Fly Trolling for Muskies
May 07, 2014
A trolled fly stays in the water, providing an almost infinite opportunity to trigger that tank pushing a wake along behind it. Not that a flyrod can't perform a figure-eight. Actually, the long rod makes it easy, but sometimes muskies hit the tip of the fly rod, which almost has to stay submerged to keep the fly down in the "eight zone."
A trolled fly sweeps upward on the outside of a turn. Depending on the construction, it may pause and hover on the inside of a turn. If made with bucktail, it might rise toward the surface. A different mix of materials might make it rise slowly. A weighted fly sinks. The rate of sink depends on the amount of weight in the design and, again, the materials used to construct the fly.
No wonder the inside rod seems to get all the business. When the forward progress of a fly is paused, it "puffs," like a bucktail or "bou-tail" spinner. When the boat turns the other way or finally straightens your line, the fly constricts like muscle and darts forward. As mentioned, bucktails and spinnerbaits with various types of skirts do something similar. But those lures can't hover, can't undulate head to tail, and can't pop upward on the pause, like a fly.
A fly is more of a living thing from one end to the other than conventional lures. And, like slaying dragons with a willow branch, fly-fishing for muskies is a bit of a challenge — two reasons why it might be growing faster in popularity than almost any other aspect of fishing right now. One thing that isn't all that popular, however, is trolling for muskies with flies. Which might be one reason why it can be so effective.
Fly Trolling 101
The allure of fly-fishing, after all, is learning to propel a relatively weightless lure with some measure of aplomb by artfully wielding a flyline overhead. It requires skill, and once such skill is acquired, people want to use it. Trolling, meanwhile, is viewed as the antithesis of angling skill by the fly-fishing community. We could debate the topic for days, but why? It endured for decades without us. Trolling is the art of controlling presentation with a boat in current, waves, and wind, but trolling with a fly is a different animal — a hybrid that demands some of the skill of both disciplines.
But it's still not popular. Chris Willen is a fly-fishing muskie guide from northern Wisconsin. Mentioned in Robert Tomes book, Muskie on the Fly, Willen admits trolling a fly is something he rarely does. "We troll flies a little bit," he says. "It's never something we do all day, just when moving from spot-to-spot. But we do catch a few when trolling with our drift boats. Muskies sometimes grab the fly when we stop rowing."
Trolling flies for Atlantic salmon in Quebec, pike in the Northwest Territories, and brown trout on Lake Michigan demonstrated some real advantages to me. A floating flyline suspends a fly in the shallowest habitat imaginable. A properly dressed floating line stays on top all day. Few things are more efficient than a properly-designed fly pulled on a floating line.
Bucktail flies, beveled bucktail diving heads, and flies with floating heads built in, stay up high, over the weeds even at speeds of 3 mph. The floating line allows only the leader — the last 6 to 12 feet of the rig — to submerge. I typically troll with the end of the flyline in my hand, so the fly is 80 to 90 feet out, where direction, speed, and location are easy to affect.
With a 10-foot, 9- to 10-weight flyrod, throwing slack into the line to allow a buoyant fly time to rise above the vegetation is easy. Fly tackle enables a lot of tricks that standard tackle can't duplicate. Like throwing a huge mend in the line to take out a bow after executing a turn with the boat. The fly instantly changes direction, creating another trigger.
Mending with a floating line is easy. A mend, commonly used on moving water, is necessary when current creates a bow in the line. The bow or loop is thrown upstream so the line is no longer overspeeding the fly and pulling it up, out of the zone. To achieve a mend, the rod tip is pointed down and at the bow, lifted quickly to lift the line into the air. Then the rod tip is looped in the direction you want to throw the mend.
I often mend in conjunction with stripping a fly, working it like a jerkbait over vegetation while trolling at speeds of about 2 mph. The flyrod is always in hand, so the fly can be stripped, pumped, and twitched while trolling. Buoyant flies with beveled heads create a slow-motion version of classic jerkbait triggering. With the rod tip pointed at the fly, two to three feet of line is quickly drawn in, speeding the fly. Let a little line slip out of the guides to let the fly float up, then grab it, perform a quick mend, and strip the fly again. This creates a kind of walk-the-dog action with the right fly. More importantly, it sets hooks, as muskies tend to hit when the fly is rising on the pause.
