Reminiscences of an Old Fly Fisherman

By Wes Bigney


When I get to the destination and am assembling the rod and lining up the guides I stand the rod against a rock or tree.  I never lay it on the ground or against the car to be stepped on by an errant foot or eaten by an auto door.  After I have run the line through the guides I do not coil any line on the ground where I can step on it and cut it against a stone or gravel.  I make sure the ferrules are seated.

The Rod and Handling

The taper transmits force to the various parts of the rod depending on the amount of force applied.  So a little force bends the tip and more force transmits to heavier parts of the rod right down to the grip.  This applies whether casting or retrieving the line.  Much has been written about casting and I want to address retrieving, where the action is!

In retrieving mode the rod tip should be held close to the water and pointing in the direction the line lies.  Holding the rod tip up makes a belly from the tip down to the water.   When a fish strikes, the slack in the belly must be taken up before the hook can be set.  This split second can allow the fish to spit out the hook.  Holding the rod down makes the line straight to the hook, causing immediate hooking.  Also, holding the rod down and pointing down the line gives you a telegraph from the hook to your hand.  After some experience you will be able to tell if a line hesitation is a fish or a snag and you won’t have to wait for the snag to start moving to know it’s a fish!  Never set a reel drag up tight!  That eliminates the drag and makes a direct connect of reel to line thus eliminating the clutch action that the drag was designed for.

Simultaneously with hooking, the rod tip should be raised so that the grip is pointing up at forty-five degrees.  This puts a bend in the rod which is a shock absorber and it prevents the fish from making direct stress on the leader tippet reducing the chance for break off.  If the fish is large enough that you can’t get the grip up at forty-five degrees – let out some line until you get the grip into position.

Stripping the Line In

Assuming you’re right handed and retrieving the line with your left hand – the line should come back from the stripper guide to the middle finger of your right hand.  When your left arm is fully extended and you want to pull in another arm length of line, you come back to the middle finger of the right hand, which the line slides through all of the time you are retrieving.  You close that middle finger to keep the line from sliding back out after you have retrieved it or a fish is pulling it.  The middle finger keeps the line where you know it is at all times.  You never reach up to the stripper guide to pick up the line unless it has dropped from the middle finger and you are replacing it.  The middle finger is also a sensor that feels every foot of line that passes through it for knots, nicks or debris that may cause problems casting or retrieving.

Imparting Life

Fish generally bite living food and living food usually is moving.  Therefore, when retrieving a line it is to your advantage to make it act alive.  Stopping and starting a lure erratically makes it look desirable to a fish.  If you have been retrieving in the same style for several minutes and not elicited a take – ALTER YOUR RETRIEVE and/or change flies.  Don’t get in a rut.  Change position or cast to a different spot.  I have seen people fish the same spot for hours without success.  Keep moving, keep exploring, and keep changing lures.  A successful fly in one spot may not be successful in another spot.

Just because the water is moving, it doesn’t exempt you from also moving the lure.  If your lure is drifting with the current it looks dead.  You must give the lure some life by either twitching the rod tip or retrieving the line in short jerks.

You can cover different depths by letting the fly sink longer or shorter before retrieving. Try counting to return to the depth you have just fished.  If you were retrieving from the count of ten and had a take, you can get pretty close to that depth by going to ten again.  Fish often hang in a comfortable thermo cline.  Still water settles into temperature levels (the deeper the cooler it is).

There are a couple of situations I would like to mention. When you come to a chute between two rocks or other objects, a good way to fish it without walking around and ignoring it is to stand a short distance below the outflow and cast right up the middle of the chute with a weighted fly.  Then strip fast so that the fly is moving through the chute FASTER than the current.  This usually elicits a hard strike by a fish that most fishermen bypass.

One day I was out to my belt on the San Juan and at the bottom of a run channel.  I casted up the channel and hooked a fish.  He shot straight down the channel and went between my legs.   I was out too deep to keep my balance and lift a leg to free the line.  I finally sidled into shallow water and freed the line and landed the fish.  Moral: don’t stand in the middle of a run, stand on the edge and cast to the middle.

