The Dredge Junkie: How to Catch Big Fish on Giant Streamers
How one angler's addiction to getting meat streamers down for the count can help you score huge fish on the fly
When someone says “flyfishing,” what pops into your head? If the answer is the delicate sip of a rising trout, the perfect drift over a soft seam, or total relaxation, I’d call you normal. Then there’s me. Most of the time, I measure a good day of flyfishing by the soreness of my shoulder. That’s because the kind I’ve become obsessed with involves trying to get meaty bugs in front of the biggest fish I possibly can. Throwing flies that can turn the heads of true tanks is a big part of this addiction, but for a full dose of my choice drug, I must have sinking fly lines.
Some may argue that sinking line and flyfishing don’t belong in the same sentence, but not me. When a sinking line yanks taut, it’s pure electricity, and more satisfying to me than a dry-fly take. You can call me crazy, or you can take the lessons I’ve learned catching some of my most memorable “dredge” fish and use them to put more hawgs, toads, and donkeys on the fly than you ever could with traditional fly tactics.
Brown Trout: Gain Weight
I had been using short sink tips to throw trout streamers for years, but when I fished with guide and noted streamer tier Brian Wise in Missouri, I learned that my usual 3- to 5-foot tips just wouldn’t cut it.
Wise prefers a long, fast sink tip regardless of water conditions for two reasons. One is that 99 percent of the time, he’s throwing unweighted streamers because he wants the fly to dart side to side and hang during the retrieve, not jig up and down and sink quickly when paused. More important, he wants to keep it fishing all the way back to the rod tip. A streamer hit on most rivers is going to come in the first few strips off the bank, but browns in the Ozarks’ Norfork River are just as apt to hold on midriver ledges and pockets. Without a long sink tip, the fly would pass far above the heads of these fish; with one, the fly hugs the sloping bottom all the way back to the drift boat.
All day we had worn our shoulders out with only one half-decent brown in the net. It was just about dark on the last leg of our float when out of nowhere—and with only a few strips left before a recast—the black-and-purple Double Deceiver I’d been pulling for hours got viciously plowed by one of the heaviest and prettiest wild browns I’ve ever caught. Since then, you won’t find me ripping streamers for browns without a 15-foot sink tip. And the number of fish I’ve caught well away from the bank by doing so has positively skyrocketed.
Striped Bass: Blown Away
The wind on New Jersey’s Raritan Bay was cranking that April afternoon and the surface chop was building. We were drifting so fast in my friend Eric Kerber’s skiff that I doubt I could have held bottom with 6 ounces of lead. Yet somehow, Kerber was managing to keep a weighted rubber shad in the zone long enough to occasionally smack one of the stripers we were marking 15 feet down. All I wanted to do was get a fly in front of one.
Heavy sink tips generally stink to cast, but in a stiff wind they do have an advantage because they have some punch power. My only hope was to use the wind to my benefit.
Instead of casting behind the boat into the wind, I wound up and laid as much line as I could straight toward the bow with the wind. By the time my hands were in stripping position, the line was sweeping past the boat. I let it straighten behind the boat for just a moment before I began stripping. I don’t think I moved the fly 10 feet before a fish big enough to put me in the backing took a shot. The 22-pounder that delivered the blow remains one of my top three heaviest fly stripers.
For the rest of the tide, every time we marked fish, I either connected or got bumped. Kerber would only hit with his shad every couple of drifts. My takeaway: It’s always worth trying the fly even in terrible conditions, because every once in a while, there will be something about the presentation that turns the fish on more than anything else.
Jack Crevalle: Reel Power
Jack crevalle don’t get as much respect as they should. They are one of the hardest fighters in the ocean—and the closest you can get to a giant trevally without a ridiculously long flight. For anglers looking to put meat in the box, they don’t hold much appeal; for a flyfisherman wanting to see lots and lots of backing, they’re a dream.
On a trip to Mississippi, guide Sonny Schindler and I had chased wolf packs of jacks busting mullet around Cat Island all afternoon, but every time we got in range, the fish would vamoose. At last, we managed to creep up on a school that had pinned bait against a grass bank. My Deceiver sunk just out of sight, I stripped twice, and I was into my backing before I could even say, “I’m on.” That’s when I realized I’d made a very stupid mistake.
