Fly fishing gear

Bill May: successful fishing in the summer shallows

Fishing for bass, pike, snakehead, bowfin, and even sunfish is tough in the summer, but fishing success doesn’t necessarily mean dredging the depths. Shallow water fishing can be productive if you pick the right places, times, and tactics that this two-part series will explore. We will start by fishing the water lily and spatterdock fields and matted emergent weed beds, hereafter referred to as “cover” or “protective fields”. Much of this information is taken from “How to Attack Pads” by Joe Bruce.

Stealth is a major element in fishing in shallow, often clear waters. Camouflage or at least natural colored clothing is recommended. If you are fishing from the shore, walk as gently and quietly as possible. Preferred watercraft are canoes or kayaks in natural colors, without any use of electric motors or depth sounders. Float tubes moved quietly with fins or paddles may suffice in some situations. Most metal boats and canoes are too loud.

The tackle is basic and minimal. For spinning tackle, use 6½ to 7 foot medium action rods, matched reels, 15 to 20 pound braid with a 20 pound bite where pike and other toothy fish are present, or a lighter leader for bass. Fly rods should be 9ft, 7 or 8 weight, with matching reel, float line and 9ft leader with bite tip as above.

A variety of lures can be used outside of pads, but hollow or paddle tail frogs and 1/4 ounce Johnson Silver Minnows are two of my favorites. For holes inside the pads and edges of the pad field, paddle-tailed and hollow frogs, 3½-inch and 5-inch paddle-tail flukes, and 6-inch curly-tailed worms are the choice.

Always have one rod rigged with a fluke and one with the worm. A third cane rigged with a frog is used less often but completes the “three-pronged attack”. Rather than the standard Texas rig, Joe Bruce rigs the flukes and worms through a hitch post on Mustad 2/0 jig hooks—models 91768BLN or 32786BLN—and opens up the gaps between the hooks slightly.

Fly fishing will only work in limited situations; weedless hair bugs are the choice.

Early in the morning, preferably before the sun is over the horizon, the fish are often found within a few feet of the edges of the cover, taking advantage of the oxygen, cooler water and low light. Mold to the edges of the cover and work your frogs and plastics with light jerks and pauses or slowly swim weedless spoons or spinnerbaits. Methodically work around the edges of the entire field.

Whenever possible, fish into the wind and work from the shore. There will often be narrow stretches of open water between the shore and the field. Even in very shallow water, these places can be productive especially if there are docks, anchored boats or overhanging trees. But for fishing on land or from a boat, stealth is essential.

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As the day continues with more light and heat, the fish will retreat to shelter for food, cooler temperatures, and the oxygen generated by the pads. Trying to fish a solid pad field is usually futile. However, working seams and holes in a field can pay off. The woody structure in a hole is always worth trying.

Again, whenever possible, approach the shore and fish into the wind. Start at the edge closest to the hole and work your way up to the furthest end. I like to cast on top of cover and work the lure a few feet before dropping it in the water and retrieving it along the edge. Work from side to side of the hole and close front to back.

A plastic worm with a pulsating curly tail is arguably the best lure for this. Keep an eye on any movement in the lid. Often you will see movement in the pads as a fish follows the lure.

Strikes can vary from a subtle stop of a worm or a fluke to an explosive one. When a fish passes by, immediately relaunch with one of the other mounted lures. Often when a fish takes the lure, it goes back into the cover. You may feel resistance on your line, but does a fish have the lure or is it just buried in the cover? Joe Bruce advises to do nothing but watch your rod tip. If a fish has the lure, you will see the tip of the rod dip slightly. Set the hook. If the tip of the rod does not move, tighten the line. If there is a tug, place the hook; if not, recover for another cast.

A hooked fish will often burrow into pads or other cover. Then you have to enter after the fish. Row or paddle as close as possible, then begin to retrieve the line by hand. a heavy line and a leader can help. Shore anglers should think twice before wading in, as many of these waters have soft, muddy bottoms. You may have to stay down, shoot and hope for the best.

One of my favorite memories is an hour of magical dusk fishing around the edges of a spatterdock on a shifting tide with a guide, Mike Starrett, on the Potomac River near Mattawoman. “One foot in, one foot out,” chanted Mike as Joe Bruce and I tossed weedless hair frogs into the spatterdock, kicked them out, then dropped them into the water. Since we had only cast one foot into cover from open water on a taut line, only the weedless bug and the leader were in cover; the fly line did not get tangled in the spatterdock. Most of the big mouths weighed between 2 and 3 pounds, but the action was constant until dark.

Part 2 will describe the magic moments of morning and evening, fishing under lights and fishing pipes.