Pro Tips: Nymphing vs Swinging for Steelhead

Written by: Dave Stewart, Wet Fly Swing


This winter steelhead was caught on a nymphing setup.
Photo by Dave Stewart

Have you been thinking about getting into steelhead fishing, but are not sure where to start? Maybe you have been out a time or two but weren’t quite successful. You’ve probably. . .

Written by: Dave Stewart, Wet Fly Swing


This winter steelhead was caught on a nymphing setup.
Photo by Dave Stewart

Have you been thinking about getting into steelhead fishing, but are not sure where to start? Maybe you have been out a time or two but weren’t quite successful. You’ve probably heard about the two main strategies for steelhead fly fishing: nymphing and swinging flies. These two tactics that couldn’t be more different.

One is about getting down and dirty, while the other is about making a nice gentle swing across the water. With one, you are chucking and ducking, and with the other you are coaxing a steelhead to come up to your offering. One is about dredging the bottom, and the other is about hooking fish near surface.

There’s no question that both of these methods are effective, but what’s the best one to start off with? Which one is going to catch you more fish? Which one do people find more enjoyable?

I’m going to answer a few of these questions and leave a few for you to discover on your own. I’m going to take you down the road to understanding the benefits and drawbacks of both methods. You will have a good feel for what you need to get started in catching that first fish, especially with the 23 steelhead fishing tips listed at the end.

The East vs. West Debate
So, what’s all of this East Coast vs West Coast stuff you hear about? It’s about the Great Lakes fisheries vs. the Pacific Northwest fisheries. Here’s a brief history of steelhead introductions and natural distribution of steelhead.

Steelhead are native to the Pacific Rim and were historically distributed from Mexico, up and around the rim, and over to Kamchatka in Russia. More than 100 years ago, steelhead were introduced into the Great Lakes and have taken off there. These are hugely popular fisheries that are slightly different from West Coast fisheries.

So, what’s the big difference? The swing. Although there is some swinging of flies on the Great Lakes tributaries, it’s not the predominate method of catching steelhead there. Nymphing tactics rule, and rightfully so, because they are effective and can produce huge returns.

West Coast rivers are typically larger and deeper, and runs are tailored to easy swinging for summer, fall, and winter steelhead. For summers, you can get steelhead to even come to the surface for a swung dry fly.

What does this mean for you? It means that you have multiple ways to target these fish.

Which one is better? Well. . . it depends. I know, you didn’t want to hear that. But it depends on your water conditions and the size of the river. It depends on the depth and water clarity. It depends on your casting ability. It depends on what you end up enjoying more.

I’ve probably hooked an equal number of fish using both methods and can say from experience that I have been addicted to both techniques. Currently, though, I‘m on the swinging bandwagon. This is mainly because I now have two young kids who have restricted my fishing time and caused me to choose a limited number of trips.

Swinging flies for summer steelhead late on an August evening, when it is 100 degrees out, is pretty amazing. You are standing in that cool water as the warm breeze picks up a little to cool off the water, and it takes you to another world. You are enjoying that serene world, the feel of the breeze, caught up in the rhythmic lull of the river, when suddenly the rod is nearly ripped out of your hand–the pull of a lifetime! This is summer steelhead fishing. This is what I have chosen, for now.

How do you fish each method? Here’s a quick run down of the technique and gear types so you have a feel for what it will take to get you ready.


Swinging flies on a misty morning is a magical experience.
Photo by Dave Stewart

Spey Rod vs Single-hand rod
I used to think that single-hand rods were the traditional and best way to catch steelhead. I used to think Spey rods were for yuppies who were trying to be cool. I now know that my Spey rod has helped me catch a lot more fish. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.

For casting long lines and swinging flies, Spey rods are great tools. Spey fishing increases the time your fly is on the water, gives you more control in wind, allows you to cast bigger flies, keeps you from getting tired, and lets you have a lot of fun.

There is still plenty of room for single-hand rods. For smaller rivers especially, single rods are great for steelhead. For smaller flies and lower water conditions, single handers will do the trick. So you don’t have to go out and by a Spey rod tomorrow. Use what you have to find out if you enjoy steelheading first.

Nymphing Gear and Tactics
A 9- or 10-foot 8-weight single-hand rod will work in most situations for nymphing. An 11-foot or longer switch rod offers you extra versatility. Use a weight-forward line for the single-hand rod, and either a Skagit or Scandi line for the switch rod. Use a leader that is twice as long as the water is deep. These are the basics.

The nymphing setup is pretty simple. You can use an indicator above your fly with a split shot 18 inches above your fly with enough split shot to get it down. The most basic pattern and one that has caught more fish for me than any other is the Glo Bug, but stoneflies and plenty of other buggy or egg patterns will do the trick. Take a look at this article for additional tips and flies for nymphing.

The goal is to achieve a dead drift that essentially floats naturally downstream with the speed of the water. As your line moves by you and downstream, you can extend your run by feeding slack into the drift. After your line straightens out below you, get set up for another cast up into the slot. Look for the seam lines when chasing steelhead. The fish will be holding on the edges of the faster water where they can rest, as well as in the spots where there’s some structure to break things up.

Swinging Tactics for Steelhead
I can’t imagine that fishing can get much easier than swinging flies. Cast your fly out, downstream and across, give it a little mend, keep your rod tip near the water and wait for a pull as the line and fly swing across. Although this sounds simple, there are still plenty of challenges. Finding the fish is on top of the list. This article describes summer steelheading.

You need to look for the broken water within the larger run. Steelhead like water that is the pace of a walk and will seek shelter near underwater obstructions, which aren’t always obvious.

There is a wide range of gear choices can do the job. A 12- or 13-foot spey rod is sufficient in most cases for Skagit or Scandi spey lines. For single-hand rods, a 9-foot 8-weight will do the trick. Use a 6- to 9-foot leader, depending on conditions. If you are swinging flies with a sinking line, you should use a shorter leader to insure that your fly get down in the striking zone.

That’s about it. Your main focus should be covering the water to find the fish. Cast, swing, hang the fly, and then step down. Then do it again until you feel a fish. Stay with that fish until he hooks up.


Early morning last minute preparation..
Photo by Dave Stewart

20 Random Tips for Steelhead

  1. Swing wet flies on the surface before the sun is on the water in the morning and evening.

  2. For Spey rods, use a Skagit line for heavier flies and deeper water and a Scandi for lighter flies and shallower water.

  3. 5 killer patterns for all-around steelheading: Egg-Sucking Leech, Glo Bug, Max Canyon, Purple Burlesque, and Kaufmann’s Stone.

  4. The two best steelhead books to get you started:A Passion for Steelhead by Dec Hogan, and Steelhead Fly Fishing by Trey Combs.

