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Arkansas Fly Fishing Columns
By John Berry

John Robert One Bag The Four Most Common Errors
Midge Fishing Photo Opportunity The Net
New Years Day Rediscovering the Woolly Tough Day
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John Robert By John Berry

John Robert Shannon was born today. He is the first born of my only child, Katherine, and therefore my first grandchild. I personally think that I am too young to be a grandparent but my wife, Lori, assures me that I am plenty old enough. All that I can think about is introducing him to the gentle art of fly-fishing and reliving the special times that Katherine and I shared on Dry Run Creek. Lori thinks he may be a bit young, but I feel that you need to start them as soon as possible. I called my brother, Dan, to line up some private casting lessons and I signed John Robert up for the next Berry Brothers fly fishing school.

Equipment may be a problem. I have been searching the web non-stop for the past few months and have not been able to find a decent pair of breathable waders in toddler sizes. You would think that the manufacturers would address the situation. The only vest that I have been able to find is totally inadequate. The pockets are too small to hold a decent fly box and there are no D rings to hang gear from. I have not even been able to find a Gore-Tex rain jacket in the proper size. The only suitable garment that I have found was a pair of sleepers that I removed the Winnie The Pooh logo from and had a Berry Brothers logo embroidered on. I was also able to take an old folstaff and remove several sections to create a proper wading staff for John Robert. I am concerned that the handle may be a bit large even after some very vigorous sanding on my part. Until I can have a suitable rod built, he will have to make do with my seven foot four weight and CFO II reel.

Since I am having so much trouble procuring wading gear, I assume that for the time being my grandson and I will have to fish from the boat. I have purchased one of those child safety seats that fits on the pedestal seats of my river boat. I also bought the smallest personal flotation device that I could find. I plan to have him sit in the back seat so I can initially help him with his cast. Come to think of it I can just carry his high chair down to Dry Run Creek. It will make an excellent casting platform and the additional height will aid in sighting fish.

Later this afternoon I called Katherine and patiently explained that John Robert needed to come to Cotter immediately. The big browns are moving and Dry Run Creek is absolutely choked with trophy fish. There are also a lot of big fish in various spots on the Norfork. She said that he was too young and that his feeding schedule would not allow him to go on his first major fishing trip this week. I fear that she is coddling that boy! I will give her a follow-up call tomorrow to see if he is ready.

We’re glad you are finally here John Robert and look forward to fishing with you!


 

Midge Fishing  By John Berry

Winter is one of my favorite times to fish. There is greatly reduced fishing pressure, seasonally low water, and a reliable hatch, midges. The midge is the smallest of the aquatic insects of interest to fly fishers and possibly the least understood. In addition they mostly hatch in the winter when there are fewer anglers than any other time of year. They are often overlooked because of their size. My clients frequently ask how a fish can see and be caught by such a small fly. You have to consider a full-grown man eating M&Ms. They are small in relation to his total body size but he eats several of them at a single setting. Midges are the most available food source at certain times and the fish eat a lot of them.

Yesterday was an incredible day for the middle of January, 60-degree temperatures, sunny skies and light winds. Lori and I started off fishing with size 20 Norfork bead heads. We immediately began catching fish. When I pumped the stomachs of the first few fish we caught all I found was midge larvae. We were high sticking the nymphs in fast water on light tippets. I was using 6X while Lori was using 5X because of her tendency to set the hook very hard. We noticed some top-water action but could not see any insects emerging. We assumed that it was midges. I pulled out my midge box and selected a size 20 Dan’s Turkey Quill Emerger, my go-to fly for midge hatches. Lori did the same and we began fishing the fly by casting downstream at a 45-degree angle. As soon as the fly hit the water we stripped it back to sink it in the film. We let the line swing in the current. Rather than waiting to feel the strike we carefully observed the fly line and quickly set the hook if we saw end of the line move. Trout can be very subtle when they are feeding on midges. If we saw a rising fish we cast so that the fly would drift over it. We soon began catching fish. Lori landed a fat 21-inch rainbow that qualified her for the 20/20 club, (catching a 20-inch or better fish on a size 20 or smaller fly). I took a photo and we fished until dark.

