Fly-fishing success for me has often come by way of learning from my mistakes, from the time I was nine until now, 56 years later. The Sheep Minnow fly series, probably the most productive baitfish imitation I’ve designed, is a recent example of how I learned from my mistakes.
The birth of this fly began about ten years ago when I was first attempting to catch large, landlocked striped bass near my Norfork, Arkansas home. I had just spent ten springs and summers working for L.L. Bean in Maine, where I fell in love with catching striped bass that ran up the Kennebec River from the Atlantic Ocean, feeding on schools of alewife, menhaden, smelt, pogies, and other minnows. I enjoyed catching the fish with Lefty’s Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, poppers, and a huge bucktail streamer that I tied to imitate menhaden.
So, when I rigged my fly tackle to go after the stripers in Arkansas’s Norfork Lake, I had no doubt that I’d be into fish immediately because I had the flies and system down perfectly. Was I ever in store for some new lessons!
Let me set the stage. Norfork Lake is a large, deep, clear, freshwater reservoir, which was created when the Arkansas portion of the North Fork of the White River was dammed. The river twists its way down through the steep Ozark Mountains for about 25 miles. Stripers are stocked in the reservoir annually, and they do well feeding mostly on huge schools of threadfin and gizzard shad.
From about mid-October, when the water surface cools to below 65 degrees F. and the lake “turns over,” until it warms up again to above 65 degrees in late spring, stripers usually feed on shad at or near the surface, just like I had seen them do in Maine with other baitfish. The Norfork fish are usually near the surface off long points or in the backs of coves from first light until 9 or 10 A.M., and then again from about sundown until dark. They show themselves as singles, small pods, and schools of 100 or more.
When I first began trying to catch the stripers in early November, I had no problem finding fish, but amazingly, by the third or fourth morning I didn’t have one strike. Days turned into weeks, and still no fish. I tried all the streamers and poppers that were recommended in all the magazines, books, and videos as well as those I used successfully in Maine, but I was getting skunked—shut out—bypassed by hundreds of feeding stripers every morning that I was on the water. I used floating, sinking-tip, slow-sinking, and fast-sinking lines; I even trolled. Nothing!
Almost every morning, when I launched my 16-foot aluminum bass boat, a bait-and-lure guide was also putting his boat in the water. We’d speak and go our separate fishing ways. Usually at about 10 A.M. we were both loading up, and he’d say, “Hey, fly fisherman, how’d you do?” Then he’d show me the huge stripers in his livewell. Boy, did they make my mouth water!
Then one morning, he came over to my boat and introduced himself. “My name’s John Crews and I don’t know anything about fly fishing, but I do know how to catch stripers,” he said. “If you’d like, meet me here tomorrow morning at 6 A.M. and I’ll show you what I do to catch these guys, and maybe it’ll help you catch one of them on your fly poles and feathers.”
That was the beginning of a special friendship that changed striper fishing for both of us. It was the first step in the development of the Sheep ‘Shad’ Minnow. John looked at my flies and said they were “all wrong.” They were too big, or too skinny, or tail-heavy, or sank too fast, or had too much hook showing, or had some other flaw. “They don’t look or act like shad,” he said. Then he gave me some lessons on approaching our stripers. “You’ve gotta shut your motor off, come in quiet, don’t chase them, let them come to you, get your feathers in front of the school, and don’t move ’em but just a tad!”
But even John’s methods didn’t produce for me on that first morning, because my flies were not what the stripers wanted to eat. No strikes—a couple of follows, but no fish. So that evening, I took home a half-dozen live 11/2- to 2-inch-long threadfin shad that John gave me and put them in my aquarium. I watched with amazement how different they looked compared to the flies I’d been using.
I tied and tried and then tied and tried some more, for almost a week. Then one morning while using yet another new shad version about 30 minutes before it was time to head in, I saw a big lone striper rolling on the glassy surface up in the back of a cove. I carefully maneuvered my boat to the cove’s opening and waited quietly, fly in hand, for the monster to pass my position.
Then it was suddenly there, rolling on the surface, inhaling shad. My 70-foot cast landed 20 feet in front of its last swirl. I waited 5, 10, 15 seconds, then began a painfully slow twitch-and-pause animation of a disabled shad minnow. Then, as if it had just materialized, a huge silvery-blue, ghostly form appeared behind the fly, opened its white mouth and sucked my little shad streamer out of sight! It made a whirlpool-like, 10-foot-wide swirl on the surface, then vanished. Then my shooting-line vanished, followed by the beginning of my backing. The big reel I was using had about 240 yards of 20-pound-test backing on it, so I was not concerned about holding the fish—until I noticed two things: the reel handle had stopped turning, and the backing became tight. Then a huge fish broke the surface at what looked like an eighth of a mile down the lake. It was the striper I had hooked, and all my backing was gone!
