8 Expert Fishing Tips for the Spring
How to fish for walleyes, trout, striped bass, and more this season
It was the very first cast I ever made with a muskie fly. The 14-inch mass of bucktail, feathers, and flash smacked down a few feet from the bank of one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes like a teal that had tangled with Remington steel. Before I could bring the dead duck back to life, my friend Robert Hawkins, who was rowing, casually said, “Bury the tip of your rod in the water before you start stripping.”
Hawkins wasn’t the guy who figured out submerging your rod tip when you’re streamer fishing helps you keep better contact with your fly, which lets you feel a hit much faster, which increases the odds that you’ll nail a smooth, strong strip set. At some point, that knowledge was bestowed upon him. To date, I still haven’t caught a muskie on the fly, but that tidbit has helped me put tons more trout, smallies, pike, and stripers in the net.
I’ve probably passed it on to 20 more people in the last six years, many of whom I had the pleasure of watching use it to catch a fish the same day. None of them had asked for my advice, but as it goes, we rarely ask for tips—they just seem to find us. This time, I decided to ask. I put a few of my best fishing buddies on the spot to find out which nugget of wisdom handed down from another pal has stuck with them the longest or helped them the most. Feel free to share them with a friend or two of your own.
Build in Hang Time
When I was 24, I was living in Belmar, on the Jersey Shore. I hit the surf for stripers almost every day in season. One morning, I bumped into this guy during a really good bite on the jetty, and we just started talking. His name was Bill Dalton, and he’d been fishing the area his whole life. Bill sort of took me under his wing, and we fished together a lot. He once told me that whenever you’re reeling a plug back to the jetty, always let it pause for five seconds at the end of the retrieve before picking it up and casting again. He said you never know when a bass is following the lure, and sometimes the fish will grab it in that final second.
The very next time I went out, I caught a fish using that trick. I couldn’t believe it. Ever since then, that pause has just become automatic for me when I’m fishing a jetty or around any structure. There have been so many times when that trick caught me the only fish of the day. —Mike Sudal, artist and F&S contributing illustrator
Lift, Skate, Feed
After 30-some years of drifting dry flies to trout, I figured I knew what I was doing. But my friend Mike Bannon, an Upper Delaware River guide, was telling me different. “Feed, feed, feed,” he said while my fly skidded downstream toward a steady riser during a trip last spring. I thought he was talking to the fish, telling it to eat. But then he pointed at the fly. “It’s dancing,” he said. I looked closer, and sure enough—it was doing the tiniest shimmy, left and right, along a microcurrent. But that was enough. I’d now run the bug over the fish’s head three times with no reaction.
“OK,” Bannon said. “This time, cast down and across like you’ve been doing, but with a bigger upstream reach, and throw the fly a little farther. When it touches down, lift the rod and skate the bug into the lane.” I did, and when I dropped the rod tip to let the fly drift, it wasn’t doing the tiny shimmy anymore. “Feed, feed, feed!” Bannon yelled. That’s when I realized he wasn’t talking to the fish; he was telling me to kick more line out, and faster. But the fish must have heard him too because it pounced on my fly. Since then, Bannon’s trick has become my go-to whenever I’ve got microcurrents and I need finicky downstream trout to, well, feed. —Dave Hurteau, executive editor, Field & Stream
Ease into Fishing
About 10 years ago, I was at a seminar here in New Hampshire, and Dave Genz was speaking. He’s an ice-fishing legend, and we’re good friends now, but at the time I didn’t know him well. In that seminar, he said: “Try to find a way to make everything you do easier. If it’s easier, you’ll do it.” It’s very simple, but it’s a philosophy he lives by and that I’ve adopted. If you tie your knots and rigs at home before you hit the ice, your hands will stay warmer on the lake, which helps you stay more focused on catching fish. Little things like that make a huge difference in your success rate.
Don’t wait until the last minute to put on your rain gear. Always keep your tackle organized. Put things back in the same places. Dave applies this rule mostly to ice-fishing, but whether I’m on the kayak, ice, or big boat, I live by it now. —Tim Moore, owner, Tim Moore Outdoors
Sculpt the Perfect Bod
I had a friend named Paul Koller who I met through another buddy. We hit it off right away. Paul was a Jersey boy, but he also spent a lot of time in Montana. He even opened the first fly shop in Missoula. We used to fish the Delaware, Beaverkill, and Neversink together all the time, and Paul was a really great fly-tier.