The next day I was fishing with my cousin Quinn and observed his midge technique. He rigged the same way I did except that he put a small strike indicator about four feet from the fly. He cast the fly up stream to rising fish. As the fly drifted down stream he carefully stripped in any slack line. When the strike indicator twitched he set the hook. He caught as many fish as I did but I think his method requires better casting skills and more attention to detail. It can however be very effective.

My brother Dan, in addition to fishing with emergers, likes to fish midge hatches with dry flies. He loves glass smooth water, 70-foot casts, and is particularly fond of Griffith’s Gnats. I find these and other midge dry flies to be too small to fish. If I can’t see it I can’t fish it. Dan sets the hook if he sees a rise near where he thinks the fly is. He has caught a lot of big fish doing this.

If you want some good action in the winter watch the Weather Channel, call the dam, catch a good day and consider fishing midges. You’ll be glad you did!


 

New Years Day By John Berry

Yesterday was New Years Day and before we ate our traditional black-eyed peas, Lori and I spent the afternoon fishing a few blocks from the house with our neighbors, Mike and Cathy Wilhelm. The fishing started slow but after a significant amount of hiking we located enough fish to keep us occupied for a few hours. I took a break to watch Lori and Cathy work on a pod of rainbows with woolly buggers. As I sat there watching them nail the trout I thought of the traditional fishing trips that my brother, Dan and I used to take every New Years Day.

We would drive to the Spring River and park at the Dam Three access. We donned our waders and walked the tracks a couple of miles down stream into the Curtis water. Since we would stay all day we always carried back packs that contained our lunch, beverages, and any other gear we might need during the day. We would take a few fishing buddies with us to make it a social occasion.

We also carried any consumable Christmas presents and always seem to end up with Godiva chocolate, homemade cookies and single malt scotch (the good stuff). It was usually cold, so we would build a campfire to warm ourselves. For lunch, we always had Wolf Brand Chili cooked on a back packers stove we carried with us. A hot meal would help invigorate us for the rigors of the day. We would see a lot of wildlife, eagles, deer and wild turkeys.

The winter is absolutely the best time to fish the Spring River. The canoes are gone and there are a significant number of holdover trout in that section of the river. We fished all day usually with woolly buggers on sink tip lines. The fishing was normally good because that section is remote and doesn’t get that much pressure. In addition, a lot of anglers were at home watching football games and nursing hangovers.

On one trip, I fished a deep channel that ran along the uppermost island on that section of river. I had been fishing all day with little success and was becoming frustrated with the situation. I decided to call it a day and started reeling in my line. Suddenly something hit my line like a ton of bricks. I yelled out to Dan and our buddies who had also had a slow day to come over and join in on the only action of the day. After a heroic struggle, I finally netted a fat twenty-seven inch rainbow. This is the largest Trout that I have ever caught on the Spring River. As luck would have it, Dan had his camera with him and was able to record the event for posterity. It was definitely a great way to start the new-year.

Dan and I haven’t taken this trip in years. We now both have cabins up here near Mountain Home and now fish closer to home. It is great to not have to drive so far any more, but there was always something special about that trip. Traditions are great, I guess that we will just have to either revive this one or develop new ones.


 

One Bag By John Berry

One of the biggest problems that I face as a guide is to remain organized, It is important that I arrive on stream with all of the equipment that I or my client will need to fish that day. When I first started I carried a wader bag, a tackle bag and a small duffle for clothing. Since then I have organized my gear into one medium sized duffle bag. The idea is to put everything I will need into one bag. When I’m ready to go fishing I just grab it and my rod case and go out the door.

