When it comes to fishing with any artificial lure, confidence is key. Every fly or lure is made to either as closely imitate a prey item as possible or to be so bright and attractive that no fish in the vicinity could miss it. Either way, a fly is still not the real thing, so it’s no wonder when anglers tie on a particular pattern their first thought is, “will this work?” And it’s also no wonder that the first thing many anglers do when they don’t get strikes is look in the box for a new pattern.
Last year, Orvis featured a great blog post on their site about fly-fishing psychology and the common “Shoulds” of fly fishing, including “I should be using a different fly.” And while that article points out that extended fishing periods without a bite are probably the result of many factors, not just fly selection, I want to talk about another way to handle Triple-F (Fly Fishing Frustration) syndrome, and that’s with a “confidence fly.”
We all have one, and their value can’t be understated. For me, the confidence fly is none other than the Woolly Bugger. While this is probably no huge surprise given the popularity of the pattern, it still is undeniably my go to fly when the fishing is slow. Why? It’s simple, I’ve caught more kinds of fish in more kinds of water with a Woolly Bugger than any other pattern in my box. Confidence comes from past success, and success in angling is landing fish. Every time I tie on a Woolly Bugger I can evaluate the conditions and I can replicate a technique I used to catch fish in similar scenarios with the confidence that “It worked before, so it can work again.” But let’s examine further how the Woolly Bugger got in this position…
The Woolly Bugger’s past is somewhat hazy, with many believing it was first tied by Russell Blessing in the late 60′s in Pennsylvania. It was likely made as a variation of the English Woolly Worm, but some believe it was made as a bass imitation in the 1800′s. This muddy history alludes to what makes the Woolly Bugger great… it can imitate so many different things. No other fly can really match the diversity of a Woolly Bugger. It can be used effectively to mimic a bait fish, a leech, a grub, a cricket, a stonefly, a hellgrammite, a dragonfly nymph, a damselfly nymph, a drowning terrestrial, a clamworm, a crayfish, a shrimp, or a crab. It comes in any color. It can be swung, crawled, bounced, dead-drifted, or fast-stripped in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, and tidal flats. The damn thing even works in saltwater. This incredible versatility is why you can catch trout, bass, panfish, steelhead, salmon, shad, carp, pike, etc with the same pattern. It’s also why, no matter the situation, I have confidence that a Bugger can get the job done if nothing else will.
Just recently I’ve really begun learning the fisheries in my local Washington, DC area with the help of our friend Remick Smothers, founder of FlyTimesDC, and with some inspiration from a video called Urban Lines about fly fishing in the tidal zone of the Potomac River (it was also selected for the Fly Fishing Film Tour this year). Being from Kentucky I knew next to nothing about fishing a tidal river. Naturally, I struggled the first few times I went out there because I coincidentally hit the water right when the tides were against my favor, and honestly it’s a weird place to fish. But with some guidance from Remick, I learned some of the spots and times when fishing is best and set out to really establish my home court advantage on my local waters. I was frustrated again for a while, but I’d seen fish and believed that the conditions were right to catch them. Eventually I knew…. it was time for the confidence fly, the Woolly Bugger that has caught fish in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Utah but never the Potomac. Sure enough, within a few casts of slow stripping a Size 6 Olive version, I was hooked into a solid Crappie and the game was on. I ended up landing 20 or so Panfish of various species in a couple hours, and that satisfaction gave me the freedom to throw something bigger at the end of my day, eventually netting me two 4lb+ Channel Cats on a size 2 Clouser minnow. Once the big Largemouth come out of their pre-spawn cruising patterns, I’m sure they’ll be eating Buggers there as well. I’ve gained that confidence now, thanks to the Woolly Bugger.
In conclusion, what’s my Weapon of Choice when all else fails? A bead-head Olive or Black Woolly Bugger – Sizes 2-10.
