Long Flies & Big Fish

As I’ve noted a couple of times in the past few weeks, the next book in the Fly Fishing series, entitled Long Flies—Streamers, Bucktails, & Other Big Fish Flies, is at the press and will be available the first week in April. Below is an excerpt from Chapter One. It’s a story about fishing for fall-run browns here in Wisconsin with a most valuable lesson at the  end. This new book is currently available at a special pre-release price of only $25.00, postage paid. The books are inscribed to the buyer and signed. These books are limited in quantity, so please order early to assure your opportunity to get a copy inscribed to you. They are available on my eBay store.

As I type this, I am just back from fishing a Great Lakes tributary stream for very large, fall-run browns. My biggest fish of the trip, taken right off the bottom on a dead-drifted, size 4, black, rubber-leg, stonefly nymph was 34 inches long by 20 inches girth (approximately 18 pounds). During our fishing days, my friend, Lou Jirikowic, and I had spotted a male brown that we were certain was at least 36 inches long. We always saw it moving about, but never holding where we could unload a cast to it. On my last day at the river, my long-time friend, John Beth, showed up for one day’s fishing. I told him of the big brown that we had seen but not been able to fish to, and indicated that we’d seen it just a few minutes before. He asked me where, and I jokingly said, “Well, from up there about a hundred yards to down there about a hundred yards.”

John was with a couple of our mutual friends, Dale Thompson and Dr. Daniel “Doc” Zavadsky, and the three of them were fishing the riffle together. I didn’t want to jump into the middle of their water, so I told them I was going to check out some other water and would be back in an hour or so. When I got back, John was sitting on shore, and Doc yelled, “John got the 36-incher!”

“I want to see pictures,” I yelled right back, not sure if this was the truth, or if I was in for a good story and a good ribbing.

Well. They had the photos, and the tape measured it at 36 x 21; it was a 21-pounder. Amazing. Seems John had started at the top of the riffles—a hundred yards up, and was swinging a large white and black, lead-eyed strip fly he calls John’s Silver Bunny. Half-way down the run, he spotted a couple of nice fish and started working them over. They wouldn’t even consider his fly.

After a bit of intense casting, he extended the line about 10 feet and cast again. The fly swung around and hung just a few inches under the film. It only just “hung,” because suddenly, out of the depths, came a huge white mouth that ripped the fly out of the film’s feeding zone. John was so “startled,” as he put it, that he didn’t even have time to take the fly away from the massive brown. He just stood in numb disbelief. There was no chance that the fish was going to spit the fly. It just wolfed the Silver Bunny, and the hook was set against line drag before John could come to his senses.

After the hook-up, the big fish hung tight and wallowed powerfully. John was fishing his nod to times past—a 7 foot, 8-weight, Deschutes Steelhead model cane rod, built by Steve Pennington. The rod has the butt power to lift the front end of a Volkswagen, and John had it paired with a silk line and a 1939 Pfleuger Medalist, model 1495 reel. The equipment performed as hoped, holding the big fish to two deeper pockets within the riffle until John was able to work it to the landing zone—a spot at about the center of the riffle where there’s a little gravel beach with a pool of quiet water. A big fish will lie still there, and can be netted or tailed easily without hurting it.

A brown that size did not get that size by eating dainty mayflies, or even not-so-dainty mayflies. It got big out in Lake Michigan by eating smelt, alewives, gobies, smaller trout, and any other meaty thing it could sink its fangs into. And that was the very thing that triggered its feeding response.

The story doesn’t end there, though. I had to leave the fishing to head home late that afternoon, but John stayed and fished the next day. His final score included two more big beauties: one 35 x 20.5 and the other 34 x 20. The total estimated weight of these three browns was 58.9 pounds. The formula we use for calculating weight (W), which seems to be quite accurate for these fish, is girth (G) squared times length (L), with the result being divided by 750 (in other notation: (G2 • L) / 750 = W). So John weighed in with three browns on long flies that totaled nearly 60 pounds! That’s astounding, but that’s the effect that long flies have on big fish.

John has two rules that drive his fishing for such monster lake-run trout.

Rule I – The Four Elements of Logic. You can’t catch big fish: (1) where there aren’t any; (2) before they arrive; (3) after they leave; or (4) if you aren’t there.

Rule II – The Anchor of Success. There are three types of strikes made by the lake-run fish: (1) Investigative; (2) Food instinct reflex; and (3) Territorial aggression.

It’s obvious that John has hit the nail on the head about all long-fly fishing, not just searching for migrating trout and salmon. Keep these rules firmly in hand as you move into the world of the long-fly angler.

The big brown that I caught during the fall run.

John's huge brown that fell to his understanding of the way these fish feed.


  1. Those are incredible fish!

  2. Gary Borger says:

    Thanks Matthew. It was great fun catching them!