My fishing bag is a wet dry duffle. It has a dry side that contains everything that I want to keep dry and a mesh side that contains every thing that will get wet. Between the two compartments is a floating liner that allows the bag to be all wet or all dry. It has straps that can be converted from handles to shoulder straps to backpack straps. I use it as a shoulder strap so that I can carry it and have my hands free to carry my rod case or a cooler. Lori carries a slightly smaller version of the same bag.

In the wet side I carry my waders, my wading boots, a wading belt with a wading staff attached to it and my flexi-flask filled with water. When I return from a fishing trip I carefully dry everything and inspect each item before putting them back in my bag. If I have a leak or a loose felt sole they are repaired at this time. I also refill my flexi-flask with water.

In the dry side I carry my vest, a rain jacket, fingerless gloves (in the winter I carry wool gloves and in the summer I carry sun gloves), a hat, a net, a digital camera in a waterproof case, a walkie-talkie in a waterproof case and a small rigging bag. In the rigging bag I carry a back up of everything that I carry in my vest. This includes tippet spools, leaders, forceps, nippers, etc. In addition, I carry a wader repair kit and a reel repair kit. In a small accessory pocket I carry a pair of polarized sunglasses in a hard plastic case. This still leaves me room for trip specific items like a pile jacket or a thermos of coffee. When I return from the river I go through my vest and restock any thing that I used on the trip and repair any thing that was broken. I also dispose of any accumulated cigar wrappers or trash I picked up on the river.

I leave my bag out until I have finished this process. I do not zip it closed or put it away until everything is dried, replaced, or repaired. My wife, Lori, who has several degrees in psychology, thinks that I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I prefer to think that I am organized. All I know is that if I get a last minute client or a sunny afternoon with a good hatch I can quickly go without running around the house trying to find my stuff.

One bag give it a try!


 

Photo Opportunity By John Berry

A few years ago my brother, Dan, went on the trip of a lifetime, fishing in Alaska. He stayed in a fly-in lodge in a remote section of the interior. One day he and his guide left the lodge by boat searching for a clear feeder creek because the river the lodge was located on was off color and the fishing conditions were poor.

After motoring several miles upstream they found a pristine creek. They carefully entered it and as they rounded a bend they came upon a group of four Japanese fishermen with a guide fishing a pool loaded with king salmon. Dan’s guide went over to the other guide to inquire about conditions. He came back and told him that the other guide wanted Dan to fish there. The Japanese fishermen had a hodge podge of mismatched equipment and could not make the cast. Nine weight rods and six weight lines were just not working. They had been fishing with him for four days and none of them had touched a fish. He thought that if Dan hooked a fish he could get them enthused enough to use his properly matched equipment and maybe catch a fish.

Dan pulled out his nine-weight rod tied on a fresh fly, walked to the stream and casually started banging out his usual seventy-foot cast. On his third drift, he nailed a sporty fifteen-pound king salmon. After a spirited battle he finally brought the brute into the bank where Dan’s guide quickly tailed him. All of a sudden the Japanese fishermen were all over the place. They all had cameras and were feverishly taking picture after picture of Dan and his salmon from every conceivable angle in every conceivable pose. This was the most action these guys had seen in days.

While Dan began to revive the fish so that he could release it, they had a hasty meeting with their guide. He reluctantly approached Dan and his guide and as he studiously kicked at the gravel at his feet he sheepishly asked if his clients could pose with the fish. Dan and his guide stared at each other in disbelief. Neither one had ever had a request like this before. They watched the ensuing melee with interest. The Japanese fishermen carefully passed the fish from one to another. As each man received the salmon the others descended on him in a photographic fury. They took photo after photo stopping only to change his pose or load another roll of film. When they were finished the next fisherman took his turn holding the salmon and the process began anew. When their photographic lust was finally sated they reluctantly released the large salmon that had somehow miraculously survived this onslaught.

