The sport of Fly Fishing has been on the rise since 1992 when the Robert Redford film epic, “A River Runs Through It”, captivated viewers with scenes of beautiful flowing Western rivers, and Brad Pitt “Shadow Casting” a dry fly on a bamboo rod with his brother and father. Fishing scenes of the Maclean brothers were so alluring to the audience that there was a sort of industrial boom in the pastime. Like a Black Friday sale, anglers rushed to L.L. Bean and Orvis to be outfitted for a trout fishing adventure of their own. Amusingly enough, most anglers of this “Big Fly Boom” neglected the rivers and creeks in their backyard to pursue trout in the nearby mountains or, most often, on that “Once-In-A-Lifetime” trip out West to follow the footsteps of Norman Maclean.
For anglers in the Southeast, like myself, I believed fly fishing was solely meant for trout. I knew of a few folks growing up who ventured down to the coast to fly fish for saltwater gamefish on occasion too, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I heard of anyone fly fishing for bass and other warmwater species. I can attest, now that I’ve tried it, I’ll never go back!
There are so many opportunities to fly fish for warmwater species. A simple Google Earth search will allow you to view the drainage system closest to your home. Most tributaries drain to a reservoir or larger river. If the downstream larger bodies of water are well known for good fishing, these tributaries will provide good opportunities too. In southern waters, seek out trout rivers and creeks that are closed for the summer season. Those same rivers and creeks will provide great warmwater opportunities when the warmer weather and water temperatures arrive. These rivers and streams allow for access via boat, raft, canoe or wading. Most often the adventures require a good mix of floating and wading, so be sure to pack a waterside lunch!
Warmwater River Species:
My favorite aspect of fly fishing for warmwater species in rivers is the variety. Southeastern rivers boast a wide family of inhabitants. Be it smallmouth bass, redeye bass, largemouth bass, striped bass, white bass, sunfish, chain pickerel, carp, gar and bowfin, to name a few. The best time to target these species is between the months of March and August, when water temperatures rise above 65 degrees.
Fishing Warmwater Rivers and Creeks:
Most of these species will spawn in the late spring. They move from deeper water holds into the shallows as the temperature warms. Once the water temperature reaches above 75-80 degrees, these fish move into deeper cooler pockets of water, but will move to the shallows in the mornings and evenings when the surface temperature cools. Study the substrate of the rivers and creeks. If the floor is rocky, target fish in eddies, fast current runs, drop offs and points. If the floor is sandy and has submerged trees, target the structure. Look for overhangs, submerged cover, shallow flats and drop offs.
Rod, Reel and Line:
The gear needed for warmwater fishing can be a basic trout setup. I use 5 – 8 weight rods mostly for bass and panfish and might increase to a 9 or 10 weight rod if targeting larger striped bass in fast moving rivers. The fly reel can be basic, featuring a simple drag system and 100 to 150 yards of backing. I recommend a large arbor, just to allow for quicker line pick-up. When fishing warm water, fly line is most important. For floating lines, a large headed weight forward line will ease the casting of large poppers and streamers that are fished in the upper water column. Floating lines can also be used in conjunction with weighted streamers, like crawfish flies and large aquatic insects, to create a jigging effect while stripping. When fishing streamers a sinking line works the best. The options of an intermediate, sink tip, or multi-density full sink line should be determined based on the water depth and the river’s flow. In swift current and when fishing swimming style streamers, I recommend a triple-density sinking line. These fly lines sink quickly, and are narrow in diameter, making them un-affected by the water’s current.
It’s important to have flies that cover the full depth of water, as when fishing warm water, the conditions can change throughout the day. Topwater and surface flies work best in the mornings and evenings, or on overcast days. Use unweighted streamers on full sinking lines and weighted streamers on floating lines or intermediate and sink tips.
- For topwater flies I recommend poppers or hoppers in natural colors or chartreuse. Utilize materials like deer hair and foam that can be fished all day and can take a beating. The flies will be bounced off tree limbs, rocks, as well as be smacked by fishes’ mouths. Hard body flies have great action but can crack and become waterlogged.
- For unweighted or light-weighted streamers I recommend baitfish patterns in olive and yellow or brown and white. Use black and purple if the water is stained or turbid. Utilize flowy materials like craft fur and marabou. These materials pulse and move in the water as they are stripped. Articulated patterns are also good to use, the key is movement.
- For heavy-weighted streamers I recommend crawfish and hellgrammite patterns in natural colors, chartreuse, tan and black. Utilize rubber legs for these flies, as they will give off a lot of motion. The more weight to the front of the hook the better. Jigging these flies through runs and over structure can elicit strikes from even the most pretentious fish.
Useful Tips & Tricks:
Fluorocarbon vs. Monofilament
- Simply put, mono floats – fluoro sinks. Consider this when selecting leader and tippet material, as it will affect the motion for the fly in the water. Mono is great for topwater but use fluoro for sinking flies.
- Large flies like streamers and poppers tend to spin when cast. A micro swivel tied between the leader and tippet material will help keep the fly from twisting the leader and creating a weak point. It will also provide a better presentation. Use these swivels between your leader and tippet.
- The Blood Knot: When tying leaders from two different tippet materials always use a blood knot. For large diameter tippets like 40 or 50 lb, only three twists are needed. For smaller diameters use four or five twists. When clenching the twists together, try to wet the knot with saliva or water.
- The Loop Knot: For streamers and other swimming flies, utilize a loop knot. This will allow the fly to have more mobility on the leader and thus in the water. Loop knots are less restrictive of the fly. I think the mono loop knot is the simplest, but there are several different styles.
Leader and Tippets for Times of Year
- Spring and Fall – Heavier Leaders and Tippet
- Summer – Light Leader and Tippet
- Low water – Very Light Tippet
Hand Tied Leaders: The 20 – 40 Rule
- There are many different types of leaders that you can buy in the packs, but if you want to tie your own, follow the 20-40 rule. This simple all-purpose leader consists of 3 feet of 40 lb and 3 feet of 20 lb. As a topwater leader use monofilament, for streamers use fluorocarbon. Add a micro swivel in between the tippets for streamers as well. I like to pre-tie a few before a trip so I can just switch them out as I go.
As the spring weather begins to arrive, I hope you find this information useful, and you plan some opportunities to go fly fish for warmwater species in your local rivers and creeks. Pack your sunscreen and bug spray, and watch out for snakes!