So many fly-anglers become hellbent on being able to throw a line 100-plus feet. Don’t get me wrong, casting long distances definitely comes in handy — especially if you can do so accurately. However, after the presentation comes what could be considered the most important fly-fishing skill of all — feeding the fish. Being a good fish feeder means that you understand the nuances of a fish’s body language so well that you know exactly how the fly needs to move to entice an eat.
The late psychedelic-rock and blues guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix once explained why he was so quiet as a child: His father always told him that a fish would never get in any trouble at all if it just kept its mouth shut.
We at Fly Fishing in Salt Waters conducted three separate Q-and-A’s with expert fish feeders Capt. Craig Cantelmo, Capt. Nick Sassic and Andy Mill to find out how to get more fish in more trouble.
Capt. Craig Cantelmo
Coastal New York
Q: What are the key elements of being a successful fish feeder?
A: You’ve got to be able to look at that fish and understand its body language. When you a see a fish with its pec fins out and you get the fly in the fish’s zone, that first bump [strip] of the fly should tell you how you need to work that fish. Lots of my clients have a very rhythmic stripping motion, which draws attention but rarely an eat.
Q: So what do you watch for?
A: Typically, once I’ve made the right presentation, I make a long strip and watch how the fish reacts to that. More often then not, the fish will rush the fly when it sees that initial movement. At that point, I like to stop the fly. What happens is, since the fish can’t put the brakes on fast enough, it inadvertently ends up running right into the fly, which will almost always draw an instinctual bite. You’ve got to give the fish an opportunity to eat, and normally, for the stripers I fish for in New York, it’s the fly stopping that gives the fish that opportunity.
I can’t tell you how many times anglers miss the opportunity. They make a great cast and do everything right while they’re stripping, but when they see the fish reacting to the fly in a positive way, they continue to strip, all the while drawing the fish closer and closer to the boat. They never give it a chance to eat. You’ve got to remember, in most sight-fishing scenarios, a floating line is used, so every strip you make, you are pulling the fly higher in the water column and closer to you. So, really, what you are doing isn’t feeding at all; you are simply giving the fish a better opportunity to see you.
Q: I’ve heard others advise to always keep the fly moving. Why are you such a proponent of the drop, or stop, of a fly during the retrieve?
A: When you have a fish that’s starting to turn away from the retrieval of your fly, if you drop the fly, it’s less threatening to the fish. When you make that first bump and the fly is in perfect position and the fish comes at the it, you could strip it a couple more times, but again, you are drawing that fish closer with every strip. A lot of times, I’m not nec-essarily stopping the fly, but I’m imparting action to the fly while it’s stationary, which gives the impression that the prey is still moving. But again, because the fly isn’t accelerating away from the fish, I’m giving the fish a chance to eat.
Q: Can you give us any insight on the stripping techniques that you use?
A: Well, yeah! I always give the fly the tried-and-true “twitch, twitch, wiggle, wiggle.” Ha, ha, ha! Seriously, though, a lot of it has to do with the flies you are using.
Q: OK, so what type of flies do you prefer for feeding fish?
A: I pretty much high-tie all of my Clousers. You know, many of the flies people use, especially when they first start, have way too much flash. Personally, I’ve found that having up to three pieces in a high-tied Clouser works well, because if there’s too much flash, when it comes time to eat, more often than not, the fish will shy away.
Q: Would you say that high-tied Clousers with a hint of flash are one of your go-to patterns?
A: Definitely. I tie all of the bucktail on the same side of the shank. I tie it in front of the dumbbell eyes and then put a couple of wraps behind the bucktail so that the material is propped up and so that the point of the hook is always covered with material. What that does is it allows that fly to sink in a uniform manner, and it almost causes the fly to swivel on the way down from the bend of the hook to the eye. So with very subtle strips, you can impart a tremendous amount of action to the fly.
Q: What’s the most important aspect of feeding a fish?
A: The most important part of feeding a fish is recognizing when the fish is going to eat. That just comes with a lot of experience. With striped bass, I can tell by the way they are moving or the positioning of their pec fins. Then again, there are those fish that you can feed perfectly, and they just won’t react at all. But that’s the addictive nature of the fish-feeding game.