  5. Steelhead can hit lightly, so if you feel a tip or tap, put the fly back to the same spot on the next cast.

  6. If you hook a fish, mark the spot because it will hold fish again and again, year after year.

  7. Switch to a smaller fly.

  8. Sharpen your hook before each session.

  9. Move to the opposite bank to get a better angle on the run and fish.

  10. Get elevated to see holding water and spot fish.

  11. Alter the depth of fly when swinging by using more or fewer mends.

  12. Let the hole rest, then run through it again with a different fly.

  13. Don’t be afraid to fish behind your buddy or that dude who just fished through.

  14. Fish water that is 3 to 6 feet deep.

  15. Fish water that is flowing at walking speed.

  16. Start close and cover the water before you wade out deep.

  17. Let your fly hang at the end of the swing.

  18. Bow to the fish before you set the hook.

  19. Practice casting when you can’t fish.

  20. Cut the excuses and get out fishing ASAP

Conclusion
Should you nymph or swing? There’s no right answer here. Both methods are effective for steelhead. Whether you start nymphing or swinging flies, the important thing is to make sure you get out and practice. I challenge you to do one thing to get a step closer to catching a steelhead. Once you do, you will be hooked, and the passion will only grow as you connect with more steelhead.

Dave Stewart runs WetFlySwing.com, and he’s offering a special guidebook for Orvis News readers. Dave is a lifelong fly fisherman, and has a passion for steelhead fishing and natural resource protection.

Dog Safety During Hunting Season


Photo via orvis.com

If you enjoy hiking with your dog and live in an area with seasonal hunting, hitting the trails takes an extra measure of prep and precaution. Dog safety during hunting season starts with the understanding that you’re sharing the great outdoors, and with an awareness of how hunters engage in their sport. Here’s what you need to know to keep your dog safe when hiking, walking, or running with her during hunting season:


Photo via orvis.com

If you enjoy hiking with your dog and live in an area with seasonal hunting, hitting the trails takes an extra measure of prep and precaution. Dog safety during hunting season starts with the understanding that you’re sharing the great outdoors, and with an awareness of how hunters engage in their sport. Here’s what you need to know to keep your dog safe when hiking, walking, or running with her during hunting season:

Know Hunting Season Dates

Non-hunters may not pay attention to hunting season opening weekends, or the exact boundaries of hunting regions. But if you’re a dog owner in a woodland or upland hunting area, it’s critical to educate yourself about hunting dates to keep your best friend safe.

Generally, hunting seasons occur in spring and fall, but the dates can vary widely based upon region. Every state and US territory has a US Fish and Wildlife Service office that provides the public information on local hunting seasons, regulations, and boundaries. Each state also has its own department that oversees hunting regulations and provides detailed information about hunting season. These offices will have varied names, but searching for titles such as ‘fish and game,’ ‘environmental preservation,’ ‘natural resources,’ and ‘wildlife resources’ will point you in the right direction.

Be aware that hunting regulations, seasons, and boundaries are subject to change. For example, elk season in Washington state shifts annually based on elk population size and location. Also, hunting on Sundays during the season is completely banned in a handful of states, allowed on private land on Sundays in some states, and allowed on public and private lands on Sundays in still others.

If you love hiking with your dog year-round, knowing the hunting zones and times will help you take the precautions outlined below, when and where they are most crucial.

Avoid Busy Hunting Times

Opening weekend of any hunting season is usually the busiest, so it’s a good time for you and your dog to explore the neighborhood streets around your home rather than hiking in the woods or trekking far off the sidewalks over hill and dale. The same goes for dawn and dusk during hunting season, which is prime time for upland hunters and big-game hunters alike.

Avoid Busy Hunting Areas

To minimize safety concerns during hunting season, opt to hike with your dog in parks and nature preserves where the sport is not allowed. Small community parks generally won’t allow hunting, but larger public lands, such as National Forests, usually do. Though many parks managed by the US National Park Service allow hunting in order to control animal populations, most of the major parks and many smaller areas do not allow hunting. Explore listings of local, state, and national parks, forests, and wildlife preserves to find nearby dog-friendly parks that are hunting-free zones. You may find yourself looking forward to visiting parks further afield than your usual treks when hunting season arrives.

Draw Attention to You and Your Dog

Hunters take precautions, including always double checking the area around their quarry, and keeping their sights set only on their target. Hunters also wear ‘blaze’—brightly colored vests and clothing designed to draw attention to themselves so they aren’t mistaken for game by other hunters. For the same reason, they also put brightly colored vests on their sporting dogs. Vibrant orange is the traditional blaze hue for the eye-catching protective clothing, but it also comes in other neon colors, such as yellow, pink, and blue. If you hike with your dog during hunting season, invest in a bright-colored vest or dog jacket so she stands out against the trees and underbrush. For those who hike at dawn and dusk, it’s wise to add reflective collars, harnesses, and leashes to your dog’s safety wear because they make your dog more visible in low light.

Finally, make some noise when you’re hiking with your dog—hiking in pensive silence is best left for after hunting season. If you are on the trail with chatty hiking buddies, your conversation and laughter will help draw attention to your presence. If you’re with a quiet crowd or alone, affix a locator bell to your dog’s collar—it’ll jingle with every step she takes. These dog collar bells are designed to help hikers and hunters keep track of their dogs when off-leash. But in hunting season, they are an excellent way to ensure hunters in your area know you are nearby.

Train Your Dog to Come

Obedience training is always an important component of responsible dog ownership. And, no matter where you live, recall is the most important command for her safety. Simply put, recall is teaching your dog or puppy to come immediately and without fail each time you call. For suburban or city dwelling dogs, the recall command prevents a dog from running into traffic. In hunting territory, it stops your dog from running through the woods or fields during seasons when she may encounter a hunter.

The recall command is usually “here” or “come,” followed by your dog’s name. You may think you don’t need to worry much about recall because you have a secure back yard or you never walk your dog off leash, but accidents are always possible. This is a ‘better safe than sorry’ situation. Once you’ve trained your dog to come, know that retraining is sometimes necessary, especially if you don’t use the recall command very often. It’s wise to test and reinforce your dog’s recall training before hunting season every year.

Keep Your Dog on Leash

If your dog is a recall champion, hiking with her off leash is a unique pleasure and a rare freedom for your adventurous furry friend. But it’s not advisable during hunting season. As highlighted above, there’s always the slim possibility a far-off scent or sound proves too tempting to ignore. Always keep your dog on leash and close by your side during hunting season, so you know she’s safe at all times.

Supervise Backyard Time

You’ve checked and double-checked your backyard fence to ensure your dog can’t break out by digging, squeezing, or leaping. But your dog is a resourceful, tenacious gal and will find a way out if left alone in the yard for too long. Dogs get bored and seek out adventure, just like people. During hunting season, supervise all backyard time that extends beyond the few minutes your dog takes to relieve herself. It’s a great time for you to get some fresh air or take care of yard work. Hanging out together in the yard is also a perfect opportunity to make sure she gets the exercise she needs by playing games of fetch or hide and seek.

Remember, hunters keep safety front of mind and their goals overlap with yours when they set off into the woods or the field. Beyond a successful hunt, they want to feel the breeze and get close to nature. They also understand the wilderness is for sharing. So, there’s no need to stick close to the homestead throughout hunting season. With the above safety knowledge and measures in place, the great outdoors can be a worry-free zone in spring and fall when you head outside with your best friend.

