When we chased big browns in Chile, my guide, Claudio Ramos, told me to cast into the pocket water of the rushing stream and then mend as needed to keep the fly drifting broadside to the currents. “The big browns love to come up under the fly to take it as it drifts down.”
We used the biggest, articulated imitations that we had—5 and 6 inch monsters in black, black and red (the tope choice of the browns), black and chartreuse, and others. And the fish did exactly what Claudio described, roaring up to suck the flies out of the film zone.
This method of floating the fly is called the Brooks’ Broadside Float. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Long Flies, detailing the tactic.
Brooks’ Broadside Float
The late Joe Brooks was a most innovative and creative fly fisher who prowled the world in search of anything with fins that would eat his fly. He was not loath to rip into a huge tarpon or hang a fast-moving bonefish, but like most fly fishers, he focused primarily on trout and salmon. He loved the rivers of the Rockies, but especially he loved the Yellowstone and her sister rivers in Montana during late fall, when the big browns were moving about restlessly in spawning colors. When the aspen leaves were flitting to the ground, and new snow showed on the peaks of the Absaroka Mountains, he haunted the Yellowstone’s long pools up in Paradise Valley, with his favorite fishing pal, Dan Bailey, tossing long flies for big, hook-jawed browns that made the offerings of summer waters seem anemic at best.
His global fishing experiences had taught him that minnow eaters are not only aggressive, but are more likely to nab a baitfish when they can get a good cross-body grip on the hapless prey. From that, he developed his Broadside Float technique. Basically, it’s a dead-drift tactic in which the fly is allowed to simply ride the currents in a cross-stream orientation. Not so much used by today’s anglers, who seem to want the fly moving at all times, it is, none-the-less, a highly effective tactic that can be used solo or combined with other tactics for lethal effect.
In its simplest form, it is a cross-current tactic that can be used by either a wading angler, or when fishing from a drift boat. I’ll let Brooks himself introduce you to the basic format of this tactic from his book, Trout Fishing:
“In order to achieve the broadside presentation and cover the entire water, I like to start my series of casts at the top of the pool. I maker a short throw first, in the fast water up there, because good fish often lie in that turbulence. Then I extend each cast until I have reached as far across as I can and still control the line, or until I have covered all the water. Then I move down about fifteen to twenty feet and start the series over again. This way I can be sure of putting my fly past the mouth of almost every trout in the pool.”
“I make the casts across and slightly upstream, and lead the line slightly with the rod tip. If the line begins to belly, I mend the line upstream with a sort of backward and outward flip. This means that instead of the fly being dragged down the current far too fast by the bellying line, it floats freely, broadside, to the current and the fish…After a long cast you can sometimes, mend the line three or four times and keep the fly floating broadside that much longer.”
The broadside float was built on A. H. E. Woods’ Greased Line tactic for Atlantic salmon. Its chief difficulty is in making the on-the-water Flopping Mend without moving the fly out of position, especially on a short cast. Time has added a couple of nuances that can be built into this tactic to give longer dead drifts and more control.
The first of these are the aerial mends. At the time of the writing of Brooks’ Trout Fishing, the concept of the aerial mend was nascent, to say the least, and Brooks had not yet added this tactic to his bag of line-handling skills. Tragically, Brooks died only a few months after the publication of Trout Fishing, while plying the long pools of his beloved Yellowstone in the fall of 1972 with his old pal, Dan Bailey. I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that he was using his Broadside Float that day, as it was his favorite tactic for the big fall browns of Montana’s waters.
A short three years later, Doug Swisher and Carl Richards, both fast friends of Brooks, introduced the idea of aerial mending to the angling community in their book Fly Fishing Strategy. This strategy has revolutionized the angler’s ability to introduce controlled slack into the line and leader, and subsequently use that slack to make on-the-water mends without disturbing the fly’s drift.
Cast slightly up and across, and Reach Mend upstream to positions the line nearly straight across. Raise the rod tip and pick up the slack that forms as the line drifts down. Use this slack to make on-the-water Flopping Mends in order the keep the line positioned as much straight across as possible. This keeps the fly drifting broadside.