When I sit down and look into my fly box a myriad of factors determine my final decision. Having confidence in a certain fly color, desired imitation, material, etc. is nice, but in my experience the ultimate success at the end of the day comes down to how you play the combination of water temperature, weather and season. Well, we all like to think we have all the answers, but when it is late in the day and things are looking tough, my decision to experiment with fly choice becomes much easier. No matter what season, if the bite is nonexistent, I look for one thing and one thing only - SIZE. Take the biggest, ugliest fly in your box, tie it on, and bring it back to you at a snail’s pace.
It's important for us as anglers to think like a musky. When you are lazy, what is going to make you hungry? A cheeseburger flying by your face at 50 miles per hour or a porterhouse steak maddeningly dragged slowly away from your place at the table. I am not saying that the fish will bite every time with this method, but if there is an ‘active’ (I use this term loosely as we know muskies by now) fish in the area, they will take a look and at least follow to the boat.
When this happens you've won a major battle. On slow days the hardest part is seeing and locating active fish. Once you have seen a fish, come back later at a predictable feeding window. And fish confidently - you know a fish is there that will eat.
Words of Wisdom: Fishing is a sport of patience and adversity. Musky fishing is war. It will test your patience, and push you to the brink of frustration where it seems easier to just pull the boat and go home and drink beer. Fight that temptation, ONE THING matters in musky fishing: desire to catch a fish. Keep yourself on the water, and be determined. The fishing gods will reward you. Trust me.
To say the Potomac River is a big river, is an understatement worthy of a colonial tar and feathering. The Potomac - 405 miles in length, 4th largest river on the Atlantic Coast, and 21st overall largest river system in United States - differs incredibly depending on when and where you are fishing it.
In some places it is as pure and breathtaking a waterway you will ever find, in others - it'd be wise to wear a hazmat suit when netting your catch. But that's the beauty of urban fishing. You've got to fish where you are.
The North Branch and South Branches of the river are a renown trophy trout water - boasting great numbers and size within their rainbow, brown, cutthroat, brook, and golden trout populations - until it reaches the salt line near the Piedmont Plataea on it's drift down the Atlantic Coastal Plain. In laymen's terms, the river shifts from a trout water to a smallmouth fishery before ultimately becoming a truly tidal fishery with elements of both salt and freshwater fly fishing once it reaches our beloved District.
Because of the incoming salinity from the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac plays host to prominent runs of anadromous fishes (fish that live in salt and spawn in freshwater) in the spring - i.e. White Perch, American Shad, Hickory Shad, and Striped Bass - while also harboring mostly freshwater tolerant species such as Large & Smallmouth bass, Gar, Blue Gill, Sunfish, Crappie, Catfish, Carp, and invasive species such as Northern Snakehead and common Gold Fish. Needless to say, you never know what is on the end of your line.
The Potomac's combination of size and mixed bag potential reinforces the importance of treating the river like a saltwater fishery. Similar to the legion of tournament bass fishermen who fish this tidal section of river who cover water by making long casts with spinner and crank baits, covering lots of water with streamers and clouser minnows to find actively feeding fish is the name of the game. Sure you can focus on smaller areas and specific fish (such as mudding carp or spawning largemouth bed), but to truly take advantage of this river's awesome fishery (large, urban game fish) - you got to strip for it.
Outside of flies and stripping speed, depth becomes an important factor as well. Using sinking or intermediate lines to get your flies down in the water column is especially key when fishing places such as Chain Bridge and the Upper Potomac, where turbulent flows keep flies up in the water column and subsequently - away from fish. Even at more urban fisheries such as Gravelly Point or the water discharge at Four Mile Run - getting your fly down in the current and to the fish is as important as fly selection itself. If you're in a rut, experiment with depth more than fly selection to find feeding fish. You've got to find them before you can catch them.
Last cast: The Potomac can be a frustrating fishery. Its muddy waters and urban fish often giving the fin to those in pursuits of its natural treasures. But by thinking outside of the box and combining fresh and saltwater tactics to find feeding fish, one can improve their hookups exponentially. By following these guidelines to A) throw bait fish imitations , B) cover more water, and C) experiment with depth over fly selection - you will find yourself making the necessary adjustments on the water that you need to BY YOURSELF and ultimately - catching more fish. There is something beautiful in that.
Dig our strange.