Packer’s Top 10 Flies for Fall on Colorado Freestone Rivers

Written by: John Packer, Fly Fishing Outfitters


Fall is a great time to catch colored-up brown trout in Colorado.
Photo courtesy John Packer

As the days begin to get shorter and nights cooler, many Colorado anglers start to think more about elk and deer than about trout. But there’s still some fantastic fishing to be had, and now . . .

Written by: John Packer, Fly Fishing Outfitters


Fall is a great time to catch colored-up brown trout in Colorado.
Photo courtesy John Packer

As the days begin to get shorter and nights cooler, many Colorado anglers start to think more about elk and deer than about trout. But there’s still some fantastic fishing to be had, and now the rivers are less crowded. In fact, late fall into early winter provides those who know some of the best trout action of the year.

Colorado is blessed with much milder weather then our neighbors to the north, to go along with the incredible diversity of fisheries. The hatches may become fewer and or farther between, but the fish are still very actively feeding. The brown trout are in full spawing mode, and the crowds of summer have all but vanished, meaning more for the rest of us. Many seasoned anglers find fall fishing somewhat frustrating because you don’t see many big hatches. Thats where the knowledge of your friendly fly shop can really pay off.

Here is my list of recommended flies that every angler should have in their box from October until the snow flies. On any given day and under certain conditions, any one of these flies can make you a hero. Well not to the Trout.

1. Barr Emerger BWO (sizes 16-22)
Arguably the best blue-winged olive emerger there is, hands down! Originally concocted by Boulder’s own John Barr, this is a year-round go-to pattern for any angler. Try a beadhead version as a dropper below a dry, or dead-drift a flashback or plain version. The Barr Emerger also works great on tailwaters.

2. Craven’s Juju Baetis (sizes 16-24)
Another of the best Baetis patterns developed in Colorado, it’s a darker cousin to the Barr’s and tied with epoxy, making for a very durable bug.

3. Tungsten/ Beadhead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail (sizes 14-22)
This best-selling pattern can represent a multitude of offerings, from midges to caddisflies. At this time of year, it’s a go-to dropper for many guides/anglers because of its ability to get into the feeding zone quickly along the banks and in the pockets.

4. Rainbow Warrior (sizes 18-22)
Another small but very effective Trico or midge imitation, this fly comes in pearl, red, and black. Black far and away out sells the other colors, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as good. A more complex recipe of threads, dubbings and a bead give this fly a very buggy look that our trout find irresistable.

5. RS2 (sizes 16-24)
Rim Chung’s most famous fly has spawned many variations, but nothing works like the original in gray, black, or olive. It’s a great pattern for those looking to start tying flies.

6. Roy’s Special Emerger (sizes 18-26)
I was introduced to this pattern by the man himself, Roy Palm, back in the day at Frying Pan Anglers, and I am very much a disciple who has spread the word of its amazing capabilities to catch even the most finicky trout. It can be fished deep, on the swing, or dead-drifted behind a more visible dry (my favorite way to fish it).

7. Parachute Adams/Adams Wulff (sizes 12-24)
If you can only carry one dry fly in this box, it would have to be the Parachute Adams. The reason is simple: you can have this pattern in a number of colors and also in a Wullf style that many anglers like because of its ability to support a beadhead dropper. A guy came in the shop on a 30-degree, snowy day and told me how many fish he had just netted using the Purple Parachutes I sent him out there with.

8. Tequeely (sizes 2-8)
Fall is the most prime time of year for streamers here in Colorado, especially on the larger freestone rivers, such as the Colorado and Roaring Fork. When anglers come into our shop looking for that go-to streamer pattern and I shove a Tequeely in their face, I get some pretty skeptical looks. But here in the Centennial State, the Tequeely should be the state streamer. Its is mostly used as a lead fly in a tandem streamer rig. This Las Vegas showgirl-looking, unnatural, rubber-legged, and heavily tinsled freakshow is boss.

9. Sculpzilla (sizes 2-10)
A streamer pattern so great, I even named my fantasy football team after it! It’s an articulated fly that comes in a multitude of sizes and colors that will fit the bill for any conditions you are fishing, be it big, small, or still water.

10. Royal Wulff (sizes 12-20)
The Royal Wullf is propbably my favorite go to dry fly. It does’nt matter the hatch or no hatch. Lee Wulff should get sainthood for creating that pattern!

John Packer owns and operates Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon, Colorado. He is also a former Trout Bum of the Week.

Pro Tips: Understanding the Seasons of Patagonia

Written by: John Bleh, Rio Manso, 2015 Orvis Endorsed International Destination of the Year


You can tailor a Patagonia trip to fit your desires and angling preferences.
All photos courtesy Rio Manso Lodge

Everyone has a favorite type of fly fishing, and probably a favorite time of year to fish. As the seasons unfold in Argentina’s Patagonia region, the fishing changes, as well. From the

Written by: John Bleh, Rio Manso, 2015 Orvis Endorsed International Destination of the Year


You can tailor a Patagonia trip to fit your desires and angling preferences.
All photos courtesy Rio Manso Lodge

[Editor’s Note: Recently, while I was fishing with my friend, John Bleh, I asked him what his favorite season in Patagonia was. His answer (“It depends”) and his subsequent explanation led me to ask him to write up his thought for the blog, and he graciously agreed.]

Everyone has a favorite type of fly fishing, and probably a favorite time of year to fish. As the seasons unfold in Argentina’s Patagonia region, the fishing changes, as well. From the early promise of November, through the heavy hatches of December and January, the warm summer days of February and March, and finally the fall rains and cool weather of April, there’s plenty of opportunity for all. Here’s a quick guide to matching the seasons with your passion.


Sinking-tip lines and heavy streamers are the name of the game in the Patagonian spring.

November–Early December: Stripping Streamers
Expect the early season to feature mostly stripping streamers and using sinking-tip lines. It might not be as exciting as watching a trout sip a dry fly. . .until you hook a big brown, brook or rainbow trout looking for a meal after a long winter’s nap. Some of the largest trout of the year fall during these first few weeks. An early spell of hot weather can trigger caddisfly and mayfly hatches, and the long days mean evening dry-fly fishing if the weather cooperates..


Dry-fly season straddles the holidays.

December–Mid February: Dry-Fly Season
As the sun warms the southern hemisphere, hatches start in earnest. With heavy mayfly and caddisfly hatches throughout December and January, there is excellent dry-fly fishing in both the lakes and rivers. The evening fishing can be especially productive, and it is not unusual to catch browns, rainbows, and brookies in one day..


Casting big dragonfly imitations for voracious trout is a Patagonia specialty.

