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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

BWCA Flyfishing Basics by Roger Hahn

Let's start with a basic premise. One that is important to overcome in order to enjoy fly fishing in the north country. FLY FISHING IS NOT JUST FOR STREAM TROUT. Fly fishing gear can be, and is, used to catch every conceivable species of fish on the planet. From tiny rainbow trout to saltwater species weighing hundreds of pounds. So use your flyfishing gear anyway you see fit.

[PHOTO: A beautiful, calm, remote lake in the BWCA: the perfect spot for flyfishing]In the north country flyfisherfolks use their fly rods to take panfish, walleyes, smallmouth bass, lake trout, northern pike, native brook trout, rainbow trout, steelhead, salmon, and more.

If you are looking to take up this intriguing sport then consider yourself fortunate that you will be able to practice on one of the most prolific and aggressive game fish around. The smallmouth bass that inhabit nearly all of the lakes in our region.

Watching a smallie inhale your popper on a warm summer evening and then watching it make leap after leap after leap on the way to the net simply cannot be beat. A two-pound smallmouth will make you think you've hooked into a much larger fish. And releasing them, unharmed, will give you a second thrill as well.

Another myth we need to lay to rest is that fly casting is difficult to learn and difficult to do. Not so. Most of the time you are simply tossing the fly a short distance which requires only a small amount of practice. All the ''false casting'', as it's called, that you see on television is a waste of time and energy.

So, what do you need to begin. Obviously, you are going to need a fly rod, a fly reel, some fly line, a monofilament leader, and a fly. Let's take them one at a time.

The Rod

I would recommend that you get yourself a fly rod in the 7-8 weight range. That's the way fly rods are rated and you'll get a fly line that's rated to match it. A 7-8 wt. rod will handle all the species you are likely to go after in the canoe country region and will also handle larger poppers and a fair amount of wind.

You don't have to spend a lot of money on a fly rod. I would check out the basic rods from L.L.Bean and Cabelas first. They will probably offer a starter kit with rod, reel, line, backing line, and a leader. I have several rods and the moderately priced one I got from Bean is my favorite to cast with. Even more than rods I spent hundreds of dollars on.

Be sure to get at least a two piece rod and, perhaps, even a three or four piece if you plan to do a lot of airline travel. I have two, three, and four piece rods and I haven't noticed any real loss of performance in any of them. Make sure your rod is mostly graphite as cheap fiberglass, or composite, rods do not hold up well or perform well.

In general, a fly rod should be neither too soft or too firm; much like a spinning rod. The rod actually bends and "throws" the fly line so it must ''load up'' and then release properly. Most rods you buy, in the moderate price range, will do so nicely.

The Reel

A fly reel is a simple place to hold your fly line. You do not fight your fish with the fly reel; but simply do so with your hands and the line itself. So, while your reel should be sturdy enough to stand up to the rigors of a fishing trip you should not spend a lot of money on it.

You begin fishing by stripping the fly line off the reel and casting the line you have stripped off. You fight the fish with your hand and the fly line and then use the reel to gather up the fly line when you are done fishing that spot. Having said that, you might want to look at the large arbor reels that are popular these days. The inner part of the reel is much larger than a traditional reel and they reel up the excess line much, much faster.

The Line

The fly line is the most important piece of equipment you will buy. Don't scrimp on the fly line. Poor quality line performs poorly and will frustrate you in short order. The price tag on a box of fly line can surprise you but it's worth it. Fly line can be used for years so you'll get your money's worth out of it. Trust me.

You'll want to be a FLOATING WEIGHT FORWARD line. They are the easiest to use. By far. You'll graduate to other types of lines as your interests develop. Again, make sure to buy a line that is matched to your rod for balanced performance.

When you purchase your line be sure you purchase fly line cleaner and lubricant and some pads to apply it. You should clean your fly line before EVERY fishing outing because a clean, lubricated fly line performs ten times better than a dirty line. And your line gets dirty just by virtue of being used. You simply pull your line through some sort of pad, that's got the cleaner/lubricant on it, and the dirt is removed immediately. As with any fishing equipment, keep the reel and the line out of the sun or a hot car or hot trunk. When you store the line for the winter you should take it off the reel and store it coiled up in large loops so that it doesn't retain the memory of the reel's arbor.

The Backing

Fly line backing is simply Dacron line that you use to fill up the spool on your reel. It makes the fly line come off the spool much easier, helps eliminate the coils in your line, and is there should your prey make a huge run and pull all the fly line off your reel. (As a side note, I've had a king salmon rip off 80 feet of fly line and 250 yards of backing and never even slow down. A good reason to keep some back up fly line and backing in your fishing kit.)

The Leader

A fly fishing leader is pretty much like a spin fishing leader. They are generally tapered down to a smaller diameter and come in various pound tests. For your first forays into smallmouth fishing you should use a leader in the 6-10' length and in the 8-10 pound test range.

The Tippet

A fly fishing tippet is simply more monofilament line that you tie on the end of your fly leader so you don't have to cut off the end of your leader each time you re-tie a fly. And it also allows you to use the smallest diameter tippet material possible in case the fishing conditions, or finicky fish, demand it. With smallmouth, hitting aggressively, this is not generally much of a concern.