After this show Dan and his guide loaded up their gear and headed out to locate another feeder creek and hopefully some more salmon. Sure there were plenty of fish there. But some how this was not the fishing experience that Dan had traveled thousands of miles to have. They did leave behind four very happy anglers with hundreds of memories locked away in their cameras.


 

Rediscovering the Woolly By John Berry

The other day, I was fishing by myself. I didn’t have a client and Lori was teaching Psychology at a local college. I had been left home alone and the only alternative was to paint the house. The decision was easy. I loaded up the boat and headed for Rim Shoals. I motored up to Jenkins Creek, hopped out of the boat, and started fishing. I began by nymphing but had no luck. I tried soft hackles to no avail. I looked for surface activity but saw none. Finally in desperation, I changed to 4X tippet and tied on a woolly bugger. It was as if the clouds parted and the sun shone. The fishing turned spectacular. I began catching one great fish after another. They were big fat sassy trout that had been out of the hatchery for a long time. This fisharama went on for several hours before I tired of the constant action.

As I was motoring back to the ramp I was thinking, why don’t I fish Woolly buggers more often? There was a time, my woolly bugger period, when I hardly fished anything else. I often have my clients fish them, particularly on a tough day. For some reason I haven’t personally fished them much lately. I had been lured by the siren song of small nymphs and dry flies and had forgotten the resounding thump of a good fish hitting a woolly.

I remember the day over twenty years ago when my brother Dan introduced me to this new fly he had discovered. “It’s called a woolly bugger”. “How do you fish it?” “Just cast it and hang on!” Since then I have used it to catch trout (rainbows, browns, cutthroats, brookies and bull trout), small mouth bass, largemouth bass, bream, crappie, sunfish, walleye, speckled sea trout, and even a shark. I have caught more fish on it than any other fly. In addition, I have caught literally all of my big fish on it.

The secret of fishing the woolly is you have to put it on the bottom. I used to tie my buggers with 17 wraps of #2 buss fuse wire (a heavy lead wire) on a size ten hook. Now I tie them bead head style and they seem to work about the same but are easier to tie and are not as toxic. I tie them in olive, brown, and black. I use the brown and olive ones to match the bottom and use the black ones for fishing at night. When fishing them on a floating line, I use a 7 & ½ foot 3X leader with an 18-inch 4X tippet. It is important to use at least a 4X tippet because the palmered hackle on the woolly will cause it to spin. This will eventually kink up the tippet. I also wrap an inch or two of strip lead above the tippet knot to ensure that the fly scratches the bottom.

All of this weight makes the fly hard to cast. An easier way to fish a woolly bugger is with a sink tip line. I use a line with a ten foot sinking section that is rated type six (the fastest sinking). To fish either line I cast the fly downstream at a 45degree angle. I let the line swing in the current until it is directly below me. As it swings, I will mend the line up stream to allow the fly to sink better. At the end of the swing, I strip the fly back toward me. I generally use short strips (a couple of inches) and vary the speed of the retrieve until I figure out what the fish want.

What makes the woolly so effective is that it is a searching pattern. To get the most out of it you need to keep moving. I generally cast 2 or 3 times to the left, cast 2 or 3 times to the right, and then take one step down stream. If I begin catching fish I slow down or stop until I am no longer hooking up. I then move on. Fishing in this manner I can cover large sections of water.

If you fish woolly buggers regularly, good for you. If you haven’t used them lately, give them a try. It will be like running into an old friend!


 

The Four Most Common Errors Fly-Fishers Make By John Berry

I have been a fly-fishing guide for over twelve years and this has given me the unique opportunity to observe a lot of anglers. What I have noted is that there are a few errors that keep a lot of them from excelling in the sport.

The most common error is to try and cast too much line. This is my pet peeve. I see fly-fishers fighting their line all day to try and consistently cast 50 or more feet. I find that they are usually going past feeding fish to reach sterile water. With that much line out they can’t see or detect strikes. In addition, they have difficulty setting the hook. If they should hook a fish, they begin the fight with 50 feet of line out and if the trout takes a 35-foot run they are already in the backing. It makes much more sense to cast 30 feet and hit what you are aiming at. I hook 99.9% of the fish I catch within that distance. Occasionally I cast further, but this is when I am unable to wade close enough to make my usual cast. The exception to this rule is salt-water fishing, which requires a good 70-foot cast usually in a heavy wind.

