Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When the action slows, go deep for fast, freshwater action

This Manatee River speckled perch was taken on a No. 12 nymph under a strike indicator by Patrick O'Connor.

I'm not your typical Florida fly fisher.

When I'm not guiding, I like to head for a local lake or stream to fly fish for bluegill.

Many anglers turn up their collective noses when it comes to fly fishing fresh water for panfish.

They want the big boys: snook, redfish, tarpon, bonefish, permit.

I like those species, too. But I also find casting a light fly rod for bluegill, shellcracker, speckled perch  bass and channel catfish to be very fun -- and challenging.
Patrick O'Connor with a fly-rod channel catfish.

My favorite spots to fish are Lake Manatee, the Manatee River, Myakka River, Braden River, Evers Reservoir , Upper Myakka Lake and the Nine Mile Canal (North Port).

My fly fishing days in Florida go back to the 1970s. Back then, I cast popping bugs until the bite ended. When that happened it was time to go home.

There's nothing better than a panfish or bass busting a popper on the surface. But I don't think it makes too much sense to continue casting a surface fly when the topwater bite has ended.

That's the time to change tactics.

I learned long ago that when the topwater bite ends, the subsurface action is just beginning. Switching to sinking flies has extended my hours on the water and increased my productivity.

When it comes to subsurface fly fishing, I like three flies: 1. Gibby's Mighty Myakka Minnow; 2. Gibby's Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymph, 3. scuds.

A beefy bluegill on a nymph.
Carry those three flies and that's all you'll ever need.

A recent trip to the Manatee River is a perfect example.

Patrick O'Connor of North Port, a fly-fishing junkie, joined me a half hour beforee daylight. We launched our Native Watercraft kayaks at Ray's Canoe Hideaway (1247 Hagle Park Road) just as it was beginning to get light.

We paddled upriver, stopping occasionally to cast poppers around fallen trees or other structure.
Our hands were numb as we paddled or fished in the 47-degree air. It became obvious that it was too cold for the fish to rise to a surface fly.

We moved into an oxbox in the river, and O'Connor began casting a No. 12 nymph under a strike indicator.
That's just what the fish wanted. He caught a few bluegill and a channel cat.

I switched to one of my Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymphs and immediately began catching fish. In fact, I landed 15 or more of the biggest bluegill I've caught in a long, long time. Manatee River bluegill are consistently among the largest around. They're thick, lengthy and great fighters.
Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymphs

I also landed a small bass and a channel cat.

"I've never caught a speckled perch in the river, " I said. "But I would think this would be the spot for them."

Would you believe O'Connor caught a speck on his next cast?

"Amazing," he said, as he landed the 11-inch black crappie.

When that bite slowed, we moved back into the main river for the paddle back to Ray's. We fished fallen trees and other shoreline structure. We landed five out of eight channel cats and a few big bluegill.

The Manatee River has a good population of channel catfish -- and they'll hit a fly. I've caught loads of channel cats over the years. Most have been taken on the Myakka Minnow or nymph.

On this outing, the fish average about 2 pounds. But I've landed catfish to 7 pounds. And I've lost many larger fish. The trouble is that I usually use light fly rods and tippets. I have a difficult time when a big cat inhales one of my flies.

For most of my freshwater fishing, I use light fly rods. I employ a 1-weight rod for nymph fishing. I will cast a popper on a 2-weight. I use a 3-weight for the Myakka Minnow. All of my rods feature full floating lines and 7 1/2-foot leaders.

I fished Lake Manatee recently with mixed results. Pro fly-fisher Joe Mahler drove up from Sanibel Island to join me. We both thought we were in for a great day when we found a school of big bass busting golden shiners along the shoreline.

I got a hit the first cast on a popping bug. I missed the fish, but quickly hooked up on my second cast. When the fish jumped, I knew I was in for a battle. The bass weighed at least 5 pounds. The bass made a lengthy  run, then threw the hook on its second jump.

Mahler hooked a big fish, but eventually lost it. And a second big bass pulled off a few minutes late.
The bass continued to herd minnows along the shoreline, but were oblivious to our offerings thereafter.

When we left the bass and began probing for panfish the action was very slow. I caught a stumpknocker and decent bluegill before we headed up the lake to another spot.

Mahler landed a small bass in a spot that usually yields nice bluegill. That turned out to be the only fish he landed.

Using the nymph and later Myakka Minnow, I landed 15 more bluegill and a beefy blue tilapia before we called it a day.

"Next time, I'll take you up on the offer of one of those nymphs," Mahler said.

Nymph fishing just isn't a cold-water tactic for trout.

It works great on Florida bluegill, shellcracker, speckled perch and channel catfish.

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