Another situation that merits mention is when a fish flashes and appears to have missed your fly.  Make ONE more cast with the same fly to see if the fish wants a second chance. If there is no take remove the fly and replace it with a different pattern about the same size.  Present this as quickly as possible and generally the fish will take it.  Don’t keep flailing the water with a rejected fly!

When you are casting a wet fly or nymph across the stream to the far side, the current will take your fly downstream.  Move your rod in an arc so it will always be pointing at your fly and your line will be straight toward the fly for better hooking a strike.  A dry fly used in this situation must be handled differently. When you put a dry fly on the far side your floating line will lay on two or three different currents, each moving at a different speed.  You will have to make extra slack in the line because each current will pull the line so there will be some long “s” curves in the line.  This acts as a corrective action keeping the fly from dragging across the current like a motor boat.  The big difference is you have to watch the fly to see a take and lift the rod to straighten the line to set the hook.  You generally can’t impart any action to the fly without sinking it.  This is opposite to a wet fly where you want to give it life and movement.  A good technique is to put a dry fly on the nearest current and fish it, and then work further currents where it will be harder to control the fly and keep it floating.


Wind is a fisherman’s friend on a lake.  Wind sweeps a lake surface like a broom and it pushes everything that has accumulated on the surface toward the windward shore.  Since wind is non-directional the windward shore can vary from day to day.  So on any given day the place to fish is the shore with the wind in your face.   Never mind easy casting with the wind at your back – here you have to punch out the line into the wind but it pays off.  (See Scum Lines for a variation.)

The fish cruise just off shore picking up whatever looks like food.  Frequently the fish are at a depth of only a foot.  In order to fish at that depth and that close to shore the fisherman must stand back from the edge by about a rod length.  One can also cast parallel to the shore from a greater distance.  By walking up, wading out and then casting, it puts the fly into deep water and beyond the fish’s feeding range.  When fishing a lake, check the wind direction and head for the shore the wind is hitting.  It will take some effort to cast into the wind, but it will be worth it.  If the wind is coming against a steep bank and not a sandy shore the fish will still be there up against the embankment.  In this case cast parallel to the bank and two to four feet out.  Keep moving the fly to attract a cruising fish’s attention.

A number of years ago I had a conversation with Gary LaFontaine (a researcher, fly innovator, and writer) now deceased.  I said the best place to fish at anytime is in the delta of a feeder stream since it washes in food.  He corrected me to say it is the second best place and the best place is at the outflow.  He had found that there is a minute current in a lake which carries food toward the outflow.  I agree with his finding but, depending on the amount of inflow, evaporation, and use of the water, there may not be any outflow and no current.

There is another part of a lake that attracts fish: where a feeder stream comes in and carries in food.  There is an aspect of feeder streams to consider.  Depending on the time of year, the inlet deltas may have fish congregating to go up the streams to spawn.  They may not be active feeders at the time but some will still bite.

Scum Lines

This is where two currents come together (either wind or water) and it forms a line on the surface which contains bubbles, debris and food.  The fish have discovered this and follow these lines which can be found on a river or a lake.  I was fishing at Spinney Reservoir in Colorado and the wind was fierce and blowing in my face but I was standing where a scum line was hitting the shore.  I forced a fly into the wind and slapped it onto the scum line before the wind could blow it back. I let it sink a little and was retrieving with my rod tip pointing down the line.  I had a solid take and then nothing.  When I got the line in, there was no fly.  I put on a new fly and repeated the cast.  Again a solid take and then no fly. I decided to try again, but to hold my rod to one side instead of pointing down the line.  This would leave some spring in the line and the take wouldn’t be so solid against the leader.  It worked and this take produced an eighteen inch rainbow.  The fish didn’t have either of my two previously lost flies in its mouth.  There are some large Northern Pike in the lake so I surmise it was one or two of them with big mouths full of sharp teeth that sliced my trout leaders.  Sadly, this episode ends here because I had to leave to make a prior commitment in Denver.  Anyway, I never pass up a scum line.


