January 14, 2021
In recent years, fly fishing for large predatory freshwater fish has become incredibly popular. Modern tackle is helping us cast larger flies with greater ease, and you can chase predator fish like pike and muskies in many states and Canada, or take a trip of a lifetime to remote corners of the world pursuing the likes of golden dorado, tigerfish, arapaima, peacock bass, wolf fish, and taimen, just to name a few. The word is out. You don’t need to cast in salt water to get an adrenaline rush from a big predatory gamefish.
Flies the Size of Trout
I’ve been chasing muskies with a fly rod for many years, and I’ve learned quite a bit about what makes giant predators tick. Muskies are among the most challenging fish I’ve ever pursued with a fly rod, and in the process of learning what they don’t eat, I’ve also discovered what they actually will eat.
The first and possibly the most important aspect of predator fishing is the flies we design, tie, and buy to fish for them. That, after all, is what triggers a predatory attack.
Flies for these fish in general should start at 5 inches and move up to 15 inches or larger if you can cast them. These fish are incredibly voracious and can consume large prey items. You can’t cast a fly that is too big for 20-pound peacock bass or 40-inch muskies. They will eat smaller prey items of course, but larger flies help trigger strikes from the biggest apex predators wherever you fish.
Muskies and northern pike have long snouts and hundreds of teeth. These biological features allow them to grab large food items and hold on to them as well as maim, stun, and kill them. Over many years of guiding and fishing for muskies, I’ve found that lures and flies with a side-to-side movement trigger a response that is deeply embedded in their biological makeup. Muskies attack flies that move like this simply because they look more natural.
I have watched many muskies follow flies, lures, and actual prey, waiting for the best time to strike. They don’t strike instantly the moment they see their prey. Like all ambush-oriented predators, they wait for the ideal moment.
With predator fish, that strike most often happens when the prey shows its profile. These fish have long, large mouths and teeth for a reason; the best way to grab and hold on is with an attack from the side.
There are many other triggers, so looking at the local food sources in the body of water you intend to fish is key. A prime example is if the local food source is suckers; then your flies should match these items in color and size. “Matching the hatch” is a good rule of thumb everywhere, not just on trout streams.
Sometimes other colors are better, depending on the water conditions and lighting. Colors like all black and all white are great because of their contrast. Black stands out well in dirty water and on overcast days; white is generally a sunny and clear water color. Other color combinations like fire tiger and chartreuse and white are proven fish catchers for predatory fish all over the world in both fresh and salt water.
Other fish-catching designs are swimming-type flies with multiple articulations. The more your flies swim like a fish, the more attractive they are to the fish feeding on them. A good example of this is my Game Changer series of flies. [For details, see the author’s new book Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing. The Editor.]
Other designs that work are jigging-type flies such as Bob Clouser’s Deep Minnow and diving flies such as Larry Dahlberg’s Diver. In recent years there have been many other great fly designs that have given predator anglers a bigger advantage. The best example is Bob Popovics’s Hollow Fleye, which single-handedly changed fly tying forever. In short, this style of tying allows us all to tie and fish flies with very large profiles without too much trouble.
Other key features in predator flies help their presence in the water. Flies that have large heads push more water and help the overall movement of the fly. This also helps the fish locate your fly with their lateral lines. Denser, larger fly heads create more underwater noise and vibration.
Whether you tie flies or just buy them, do some research on the types of conventional lures that are successful on your waters. I have gained valuable information from the conventional side of things, and used it in my fly designs. It has paid huge dividends for me in my fly-tying and fish-catching career. It never hurts to incorporate all aspects of fishing into our flies.
The bite tippet and leader setup for predatory fish can be intimidating, and for that reason many companies today offer premade leader systems. The new Scientific Anglers Absolute Predator Figure 8 leader is designed especially for muskies and takes all the guesswork out of the equation. These have a 50" butt section of 50-pound-test fluorocarbon, 15" of 40-pound-test, single-strand 7×7 stainless steel, and a size 3 Stay-Lok Snap swivel to quickly attach your fly. Scientific Anglers also has Absolute Predator leaders designed for pike, and a more generic version you can use for barracudas, dorados, or payara.
If you build your own leaders, you can make them as simple as you want or build them specifically for record hunting. The range of wire that I use is from 20- to 40-pound-test SURFLON Micro Supreme knottable wire, and the length is from 12 to 20 inches. I use a nonslip loop knot, because you get a better swimming action when the fly moves freely on the loop.
To connect the wire to a heavy fluorocarbon butt section, you can use an Albright knot, jam knot, or two uni knots pulled together. The uni knot is easy to learn and holds up well.
The delivery system for your fly is incredibly important. As I said earlier, the flies that you present to the fish are the most important part of the equation, but the lines come in a very close second. It really doesn’t matter how good your flies are if you can’t get them to the fish efficiently and effectively.
Most flies for large predatory fish are large and wind-resistant, and they hold more water than small flies, so they are heavier. In other words, they are hard to cast. It requires more strength and stamina to pull them through the air, it puts immense pressure on your wrist and thumb, and if you make a mistake it has more dire consequences.
Part of predator fishing is being able to stay in the game for hours at a time. Thankfully, fly line companies have specific lines dedicated to making it easier to present big flies like this cast after cast.
When the fish are in relatively shallow water or you want to bring them to the surface with poppers and other surface flies, floating lines are the best choice. To be able to cast and present these larger flies, the line needs to have a short front-loaded taper to be able to quickly turn over the flies. Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Titan Long and the RIO InTouch Outbound Short are examples of this type of line. Both lines are heavily front loaded and have transition color between the head of the fly line and the running line.
I use the color change to indicate the sweet spot for loading the rod properly. This type of casting is for shooting the flies with just the front taper and belly out of the tip top. Positioning the color change at the rod tip during the cast allows you to feel the energy transfer and prevents you from trying to lift and carry too much line.
