How Stuff Works: Fly Boxes

I’m a bit of an oddball. This is not exactly breaking news for most folks who know me.  But to paraphrase John Gierach, “If, from time to time, people don’t walk away from you shaking their head… You’re doing something wrong.”  I could certainly dedicate an entire article, or even a book, to my oddball qualities, but for this article, I am referring to one specific oddball quality.  I fish and guide with a set-up that combines a pack and fly boxes all in one contraption. You’ve seen it.  It’s my chest fly box, custom built by the Richardson Chest Fly Box Company in Pennsylvania.  It’s awesome and I love it.

Chest Fly Box

So, that makes it a little more challenging for me to give advice on individual fly boxes.  But I have over the years used about every kind of box and pack known to man.  And along the way I have learned a few things that may be helpful to you when purchasing or organizing your flies.  At the least, it might get you thinking about it.  And who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll come to your senses and buy a Richardson!

While chest fly boxes like mine are more common in the Northeast, they are hardly common.  Most folks go a different route.  They have a variety of different fly boxes that they stuff in a vest, hip pack, chest pack, sling bag, or some other carryall.  No matter how you decide to carry them, fly boxes are essential organizational tools in our sport and it helps to know a few things about them.

Medium Box with Foam

They come in a number of different sizes, from large, briefcase size boxes for boats to ultra slim boxes not much bigger than a smartphone.  When choosing a fly box size, you have to consider how many flies you need to carry, how you’re going to carry them, how big the flies are, and how you want to organize them.  For instance, a big, briefcase size box may hold every fly you have but it won’t be very portable when wading creeks.  Or a small, ultra slim box might be convenient to slip in a pocket, but if you plan to store bass bugs in it, you’ll only be able to carry a couple and you won’t be able to close the lid.

In addition, you’ll have to consider how you want to organize your flies within your box. There are countless options for securing your flies from slot foam, flat foam, and nubby foam to compartments, clips, and magnets.  Some boxes might even have a combination of both, with a type of foam on one side of the box and compartments on the other.  Certainly personal preference plays a big role in you box interior of choice, but there are practical matters to consider as well.

Compartment Box

Compartments tend to lend themselves well to beefier patterns, or large quantities of the same fly. For instance, if you fish a lot of Pheasant Tails and carry a lot of them with you, it’s far easier to dump them all into one compartment rather than trying to line up three dozen Pheasant Tails across multiple rows of foam.  I find foam more useful when I am trying to organize a lot of different patterns but small quantities of each.  It’s easier to see what I have.

Ultra Thin Magnetic Compartments

The type of fly may also determine the best way to store it.  Thin foam or magnetic boxes can be great for midges and nymphs but can crush the hackles on many dry flies.  On the other hand, trying to carry midges in deep compartments can not only be a waste of space, it can be difficult to grasp them with your fingers when removing them from the box.

Finally, when you’re on the stream, you don’t want to spend your time hunting for flies or digging through your pack for fly boxes.  Try to have a designated area of your pack or vest for boxes rather than burying them under a rain jacket somewhere.  And if you carry five fly boxes on the stream, try to make them five different, or at least different looking, fly boxes.  This will save you all kinds of time when trying to locate a specific box of flies.

How Stuff Works: Fly Rods

This should probably go without saying, but the fly rod is the tool used to cast the line when fly fishing.  It is also used to manipulate line on the water after the cast, to set the hook on a fish (usually), and to fight the fish after hooking it.  It is certainly one of the most important pieces of your equipment and likely the piece of equipment in which you’ll invest the most money.  So, what do you need to consider before making this investment?  The three most important characteristics of a fly rod are its length, its line weight designation, and its action.

Fly Rod Length
While there are specialty sizes on either end, most common fly rods are going to range from 7’ to 10’ in length.  Longer rods aid in keeping the line higher off the water which can be helpful when trying to achieve longer casts or when trying to cast from a lower position, like sitting in a float tube or canoe.  Longer rods are also helpful when trying to reach to keep line off of faster currents.  If you’re planning to regularly fish from a float tube or canoe, fish open areas like wide rivers or lakes, or fish a lot of pocket water on medium to large mountain streams, you may want to consider a 9’ to 10’ rod.

Shorter rods are most beneficial in small, brushy streams where a longer rod will be hard to maneuver. If you’re planning to spend most of your time on tiny tributaries and backcountry “blue lines,” you may want to consider a rod in the 7’ to 8’ range.

Line Weight
The next thing to consider is the line weight.  Each rod is given a line weight designation like a 5-weight or a 9-weight.  That just indicates what size line it is designed to cast and you typically want to match that to the fly line size.  For instance, a 5-weight line will properly load a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best in most situations.  Using an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod would over-load it, resulting in an awkward, “clunky” cast.  Using a 3-weight line on a 5-weight rod wouldn’t load it enough, resulting in little line control and a significant compromise in accuracy and distance.

When you’re choosing the line weight of a rod, you want to consider what you will be fishing for. For trout, you are commonly using a 3 to 5-weight.  For largemouth bass, you might use a 7 to 9-weight.  The difference has little, if anything, to do with the size of the fish. A largemouth won’t snap a 3-weight rod. It’s more about the necessary fly sizes and the required presentations.

For trout, we are most often fishing with smaller flies on a dead drift.  Lighter lines allow for a more delicate presentation and create less drag.  On the other hand, when fishing for bass, we are often trying to “punch” flies into tight areas and quickly pull fish out of areas with a lot of woody structure.  And we are typically using larger, heavier, wind-resistant flies.  Often, there is simply not enough weight in a 4-weight line to effectively “turnover” a larger bass bug.  Rather than the line carrying the fly on a level plane during the cast, the fly travels below the line, often catching the rod tip or worse, the back of your head!

When you get into saltwater species and some large freshwater species like salmon, you may be choosing a particular rod and line weight because of the size of the fish more than the size of the fly.  Yes, a 13-weight helps to cast bigger flies to tarpon, but mostly you need that size rod because its larger butt section will be necessary to fight a 150 pound fish!

The other thing that can necessitate a rod with a heavier line weight is wind.  Saltwater species like bonefish, snook, redfish, etc. often aren’t particularly big and they don’t demand unusually large flies, but you encounter a lot of wind around the coast.  In the American West, you tend to encounter more wind and may consequently want a 6-weight rod for trout.  The accompanying chart lists appropriate rod/line weights for common game fish.

