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No Boundary Fishing

The jig is accepted in all factions of fishing. What makes jigs so special???

More than 60% of all anglers own a fly rod, of those, less than 1% use it exclusively. It would be safe to say that 99% of all anglers that own a fly rod.... also own a spinning rod. In fact, I can remember when there were fly rods that converted into spinning rods ..... or maybe it was the other way around.

The same angler that taught me to cast a fly rod also taught me how to raise crickets, care for worms, seine minnows, drag for crayfish, and lots of other stuff. When researching the history of fly fishing, I found that the true fly fishing traditionalists used several methods. They fished wet flies in the early spring and late fall, dry flies in the late spring and early summer, then again in the fall. However, in the hot, clear, low-water doldrums of summer, it was a common practice to use bait. Both worms and minnows were considered ethical. Most true fly fishing traditionalists considered the most difficult and skilled method of fly fishing was the upstream minnow presentation. And incidentally, the traditional rod was a limber ash sapling .... not the heavy hickory or the brittle oak .... cane and bamboo were not indigenous to Europe and were imported several decades, if not centuries, after the beginning of fly fishing. Fly fishers that only practiced, let's say, the dry fly method were frowned upon and weren't considered traditionalist at all, but lowly glory seekers. Even the father of fly fishing, Sir Issac Walton, said that it was not an art to catch a fish on a fly. Meaning .... it was easy to do and did not require any great skill. Since we know that fly fishing was the first method of presenting an artificial imitation and practiced by the early Greeks, all fishing of artificial patterns originated from fly fishing. So, why did this great riff between fly fishers and other anglers come about?

Have you ever noticed how the traditional, elitist, fly fishers of today want to keep fly fishing in a neat little box with a big red ribbon around it. They want it to stay the way it was 100 or 50 or 25 or even 10 years ago. But at the same time they want Nano-Titanium fly rods, superglue, gummy minnows, nickel-cadmium hooks, shark skin fly line .... etc.   Sorry, I can't find the logic in this idealism.

In the late summer of 2004, after 26 years, I quit guiding for trout because of the gross organic pollution of my trout waters. My peers chose not to take steps to correct this and wrongly chose to accept it. As for me, I retired to the winding, clear water, Ozark, smallmouth stream that is my property's western boundary. The author, Henry David Thoreau, once told his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I have traveled much in Concord”. I am telling you, “I have waded far on an Ozark mountain stream that a child can cast across and have found both enjoyment and enlightenment in my wandering” When I left my guiding career, I also left that proverbial fly fishing box sitting in the green goop on the edge of those trout rivers. I began to fish the way I wanted to and not by some imaginary set of rules that fly fishers are expected to follow. I started asking myself questions on the validity of today's traditionalism and of what value it truly was to me on the stream. I started using my spinning rod more than my fly rod because it took up less room in my canoe and its backcast was not as tangling. I began reading books that were not about fly fishing, but of fishing in general or of a specific species.

A long journey begins with a small step .... for me, it was reading. I suggest that every angler read these three books. The first one, What Fish See, by Collin J. Kageyama, was recommended to me by a dear friend. It is basically about how temperature, light level, and the particles in water influence the colors that fish respond to best. The second book, Slider Fishing, by Charlie Brewer, was inexpensive and about a unique method of fishing soft plastics. Brewer is the father of fishing soft plastics. His favorite saying is, ”Don't over work nature.” His presentations were meticulous in the speed of his retrieval and the weight of his pattern. He confidently claimed that one turn of the handle, on his low ratio spinning reel, every three seconds was the best presentation .... but if this didn't work .... slow down! The third book was bought at a yard sale for a quarter by my wife, Joan, because there were a couple pictures of a guy fly fishing on the dust cover, Lunkers, by Bob A. Underwood. This book is a compilation of 1700 hours of underwater observations of bass. Underwood left nothing to guess-work. His observations both destroy myths of fish, presentations and lures, and enlightens the reader to a new realm of understanding of when, why and what make bass strike.

Note of Interest:  The first spinnerbait was made for a fly rod in Indiana. The spinnerbait now known as the "Little Flicker" got its start in 1898 from a dime and a hat pin. It was extremely effective then and still is today.