The Fly

My favorite smallmouth flies are those hard-bodied "cork" poppers that you've seen around for ages and ages. Generally they come in a little round plastic dispenser box and are quite inexpensive. You are going to lose a lot of flies to northern pike, trees, and rocks so bring plenty. Tie the flies on directly to your tippet material.

Other basic flies, for smallies, are Woolly Buggers. These flies do not float, like the poppers so you'll use them when the bass are not hitting on the surface. Be sure your kit has some olive green, black, and brown Buggers and you'll be all set. You simply let them sink, after casting, and then pull the line back in with your hand in an erratic motion.

If your travels bring you near trout waters then you'll want some small ''mosquito'' flies in your box. You'll also want to have some fly floatant to apply to them so they sit on the water properly. In general, you are trying to imitate the bugs that the fish feed on naturally so keep that in mind at the fly shop. Fly shop owners are the best source of info as to what to bring to our region.

The Cast

The most important distinction, between fly casting and spin casting, is that in fly casting the FLY LINE carries the nearly weightless fly! In spin casting the weight of the lure carries the line forward.

So, simply put, you must get that fly line moving in order to propel the fly forward. Begin by stripping half of your fly line off the reel and off the rod, at your feet. You can practice this on your lawn, in the gym, or even in a parking lot. To practice, attach a leader but not A fly. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble and a number of flies.

If it looks like you are going to have to practice on a hard surface you'll want to designate one fly line for that purpose. A fly fishing friend of mine keeps a rod in his office and sneaks out periodically to practice in an alley in Chicago. The fly line is well worn, from the asphalt, but it has made him an outstanding fly caster.

I usually begin by moving my rod tip from side to side in order to get some fly line off the rod. Then with the rod and reel in my right hand, and the fly line in my left, I simply lift the rod tip and move the rod, my hand, my arm, and my shoulder behind me. The line should follow and create an arc behind you. When it reaches its apex you simply move your rod, hand, arm, and shoulder forward; bringing the line with you.

I've found that, when practicing, it's best to stand a little bit sideways so you can watch the line in front of and behind you. That way you can see if you're getting a decent "roll" in your line. This should be a slow, measured movement; never hurried. Fly fishing is supposed to be a relaxed, gentle activity. If you are whipping the rod back and forth you are missing the rhythm essential to fly casting. Remember that the weight of the FLY LINE must move the fly back and forth.

The Retrieve

Retrieving the line is simple. You hold the rod in one hand and pull the line in with the other. Your index finger, on your rod holding hand, holds the line as you retrieve with the other hand. When it gets close to your lowered rod tip you then pick up the rod tip and the line and begin another cast. Really quite simple.

When a fish strikes you do the same motion. Again, you do not retrieve a fish with the fly reel; only with the line and your hand. You must play a fish, on a fly rod, more carefully than with a spinning reel as you don't have the spinning reels adjustable drag to compensate for the fish's coming and going.

When the smallie inhales your popper, or your Bugger, you must have the line held tightly in that rod hand index finger and lift your rod tip up quickly, to set the hook. Then, like in spin fishing, you keep the rod tip high and keep pressure on the fish as best you can. With all of the Boundary Waters smallies there are you'll get plenty of practice.

BWCA Technique

There are not a lot of places to wade and cast in the canoe country. So I generally don't bother with waders on canoe trips. In July and August you can wade in your shorts and sandals but otherwise you'll likely be fishing from your canoe most of the time.

If you are lucky you'll have a canoeing partner who won't mind paddling you around to fish. I've found that trying to fish with a spinning outfit and a fly outfit, from the same canoe, is hard to do. Mainly because, as a fly fisher, you need to be closer to your prey and positioned more accurately.

The best way I've found to fly fish is to take turns paddling and fishing. That way your partner can watch for flies whizzing by his or her head and put you in the best position to make a cast. I'd recommend taking the extra time to make one GOOD cast as opposed to flailing all over the place. Trust me, the smallie will know that a fly has landed nearby and, if you're patient, they'll come and get it! With a rush!

It's The Experience!

I always say that if you must get the fish in your boat or canoe then fly fishing is not for you. You'll lose many more fish, on a fly rod, than you'll ever land. That's just the way it is.

Fly fishing is about the act of fishing. Not so much about the act of catching. It's about figuring out where the fish are hiding, figuring out what they might hit on, and then making a cast, or casts, to lure them from their hiding spot.

It's about making the odds between you and the fish considerably more even. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the fish have the odds in their favor. And when you become a fly fisher you'll begin to understand, as I did, that you'll start rating the experience by the one perfect cast you made rather than how many fish you landed.

There are literally hundreds of books and videos available on the art of fly fishing. Pick some up and spend some time practicing this winter. But don't get too caught up on technique. Practice picking up that line and laying your fly back down again. In one simple cast. And then relaxing your mind enough to let that smallie stare at that fly until he can't stand it anymore. Then, hang on to your hat! Because you're fly fishing. Just like that.


--article courtesy of

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