Compromise
So, you really need to consider what you’ll be fishing for and where you’ll be fishing to determine the best rod length and weight for your needs.  In this part of the country, most people want to fish for bass and bluegill in streams, ponds and lakes, and they want to fish for trout in the mountains and tailwaters.  But if you’re just getting into the sport, you probably don’t want to rush out and buy four different fly rod outfits.  Fortunately, there is a middle ground.

If you’re the person described in the paragraph above, your ideal rod lengths might range from 7’ to 10’ and your ideal line weights might range from 4 to 7-weight.  While it is impossible to get one rod that is perfect for everything, you can sometimes get one rod that is good enough for a lot of things.  An 8 ½’ rod would be long enough to get by on bigger water and short enough to manage on smaller streams.  A 5-weight would be light enough for trout fishing, ideal for bluegill, and adequate for bass fishing if you scale down your fly size.

Later, if you get really interested in bass fishing, maybe you add a 9’ 8-weight to your arsenal. Or if hiking into small brook trout streams becomes your thing, maybe you add a 7 ½’ 3-weight.  You can certainly get by with one rod, but the more diverse your locations and species become, the more necessary it will be to have multiple rod sizes.

Fly Rod Action
Once you’ve narrowed down the rod size, it’s time to consider the action of the rod.  Rods will typically be described as slow, medium, or fast.  A slow action rod feels softer and more “noodly” because it flexes closer to the butt of the rod.  A fast action fly rod will feel stiffer because it flexes closer to the tip of the rod. And as you might guess, a medium action rod sort of falls in between, flexing more in the middle of the rod.

Fast action rods are capable of generating more line speed and, in the right hands, more easily achieving greater casting distance.  With their stiffer butt sections, they also tend to have more “backbone” when it comes to apply pressure when fighting fish.  Most fly rods that are 7-weight or heavier will only be available in a fast action.

Slow action rods are more delicate in their delivery of the line and are more ideal for softer presentations.  You tend to feel the fish more on a slow action rod and because it flexes much deeper in the rod, it is capable of better protecting very light tippets. Most rods in the 1 to 3-weight range are slower action rods.  Typically, rods in the 4 to 6 weight range are available in a number of different actions.

Your own personal casting style will also be a factor in the best rod action for you.  People with a more aggressive casting stroke tend to favor a fast action rod.  People with a more relaxed casting stroke tend to favor a slow action rod. Experienced fly casters can pretty easily adjust their casting stroke to the rod.  If you’re new to fly fishing, you may not have enough experience to even know your preference.  In that case, it’s usually safest to stick to the middle and go with a medium action rod.

Fly Rod Material and Price
In the old days, fly rods were made from bamboo and their price depended on things like who made them and whether or not they were mass-produced.  Some of the rods made by certain independent makers are extremely valuable today.  Most of the bamboo rods that were mass-produced by larger companies have little value.  Bamboo rods that are made today are mostly made by independent makers and have price tags in excess of $1000 largely because of the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into making them.

Today, bamboo rods definitely still have a following much like classic cars have a following.  When compared to more “modern” materials, they tend to be a little heavier and almost every bamboo rod will fall into the slow action category.  I wouldn’t recommend them to a beginner looking for a rod to get into the sport but for the more seasoned fly fishing enthusiast, they sure are cool!

Fiberglass replaced bamboo in the 50’s as the most common material for fly rods.  It was lightweight, and after the trade embargo with China (where rod makers got their bamboo), it was far more available and cheaper to produce.  Fiberglass rods have seen a recent return in popularity because of their soft, unique action (slow).  Many large rod manufacturers are currently offering select models of fiberglass rods built with more modern components.

Most rods today are made from carbon fiber (graphite) and that has been the case for probably forty years.  Carbon fiber is strong and much lighter than fiberglass or bamboo.  It can be made in a number of different actions and it can be made in multiple pieces while still maintaining that action.

Bamboo rods, for instance, had/have metal ferrules (joints).  To make a four-piece bamboo rod results not only in a lot of added weight, but “dead spots” at each of those joints.  Carbon fiber rods have carbon fiber joints, allowing for a multi-piece rod that is still light and still maintains its action.  Most carbon fiber rods today break down to four sections, allowing for easy storage and travel.  Some break down into as many as seven pieces!

Today’s carbon fiber rods are priced all over the place.  Some are mass-produced overseas using less expensive components (guides, reel seat, etc.) and can be found for well under $100.  American made rods tend to start around $200.  When you bump up to about $400, you’re getting a higher modulus graphite that will feel lighter and crisper – you’ll notice a difference. When you get into the real high-end stuff ($500-$1200), you are getting more technology as well as higher-end components, but most beginner to intermediate fly casters won’t be able to tell the difference.

Keep in mind that many of the things that influence the price of the rod won’t have anything to do with how it casts.  For example, a mid to high end rod might have some exotic, $150 piece of wood used for the reel seat, while an entry level rod might use a $30 piece of walnut.  One might use titanium for the guides while another might use stainless steel.

In other words, if you have the disposable income and want to spend $1200 on a rod, have at it. Just don’t expect it to necessarily cast better or catch more fish!  Buy the best rod you can afford.  There are some great rods in the $100 – $300 range, many with an unconditional guarantee. That’s right.  Some of the major rod manufacturers provide an unconditional guarantee (or variation) on their rods.  Orvis, for instance, offers a 25-year guarantee on all but one series of their rods.  No matter how it breaks, they’ll fix it or replace it for 25 years!  To me, it’s worth spending a little more to get a rod with a good warranty.

The bottom line is once you narrow down what size rod you need and what your budget is, it begins to boil down to personal preference.  If you decide that an 8 ½’ 5-weight is what you need and you’re willing and able to spend up to $400 on it, go to the fly shop and cast every 8 ½’ 5-weight rod under $400 that they have.  Any fly shop worth their salt will have a place for you to cast a rod and will gladly let you cast as many as you’d like.  And when you do, one of them will just feel right.