If you are wading in a stream or river you can fish the overhanging edges on each side.  Cast up and across so the fly hits the edge and will fall into the water.  Sometimes there is just overhanging grass and sometimes it is an undercut bank housing a single large fish.  A big clumsy fly works well for this because it looks like a terrestrial stumbling into the water.

One day I had crossed the back channel in the Quality Water on the San Juan, which was about hip deep.  Then I was out fishing the main channel.  I was walking along the edge and hit a small willow shoot that a beaver had chewed off.  This sharp top made a hole through my wader ankle and my first step into the water filled up my foot.  Now I have a problem in getting through the back channel to get to the car to repair the hole.  There was nothing to do but “go for it”.  The water ran up the leaky leg, got to my crotch and then ran down and filled the dry leg.  When I got through the channel the water drained out of the leaky leg but kept the other leg full – and heavy!  That last quarter of a mile to the car was a real one leg experience.

When I’m in moving water, I cast upstream first and retrieve faster than the current.  Then I cast across the current and pull in across the current.  Then I cast across letting the fly sink and retrieve up at a forty-five degree angle and last come straight up with slow, short jerks.

I usually don’t use weighted flies because I feel the weight dampens the action applied by the currents.  So I use shot clamped onto the leader about eighteen inches above the fly.  This way the shot carries the fly down but it can still move with the current.  However, in opposition to this weighted theory I offer this tale.  I was with Doc Jones (long gone to the Happy Fishing Grounds) and we had zigzagged down the trail leading to the lower Red River just above where it joined the Rio Grande.  The area is populated with many boulders and the Red runs somewhat heavy and fast sculpting pockets in them.  Doc was out fishing me about three to one when I finally swallowed my pride and asked what he was using.  He pulled out and offered me the business end of his line.  There was a brown Woolly Worm about size twelve with a split shot slid down tight to the knot for the fly, essentially a weighted fly.  I had the same thing except my weight was up the leader.  Go figure!

Here’s another weight tale.  Several of us climbed into the Rio box to fish.  We were all picking up an occasional fish except one fellow.  I finally asked to see how he was set up.  He was using a Brown Hackle Peacock which is what most of us were using, but he had no weight on it.  I clamped on two BB shots and said to try that.  He said, “I’ll be hooked up in the bottom.”  I said, “You might get hooked to a fish, also!”  He was standing on the edge of a run about two feet wide and twelve feet long.  He worked the weighted fly through the run and started to holler.  He had hooked about a fourteen inch Brown.

The upper Rio has a lot of broken water where fish can hold then dart out to pick up food and move back to hold.  Studies have found that trout don’t move very far off holding position to feed.  Therefore, a fly should be placed pretty close to a potential hold to get the response you want.  Speaking of studies, it has also been found that top water feeding only occurs about fifteen percent of the time.  That percentage is why I usually fish wets.

Desperation has led me to convert a sinking line and wet fly to a dry rig when I come upon a rising fish (not a hatch).  I use twenty to thirty feet of line and false cast a number of times.  This dries the line and fly.  If I lay this out with a soft touch I can get a thirty second float before it all sinks.  That is enough to get a take from a rising fish.

One of my favorite flies is the black Woolly Bugger and it has become my starting fly.  I fish it differently depending on the water (lake or river).  In a lake I use it without weight, but I use a sinking line, and when I cast it I count to ten and retrieve it relatively fast.  This is because it generally represents a dragon fly nymph whose method of movement is by jet, which means it tends to dart not swim.    This movement incites action to keep up with it and the take feels like the fish is swimming alongside it.  If the ten count doesn’t entice a strike, I work my way deeper by tens until I guess I’m near the bottom.  If this doesn’t work I change position.  If I change position a couple of times unsuccessfully it’s time to change flies.

The Early Days

In about 1939 when I was in my early teens, we were still affected by the Depression.  Most fishermen had one outfit that was used for everything.  My dad had a fly rod and gave me one he had retired to get me started.  His was a Shakespeare and mine was a South Bend, both nine feet.  We fished fresh water in southeastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod for trout, bass, pickerel, and crappie.

