s. There were massive fish kills, especially snook, everywhere. There were reports of bonefish kills, too, especially on the west side of Biscayne Bay. I think that the bonefish close to the ocean simply moved out to deeper water as the temperature dropped, but the ones along the mainland coast couldn’t make it out in time. Branham said those bonefish didn’t come back to the west side of the Bay until 2019.

              Captain Carl Ball fishes the Bay on a daily basis. He too has noticed declines and said the areas that still produce bonefish on a regular basis are being hit so hard that they are beginning to feel the pressure—fewer fish and they’re getting harder to catch. Ball also points out that the turtle grass is dying at a rapid rate and being smothered or replaced by some form of algae that clings to the bottom. This has been especially apparent on the west side of the Bay. Back in the day, he recalls catching three-to four hefty bonefish a day. Now a guide feels triumphant if he gets his angler three-to four shots a day.

Captain Rick Murphy holding the author’s 14-pound bonefish, landed in Biscayne Bay in 1997.

            Basically, over the past three decades we’ve seen the numbers of bonefish decline steadily in an area that was once the most prolific big bonefish grounds in the world. The average size went from seven-to eight pounds, to five-to six pounds, to three-to four pounds, with periods when even getting a shot at a bonefish of any size became a big deal.

            But there are reasons to be very optimistic. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the numbers of bonefish decreased dramatically in Biscayne Bay. After Katrina and Wilma hit the Middle Keys, the bonefish numbers there dropped significantly. Then between 2008 and 2011, they simply disappeared. From that point on more and more anglers targeted Key West for bones and, fortunately, about five years ago people started finding them in numbers never seen before.

            In addition, today, bones are definitely coming back to the Islamorada area. Anglers are seeing large schools of smallish bones, which is very encouraging. The record-size bones that used to frequent areas like Shell Key are still few and far between, but the numbers of small bonefish are definitely on the rise.

            Will we see that same trend in Biscayne Bay? We can only hope that we’re just a few years behind Islamorada.

            While bonefishing in Biscayne has declined, its permit fishing is as good as it’s ever been. I fish regularly with Ball, the permit master. He has his “secret” spots where the permit always show up. They are huge and it’s pretty easy to get one on a crab. Most shots occur near the channels, meaning deeper water, and the fish eat. You’ll get more shots at permit on the fly down in Key West, but even there, you have to find one in “jack” mode, rather than permit mode, to get an eat.

            Biscayne Bay is still a world-class fishing destination for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and it’s worth a traveling angler’s effort any time they are in or near Miami. A trip with Branham last July sorta proves my point.

            It was cloudy and windy, far from ideal flats fishing weather, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that spotting a bonefish was going to be next to impossible. So we moved on to Branham’s permit spots.

Biscayne Bay doesn’t hold many fish like this anymore. But, you know, fishing is fishing—on any given cast you could end up with the fish of a lifetime, like Eric Herstedt is holding here.

            We were checking the edges of channels that snaked into the Bay from the ocean and eventually spotted a school of about a dozen permit. I flipped out a crab and it was immediately swallowed. Unfortunately, 20-knot winds put such a belly in the line that the permit spit the hook before I could come tight. When the clouds completely took over, we couldn’t see a thing. We found one more school of permit, but I blew the cast and they disappeared.

             Eventually, we moved onto Featherbed Bank to catch the incoming tide. The best permit fishing spots are all tide dependent and the trick is to know where to be on a specific tide. It wasn’t too long before Branham spotted a school of permit hovering around a white spot. I actually managed to see this bunch and sent a wind aided cast their way. The crab landed a bit behind them as they milled, but I felt a tug and hooked up. The fish didn’t look all that big, but its first run was impressive. I only had 10-pound leader so I could only hang on until it slowed down.

             We had been seeing a lot of sharks on Featherbed that day and I wanted to land this fish as quickly as possible. I worked it within 30 feet of the boat before we even got a look at it. My first impression was this: it didn’t have a black tail and it was long . . . maybe a barracuda. A few seconds later Branham said it was a huge bonefish. He jumped off the poling platform and frantically began digging his net out of the front hatch.

              I could see that it was a really big bonefish, and there were two seven-foot long lemon sharks hot on its tail. Branham got the net, and I horsed the bonefish over to it . . . about 10 feet ahead of the first shark. Branham scooped up the bone and the shark just about rammed the boat. Then a very strange thing happened—the sharks didn’t leave. They circled the boat, obviously waiting for us to release the bone. Branham dipped the fish-filled net back in the water to give the bone a drink and one of the sharks raced for the fish. Branham raised the net and the shark’s dorsal brushed the mesh as it passed. These sharks seemed programed to capitalize on an easy meal.

             There was no way this trophy bonefish was going to survive if we put it back in the water. Most flats skiffs now have extra large live wells, so Branham filled his and put the bonefish in it. These bait wells are like aquariums and very well oxygenated—our bonefish did just fine while we ran it a mile away onto a “sharkless” flat next to a channel leading to the ocean. We managed to snap a few photos before returning this magnificent creature to the water. Branham and I both agreed this guy was in the 12-pound-plus range . . . the biggest bonefish either of us had seen in many years. We hoped this was a sign of things to come.

Like everywhere, Biscayne Bay is not the same as it was 20 years ago. But the Bay remains an exceptional fishing destination. Tarpon are plentiful from February through July; permit are available year round; and the bonefish are coming back. If Biscayne Bay follows the same pattern as the Middle Keys, the bonefishing should improve each year. It’s still a pretty good backyard fishery for Miami anglers and guides, and it’s definitely worth hitting when you’re in town, whether looking for permit or possibly getting a shot at a really big bone.

The Skunk Leech is a slightly different take on the classic Green Butt Skunk, which was made popular by steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest. This fly is best fished on a sink-tip line in a traditional down-and-across swing. I always let this fly “dangle” a little longer at the end of my swing, as the soft materials it’s made of offer an enticing swimming action, even in a slight current. The Skunk Leech’s large profile and contrasting colors make it especially effective in higher, slightly stained water.

MATERIALS

HOOK: Partridge single salmon #2/0
EYES: Lead Eyes, white 1/24oz
THREAD: Uni thread black 6/0
TAIL: Red marabou
RIB: Silver mylar
BODY: Chartreuse Ice Dub/black Hareline Dubbin
COLLAR: Black hackle
THROAT: Black marabou
WING: White rabbit zonker
FLASH: Extra limp Flashabou holographic black

Step 1: Start with the hook right-side up in your vise. The fly will fish hook-point up, but the majority of the fly is easier to tie in this manner.

Step 2: Start your thread just before the bend in the hook and work forward, closing the return eye.

Step 3: Using a figure-eight pattern, tie in the lead eyes at the rear of the return eye. Make a few tight wraps around the base of the eyes to secure them in place.

Step 4: Select a full red marabou feather and pinch all the ends together by running your fingers up the stem.

Step 5: Tie in the marabou on top of the hook-shank, just before the bend, to create a tail about ¾” long.

Step 6: Cut off the excess at an angle tapered forward.

Step 7: Using wide thread wraps , lash the rest of the marabou to the shank to create a tapered body.

Step 8: Tie in a strand of silver mylar for the rib.

Step 9: Dub the body halfway forward with chartreuse Ice Dub.

Step 10: Wrap the mylar forward in evenly spaced turns—3 to 4 wraps—and trim away the tag.

Step 11: Tie in a black saddle hackle feather by the tip—try to find one with shortish, softer barbs.

Step 12: Wrap the hackle 6 to 8 times, keeping your wraps as close together as possible without overlapping.

Step 13: Tie in another piece of silver mylar for the second rib.

Step 14: Dub the rest of the shank with black Hareline Dubbing up to the eyes.

Step 15: Wrap the mylar forward in the same fashion as the first rib.

Step 16: Select another hackle feather similar to the first and tie it in by the tip, just behind the eyes.

Step 17: Again, make 6 to 8 close wraps with the hackle, just behind the eyes.

Step 18: Use a small amount of black dubbing, and dub around the eyes in a figure-eight to clean up the head.

Step 19: Turn the hook upside down in the vise.

Step 20: Select a fairly sparse black marabou feather and pinch the tips together.

Step 21: Tie the feather in on top of the shank so that the tips reach just past the hook point.

Step 22: Cut the end of a white zonker strip into a V. This creates a more natural taper to the tail.

Step 23: Pierce the point of the hook through the zonker strip about ½” from the V-cut in the end.

Step 24: Lay the zonker strip over top of the fly and tie it in just behind the eye of the hook. Don’t stretch the zonker strip too tight or it will be more likely to rip off the hook.

Step 25: Cut off the excess zonker strip and make a few more tight wraps to secure it.

Step 26: Tie in a full strand of black Flashabou on either side of the fly so they roughly line up with the tail.

Step 27: Double the strands over, creating a loop ahead of the fly, and tie the opposite end in. Same length only slightly higher on the sides of the fly.

Step 28: Cut the loops formed in the Flashabou and fold the ends back over the top of the fly. This creates 8 total strands of flash on the fly.