How Stuff Works: Tippet Rings

Over the last few years, tippet rings have been gaining more and more popularity and acceptance.  Most new fly fishermen love them.  Most traditionalists hate them.  What are they?

In case you’re new to the sport, lets start with a quick overview of leaders.  The leader is simply the monofilament connection between the the heavier fly line and the actual fly. Typically 7 1/2′ to 12′ in total length, leaders are tapered from a thick butt section that attaches to the fly line to a finer tippet section that attaches to the fly.  Check out this link for more detailed info on leaders and tippet.

As you change flies (or lose them in trees), your tippet gets gradually shorter until it is no longer the proper length, or worse, you’ve cut it away to the point that you’re in the thicker part of the leader.  In this situation, you would cut a length of tippet from the appropriate size spool of tippet material, tie it to the existing leader, and ultimately rebuild your leader back to its original length and size.

Though tying the knot to splice the new piece of tippet back to the leader is not very complicated with a little practice, many anglers struggle with it, or don’t want to take the time to learn it.  For these fishermen, the tippet ring is like an answered prayer!

Varying sizes of tippet rings

Tippet rings are very small metal rings, available in a few different sizes, that simplify this splice.  You tie it to the end of your leader using whatever knot you prefer for tying on a fly.  Then you tie a piece of tippet to the ring using that same knot.  You could also tie a second piece of tippet off the ring to add a second fly for a dropper rig.  So, all of your frequent connections can be made using the same knot.

Multiple tippet rings are stored on a clip and for convenience, are often threaded and attached before removing from the clip

This is one of the biggest benefits to using tippet rings.  It just simplifies the process, particularly for someone who may not fish frequently and may have trouble remembering or executing various knots.  Another benefit is that they can greatly prolong the life of your overall leader since your always replacing tippet off the ring and not cutting part of your leader away every time you change tippet.

Of course, there are also down sides – at least in my opinion.  First, I don’t think it makes as strong of a connection as when you splice using more traditional Surgeons or Blood Knots.  This may not make much difference on smaller fish, but I believe you have a much better chance of breaking off a big fish if you’re using a tippet ring.  Second, the tippet ring creates a “dead spot” in the leader which can negatively impact you in a couple of ways.

One way is with straight line nymphing.  This technique is commonly used in mountain streams and requires a certain amount of feel.  With that tippet ring creating a dead spot between leader and tippet, I believe you’re more likely to miss some of the more subtle takes of a trout.  That dead spot also can create problems with accuracy.

One of the main functions of a tapered leader is to transfer energy during a cast.  It’s what helps prevent things like hard splash downs or tippet pile-up on a cast.  When you put a tippet ring in the middle of all of that, the dead spot created can act almost like a short in an electrical current.  The energy doesn’t transfer smoothly from the taper of the leader to the tippet and can create a hinging effect – resulting in a significant loss of accuracy.

Like most things, you have to consider the kind of fishing you do and how important things like feel or accuracy are to you.  For me, they’re pretty important.  For others, they may take a backseat to convenience.  And that’s okay!  Figure out your system and roll with it!

How Stuff Works: Waders

October is the time of year I start wearing waders again in the mountains. For much of the year, usually from May through October, water temperatures are comfortable enough to wet wade, wearing only the wading boots and neoprene socks. But in winter, early spring, and late fall (or any time of year on tailwaters), you better have a decent set of waders if you want to stay comfortable on the stream.

Stockingfoot Chest Waders

In the 30 years or so that I have been fly fishing, I can’t think of any fly fishing product that has improved as much as waders. Early on, your only choices for wader materials were canvas, rubber/plastic, and neoprene. All three of these materials were pretty heavy and pretty warm. And any time you were doing anything active, like hiking or just climbing around on rocks, these things would sweat you to death. Even with less active fishing, like standing in a tailwater, these materials would roast you on a warm day.

Waders made of breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex started showing up in the mid 90’s and are now the standard. Early breathable models were not terribly durable and were prone to leaking but today’s models are not only comfortable, but when properly cared for, can withstand years of heavy use. If you’re in the market for a pair of breathable waders, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Stockingfoot Hippers

First, there are a few different styles of breathable waders. Chest high waders provide coverage all the way up to your chest. Pant waders provide coverage to your waist. And hippers provide coverage to the upper part of your thigh. When wading small mountain streams, you rarely stand in water much above the knee so hippers will handle most situations. But it seems that when wearing hippers, there is always that one deeper pool of water that you have to cross to get to the other side of the stream. It’s the same thing with tailwaters. Since you rarely wade much over the thigh in tailwaters, pant waders would be adequate most of the time but there always seems to be that one deeper spot…

I don’t like my gear to determine where I can and can’t go when fishing. For that reason, I stick with chest waders to handle all situations. Of course, if the water is too deep for my chest waders, I shouldn’t be trying to wade it anyway! And on warmer days, I can always roll the bib down on my chest high waders, essentially converting them into waist highs.

One thing to consider with breathable waders (or any loose fitting wader) is the possibility of falling in deep water. Particularly with chest high waders, this is a safety concern because the waders could fill with water and essentially drag you down. Wearing a belt around the outside of the wader will create an air pocket to prevent this from happening. Pretty much any chest wader sold today will come with a belt. Wear it!

Another big difference in waders is whether they have a boot foot or stocking foot. Boot foot waders have a boot attached to the wader. They’re convenient because you can just slip the waders on and you’re ready to go. However, this is typically just a loose fitting rubber boot. They are heavy and clumsy, and they provide very little in the way of ankle support. If you’re standing still most of the day, these will probably be adequate. But in places like the Smokies where you’re moving a lot from spot to spot, usually over very uneven terrain, you will hate these. You’ll be compromising comfort and safety.

Neoprene Stocking Feet

I prefer stocking foot waders. These have a neoprene foot to provide a little insulation on your feet. You wear a separate pair of wading boots over this neoprene boot. Going this route allows you to wear a lighter, form fitting boot that you lace up just like a hiking boot, providing far more comfort and ankle support when walking on uneven terrain. Additionally, you can wear the boot without the wader in warmer months when you may choose to wet wade. I’ll talk more specifically about wading boots in a future article.

