I get it. Trout are the species inextricably linked to flyfishing. I can’t tell anyone that I flyfish without them asking, “Where do you do that?” See I live on the high plains of southeastern South Dakota. The nearest coldwater stream is a 4 hour drive away and even those don’t see much action, considering they are marginal at best. Yet I fish here, in my own back yard.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve taught myself how to flyfish. Around here there are few, if any, serious fly fisherman and in 5 years I’ve met only two on the water. I had no choice but to teach myself. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve read the books and solicited advice from everyone from the Roughfisher to Capt. Tuck Scott of Baystreet Outfitters. That said, basically it has been me, alone on the water…warm water… trying to figure this game out. It’s been a fantastic journey and I still have a long way to go. That being said, I felt compelled to put together a piece with some of the various species of fish I have targeted and caught. The descriptions of how I catch them are not all encompassing and are surely not enough to get you into fish. They should, however, illustrate that there are a bunch of highly underutilized species out there and that you don’t have to live in British Columbia to get on empty water and catch all kinds of fish.
I had to start here. The Common Carp. These are the most versatile and rewarding fish I’ve found and about as fun to catch as any out there. I have caught them tailing like Bonefish or Redfish, clooping (rising) to small caddis flies like Brook Trout, busting bait at the surface like Bluefish and quietly nymphing deep runs like Brown Trout. I fish carp with a 7wt because, as my saltwater fishing guide friend said on a recent trip up here to catch them, “I didn’t know there were freshwater fish that strong”. A 15 pound carp (not uncommon even on small water) will test the breaking strength of your rod.
Carp will eventually drive you insane. While you are correct in assuming that they “eat anything” that doesn’t work as well as you think when it comes to catching them. They do feed on a wide variety of organisms, but they won’t eat anything you throw at them. Once they are keyed into a certain food source, they won’t take anything else. Additionally, their vision and barbules can make them difficult to fool with a fly. I have read everything from “they have great vision including infrared vision”, to their eyesight is poor. The best source I know tells me that they, in fact have poor eyesight. (Anytime a blog tells you fish have supernatural abilities.. be cautious). Either way, a recent Orvis podcast described them as being as difficult to make eat as a Permit. Whether that’s because of vision or smell or something else, it does give it some perspective. They have highly advanced lateral lines and move in shoals that serve as warning systems. Couple that with an ear drum that is connected to their swim bladder for amplification and they are as spooky as it gets. Lastly, like all minnow species, a Carp gives off a warning pheromone in the water alerting his fellow fish of danger. So, be VERY subtle in both approach and handling.
Another fish species that I find particularly fun are White Suckers. These are very discerning fish that (obviously) feed on the bottom. One of the things I am learning is that bottom feeder doesn’t mean head down and actually only eating things that are stuck to the bottom. It just means that they look for their food sources on the bottom. That is to say, I have frequently caught white suckers higher in the water column… but they wanted nymphs.
This is a male in full spawn colors. I saw him working the tailout of a nice pool. As he scurried back and forth across the tailout, right where the water speed picks up, he was in a perfect spot to feed on nymphs being washed downstream. Dead drifting a small Prince Nymph to him 3 times wouldn’t draw a strike. I finally figured out that he was eating off the bottom and let my fly rise at the end of my drift. THAT he liked.
This gorgeous creature is a Bigmouth Buffalo. The coloration on these fish is second to none. If trout are beautiful like rainbows then Buffalo are beautiful like a Grateful Dead poster under a black light. A pretty common species of fish; buffalo can be found, but they are not easily caught. While I have managed to get a couple of them to eat woolly buggers, they seem to prefer nymphs.
They are VERY selective to fly pattern, particularly size, and almost always require a good drift. The take will be subtle but the rest of the fight won’t be.
This one was caught on a weighted Hares Ear nymph in about 12 inches of water. He had worked himself up into really skinny water, where he controlled one side of the current as it split around a small island. That is to say, he found a place that only he could fit and that funneled food right too him. We should all be so lucky.
Another species that I have come to enjoy fishing for very much is the Freshwater Drum. The distinct shape and color of these fish make catching them a real treat. While this photo does a poor job of giving the subtle coloration it’s due (as all fish pictures do), drum manage to fade from a deep iridescent purple all the way to a reflective gold.
They fight well, using their flat bodies to plane hard in the water and use current to their advantage.
Drum are hard to sight cast to in the dirty water we get around here. I have had luck finding them busting bait at the surface and tailing in very skinny water. Usually I can find them flashing as they slash food under the water. Your best bet for these predators are woolly buggers, small clouser minnows and little crayfish patterns. I usually find them working rocky areas or stands of weeds. Anywhere a fish could reasonably expect to find catchable minnows and crayfish.