Step 29: Be sure to secure the Flashabou with a few tight wraps before cleaning up the head and whip finishing.

I even Googled “How To” and couldn’t find what I wanted. Nonetheless, I did receive materials and products suggestions, along with plenty of ideas on how to achieve the thickness and finish I was after. Still, I didn’t get any straight to the point suggestions, like, “Hey buddy, this is the product and the process I use to achieve the finish you’re looking for.”

             So I continued to scour the internet and paperback fly-tying books, hoping to find answers, or maybe even some step-by-step tying video. Nothing.

             You may be saying, “You’re trying to poach someone’s method and patterns.” But don’t judge me yet—I’m not someone who just started tying yesterday. I never wanted to be spoon-fed other people’s hard work. Instead, I armed myself with a handful of jigsaw pieces of information, purchased several different products, and tried to piece it all together. I experimented with multiple silicone brands and retardants, trying to break down the materials into a pourable and paintable consistency, while steering towards a low-fume mixture.

             It took some trials, but I finally found a suitable combination of products that are easy to find and mixed safely together. Now I needed to work a finishing technique to get the smooth, shiny finish I was after.

              A lot of people suggested dishwashing detergents, saliva, and Foto Flo solution. I found all three to work in some degree, but I still couldn’t get a finish I was happy with. In my attempts, the silicone was left with milky/cloudy streaks and a slightly uneven surface after I tried to smooth it out.

             Finally, I found a better way. By using a soft, flat-tipped paintbrush and mineral turpentine, I could gently smooth the silicone by brushing the mineral turps from the eye of the hook to the end of the silicone head. That process removed small bubbles and bumps in the curing mixture and allowed me to place the perfect fly in the rotary dryer until fully cured. No streaks. No bumps. No bubbles.

             I now use a three-step process to finish my flies. First I coat and let dry. I repeat that process and add eyes. Then I apply a final coat to secure the eyes and add strength to the body. Note: After each coat I brush with Turps to get the best finish possible.

TOOLS

1-Silicone sealant
2-Mineral turpentine
3-Soft, flat-tipped brushes. (1cm)
4-Mixer (or mix by hand)
5-Small sealable bottle to mix and then store the silicone product

STEP 1

Place the desired amount of silicone into a sealable bottle.

STEP 2

Add a small amount of mineral turps to the silicone.

STEP 3

Mix the silicone and turps together, gradually adding until the desired thickness is achieved. Add more turps until you get a constant, workable mix. I like a mixture with a consistency similar to thin syrup, but not too watery. A runny mixture takes longer to dry and affords a greater chance of tracking in the fibres before drying.

Living in the high-elevation icebox of Jackson, Wyoming, doesn’t lend itself to serious winter fishing.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t fantasize about warmer spring days ahead, and casting to rising trout. However, after a summer and fall spent dry-fly fishing, there are depleted fly boxes to deal with—in other words, an incentive to tie. This isn’t a bad thing because fly tying is a combination of creativity and anticipation, that little bunch of fuzz in the vise giving us visions of those perfect spring days ahead, when the trout are up and sipping. Fly tying, to me, is a way to revisit memories and dream of new adventures to come.

Spring hatches in the Northern Rockies are the most reliable of the year. From mid-March into May, these emergences provide great dry-fly fishing. My favorite spring hatches are midges, Baetis and small stoneflies. This tantalizing trio is endemic to most Rocky Mountain streams and they consistently occur before runoff.

Last April, I spent 20 afternoons on the water. I was casting to rising cutthroats on 19 of those days. The other day I sight-fished to those native trout with nymphs.
From years of fishing the Greater Yellowstone area, I’ve narrowed down the spring patterns that produce. I always run out of these flies because they work and I have confidence in them. These are the flies that I’ll tie this winter in preparation for spring. Many of these flies are crossover patterns that work well when hatches overlap.

As a rule, when tying small flies make sure your hooks have enough gap and strength to hold large fish. Also, sparser is better when tying small flies because tying sparsely allows you to use those stronger hooks. I’ve listed the hooks I use with each of these recipes. If you don’t have that exact hook, just use a similar model.

Start tying these flies this winter and you’ll easily have full boxes when the spring hatches pop. I believe you will enjoy tying and fishing these flies as much as I do.

TYING FLIES FOR SPRING

Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail

This fly looks like food and matches just about any subsurface larvae or nymph. Its origins are found in Frank Sawyer’s original Pheasant Tail herl and copper wire pattern. It was first tied in the 1930s for fishing England’s Avon River. Al Troth’s modern version, with a peacock herl thorax, is now the most common tie—it naturally evolved into beadhead and jig hook versions. I tie a majority of my PTs as soft-hackles. And I’m starting to tie more of my nymphs on jig hooks, because there’s nothing wrong with having a hook point up—I get more consistent hook-ups on these rigs. This is a great pre-hatch fly and works equally well as a dropper/anchor below a smaller nymph or subsurface emerger.


Hook: Kumoto KJ304 Wide-Gap Jig, sizes 14 through 18

Thread: 8/0 Rusty Brown

Head: Copper tungsten bead

Rib: Small copper wire

Tail: Pheasant-tail fibers

Abdomen: Pheasant-tail fibers

Thorax: Peacock Ice Dub

Hackle: Dark hen

Grouse Tail Nymph

This is my variation on the good old Pheasant Tail Nymph, and substitutes ruffed grouse tail fibers to create a grayer Baetis imitation. If you don’t have those fibers don’t fret—many duck flank feathers, such as mallard, teal and widgeon, work well. Like most flies, this one evolved to meet certain needs, and crosses over for midges. One bundle of grouse fibers are used for the tail, body, and legs. I’m becoming a big fan of jig-style nymphs but, unfortunately, those hooks aren’t made small enough for midge and Blue Wing Olive patterns. Fortunately, short-shank nymph and scud hooks make a jig fly when combined with a slotted bead. To do this, invert the hook and align the slot of the bead so that most of the bead is below the hook, and anchor with thread. Angle the legs upward (inverted position) to help the fly flip over. This a great sight-casting nymph, and I use it prior to midge and Baetis hatches, or on cold days when the trout just won’t come all the way up.


Hook: Kumoto K3761C 1X Short Competition Nymph hook, sizes 16 through 20.

Head: Slotted black tungsten bead

Tail: Ruffed grouse tail fibers

Rib: Fine copper wire

Abdomen: Ruffed grouse tail fibers

Legs: Butts of grouse fibers used for body

Neck: Gray dubbing behind bead

Para Midge Emerger

This fly is an old friend and is as close to a non-refusal midge as I have found. A high proportion of midge feeding is on pupae that are stuck in the surface film, and not on actual adults. The trout key on those emergers because they are an easy meal. However, this situation is often mistaken for trout feeding on adults. Here’s how to tell: see a nose—feeding on top; see a dorsal—feeding subsurface. The Krystal Flash tag and rib on this fly seem to make a difference. Is it an attractant, simulation of movement, or an air bubble? I don’t know, but it works.


Hook: Kumoto 100C Competition Dry-Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Indicator: White, orange or black synthetic fibers

Tag: One or two strands of pearl Krystal Flash cut short

Rib: Pearl Krystal Flash

Body: Peacock or dark-olive colored Antron dubbing

Hackle: A few wraps of grizzly, one gap length

Split Top Emerger Grizzly Olive

This fly has its origins in my PFD Emerger. I added a split-foam wingcase for both realism and to hide the indicator. The hackle at the base of wingcase mimics a partial wing and legs. This is another one of those “everything” emergers because so many stuck-in-the-film emergers look alike. It could be a mayfly, stonefly, midge, or caddis. All have a shuck, a partial body, and messed up wings and legs. Why not have some crossover flies to cover a myriad of situations? I tie these in sizes 12-to 20 and in gray, olive and tan. For spring fishing, a grizzly/olive combo is great for Baetis and midges. However, I give the Para Midge Emerger (see above) an edge when strictly matching midges. For a small emerger, the Split Top floats well and is easy to see in bad light and/or choppy water. Dull orange or pale pink polypropylene are good choices for the post.


Hook: TMC 2488, sizes 12 through 18

Thread: Olive Dun 8/0

Shuck: Brown/olive Antron

Abdomen: Stripped grizzly hackle stem

Wingcase: Gray 1.5mm or 2mm foam

Hackle: 1 1/2 gap grizzly

Indicator: Orange poly (EP Fibers)

Thorax: BWO dubbing

F Fly Variant

This is a “stupid simple” fly for smart fish. I fish this Marjan Fratnik pattern more often each year. It features a simple dubbed or thread body, and a wing of CDC. It’s simple to tie in small sizes and easy to tie sparsely. This fly looks like everything—midge, mayfly, caddis, cripple, or adult. I like to tie it in natural tan/dun CDC. Close enough to match most insects and easy to see. I tie these on standard dry-fly hooks or emerger hooks to give it more of that emerger look and a bigger hook gap. Unlike the downwing original, I tie a bundle of CDC in the center and fold it back. I lightly post that bundle to make it more upright. Scraggly flies seem to fish best. With many wing materials, bulk makes the fly look too big and is less effective. Not so with CDC. For some reason you can tie it full and visible and it doesn’t bother fish. I use Loon Lochsa or TMC Fly Magic on the CDC and after catching a fish I blot it dry with a chamois. Then I fluff out the fibers and cast again.