Mid December–Early January: Dragonfly Season
Many river systems, such as Rio Manso, feature several lakes. Many of the lakes, and sections of the rivers, have enormous populations of dragonflies that are a primary food source for the trout of Patagonia. When the dragonflies begin hatching, sometimes as early as the end of November, the trout gorge on both the nymphs and the adults. Dry-fly fishing during this time is exciting and nerve-wracking, as the biggest trout around come readily to the surface for these mouthfuls of protein. Dragonflies emerge over several weeks and are present all season long. Once they hatch, big rubber-leg patterns work well all day long in both the rivers and the lakes..


In high summer, your best fishing will be early and late in the day.

Mid February–Late March: Summer Season
When the hot, bright days of summer roll around, the fishing slows during the day. There is still good fishing early in the morning or late in the evening, but the middle part of the day is better suited to other activities like hiking, horseback riding, or rafting. If you travel with a spouse who isn’t a hard-core angler, or you are interested in a more well-rounded adventure in Patagonia, this is a good time to come. Check first, as conditions vary every season..


Fall is a great time to chase trophy fish that are fattening up for the long winter.

Late March–April: Fall Fishing
The beginning of fall fishing is marked by the first cool front that blows in from Antarctica, with significant rainfall. Sometimes this happens at the end of March, other years not until the middle of April. Once it does come, though, the fishing heats up as the waters cool down. Brook trout congregate at the mouths of lake tributaries and take on their bright spawning colors. Big browns go on the prowl, and rainbows chase bait in the lakes and rivers. Although most of this is streamer fishing, there are several key mayfly and caddisfly hatches that can make for good afternoon and evening dry-fly fishing.

John Bleh lives in Vermont, and he represents Rio Manso Lodge in the U.S. For more in-depth and up-to-date information on fly fishing in Argentina, contact Jeremy Kehrein (a former guide in Patagonia) at Orvis Travel (orvistravel@orvis.com; 800-547-4322).

Pro Tips: Catch More False Albacore with Topwater Flies

Written by: Capt. Gordon Churchill


The author shows off a gorgeous little tunny, which ate a Crease Fly.
Photos courtesy Capt. Gordon Churchill

If you’re a fly fisherman, then you love seeing fish eat your flies, like when you’re casting dry flies for trout or poppers for bass. And sight-fishing for bonefish is considered one of the more exciting . . .

Written by: Capt. Gordon Churchill


The author shows off a gorgeous little tunny, which ate a Crease Fly.
Photos courtesy Capt. Gordon Churchill

If you’re a fly fisherman, then you love seeing fish eat your flies, like when you’re casting dry flies for trout or poppers for bass. And sight-fishing for bonefish is considered one of the more exciting kinds of fishing. So how come when you come out to the saltwater to fish for false albacore, you use a sinking line and a weighted streamer . . . especially since an albie will hit a fly off the surface with even more reckless abandon than any of those other fish will? It baffles me. Too many anglers are told that they need a clear intermediate fly lines or a dark-colored sinking line to get albie bites. But it’s not true. I guarantee you that you can catch all the albies you want on topwater flies, and not miss a thing that you would have gotten by fishing with sinking lines.

There are a few things to look for and some things to be aware of, however. The one drawback is that, if you are one of those guys who likes to tell people, “We got on bait balls and caught fifty albies per day when we went to Cape Lookout!” this technique may not be for you. However, if the thrill of seeing a topwater bite from a 12- to 20-pound fish is something you want to experience, then read on.


When albies are busting on top, a surface pattern will stand out from all the bait in the water.

First of all you need a quality floating line, something that won’t kink up on you when the water temperature gets below 65. If the only line you have is a “Tropical,” change that thing out. Get the quality “Saltwater” line. It won’t kink up on you. Next, I’d say stick with a 10-weight rod. While you can use a 9- or even an 8-, the wind is going to be pushing your cast around and the heavier line will do a better job for you. Add to that the fact that really big fish of over 15 pounds (20?) show with regularity off North Carolina. I have found that 9-weights are allergic to 20 pound false albacore. Finally, you need the right topwater fly, and there are basically just two. First is a Crease Fly tied on a size 1/0 hook, with a body that is about the size of a man’s ring finger or middle finger. Much bigger than that, and it gets ignored; smaller and they might not see it. Crease Flies are what I fish with more than 90% of the time. The other is any random old popper that I use when fishing behind trawlers.


Look at how beat up that Crease Fly is, from all the albies it has caught.

So let’s say you are running the beach around Cape Lookout, and you can see that fish are feeding along the shore in about 15 feet of water. This is Situation Prime for Crease Flies. What often happens is that, as you move the boat into range to get a shot, the fish go down. It happens all the time. When it’s calm enough along the beach for the fish to be there and for you to get your boat in there, it’s also calm enough for them to be displeased with the sounds your boat makes. Cast a Crease Fly in this situation and when other people are disappointed by the fish moving away, you will get strikes. I believe this is because the fish, even though you might not see them, are still there, moving fast for the next feeding opportunity. Often you can see them streaking past the boat. The Crease Fly makes a nice noise, so they turn to look at it, see a minnow barely moving on top, and Blam! Fish on.

Perhaps the fish are in slightly deeper water. You pull up and make a cast into a melee of feeding albies, but your streamer gets ignored. There is so much bait that a small fly tied to look exactly like a glass minnow can’t get noticed. Again, the Crease Fly does the job. As it pops along on top, it sticks out like a bad song on your iPod’s “Road Trip Mix.” They’ll hit it usually as it is just sitting there between pops so don’t move it too fast. Get it in there, pop it with one handed pulls, and don’t move it out of the strike zone too quickly. When they strike, albies will often come right out of the water with the fly in their mouth. It’s pretty cool.


A final opportunity for topwater is the least obvious, but possibly the most exciting in terms of pure numbers. Fishing behind shrimping boats is a way to find fish around Cape Lookout on days when the fish aren’t feeding on top elsewhere. Boats pull up behind the trawlers, get in line, wait for the guys in front to hook up then take their turn. It’s traditionally done with a sinking line, either an intermediate or a fast sinker. The thought is that the fish won’t see the fly unless it gets down through the white water in the wake of the shrimper. Using a popper in this situation draws some exciting strikes to rival anything in fly fishing.

The fish slash at the fly from below, one after another. Many times you can see them as they come up in the clear water just off the wake. You don’t have to use your fancy Crease Fly or whatever fancy-head fly that’s being sold nowadays. Any popper with a foam head that can look like a dying finfish will get hit. Cast into the whitewater behind the shrimper, from one side. The fish will hit the fly in the white water, or along the edge, or when you least expect. But it will be right there and it can be amazing. Like, “Whoa, did you see that,” or “I can’t believe that!” Either way, I think it’s a lot more exciting than fishing streamers down behind a sinking line.

Capt. Gordon Churchill is a former North Carolina saltwater guide and the author of Fly Fishing the Southeast Coast from Skyhorse Publishing. 

 

Story: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mouse


Casting mouse flies at night for big browns can result in savage strikes from big browns.
Photo by Drew Nisbet, Fishing Manager of Orvis Buffalo

Went to the Boneyard yesterday afternoon. Big yellow stoneflies in the air. First time I’ve ever seen them flying around at the Farmington. Hooked and lost a (seeming) mega on a yellow stonefly . . .