The lines we used were size “D” oiled silk level.  Tapers were too expensive: an EDF was about $20.  The silk lines had no memory and you could coil it in your hand or on the ground and it would cast without tangling.  The level lines came in four, twenty-five yard coils all connected and the merchant would cut off as many coils as you wanted at about $3 each.  The lines we used were made by Newton Line Co. and were called “Streamline”.  These had some types of flexible finish that belied the term “oiled”.  The finish never peeled as opposed to some lines that peeled something akin to cellophane.  It jammed in the guides when one tried to cast it.

The leaders for the fly fishermen were supposed to be cat gut maybe, but were some kind of gut anyway.  The suppliers sized and then moistened them to make them pliable so they could be knotted into several lengths (6, 7 ½, 9, and 12 ft. were the usual lengths).  Then each leader would be coiled into about 4 inch coils and dried and packed in cellophane envelopes.  Before you could use one of these it had to be re-soaked so you could tie it to the line and to a fly.  If you didn’t get it moist, it would crack in the tying process.  Special 4 inch cans were made to hold two pieces of wet felt that you put the leaders between to soak while driving to the fishing spot.  Then, as now, we selected the leader length based on depth, clarity, and openness of the water we were to fish.

The gut leaders were not very strong when you got above two or three X, the knots wore out and broke after three or four fish were caught.  Frequently, we automatically broke off a fly and retied it after landing a few fish.  The weak knot problem led to development of some complicated knots.  We solved it by just breaking and retying, but would always worry that the leader would not hold if we had hooked a large fish.

Most flies during that time and earlier were quite colorful and exotic feathers were used in tying them.  Those feathers, for example golden pheasant crest and jungle cock, were too expensive for me and I just left them off the patterns I was tying.  I tried to make jungle cock out of other feathers but with little success.  Most of my flies never had jungle cock.

Dry and wet flies were frequently the same, but tied to be wet or dry.  So a dry had an upright feather section, split wings, and hackles at right angles to the hook because the hackle points tend not to cut through the surface tension (all clean water has this characteristic).  The hackle points suspend the fly on the surface until the tension is broken.  A wet tie had the feather section wings flat, back to back, and pointed back along the shank.  The hackle was a small clump under the eye as chin whiskers.  The material used for both flies was frequently identical because dry materials were scarce.

I think some of the gaudy patterns were made as attractors while the dull patterns were to be imitators, and a water logged dry fly along with wet flies was taken as nymphs.  I saw my dad practically destroy a dry fly with his knife and then use it successfully as a wet fly.

When I was growing up brook trout still populated many of the streams and a few ponds.  We were always pleased to get a brookie – they were so beautifully marked and they were great to eat since they were more of the salmon than the trout family.  They generally seemed to take different flies than trout.  We found that either red and white, or yellow and white buck tails with silver bodies worked the best.

The brookies were so productive they tended to overpopulate and that stunted them so they rarely got over ten inches in our streams.  In recent years Massachusetts experimented with stocking them in some of the deep clear water lakes.  Most of the lakes of this type were created by glaciers and don’t have inlets or outlets.  The brookies grew large but were unable to spawn for lack of running water.  Brookies are still stocked but without regard to reproduction.


In the east there were more varieties of pond minnows than we have out here in the Rockies.  The fish fed on them regularly which led to our fishing streamers to imitate the minnows and we had great success.  The ghost flies were used extensively (black, grey, green, and brown).  My favorites were black and grey ghosts and I tied them extensively for myself and friends.  Since the ghosts were streamers they were made to look like and fished like minnows.  These were tied on sizes 6, 8, and 10, on 4x and 5x limerick style hooks.  The wings were two or four hen hackles laid together to imitate the minnow body.  If there was a tail it was short, but they always had chin whiskers.  If we could apply an eye we did.  This involved using sections of guinea hen, loon tippets, or small sections of various other tippets (breast feathers) with a dot of black paint applied for an eye.  These streamers enticed practically the whole range of fresh water fish that were in our area.  When we had a take while lake fishing, most of the time we couldn’t tell what we had until we could see it.

