Words and Photo by John Henry Boatright
As I paddled down the river with a huge grin on my face it finally hit me- the whole reason I had been enjoying the last few weeks of kayak fishing. It wasn’t the unseasonably warm winter, it wasn’t the joy of learning and trying new techniques, nor was it the hefty bucket mouth I had just sent back into the depths- it was the sounds. The sounds of fly fishing had enraptured me and calmed me.
I haven’t been fly fishing for long, but watching some friends out fish me with just a fly rod this winter has humbled me and opened me up to a whole new world. On days when bass were swallowing flies and avoiding other baits, I was missing a tool in my arsenal- and that’s what fly fishing can be. To me fly fishing has become no different than switching from a spinning reel to a baitcaster- it’s a different setup to present a different bait and it really isn’t all that hard to get started with kayak bass fly fishing. Let me, a beginner, help guide you through my headaches so you can jump on this boat a little quicker.
Keep the Setup Simple
For fishing amongst overhanging trees or stands of sunken trees, I’ve found that a fly rod between 7’6” and 9’ in length and a weight range of 3 wt. to 5 wt. is ideal. Smaller weight rods need to play the larger fish out longer but a 3 wt. is definitely capable of bringing in 10 lb. fish, so don’t fear it won’t have enough backbone to get the job done on a lunker. Don’t spend much on a reel. Entry level reels with a decent drag system can be found for less than $50. Besides that you’ll need some backing line (it seriously looks like some thin cotton string), some fly line (sinking vs. floating- I use floating, I’ll explain why later) and a leader and tippet setup (tippet is a tapering strand of line attached to the end of a leader and terminates with your fly).
My bass setup is even more simple than that actually. If I’m fishing water where I expect insane clarity (around here that can easily be greater than 10’) or smaller-mouthed fish I’ll fish with a tippet but for bass I tie my fly straight to 15# fluorocarbon leader.
So the setup I truly have enjoyed is a 7’6” 3 wt. I spooled backing and floating fly line and terminate in the 15# fluoro leader. Pro Tip: learn the Perfection Loop to change your leaders out easy! I generally use sinking flies and with a sinking leader setup, my floating fly line ends up sinking from the far end perfectly. With topwater and dry flies my fluoro leader setup isn’t enough to sink the floating fly line and the fly both, so I kind of have the best of both worlds. I can fish topwater/dry flies and sinking flies with ease and have the strength I normally would without terminating in a small diameter tippet.
Don’t Let Poor Form Keep You Off the Water
If I floated by you while fly fishing you’d think I was hailing in aircraft. I probably look like a uncoordinated oaf in a poorly choreographed ballet but I’ve caught some decent fish doing this dance. So don’t worry, you won’t look any less impressive than I do and I float through some intimidating water. Try floating the Guadalupe River in the Canyon Lake tailrace, the southernmost year-round trout fishery in the US, and home to, what I’ve heard, is the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the United States. Suffice it to say, there are stretches of river lined with fly fishermen in a gorgeous presentation of nymphs and midges- and then there is me, clamoring my way through with a cheap setup and a huge bass fly casting to cover. I’m sure I’ve drawn some chuckles.
Trust me, as you get more proficient and start to develop muscle memory, you’ll want to learn to cast a tighter ‘loop’ and then you can worry about form. Don’t let poor form keep you from adding another ace to your hand.
1. If you’re going to fish a sinking fly or setup I’d recommend not letting that fly get deeper than your rod tip + arm can reach. If you get snagged it’s harder to get un-snagged at this depth. Don’t strip or sink that hook in.
2. If you do get snagged, strip your line through your guides until your rod tip touches the fly. Push back against the hook and you might have to wiggle a little bit, but it’s a surefire way to get your fly back. 99% of the time once you pull on the fly from the opposite direction as it was snagged, it will come free.
3. Use a strip to set your hook, not your rod. A combo of both tends to be what I reflexively use, but be heavy on the strip action as it imparts greater force to the line than the fly rod. When fishing for smaller and more sensitive mouthed fish like trout or sunfish use a rod lift, but larger, harder-mouthed fish like redfish and bass need a good strip set.
4. Keep your rod pulling away from the fish and use the side-to-side fighting technique, pulling the direction of their tail. If the fish runs right, pull your rod to your left side so he has to fight the rod, not you.
5. Once hooked, allow the line to strip between your fingers but with pressure enough to impart resistance. Once your line is stripped and the fish starts pulling drag off your reel, use the drag in a conventional manner to tire the fish out, but always be prepared to start stripping line (or reeling) to keep pressure applied when the fish turns or tires out.
6. Turn the head away from cover quickly, then worry about getting your kayak in a better position. With less resistance to run, the early head turn can mean the difference in fighting the bass or fighting the tree she wrapped around. If you’re fishing a fighter setup like me you’ll actually feel yourself pull her head away from the bank as you reach the full potential of your rod.
I hope these simple tips will inspire you to grab your fly rod more often or to simply purchase a beginner setup. Fly fishing really is another tool in your toolbox and a great way to get fish to bite when they’re used to presentations with less finesse and much more noise.