Hook: TMC 2488 Emerger hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Olive Dun 8/0

Body: Tying thread

Wing: Natural CDC

Two-Tone Parachute Baetis

Seeing is believing. We all feel most confident when we can see our flies. Also, visibility helps us attain a drag-free drift. Visibility has to do with contrast and background. The classic white post on most parachute patterns can be hard to see when the sun is low and the light is angled, and in the frequent silver/white glare of spring. In fact, the Two-Tone’s wing can appear to be same color as the water. That’s why I like an orange/black post combo, since it is visible in most lighting conditions and it isn’t too gaudy. You can easily overdress this fly. Just remember, sparser is better. Try to keep the dubbing body very thin, or even use thread for the abdomen. This is a go-to fly when matching Baetis adults.


Hook: Fulling Mills Ultimate Dry Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Brown 8/0

Tails: Split Coq de Leon fibers

Rib: Doubled tying thread

Abdomen: Olive/gray dubbing

Wing: Orange and black Antron or poly

Thorax: Olive/gray dubbing

Hackle: Dark dun

Sparkle Caddis Midge Stone

This fly started out as my Sparkle Midge, back when I was in Livingston, Montana, and fishing the Yellowstone River and other area waters. The fly has evolved, and I now feel that the Sparkle CMS (caddis, midge, stone) is a better name and description. This is a useful pattern from the first midge hatches of late winter to the caddis hatches of later spring. You can tweak this fly to match each species by making the wing longer or shorter. The wing and post are made of the same strands of Krystal Flash, and the dark biot body is segmented for a very buggy appearance. I’ve added some CDC over the Krystal Flash for a more natural tint and to make the fly easier to see. That also adds floatation without too much bulk. I’ve tied the CMS in various shades, using medium-to dark dun hackles, and experienced similar results with each. This fly really shines during spring hatches of Capnia stoneflies. These flies are not easy to notice—they are small, dark, and flat. However, fish don’t ignore them, and often key in on them. If you see a bunch of them on the snow or on the riverbank rocks, take a closer look. These are often the flies that cause subtle rises in riffled water or runs. That water is usually a little faster speed than where you’d expect to see midges. So, when you see fish rising in that type of water, and you can’t get them on a midge imitation, your natural process should be to deliver the CMS and see what happens.


Hook: Kumoto Competition Dry Fly hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Body: Dark brown or black turkey biot

Wing and Post: Pearl Krystal Flash with tan/dun CDC over it

Thorax: Black dubbing

Hackle: Dark dun

Moose Mane Micro Soft Hackle

Sometimes fish never learn. Such is the case with soft-hackles—trout still take a fly that’s almost 2,000 years old. These flies can be swung in wet-fly style or dead-drifted. Why do they work? Because they look and act like a lot of things. Could be an emerger, a cripple or a sunken spinner. When active Baetis nymphs and emergers are present, swinging soft-hackles is the perfect recipe for success. In most other applications drifting a soft-hackle in the film, or just below it, and allowing it to swing at the end of a drift is a good ploy. When drifting soft-hackles just below the surface watch the area near the fly and if you see a rise, gently lift up. It doesn’t take much of a set to hook trout on small flies. You can also use a dry fly to track the soft-hackle, setting up when the dry “indicator” fly twitches or disappears. The thin moose “quill” body on this fly is sparse and segmented, like you’d find on a real insect. Since small soft hackle is hard to come by, I tie loose hackle fibers forward and pull them back over the thorax before whip finishing.


Hook: Kumoto Competition Scud hook, sizes 16 through 20

Thread: Black 8/0

Abdomen: Tan and dark brown moose body hair, wrapped

Thorax: Dark brown dubbing

Hackle: Dark hen

Coffee

Yeah, that’s what I need. Exactly what I need. There’s a Thermos half full of it—aromatic and hot and laced with Bailey’s—tucked into my daypack at the top of the run. I can feel a slight chill on my neck and shoulders and the tops of my arms. My feet are a little cold, and I’m regretting not pulling on that extra pair of socks this morning. Coffee will fix this. Either that or a few pulls from the flask in my pocket. I opt for the flask and tuck my Spey rod into my armpit for a moment.

            I’m standing knee deep in the drink, halfway down a big run on the main-stem Skeena River west of Terrace, British Columbia. As I tilt my head back and enjoy the bourbon’s momentary burn, light slips beneath my sunglasses and I realize just how bright it is. All around me are mountains, impossibly white and sparkling in the midday sun, like something a Hollywood CGI team would produce, only better because it’s real. Up there, winter lingers, and beckons to the happy heli-skiers who buzz by above me every few hours, moving between lodges and power runs on these high peaks. But down here the tree-lined banks are showing signs of spring. And crashing through some thick brush to get around a logjam releases the scents of renewal. The day warms, and all around things seem to be getting ever better, moment-to-moment, filling with promise.

            This may all sound idyllic, until I tell you that my bladder is filling. It’s not quite at pee-pee dance volume yet, but we’re close. And that bourbon? Well, there are few moments in life when good bourbon is ever a mistake, but this might be one of them. I’m shifting my weight back and forth now, just a little, and clenching my jaw every few moments, distraction from my whining bladder. I could reel up. Relief is only 40 steps away. I could even drop my rod on the bank, and leave my line out and swinging.  I’ve risked this before. But I’m in the sweet spot now. I know this because yesterday a fellow stepping down the run ahead of me hooked a good one right here. I begin to shift my weight a little more rhythmically.

            I look at the beach; I look down my spey rod and follow the line to where it disappears into the Skeena’s deep green. Then something far out in the run tightens the line I have pinched between the bottom of the rod handle and my index finger. For a split second it releases, then tightens again, and all sensations and thoughts are silenced save one…

Steelhead

There it is. Again. Again. The take of a Skeena spring steelhead, each tug like the pluck of virtuoso fingertips on my heartstrings, each building on the other until that final Pete Townshend “windmill” moment when the rod is truly bent and the reel growls and there’s no doubt about who’s on the other end.

Mornings

Waking up at a spring steelhead lodge in northern British Columbia is like having a whole week of Christmas mornings. My alarm goes off earlier than I wake for work, but here there’s no problem swinging out of bed. Someone’s already put the coffee on and I shuffle down the hall to grab a cup.

            This week I’m “in camp” with an orthopedic surgeon, a judge, a heavy equipment marketing executive, and two successful entrepreneurs. At the end of several long flights we all had wardrobes to match our sense (or someone else’s) of how we should appear. But here in camp we’re all dressed like five-year-olds who’ve been asked to “go put something nice on”—mismatched socks; fleece pants; tee-shirts or fraying-collared fishing shirts; old worn hoodies or the fading colors of zippered mid-layers. Ball caps or wild, unkempt hair complete the ensemble. Over the week most of these comfortable camp clothes will be covered in bits of tying thread and dubbing, a sure sign of good fishing.

            All of us have had fishless days this week; most of us have had multiple hookups. Within the hour we’ll have wolfed down a big Canadian power breakfast of pancakes, sausage, bacon and eggs. Then we will layer up and meet out front, breath condensing above our heads as we discuss our morning’s fly selection while the guides hook up the jetboats. Thirty minutes later we’ll be running wide open down the Skeena, faces rosy from the cold, holding the brims of our hats so we don’t lose them. Eventually one boat will pull ahead, round a bend, and be lost to our sight. We’ll see them again later at the launch. For now the river is ours alone, and by the time our guide eases back on the throttle, the still sleepy among us are wide eyed and ready to cast.

            The Skeena is known for big runs, and this is one of them. An easily waded cobble bottom, and clear water deepening to green make it the kind of water I want to spend the entire day in. It helps that this spot regularly puts out fish. I‘ve taken them here before. Our guide points out the sweet spots, and my partner for the day and I divide the water between us. We elect to fish relatively close together, in case one of us hooks up. We’ve been fishing together for years, and both know that on steelhead water it’s nearly as fun to watch a good friend wrestle with one as wrestle with one of your own. That one of us has a flask of bourbon and the other scotch makes fishing close by even more appealing.

The Season

I’ve spent six spring seasons on the Skeena. Every one has been different, and as memorable as the last. Beginning in March, waters cold enough to form sheet ice begin to roll off their chill, and the slowly warming waters signal the beginning of the springtime run. Fresh, bright steelhead enter the system, and sleepy locals begin to prowl the banks and test the waters, imagining that first hookup. Sometime in the middle of the month someone gets one and the season begins. It lasts through April, some years early May.