If you’re fishing in colder weather, it is important to remember that breathable waders are designed to keep you dry but, other than the neoprene foot, provide very little in the way of insulation. You will want to layer accordingly under the wader based on your weather conditions. Just keep in mind that breathable waders are only as breathable as the fabric beneath them, so synthetic fabrics like fleece or nylon are recommended over something like denim. Find tips on dressing for cold weather in the “Winter Fishing” article on my web site.

Finally, there is the pesky little issue of price. Breathable waders are certainly not cheap. You can get a really good pair of waders for under $200 and you can spend upwards of $600. All of them will keep you dry. More expensive waders will sometimes be more durable with extra reinforcement in high wear areas like the seat and knees. Mostly though, you’re paying for extra features like pockets or zippered fronts that may be handy but not necessarily critical.

The life of any wader can be extended or shortened by how you care for them. Other than avoiding obvious things like walking through briar patches, try not to walk around in your stocking foot waders without the boots on. Either be prepared to step right into the boot when you put your waders on or carry a mat to stand on when getting dressed. Hang them up to dry after each trip and don’t store them folded. Clean them periodically according to the care label and from time to time, consider applying a coating of DWR.

How Stuff Works: Wading Boots and the Great Felt Debate

When I first got into fly fishing, I didn’t have any money. At that age, you simply had to get what you could get when you could get it, and that often meant holding out until birthday or Christmas. I had a cheap rod and reel outfit and a box of flies. My fishing “vest” was my uncle’s old Marines shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bellows pockets on the front were plenty big to hold my one fly box and any other accessories. And I had a pair of fingernail clippers, Trim brand, hung around my neck on a piece of fly line. My wading gear consisted of cutoff Duckhead shorts and an old pair of Asics running shoes.

My First Pair of “Wading Boots”

I slowly started to accumulate better gear but it wasn’t until much later that I even considered buying actual wading gear. On the smallmouth streams of central Kentucky where I cut my teeth, it just wasn’t necessary. And when I did eventually start fishing the 50-degree tailwaters for trout, I guess I was just too young and full of testosterone to notice the cold. That changed when I waded the Cumberland River tailwater one rainy November day and somehow narrowly avoided hypothermia. On the top of my list the following Christmas was a pair of neoprene waders and rubber soled wading boots – I didn’t know much about felt soles and thought the rubber soled boots would be more durable.

A Bad Step

In the mostly cobble-bottomed tailwaters where I was fishing, the rubber soles were adequate and all was right in my fly fishing world… until I went to the Smokies. That first trip to the Smokies provided me with countless views of the sky as I spent nearly every moment on my back. I’d get up, takes a step, then slip again. Seems that even
A Bad Step the best of waders don’t keep you dry when they’re full of water! It didn’t help that my first Smokies trip was to Abrams Creek, possibly the slickest stream on the planet, but it definitely made me begin to question my choice in wading gear.

I soon replaced the rubber-soled boots with felt, and eventually began wearing breathable waders when they hit the market. And I quickly realized why countless fly fishermen chose felt soles and had been doing so for decades. They are vastly superior to rubber when it comes to providing traction on slick, rocky stream bottoms. As a matter of fact, at the time, major fly fishing companies like Orvis didn’t even offer a rubber sole option in their catalog.

Felt Sole Boots

Fast forward about 30 years and look at an Orvis catalog, web site, etc. and you’ll find almost all rubber sole wading boots with only one or two felt alternatives. Why the change? The spread of exotic organisms from stream to stream.

While there are a number of different ways these exotics can be spread, many scientists pointed to felt soles as a big culprit and one that could be controlled. It sparked a movement where some
Felt Soled Boots popular fly fishing destinations added boot cleaning stations at select river access points, a few states went as far as banning felt boots, and fly fishing companies began aggressively looking for alternative bottoms to their boots.

The result has been a variety of different tread designs, all created on a Vibram rubber sole or variation thereof. Some companies, like Simms, even went so far as to discontinue production of felt sole boots entirely, while most manufacturers chose to offer both. After a short time, likely due to a significant dip in sales, Simms returned a couple of felt sole options to their product line. The problem was, despite companies’ claims that these new soles were as good as felt, many fishermen didn’t agree. In fact, some fishermen in “felt ban states” even took the whole, “I’ll quit
Typical Vibram Soles wearing felt boots when they pry them from my cold, dead feet” approach!

Typical Vibram Sole

To be fair, all of these new rubber sole designs are quite different and way better than those rubber sole boots I had 30 years ago, and they’re light years better than an old pair of running shoes. They even offer some real traction advantages to felt when it comes to trail use and scrambling up and down banks. But the fact is, they are nowhere near as good as felt when it comes to providing traction on a slick streambed. I suppose you could just call that an opinion but I like to think it’s based on more than just preference as I routinely field test many of these new boots. As part of my field-testing, I will spend some days on the water wearing the rubber sole on one foot and a felt sole on the other. Time and time again, the rubber sole slips in places where the felt does not.

Vibram Rubber with Studs

An alternative is to wear rubber soles with studs. This is probably the closest thing I’ve found to felt as far as traction on the stream bottom goes. However, these have a real tendency to slide and slip on dry rocks, posing another safety risk if you do a lot of rock hopping on smaller streams like we have in the Smokies. The other downside to studs is that they are noisy. That’s probably not a big deal on a larger, deeper, swift river, but if you’re trying to sneak up on a pool in a smaller, shallower headwater
Vibram Rubber Soles with Studs stream, you’re going to spook a lot more fish.

So, we’re kind of left with this whole responsibility vs. practicality debate. Most younger and/or newer fly fishermen are readily going with the rubber designs – some probably because they’re the current, cool thing, and others probably because they don’t know any better. They’ve never worn felt so have no basis for comparison. It’s the guys that have been around (like me) that are the problem. For us, trendy new designs aren’t nearly as important as staying upright!

Okay, maybe trendy designs aren’t that important to me, but being a responsible fisherman is, and that’s where it gets tricky. As an environmentalist, I take it very seriously. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the spread of exotic organisms, but again, I do want to stay upright. As someone who wades creeks every single day, I need to be as sure-footed as possible not only for my own safety, but sometimes for the safety of my clients. Fortunately, with a little planning and/or extra effort, you can wear felt soles responsibly.

