Fly-Fishing the River for Musky and Bass -Getting Started

Having 18 years of experience fly-fishing many rivers out west I decided to take that skill set and apply it to the Wisconsin River back home for Bass and Musky. This article is designed to give you what you need and what to look for when trying to hook into your first Bass or Musky on a fly.

First thing you need is a fly rod, set up complete with a reel that has your preference of floating or sinking line along with strong enough tippet material to handle some big smallmouth and the potential for a musky that could top out around 50 inches. I prefer a 10 or 12 weight, 9-foot rod when targeting musky, and something in the 6 to 8 weight for bass. There are many different brands and price ranges to choose from to fit your budget. Talking to your local outdoor retailer and doing your research online will get you a great start. The reel for me is quite honestly a place to store my line. I don’t get overly expensive in this department. All you need is a big enough reel to store your backing and line, but I do prefer one that has a decent drag setting, although it is rarely used.

When selecting the fly, you want to use, you can go on-line to research “Bass and Musky Flies” and you will find many manufactures that produce these flies. I keep it simple, knowing what the fish will mostly chase and hit. I always start with my favorites and if fish aren’t hitting then I go to my second line. Anything that looks like a wounded minnow is a go to for musky. I like a musky deceiver in black, and one in multi-color, with a two-hook system. My presentation in the water for this fly is to get it out as far as you can comfortably cast and then retrieve it by stripping line with my left hand while holding the line and pole with my right hand. I basically make an eye at the bottom of the pole for the line to pass through my middle finger.

For bass, depending if you are nymphing (drifting the fly under the water), using a dry-fly (top of the water) or a streamer (as I described above for musky retrieve) you have some options. When I’m on the bottom or even using a streamer, I will always try a crayfish imitation. This is a must!! This can be bounced on the bottom like a nymph or pulled through the water as a streamer. The times I am using a dry fly are the times I see a hatch occurring. A hatch is a time when bugs emerge from the bottom of the river and then surface to dry their wings and then take flight. When you see a fish rise to the surface and slurp at the top, they likely just came up for a fly that has emerged from the water and is sitting at the top drying it’s wings before flight. The best thing to use here is something that will “match the hatch”. Try and grab one out of the air and then place it next to your flies and pick the one that looks most similar. I usually will try and throw to the spot that I last some them rise as most times they will not be far away. This is where it gets tricky and time on the water helps. You want that fly to drift as free as possible as if you dropped it there with no line attached, but you also don’t want slack in the line so you can set the hook when you get a take.

One thing to look for when nymphing if you really want to get down and dirty is to turn over a few rocks and look at the critters that are crawling on the bottom of the rock. Go back to your fly box and pick out the nymph that is the closest in color, shape and size. Drag that on the bottom with a strike indicator about 6-7 feet above it and cast upstream. If that indicator (term for bobber in fly-fishing) twitches at all, set the hook. I once caught a 15-inch bass on a small stream while trout fishing using a #20 prince nymph. They will eat anything!!!

Now that we have all the equipment and technical stuff down, where do you throw, heck, how do you throw? Learning to throw a fly just takes some simple instruction and patience. Did you walk before you crawled? The learning process doesn’t take much time and with the proper instruction or learning on your own, watching videos online, you will be throwing like a pro in no time. Where should I throw my fly is the better question? Breaking it down to keep it as simple as possible you will want to look for the end of ripples (image – ripples), downfall trees, buried or protruding rocks (image – structure), flats, edges of fast water, eddy’s, slicks (image slick), and deep holes. Fish are creatures of habit and depending on water level, clarity and temperature you can be sure to find them in very particular water. If temperatures are high and water is low look for deeper darker water or water with movement that produces oxygen. Rocks or downfall trees work great for hiding and ambushing prey and a great spot to get out of the sun and to avoid predatory birds. Flats work great on your somber, over cast, and rainy days or at dusk and dawn if there is enough structure and flow. There are mornings after a cold evening where you will find musky sun bathing in shallow water. Lastly, never underestimate the power of manmade structure. Bridges and pylons, docks, boats that sit in the water, and dams. These are often overlooked and hold some of the best fish.

Finally, you feel confident about your skill level and how to target a fish. BOOM!!! The water explodes as the fish hits your fly. What do you do? If your bass fishing, nymphing or top water, pull straight up and set the hook. If a musky takes your fly, strip set, meaning pull the line with your line hand as hard as you can to set the hook. In both cases, once the hook is set you will want to play the fish with the line you have in hand always keeping tight line and rod up or at least angled away from the fish. If the fish wants to run let it, give it line, but keep firm pressure and if you get to the point where you run out of line in hand you can resort to the reel but your best way to fight the fish is with line in hand. Enjoy the fight, don’t get to anxious to pull on the fish as hard as you can. Playing the fish to the net is almost as much of an art as all the other details in fly-fishing.

If you are adventurous enough to give it a try, remember, all new things take time. Enjoy the experience and the process of learning. Don’t put expectations of catches or perfect casts in your mind. Be humble, be persistent and before long you will have the skill set to accomplish catching a fish on the fly. Bottom line is that you are out enjoying the outdoors and will have stories to pass on to friends and family about the new art you have learned.


                            Shane Saari

                    ON THE FLY - Owner