Like the large majority of trout fisherman, I have fly fished almost exclusively with a floating line — fishing on and near the surface with dry flies, droppers and soft hackle flies.
I used the same line for fishing such subsurface patterns as other wet flies, nymphs, streamers, worm patterns and fly rod spinners using split shot and strike indicators when I needed to fish deeper.
Typically, when one fishes with a guide, the rig will be set up for subsurface fishing with a pair of nymphs/wet flies with small split shot(s) above and/or between the flies with a floating strike indicator above all.
Tippets are usually fine, 4X (6 pound test)and 5X (5-pound test). My biggest trout — a 27-inch rainbow from the Upper Sacramento River in California — and my biggest brown — a 24-incher, from Maryland’s Casselman River — came on this style of rig.
But a few years ago Joe Bruce told me his preference for trout fishing was to use a sinktip line, which is a floating line with a terminal five-foot sinking section.
It is far less cumbersome to cast and allows for a shorter and heavier leader, 3- to 4-foot of 3X (8-pound test). This compact and simple arrangement works with any subsurface fly and avoids the slack of the floating line arrangements with the attendant missed strikes, helicopter casts and often tangles. It also allows fishing big and weighted streamer and crayfish flies that draw bigger trout.
So when Dan Neuland invited me to fish the North Branch of the Potomac from his 9-foot pontoon boat a week ago, I told him I would bring a fly rod with the indicator/dropper rig and, as an experiment, a second rod rigged with a sinktip.
I was surprised when he told me the 5-foot sinktip with a weighted streamer was his standard setup for this river. Since he would have to handle the oars, this would be his only rod.
My plan was to fish the Casselman River the day before our float, then stay at the Casselman Inn and meet Dan the next morning. This would give me a chance to renew my rusty trout fishing skills on a river where I always had success. Alas, when I arrived at the Casselman River I found that it was so low it was practically unfishable, and probably few trout survived the summer there.
The next morning I met up with Dan. We drove to Westernport, dropped his pontoon boat there, drove to the McCoole ramp, dropped his SUV there, then returned to Westernport in my car for the 4-mile float. The river was low and clear, but guides we met at each ramp told us the river would be fishable but expected boating and fishing would be tough. They were right.
I started with the floating line and indicator and droppers rig. The limitations of the rig under the conditions quickly became apparent. The clear, shallow water demanded longer casts to get away from the boat. But this rig cannot be cast far.
Basically the backcast and forward cast are made with a slow, controlled slinging motion known as the Belgian cast or oval cast. (An internet search for “Belgian Cast” yields an Orvis video that demonstrates this cast perfectly.)
The line must be kept constantly under tension. The backcast is a low, sweeping action parallel to the water. The rod is then raised to near vertical and a smooth slinging action tosses the line in the forward cast. (Avoid the tight loops used with conventional fly casts.) This action prevents tangles, but, especially sitting low on the water, can limit distance — often to less than 30 feet.
Line mending, which is lifting the line off the water and flipping it upstream or downstream of the indicator to control drift or depth, was also restricted. Finally, the changing nature of the river during the drift called for constant changing of the amount of split shot and location of the strike indicator.
I had a couple of strikes which I missed, but I just never felt like I presented the flies where and how I wanted for any prolonged period of time.
Since Dan was fishing less, but catching fish I switched to the sinktip. The same Belgian cast is required, but the action can be sped up and greater distance achieved. Likewise you can drop the backcast to the water’s surface and then quickly come forward for a “water haul” version of the Belgian Cast for further distance.
With the sinktip, there’s little to no slack in the line. Watching where the floating portion of the line enters the water gives a strike indicator effect, and an angler can control depth by casting upstream or down and easily mending as necessary.
A streamer can be drifted, but usually is fished more actively by the retrieve and by mending. The retrieve can be lengthened by letting the fly drift downcurrent before retrieving.
In short, by using a sinktip line, you can present your fly in a lot more water in a lot more ways to a lot more fish with good control to set the hook on strikes.
I struck out with a white crystal bugger streamer. So I switched to a black beadhead wooly bugger with flash similar to Dan’s fly and was in business.
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I am now sold on the sinktip approach. It can be the choice on bigger and deeper waters and will work with any floating flies.