Written by: Jefferson Kolle


Casting mouse flies at night for big browns can result in savage strikes from big browns.
Photo by Drew Nisbet, Fishing Manager of Orvis Buffalo

[Editor’s note: Jeff Kolle and I have been friends since the early 90s, when we met in graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. He sent me this evocative email last Thursday, and when I asked him if I could publish it, he graciously agreed. Aside from the removal of a couple of salty words, I’ve barely touched his text at all, since it is such a great read. Sadly, he left his phone/camera in the car, so I’ve illustrated his tale with a couple great shots from Drew Nisbet.]

Went to the [Redacted] River yesterday afternoon. Big yellow stoneflies in the air. First time I’ve ever seen them flying around in that spot. Hooked and lost a (seeming) mega on a yellow stonefly nymph. Caught a few dinks on ants.

I headed for my car at dark, and it looked like it was going to be a full moon. I decided to cut my leader back to 3X, tie on that mouse fly that’s been in that buried fly box forever, and head back out. I even had batteries for an old headlamp.

I waded back out into the water, just below the riffle at the head of the [Redacted] Pool, and began casting blindly. First freaking cast into the darkness–a freight-train strike that I flubbed when I realized that the strike was only about six feet in front of me and I had a line-management failure. Can’t see anything, but I can hear the splashing.

Four or five casts later, twitching the mouse on the surface–WHAM!—a 20 incher, which I landed. These are not delicate takes. These are haven’t-eaten-for-a-month-and-I’m-really-hungry takes. No sipping. Not even gulping. These are fly inhalations.

I had at least a dozen other hook ups, but only landed a few of them, including two around 16 inches. All browns.


Jeff Kolle’s decision to fish in the dark paid off in spades, as he landed more than a dozen trout.
Photo by Drew Nisbet, Fishing Manager of Orvis Buffalo

The moon came up, and by 9 o’clock, there was moonlight on the pool. At this point, I’m 25 feet off shore. Flow was maybe 150 cfm, so it was easy to get out near the middle. Not too much current. Just as I’m watching, five feet off the left bank–in that slow ripple where most people step into the pool–I see this huge slam on the water. Bigger than a beaver-tail smack, and the water is less than two feet deep there.

Holy crap. Kinda scary. Mega fish. Must be. Never any beavers up this high. Then another slam five feet from me. Then another out in the center of the pool, ten feet away. This all happens in 30 seconds. The fish is circling the pool like Jaws. Eating smaller fish, perhaps.

I think, well, if the fish was there, then there, then there, next he’s going to be about there–15 feet away, so I cast my mouse.

The mega hit my fly and immediately pulled the rod tip of my 4-weight under the water.

I didn’t have time to wet myself before the fish jerked the line furiously, first this way, then that way, then was gone. The fly was still on the end of my leader.

My knees were shaking. I got out of the water for 10 minutes, smoked a Camel, and considered what had just happened. Man. Eventually, I went back into the water and stayed until 10:45. Hooked up on another half-dozen fish. Landed a few. Nothing big. Not by comparison.

Jeff Kolle is a writer, editor, high-end-stereo aficionado who lives in western Connecticut.

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Murph’s quizzical look could have one of several meanings.

Photo by: Paul Fersen

There’s something irresistible about that quizzical head cock in a dog—the tilted noggin, with her eyes and ears akimbo: she looks as though she’s listening with a mixture of attention, excitement, and curiosity, and it’s beyond adorable. While there’s no research to back this up, it’s a safe bet that some people choose to get a dog because of it—they observe a puppy tilting her head to one side and can’t wait to bring home their new best friend with this endearing habit. So why do dogs tilt their heads? There’s a scarcity of research on the subject, but let’s explore some of the top scientific theories.

Murph’s quizzical look could have one of several meanings.

Photo by: Paul Fersen

There’s something irresistible about that quizzical head cock in a dog—the tilted noggin, with her eyes and ears akimbo: she looks as though she’s listening with a mixture of attention, excitement, and curiosity, and it’s beyond adorable. While there’s no research to back this up, it’s a safe bet that some people choose to get a dog because of it—they observe a puppy tilting her head to one side and can’t wait to bring home their new best friend with this endearing habit. So why do dogs tilt their heads? There’s a scarcity of research on the subject, but let’s explore some of the top scientific theories.

The Head Tilt Helps Dogs Hunt

Your dog’s canid ancestor, the wolf, is the source of this theory. Wolves tilt their heads when listening just as your dog sometimes tilts hers. While your dog probably tilts her head in response to your talking or making a funny noise, wolves tilt their heads when they hear the sounds of prey. It’s thought the tilt helps wolves zone in on the exact vertical placement of their quarry during a hunt. With a tilt of the head, one ear is raised higher than the other. Sound coming from rustling in nearby underbrush will reach the higher ear a fraction of a second after it reaches the lower ear, so they know their prey is down low.

For wolves, the head tilt is a behavioral adaptation that improves their ability to pinpoint the source location of a sound. Ears on either side of the head in wolves and most animals (including humans) is a structural adaptation with a similar function—to pinpoint whether a sound is coming from the left or right, and from what distance.

Canine hearing is much more sensitive than ours; they hear a far wider range of frequencies. With the slight tilt of their head they further extend the information being carried over those sound waves. Try testing this theory during game time in the yard. Does your dog tilt her head more when playing “hunting” games like hide and seek, than she does during other activities?

The Head Tilt Helps Dogs See Better

Dog expert Stanley Coren suggested this theory in a 2013 Canine Corner column in Psychology Today. Coren hypothesizes that the head tilt is one way your dog sees around her muzzle, which partially blocks her view. To see firsthand how her snout blocks her view, Coren suggests balling your hand into a fist and holding it thumb side up to your nose. Your fist stands in for your dog’s nose and narrows your field of vision, particularly your lower-front view. Try holding a conversation with someone with your fist before your nose and you’ll notice you can’t see much of their mouth and chin. If you tilt your head, you can instantly see more of this area.

When your dog looks directly at your face, Coren says, her muzzle is blocking the most important parts of your face for clear communication. Beyond words, your mouth communicates your emotions. It moves differently when you say “Wanna go out?” when you are angry or sad or happy. To get a quick read on your mood, the theory goes, your dog tilts her head.

To test this theory, Coren surveyed owners of brachycephalic (flat-nosed) dogs and owners of dogs with longer muzzles about their dogs’ head tilting habits. From a pool of 582 respondents, 71 percent of the larger muzzle dog owners said their dogs tilted their heads often, while 52 percent of brachycephalic dog owners reported their dogs tilted their heads often.

Coren is the first to admit this isn’t the whole answer to the head tilt question, because a significant number of brachycephalic dogs tilted their heads as well.

The Head Tilt Shows Empathy

Research has found dogs respond to human body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, picking up on cues that indicate whether you’re interested in feeding them, playing, going for a walk, or hanging on the couch. The head tilt is a way of showing their attentiveness to these cues. Researchers speculate that dogs who tilt their heads more frequently are more in sync with their owners because they pick up on non-verbal signals.

