Opportunistic Fly Fishing

Instruction By Thomas R. Dempsey, M.D. CCI

One of the great aspects of fly fishing is adaptability. By that I mean as fly anglers, we always have the opportunity of “matching the hatch.” Whether saltwater or freshwater, a box of flies offers us the ability to change our pursuit from one species to another if our target fish is not home or just will not eat.

How many times have we started out with a certain fish to catch only to find that it is not going to happen? After all they call it fishing, not catching fish. Instead of punking out and heading to the dock, think what else is swimming below just looking for a chance to pounce on your fly. This happens all of the time, but how often do we take advantage of it? I don’t know about you but I’m into the Zen of fly fishing. To me this means I love to cast always trying to improve on that last loop. Secondly, I like to catch, fish, any fish, any size, any type, anywhere, anything that will bite my fly is ok with me. That is what it is all about. The Zen is being in a special location, grooving with your casting stroke and fly rod and maybe as a reward catching a fish.

So what is this business called opportunistic fly fishing all about? Take for example when you are out to catch spotted sea trout, we call them speckled trout in Alabama, sometimes they have lock jaw other times you just can’t find one. I have salvaged many an off shore trip by running and gunning for bonita. These tuna cousins put an A+ bend in your rod. How about chasing shrimp boats and bouncing #7 poppers off the side waiting for a jack crevalle “poor man’s permit” to slam it and take you into your backing. There is nothing better. Fishing the offshore oil rigs for king mackerel is not a slam dunk, often the day turns into hitching up to the leg of the rig, setting out a chum bag and seeing who comes to dinner. Amberjack and red snapper will arrive from the dark and deep to check out the buffet line. Now all you have to do is “bait and switch.” Who told you you can’t catch these guys on a fly?

I learned how to catch spade fish by observing what specific part of the chum they went after. Turned out that a tan muddler minnow was a perfect imitation of what the spade fish wanted, a trout fly for a salt water fish? WHO cares?! All kinds of fish hang out around the legs of drilling rigs and with your flat boat you are able to scoot around and under the drilling platform raking in blue runners, hard tails and blue fish. Sure, these are not super stars, but didn’t we agree that we are attracted to the Zen of fly fishing? Alaska can serve up some suitable substitutes when the trout are not on. Graying hang out in trout waters and site casting for them, not too shabby. How about dollies and char mixed in with the sliverspinks and dogs? Who cares, we’re having fun?! But we want to catch some to take back home and throw on the grill. Everybody eats salmon eggs in Alaska and every fish taste like salmon. You are truly what you eat.

The opportunities go on and on. Bream and other panfish are always willing when the bass are not. Pound for pound or better ounce for ounce, these little guys can give you an adrenaline rush that keeps you coming back. Every farm pond, stream, every lake in front of the apartment complex has someone who wants your fly. I think the extra club in your golf bag should be a 6wt. rod. Don’t throw that whitefishor sucker on the bank for the eagle to eat. That fish that cut off the trophy rainbow and gobbled your nymph is only trying to survive. The Madison River is home to all these species. Be grateful for the bite and the fish. Those second class citizens fight just as well as the fish you spent $4000 a week to catch.

There are always alternatives even in exotic locations. Barracuda, jacks and baby tarpon can save the day on a bone fishing trip and provide plenty of action and excitement. Fishing one of the Jimmy Buffet’s favorite spots, Anegado, I was in grave danger of being skunked on bones until I noticed there were several fish lazily following along behind our skiff. My guide said they were baby tarpon and if I wanted to catch one just flick a fly back there. I said, “Hmmm, I can handle that.” Well I needed to catch something and these baby silver kings were ripe for the harvest. My first tarpon on a fly! Fishing for the steelhead on the Suskeena can be frustrating. How many times have you heard, “should have been here last week” Grrrrrrrr!!! The bull trout we caught that day more than filled the gap until the steelies turned back on.

Atlantic salmon, the fish of a thousand casts, some anglers fish an entire week without even a strike. That is like sticking needles in your eyeballs. When I found out there were brook trout on the Cascapedia River I said, “bring ‘em on”, after all, a fish is a fish and a grilse? Well, no more than a baby atlantic salmon, but he is still an atlantic salmon. The first time I fished the Agua Boa for peacock bass my first four or five fish were all different species and not one a peacock. At the end of the day, besides the three types of peacock bass, we had a total of 17 different varieties of fish including jacunda, piranha (both white and black), paca, red tail cats, Oscars, triada, tambaqui and pescada and some of the guides scratched their heads over that they could not identify.

Golden Dorado are not the only game in town when you fish the Parana River in Argentina, been there and caught them. Besides the resident piranha there are over 300 species in this river and most, if not all, will take a fly. How many of you can notch your full wells grip with a saber tooth anchovy? One of the great things about fly fishing is what you reel in may not have been what you were seeking when you shoved off this morning. 
One day while fishing for cobia I dragged in this weird looking fish. He appeared to have the perfect imprint of the sole of a boot print right on top of his head. A remora had rooted out that cobia for first dibs on my streamer. And behold, I had another species to add to my portfolio of fly caught fish. 

My good friend, a hunting and fishing guide in Nashville, always presents his clients with a menu of bail-out fish if the rivers are blown out or they are not generating on the Caney Fork. Whoever thought you could catch an alligator with a hookless fly made from a piece of frayed polypropylene rope? This type of fishing will test one’s ability to “set the hook” or “set the rope” in those teeth before the gar realizes he’s been had. These boys put on an acrobatic show and if you want to see the second act, cut the hook off the popper and watch the fresh water lady fish, a.k.a. Tennessee tarpon go airborne and crash the popper from above. If that doesn’t get you pumping, go grab a spinning reel with a Bass Asassin and blind cast all day long out of the back of your jon boat with a six-pack of Miller Lite on the deck and a can of Skoal in your back pocket and pretend you are “fishing”.

The point of all this rambling is no matter where you fish or what you fish for, there is always another species waiting in the wings to step in and save the day if you are truly a fisherman. All of us have more flies than Carter has liver pills, so besides packing your go-to fly when you head to that fishing destination, do a little homework and research the internet to see who else is living down under besides your first choice. Now go back to your fly box and throw in some flies for Miss Congeniality and the first runner-up. Everyone comes back from the Biloxi Marsh with a grip-n-grin photo of a bull red but how about a 5-foot gar landed in the same waters.

Remember, opportunities always exist, and when opportunity meets preparation you call yourself lucky. Take advantage of your fishing opportunities. 

Thomas Dempsey certified casting instructor Mobile, Alabama.