Usually, when you tie a classic dry, you dub the body up to the wing and then tie in the hackle stems facing forward toward the eye of the hook. What Paul did was tie his hackle stems in before dubbing, and he always tied them in backward, facing the bend. If he was using two hackle feathers, he left one stem just a little longer than the other. Then, when he dubbed over those stems, it naturally created a perfectly tapered body. He probably told me that in the early 1980s, but it always stuck with me because it’s one of those tricks that just makes tying faster and produces nicer bugs. —Joe Demalderis, owner, Cross Current Guide Service
Hit Your Marks
I have so many people marvel at the ability of my sonar to mark walleyes when I’m driving 20 miles an hour. They think I have some kind of secret setting. The only secret is where I mount the transducer, and it’s something I learned from walleye pro Dave Hanson.
Back in the mid-’90s, I went on tour with Dave as sort of an assistant. I was in high school, and in those days, Dave was using a flasher on his boat, and he could read fish going fast. The first step is using a skimmer transducer, which mounts to the outside of the boat. You can’t use a glued-in transducer because if it has to shoot through fiberglass or aluminum, that already causes interference.
Dave took the time to figure out exactly where he could mount his transducer so it would always be in the water with nothing to clutter it up. A lot of guys just slap the transducer on the boat without thinking about that. If you mount one to a chine, there’s a good chance it will create bubbles or an air pocket at high speed. Guys also mount their transducers parallel to the hull, but when you’re on plane, the transducer is then angled down. You want it to stay flat on plane, which means angling it up slightly when you mount it.
Yes, you might have to readjust several times to get it right, but it’s worth it when you get a clear picture while you’re moving fast. —Ross Robertson, 0wner, Big Water Guide Service
In 2004, big streamers for trout were just starting to go mainstream. Back then, we weren’t doing a lot of guiding with them because most people paid us to nymph up a bunch of fish. I had a longtime client and friend named Jimmy Sorce down from Chicago for a few days. We’d nymphed a ton of trout, so on his last day, I asked if he had any interest in throwing a big streamer. He was into it because he’d already done some muskie fishing on the fly.
Very early in the day, we were casting to the right side of the boat when all of a sudden on the left, this big brown starts blowing up baitfish over a shallow shelf. It was really close, like just past my oar blade, so I told him to get his fly over there. He literally just flopped his Double Bunny to the other side, and the fish ate it so fast, we barely had time to register what had just happened. After we released the trout, he looked at me and said, “Man, that thing would have eaten a Snickers bar.” He was right, and it made me realize that you can never give the fish too much credit.
We spend so much time trying to dial in details like which color streamers to use at certain times of day. When we don’t hook up, we tell ourselves that if we’d just used a different fly or a different color, we’d have moved a fish. I don’t really believe that. Either the fish are feeding or they’re not, and when they’re in the mood to kill, chances are they’re going to kill whatever gets in front of them. —Brian Wise, owner, Fly Fishing the Ozarks
Drop That Tip
I was down in Belize at El Pescador Lodge about eight years ago fishing with a guide who went by Ketchu. He was my guide every day that week, and I’ve fished with him several times since that trip. One morning, I was playing a small permit, and as it was running, Ketchu told me to drop the tip of my fly rod and point it at the fish just before it took me into the backing. He said that would help the backing knot pass through the guides without getting hung up, and I thought, Jeez, what a great idea.
Ever since, I’ve become very cognizant about doing that when I’m fighting a fish that’s taking a lot of line. It’s become second nature for me. It’s also really helpful for trout or carp fishing because we use such long leaders these days that, unless you have a net man, you have no choice but to strip in past the line-and-leader connection to land a fish.
So, whenever I’ve stripped in past that knot and the fish has decided to take another run, I instinctively drop that tip and point it so that connecting knot can slip back through the guides easily. —Tom Rosenbauer, host, Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast
Tie One On (Fast)
I was teaching guide school in Montana for Sweetwater Travel in 2009, and one of the instructors was Ron Meek. He’s kind of a legend. He was one of the pioneers of taimen fishing in Mongolia. One day, he shows me how to tie the speedy nail knot, and it was a total game changer. [Search speedy nail knot + Bob Mitchell’s in YouTube to see the tutorial.] If you’ve ever used a traditional nail knot to connect a leader to your fly line, or to connect heavy mono to your fly line so you can create a loop at the end, you know it’s kind of a pain. You have to make your wraps and then feed the tag under all the loops. It’s time-consuming and no fun to do on the water.
The version Ron showed me is similar to snelling a hook. You’re basically wrapping a loop around the mono and fly line simultaneously, and when you’re done, you just pull the tag end and everything cinches up perfectly. It’s super-fast, and I’ve never had that knot fail. I’ve also never used a regular nail knot again. —Robert Hawkins, owner, Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop
This article originally appeared in Vol. 125, No. 1 of Field & Stream.