The next most common error is line control. This is the control of the line on the water from the time the cast hits the water until you either pick the line up for a cast or set the hook. What happens is that as the line drifts on the water either slack forms which makes it difficult if not impossible to set the hook. Or currents catch the line and as it is pulled through the water drag forms, which makes the fly, appear unnatural to the trout. You have to maintain a delicate balance. You need enough slack for the fly to achieve a drag free drift but not too much to prevent your setting the hook. To accomplish this you must carefully observe your drift and mend the line as required. To mend the line you lift the rod and move the line up or down stream as necessary.

The next most common error is improper rigging. I consider rigging to be the leader, tippet and fly connections. If you are nymphing this includes lead and strike indicators. I note that many anglers use leaders until they are too short to be effective. If your leader is too short you will not be able to turn the fly over. Knots are frequently sloppy and the tag ends are not properly trimmed. Lead is frequently positioned too close to the fly. Strike indicators are set at improper depths either too deep or too shallow. All of these situations cause the fly to look unnatural to the fish.

Finally, I find that anglers do not check their fly often enough. I check my fly every time I miss a fish or get hung up on the bottom. First is the fly even there? You can easily lose a fly and not know it. I don’t know how often I check clients flies to find them missing. Second, is the fly clean or is it covered with aquatic weeds? If it is not perfectly clean it will not look like the food source that it was tied to imitate. Last, is the fly sharp? This is a big deal and causes a lot of anglers to lose fish. Since a dull hook will not always penetrate a fishes lip you will not land as many fish with a dull hook as you will a sharp one! This is a real problem with fish that have tough mouths like largemouth bass.

Try to avoid these errors and you will be one step closer to be the successful fly-fisher you want to be.

 

The Net By John Berry

One of the most neglected pieces of equipment available to the fly-fisher is the net. It seems like a large number of fly-fishers are out there without one. Included among them is my wife, Lori, who relies on me to net her fish and never carries one unless she is guiding. The gist of the matter is that you can land fish quicker and more easily with a net. When you are catching a bunch of stockers this doesn’t mean much. But when you hook a trophy, you are looking over your shoulder searching for all the help you can get.

If you follow this logic then the natural outcome would be that a larger net would be better than a small one. The tiny little teardrop nets are cute and would be just the thing for landing small native brookies up in the Smokies. The same net would be totally useless on Dry Run Creek. Since we live in an area that has consistently produced some huge trout over the years we need to be prepared for that possibility.

Several years ago, I talked to the late Rip Collins about his world record forty pound four ounce brown trout. He told me that when he hooked the huge fish he quickly realized that he did not have a net with him. He flagged down a boat and borrowed a net only to realize that it was way too small. In desperation he flagged down yet another boat and borrowed another net. It was also too small. Ever resourceful, Rip carefully slipped one net over the head and the other over the tail. He then lifted both nets at the same time pulling the monster into the boat. The lesson is to carry the biggest net you can reasonably handle.

Net frames are generally made of wood or aluminum. I don’t think the fish really care one way or the other but I just like the warm look of fine wood. One advantage of a wooden frame is that they float. My brother Dan carries a folding aluminum net in a holster. It is a spring loaded engineering marvel that folds into a small package making it easy to carry and use. Net bags should be made of cotton, which is soft when wet and is very gentle on the fish. A new development especially on larger boat nets is a net bag made of rubber. These are great because flies do not generally become tangled in them. A longer handle is a definite plus. This makes them more difficult to carry. This is not a problem in a boat where you can easily carry a long handled net. I always carry a boat net on Dry Run Creek.