The biggest issue with felt is that it dries slowly. So, if you pick up some weird organism in one river system and go to another totally different river system the next day, you could transport that organism with you because it can stay alive in that wet felt. As soon as the soles dry, any organism you pick up will likely die, so for a lot of fishermen who are fishing no more than once a week, those soles have plenty of time to dry. Even so, it’s a good idea to clean them to be safe.

For someone like me, who is on the water every day, my soles almost never completely dry until the end of the season. But I don’t worry too much about it because I am constantly going to the same “system” of streams. I’d be picking up something in Little River and transferring it back to Little River! When it is a concern for me is when I’m going to be in the Smokies on Tuesday, the Clinch River tailwater on Wednesday, and back to the Smokies on Thursday. Then I run the risk of transferring something from the Clinch to the Smokies.

My solution for this is multiple pairs of boots. I have one pair of studded rubber boots for tailwaters and another pair of felt soles for the mountains. But if you don’t want to purchase two pairs of boots, you want to own felt soles, and you might want to fish the Clinch one day and the Smokies the next, cleaning your boots in between trips is a must. Many experts will tell you that if you’re fishing multiple river systems in consecutive days as described above, thorough cleaning is the surest way to prevent the spread of exotics, even with rubber sole boots. So it’s just a good habit to get into.

Again, some popular areas actually have cleaning stations for this purpose – there is one at Little River Outfitters in Townsend that’s accessible whether the store is open or not. Or if you’re going to clean them at home, thoroughly hose the boots off with water and soak them for about 10 minutes in a solution of about 5% bleach and hot water. I’d also recommend scrubbing the soles with a wire or stiff bristled brush. Then rinse one more time with the hose.

Korker Boot with Interchangeable Soles

If you’re planning a multi-day fishing trip somewhere and will be fishing numerous river systems, just throw your soak bin, brush and solution in the car and you’ll be ready to go. If you’re going to a state where felt is banned, you can certainly wear felt and take your chances with the law, but that’s a pretty big risk. Yellowstone National Park just implemented a felt ban and the
Korkers Boots with Interchangeable Soles penalty can be up to 6 months in jail and a $5000 fine. All of a sudden, the cost of a second pair of wading boots doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Again, that’s the solution that works best for me. Or you might consider one of the Korker boot models that have interchangeable soles. You can quickly change from felt soles to rubber soles on the same boot.

As with everything I write, this is just one man’s opinion with a few facts mixed in here and there. Find a legal and responsible system that works for you. If you currently wear rubber soles and like them, by all means stick with them. If you mostly fish streams with a more cobble type bottom (like many tailwaters), you’ll probably be happy with rubber. For freestone mountain streams with larger, more slippery rocks, felt is tough to beat and continues to be my preference.

However, I am keeping an open mind and continually looking for that next great felt alternative. Technology and design for felt-alternative boots is getting better every year and I hope to personally be able to make the switch soon.

How Stuff Works: Stripping Baskets

Plastic Stripping Basket

When you’re doing any type of fly fishing that involves stripping in great amounts of line after each cast, keeping that slack line under control can be a challenge. In streams and rivers, it’s usually not too big of a problem because the line will usually rest neatly in the water by your side. In a boat that is not equipped with some sort of stripping deck, it can be a little bit of a problem as your line wants to snag and tangle on absolutely everything in the boat. The biggest challenge is surf fishing because the constant rushing approach and retreat of the tide repeatedly wraps this slack line around your legs.

Mesh Stripping Basket

Stripping baskets are designed to solve this problem. I’ve seen larger, freestanding stripping baskets used in boats. But the most common stripping baskets are smaller and are worn around your waste. After you cast and you’re retrieving line, you simply strip and feed the line into the basket. They are basically just a bin with a series of upright “posts.” The posts help prevent the line from tangling inside the basket. There are also baskets made of mesh, but many note that these are often not durable.

Stripping baskets are pretty simple devices that have been around for decades, and they can be purchased from most fly fishing suppliers. If you don’t want to fork over $40-$90 for a plastic tub on a belt, you can also make your own. I did and it works great.

Start with a hard plastic bin like you find in the storage sections at Wal-mart, Home Depot, etc. It should be approximately 16”x 11” and about 5 or 6” deep. You’re also going to need a drill, a sander, some zip ties, wire cutters, and a bungee cord. The bungee cord will be used to secure the bin around your waist, so the length needed will be dependent on your size. You want it to be tight enough to keep the bin from falling off you but not so tight that it’s digging the bin into you.

Bottom View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Begin by drilling approximately ten 3/32” holes in the bottom of the bin near the edges. These will serve as drain holes for your stripping basket to keep water from accumulating inside. Next drill nine 3/32” holes spread equally in the middle of the bin. And drill another nine 3/32” holes right next to the ones you just drilled. These will serve as attachment points for your zip ties (the zip ties will act as the “posts” inside the box that help keep your line from tangling). Finally, drill two larger, approximately 3/16” holes (big enough to accept the hooks on your bungee) on the front of the bin, one near each top corner. This is where your bungee cord will attach. With light sand paper, smooth the front and back of each hole you drilled.

Interior View of Homemade Stripping Basket

Next, attach nine 4” zip ties through the “double holes” you created in the bottom of the bin, allowing the end of the zip tie to point upward into the interior of the bin. With your wire cutters, snip the tips off each zip tie so that you’re left with a 2” post that stands at an approximate right angle from the base of the bin. Hook one end of the bungee into one of the larger front holes. Bring the bungee around your waist and hook the other end into the second hole. I actually use two shorter bungees because I think it’s easier to attach and detach. You’re ready to go fishing!

Where you position the basket is a matter of preference. I typically see them positioned on the front of the body, but I prefer to wear mine closer to my left hip so I can feed line into the basket with a more natural stripping motion. I always use it when surf fishing and very frequently when I’m fishing from the canoe.

How Stuff Works: Strike Indicators

There seems to be few things in the fly fishing world that provoke as much debate as strike indicators. The mere existence of strike indicators in the sport of fly fishing can inspire rants from fly fishing purists that rival any political rant of that friend you just hid from your Facebook feed. But even among the firmly pro indicator crowd, nymphers will argue fiercely about the superiority of one type of indicator over another.

