Classic Essay: Finding Your Fly Fishing Equilibrium

Written by: Lee Terkel

All photos by Lee Terkel

So this is the view from my office. Through most of the day, I am a pretty focused employee and take pride in my work. The truth is, though, that not a day goes by that I don’t take a few minutes to stare longingly out the window at the flowing river and wonder what kind of trouble I could scare up if I only had the time.

Fifteen vacation days and five sick days only go so far, and after family vacations, visits, weddings, funerals, and the like, there just isn’t much left. Even if I had the days, the laser beams that would shoot out of my wife’s eyes and the smoke that would billow from her ears would shake the foundation of even the most ardent fly fisher. You see, with 10 month old twins at home, layered on top of eight- and ten-year-old boys, there truly is no such thing as “me time” anymore.

After reading the first paragraph, some of you are rolling your eyes thinking, “Dude that is so not my problem. I am twenty-three years old, no kids, no wife, and a job that barely keeps me busy.” Or perhaps your reaction was more to the tune of, “Son, my heart goes out to you because that was me twenty years ago. I’m retired and my kids have all grown and moved away. I can pretty much fish whenever I feel like it!”

Well I hear you. At forty-two years young, I have had my time of limited commitments and am staring forward at the day I get to “hang ’em up” and fish my way into the great unknown. Being in this position affords me a certain clarity or acuity in how I now view my fishing endeavors. When one has limited time and opportunities, one tends to manufacture as many shots as possible. Like many of you, I have been bitten by the bug and bad! If I am not on the water a few days a week, I start to twitch like a junkie on the downside. So the million-dollar question is this…

How do we squeeze in as much time on the water as humanly possible without our fly-fishing addiction having an adverse effect on the non-fishing portions of our lives?

Over the past five years, I have gone through what one might consider a fly-fishing evolution out of sheer necessity. Here are a few of the tricks I have learned along the way that have increased my fishing days per year, expanded my areas of expertise, and made me a much better all-around fly fisher.

Expand Your Species List

Statistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of fly fishers use their fly rod either primarily or exclusively for the pursuit of trout. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against trout at all. Unfortunately, it is a select few of us who live within a reasonable distance of quality trout water, and even fewer of us who have the amount of disposable time to get there as often as we would like.

Fortunately, for most of us there is a litany of warmwater species that we can almost always find within a few minutes of home. Admittedly, many of these fish don’t have the “A River Runs Through It” sense of purity and perhaps many of them are not going to eat a classic salmon fly attached to the end of a full Spey line. But the good news is that most can be caught with the gear you already own within ten miles of your house.

The most prolific target to begin with is the carp. Carp can be found in almost every pond, creek, river, or lake across North America and Europe. They are extremely temperature tolerant and can grow to enormous size, making them one of the few freshwater fish that can remind you that you still own backing underneath that fancy fly line.

Despite their social stigma in some parts of the world, they are a prized game fish in others, and deservedly so. They are very wary and will test your full complement of skills, including fly tying, casting, wading, presentation, and fish fighting. With all that in mind, carp are not ideal targets for the novice to intermediate fly fisher.

If you are looking for a more cooperative species that can be tremendous fun on the fly rod, look no further than the largemouth bass. The largest member of the sunfish family is the most popular game fish in North America and after a few outings on the fly, you will see why. Like carp, they are widespread in both lakes and rivers. They are a structure oriented fish and predatory in nature, so finding them and getting them to eat is typically not a tall order.

Their smaller yet feistier cousin, the smallmouth bass, is an equally fantastic quarry, despite having a slightly smaller footprint across most of North America. The one advantage of the smallmouth is that it can often be found in many of the same types of fast moving waterways as trout and can be caught using similar tactics, as well.

The list could go on and on, and depending on where you live, you may have access to freshwater drum, channel catfish, chain pickerel, pike, musky, walleye, sauger, crappie, sunfish, gar, stripers, white bass, hybrids, and many many others.  All of the above can put a fantastic bend in the appropriate rod and a smile on the appropriate face. I guess the point is that there are very few fish that swim in either fresh or salt water that can’t be pursued and caught with a fly rod. Take some time and expand your species list, and you will be pleasantly surprised with the experience.

Explore Your Local Waterways

One of the great byproducts of expanding your species list is that it leads to the natural exploration of your local waterways. Part of getting the most out of your fly fishing is finding opportunities that are within your normal course of travel. Regardless of where your hometown is, the vast majority of you probably drive within a long double haul of water that holds great fly-fishing opportunities for multiple species. I live in a typical Rust Belt community, and for the better part of twenty years would drive across a mid-sized creek that I assumed held nothing but industrial run off. After a tip from a good friend, I quickly learned that while I probably wouldn’t wet-wade there, the fishing was outstanding. There are days I would wade sections and for miles would not see another soul. A few weeks ago, my fishing buddy caught twenty-four smallmouths in about two hours, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Recently, I was visiting my wife’s family in Phoenix and managed to sneak away for a couple of hours and found some man-made concrete reservoirs that held water for the various developments that they were located in. The “ponds” held carp, koi, catfish, and largemouth bass. The sight fishing was outstanding, and it was two exits up the highway from the family, which allowed me to sneak in a fun four hours on the water before lunch.