The Head Tilt Is a Sign Something’s Wrong

If your dog tilts her head frequently, and it doesn’t appear connected to a specific noise, take her to the veterinarian. Head tilting can be the symptom of an illness, such as an ear infection, a foreign object in her ear, inflammation, vertigo, or even a more serious brain-related disease. While you can’t prevent all of these issues, cleaning your dog’s ears regularly helps minimize the risk of ear infections.

If your dog tilts her head naturally from the time she’s a puppy, chances are you’ll enjoy a lot of head tilts during your time together. Tilting her head will bring on smiles and back pats, and this positive reinforcement will make her tilt her fuzzy noggin more often. Consider it one of the delightful dividends of life with a dog.

Pro Tips: How to Make the Most of Your Bank Shots

By William G. Tapply


Stalking the banks can often produce surprisingly large trout.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Bill Rohrbacher and I picked our lunch site for the shade of the lonely cottonwood, the gurgle of the river, and the upstream view. The brown-and-yellow Montana plains rolled off to distant . . .

By William G. Tapply


Stalking the banks can often produce surprisingly large trout.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Bill Rohrbacher and I picked our lunch site for the shade of the lonely cottonwood, the gurgle of the river, and the upstream view. The brown-and-yellow Montana plains rolled off to distant horizons all around us, and the sky was as big and blue and cloudless as advertised. But we had eyes only for the water. As we munched our sandwiches, we watched about a dozen trout sticking their noses out of a shadowy 50-yard band of shallow slick water that flowed inside the main current against the high bank.

We had each of those trout located. They were all holding within a yard of the bank. We knew they were big by their unhurried, no-nonsense riseforms. No flashy attention-getting boil, no splash, no noise–just those noses poking rhythmically out of the water. After lunch we’d work our way upstream and take turns picking them off, one by one.

We pointed our rod tips at them and tried to guess their sizes and what fly they might like to eat. It was fun, just watching them and knowing they were there, and we were in no hurry. Bill assured me that the fish weren’t going anywhere, and neither were we.

Then we heard voices. “Oh-oh,” Bill muttered.

Three men with fly rods materialized on the high bank. They gazed across the river and talked about it for a minute. Then they skidded down the steep slope, sloshed through the calf-deep water–just upstream from where our lineup of big trout had been feasting–waded purposefully out to their waists, and went to work.

They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, lobbed big neon-pink strike indicators into the heavy current in front of them, high-sticked them along with their rod tips, lifted and lobbed again. It looked monotonous.

Our bank-sipping trout, of course, had disappeared.

The three anglers stuck to it for nearly an hour and caught a few smallish fish before they reeled in, splashed back to shore, and wandered away.

Bill and I waited, and less than a half hour later, little noses began to poke up in the flat water that we’d been watching.

Bill stood up. “Okay, Grandfather,” he said. “Let’s go bank shooting.”

We spent most of the afternoon with those bank sippers, working slowly upstream from fish to fish, taking turns. We waded on our knees much of the time, keeping a low profile and stalking the trout from directly downstream. We used 6X tippets and black deer-hair beetle patterns. We made short casts–20 or 30 feet, no more–and we kept our false casts off to the side to prevent shadows and flashes from spooking the fish. Perfect casts–dropping the fly two or three feet directly upstream, so it would drift onto their noses–usually brought a strike. Imperfect casts, a couple inches off to one side or the other, produced nothing.


Bill Tapply sits on a riverbank in Montana, waiting for noses to appear.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

We didn’t exactly pick them off one by one. We never do. We spooked a couple of them by sloppy wading. I dropped the butt of my leader on top of one nice trout, and in that foot-deep water he “blew up”–Bill’s term–with a swirling explosion.

One trout spurned Bill’s repeated offerings. He cursed it inventively, changed flies several times, then knelt on the river bottom, pressed his palms together, bowed deeply, and said, “Okay, God bless you, dammit.”

We raised a few that we failed to hook, or hooked briefly before they came unbuttoned. One–we guessed he would’ve gone 20 inches–busted me off. We ended up landing five of them, three 18-inch browns and two slightly larger rainbows. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, Bill landed four of them, although he and I don’t really think of it that way.

On a famous Montana river where Eastern sports like me like to brag about 30-fish days, I was replete. I’d raised several large trout, hooked a few, landed one, and lost another. Each encounter was memorable.

Look Before You Leap
Bill is a guide, and he goes bank-shooting every day he’s got a client who’s willing to catch fewer trout and have more fun doing it. When he realized that I found it as addictive as he did, he decided I was okay even if I had gone to college, and we became friends and fishing partners. He began to call me Grandfather (I’m a full 10 years older, though he’s much trout-wiser), and he told me that all his friends call him Bubba.

After our great afternoon, we talked about the three guys who had sloshed right through a lineup of the biggest, most catchable fish in the river. “It doesn’t surprise me,” said Bubba. “Most guys, they figure big trout want the big water and that big trout make big splashes when they rise. Of course, they’re wrong.” He scratched his beard and grinned. “It’s ironic, you know? When people fish from drift boats, they cast as close to shore as they can. But when they’re on foot, for some reason they ignore the banks and wade in up to their bellybuttons.”

In most rivers, Bill has taught me, big trout actually seem to prefer the flat, shallow water that flows against the bank, inside the heavier currents. Sheltered under overhanging brush or tight against boulders, they lie there in comfort and tilt up at their leisure to sip whatever comes their way. Rarely do we find small trout in the skinny bankside water where they would be most vulnerable to predators. Maybe when trout reach a certain size, they think they’re too big to interest herons and ospreys. Or maybe they think they’re too smart and survival-tuned to get caught.

They are pretty smart. But they can be caught.


This nice brown was holding in about a foot of water next to the tall grass.
Photo by Buzz Cox

Bank-Shooting Tactics
Concentrating on the narrow bands of soft water near the banks has saved me from being overwhelmed by the size and complexity of big waters from Maine to Montana. Bubba has taught me how to step into unfamiliar rivers for the first time and consistently find feeding fish. I simply ignore the bigness of strange waters and concentrate on those rivers-within-rivers that flow softly against the banks.

Small trout waters are just like big ones, except–if you’ll excuse me–for their size. They contain the same complexity of currents and the same combinations of holding water and barren water as their outsize counterparts. On Western spring creeks and Eastern freestone streams alike, I concentrate my attention on the soft inside cushions of water. Trout like to lie with their sides almost brushing the bank, smack against logjams or under weed patties or in the shadows of overhanging bushes or tufts of grass, sometimes in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. Their delicate riseforms are easy to miss. They look like fingertips poking quickly out of the water.

In slow-moving skinny water, it doesn’t take much to spook feeding trout. Sharp eyes; delicate, precise casting; long, fine tippets; neutral-colored shirts and hats; and old-fashioned stealth are keys to stalking bank feeders. In the smooth, slack water next to the bank, trout have plenty of time to think before they eat. Anything tied to a tippet must behave naturally. It cannot drag, however slightly, and it must pass directly through the fish’s feeding lanes, because they will not move far to eat.