Although I had brought a large-diameter reel, it didn’t have a large arbor. A sink tip of any weight always increases slack in your line, as it creates a belly. That means you have to work a little harder to keep a tight line when fighting a fish. When the powerful jack turned and came at me, that standard-arbor reel couldn’t pick up line fast enough for me to stay tight. I don’t think I’ve ever reeled so frantically in my life. Luckily, I had stuck the fish pretty well, and despite a few seconds of completely limp line during the battle, the monster jack made it to the boat 30 minutes later. Had I been using a large arbor, I probably would have cut that fight time in half.
Lake Trout: Peel It Out
If you can hack it, one of the best shots at a laker on the fly is in the dead of winter when the fish are feeding close to shore. Even then, the depths are not ideal, but they’re manageable with the right line. That line, of course, would be a heavy-grain (300 to 400) full sink or long sink tip. This is the route I took to secure my first whip-stick laker.
Drifting with guide Frank Campbell over the Niagara Bar on Lake Ontario, I could see the fish holding around humps on the sonar. Every time we dropped off the back of this one 25-foot rise, Campbell came tight on a white swimbait. I, on the other hand, was stripping with numb fingertips, puzzled as to why I couldn’t connect. After five passes down the money lane without a touch, I changed up the presentation. I made a long cast, then just started peeling out line as we drifted. I waited long enough to actually feel my fly momentarily hang on the bottom. Then I buried the rod tip in the water and started making slower strips. I only made about five before my first laker nearly took the rod out of my hand.
Even though my fly was probably getting to depth before I altered my approach, my faster strips plus the drifting boat meant that it likely wasn’t staying there long enough. Although feeding line isn’t as sexy as casting it, if you’re going to make the effort to target a deep fish, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to be sure your fly is staying in its face.
Northern Pike: Drop In (Slightly)
My heaviest pike ever on the fly weighed just north of 15 pounds and came from the Cree River in Saskatchewan. I’ll never forget that charge and take.
On our first day, our guide motored us into a small cove with an island. He told me to cast between the island and a patch of flooded grass about 20 feet away. The water was only 3 feet deep, and after the fly splatted down, I gave my line a few seconds to sink. After a couple strips, a wake of submarine proportions came pushing toward my streamer. I let the bug pause, and then gave it one hard tug. That was the trigger that turned the pike from a submarine to a missile locked on target. I could have surfed the wave it threw when it hit.
You might think that in water so shallow there was no need for a sinking line. To this day, however, I rarely pike fish without one unless I’m committed to using poppers. Letting a slow-sinking intermediate tip fall for just a few seconds creates a slight belly in the line. On the first strip, bulkier flies will dive, following the arc of that belly. I’ve come to believe that when you’re casting to a small zone, getting a larger fly to the fish’s eye level as fast as possible equals more strikes.
Largemouth Bass: Muskie Meal Plan
For someone so obsessed with chucking monster streamers, you’d think I’d have several muskies under my belt. I have zero, but that’s certainly not for a lack of trying. Ironically, the most notable catch I’ve ever had while targeting muskies was a largemouth bass.
By the fourth day of a muskie quest in the St. Paul suburbs last October with my friend Robert Hawkins, my arms were like Jell‑O. All we had to show for the effort were a few pike. Then, as my giant fly sank along a lily-pad edge, I made one strip and saw it disappear. The hit was so violent we were sure I’d finally tied into a muskie. When the fish surfaced I couldn’t believe it—there was a solid 7-pound largemouth with the 12-inch streamer in its jaw.
After the laughter subsided, I realized what I’d done was no different than what trophy bass hunters throwing big trout-imitating swimbaits have been doing for decades. While hair bugs, bunny leeches, and sliders are the patterns most anglers associate with largemouth bass fishing, you might consider taking a big piece of muskie meat to the bass pond. You’re probably not going to get a lot of bites, but they will likely be the right bites when you get them.