For newbies to the sport, a strike indicator is something that is often used while fishing with nymphs (sub surface flies). It is a brightly colored, floating object that is affixed to the leader intended to give the fisherman a visual indication when the fish hits his submerged fly, or nymph. Since the nymph usually can’t be seen under the water, and since it is usually fished with a slack line to achieve a dead drift, the strike can be difficult to detect without the visual aid of a strike indicator. Strike indicators can also be helpful in making sure the nymph is drifting properly (without drag) and at the desired depth.

The obvious question usually arises when hearing this description, “Isn’t that just a bobber?” Pardon the bobber pun, but that opens a whole other can of worms. There are a number of fly fishermen who will stop just short of taking a swing at you if you call a strike indicator a bobber. I assume this animosity stems from the association of bobbers with bait fishermen and fishing live bait; and fly fishermen don’t like to think anything they do might resemble bait fishing. So they call them strike indicators. The truth is that while strike indicators are typically smaller, lighter, and made from different materials than bobbers, they pretty much accomplish the same thing.

I use the term strike indicator because I think there is enough of a difference to specify, kind of like I don’t refer to a hamburger as a sandwich. It’s just different enough. But I won’t be offended if you call a hamburger a sandwich and it won’t offend me if you call a strike indicator a bobber!

Getting re-focused specifically on strike indicators, there are a lot of different kinds, and that’s what I want to focus on here. As mentioned before, most fly fishermen have their favorites, and a lot about selecting strike indicators will boil down to

personal preference. I personally don’t think there is such a thing as the perfect strike indicator. They all have pros and cons and I use different ones for different situations. Often I don’t use one at all, but that’s a topic for another article. Below is a list of some of the more common or popular strike indicators with a description of how they work and some of their strengths and weaknesses.

Hard Toothpick Indicators: These are usually made of cork, or balsa, or something similar. They are typically round or oval with a hole drilled in the center. The leader/tippet is inserted through the hole and the indicator may be moved to any position on the leader. Once the desired position is determined, the provided “toothpick” is inserted into the hole to hold the indicator in place.

These are great because they are buoyant, highly visible, reusable, and can easily be adjusted up and down the line to set the nymph at different depths. However, they tend to make more disturbance when they land on the water and can spook more skittish fish. Additionally, their mass makes them difficult to cast when placed on the tippet portion of the leader for shallow nymphing, though smaller ones can be purchased. They are best for deep to mid-depth nymphing and for quick and easy depth adjustment.

Hard Rubber Band Indicators: These are typically oval in shape and made from the same materials as the hard toothpick type indicators. Instead of having a hole and a toothpick, they have a slit that contains athick rubber band. The leader is inserted into the slit and the indicator is then rotated, allowing the rubber band to twist around the leader to hold the indicator in place.

They have pretty much the same pros and cons as the toothpick indicators. One additional advantage is they can be added or removed while the fly is still attached. However, they have a tendency to kink the leader when twisted on, and they come off the line more easily than other indicators when casting.

Thingamabobber

Balloon Style Indicators: The best known versions of these are the Thingamabobber and Air Lock. These are basically small, plastic balloons. They float great, are highly visible, and can be easily adjusted. They are particularly good if you need an indicator that will suspend larger, heavier flies. The Thingamaboober attaches by looping the leader through a hole and around the indicator. The Air Lock has a slot in the base where the leader is inserted and a separate piece that screws on to hold the indicator in place.

 

Air Lock

Much like the other hard indicators, when this indicator is set in the tippet section of the leader for shallow nymphing, it is difficult to cast and can create more tangles. It also lands hard on the water. It is more durable and floats better than the other hard indicators.

 

 

Stick-On Indicators: These are small round or oval pieces of foam that peel off and stick on to the leader. Their greatest value is that they cast easily, even when placed on the tippet and they make very little commotion on the water. So they are a great indicator for shallow nymphing. They float great and multiple indicators can be added to the line to support more weight.

The biggest downside to these is they are not reusable and they are not easily adjusted. When moved they lose a lot of their stick and then have a tendency to slide down the leader. They can usually be moved a few times before you have to trash them. Some complain that they also leave a sticky residue on the leader but I haven’t found that to be a problem.

Yarn Indicators: These are made from a buoyant yarn that is often pre-treated with a waterproofing agent, but floatant may also be added. There are a number of different versions of yarn indicators, but most attach by using some sort of slip knot or loop knot. Like the stick-ons, yarn can be attached to the tippet end of the leader without the worry of a hard landing or a lot of tangles. So this is another good choice for shallow nymphing. Yarn indicators are also very sensitive, so they are great for detecting subtle strikes.

On the downside, I find them difficult to add and remove from the line and when removed, they regularly leave kinks in the line. Larger yarn indicators can be wind resistant and difficult to cast in tight places and they require a little more maintenance to keep them floating.

Putty Indicators: Strike putty comes in a small tub and resembles Play-Doh. You pull out a small gob or big gob depending on how big you want your indicator to be, and you smoosh and roll it on your leader. One of the benefits it that you can smoosh more on if you need more flotation for bigger, heavier flies, or you can pick some off for smaller flies and spookier fish.

I’m trying to be impartial here but I don’t like this stuff. It always comes off, especially in warm weather. It leaves a permanent indicator-colored smudge on your line when you remove it. Finally, every bit of dirt in the vicinity attaches to it, so what starts as orange strike putty soon becomes and greyish, brownish, greenish, orange strike putty.

Dry Fly: In the right situations, a dry fly can serve as an edible strike indicator by adding a nymph “dropper” to it. For many, this is the go-to method because you’re essentially doubling your chances… or so it might seem. Just like any other strike indicator, a dry fly has its pros and cons.

Obviously, one of the big perks is that you have the potential to catch a fish on the nymph or the indicator, since the indicator is a fly. However, most dry flies don’t have near the buoyancy as an actual strike indicator, so if you’re needing to get heavier nymphs near the bottom of a deeper run, the dry fly will routinely get dragged under. In such a scenario, you’re not fishing the dry fly or the nymph very well, and hardly doubling your chances.

The best scenario for fishing a dry fly with a dropper is when you don’t need to get your nymph very deep, and you can fish a dry fly buoyant enough to support the nymph’s weight. I immediately think of pocket water. Another scenario might be in flatter water during a hatch, where you could put a nymph with little to no weight behind a dry fly to suggest an emerger.