            When you come to the Skeena in spring, don’t expect the hoards of anglers and jetboats screaming up and down every run that often characterizes fall fishing there. While you won’t be completely alone, don’t be surprised if some days you don’t see anyone else, and expect to have beautiful runs to yourself much of the time. There’s so much water to fish that it can be fairly easy to find a place of your own, especially when weather and water conditions are favorable.

            Ah . . . weather and water conditions. Always the worry when winter turns to spring. Steelheading any time of the year is a mature angler’s game—that’s part of the appeal. While it’s impossible to hit it right all of the time, fishing with a knowledgeable local outfit, that knows the systems and what’s likely to be fishing well and where, gives you the best chance at a great week. In six seasons I’ve only had a few days when we couldn’t fish. No worries: There’s nothing wrong with spending a warm and sleepy day in the lodge, flipping through old issues of Grays Sporting Journal and maybe tying up tomorrow’s brace of Secret Killers.

Flies

Whenever I’m bound for a new steelhead destination I always ask ahead about the flies I should bring. It’s a silly question. Because when you look around you’ll notice that most steelhead boxes are full of lots of basically one thing. Now that one thing is as varied as the tiers who fish them, but it still comes down to the one fly that you really believe in. Because if steelheading is about anything, it’s about faith.

           I have faith in the Raging Prawn. It’s a rather fiddly and time consuming variation of the General Practitioner tied by my friend Tyler Kushnir. In various sizes, tied on tubes from as long as the span between my thumb and pinky to half the length of my first knuckle, it’s all I need on spring steelhead water. It might be all you’ll need, too.

           Still, it’s always a good idea to listen to your guide, and fish what they recommend. If they don’t like any of your flies, take the fly they offer, and fish it with confidence. Remember, their livelihoods depend on you catching steelhead. They won’t steer you wrong.

Tackle and Tactics

Spring is colder water steelhead fishing, so I’m not fishing the same gear or looking for fish in the same places I might in September. My spring default has always been a 15-foot long 9 or 10 weight rod cast over deeper runs with some structure. Thoreau once told us “it is a great art to saunter” and that’s the pace of water I look for in spring.

          But times change on steelhead waters. As anglers and guides learn more about Skeena spring steelhead, they are reconsidering their tools. Lighter 13-foot 7 and 8-weights are replacing the heavier rods, balanced by lightweight reels that hold 150 yards of backing and easy casting shooting heads and Skagit-style systems.

          Spring steelheaders are rethinking their choice of water as well. Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace and has guided anglers to Skeena chrome for over a decade. It’s rare to find his clients in deep water.

          “Most of the time we will be fishing in two feet of water so there’s no need to cast heavy tips,” he said. “We use full floating lines or light tips—intermediate, T-3 and T-6.”

          This shallow water, light-line approach might come as a shock to steelheaders used to fishing deep and heavy for the big fish. If your heavy sink-tips—your T-14 and T-18—give you courage, by all means bring them. But don’t be surprised to find them spending most of the trip in the front pocket of your waders.

          There are two schools of thought when it comes to hooking springtime fish. The first is basically the same as trout fishing: feel the fish, then hit it. Hard. So any sort of tug or pluck on the line results in a Bassmaster-style hook-set. Make sure your feet are well planted.

          The second is the simple. Wait. Wait for the line to tighten up and your rod to bend. After that you can basically do whatever the hell you want because you got ‘em.

          Wohe’s approach combines the best of both. “In the spring the fish can be very aggressive, but they like to pluck the fly,” he said. “When this happens don’t move your fly—let them eat it. You won’t get a second chance like you might in the summer or fall. You only get one chance, so you wait.”

          And then? Well, in Skeena country, the possibility that your line might be connected to the biggest steelhead of your life requires just a little bit more. “Big buck steelhead have boney jaws,” Wohe reminds me, “so lifting alone is not enough in most cases.”

When the line gets tight, set the hook!

Back on the Skeena I set the hook hard. The steelhead is in 18 inches of water and reacts as shallow water steelhead always do, with a sudden eruption and a reel-screaming run towards the safety of mid-river. I’ve forgotten about the coffee and my sloshing bladder for the moment, because a just-hooked steelhead demands more attention than a screaming toddler. I take a few steps to find solid footing and hear a splash below me. I look down and notice my flask drifting slowly away as my reel quickly unwinds. I drop to one knee and grab it, and as I straighten, yep, there’s the bladder again.

            By this time my partner has jogged down from the top of the run and approaches, camera in hand. He hasn’t hooked a fish in two days, and I’ve been doing well. The steelhead has settled now in the deeper water. I can tell it’s a good one. There’s a lot of line out. I consider my options.

            “Remember that time on the Dean when you were borderline hypothermic and you asked me to take over for you?” I ask.

            “I do. Lucky you were there. That was a big fish.”

            “Time to return the favor, brother,” I say, and hand him the rod. For a moment he looks puzzled, and as I turn away and head towards the beach I just hope he understands.

TRAVEL

Canada’s major carriers, Air Canada and Westjet, schedule daily flights into Terrace from Vancouver International. It’s a pleasant 100 minute flight over British Columbia’s rugged Coast Mountains. Bring your camera in your carry on . . . and your headphones, plus a good steelhead playlist on your smartphone—the Dash 8 aircraft that are the workhorses of these short flights are a lot noisier than the big jets that brought you to Vancouver. Once you’ve landed, it’s a short drive from the Northwest Regional Airport to Terrace-area fishing lodges.

TIMING

In Skeena country, fresh steelhead are waiting to crush your fly any time between mid-March and the end of April. Some years you can even push it into early May.

THE RIVERS

The main-stem Skeena is where you’ll want to focus most of your efforts. Giant, fishy runs that gently slope from knee deep to hat floater are too numerous to count. You could easily spend a whole day in many of them. But don’t despair if there’s bad water on the Skeena. Your guide can always opt for productive smaller waters like the Kitimat and Kalum.

TACKLE

When you come to the Skeena, bring along your 13-foot 7-weight and a quality reel with enough capacity to hold 150-to- 200 yards of 30-pound backing and your favorite Skagit-style line. Bring along your 15-foot Type 6 and Type 8 sink-tips for courage, plus an assortment of lighter MOW-style tips for shallow water. My leaders are 15-pound Maxima, and I bring a fresh spool along so I can also use a 12-15-foot length of that Maxima on a floating line, if needed.

GEAR

Springtime fishing on the Skeena may offer sunshine, wind, rain and snow—all on the same day. So come prepared. A newish pair of breathable waders that you’ve checked for leaks is a must. Metal studs in your wading boots keep you from slipping. Moisture wicking layers keep you warm, and a reliable rain jacket offers protection from a shower or a chilly wind. Hang a pair of Abel pliers off your wading belt and you can smash barbs and trim your tippet without fiddling around with dangly things on your jacket. A hip pack loaded with your fly box, a spool of Maxima, and your sink-tip wallet keeps things simple on the water. I also bring along both fingerless fleece and waterproof ice climbing gloves. A warm hat tops things off nicely.

Images by

Jeroen Wohe   |   Skeena River Lodge

I thought my Clik Elite Contrejour 40 Liter pack was a great system for carrying my photography equipment around the world. It holds a bevy of lenses, a flash, two camera bodies, and a MacBook Pro. The back of the pack unzips into a labyrinth of foam trays. There’s room for a travel pillow, hard-drives and all the toys. This system worked great, until I boarded a puddle jumper during an exploratory tarpon fishing trip in Curacao.

            I always check my rods when flying, mainly because they’re cheaper to replace than my glass. And if I lose them, a lodge usually offers loaners I can throw. I checked my rods successfully on this trip, but this time my photo pack was turned down at the gate, deemed too large to stow in a tiny overhead luggage rack. I was forced to check that valuable kit and the end result was missing gear for three days and a broken $2,000 lens.

Want a great underwater shot like this? You’ll need a quality camera housing and they don’t come cheap. But, the reward speaks for itself.

           Fast forward to 2020. I now handle my gear differently and use a series of Patagonia dry bags and a Pelican Air 1485 briefcase, to harbor my goods. This system is equally effective in the air and on the water, allowing me to get my pricey underwater housing, and other equipment, to my destination and beyond.

            First the Pelican case. This case has customizable padded bays for housing two camera bodies, four lenses and a flash. Yeah, you look like you’re carrying a briefcase full of diamonds chained to your wrist, but if the contents are worth as much as diamonds, and in some cases more, it’s worth wearing that look. Should shit hit the fan and you have to gate check your equipment, the Pelican case locks. When allowed as carry-on, I store this case in the overhead. When I get to my destination, I unpack the Pelican and toss it next to the minibar. Game time.

            In addition, I wear a Patagonia Stormsurge Roll-Top 45L backpack. Inside, nice and cozy, is my Mac, numerous hard-drives, a passport and any other precious cargo. It stows neatly, cleanly in the carry-on metal frames at the ticketing desk, and under your seat once your onboard. When you get to Punta Gorda, Belize, or wherever else you might be chasing fish, you can use it on the water as you wade.

The author doing the work. Is that a shark below?