If we hunt hard enough, Bubba and I can usually find a few bank sippers eating off the surface, even when the river looks dead. We’ve had fine dry-fly fishing at midday while all the other anglers on the river were sitting on the bank waiting for the next hatch.

Bank sippers tend to be opportunistic feeders. Rarely is fly pattern the important variable in catching bank-feeding trout, although it’s fun how they can sometimes be maddeningly picky. Usually, it’s all in the approach and the presentation. Once you spot a bank sipper, pinning down its location is easy, because you have several points of reference–eight inches out and a foot down from that trailing branch, for example, or right on the inside seam of that tiny lick of current flowing around a boulder. Wear good polarizing sunglasses, because in shallow water you can often see the ghostlike shape of your target finning just under the surface. Get low, creep close, and position yourself for a straight upstream cast. Make your first shot count. Drop your fly two or three feet above him. Watch him as he spots it, flicks his tail, drifts under it, turns, lifts his snout, and shows you his open white mouth. Resist the impulse to strike too early, if you can.

Bank shooting combines the best parts of hunting and fishing, which is probably why it’s the kind of angling I have grown to love the most. Each fish is a challenge. It’s head to head, just that single trout and me alone on the river–or, even better, with Bubba kibitzing at my elbow. I don’t mind spending half an hour trying to catch it.

No two bank sippers are quite alike. Each one offers its particular challenge, and no matter which of us wins, the hunt provides me with another memory. It’s money in the bank.

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone.

Museum Pieces: Five Go-To Streamers for Fall

Written by: Peter Nardini, American Museum of Fly Fishing


One of the first saltwater bucktails, the Gibbs Special is forefather of many modern striper flies.
Photo courtesy AMFF

One for the Salt: Harold Gibbs Striper Bucktail
Harold Gibbs is considered the father of modern striper fishing in the Northeast. Originated in the 1940s, the Gibbs Bucktail (above) was one of the first attempts at suggesting a specific forage. . .

Written by: Peter Nardini, American Museum of Fly Fishing


One of the first saltwater bucktails, the Gibbs Special is forefather of many modern striper flies.
Photo courtesy AMFF

Editor’s note: The American Museum of Fly Fishing is located right next to the Orvis Flagship store in Manchester, Vermont. The folks from the museum will be sharing many of the cool items from their collection in an ongoing series called “Museum Pieces.” You can take a little virtual walk through part of the museum at the bottom of this post. 

To preface: This is not a list of the top five streamers ever. These are just a few fun patterns that have proven their worth over the years, and you can see all of them on display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

One for the Salt: Harold Gibbs Striper Bucktail
Harold Gibbs is considered the father of modern striper fishing in the Northeast. Originated in the 1940s, the Gibbs Bucktail (above) was one of the first attempts at suggesting a specific forage fish, the silverside. Lacking non-tarnishing flash material, Gibbs, a keen observer of marine life, keyed on the bluish-white tones cast by silversides in shallow water, and attempts replication with a combination of white (first capra hair, then bucktail) and blue (first a swan feather, later blue bucktail). Though it may not have been intentional, the stout, short-shank, round-bend hook tended to keep the weight forward, encouraging a subtle head-dipping movement between strips and also discouraged wing material fouling. The bass have been on the run ever since…each fall.

The Classic: Gray Ghost


The Gray Ghost was an accidental hit pattern for Carrie Stevens.
Photo courtesy AMFF

This is a timeless streamer pattern originally tied by Carrie Stevens of Rangeley, Maine. Stevens had fished with bait throughout her life, but on 1 July 1924, she decided it was time to create a fly of her own and test it in the Upper Dam pool. A friend, noted duck-decoy carver and angler Charles “Shang” Wheeler (1872–1949), had shared a streamer fly with Stevens in 1920. Wheeler tied the fly based on an English pattern, and he encouraged her to try her hand at the art.

On that particular day in 1924, Stevens resolved to simulate a smelt in the water, and she tied gray feathers onto a hook. She marched to the pool and began to cast, catching some salmon and trout. A little bit later she got a bite on her “Shang’s Go Get-um” streamer, struggled for about an hour, then landed a brook trout that weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces, and measured 24.75 inches; Stevens’ brook trout was the largest taken in thirteen years at the Upper Dam pool. She entered her catch in an annual fishing contest held by Field & Stream magazine and took second place. The following year, in 1925, the magazine’s editor decided to publish Stevens’ written account of her trophy catch. The sentence “He was caught with a Thomas rod, nine feet in length, a Hardy reel, an Ideal line, and a fly I made myself” was read around the world. The fly she used for her trophy catch was incorrectly recorded as being a Gray Ghost, and orders for this fly began to arrive immediately.

The Gray Ghost was used for trolling and casting and imitated smelt, forage fish for the trout and landlocked salmon in the nearby rivers and lakes where her husband guided. It had the color of the then popular wet flies for brook trout but carried the Rangeley-style long, slim proportions to match the body shape of the smelt. The fly’s utility is wide-ranging, and it is my go-to pattern when fishing the rivers near the Wachusett Reservoir, where I’ve duped many a brown, rainbow, and brookie gorging on the massive population of smelt.

The All-Arounder: Woolly Bugger


The Woolly Bugger may be the most productive fly of all time.
Photo courtesy AMFF

Want a pattern that will imitate any baitfish? Here you go, just choose white, black, orange, or olive. How about sculpin? Here’s a weighted head to get down in the water column, jig it with the best of them. Leech? Done. The Woolly Bugger and its many variations remains one of the fishiest flies ever created. There is rarely a trout, or bass… or… most any fish that will pass up this pattern. Check out this great interview with the son of Woolly Bugger originator, Russell Blessing.

The Tamer of Salmo Salar: Rusty Rat


The Rusty Rat is a time-tested pattern in Eastern Canada.
Photo courtesy AMFF

Created through the collaborative efforts of Joseph Pulitzer II and local tyer J.C. Arsenault, the Rusty Rat has become a favorite on the famed salmon fisheries on the Restigouche and Miramichi Rivers in Canada. In the summer of 1949, Pulitzer was fishing one of Arsenault’s Black Rat’s when the fly’s rust-colored under binding was exposed after Pulitzer caught a few salmon throughout the day. Arsenault gives the account of what happened next:

As is often the case, the more disreputable the fly became in appearance the more alluring it must have been to the salmon for Mr. Pulitzer wound up with a 41-pounder. He came back to me excited about its performance and enthusiastic about its possibilities. He handed me what remained of the fly and told me he wanted it copied exactly. I got to work and after several tries produced a fly that pleased him, and immediately he named it the Rusty Rat. (excerpted from our Journal)

Pulitzer’s fishing log records the big catch on June 24, 1949, and in that year he and his wife, Liz, “together took 76 fish and of those 39 were taken on the Rusty Rat.” The success rate of the Rusty Rat is undisputed, and it continues to be one of the most renowned North American hairwing patterns.