Panic replaced elation, and I shifted the electric motor into fast-forward. I was winding like mad and praying that everything—backing knots, leader knots, and barbless hook—would stay connected to my first Norfork striper. I wanted this fish badly. A lifetime later (maybe 15 to 20 minutes), I had the big fish on its side next to my boat and it was even larger than I had estimated. I was tempted to reach over to land it, but I was worried that it might jerk me overboard. Swimming alone in the middle of Norfork Lake in January is not my style. So I led it to the nearest shoreline and beached it safely.
My first Arkansas striper was easily 10 pounds larger than the 16-pounder I landed in Maine. What a fish! And what a beginning for the first generation of my Sheep Minnow Series!
Each season after that, I’ve fine-tuned this design so that now it has become one of the best minnow imitations I’ve ever used to catch stripers, trout, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, walleye, catfish, white bass, snook, tarpon, bonito, tuna, redfish, sea trout (spotted weakfish), and landlocked salmon.
I do several things to accomplish this versatile effectiveness and wide appeal. First, I tie the Sheep Minnow series with a unique combination of materials that imitate the shape, looks, and movement of practically all minnows and baitfish species, including shad, alewife, shiners, dace, smelt, sunfish, perch, darters, chubs, sticklebacks, and trout. I simply try to adapt my design to each minnow’s color pattern and body shape.
Second, I tie the patterns in three densities: floating/waking/diving; slow-sinking/swimming; and fast-sinking/bottom-jigging.
Third, I tie each specific imitation in two or three lengths to match the range of natural sizes. For instance, threadfin shad range in size from about 1 inch to 31/2 inches long, so I tie it on #8, #4, and #2 hooks.
I’ll never forget one morning on Norfork Lake when stripers were all around me for two hours. I was using a 31/2-inch-long #2 Sheep Shad pattern. I got swirls or follows on almost every cast, but no hookups. Then I noticed several small crippled threadfins on the surface. I put on a #8, 11/4-inch Sheep Shad and over the next two hours hooked six stripers that averaged 15 pounds.
Back to John Crews
I was so thankful for John’s help and encouragement that I taught him how to fly fish and tie flies, and then rigged him with a couple of striper fly-fishing outfits. John, an excellent lure caster with limitless enthusiasm, learned to fly cast quickly. He used his knowledge of Norfork Lake striper fishing to put us on school after school of stripers during the next four seasons. He has keen eyes and can locate risers that I would never have seen. Eventually he fell so completely in love with fly fishing for stripers that he began using only fly rods. Then he stopped keeping his limit and began releasing most of the stripers that he and his clients (fly fishers only) caught.
Today, Norfork Lake stripers are nearly nonexistent, I’m sad to say. The lake once held thousands of them and they averaged 18 pounds. Overfishing (the legal limit was six per day until recently), plus severe oxygen shortages caused by excessive use of chicken and turkey manure on watershed farmlands, has caused the striper’s decline. They are now hard to find on winter mornings.
Because the stripers had a wonderful selectivity, they challenged me to develop a fly that has given me many great fly-fishing experiences. I continue to use the fly on other waters that hold stripers and to imitate the baitfish they eat.
Fishing Sheep Minnows
Predator fish that eat minnows prefer that the minnow be easy to locate, intercept, surprise, and capture. The most attractive prey are those that are disabled, distracted by feeding or mating, feeble swimmers, tightly grouped in large numbers (schools), or cornered away from cover. Keep all these factors in mind when you fish a Sheep Minnow at the surface, below the surface, or near or on the bottom.
I fish Sheep Minnows that imitate the natural minnows in an area. Live shad, shiner, dace, darter, and other small fish each have a particular behavior pattern. You can obtain more information about minnow shapes and habits in books such as my Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods (The Lyons Press, 1982).
Waker Sheep Minnow. This floating fly will imitate minnows that are either crippled, sick, fleeing, or feeding at the surface. At this position, I use either a floating line or a 4- to 5-foot-long sinking-tip line to fish it at rest, struggling, V-wake swimming, fleeing, or with a dive-swim-surface action.