Sometimes the fish are holding in slightly deeper water and even though the water may be clear, they are not willing to come all the way to the surface. Good line choices in these cases are RIO Outbound Short intermediate and Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 Clear, Sonar Titan Intermediate, or the Sonar Titan Hover.
Fly lines have different cores and different coatings for cool or tropical climates. Fly fishing for pike in Saskatchewan and for dorado in Bolivia share many similarities, but temperature is not one of them. If you use a tropical line in cold weather, it will be hopelessly coiled most of the day. If you use a cold-weather line in the jungle, it will be gummy and unshootable. Lines that are specifically branded for muskies are made for cold water and will be useless in tropical conditions.
When the fish are in deep water, heavy current, or the water is dirty, fast-sinking lines are important to get the flies in front of the fish quickly. I use these types of lines more than any others because most of my big flies are either buoyant or have neutral buoyancy, and fast-sinking lines help you overcome this tendency.
If you do it correctly, sinking lines are also the easiest way to cast large flies all day. Their narrow diameter cuts through the wind better, and the weight helps you load the rod and deliver the fly with less effort cast after cast. Use an oval or Belgian-style cast, where you make a sidearm backcast, and smoothly transition to an overhead forward cast to shoot the line. [For details on this cast, see “Smooth Operators” by Lefty Kreh and Ed Jaworowski at flyfisherman.com. The Editor.]
Lines like the Sonar Titan Sink 3/Sink 5/Sink 7 and the new Int/Sink 3/Sink 6 from Scientific Anglers are good examples of where our sport is headed in terms of fly fishing for predators. These lines are specifically designed to cast larger flies with shorter heads for quick turnover. The sink profile on these lines allows for a constant straight-line connection to the fly while you are fishing, with much less line sag that causes missed strikes, and detracts from the quality of your retrieve.
The new Sonar Musky fly line doesn’t have triple density, but it does have a 30-foot head of type 5 sinking line to get big flies down deep and keep them there. It also has an over-sized large-diameter running line for handling the line and for stripping the flies back. Thin running lines tend to more easily slip in your hands, making for missed opportunities when strip-striking and fighting fish.
Reels are important for any large fish. If you’ve already got a good saltwater reel, it will likely handle the job, and there are a bunch of rock-solid new reels out there like the Abel SDS or the TFO Power. The last thing you want is to put all that work into hooking your dream fish, and then to lose the fish because the reel seized up with sand; didn’t have the drag to stop the fish from wrapping itself in weeds, wood, or other cover; or simply because you couldn’t pick up line fast enough when the fish swam toward you.
Often, predator fish eat close to the boat and you get into a close-quarters dogfight where you can’t even use the reel. Try to bring the reel into the equation as quickly as possible because bad things can happen when there are coils of line around your feet. You need a smooth drag to manage outgoing line, because most people I’ve seen do a pretty poor job when they attempt it manually.
Pike and muskie fly fishers finally got practical rods designed just for them several years ago when Sage brought out its 10-weight Pike and 11-weight Musky rods, and I was fortunate to play a hand in helping Jerry Siem design them. More recently, I helped Temple Fork Outfitters design the Esox series, which I use for all my muskie fishing. The whole sport has blossomed with other excellent rods made for big flies and big, freshwater fish. The G.Loomis LH Predator, Redington’s 10-weight and 11-weight Predator Pike and Musky rods, and Winston’s 9- and 10-weight Alpha rods are just a few of the best examples of rods tailored for a specific purpose.
These are not stiff, tip-casting rods made for tiny dry flies. To cast large flies, the rod must bend and load easily and then transform that energy into tremendous forward power. Beyond casting large flies for hours on end, a good rod must be able to take a beating, and handle the pressure of handling a large fish in close proximity to the boat. Rod angles can get crazy sometimes.
The rod should also have an elongated handle in both the fighting butt and in the foregrip. Extending the butt a couple of inches allows the butt to help support your wrist on your backcast and forward stroke. I can’t tell you how much this helps during a long day of casting. By pinning the butt of the rod against your forearm as you make your backcast, you’ll reduce stress and fatigue on your wrist and can make a backcast that is twice as strong. It is much easier to pull something than to push, and anchoring the rod to your arm during the back and forward cast does exactly that.
You can also anchor the fighting butt against your arm while stripping the fly through the water to reduce stress and fatigue on your wrist, and it also gives you extra power and control to move the fly in a large figure-eight motion when the fly gets close to the boat and a fish is following, but not eating the fly.
To perform a figure eight properly, retrieve the fly to within 2 feet of the rod tip, keeping the tip 3 to 5 feet deep in the water. As the fly gets to within 2 feet of your rod tip, make an L-shaped sweeping motion downstream, then continue into a wide oval or figure-eight motion with the rod tip, accelerating through the turns like a race car driver. It’s the best way to give a following fish another broadside view of the fly right close to the boat where you’ll see the strike.
An extended foregrip is another big advantage. I’ve always noticed that when people cast larger flies, their hands migrate up the grip. When you “choke up” on the grip it in essence shortens the rod, which makes it feel lighter and easier to cast, and it gives you space to rest your forearm on the grip.
Composite grips last longer on heavily used rods due to the stress of casting these flies and fighting these fish day in and day out. Nothing against traditional cork, which feels and looks beautiful, but it’s often the first thing to fail.
As a result, composite grips are becoming more and more common on rods for these types of fish.
Predator fishing is one of the fastest-growing areas of our sport, and for good reason. The fish are large and challenging, and although it sends you through the grinder, and may feel more like a triathlon than a fishing trip, the rewards are what dreams are made of. Good luck!
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s the author of the new book Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020).