The Ambitious Ambidextrous Angler

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Unlike many other fishing disciplines, fly fishing is more akin to an athletic sport which requires practice and dedication to become proficient.  The fly cast is by far the most challenging and often most rewarding aspect of fly fishing.

Volumes have been written about the technical nature of casting, but little is ever mentioned about the benefits of becoming an ambidextrous caster.  Despite the lack of attention, the ability to cast with either hand opens up a multitude of opportunities to catch more fish.

As a fishing guide, I must always be aware of which hand my fly angler uses to cast.  Wind often dictates how I approach the boat to a piece of structure to best set up the angler for the cast.  There are many times where a spot cannot be fished effectively due to the relationship of wind direction and the angler’s dominant casting hand.  Outside of my home waters of the Chesapeake, the ability to cast with either hand has many other benefits both in salt and freshwater scenarios.

Becoming an ambidextrous caster pays huge dividends while wading a bonefish flat. The best wading technique is to approach a flat with the sun at your back to allow for sighting fish and to have the wind blowing at a slight angle behind and away from your body to keep the fly from hitting you.  Unfortunately, mother nature does not always provide this perfect scenario and the fly must be presented with the wind blowing onto your casting shoulder.  Of course, you could try to make a backhand presentation with your dominant hand but it will never be as fast, accurate or effective as the ability to wade a flat with the rod in your non-dominant hand.

Being restricted to one hand for casting limits your success in freshwater scenarios, as well.  The tight quarters of a wooded Appalachian stream or the fast water of a large western river present opportunities to the ambidextrous caster that are otherwise a hindrance to someone restricted to casting with just their dominant hand.  Learn to cast with your non-dominant hand and you’ll never be on the “wrong side” side of the river.  There are ways to present the fly with the dominate hand like an off-shoulder cast; but again, there are limits to distance, accuracy and presentation compared to the ability to deliver the fly with your non-dominant hand.

Now, I’m not saying that learning to cast with your non-dominant hand is easy — hence the title “Ambitious Ambidextrous Angler.”  However, the dividends are great and will put you in an elite class of fly anglers that can present the fly in all scenarios without limits.  I love the fact that fly casting can never be perfected but always improved upon.  It is the challenge that I find intriguing and the only way to get better is with a rod in the non-dominant hand!

Feel the Pressure: The Barometer & Fishing

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As anglers, one intriguing aspect of fishing is solving the mysteries of nature.  We try to figure out why we have epic fishing one day and bring home a skunk the next.  There are countless variables that influence fish behavior – tide, current, water temperature, moon phase, time of day and salinity level to name just a few.  Probably the most mysterious and debatable variable is barometric pressure.

In layman’s terms, barometric pressure can be thought of as the weight of the air, and it is influenced by weather systems.  High pressure is generally associate with cloudless conditions and low pressure with rain.

I am not aware of any scientific research that proves barometric pressure has a direct correlation to fish behavior, but it has a definite place in angling lore.  Those that dismiss barometric pressure having an influence on fish point to the fact that water pressure is much greater than that of air, so even huge changes in air pressure are virtually undetectable underwater.  Still, many avid anglers follow the barometer as a predictor of fishing success.  Fishermen, by nature, are a superstitious crowd.  It could be that barometric pressure’s influence on fish is just an old wives tale.  I’m on the fence as to the direct influence on fish.

My observations generally show that quickly rising pressure causes a slow bite while falling or stable pressure make for better fishing.  It may be that barometric pressure indirectly influences fishing by altering other variables.

I find that many of the fish I target prefer low light conditions.  It would make sense then that a rising barometer would slow fishing due to the bright cloudless skies that are caused by a high pressure weather system.  Conversely, overcast skies caused by a low pressure system will prolong the transition from night to day which will likely make fish active during a longer time period.

Quickly changing barometric pressure causes strong wind which can effect water clarity, tidal height, and current speed.  Also, barometric change typically means changes in air temperature.  The combination of wind and air temperature can cause a noticeable change at the water’s surface.

In conclusion, fish have the ability to sense numerous variables that we as humans cannot; whether the impact of barometric pressure direct or indirect remains a mystery.  One thing that I know for sure is that “you don’t know if you don’t go”, so let’s get on the water and wet a line!

 

Give Your Reel a Helping Hand

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Other than cranking the handle, most anglers only touch their spinning reel to open the bail before a cast.  Well, there is a lot more that can be done to give your spinning reel a helping hand!

Your fingers can be used to adjust the distance of your cast by applying pressure to top edge of the spool as line uncoils.  The amount and length of pressure will let you place the lure right where you want.  This technique should be used in place of two common angling errors.   The mistakes are quickly cranking the handle to close the bail and/ or jerking the rod.  The use of your fingers to “feather” the line is far more accurate, effective and better for your reel.

Closing the bail by hand after making a cast is a great habit to learn.  For starters, it will extend the life of your reel.  Turning the handle to initiate the bail trip mechanism causes unnecessary torque on the reel that will lead to worn and broken parts overtime.  Using your hand eliminates this torque, plus it is just as fast and efficient as turning the handle to close the bail.

