Have you learned any new tactics for the river worth mentioning? Last year I started skating and waking flies in tailwater and from time to time had great success, and it’s fun to try something new when a drag-free drift just isn’t getting it done. Do you have anything special you’re busting out on the bass and catfish this winter? – Chad Eslin
Why yes, I do. It’s not new for me, but in winter, I throw a lot of small shad darts off my fly rod. Though the shad and catfish don’t make the scene much this time of year (the shad are anadromous, and the catfish sit on the bottom until it gets warmer), the bass will still come out and play if you fish the right conditions, and will hit darts without conscience when they’re not wintering. I experiment with different types, but my money pattern – and I’m not kidding – is Wal-Mart issue Leland darts with pink and white heads, and chartreuse tails. Which of course, aren’t flies at all, earning me a fair amount of ridicule from snobbier fishing mates. Many of whom, I’ve noticed, don’t fish during the winter, because they can’t catch much of anything. This is one of the many reasons why I prefer fishing solo. When I fish alone, I don’t have to argue fishing theory, I can just catch fish. Of course, the same mates will throw a dumbbell-eyed Clouser without thinking twice, which is often made from the same material – lead and bucktail. So I’m basically getting reprimanded on a technicality.
The truth is, both are essentially jigs, and a small dart often casts more smoothly than even a size 8 Clouser. In spots with limited casting room, it tends to get down fast without having to switch to sink-tip line. And because the hook eye sits atop the dart, rather than on the nose, such as on any traditional streamer, you can make it drop more sharply than a Clouser between strips on the retrieve (many bass like to hit on the drop). I also catch a fair amount of fish high-sticking it as though I’m nymphing. Even slow-blooded winter fish occasionally panic when they think they see a meal getting away by ascending upwards through the water column, and will hit out of insecurity. (Fish Psychology 101). I have overcome many a fruitless session on the water by switching out conventional flies, and throwing small darts. If you’re going to throw larger, heavier darts, you’re better off giving up the charade, and just breaking out your spinning rod or baitcaster, or else it will turn into a chuck’n’duck session, and you might end up wearing an unwanted earring.
You can call it cheating if you’d like. I call it “fishing.” All fishing is about deception, from the fish’s standpoint. So why be a snob about how you trick them? Artificials are artificials. It’s not like you’re live lining bluegill in front of them. While fly fishermen are truly some of my favorite people, they can also be the fussiest and most intolerant. (I am guilty of this myself, somewhat, since I refuse to pick up a spinning rod anymore, unless I’m fishing with my kids, and helping them). But the music answer above addressed whether you want to listen to good music, or to just feel pure about it. Ultimately, the same applies to fishing. At some point, you have to face facts about why you’re standing in arctic water, with icicles coming out of your nose. It’s not because you want to enforce some imaginary rulebook. It’s because you want to catch fish. That said, I will not throw bloodworms or Senkos off my fly rod. It’s fine to break the fishing commandments, on occasion. But you’re still going to have face your Maker one day.
Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now out in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.