The concept of "No Boundary Fishing" came to me out of necessity because of three tragic natural disasters that happened in a two year period in the area where I live. The first two were two "five hundred year floods" in March. The first flood was six foot higher than anyone had ever seen it and the second flood, three weeks later, was four feet higher than the first flood. The changes to the river were dramatic, if not unbelievable. Slabs of limestone one foot thick and bigger than dinning table tops were stacked up like the pages of a book. The river was blocked in some shallow areas because of the piles of slab rocks. The shallow, fifty foot wide, pea gravel, knee-deep raceway that borders my property was changed into a fourteen foot deep, one hundred fifty foot wide, boulder bottom covered pit. I lost eighty foot of my river bank and the trees that were on it. In fact, beginning at the upstream corner of my property, all the trees on the east bank of the river were washed away or uprooted along the bank for a half mile downstream. The gravel, food, and anything else that was buried in the river was washed away and deposited somewhere else. That summer, the fishing was horrible! The only place you could find fish was where the flood had not followed the river, like sharp curves or places where the river meandered through a pasture. Because there was no food where the strong current came through, there were no fish either.

Then, the third disaster came eleven months later in February. We had a three inch plus ice storm. Though the hills of the Ozarks are covered with hardwood oak, hickory, elm, gum, and ash trees, the river banks are lined with soft cottonwood, sycamore, wild cherry, and mulberry. Trees and limbs were broken on the hillsides, but the devastation along the river was like Vietnam all over again. That spring, we had our normal high water cycle. Limbs and treetops were everywhere. The banks were lined with root-wads and uprooted trees and the eddies and quiet pools were full of tree limbs, treetops and washed-out waterlogged logs. I could lose more fishing gear in a two hour trip than I had the entire summer two years before. The debris was so thick that fishing with a hook-point-down lure or fly, whether sinking or floating, stayed fouled up continually. Hook-point-up patterns were not bad to fish .... but any exposed hook was a problem. I spent the spring and the early summer fishing with soft plastic on my ultra-light spinning rods.

I had just about resigned to spin fishing for the rest of the season and was boning up on my soft plastics techniques by reviewing the book, Slider Fishing, by Brewer, when I read an observation he had made that changed everything. Brewer stated, ”90% of a bass's diet is worms less than 4 inches long.” If you have ever had a light-bulb moment like you just sat down on a bare electric wire in a wet swimming suit, then you know full well the exhilaration I was feeling. Now, Brewer's statement may not have meant a lot to most anglers .... but to me it was a magnificent revelation. I knew that Brewer was not talking about earthworms, but instead, he was referring to Oligochaete Worms, aquatic worms that live in our stream beds. You see, earthworms are in the water when earth is being introduced to the water, like when there is a rain storm or a bank collapses or a tree on the bank uproots. Earthworms don't last long in an aquatic environment because they drown. I mean, think about it .... they drown on the sidewalks in a rain storm. So there was no way Brewer was observing earthworms. With my experience with the Oligochaete Worms, I knew the worms that lived in his Tennessee mountain streams were in my Ozark streams as well, because we both fished within the Mississippi River Drainage.

Every angler is entitled to consider that his own ways and methods are best, so long as he can catch fish with them, and most fishermen will agree with the dictum of that great angler T. E. Pritt: 'One of the charms of angling is that it presents an endless field for argument, speculation and experiment.'” - The Fisherman's Vade Mecum” by G. W. Maunsell

In the same instant that I realized the type of worm Brewer had observed, I envisioned the right worm imitation and the best method of presenting it.   Spin fishing and fly fishing are alike but different .... kind of like putting your shirt on inside out. Both methods have their assets and their liabilities as well.

One of the problems of spin fishing in the debris pools was the amount of weight required to cast a spinning rig any distance.  The total weight of lead and plastic created a “tug-of-war” when getting it over the limbs and treetops. The total weight also made it extremely hard to distinguish between a limb and a strike. When casting a small four inch worm with a fly rod, weight had the opposite effect, you needed enough to make the worm sink but not enough to create the same “tug-of-war”. I bet you are thinking just tie a four inch San Juan worm with a larger size chenille .... Wrong. Every pattern had to be weedless with the hook-point embedded in order to fish long enough without becoming fouled so you could catch a fish. So I had to use a small soft plastic worm with the hook-point within it. Both Exude and Berkley make a slender trout worm that was just what the doctor ordered and Gamakatsu makes a #4 G-Lock offset worm hook that was just the ticket for rigging it. For the weight .... none at all, or a small five-thirty-second cone-head could be easily stop-knotted in front of the worm. In about half an eye blink, I was out of my chair and downstairs in my fishing equipment room gathering the items I needed and rigging the worm on a ten-foot, one-weight fly rod.