One dynamic fly around vegetation is a Dahlberg Diver, or a longer, lighter version with a synthetic tail like Mickey's Bucktail Diver, tied by Mississippi River guide Mickey Johnson, author of Fly Fisher's Guide to Minnesota. It dives into weeds, pops back up, and dives again while the swimming tail puffs and contracts. With a quick mend, it changes direction on each dive. It can be snaked over some of the thickest beds imaginable without hanging up.
Johnson doesn't troll his Bucktail Diver, however. "I cast over vegetated areas and let it sit, like a big popper, to see if anything reacts," Johnson says. "Then I start stripping. As the fly dives it drags air bubbles under. A Bucktail Diver carries a lot of bubbles, so I let it get back to the surface, working it like a lazy jerkbait. It pops back out of the weeds with that buoyancy. Muskies often hit when it's rising. They see the diving motion and by the time they get there, it's rising again. Sometimes you visually cast to muskies so you see it happen. And some are holding among the stalks."
Another advantage of trolling muskie flies with a floating line is the ability to get right into or over dense cabbage and coontail beds to fish them from the inside out. Willen opines that muskies rarely see conventional lures being worked toward vegetation. "I weave around right in the middle of the densest beds I can find," he says. "I don't think many muskies see lures moving in that direction. It's a lot harder to do it with conventional tackle. If I'm not moving fish any other way, I go into the dense beds and cast back out over the deep edges. When you don't see muskies out and about, they tend to be buried — especially early in the season."
Yet another advantage of trolling a fly is the relative ease of setting the hook. A single, super-sharp, 1/0 to 6/0 hook penetrates with far less force applied than a treble. A single hook engages fewer weeds and rips free easier when it does hang up.
Ripping free of weeds is another trigger. Muskies turn and cruise over to inspect the commotion. The greatest advantage? Once they see a fly, they're more likely to inhale it than almost anything else, because they see so few of them. Sweep the rod to the side while stripping with a quick downward jerk to set hooks.
But wait — there's more: When you spot a muskie off to the side of the boat, you can stop, strip, lift the line, and immediately put a fly right in front of it. Sight-hunting — or aggressive sight-fishing — when muskies concentrate shallow is effective, highly efficient, and massively fun.
Fly-tying experts who hunt muskies around vegetation use materials that make flies efficient in that medium. Janie Harpster, owner of Janie's Flies, makes a muskie fly with an inverted popper head called the Snake. "It's very good in pencil reeds and pads," Harpster says. "But it's a great fly for inspiring muskies to come up out of any kind of dense weeds. The Snake is basically an elongated, reversed popper head that hangs on the surface with a 6-inch bunny tail. A weedguard is less efficient than a bulky head that deflects. The popper head sheds reeds, pads, and cabbage stalks. It's fantastic for finessing around the edges of heavy cover, but you have to work it slowly to get the most out of it. The tail snakes back and forth, and the bunny hair undulates and swims better at slow speeds."
Eli Berant, owner of Great Lakes Fly, has been fishing muskies with a flyrod and tying flies for Lake St. Clair muskies since 2009. Like Harpster, he likes the way a reversed popper head sifts through weeds. "We use a driftsock and just cover water," Berant says. "We actively work flies across the tops and along the sides of huge weedbeds. The B1G Foosa and the Optimus Slime are my favorites around weeds. I designed them to fall slowly on a 350- to 450-grain full sinking line. I reversed a foam popper head and put it in the middle of Optimus Slime and it walks the dog under water. On the B1G Foosa, I tie in the popper head an inch from the nose and it bunny-hops under water.
"These flies almost never hang up," Berant says. "The tails are synthetic yak hair. I tie in long saddle feathers, some bucktail, and a little raccoon hair in the head of the Foosa. The raccoon hair grabs water, giving it traction. It has a unique footprint under water. Bucktail keeps weeds from the hook. You can't even see the big 6/0 spinnerbait hook I construct these flies with."