The Hometown Hero: Shushan Postmaster


Battenkill browns can’t resist the Postman.
Photo by Mike Valla

The late Lew Oatman’s pattern is a Battenkill staple for when the Hendricksons and Tricos are out of season. It is aptly named after Oatman’s fishing buddy, Al Prindle, who was. . .you guessed. . .the postmaster in Shushan, New York. Both were included on the famed “Liar’s Bench” at the Angler’s Nook in Shushan, which documented local fly-fishing legends but unfortunately has since been taken down and lost to history. You might recognize Al Prindle’s face not from photographs, but from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover titled “Catching the Big One.”

How Can I Keep My Linen Clothing From Wrinkling?

Written by: Deb German


Photo: Deb German

The answer is short and sweet: you can’t, but why would you want to in the first place? If you hoped the smooth, crisp linen shirt you chose to wear this morning would stay unrumpled all day while it continued to do your bidding, it’s time to iron out your thinking: linen’s wrinkles are not character flaws, but instead add interest to this cool and breathable ancient textile.

Written by: Deb German


Photo: Deb German

The answer is short and sweet: you can’t, but why would you want to in the first place? If you hoped the smooth, crisp linen shirt you chose to wear this morning would stay unrumpled all day while it continued to do your bidding, it’s time to iron out your thinking: linen’s wrinkles are not character flaws, but instead add interest to this cool and breathable ancient textile.

The Benefits of Wearing Linen: The Coolness Quotient

Linen truly is a wrinkle in time, keeping us cool now—arguably better than any other textile—just as it kept people cool thousands of years ago. But we tend to get hung up on rules and regulations even in this day and age (to wit: when to wear linen), and all the more in the American South, whence I came, and where people cling to tradition like kudzu vines to, well, everything. Being properly dressed has always had a tacit “crispness” imperative: wrinkles and neatness are mutually exclusive.

Ever tried to stay crisp in 85% humidity with a triple-digit heat index?

That, in a nutshell, is why linen is so appealing in the tropics, and generally in hot climes the world over, and why it continues to insinuate itself into closets now just as it did 35,000 years ago: linen is quite possibly the coolest, most breathable natural fiber on the planet. Pair those affable qualities with its quick-drying and superior wicking properties, and some insist it’s almost like you’re not wearing clothing at all.

But the other truth about linen is it wrinkles, copiously, and there is exactly nothing you can do about it. Sure, you can starch and steam iron the bejesus out of it, but it stays pressed only until you exhale. And if you’re driving somewhere? Forget about it. Your linen pants will wrinkle at the hips, knees, and tush, and the front of your linen shirt or jacket will betray where the seatbelt was cinched across it. It’s the nature of the beast: linen’s stiff, crisscrossing yarns tend to bend and stay bent.

I ask you, why oh why is this such a big deal?

How to Iron Linen: When Wrinkles Simply Won’t Do

When you’re wearing your slouchy, summery linen blouse over a tank top for a coffee date with friends, skip the iron. But I’ll give you your outdoor wedding, or any dressy occasion that insists on a tad more decorum. Go ahead and press the dress (or pants or shirt or jacket). Here’s how to remove wrinkles from linen:

  1. Iron it while it’s still damp. Spritz it with water, roll it loosely and give it five minutes or so for the moisture to penetrate the linen’s fibers.
  2. Fill your steam iron with water and use its highest heat setting.
  3. Are the pad and cover on your ironing board in good shape? If they’re not, place an old terry cloth towel on the ironing board, under your garment.
  4. Keep the iron moving to prevent scorching the linen. If the linen is embroidered, iron the ‘wrong’ side, and iron the embroidered area first.
  5. If you iron the ‘right’ side of the fabric, a pressing cloth will prevent shiny spots from coming on the garment.
  6. And if you insist on a truly stiff look to your linen, go ahead and spritz it with starch or fabric sizing. This is also a good strategy if you wish to press creases into your linen trousers. Just be advised that even this action will not forestall wrinkles in your linen—the creases will still be there, but they’ll soften a bit around the edges.

Tip: to quickly revitalize your linen shirt, pants, or dress without an iron, toss the garment into the dryer on low with a single ice cube for 10 minutes. The ice melts and gives off steam, which in turn de-wrinkles your clothing—et, voilà!

How NOT to Iron Linen

While getting wrinkles out of linen is possible—if an ephemeral condition for linen clothing—for most occasions, I say, leave the wrinkles be. Don’t even bother ironing. You can toss your just-washed linen into a hot dryer long enough to get it steaming, and then hang it up to finish. You won’t get a starched-and-pressed look, but you will get a close approximation. Here’s a low-maintenance linen manifesto that’s easy to live by:

  1. Wash your linen and wear it often. It improves with age, like wine or cheese. The exception is a lined linen jacket with a ‘dry clean only’ label: heed the label, or ruin the jacket.
  2. Steam your linen instead of ironing it. You won’t get a pressed-to-a-crisp look, but the worst wrinkles will fall out.
  3. Experiment with a wrinkle-relaxing spray, but test an inconspicuous area first: some preparations leave stains.
  4. Store all your linens on hangers.

How to Wear Linen: Smart Style for Modern Sensibilities

It’s easy: flaunt the wrinkles. Linen has been described by people in the know as both “gorgeously relaxed” and “unexpectedly sophisticated.” Give me gorgeous and sophisticated, and I’m in. And if you are wedded to crispness, try pairing your wrinkled linen shirt with extra crisp chinos or khakis for visual interest: think of it as sweet is to savory, or yin to yang, if you prefer.

There is no time like the present to get out your linen shirts (and shorts and pants and dresses, too). A sleeved linen top keeps you both cool and covered, wherever you are in the world. And if you opt for a knit or hybrid linen shirt, you can expect an even better, more forgiving drape. But even a pure linen shirt will improve with each washing, achieving more softness with time—and it is cooler than cotton. In which guise you choose your linen wardrobe really boils down to your own sensibilities.

Linen’s wrinkles possess their own appeal, and that is all. As one Southern humorist observed, wrinkles are a barometer for quality: they’re how you know it’s “the good stuff.” And those wrinkles just keep getting better; the sometimes-misunderstood linen is an evolved textile. Not only is the “good stuff” more refined these days, but the admixture of other fibers—silk, rayon, cotton, Tencel®, or viscose, for example—improves linen’s performance (read: makes it less wrinkly). So there is a bit of good news if its wrinkles make linen a wardrobe deal-breaker for the crisply starched among us.

Historically linen has been used for everything from mail sacks to roof thatching. But the blue flowering flax plant—an unassuming Old World annual—can be refined into exquisite linen with a beautiful, wrinkled drape. To gorgeous and sophisticated add versatile, exotic, and exquisite. Iron it if you must, but I defy you to tell the difference a few minutes later: either way, there will be wrinkles upon wrinkles—some even call them “rich,” but I prefer gorgeous and sophisticated. Can you iron linen? Sure, but why not live dangerously? Go ahead—rock the wrinkles.