The takeaway from all of this should be that there is not one strike indicator that is going to be perfect for every situation. You will likely need a variety to meet a variety of conditions. As with most things, much of it will boil down to personal preference and you should play around with a few different types to find what best meets your needs.

How Stuff Works: Reels

Classic Fly Reel

Compared to most spin and bait casting reels, fly reels are pretty simple. Yes, there are always exceptions, but the typical fly reel has a single, direct drive, where one rotation of your hand equals one rotation of the reel. There have, over the years, been multipliers and automatic reels, but all of the extra gears required for them add a significant amount of weight (more on the importance of reel weight later), just to perform a task that usually isn’t necessary.

The drag on a fly reel is also fairly simple. Drag, as it pertains to reels, just refers to the amount pressure the reel puts on the spool as it rotates. In other words, if you’re playing a fish on the reel, when he runs, the reel will apply a preset amount of pressure on him that is determined by your drag setting. Most fly reels will have some version of either a disc drag or a spring and pawl drag.

Common Drag Systems

Disc drags are quieter, apply smoother pressure and allow for significantly more variations in resistance. They are often the choice for fish that may be larger or that make long, strong runs. Spring and pawl drags are lighter in weight and provide a classic “clicking” sound desired by many fishermen. They are often the choice for smaller, lighter rods and when fishing for smaller fish.

More expensive reels, particularly those used in saltwater, tend to have fairly sophisticated drag systems. Orvis had a reel a few years ago that touted a drag system modeled after the brakes used on fighter jets! That’s not a bad thing to have if you’re playing a 150 lb. tarpon, but may be a bit over the top for an 8” Smoky Mountain brook trout! The other thing that significantly impacts the price of a reel is how it is constructed and the material from which it is made.

In addition to possibly plastic components in the drag system, less expensive reels will often be made of a lower grade, softer aluminum that is cast from a mold. This will result in a reel that is a little heavier and a little more prone to denting or bending. In addition to non-corrosive, stainless steel (or similar) drag components, often in a sealed housing, higher end reels will be machined from a high grade, bar stock aluminum. This will result in a reel that is lighter, more resistant to the damages of saltwater, and much more durable.

Large Arbor Reel

Another fly reel feature that is becoming more and more common is a larger arbor. Traditionally, fly reels had a very small spindle to which the line attached. A significant amount of backing was put on the reel before attaching the fly line to fill space on the reel. Otherwise, the fly line would come off in smaller, tighter coils and be difficult to keep straight. Mid and large arbor reels are a little wider than traditional reels and have a much larger “spindle.” This not only allows you to retrieve more line in one turn of the reel, but it doesn’t require as much backing. You still want some backing as an “insurance policy” if you hook a bigger fish, but you don’t need 100 yards of it like you did on traditional reels.

If you’re going to be fly fishing in saltwater, the reel is probably THE most important piece of equipment you’ll purchase. However, for most freshwater fly fishing situations, the reel is one of your least important pieces of equipment. Certainly it still has an important function, to store all of your line, but that’s about it. Most of the time when fishing for trout, or bass, or bluegill, you’re going to be playing the fish by hand, stripping the line under the finger on your rod hand to bring the fish in.

So if you’re looking for an outfit for saltwater or even something like salmon or steelhead, and you have a set budget, put as much money in the reel as you can and skimp on the rod. If you’re looking for a freshwater outfit for say, trout or bass, put far less in the reel and more in the rod and line.

Reel Art

However, for many fly fishermen, reels are almost like jewelry. I know guys that fish for nothing but mountain trout and have $600 reels. They think they’re “neat.” Some reels even have elaborate artwork on them to appeal to the “jewelry crowd.” Sometimes we make choices because they’re practical, and sometimes we make choices because they make us happy. If you have the disposable income and want to buy a $600 reel with a drag system that stops fighter jets to put on your 8’ 3-weight trout rod, have at it! But you don’t need to.

Regardless of your budget, there are a couple of things that you’ll want to make sure that you get in a reel. One, make sure it has enough of drag resistance to prevent the reel from ‘free-spooling” when you strip line from it. Second, make sure that the reel is an appropriate size for your line and rod.

Most reel models will come in different sizes for this reason. Heavier fly line weights will take up more space on the reel so you need a bigger reel to accommodate them and the appropriate amount of backing. On a similar note, rods that cast heavier lines weigh more and need bigger, heavier reels to balance them out. Regardless of how heavy or light your fly rod is, if you don’t have a reel that balances it out, it’s going to feel awkward in your hand. It’s much like carrying two buckets of water rather than one. Two buckets might be heavier overall, but will be more comfortable to carry because they balance each other out. You can view the specs on any reel and see what its weight and line capacity is.

How Stuff Works: Polarized Sunglasses

I once heard a highly regarded fly fisherman say that he considered polarized sunglasses to be his most important piece of gear. These sort of statements always amuse me because I can’t help to wonder how important those sunglasses would be if he didn’t have a rod or a line or a fly! But I definitely get what he meant. While polarized sunglasses may not be THE most important piece of gear, they are often the most underestimated by many fishermen.

Polarized Sunglasses

Many fishermen, particularly those new to the sport, probably underestimate them because they don’t understand the difference in sunglasses and polarized sunglasses. They see sunglasses as merely a means of protecting your eyes from bright light and may opt not to wear them at all on overcast days or when fishing in shadier locations like the mountains. While polarized sunglasses do protect your eyes and reduce eyestrain in bright conditions, they have far greater importance when it comes tactical applications.

Light usually scatters in all directions, but when it’s reflected from flat surfaces, it typically becomes polarized, travelling in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates a serious intensity of reflected light that causes glare and reduces visibility. The more reflective that flat surface is, the more intense the glare will be – consider how a signaling mirror works.

Looking Through Polarized Lens

Water has highly reflective properties and basically acts like a mirror that intensifies those reflected rays even more. I’m sure everyone can think of instances when driving where significant glare was encountered. More than likely, the worst glare you ever encountered when driving was during or right after a rain. Pavement is a flat surface that can reflect light and cause glare. Wet pavement intensifies that reflection and creates more intense glare. With that in mind, it stands to reason that you will get even more intense glare when light reflects off the surface of lakes, rivers, streams, etc.