           Regarding my Ikelike housing, it fits perfectly inside my Patagonia Great Divider 29L boat bag. I do check that as luggage—best to keep the absolutely essential stuff—the camera bodies and lenses—by my side, and check the, albeit overpriced, housing.

            These Patagonia bags, except the Great Divider, are not padded. When you hit the water, place a face towel in your pack and wrap it around your other camera body. This prevents lenses and the camera body from slamming against each other. And that towel comes in handy when wiping down the dome port. Doing so keeps water spots out of your images. Keeping your lenses in cases also prevents damage.

            When I fish and shoot, I carry two cameras. One, the Canon 5D IV with a 12-24mm wide-angle lens, stays in the housing in a third (yes third) roll top Patagonia bag. Then, when the swordtail nears the boat I whip it out, jump in the water, and fire release shots. The other camera is a Canon EOS R5, with a 24-105mm f4 lens. It lives in the boat bag, nice and dry. I use it for landscape, profile, and action casting shots when shooting on deck. With a two-camera system, you’re set for that sailfish release photo (fins and mask not included), your hard-running grey ghost image, and everything in between. I’ve used this system to shoot trophy lakers in Manitoba, fall-run browns on Montana’s Madison River, and mahseer in India, among other locales.

Pelican’s Air 1485

           Let’s not forget the juice. Powering up all that gear is a daunting task. I rely on a Goal Zero Sherpa 100 battery bank. Yes, this tops off power with a solar panel, but I usually charge it from the wall (unless I’m doing something like Hurricane Dorian relief in the Abacos, which I did in 2019). This way I’m never without power. This beast is smaller than your high school yearbook, but charges my MacBook Pro twice, or camera batteries dozens of times. USB-C is the wave of the future, and it has two such ports, as well as an AC port for plug-in items, like the mini speaker you’ll bring along to jam Phish (pun intended) while you edit and write at night. And of course, it offers two old-school USB ports as well. Don’t leave home without it.

            This entire system allows me to work during those countless hours on airlines, and while sitting in airports. By doing so, I arrive home with a folder of edited photos and a feature article written. Then it’s back to my day job.

            Most of these packs have small zipper pockets for keys and all things easily lost. I even heard that they fit a dozen face masks. I look forward to testing that theory this spring.

            One last note: Shoot photos of your gear before you head out, and label all of it—every last bit—so you can recover that insurance claim if things slide down the tubes.

Patagonia’s Stormsurge Roll Top Pack 45L.

            I’ve spent weeks in the Yukon Territory, casting 18 hours a day to northern pike that were longer than an arm and sometimes as long as a leg. And I’ve shredded the trout-rich waters in and around Yellowstone National Park for up to 200 days a year (before kids, of course).

            Yet, if my doctor said, “You have a month to live,” I’d pack my gear in a skiff, including the best rain jacket on the planet, and cruise southeast Alaska’s sheltered inland waters, searching for spring steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout.

Fighting steelhead in tight places is a real challenge. Most southeast Alaska streams offer fewer that 200 returning metalheads a year. That means every one ought to get the shoulder treatment, so it can be fought, landed and released quickly.

            My fascination with Alaska steelhead began when I saw a picture of my father, dated 1967, in which he’s holding a 10-pound steelhead in front of a two-car garage in Petersburg, which served as our home during the first couple years of my life.

            By 17, I owned a fly rod and wanted to catch, more than anything else, a steelhead like the one my father held in that photo. At that time, I lived in Seattle, via Hollywood (don’t ask), but spent summers in southeast, working the canneries and boats, stealing any time I could to catch fish with that fly rod. I caught cutthroats during summer, but the steelhead were long gone, their outmigration from rivers and streams having taken place in May. They wouldn’t be back until March. So, I did the natural thing—I quit school that following spring, moved back to southeast Alaska, and worked the nightshift at a cannery, processing herring and black cod, so I could fish steelhead by day.

Few places on earth are prettier than southeast Alaska on a nice spring day. Steelhead are the goal; the southeast Alaska vibe and scenery are the reasons you go.

            I ran with a married friend at the time, someone who had an 18-foot skiff and a 30-horse outboard. We reached several great steelhead waters within an hour of town and did so as often as I could muster the energy.

            Spring in southeast is also a great time to catch sea-run cutthroat trout as they stack up near the mouths of streams, preying on out-migrating salmon fry that drift downstream. This was key to our efforts, as was the collection of spruce grouse (also called hooters or fool hens), which are fair game in Alaska during March and April. My friend and I considered it good fortune that his wife’s two favorite meals consisted of those sea-run cutthroat and spruce grouse; she wasn’t happy with our antics, or her husband’s time away from home, but we bought her off with that treasured wild game.

            Few roads lead to good steelhead fishing in southeast Alaska; most of the time anglers must access steelhead streams with a small boat and then walk the banks while fighting through thick brush, including the dreaded devils club, to reach the best runs. Once on a remote stream, anglers must carefully place each step, and they must keep an eye out for bears, which come out of hibernation about the time steelhead arrive.

You fish southeast Alaska during spring for the same reasons the region’s brown and black bears do—Alaska’s “panhandle” offers great rewards, whether in the form of food or a steelhead to put back into the river.

            Prince of Wales Island, in the far southern, southeast, is a little different. A significant road system allows anglers to fly from Seattle to Ketchikan in a couple hours, and then toss their gear into their rooms at Boardwalk Lodge. A couple hours after landing they could be swinging or drifting flies on the Thorne or Klawock rivers, with a real possibility of catching their first wild steelhead. That’s one thing that separates southeast Alaska and its fish from the Lower 48—Alaska shelved the idea of hatchery steelhead back in the 1960s and never wavered from that statement. These fish are born in freshwater streams, they cruise around the North Pacific for a few years, and they return to their birthplaces to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead may go back to sea, repeat the process, and spawn a couple more times . . . if they aren’t eaten by a sea lion, a salmon shark, a killer whale, or any other predator patrolling the high seas, including us.

            When the steelhead are in, anglers can catch good numbers. Good numbers to most “metalheads” means one a day. But one time my friend and I hit it just right; it was early April, the fish were in on the tide, and they were chrome-bright and eager to strike. By the end of the day, we’d hooked 32 and landed about half of them. One of those fish measured 42 inches long and may have weighed 25 pounds—a giant by southeast standards where eight-to 10-pounders are standard. But steelheading is fickle; that night it rained, and the deluge continued the following day. When we returned to the river, it was high and off-color and we didn’t hook a thing.

Metal. It’s why some of us live. Constant pursuit, hours at the vice, pouring over of maps, scheduling, kissing the spouse goodbye. Get one of these fish to the beach, adipose fin shining in the light . . . you’ve got something special.

              Periodically, I return to southeast to fish spring steelhead, and did so with my father a few years back. Steelhead and cutthroats weren’t the only draw; we fished in a king salmon derby, in which my father caught a 20-some-pound beauty; we climbed aboard a friend’s commercial boat and pulled pots full of spot prawns; we added those to a menu of fresh king salmon and Dungeness crab, which we’d pulled from the water with a friend’s pots, and enjoyed a classic southeast meal, all washed down with Alaskan Amber beer.

              The following day, my father and I steered the skiff to a nearby stream and hiked far up its banks, across open muskeg and through thick, nearly impenetrable alders and patches of devil’s club. When we parted the last brush, the world opened to reveal bright skies and a perfect 75-yard-long run, on a stream that sees only a handful of anglers each year. Almost immediately I saw a steelhead roll.

When you head away from the stream there are plenty of other rewards to be had on a southeast Alaska evening. Spot prawns, Dungeness crab (pictured here), king salmon, ling cod, black cod, fiddlehead ferns, steamer clams and octopus . . . . Seriously, it doesn’t get much better than this.

             I tied on a fly, checked my knots, and walked to the top of the run. I looked at the mountains overhead, then downstream to my dad waiting patiently with a camera. I took a breath of sharp morning air, nodded, and gave the thumbs up, knowing that, whether we hooked that fish or not, we were right where we needed to be.

From living in Maine and touring the United States on the college bass fishing circuit, to poling a skiff across Florida flats on the hunt for tarpon, Cody Rubner has already lived an action-packed angling life in his 20-some years on the planet. Originally from Massachusetts, Rubner is always searching for unique fisheries and new experiences. Currently based in Florida, Rubner splits time between sharing the beautiful Florida coast with anglers, and prospecting for new fish to catch and new stories to tell.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey as an angler, from bass tournaments to guiding in Florida and working as an industry professional?

My love for fishing and the outdoors was founded at a young age. I grew up on Cape Cod, Mass., and would wait for my father to get home from work on weekdays so we could sprint to the bait shop before it closed, and get to the nearest beach to catch schoolie striped bass. Fast-forward 15 years and I began attending the University of Maine, to get my degree in marine biology. While there, I founded the UMaine Fishing Club and Bass team. We traveled the country for three years fishing the FLW Collegiate Tournament Series. Maine has some incredible fisheries that I believe deserve more recognition. Within a two-hour drive from the campus in Orono, Maine, you could fish for stripers in the surf, native brook trout in remote streams, giant northern pike in lake and river systems, landlocked salmon in crystal clear water, or indulge in some world-class smallmouth bass fishing.