The easiest way to net a big fish is to have someone else do it. While you are concentrating your efforts on bringing the fish in and gently raising its head your aide carefully comes behind the fish and scoops it up. If you are by yourself, you should carefully wear the fish down and work it into quiet water where the large fish cannot use the current to its advantage. Raise your rod hand and move it behind your head this will move the fish closer and raise its head. Extend you net with the other hand and lift it under the fish neatly netting it. Remember as you are bringing the fish in, do not crank too much line in. If you do, the nail knot or perfection knot used to connect the leader to the fly line could get caught in one of the snake guides. If the fish makes a last minute run it could break off. This could ruin a perfectly good day. Leave the fish in the net until you are ready to photograph it. Carefully release it as soon as possible after making sure it is fully revived.

What do you do if you should hook the fish of a lifetime and for some inexplicable reason you don’t have a net with you? You beach it. This should only be done as a last resort and should be done with great care to avoid harming the fish. It is also easy to break off a big fish in this manner. Work the fish into quiet water with a gently sloping shore. Get on the shore and carefully work the fish in until it is beached. Get the fish in shallow water and quickly take your photograph. Do not allow the fish to struggle on the shore and injure itself. Quickly and carefully revive the fish and release it.

If you don’t currently carry a net consider getting one. It can make the difference on the fish of a lifetime.


 

Tough Day By John Berry

We have all been there. You just drove for four hours to get to your cabin or flew seven hours to Montana or went half way around the world to fish in New Zealand. You arrive safely; you stop by the local fly shop to make sure you have fresh tippet and the indispensable local flies your buddy swears by. You are ready to knock the trout dead. There is one tiny problem. You have somehow arrived on a tough day when your traditional approach just doesn’t work. The fact that you have chosen this occasion to introduce your significant other to the gentle sport does not help. What do you do on a tough day when you are not catching fish?

The first thing I do is change flies. Try a different size of the same pattern.
Try a different pattern. If you are fishing small nymphs try a huge San Juan worm. If the tiny Adams fails try a Dave’s hopper. Mix it up. If that approach doesn’t work go through your box to select that funky fly somebody gave you five years ago that you always meant to try and fish it. During a typical guide day I will fish a dozen patterns on a tough day my fly patch will be totally covered. The one thing you don’t want to do is to fish olive woolly buggers for eight hours and never get a bump.

Try different fishing tactics. If you are high sticking tiny nymphs try fishing dry flies. If dries don’t work try fishing streamers. If streamers don’t work try fishing soft hackles. This is the day to try fishing terrestrials. This is the day to break out that sink tip that you have been carrying around for two years but have never used. If a given tactic produces a fish pump it’s stomach and see what it is eating. Continue fishing that way as long as it is producing.

Try fishing different water. If you normally fish pools try fishing riffles. If you normally fish riffles fish runs. Give particular emphasis to fishing structure. During low oxygen periods the trout may be way up in riffles. During high water they will be near the bank or in grass beds. During low water they tend to favor the main channel. Look around and try to locate fish. They will not always be in the same place. Ninety percent of the fish will be in ten percent of the water. If this fails try radically changing the water you fish. Drive from the Norfork to the White River or maybe Crooked Creek. How many times have you returned to the lodge at night after a long frustrating day on stream only to learn that your buddy just tore them up at a different spot? I once started the day with clients on the Little Red. When the water came up we drove to the Norfork. When six hours on the stream didn’t produce any fish we drove to Rim shoals where a late afternoon caddis hatch produced a memorable day.

The whole idea here is to try different things until you find something that works. Sometimes nothing works very well. You will find that you will pick up one fish here and one fish there. If you try twenty-four different things and only half of them produce one just one fish, that is still a dozen fish a decent day anywhere. The bottom line here is that on a tough day you have to work for it. You will find that on a tough day you will learn more than you did on an easy one because you tried stuff you never used before or fished where you never fished before.


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Copyright and credits. July 13, 2007