Dry Fly Fishing the Muskegon River
By Jeff Bacon
Fly fishing enthusiasts have know about the Muskegon River for many years, but it’s only in the last decade or so that its popularity has grown well beyond the borders of Midwestern states.
It’s a large river, spanning more than a hundred yards wide in places and with near endless stretches of riffles and gravel bars. Due to its size and volume of water flow, it can be a tricky river to navigate for the wading angler, but very fun and productive at the same time if done with caution and use of some common sense.
For those fly fishers who have spent most of their time on smaller streams and rivers, less than 30 yards wide on average, being able to “effectively fish” a big river like this takes more than your basic forward fly cast. First of all, don’t try to fish it like a small stream where it’s possible to cast from bank to bank, it will never happen effectively on big water like the Muskegon river. Instead, treat it like a number of small rivers that all just happen to be flowing next to each other and in the same direction. Dissect it in sections you’re able to cover thoroughly and you will soon fish….you know the saying, “smarter, not harder.” Easy enough to understand, but the truth is the hydrology of such large rivers is much different than it’s smaller relatives and you will see rivers in a different way if you treat them with a modified approach.
With many different seams and currents between an angler and a rising fish or target landing area, playing “seam jockey” is part of game. By this, I mean that we have to take the 2 different current seams into account that lie between us and that rainbow trout who is feeding on emerging sulphurs 40 feet away. A bonus to the fly fisher on a big river is the vast amount of room for casting such distances and being able to get to that fish. A downside to this is the probability that you will be contending with wind on many days. All said I’ll take my chances with the wind, especially if I have that trout on my radar AND know that I can get my offering in front of it.
A few things to take into account when fly fishing a river like the Muskegon is;
1) You DO have plenty of room to cast.
2) You SHOULD try different casts AND methods of mending your line.
3) You CAN change angles that you cast from.
4) You MUST try different fly patterns to entice that rising fish to take your fly.
1) You DO have plenty of room to cast - When given ample room to cast, I believe that even the novice fly fisher can learn to cast effectively to both rising fish and to known fish “lies”. Casting room has always been an obstacle for the fly fisher, primarily due to the environment in which we’re often trying to cast a fly line…..small streams. This is not the case with a bigger river and one should always capitalize on their time in such a river, it’s the perfect practice ground. The mechanics are very simple and coupled with the outstanding materials used in modern fly rod construction, it’s not hard to learn the basics and quite easy to practice and improve on the fundamentals.
2) You SHOULD try different casts – For those who wield a fly rod for trout, it’s almost imperative that multiple casts are employed at times, to counter the conditions and wily ways of our quarry. Whether it’s a blustery wind you’re trying to cast through or a boulder you are casting to the side of, arming yourself with multiple fly casts that you’re proficient at, can AND will equate to more flies put in front of feeding trout. For big water such as the Muskegon River, I find that the Reach cast and Hook cast are great additions to your straight forward casting stroke. AAdditionally, the Roll Cast mend and Stack mend are excellent additions to these casts and will KEEP your fly floating correctly and where it should be for a longer amount of time.
The Reach cast is my preferred cast when targeting a feeding fish that’s slightly downstream and out a decent distance, 30 feet or more. This usually coincides with different currents running between angler and target fish. By casting a bit more line than necessary to get to the fish AND really emphasizing the “reach”, the sweeping upstream motion with your fly rod once line is propelled and heading towards your target, your line ultimately lands 10’ or so upstream from the fish, with your fly line extending quartering downstream. What you’re left with is a bit of slack line in the water to absorb the small kicks and turns the current imparts on your line, as your fly drifts drag free towards the feeding trout.
The Hook cast is used when you’re positioned downstream from a feeding fish and want to get your fly to it, but can’t cast your line on top of the fish in its feeding lane. This is done by extending your forward casting stroke and finishing with a forehand or backhand extension of your wrist to propel the tip of your fly line either to the right side or left side of your main line. The resulting “hook”, looks much like the letter “J” on top of the water and keeps your line to the side of the feeding fish, while your fly floats drag free, into the fishes feeding lane.
Mending is the act of lifting the fly line off the water and and re-positioning it either upstream or downstream to eliminate drag and accomplish a more natural drift. Mending your fly line on big water such as the Muskegon river can be as important at the fly cast itself, if not more so. What good is a great cast, if it only floats drag free for a foot or two and then goes skating across the surface? This can be compounded when fishing over multiple seems, therefore a couple of tried and true mends are a necessity to your angling arsenal, the Roll Cast mend and Stack mend.
The Roll Cast mend is a great way to prepare your fly for a long, drag free drift and deadly when fishing in relatively flat stretches of water. The best way to execute a Roll Cast mend is to first have enough line out so that you DON’T cast all of it, but still place your fly just beyond the feeding lane of your fish. Then lift your rod tip, letting the extra 3-5’ of line slide through the guides of your rod, then re-grip the line with your off-rod hand and roll cast UPSTREAM of the fly line you have lying on the water. The end result should have your roll cast carry the extra line you fed out, as well as nearly all of the line lying on the water upstream of your leader and fly, creating a downstream angle of your fly line now lying on top of the water. Keep rod tip high to begin with and follow the line down to and past your casting position and towards your feeding trout. It’s a great way to get a long drift by doing all of your casting and mending, well before your fly come close to the fish.
A stack mend is used to create a pile, or stack, of line to aid in a drag-free drift, typically on a downstream-and-across presentation that crosses multiple current seams. Essentially, the angler is feeding line directly downstream from his position. The key is to have extra line already stripped off the reel, so you can feed that line downstream by simply shaking the rod tip side to side, to maintain a dead drift and feed line simultaneously.
3) You CAN change angles that you cast from - Another way to counter the affects of casting across multiple seams in big rivers like the Muskegon, is simply to re-position yourself in the river. By moving your casting position upstream or downstream, it’s possible to remove that troubling part of the seam from interfering with your drift. You may still have fly line floating over this seam, but not the strongest current(s) in the seam and as a result, you will get a different drift.
4) You MUST try different fly patterns to entice that rising fish to take your fly - Even with the best cast, mend and drag free drift, sometimes fish just don’t take your offering……that’s fishing ! However, if armed with a few different patterns of the same fly, you can get that trout to take your offering and more often than not, it’s because you showed the fish something different. Don’t be fooled, trout rarely “miss”. If you get a trout to come to the surface, only to have them swirl away at the last second, it’s because the fish saw something to make them refuse your fly. Don’t wait too long to change patterns, a few good casts should tell the tale of that feeding trout. Additionally, it’s helpful to pay attention to the rise itself, especially if given the opportunity on flatter stretches of the river, where choppy surface water is at a minimum and you CAN see how the fish is feeding. A rise with only a dimple on the river surface being seen, means that trout is taking rising/emerging insects and you should look for a pupa/larva pattern in your fly box and fish it just under the surface. If the trout shows its nose and dorsal fin during its rise, that’s most often the sign of a bug being taken from the surface film, like a caddis or mayfly who’s come to the surface and attempting to shed it "pupal shuck", break through the film to dry its wings and fly off. When the fish is obviously taking bugs that are free floating on the surface, it’s pretty easy to see and fish. At this point it’s a matter of matching the color and size of the natural insect, then mimicking the action or lack of action, to entice a strike.
Big rivers certainly present different challenges to the fly fisher, but by no means obstacles that cannot be overcome or countered, to make for better fishing. Learning each of these, as well as other “add-on techniques” while on the river, will make you a better angler regardless of the river. I believe that self discovery is our greatest learning tool and each of us can learn a great deal about the river, the insects that inhabit it and the fish that call it home, every time we’re out.
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