I am guessing that you have all probably driven past a golf course, farm pond, creek, community lake, river, or other body of water and wondered aloud to yourself if it held fish or not? Chances are it did, and chances are that it probably sees less fishing pressure than you might imagine. Any water on private property should always be respected, but you may be shocked how friendly people can be if you ask in the right way.

Expanding Your Season

I can recall the mayhem of being dragged out by a friend when trout season opened. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that the one thing I hate most is combat fishing. Being elbow to elbow with hordes of anglers is just not my thing. Once I began to expand my options of both species and waterways, I found my seasons similarly expanding, to the point I found myself having outstanding fishing opportunities almost year round with no crowds.

Everyone has their preferences, but I found that by having such a great range of species to pursue I was able to avoid crowds for the vast majority of the year and still enjoy the kinds of fishing I loved. We are lucky enough to live within about an hour of a decent tailwater, so my trout fishing season would start in November, which was about the time that everyone else was putting their gear away for the year.

I will admit to fishing some single-digit temperatures and pushing ice out of my guides more often than many would prefer. I will also admit to landing twenty to thrity good-size trout on a crisp, clear day and being the only car in the parking lot and the only guy on the river, as well. I will take that trade any day of the week.

As soon as spring arrivea and the weather begins to warm, the masses descend on our local trout water, and I hang up my 5-weight in favor of my favorite carp gear and begin my pursuit of carp, drum, musky, hybrid stripers, and bass for the majority of the spring and through the summer.

Sprinkle in a few Great Lakes steelhead trips through late fall and winter, and you have the makings of a pretty cool year of fishing.

Fishing and Business

For many of us, business and golf have always gone hand in hand, but you may be surprised how much fly fishing can be incorporated into your business life, as well. Whenever I travel for business, I always bring my fly rod. So when my business day ends, I am not sitting at a hotel bar or watching movies in my hotel room. Some of the coolest places I have ever found to fish have been while traveling for business in relatively unfamiliar areas. Endless hours in airports can provide great research opportunities, and for the low price of an out-of-state fishing license, you can turn a business trip into a great fish story without taking any more time away from your family than your career had already dictated.

This fourteen-pound flathead catfish was caught on a small lake in the middle of Ohio after a day of sales calls. The locals were in shock, and I got a great sense of satisfaction after overhearing them laughing among themselves about the “moron” with the fly rod over there and didn’t he know that you can’t catch catfish on a fly rod?

You may also be shocked how many business associates might be interested in a day on the water, even more than they would be in a day at a country club. So if you entertain for business, find a top-shelf guide, take your best customer or prospect out fishing, and give them a day they will never forget!

Learn to Tie

Midwestern winters can be brutal, and so can my crazy life. There are times that, no matter how much I want to, there is just now way to get to the water. Those are the times when my vise has truly been my vice.

Not only has it helped me to bridge the time between days on the water, but it has dramatically increased my sense of satisfaction for each and every fish I catch. There is something that much more special about catching fish on a fly of my own creation and even more so if it is on a pattern of my own design. Tying is also a great way to get your kids involved in fly fishing as well. Many youngsters are more interested in and able to begin fly tying long before they can effectively fish.

Teach Your Kids to Fish!

Yes, it is hard at first. When you take your young ones fishing, it is not a fishing trip for you, so understand that from the start. You will spend most of your time untangling lines and helping them learn and have fun. It is an investment in your and their fishing future and in your relationship with your kids. If they catch the passion like you have, this can be a special bond that you share with them for life and one that they will hopefully pass on to their children. Once they are older, you will have a best fishing buddy who, despite thinking you are not cool enough to drop them off within five blocks of school, thinks you are plenty cool to spend the day with on the stream. This may also put a smile on your spouse’s face, since your taking the kids fishing translates into a day off, and that is never a bad thing.

Blog About Your Adventures

The web has allowed us to become an active part in the larger global fishing community. There are ezines, blogs, message boards, and countless social-media platforms that support active fly fishers. Blogs are fantastic because they are free and allow you to create your own fishing journal, which is not only fun to create and look back on but can help other fly fishers who can learn from your experiences, as well. You can share stories, techniques, photos, and even video of your fishing adventures with the world. The only requirement is a computer, a camera/smartphone, and some creativity.

So, by now you are hopefully champing at the bit to figure how to get out the door, so don’t let me stand in the way. Hop on Google Maps, find some water, and go fishing. Just remember, fly rods are not just for trout. So if you happen to see me on the water in a strange-looking spot fishing for a strange looking fish, make sure you stop and say hello.

Good Luck, Tight Lines, and Happy Exploring!

Lee Terkel lives in Pittsburgh, and he writes the Adventures in Brown Lining blog. 

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