If there’s a lot of slow water next to your shore, cast and reach the rod tip downstream. This places the slack down current on the slow water. The fast moving front part of the line has to catch up with the slow moving part, again reducing drag. Hey, this sounds a lot like fishing a dry fly dead drift—that’s because it is. Just imaging that you are fishing a dry fly dead drift, and you need to keep it oriented across the currents. Make the appropriate aerial mend to initially place the fly and line in the best position, and then follow with on-the-water mends, using the controlled slack introduced with the reach, to keep the line in the across-stream position.
This is my most favorite way to fish a big, unweighted magenta leech just under the film for Alaskan chum salmon. These big fish stack up on the shallow water that flows smoothly over sand and gravel bars that form on the inside corners of big sweeping bends. The fish on these “chum bars” will take the fly as it dead-drifts along, often breaking the surface as they roll on the fly. When a drift ends, I’ll hold the rod still and allow the fly to swing across to my side and hang straight downstream. Often as the fly just begins to move, a salmon will roll up and inhale the suddenly energized imitation. My, my, can they pull.
Closer to home I use the Broadside Float on the cohos (silvers) of the Great Lakes tributary streams. Like their chummy cousins in Alaska, they may roll up and grab a brightly colored imitation as it dead drifts into their view, or they may hunker down and wait deep for the fly to come to them. In this case, I add shot or use a weighted fly. When I find that the fish are deep and want the moving, fly, then I position myself so that the imitation will dead drift right to the fish via the Broadside Float, and then just a few inches in front of their noses, snap to life and begin the across stream swing.
The way that I most often do this is to cast more or less across so the fly will drift to the fish at right angles to the current. When the fly is close, I’ll strip a bit of line and dance the fly with an up and down jigging action of the rod tip. Works like a charm. I’ve had some very fierce strikes this way. This tactic works on every fish species that ever ate a fleeing minnow, crayfish, leech, or even insect pupae and nymphs. This is a long fly tactic with its emphasis on control.
John Beth and I were exploring a small Lake Michigan tributary for chinook (king salmon) one fall, and I spotted a truly big male. When the kings were first introduced into the lake, truly big would have been 50 pounds, but once the newly introduced kings and the alewife food base stabilized against one another, a truly big king was closer to 35 pounds, and this fish I’d just found was all of that.
It was at the top end of a small island, parked right where the currents parted, holding in water just deep enough to cover its rather broad back. The kings that were introduced into the Great Lakes are the “Tullie” strain. They’re chrome bright in the lake, but when the time comes to move up river they adopt a light olive coat that quickly turns black. Even though black, they fight with all the fierceness of the silver ones, and this big king looked like a heavy-weight champ. My only fear was that once hooked, the fish would tear off down river with such speed that I’d never be able to follow, and would consequently lose it in a log jam or from the line hanging up in the brush as the fish tore around the stream corners.
But, those types of thoughts have never stopped me from trying, so I worked into position to make a Broadside Float to the big king so that the swing would start just above it. I never had a chance to make a second cast. The moment the salmon saw the dead drifting black Strip leech, it bolted ahead and engulfed the fly with great gusto. I struck with equal gusto and leaned on the rod hard. Without even a pause, the fish tore off upstream like a behemoth, black engine of destruction, jerking me around in my tracks. The reel was doing its best to whine an octave above its usual scream, and all I could do was hang on. The salmon bulled into shallow water, leaving a rooster tail of spray, and ripped right up onto a long gravel spit. It had grounded itself. I ran up and tailed it, and got the shaking of my life. But I held firm, and got my photo taken with perhaps the most easily landed king I’ve ever caught.
Lest you get the idea that the Broadside Float is a tactic of long casts and big fish rolling up out of the depths, let me point out that this is great tactic for “picking the pocket” in streams of all sizes. The imitation is plopped into the pocket and just allowed to dance around in the currents for a few seconds. Often this is all a hungry trout or small mouth bass needs to react with great vigor. Even northern pike, on the big tundra rivers of the far north, will nail a fly plopped into the pockets they occupy. Oh, and by the way, the imitations don’t have to be as long as your hand, either. Micro long flies (little guys tied on 10 -16 3X long hooks) work wonders in small waters where the fish are correspondingly small. Try it all.