Since the lakes had no current we had to give the streamers life in the retrieve.  The relatively fast retrieve generally gave the flies the nervous “get out of Dodge” movement to solicit strikes.  Even if we were in a boat trolling a streamer, we continued to give the fly life with extra jerks while moving.  A fly moving at a steady, constant speed is not natural.  I have used this technique successfully while trolling a Woolly Bugger out here in the west.  I have also seen people trolling Christmas Tree spinners at a steady speed waiting quite unsuccessfully for a strike while I was getting strikes.

Herring were a great and abundant food source.  In the spring large schools of adults (12 – 15 inches) worked their way from the ocean up streams to lakes where they would spawn.  The fish in the lakes loved those babies (1 ½ – 2 inches long).  The herring were rather flat sided and shiny silver with a black back.  I made imitation streamers with silver tinsel bodies and white hen hackle wings and white turkey marabou for a tail.

When the small herring moved out of the lakes to the ocean, they made large schools for protection.  The mackerel, blue fish, sea trout, and stripers had a field day tearing into those schools.  My friends and I had much sport using my imitation herring fly when the big black bass and the pickerel were feeding in the lakes.

New Equipment

We continued to use our fly rods to fish in salt water, where the stripers kept getting larger each year and not so for the other fish which stayed out and in deeper water as they grew larger.  The stripers started getting into our backing and we started looking for fly reels with more capacity.  (The salmon reels were too big and over balanced our fly rods.)  My dad, an old time mechanic, decided that we could split a fly reel and put spacers in to widen the spool for more capacity.  I think we used Shakespeare Au Sable model reels to enlarge.  We could wind on fifty yards of backing and seventy-five yards of level E line spliced to it.  Generally, as long as we could stay tied to a fish we could eventually land it.

The most productive time for us to get stripers was at night at the incoming and top of the tide, using sea worms.  Days were not very successful and we failed to click on to big streamers for school stripers (schoolies).  Eventually, (I think it was in the 50s), the fly materials suppliers came out with long plastic strips to tie big streamers (8 – 10 inches long).  These acted much like marabou and gave the big streamers a lot of live action.  Heavier fly rods in the 8, 9, and 10 weight were made for salt water use.  New larger capacity reels with advanced drags were also produced.  The new flies and rods to deliver them made daylight striper fishing quite successful if speedy retrieves were employed.

The war effort engendered new materials: steel and fiberglass rods and nylon lines.  This revolutionized our lines, leaders and backing materials.  It also required new knots that wouldn’t slip.  The end of the leader had to have an overhand or “S” knot to pull up against the main knot to stop it slipping and untying.

The nylon lines had memory and when you stripped line off the reel it laid on the ground in 4 inch coils like a Slinky toy.  We had to pick up five foot lengths and stretch flex them to lay straight.  Coils in a fly line were bad news because you had to pull the coils straight before you could set the hook of a fly – if you had a stack line the fish frequently got free.  Also, when we used nylon braided line as backing it would stretch with a large fish pulling on it.  The line companies came up with a pre-stretched line to solve this problem.

The steel rods were pretty good but had to have copper added to prevent rusting and fracturing.  The steel fly rods tended to keep vibrating after a cast and didn’t have the dampening action of bamboo.  Bamboo became expensive since none was coming out of China as a result of the war.

I remember that black bass flies were generally large trout flies.  The patterns were identical although there were a few separate bulky bass bugs with spun deer hair and some balsa fly rod poppers.  The preferred retrieve for these bass flies was to cast it out and let the rings of the fly hitting the water dissipate to quiet water.  Then one jerk to initiate another set of rings and let them dissipate.  Sometimes nothing hit, but when you got a hit it was usually explosive and gave you quite a shot of adrenaline.

There was a small pond of about five acres that was full of bass and covered with lily pads.  We had a small wooden row boat that we put on the pond and paddled out a short distance.  Then we used a hair bass bug with a weed guard and tumbled it over the lily pads.  This retrieve produced explosive hits that would throw our bugs several feet and result in no hook ups.  If there was a hook up the fish was immediately tangle in the pads and we had to paddle over to release it.  The hits were all we cared about.

A correct retrieve in the correct location can be the making of a great day on the water.

Image from Max Pixel