The late afternoon breeze was warm and the water was refreshing when wading wet as I eased my way upstream of a large pool's tail-out. The sun would soon be setting so I didn't have much time. Before I even made the first cast, I knew that the presentation of the worm using the fly rod was exactly what Charlie Brewer was trying to achieve with his very slow retrieves. Brewer was trying to "dead-drift". I thought to myself, “This is going to be so easy ..... cast the worm upstream and let the current slowly bring it downstream as I take in the slack.” I made the first cast with a red worm. It drifted about five foot before the leader started for the far bank. I set the hook and the fight began. It was a twelve inch smallmouth. I thought to myself, ”Dam, this is fun.” I made four cast with the red worm and caught three smallmouth before losing it to a sunfish. I replaced it with an earthworm brown colored worm and caught four more smallmouth and one large sunfish in ten casts before sunset.

When I got back to the house, I started packing my canoe ..... paddles, life-jacket, a nine-foot, eight-weight fly rod and the ten-foot, one-weight, thirty pounds of soft plastics, cone-heads from five thirty-seconds to three-eighths inch, extra tippet material, offset worm hooks from #4 G-Locks to #2/0 EWG's, nippers and forceps .... Everything was in the canoe except my lunch, frozen drinking water and Ebby, my Labrador fishing buddy.

I woke up before sunrise, actually for the third time before I got out of the bed, made my coffee and breakfast. I gave the wife a big kiss, patted her on the butt and downstairs I went. I hooked the canoe trailer to the garden tractor, filled a small cooler with frozen bottled water, my lunch and headed down to the river. I was so excited, I pulled that canoe down the bank like it was a leaf. My plan was to paddle up the river for about a mile to the highway bridge, then float back downstream past the house for another mile to a place I called Long Shoal. At Long Shoal, I would leave the canoe and wet wade for another mile to the Bailey Wood's hole. Then I would wade back to the canoe and fish the best spots again on the way back to the house. I had filled my tackle bag with everything that I thought would work on the my two fly rods. I had crayfish from one and one-quarter inch H&H; Baby Spillway to two and one-half inches Yum Crawbugs, worms from three inches Slider Worms to six inch Finesse Worms, four inch Zoom Lizards, minnow imitations from one and one-half inch Bobby Garlands to four inch Bass Assassins, and curly tail grubs from one inch to three inches. I didn't have one fly or popping bug, nor a spinning rig.  It was a go-for-broke day. I knew that this was going to work!

I started and ended the day using the same color, watermelon with black flake. I chose this color because the water was fairly clear and the water temperature was in the comfort zone of the smallmouth. The cone-head, I switch back and forth between gold and black, gold in the sun and black in the shade. This was straight out of Kageyama's book, What Fish See. Because the ice storm had done away with most of the overhanging branches along the river, I concentrated my efforts on the east-west portions of the stream where there was still some shade on the water. Again, as always, from early summer to fall, the combination of shade, current, and structure (SCS) was the best producer.