So, “regular” sunglasses will help in these situations by essentially darkening this reflected light, making it less stressful to your eye, but the glare will still be there and will prohibit you from seeing anything on, or in the case of water, under that surface. But the chemical filter on the lenses of polarized sunglasses is designed to absorb horizontal light waves, while still allowing vertical waves to pass through. Because light only travels in one direction through polarized lenses, glare is eliminated, or at least reduced.

Contrary to what I believe many anglers expect, this technology does not create “magic fish-seeing glasses!” Fish will not suddenly be visible when you put on your polarized glasses, but with better ability to see through the water, you will be much better equipped to spot fish. However, the most consistent benefits you will receive from polarized glasses are the ability to better see your dry fly on the surface, and the ability to read water by better recognizing slower seams and deeper troughs and pockets. Additionally, being able to better see the stream bottom will allow for easier, safer wading.

Just how well your polarized glasses eliminate glare often depends on the angle the light hits and reflects off the water. There will be times on bright sunny days when the light reflects at such a severe angle that even the polarized lenses don’t seem to help. During these times, your best bet is to change the angle the light is hitting your eye by repositioning. For example, you may be on the left side of the stream facing and fishing toward the right and encounter an insurmountable amount of glare. Often by fishing from the other side of the stream and facing/fishing the other direction, you can totally eliminate the glare.

Even on overcast days or in shady areas, you can encounter significant glare, so I almost always wear polarized glasses when fishing. This is where lens color becomes important. Darker lens colors, like gray, will block more light, making them more ideal for bright conditions. They also work well on deep blue water and better maintain true color. But they block a little too much light in low light conditions like overcast, heavy shade, or dawn and dusk, which offsets the benefits of polarization.

Lighter lens colors, like yellow or rose, allow more light in and are perfect for fishing in low light conditions. They often even make things appear brighter. But in bright conditions, you want something that will filter light, not magnify it, so these are not good choices for sunny conditions on open water.

If you plan to fish a lot and expect to fish in a variety of different light conditions, you may find it beneficial to have multiple pairs of polarized glasses in different lens colors. But if you’re looking for one, multi-purpose lens color, an amber, copper or brown color sort of fits right in the middle. And these lens colors work particularly well in shallow water where most fly fishermen operate.

Fitover Glasses

The shape of the frames can also be a factor in how well the glasses work. Frames that “wrap” more will help prevent direct and/or reflected light from entering on the sides. “Straight” frames, like an aviator style, allow more light in from side and rear angles. While prescription polarized sunglasses are available they can be problematic in a wrap style frame. Essentially, you’re dealing with a bent lens on a wrap style frame. The stronger the prescription and the more severe the bend in the lens, the more distortion you’ll get when looking side to side. Straight frames are better suited for prescription sunglasses.

If you wear corrective lenses and prefer the benefits of a wrap style frame or if you simply don’t want to fork over the money for prescription sunglasses, there are a number “fitover” sunglasses that are designed to be worn right over your regular eyeglasses.

How Stuff Works: Leaders & Tippet

It’s nearly impossible to talk about leaders without talking about tippet, and vice versa. However, we could go into an enormous amount of detail on either of them – so much so that it would defeat the intended purpose of a brief monthly article that attempts to provide a simple definition of how particular pieces of fly fishing gear “work.” So, consider this a broad introduction of how the two things work together as part of the overall fly fishing “system.” We’ll talk about each individually in more detail in future articles.

Typical Leader and Package

The leader is the monofilament (usually) connection between the weighted fly line and the fly. Most commonly 7’ to 12’ in length, the leader is typically tapered and consists of three parts: the butt, the taper, and the tippet. These parts can be completely separate and easily distinguished in formulated leaders that are created by knotting different diameters of monofilament together. However, most commercially produced leaders are created with an acid process that results in a knotless, seamless taper from top to bottom.

In either case, the butt is the thickest section that attaches to the fly line. Its purpose is to “turn the leader over” with the cast. A leader with no butt, or too thin of a butt, has a tendency to collapse rather than extend and straighten. The tippet is the thinnest part of the leader that attaches to the fly. It is intended to allow the energy of the cast to dissipate, resulting in a cast that doesn’t crash on the water. The tippet also allows for a less visible connection to the fly. The taper is the section between the butt and tippet that provides a smooth, progressive transfer of energy. A leader with a thick butt tied directly to thin tippet has a tendency to “hinge.”

Leaders are primarily sized by their length and tippet size. So, if you purchase a 9’ 5x leader, it has a tippet size of 5X and its overall length is 9’. As a general rule, longer leaders are advantageous for not only creating more distance between fly line and fly, but for achieving better drifts in “technical” currents. However, they are more difficult to cast and more prone to find overhanging limbs! A shorter leader can allow for more accuracy in tighter areas.

The tippet is sized by its diameter and is indicated by a number followed by an “x.” The bigger the number, the smaller the tippet, so a 6X tippet is considerably smaller than a 2X tippet. Without getting too deep into the history of what now seems a rather antiquated system, it all works off the number 11. If you subtract the tippet size from 11, you get the actual diameter measured in thousandths of an inch. For instance, 6X tippet is .005”. It works in reverse too. If the actual diameter of the monofilament is .007”, the tippet size is 4X: 11-7=4. Pretty weird, huh?

Tippet Spool

You don’t need to know all of that, though. Just know that the tippet size should typically be chosen based on the fly size. Small flies should have small tippets and big flies should have big tippets. Some leader packages will have cross-reference charts on the back indicating which tippet sizes match which fly sizes. Another neat trick is to divide the fly size by 3. So a size #12 fly would best match a size 4X tippet. Could you use a 5X tippet on a #12 fly? Absolutely. This is just a guideline. But the farther you stray from the guideline the more problems you’ll encounter.

In addition to being part of the leader, tippet can be purchased by itself on spools. Tippet material can be pulled from the spool and spliced to the leader with a knot to rebuild or alter the leader. For instance, if you start the day with a 9’ 5X leader and you change flies a few times or break off in a tree, your tippet gets shorter and shorter. You can add tippet from a spool when this happens to build the leader back to its original size.