           I left New England in 2017 and moved down to northeast Florida, to start working for the brand marketing team at Costa Sunglasses. I was extremely fortunate to work with and learn from some of the best anglers in the country on a day-to-day basis. It was incredible to experience a wide variety of backgrounds, lifestyles and fisheries in such a short window. I remember a one-month stretch in 2018 when I fished for cutthroat in Montana, migratory tarpon in the Florida Keys and spring-run striped bass in Massachusetts.

            I recently left the Costa team to work independently. I’ve completed all the requirements for my captains license and plan to start guiding out of my new Hells Bay Waterman. I’m an avid supporter of the water quality movement in Florida and I support Captains for Clean Water. I want to use my personal platform to promote stewardship of our natural resources. Nothing would make me happier, day-to-day, than having the opportunity to inspire the next generation of anglers who can join the movement to appreciate, respect, and protect our fisheries and their habitats. You do that by immersing people in a new environment, educating them on what’s happening around them, and putting a smile on their faces when they land a trophy fish.

When and how did you first catch the fly-fishing bug?

Towards the tail end of my college career. There were definitely a few missed hooksets, flies in trees, and vulgarities echoing in the woods as I transitioned away from the drop-back, full-body bass hookset and into more technical, finesse techniques. My progression was pretty standard. Caught the tying bug; realized my freshwater fly skills didn’t mean much of anything in the salt; refined my game over the years by being humbled by some well-educated fish. Nowadays I spend my days trying to slow-strip a black and purple streamer in front of as many tarpon as I can, and my nights thinking about that roosterfish I missed in the surf this past summer.

              I’ve always prided myself on being able to fish across all disciplines and environments. To be able to effectively operate a driftboat out West, a bass boat on tournament day, or on the flats down south is not something a lot of people can do. That’s because effective tactics in one of those scenarios are often contradictory to the most appropriate for the next. That being said, everything is a tad more satisfying if landed on some feathers.

All-time favorite species to catch?

My preferred target changes by the season. But, if I had to choose one fish to chase for the rest of my life it would definitely be tarpon. The gamesmanship of tarpon angling is addicting. The level of detail and nuance required is insane, relative to how big those fish get.

          My love for tarpon is all based in respect. We’re so focused on what photos we get of our fish, that we don’t take enough time to soak up its details, and appreciate that the fish in your hands may have been on this planet twice as long as you. I hope we all can become a bit more responsible for our role in taking care of them and releasing them properly.

First destination you want to travel to once the world returns to normal?

Vamos a Baja! I spent a week in La Ribera in Baja, Mexico, this past year chasing roosterfish from the beach with captain Brandon Cyr, captain Jared Cyr, and captain Nick Labadie. It was arguably the most fun week of my short time on this planet. The full-body cardio workout you get while sprinting down the beach, throwing backhand casts with an 11-weight, straight into the crashing surf, is absolutely exhilarating. The first follow I had that week, from a little two-to three-pounder at most, shot my heart rate on my Garmin watch up to 138bpm. The experience was action-packed and I have wild memories—running from a pit bull on the beach in an ATV, catching snapper and mahi from the Sea of Cortez, and even having a lit-up striped marlin slashing at a giant Game Changer fly, while fishing offshore one day.

            I ended up landing the first roosterfish of the trip, but it was on spin during an offshore morning guide trip. I chased one pair of roosters about a half-mile nonstop on our second to last day, and on about the twentieth cast, the larger of the duo came right up into the surf-line, wedging her 15-to 20-pound body in about a foot of water, where she lightly mouthed my mullet fly, almost like a carp eat. I was so surprised that my brain and body went into overload and I missed the set. That little 10-second experience has replayed in my head for over a year now and will be the reason I book those flights as soon as the world has settled down.

Is there an angler who you view as a role model, or someone whom you most look up to in the sport?

When you travel around the world and back with people, you become extremely close very quickly. Captain Mike Holliday, out of Stuart, Florida, has been a great mentor to me in recent years, whether that meant tapping into his decades of knowledge as a premium inshore fishing guide, or as a role model for someone who has navigated our industry for decades. I’ve always been in awe of the fishing guides who seem to have a spiritual connection to their fishery—knowing where things will be, when they’ll be there, and exactly how they’ll act—the type  of guide who seems like they can call their shot on any given cast, while being extremely humble in their approach and respect for their fishery. (Holliday) has always been this way during our times on the water. I aspire to have the same respect from our industry as he does, in the marketing boardroom, through a conservation movement, and on the water. The world needs more authentic people who have a heart of gold, don’t wager their ego against their performance on the water, and always do the right thing.

Is there anything you’d like to share with younger anglers who might be interested in following in your footsteps?

There are a lot of wrong ways to try to make it in the fishing industry. Those wrong ways can be alluring—followers, likes, and pro-staff titles. As an upcoming marketer who makes his living around these topics, it may sound contradictory to critique them. The truth is, social media is a tool. Industry relationships are incredibly valuable, and having a large following can be insanely powerful. But just like any tool, how it’s used determines its value. I want to inspire the next generation of anglers to make smart “cool.” Let’s glorify anglers who inspire others through positivity, who promote conservation, and who truly practice what they preach. My favorite quote will always be, “It’s a long road to wisdom and a short road to being ignored.”

This lucky ingrate, in my salt-stained eyes, had landed the fish of a lifetime. I’d just returned from my first epic saltwater foray on the edge of a barrier reef, via Southwater Caye, Belize. We’d spent a week sight casting under azure skies and exploring flats, mangrove-lined lagoons, and the outer atolls of Lighthouse Reef. We burned evenings while huddled around a thatch-roofed shack, relating the day’s events, with palms swinging overhead in the breeze. An occasional ray, porpoise or tarpon stirred up bioluminescent algae in the bay. Permit had eluded me, which I rather expected, but what really stuck in my craw was a missed opportunity to catch a big barracuda on the fly. As I interrogated that fellow angler from my San Pedro barstool, he inquired quizzically. “Wow, you’re really interested in barracuda fishing?”

Barracuda often swim where there’s unique scenery, whether that’s a beautiful coral head, a remote sand flat, or an interested bystander.

              “Yes, sir, I am,” I said. “I’ve caught tarpon and bonefish on this trip and it has been awesome, but I have been shut out on barracuda. That is my primary goal, to catch one like yours.”

              As we yammered over a couple of chilled Belikins, his eyes lit up as he related details of the encounter. Turns out, his original, solemn report belied reality: He was ecstatic to catch that ‘cuda. Likely, some other lodge guests downplayed the experience, and filed that barracuda away as bycatch, meaning wasted time in their pursuit of a Grand Slam.

              That exchange happened 20 years ago. The fly-fishing court of opinion hadn’t accepted the lowly barracuda as a worthy quarry. Today, anglers posing with barracuda grace the covers of fishing magazines and fill up Instagram feeds. Rightfully so—this apex predator possesses all the admirable qualities of a premier fly-rod gamefish. For example, barracuda occur in beautiful, intriguing habitats and present sight-fishing opportunities, playing to the hunter in all of us. The take and ensuing fight from a ‘cuda is often spectacular and tackle testing. Barracuda have broken my rods, snapped fly lines, and left me quivering in the wake of heartbreak. Additionally, barracuda are a highly successful species and can be found in subtropical oceans worldwide.

             On February 14, 2013, Thomas Gibson, of Houston, Texas, caught a 102-pound barracuda while trolling for tarpon near the mouth of the Cuanza River in Angola. While Gibson’s chance encounter is typical of tangles with the largest barracuda, fly anglers looking to specifically target big beasts would do well to begin the hunt off the beaten path. Having the capability to access less-pressured flats, cuts, and reefs greatly improves your odds of hooking a granddaddy. Consider packing a standup paddleboard (SUP) on your next foray to the Yucatan, Belize, or the Bahamas. These days, SUPS are highly transportable and can be reduced to the size of a carry-on, complete with a sand spear/push pole combo to “park” the SUP on flats for a final pursuit on foot. Savvy anglers pack snorkel gear on their SUP for scouting reefs and drop-offs, where big barracuda tend to hang out between tides.

You can catch and eat barracuda but you better be careful if you do so. Some barracuda carry heavy toxins. Most anglers choose to release these unique predators.

             Barracuda are both scavenger and predator. While the biggest are often found around reef edges in deeper water, these same fish venture onto the flats to hunt, particularly on big tides and full moons. When a large barracuda is spotted on a bonefish flat, utilize the element of surprise by landing the fly ahead of and to the side of the fish. Once your fly hits the water, give it a hard yank to garner the fish’s attention. That’s when the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Strip fast to imitate fleeing prey, set with a hard strip, and do your best to clear the line ahead of a reel-screaming run.