There were lots of surprises and much knowledge acquired this day. The first thing I learned was the presentation of any soft plastic is better when dead-drifted with a little current using a fly rod than the presentation by a spinning rig. The bulk of the fly line keeps the imitation moving at the desired speed and the takes were so easy and subtle that it took a bit of practice to realize how quickly the fish were consuming the patterns. No matter what the imitation, worm, crayfish, lizard, minnow, etc., the strikes were never hard and aggressive. Second, setting the hook with the longer fly rods was much more efficient. The sharp Gamakatsu and Owner hooks set deep and seldom were fished lost even though the hooks had been de-barbed. Third, when fishing a spinning rig, the angler always fishes from where the pattern lands back to him. This is not the case with a fly rod. The angler can let the current dead-drift the pattern along the opposite bank or straight down a run or under low hanging limbs and branches of bushes and trees. Fishing the edge of water-grasses and lily pads and other types of vegetation was a snap when compared to spin fishing. With a little current and a downstream mend, I could fish these edges and objects within inches of them. Fourth, Underwood in his book, Lunkers, states that the most common mistake of anglers is to assume that only one good fish is in a small area. Repeatedly, I found myself catching several bass out of a small area that had shade, current and structure (SCS). About 1:00 pm, I caught eleven bass out of an area that was smaller than my canoe where a willow bush had grown out of a pile of rocks in a moderately slow current. Three of these bass were seventeen to eighteen inch long .... nice fish in any smallmouth stream. This is significant in that the angler needs to concentrate more of his/her efforts in the shaded areas when the sun is high and the days are warm. Fifth, I found that keeping a soft plastic imitation bumping on the bottom is not near as productive as having it drift lazily above the bottom or even two feet above the bottom. Some of my best bass are caught when the plastic was drifting above them. Remember this; most food items in the water glide above the bottom, only pausing occasionally to feed on something. Even crayfish moving in the water column will swim above the bottom to get from one place to another if there is any distance involved. Sixth, because fish eat more small food items than large food items, I found that I caught more fish using smaller plastics than larger ones. Nine inch plastic worms are a joke .... three to five inch worms are realism at its best. For smallmouth, try to fish imitations less than five inches long. Seventh, regardless of the speed of the current, depth of water, or any other variable, dead-drifting soft plastics with a fly rod was a better, more efficient method of catching smallmouth than using a spinning rig in the same situation.

Since that first day, I have spent many enjoyable days No Boundary Fishing. Whether it is fishing soft plastics or spinners on a fly rod or flies on a spinning rod. Here are a few tips to help you on your journey to No Boundary Fishing.

Tips .... Suggestions .... Precautions.

Never use, and why: I never use the standard lead head jig with the eye coming out of the top of the lead .... Why? The physics of the standard lead head jig causes it to roll over, thus hook-point-down, when being horizontally retrieved and it encounters an object. The force on the line inverts the jig as the hook-eye reaches the top of the object. This automatically forces the hook-point into the object causing it to foul hook at almost every occurrence. If you are not vertically jigging, use a swimming jig instead. Swimming jigs have the eye coming out the front of the lead.

New old tools or old new tools: Since the objective of dead-drifting soft plastics is to glide the morsel above the bottom instead of colliding with it, adjusting the weight of a swimming jig or a sinker is mandatory. I suggest adding a sharp knife and a small pair of side-cutters to your tackle box or vest if they are not already part of your usual paraphernalia.

Brass-Eyed Jigs: I started experimenting and designing HPU (hook-point-up) fly patterns several years before the natural disasters that occurred in my area. I was trying to create lighter Clouser style flies to fish in my shallow Ozark streams. I discovered that offset worm hooks ride HPU and the addition of small brass hourglass and dumbbell eyes were all that was required to insure that the fly did not invert. At this same time, I realized that super-gluing brass eyes to offset worm hooks created a great jig for soft plastics. My favorite of these is a round dumbbell eye made by Spirit River called I-Balz. They come in four sizes: 5/32”, 3/16”, 1/4”, and 5/16”. The spin fisherman that I guide quickly realized how much better these Brass-Eyed Jigs are and quickly adopted them as well. The only problem with this method is that the plastic imitation must be positioned on the hook before the Brass-Eyed jig is tied to the line. There is an advantage to this though; you are always fishing with a fresh knot. With the huge assortment of offset worm hooks, finding an offset hook that will fit your needs is quite easy. I have recently created a HPU Shiner that has a #2 offset worm hook and a 3/32” hourglass eye that is extremely stable. That's another article that will soon be on my website and published elsewhere also.