I also fish it effectively on a 2- to 4-foot leader and a full uniform-sink line. I use a slow, erratic retrieve and a pause/swim action close to the bottom. Because the minnow is buoyant, it will not snag bottom structure, even with slow retrieves or long pauses.
To attach Sheep Minnows to my leader, I use the Duncan Loop (uniknot) and leave the loop slightly open. This allows the minnow to move more naturally in the water.
Swimming Sheep Minnow. This moderate-speed, sinking minnow imitates baitfish that are swimming, crippled, or dying. I try to balance each one so that it swims and sinks like a real injured minnow. Such small fish sink neither head- nor tail-first, but sort of wobble or flutter on their sides downward. I test-swim each minnow of mine in an aquarium near my tying desk, because no two flies are tied exactly the same and some need to be fine-tuned to achieve this balance. Test yours at home or before you actually fish it.
I use floating, intermediate, sinking-tip, and full uniform-sink lines. With the floating and intermediate (slow-sinking) lines, it is important to know how many inches per second the fly sinks. I prefer about three to six inches per second, the rate at which most crippled or dying minnows sink. Often I imitate school minnows, such as shad, alewife, or smelt, that have been attacked and are dropping out of the school, only to fall to the larger predators waiting below.
When I use Swimming Sheep Minnows in slow, still, or clear water, the Scientific Angler’s Clear Lake Line is outstanding for the slow, erratic, stop-and-start level swimming I need. The line (and others like it) is transparent in water and doesn’t frighten fish swimming beside or under it, like opaque lines might. It’s like a 90-foot leader.
When I want the Swimming Minnow to sink deeper quickly, I don’t increase the fly’s weight, because that often limits its effectiveness. Instead, I use a faster-sinking fly line and a 4- to 6-foot Umpqua leader made for sinking lines.
Deep Sheep Minnow. This fly nose-dives at a sink rate of 10 to 15 inches per second and is designed to swim to bottom, then back up a bit. Darters, sculpins, and suckers have this near-the-bottom action, but the fishing technique also works with shad and smelt patterns. I’ve used it to take bottom-hugging, freestone-stream and tailwater species such as trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, white bass, catfish, and others.
In flowing water, I prefer to fish the Deep Sheep Minnows with a floating line and a 9- to 16-foot leader. In most of the places I fish them, this combination allows the diving fly to reach the desired depth, yet gives me a lot of control over its action, position, and sensitivity while also avoiding most hangups on bottom. I usually cast the fly up-and-across the current, let it sink to bottom, then mend to slow the drag and let the fly swim past and below my position.
To fish stillwaters with the Deep Sheep Minnow and a sinking line, I cast to the target area and let the fly sink. Then, using a straight-line technique, I animate the fly along bottom. Usually, the slower and more erratic the fly swims or hops, the more productive it is.
The Swimming and Deep Sheep Shad in alewife and smelt patterns are also effective, especially below dams that are releasing large amounts of water. In these areas, school minnows are stunned or injured as they pass through the dam, and they are eaten by stripers, trout, landlocked salmon, and other gamefish. I usually dead-drift the fly downstream with the current as if it were rendered helpless by the water turbulence.
Fresh- and saltwater gamefish feed on a bewildering variety of foods, but they all feed on small fish. If you use a minnow fly that is lifelike enough to imitate these baitfish, you’ll have consistently good catches. My Sheep Minnow Series is such a fly, and it can put more and larger fish on the end of your fly line.
What’s in the Name?
I named these Sheep Minnows not so much to imply that they were meek, helpless lambs ready for slaughtering by the water wolves, but because of the unique Icelandic Sheep Hair I use in their bodies. It looks and moves like a hybrid of polar bear hair and marabou and nylon hair. It’s simply the best natural hair I’ve found for tying hair minnows. Tom Schmuecker, owner of Wapsi Fly Company, introduced me to it.
I like it because since it has never been sheared, and it has all the practical lengths, from one to eight inches. It is strong, fine, and straight with little crinkles, and it has nice tips. It is a flexible, feather-light hair that shines underwater like nylon or polar bear hair. It’s also easy to use. It comes in an almost iridescent natural white that dyes well. Tom dyes it in a wide range of natural and fluorescent colors. Fish are really attracted to it. It’s available from any Wapsi, Umpqua Feather Merchants, or Hareline fly-tying material dealer.
Dave Whitlock is a Fly Fisherman Editor-at-Large and author of Whitlock’s Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods and other books. He operates Dave & Emily’s Fly Fishing Schools near Mountian Home, Arkansas.