             Easier said than done, as I learned on a recent foray to Exuma, Bahamas, when I stumbled upon pay dirt in the form of an inland lagoon. That crystalline pond belonged to a shadowy figure patrolling in a figure-eight pattern. Under a high sun, the skinny water warranted a cautious approach. I slinked into position behind the fish and fired a cast. That ‘cuda immediately took interest and carefully stalked the fly. I stripped frantically and it was like a switch flipped in that fish—all but my leader was in a heap near my feet when the speeding ‘cuda grabbed the fly. That fishes’ speed outpaced my attempt to clear the line and I knew I was doomed. A loop of line wrapped around my reel and with a loud “snap” the fish went skipping across the lagoon with my entire shooting head in tow, leaving me despondent, and a fly line poorer.

              To fish barracuda, you don’t need elaborate gear or flies. Yak-hair streamers, four-to eight-inches long and armed with a trailer hook, are my go-to flies. An 8, 9 or 10-weight rod and a floating line or intermediate sinking line cover the bases while fishing the flats and cuts. For a leader, I use a loop-to-loop connection with 40 or 50-pound fluorocarbon and an 18-inch piece of the heaviest wire I can get away with. I’ve had a big barracuda gnaw through 30-pound, so 40-pound is a safer bet. In areas where fish have not been pressured, I think single-strand stainless steel, like shark anglers rely on, might be the way to go.

Big ‘cuda stalk the flats, looking for needlefish and bones. Take the author’s advice and the next time you see one of these beasts, give it a throw—you’ll be amazed at how fast these fish travel over a flat, and you’ll be equally impressed by that backing tearing off your reel.

            Barracuda are unpredictable and a chance to cast at one can occur anytime, anywhere. The biggest barracuda I’ve ever hooked was on that trip to Exuma. We were en route to a flat one afternoon when the sight of terns bombing into the water interrupted our commute. Upon investigation, the feeding frenzy was composed of small jacks. When the mayhem subsided, a scavenging beast arrived to clean up the scraps.

            Fortunately, I had a 9-weight rod, pre-rigged with wire. To mimic a floundering sardina, I plucked a five-inch long, red and white articulated fly from the box and threw at the fish. Without hesitation, that ‘cuda ate. I held on for a couple blistering runs. Unfortunately, when I tried to swing that fish to the stern the wire broke and the fish swam away to the depths.

            I took solace in having hooked a big barracuda and enjoyed a wild ride. Barracuda are always on my brain and one day, I’m hoping the pendulum swings my way.

COVER & FEATURED PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAT FORD

My first serious exposure to flats fishing was in Key West back in 1971. I was stationed in the Navy and had a small center-console boat that wasn’t really designed for the flats, but it was too small to do much else. So I took it out on the flats and learned a lot about the movements of bonefish and permit.

That’s a face only a mother could love . . . unless you love fishing the flats for big bonefish. Miami’s Biscayne Bay used to provide the motherlode of big bones; today it offers only a few big bones and they are hard to find. Fortunately, the Bay’s permit fishing is very good.

              For example, I figured out that good numbers of bonefish would move onto the flats outside of the Barracuda Keys at the start of an incoming tide. I also learned that dead low at the Barracuda Keys occurred at the same time as dead high tide in Key West harbor. Bonefish were hard to come by in the Lower Keys, but afternoons found me wading the Barracuda flats as the tide began to trickle in. As the water level inched up, fins and tails would appear. There were some deeper gullies on those flats and the bones would push through ultra-shallow sections until they hit them. They’d swim down a gully till it ended, then hop back up into the shallow stuff. If you knew where to stand, it was like fishing a trout stream.

              Fast forward a few years and I was in Miami, a member of the Miami Beach Rod & Reel Club, and still pursuing bonefish on the flats. In the late 1970s and 1980s Biscayne Bay was one of the best places in the world to catch big bonefish. I had friends with flats boats and we would often go to the outside of Sands Key at dead low tide and wade along the shoreline, much like I did in Key West. The first thing I noticed was that the Miami bonefish were much larger than the Key West versions . . . they averaged eight pounds and a 10-pounder was not that uncommon. I really don’t recall ever catching one under five pounds. Captain Bill Curtis was my idol and mentor back in those days and we became lifelong friends.

If you’re looking for a big permit that’s willing to eat, Biscayne is the place to be. Local guides hunt these permit in channels leading into the flats.

             Curtis was fishing out of Key Biscayne and we would meet at Crandon Park Marina and run south till we hit Stiltsville. Curtis was not adverse to chumming with live shrimp because many of his customers were novices and/or wanted to catch their first bonefish on a fly. Curtis would find a white spot, anchor about 40 feet up-current, throw out a handful of chopped up fresh shrimp and wait. If a bonefish didn’t appear within 20 minutes, he moved. Curtis and I never did much chumming, but he always put me on bonefish. In fact, one day in the mid ‘80s I caught nine bonefish and three permit with Curtis . . . most of the bones were caught on fly gear, but the permit were on bait. We were into huge schools the entire day and never went south of Soldier Key. Back then the Bay was alive.

            Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and things changed. Suddenly there were very few bonefish from south of Stiltsville to just past Soldier Key. Nothing appeared to have changed on the flats; the bonefish just weren’t using them anymore. There were still big fish to be found, but not as many as there used to be, and they were elusive.

Heather Smith scored this nice bone in Biscayne Bay. This is an average size fish, certainly not the size that anglers recall from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

            Even so, in December 1997, while fishing with captain Rick Murphy, I caught a 15-pound bonefish on eight-pound spin gear and a 14-pound monster on a fly. Also that month, while fishing on my own boat, I landed a 27-pound permit on a fly. Naturally, that month used up all my flats mojo for the next few decades.

            And the Bay continued to change. We’d grown accustomed to seeing massive schools of bonefish during winter, but there were reports all along the coast of commercial fishermen mistaking those bones for mackerel and killing thousands at a time. There was no market for bonefish so the carcasses were simply dumped back in the water. A noted decrease in bonefish numbers was instant and appalling. Around 2000, captain Bob Branham told me that all the flats around Stiltsville were empty. Up until that time it was one of his “go to” spots. Now, only “secret” spots produced with any regularity, and he started seeing bones in deeper water than usual, mostly singles or doubles. A big school was now a pod of six-to 10 fish.

            By 2005, the huge bonefish schools on the oceanside of Elliot Key were gone. We wondered if those schools, which numbered between 100 and 500 fish, were a pre-spawn aggregation like you might see in the Bahamas. Netters couldn’t have killed them all, and netting had been quickly banned. But, still, you suddenly couldn’t find a school of 20 fish and those big schools still remain absent today.

Every angler’s dream—a happy Biscayne permit cruising for crabs.

             Shrimping in the Bay was also a concern. There was no commercial shrimping because most of the catch was too small to be profitable but recreational fishers used wingnets, aka surface trawls, to catch shrimp. This catch was so extensive that the Florida Wildlife Commission imposed a bunch of regulations, none of which did much good. By the time Curtis retired around 2000, he said the Bay’s remaining bonefish represented just 20 percent of the numbers he’d seen in the 1970s.

             On top of this, in 2010 south Florida experienced 10 days of temperatures in the low 40s. There were massive fish kills, especially snook, everywhere. There were reports of bonefish kills, too, especially on the west side of Biscayne Bay. I think that the bonefish close to the ocean simply moved out to deeper water as the temperature dropped, but the ones along the mainland coast couldn’t make it out in time. Branham said those bonefish didn’t come back to the west side of the Bay until 2019.

              Captain Carl Ball fishes the Bay on a daily basis. He too has noticed declines and said the areas that still produce bonefish on a regular basis are being hit so hard that they are beginning to feel the pressure—fewer fish and they’re getting harder to catch. Ball also points out that the turtle grass is dying at a rapid rate and being smothered or replaced by some form of algae that clings to the bottom. This has been especially apparent on the west side of the Bay. Back in the day, he recalls catching three-to four hefty bonefish a day. Now a guide feels triumphant if he gets his angler three-to four shots a day.

Captain Rick Murphy holding the author’s 14-pound bonefish, landed in Biscayne Bay in 1997.

            Basically, over the past three decades we’ve seen the numbers of bonefish decline steadily in an area that was once the most prolific big bonefish grounds in the world. The average size went from seven-to eight pounds, to five-to six pounds, to three-to four pounds, with periods when even getting a shot at a bonefish of any size became a big deal.

            But there are reasons to be very optimistic. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the numbers of bonefish decreased dramatically in Biscayne Bay. After Katrina and Wilma hit the Middle Keys, the bonefish numbers there dropped significantly. Then between 2008 and 2011, they simply disappeared. From that point on more and more anglers targeted Key West for bones and, fortunately, about five years ago people started finding them in numbers never seen before.

            In addition, today, bones are definitely coming back to the Islamorada area. Anglers are seeing large schools of smallish bones, which is very encouraging. The record-size bones that used to frequent areas like Shell Key are still few and far between, but the numbers of small bonefish are definitely on the rise.

            Will we see that same trend in Biscayne Bay? We can only hope that we’re just a few years behind Islamorada.