Another bonus of closing the bail by hand is the elimination of most loose loops that can develop on the spool.  These loops are caused by slack line at the end of the cast and often lead to a bird nesting tangle on the subsequent cast (especially with the small diameter GSP lines like  Power Pro).  When you use the handle to close the bail, the bail arm makes a partial revolution before closing which allows the loose loop to develop.  The better alternative is to put your hand on the bail wire to close the bail manually.

A cause of the dreaded bird’s nest is cranking the handle when the drag is feeding out line during a battle with a large fish.  This causes twists to form in the line which leads to tangles; therefore, it is important to remember not to reel when you hear the drag clicker.

It is often necessary to quickly put the brakes on a hard charging fish headed to break you off on barnacle encrusted pilings.  In this situation, you want to apply pressure with your fingers on the spool to slow or stop its rotation.  It is common for anglers to apply spool pressure with baitcasting or fly reels but for some reason people forget to use the same technique for spin fishing.

Give your reel a helping hand with these techniques.  You’ll be fishing with less frustration and bring more fish to the boat!

The Beat Goes On

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The beat goes on… the drum beat that is!

Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) and speckled trout (Cynoscion nebulosus) are both members of the family Sciaenidae, informally known as the drum family.  Of the 270 Sciaenidae species, 17 are found in the Chesapeake; some of the most recognized are croaker, spot, grey trout and black drum.  Many members of this family have special swim bladders and muscles that can produce noise – hence the name “drum.”

Anglers are often surprised to learn that specks, despite their appearance, are not actually trout but drum.  Only male speckled trout make noise which resembles a grunt.  When you are fishing next time, take notice that plump, roe-laden females are silent but slender males produce grunts when you land them.  It is believed that males make grunting noises to attract females during spawning.  Here is a fantastic article by Jerald Horst of the Louisiana State University about speckled trout grunting behavior – http://www.seagrantfish.lsu.edu/resources/factsheets/grunters.htm.  I learned a lot of new facts from the article.  There are four specific types of grunting sounds and the majority of grunting occurs from sunset to three hours after sunset.  Most important from an angling perspective, speckled trout do not feed when they are grunting.

Grunting and body shape can be advantageous for conservation minded anglers looking to take home a tasty meal of trout.  In any fishery, it is important to protect breading females to ensure sustainability of the population.  So try to release the potbellied females full of roe and keep those grunting males.

Impress your fishing buddies with this lesson in speckled trout “gruntology”!

Tossing Rocks: An Aid in Fly Casting

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“Tossing rocks” is a game I designed to aid in fly casting instruction.  This game helps replicate the cast and teaches some of the cast’s fundamental principles before a student even picks up a fly rod.

First, collect some pieces of gravel and attach a target (paper plate) to a tree at shoulder level.  Stand facing the target at a distance of about 6 feet with the target in line with the dominant hand’s shoulder.  With the dominant hand, make a fist with the thumbnail facing upward.  Hold a piece of gravel between the thumb and pointer (index) finger knuckle.  Try tossing the rock at the target and stop the forward motion at the moment the rock is released.  Have a second target set up about a foot higher than shoulder level.  Try turning around backwards about 3 feetaway from the target.  Toss a piece of gravel behind you at this target remembering to stop as soon as the rock is released.  When playing this game inside, try replacing the rocks with pennies and attach the paper plate targets to a wall.

After playing the game for a while, you can demonstrate how it applies to fly casting.

First, it teaches a good grip of the fly rod with the thumb behind the cork toward the target.  Show the student how the grip of the fly rod is the same as holding the rock during the game.

“Tossing rocks” also teaches acceleration through the casting stroke with an abrupt stop.  Make a short overhead cast with the fly rod and show the student that the speed up and stop of fly rod is similar to the speed up and stop used to toss the rock.

Finally, the game teaches proper tracking during the casting stroke.  Show how the motion of tossing the rock when applied to casting encourages a straight-line path of the rod tip and tight loops.  Demonstrate how an inaccurate toss of the rock is the same as stopping the rod tip in a direction not toward the target (i.e. the fly line & fly travels in the direction the rod tip speeds up & stops).

Play this game for yourself or as a competition with friends.  You’ll find that it enforces good mechanics the next time you pick up a fly rod.

Get Down with Tides & Current

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Understanding the influence of tides is vital to fishing success.  Tide is generally referred to as the vertical rise and fall of water due to the gravity of the moon and sun.  Under a full or new moon, the gravity from the moon and sun are additive.  During these times, the greatest tidal changes occur.  The tides of the full or new moon are called spring tides.

Tides in the Chesapeake Bay are semi-diurnal, meaning there are two highs and to lows per day.  It takes a little over six hours for the tide to change from one extreme to the other.  While vertical tidal changes on the Chesapeake are small (~2ft.), they impact the location of fish in shallow water.  As a general rule, gamefish like striped bass move closer to shore on high tides to feed around structure that they cannot safely reach on low tides.