Berant uses 9- and 10-weight flyrods to walk the dog with sinking line. "I'm doing a jerk strip — jerking both the rod and the line at the same time to give it a real snap, which brings the nose down and to the side, then it shoots in the direction it's pointing. It pulls straight on the first snap. But on the pause the back end rises, the nose goes down and turns, and whatever side it leans to, that's where the fly goes. Usually, with a little slack, it rolls back in the opposite direction of each glide."
Willen loves the Foosa. "Flies are glide baits," he says. "The B1G Foosa is awesome. It's such a cool fly around weeds because it stays up, even with a sinking line. That bass-popper body kicks like crazy. It turns as it rises and it's just super cool. Around thick vegetation you're limited with conventional gear, but you can rip the Foosa or fish slow, or stop-and-go, and muskies come up out of heavy vegetation and rip into 'em."
Willen uses the double-handed strip when casting around vegetation. "Striped bass anglers developed the method of tucking the reel and rod handle into an arm pit and stripping with both hands," Willen said. "It's a great technique for an epoxy cone-head made with UV resin presented with a sinking line because it adds the dimension of speed to everything else you have going for you with a fly. I put glitter in the resin while building the head. It adds flash. A lot of people think it's a waste of time with muskies, but I think it helps. If they're on, it's true — it doesn't matter."
Willen uses flies from 2 to 15 inches long. "In lakes, I like a bigger fly, for sure," he said. "We're competing with guys chucking Pounders and you need a substantial meal. In rivers we get away with substantially smaller flies. I don't use weedguards around vegetation, either. Bucktail bodies can shed weeds, but hooking a stalk or two is never a bad thing. Causing a disturbance in the weeds triggers strikes."
Larry Mann, owner of Hayward Fly Company and a veteran muskie guide, uses flies that imitate frogs and tadpoles around weeds in the rivers of Wisconsin. "We encounter weeds and it's the bane of our existence," Mann says. "Some years the weeds are bank-to-bank with a little open path down the middle for our drift boats. We work the openings and edges with imitations of things they expect to eat. Muskies find big tadpoles that eventually become big frogs there. In spring, tadpoles move through the plant stalks and pads. Later, the minnow bite is on and you have to imitate something that inhabits the vegetation, like a bluegill or perch.
"We don't use weedless flies," Mann adds. "We cut the weedguard off because it's a fish guard. It's hard enough to set the hook. They will not eat a fly with a weed on it in our experience, but pockets in vegetation mats are muskie ambush spots. It could be 1- x 6-foot opening or a 6- x 6-foot hole. That's where the fish are." I would add that a trolled fly stays in the water longer at the right distance to trigger.
Why are so many 'ski heads buying 9-foot bucktail rods? To create deeper figure-8s. A 9-foot, 9-weight flyrod accomplishes the same thing, creating more room for wider turns. But an exquisitely designed trolling fly triggers more fish out there away from the boat. Food for thought, food for toothies.
EP Fibers & the New Muskie Fly
Creative use of fly materials creates lures precisely tailored to any kind of cover, water color, temperature, or forage base. But the benefits don't' stop there. Master fly tier Enrico Puglisi developed a material he calls the EP Fiber that is tough, translucent, holds profile, and can be tightly curled into what Puglisi calls SE (Scale Effect). It's a perfect material for big predators because it's light.
"Natural materials absorb water," Puglisi says. "Synthetics remain light and easy to throw. Using three synthetics, like EP or SE, with our new 3D Minnow fibers and any other synthetic, creates different, lifelike action at various stages of the movement of the fly. It moves like nothing else. For muskies, 7- to 8-inch lengths are plenty, but a 12-inch EP bunker fly remains easy to throw all day."
A bunker fly is a great choice for weed muskies, Puglisi adds, because the oversized head sheds stalks from the hook. "Big flies for muskies have become extremely popular in the past few years," he adds. "Fly-fishing for muskies is big business." So, with new synthetic materials like Puglisi's EP fibers being developed all the time, we're likely to see even more beautiful pike and muskie tools in the near future.