Half a worm is better than a whole one!! Worms are without a doubt the most productive pattern for bass. The problem of fly fishing the larger soft plastics is their weight. Finding plastic patterns small enough and in good color combinations is an on-going scavenger hunt. However, with one simple idea, the search for small worms was solved. Because of the latest crave in bass fishing with small, chubby finesse worms, the search for small worms in good color combinations has ended for me. It dawned on me one day that the silhouette of half a worm is just nearly the same as a whole worm, and has half the weight, so I started splitting my worms lengthways with a razor blade. These worms often destroyed easily ..... but I had twice as many so it just about evened out. However, another idea about how to split the worms proved that half a worm is better than a whole one. By splitting the worm diagonally from about a half an inch below the head of the worm, across the body of the worm, to about a half an inch above the tail changed a lot of things. First the weight is half of the original worm and the silhouettes of the half worms are great, but now, the heads of the half worms are full size and full strength. Also because of the diagonal method that I split them, I now have a slender swimming tail. This slender tail adds lots of action when the worm is doing any kind of movement at all, descending, gliding, sliding over objects, etc. This added action without an increase in retrieval speed is a real asset that increases the number of takes by the fish. Well you might say,” Why not use a curly tail worm?” It is still too much weight.

Crayfish, crawdads, and mudbugs: My second favorite pattern to fish is crayfish imitations. Crawdads about an inch long is my best producer in the early spring because the naturals in the stream are about the same size. But from late spring to early winter, the Yum 2.5 inch Crawbug is a great pattern. These Crawbugs are designed to be fished with tube jigs, so they are hollow so the jig can go up inside of them. Don't fish the standard jig head as mentioned before. Instead use a Brass-Eyed jig made with a #1 or#2 EWG offset worm hook with I-Balz or hourglass eye in the bottom of the offset. And one more thing, cut the belly of the crawbug from the head to the center of the tail. This allows the hook to set more efficiently without the soft plastic belly interfering.

Finding the right size of soft plastics: There are a few companies that make four inch worms and smaller. One such company is Wobblehead Lures. Wobblehead makes slender four inch worm in a fair assortment of colors. Charlie Brewer's Slider Fishing company makes a 3 inch chubby worm in lots of great color combinations. Slider has lots of small effective grubs and other products too. One of my favorite minnow imitations is their three inch double action grub. Zoom makes the best four inch lizards in great color combinations. Their cotton candy color is my best clear water producer. Finesse worms are made by several companies.

Different ways to rig soft plastic worms, lizards, crayfish, minnows and grubs: Sinking! There are several methods of sinking soft plastics. I use homemade Brass-Eyed jigs, light weight Slider Crappie jigs, a variation of the standard spin fishing setup (an offset worm hook and a cone-head), and pinched-on lead shot. A point to remember,; the weight should be stationary right on the hook-eye if you are not using a swimming jig. Bob Underwood, in his book, Lunkers, made a very strong point about how a moveable weight will foul the angler in the debris on the bottom. His recommendation was to peg or stop-knot the weight as close as possible to the hook-eye. Floating! If you want a pattern to float on the surface, stop-knot a Styrofoam indicator right above the hook, or loosely stop-knot a popper body above the hook-eye if you want erratic noisy action. Intermediate! Because all of the larger plastic imitations that I fish with sink fairly well, I often use only the soft plastic imitation and the offset worm hook and no weight at all. This is a very effective in shallow areas. However the smaller plastics imitations are very slow descending, these are great for fishing lily-pads, water-grasses, and floating limbs and logs. Just make sure that the hook-point is embedded into the plastic.

There is so much more that I have learned since that first day .... it would take a book to tell it all. This is to be an article. The reason I was asked to write it is for you, the reader, so you can see how exciting it is to step out of the proverbial fly fishing box and have some fun and enlightenment while fly fishing with "No Boundaries". In the proverbial box, you are comfortable and your buddies don't razz you or intimidate you .... but you are missing the excitement of experimentation, adaptation, creation, investigation, and so many more “ations”. A fishing trip is something that is done “now” when you are conscious of the present moment. It's done in real time. That's the joy of it, it is a real time experience. Don't screw it up by placing a boundary on your imagination. You could enjoy a fishing experience that is more than your expectations.

If you want to see No Boundary fly fishing in action, I have posted two short videos on YouTube, It's All Fly Fishing Part 1,  and It's All Fly Fishing Part 2 . Please watch both parts because the second part is a continuation of the first. I catch eight or nine smallmouth in one small area.

It's All Fly Fishing,
Fox Statler

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