When fishing the shallows, it is important to notice the tidal height when you find fish at specific locations.  During extreme highs or lows, you will find fish in areas that typically do not hold them.  Generally extreme tides are the combination of the general gravitational forces plus the influence of wind.

Strong wind can push large amounts of water causing a raise or fall in water level.  Here on the western shore of the Chesapeake, strong northeast wind will stack up the water causing abnormally high tides, while strong southwest wind will cause abnormally low tides.  I also find that during fall and winter, the tides tend to run lower on average – possibly due to the tilt of the earth’s axis.

Horizontal current is created from vertical tidal movement.  Fish are opportunist feeders and rely on current to catch smaller prey in the fast moving water.  As a general rule, fish feed most actively during times of strong current.  For example, it is critical to fish a fast moving current at night when targeting stripers under the bridge lights of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

Current direction will influence where fish will congregate.  I will only fish certain spots on an outgoing current and others on an incoming current based on the way water moves around particular points, channels or structure.  Understanding local variations in current flow for your given area is important.

I find that the time of slack current can vary greatly in a short distance.  There are spots that I fish 1 mile offshore where the time of slack current occurs 1.5 hours later than directly inshore.  Using this knowledge can help you plan your day to take advantage of moving current.

Wind can play a role in current, as well.  If a strong wind is blowing in the same direction as the tidal driven current, the current speed will increase and vice versa.  On the Chesapeake’s western shore, it is a good idea to plan to fish an incoming current during a strong NE wind, because the wind and tide will be working together causing faster moving current.  During a strong SW wind, you will want to do the exact opposite and fish the outgoing current.

I hope you have found this tutorial to be useful, because understanding tides and current can help decode the mystery of fishing!

Trebles Are Trouble

The barbs of a treble hook buried into your hand will quickly teach the lesson that trebles are trouble!  Other less painful lessons of barbed trebles are the dreaded hook in that new jacket or hook caught in the net while the bite is on fire.  No matter your reasoning, there are many virtues of replacing the barbed treble hooks found on lures with more fish-friendly and user-safe options.

Today there are more choices than ever when it comes to replacing stock treble hooks.  The ultimate option is the use of barbless single hooks in place of barbed trebles.  Another possibility includes micro-barbed single hooks.  For times when treble hooks are still the best bet, barbless trebles are a great replacement.  In my experience their is little if any decrease in fish landed when using single or barbless hooks so long as the principle of “Maintaining Constant Tension” is applied.  Below you will find some of my favorite hook options for replacing those nasty barbed treble hooks.  Unfortunately, these hooks aren’t readily available at your local tackle shop, but they can be purchased online with an internet search.

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Partridge ILS/Y Barbless Inline Lure Single (also available w/ micro-barb)

This is the ultimate hook when it comes to catch & release fishing and angler safety.   These ultra-short shank black nickel hooks are saltwater resistant.  When using single hooks as replacements, a hook designed with a large eye is a must to allow for rigging.   These hooks have an extra-large hook eye that is rotated inline and are designed to be used with split rings for attachment to the lure.  Pictured above are Zara Super Spook Jr. and Sebile Stick Shadd 90 with 1/0 Partridge Inline Lure hooks.

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Gamakatsu 53 Salt Single w/ micro barb

This hook design is a good option for rigging without the use of split rings.  One thing to watch for when rigging your lures is to make sure your hooks are not so long that they tangle with each other.  Split rings will add to the set back of your hooks meaning you will have to use a small hook for rigging with split rings.  With these hooks you can negate split rings and go up on your hook size.  The inline eyes of these hooks are designed to be twisted open and shut with pliers when installing on a lure.  Pictured above are Yozuri 3DS Minnow with sz 1 and Xcalibur X25 Rattle Bait with sz 2 Gamakatsu 53 Saltwater Plugging hooks.

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Gamakatsu 510 Single Open-Eye

These hooks come with a unique outer micro-barb and are extremely short shank.  When it comes to rigging suspending twitch bait lures, using light single hooks in place of heavy treble hooks will slow the sink rate of the lure.  This hook design uses very heavy wire which makes them a good choice for maintaining the intended sink rate of a lure.  The hook eye of these hooks are open making for easy installation by pinching the hook eye closed with pliers.  Pictured above are Rapala XRSH6 X-Rap Shallow Shad and Mirrolure 18MR Heavy-Dine with sz 1 Gamakatsu 510 Single Open-Eye hooks.

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Eagle Claw BBLS 954 Barbless Treble

Sometimes single hooks aren’t the best option, so these short shank treble hooks designed without barbs provide a smooth hook point for easy penetration and hook removal.  At times fish smack topwater baits versus inhaling them; barbless trebles give you a better hook up ratio compared to singles in this senerio.  You may also choose to stick with trebles for suspending baits in order keep the exact sink rate that was designed for the lure.  Pictured above are Mirrolure C36MR Poppa Mullet with sz 2 and Paul Brown SD Soft-Dine with sz 4 Eagle Claw BBLS 954 barbless treble hooks.