            While bonefishing in Biscayne has declined, its permit fishing is as good as it’s ever been. I fish regularly with Ball, the permit master. He has his “secret” spots where the permit always show up. They are huge and it’s pretty easy to get one on a crab. Most shots occur near the channels, meaning deeper water, and the fish eat. You’ll get more shots at permit on the fly down in Key West, but even there, you have to find one in “jack” mode, rather than permit mode, to get an eat.

            Biscayne Bay is still a world-class fishing destination for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and it’s worth a traveling angler’s effort any time they are in or near Miami. A trip with Branham last July sorta proves my point.

            It was cloudy and windy, far from ideal flats fishing weather, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that spotting a bonefish was going to be next to impossible. So we moved on to Branham’s permit spots.

Biscayne Bay doesn’t hold many fish like this anymore. But, you know, fishing is fishing—on any given cast you could end up with the fish of a lifetime, like Eric Herstedt is holding here.

            We were checking the edges of channels that snaked into the Bay from the ocean and eventually spotted a school of about a dozen permit. I flipped out a crab and it was immediately swallowed. Unfortunately, 20-knot winds put such a belly in the line that the permit spit the hook before I could come tight. When the clouds completely took over, we couldn’t see a thing. We found one more school of permit, but I blew the cast and they disappeared.

             Eventually, we moved onto Featherbed Bank to catch the incoming tide. The best permit fishing spots are all tide dependent and the trick is to know where to be on a specific tide. It wasn’t too long before Branham spotted a school of permit hovering around a white spot. I actually managed to see this bunch and sent a wind aided cast their way. The crab landed a bit behind them as they milled, but I felt a tug and hooked up. The fish didn’t look all that big, but its first run was impressive. I only had 10-pound leader so I could only hang on until it slowed down.

             We had been seeing a lot of sharks on Featherbed that day and I wanted to land this fish as quickly as possible. I worked it within 30 feet of the boat before we even got a look at it. My first impression was this: it didn’t have a black tail and it was long . . . maybe a barracuda. A few seconds later Branham said it was a huge bonefish. He jumped off the poling platform and frantically began digging his net out of the front hatch.

              I could see that it was a really big bonefish, and there were two seven-foot long lemon sharks hot on its tail. Branham got the net, and I horsed the bonefish over to it . . . about 10 feet ahead of the first shark. Branham scooped up the bone and the shark just about rammed the boat. Then a very strange thing happened—the sharks didn’t leave. They circled the boat, obviously waiting for us to release the bone. Branham dipped the fish-filled net back in the water to give the bone a drink and one of the sharks raced for the fish. Branham raised the net and the shark’s dorsal brushed the mesh as it passed. These sharks seemed programed to capitalize on an easy meal.

             There was no way this trophy bonefish was going to survive if we put it back in the water. Most flats skiffs now have extra large live wells, so Branham filled his and put the bonefish in it. These bait wells are like aquariums and very well oxygenated—our bonefish did just fine while we ran it a mile away onto a “sharkless” flat next to a channel leading to the ocean. We managed to snap a few photos before returning this magnificent creature to the water. Branham and I both agreed this guy was in the 12-pound-plus range . . . the biggest bonefish either of us had seen in many years. We hoped this was a sign of things to come.

Like everywhere, Biscayne Bay is not the same as it was 20 years ago. But the Bay remains an exceptional fishing destination. Tarpon are plentiful from February through July; permit are available year round; and the bonefish are coming back. If Biscayne Bay follows the same pattern as the Middle Keys, the bonefishing should improve each year. It’s still a pretty good backyard fishery for Miami anglers and guides, and it’s definitely worth hitting when you’re in town, whether looking for permit or possibly getting a shot at a really big bone.

The Skunk Leech is a slightly different take on the classic Green Butt Skunk, which was made popular by steelheaders in the Pacific Northwest. This fly is best fished on a sink-tip line in a traditional down-and-across swing. I always let this fly “dangle” a little longer at the end of my swing, as the soft materials it’s made of offer an enticing swimming action, even in a slight current. The Skunk Leech’s large profile and contrasting colors make it especially effective in higher, slightly stained water.

MATERIALS

HOOK: Partridge single salmon #2/0
EYES: Lead Eyes, white 1/24oz
THREAD: Uni thread black 6/0
TAIL: Red marabou
RIB: Silver mylar
BODY: Chartreuse Ice Dub/black Hareline Dubbin
COLLAR: Black hackle
THROAT: Black marabou
WING: White rabbit zonker
FLASH: Extra limp Flashabou holographic black

Step 1: Start with the hook right-side up in your vise. The fly will fish hook-point up, but the majority of the fly is easier to tie in this manner.

Step 2: Start your thread just before the bend in the hook and work forward, closing the return eye.

Step 3: Using a figure-eight pattern, tie in the lead eyes at the rear of the return eye. Make a few tight wraps around the base of the eyes to secure them in place.

Step 4: Select a full red marabou feather and pinch all the ends together by running your fingers up the stem.

Step 5: Tie in the marabou on top of the hook-shank, just before the bend, to create a tail about ¾” long.

Step 6: Cut off the excess at an angle tapered forward.

Step 7: Using wide thread wraps , lash the rest of the marabou to the shank to create a tapered body.

Step 8: Tie in a strand of silver mylar for the rib.

Step 9: Dub the body halfway forward with chartreuse Ice Dub.

Step 10: Wrap the mylar forward in evenly spaced turns—3 to 4 wraps—and trim away the tag.

Step 11: Tie in a black saddle hackle feather by the tip—try to find one with shortish, softer barbs.

Step 12: Wrap the hackle 6 to 8 times, keeping your wraps as close together as possible without overlapping.

Step 13: Tie in another piece of silver mylar for the second rib.

Step 14: Dub the rest of the shank with black Hareline Dubbing up to the eyes.

Step 15: Wrap the mylar forward in the same fashion as the first rib.

Step 16: Select another hackle feather similar to the first and tie it in by the tip, just behind the eyes.

Step 17: Again, make 6 to 8 close wraps with the hackle, just behind the eyes.

Step 18: Use a small amount of black dubbing, and dub around the eyes in a figure-eight to clean up the head.

Step 19: Turn the hook upside down in the vise.

Step 20: Select a fairly sparse black marabou feather and pinch the tips together.

Step 21: Tie the feather in on top of the shank so that the tips reach just past the hook point.

Step 22: Cut the end of a white zonker strip into a V. This creates a more natural taper to the tail.

Step 23: Pierce the point of the hook through the zonker strip about ½” from the V-cut in the end.

Step 24: Lay the zonker strip over top of the fly and tie it in just behind the eye of the hook. Don’t stretch the zonker strip too tight or it will be more likely to rip off the hook.

Step 25: Cut off the excess zonker strip and make a few more tight wraps to secure it.

Step 26: Tie in a full strand of black Flashabou on either side of the fly so they roughly line up with the tail.

Step 27: Double the strands over, creating a loop ahead of the fly, and tie the opposite end in. Same length only slightly higher on the sides of the fly.

Step 28: Cut the loops formed in the Flashabou and fold the ends back over the top of the fly. This creates 8 total strands of flash on the fly.

Step 29: Be sure to secure the Flashabou with a few tight wraps before cleaning up the head and whip finishing.

I even Googled “How To” and couldn’t find what I wanted. Nonetheless, I did receive materials and products suggestions, along with plenty of ideas on how to achieve the thickness and finish I was after. Still, I didn’t get any straight to the point suggestions, like, “Hey buddy, this is the product and the process I use to achieve the finish you’re looking for.”

             So I continued to scour the internet and paperback fly-tying books, hoping to find answers, or maybe even some step-by-step tying video. Nothing.

             You may be saying, “You’re trying to poach someone’s method and patterns.” But don’t judge me yet—I’m not someone who just started tying yesterday. I never wanted to be spoon-fed other people’s hard work. Instead, I armed myself with a handful of jigsaw pieces of information, purchased several different products, and tried to piece it all together. I experimented with multiple silicone brands and retardants, trying to break down the materials into a pourable and paintable consistency, while steering towards a low-fume mixture.

             It took some trials, but I finally found a suitable combination of products that are easy to find and mixed safely together. Now I needed to work a finishing technique to get the smooth, shiny finish I was after.

              A lot of people suggested dishwashing detergents, saliva, and Foto Flo solution. I found all three to work in some degree, but I still couldn’t get a finish I was happy with. In my attempts, the silicone was left with milky/cloudy streaks and a slightly uneven surface after I tried to smooth it out.

             Finally, I found a better way. By using a soft, flat-tipped paintbrush and mineral turpentine, I could gently smooth the silicone by brushing the mineral turps from the eye of the hook to the end of the silicone head. That process removed small bubbles and bumps in the curing mixture and allowed me to place the perfect fly in the rotary dryer until fully cured. No streaks. No bumps. No bubbles.

             I now use a three-step process to finish my flies. First I coat and let dry. I repeat that process and add eyes. Then I apply a final coat to secure the eyes and add strength to the body. Note: After each coat I brush with Turps to get the best finish possible.