This strange looking fish is called a Mooneye. These are probably the best fish in warm water that I have come across, for traditional fly fishing. They look like a slab of chrome, with large scales and oversized eyes. The mouth is upturned and the eyes are positioned near the very top of the head. This design should tell you all you need to know. The big eyes located on the top and the upturned mouth…it’s a surface feeder. Nearly every evening I can find Mooneye (and their cousin Goldeye which look identical but for the yellow eyes) rising to whatever hatch may be occurring. The take is rather splashy and hooking up can be really tough because their mouths are very hard and they have a mouthful of teeth.
I have found catching Mooneye to be an absolute BLAST. In fact, a couple of friends of mine came here all the way from South Carolina to fish carp. However, when the sun would start to set and the fish would rise, we found ourselves putting away our thundersticks and taking out our 5 weights to throw dryflies to rising Mooneye. I have found them to be selective to both size and color of fly. Fishing a sparkle dun to Mooneye that are rising to dark caddis will not draw a strike. That said, these fish have gone their whole lives without seeing a fly, so they don’t exactly grade your fly tying.
I have caught way more catfish that you would expect on the flyrod. You know what they are and have seen them before, so I will spare you the description. I have found and sight cast to catfish in the past. Sometimes they can be seen cruising near the surface and a well placed fly out in front of them can draw a strike. I also watch closely for bait fish leaping out of the water. That can indicate a cruising fish of some kind below them and many times thats a very large catfish. They aren’t picky eaters but I do think it’s important to throw something rather meaty at them. Remember, they aren’t going to charge a fly.
My best luck has been dead drifting leech patterns, woolly buggers, crayfish patterns and very slowly retrieved bait fish patterns through rocky or sheltered water with a current. The takes will simply stop your fly. Don’t be afraid to set up on them…getting a good strong set can really increase your chances of landing a cat.
The Mighty Quillback. This is one of the most challenging fish to fool I have ever come across. Built for discerning feeding on the bottom, the position of the mouth and eyes give them the ability to be very selective in what fly they eat. That and I’m not totally convinced that the tippet doesn’t get in the way often-times when they try to take a fly.
These unique fish are golden and silver with large scales. Their name comes from the extra long front portion of the dorsal fin. The front spine is something like twice as long at the rest of the fin, sticking up like… well… a quill. As you can see, this particular fish is wearing blue eyeshadow… so I think it’s a female. Or maybe a … oh never mind.
Quillback can be found working skinny water along the edges of currents and deeper pools where they can find relief from the water flow. I often spot them initially by the flash, but can usually keep an eye on them once I’ve found them. Small nymphs dead drifted are the only way I have ever been able to get a strike. It takes a good fly (matching the hatch is almost a must) a VERY good drift and some luck to get into a Quillback. I like to use a 5 weight rod and 6x tippet, for the delicate cast, presentation and drift, not to mention the tiny flies that are required.
I don’t think I have ever gone out LOOKING for gar. That said, once I have found them I will cast to them…until i get bored.
There is a reason these fish tend to bore me. They will hit about anything that moves… they have long beaks made of bone, meaning it’s VERY hard to hook up, and the same fish will take the same fly over and over and over.
I catch both Longnose and Shortnose gar with regularity. These fish are aptly described as prehistoric and I guess I can’t find a better word for it myself. They look odd… that is all. Rather drab in coloration, there is no needing to understand subtleties of colors in order to identify these fish. You can’t mistake them. They do, however have some interesting spot patterns on the tail. The scales are VERY hard, making them feel almost like a shell and if you run your hand along the fish against the scales they will cut you. I mean REALLY cut you. The beaks (that is honestly what their mouths are called) are made of bone and full of razor sharp teeth. The best fly patterns have lots of buck tail in them. Bucktail can tangle in the teeth when you can’t hook them. In fact, using frayed rope and no hook is a frequent technique in catch gar. When I do hook up, the hook usually actually enters from the outside of the bottom of the beak.
You can find gar holding in current in large schools or cruising the shallows looking for meat to sink their teeth into. Gar have an air bladder that doubles as a primitive lung and they can frequently be seen gulping air on the surface (they are NOT eating while doing this). Throw something that looks like a bait fish in front of them and have a ball. Remember, you won’t hook up alot, and you WILL ruin flies. You will also have a good time.
Well…there you have it. Eight species of roughfish that can be targeted with a flyrod in warm water… ANYWHERE. You don’t need world class fisheries, gold medal streams or plane tickets to Belize to give you anything you could ask for from the sport of flyfishing. And this is just part 1!! Next installment, gamefish. Lucky you!