Classic Story: Fly Fishing for Fur and Feathers

The yellow-bellied marmot: fly fishing’s next frontier?
Photo by Inklein, via Wikipedia

One of my favorite Paul Schullery articles about fly-fishing history is about anglers catching thingsother than fish. The most common “collateral catches” are, of course, bats and birds, and Izaak Walton described how Italian anglers used to catch martins and swallows for meat. But Schullery’s column goes on to describe a hilarious story, “On Dry Cow Fishing
as a Fine Art,” in which Rudyard Kipling accidentally hooked a cow.

In the late 1990s, I worked at a big outdoors event at Camp Hale, high above Vail, with a bunch of guides from a local fly shop. Camp Hale sits in a grassy bowl surrounded by peaks, and it is rife with what the locals called “gophers.” but which are, I believe, a species of marmot. They would pop out of their holes and scurry about as the guides were giving casting lessons, and one ingenious fellow discovered that the little rodents were attracted to the yarn bits tied to the ends of the lines.

Soon, during their brief free time between lessons, the guides were casting to the holes themselves, trying to get a “strike.” This went on for a day or two without success, but one afternoon I heard a yell and looked over to see a guide with his bent rod high in the air—the classic Orvis pose—with the line disappearing down a hole in the ground. Eventually, the marmot let go, and there was much rejoicing.

What other animals have you caught, accidentally or otherwise, with a fly? And how did you deal with the problem?

20 thoughts on “Classic Story: Fly Fishing for Fur and Feathers”

  1. My cat while practicing casting in my yard. He would constantly chase the end of the leader since I had a red felt indicator on it. I would have to stop and go down to the end of the leader and relieve him of his temporary paw hold. Fun for him tiring for me.

  2. Fishing late one evening, I had a bat on for a few seconds which was kind of interesting. They were cruising low above the water snagging bugs. Fortunately he let go and I got by with a simple “long distance release”. Time for me to quit. A couple of the guys I fish with have some great stories, one involving hooking an angry big beaver. The angler involved eventually got a chance to snap his fly off before dealing with the beaver directly.

    Probably the wildest story I heard involved someone casting to a Bobcat that wondered into their campground at night. One of the guys cast a big fly out to the cat and stripped it in. The cat actually picked it up, ran away and peeled off some line for a few crazy seconds. Bobcat on! There’s something you don’t hear every day.

  3. Beaver: I was blind casting to the lake’s bank for white bass from the bow of a john boat. One cast landed so close to shore that I thought I might get snagged in the rocks, but it landed just in the water. Immediately the water exploded like I’ve never seen and the line took off into a long cove. It soon became apparent that I snagged a beaver in the *rear end*. We chased that damn beaver to the back of the cove trying to get close enough to break him off. He was swimming for his life, as the trolling motor could not keep up with him. In the end he tangled the line in some submerged trees and the leader broke. I was able to save the fly line but had to replace the whole leader.

    Bat: I was fishing a small farm pond for bluegill at dusk. The closer to being dark out, the more bats were flying over the pond grabbing the many mosquitoes about. When on one cast, I saw one of the bats change course to grab my foam hopper. I don’t think that he ever got hooked but he held on long enough to peel some line off of the reel. Fortunately he let go.

    Cats: My backyard attracts a lot of birds due to my wife’s garden. Consequently, it attracts a lot of cats (the neighbor lady feeds stray/feral cats). It’s great practice to cast to these guys from hiding around the corner. I use old bass bugs that I have cut off the bend of the hook. Great casting practice and a lot of fun!!!

    1. About two weeks after answering this post with the above stories, my family was on a Disney vacation. Our condo complex in Kissimmee, FL had a small lake on the property. The pool/patio area was next to the lake, about 8 feet above the lake level also surrounded by a large viewing area atop a wall to keep the whole area level to street level. At dusk I was fishing off of one of the viewing areas by al of the lights around the pool, trying to catch some LMB with a large, old orange streamer. I had had no luck at all when I noticed a piece of driftwood drifting in from across the lake. Odd, as it was drifting faster than the breeze was blowing. The closer it got to the pool deck lights I realized that it was a 3 1/2 – 4 foot gator coming in to check out the splashing from my continuous casting and retrieves. As I said earlier, having had no luck so far, I decided to have some fun with the gator. The plan was, if hooked, I could just break him off- the streamer was old and I could always tie up another. The gator kept slashing at the fly splashing down next to his head, but never getting ahold of it. He finally got bored and turned to swim away. One last cast at his fleeing tail barley hooked a tail skute. I DID NOT SET THE HOOK! He was peeling off some line on the 8wt before he realized he was hooked. One powerful swish of his tail to take off tossed the fly. Later while fishing the edge of the wall, I finally hooked a bass. The fish splashing and fighting was calling the gator back in. I now had to get the fish in fast as the gator was coming for it. I got the fish back to the wall and hauled it hand-over-hand straight up hoping the 8# test leader would not break. The fish was about 3- 3 1/2 lbs. and I was very careful walking down to the waters edge about 30 yards farther down the bank to revive and release the fish. He made it away cleanly and I couldn’t get back from the edge fast enough as I lost sight of the gator during the fight. Everything ended well, except the gator did not get a free dinner from me.

  4. I have an old rod that I leave rigged up and hanging from the porch ceiling just for casting for cats.
    I tie a big hairy “bob” fly from saddle hackle and bucktail and cast it on an old cracked line
    They go for the line as often as the “fly” so you don’t want to use one that’s still good.
    Unfortunately, there can be no more practice casting in the yard cuz the cats thinks it always for them.

    Fishing for squirrels is fun too
    Tie a whole peanut onto your tippet around the “waist” of the shell and have at it.

  5. One year on the Blackfoot River in Montana, my best friend and guide and I were about 300 yards from the take out. The light was fading quickly and we would soon be navigating by moonlight. We were throwing big streamers hoping for Mr. Big. My friend’s rod suddenly bent and his line began to strip out down the middle of the river. He was completely unable to turn it, so it let it go. We thought that this might be the fish of a lifetime. Eventually the drag stopped, and line sat there going straight down deep in the middle. My friend sat there for probably 15 minutes but couldn’t move it. He began to think it was caught on a log or a rock and that he should perhaps just break it off and call it a day. All three of us were craning our necks down river using mostly moonlight to watch the top of the water. The line began to move and we then saw movement on the surface. I looked at my friend, and then we both looked at our guide (Kurt Herzer at Blackfoot River Outfitters). Kurt had a look of recognition and shock on his face, and finally turned to us to say, “It’s a beaver.”

    Indeed, my friend had hooked a beaver that had been hunkered down deep in the middle of the river. As soon as we realized it was not a fish, my friend broke the line. The beaver seemed completely unphased by the incident, and disappeared back into the water–unharmed.

    My friend’s beaver story has now become legend among the guides. Believe me, we have told the story more than once over beers at The Depot in Missoula.

  6. My fishing buddy Liam hooked a turtle ,in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, NY .
    He said it was the devil to get it to give up the hook !
    Safely released from each other .

  7. My wife hooked and landed a water logged sack of hot dogs when she was a little girl. She cried when her dad made her release it.

  8. I was guiding two clients on the Goodnews River in western Alaska. All three of us had waded out and were casting to coho salmon. I noticed a red fox hunting along the shore and cast a bright coho streamer onto the beach near the fox. He pounced at it. I didn’t want to hook the fox so I jerked the fly away from it. I tied on a deer hair body mouse and took a few half hitches around the bend in the hook and cast it back to the fox and gave it a few twitches. The fox pounced and the battle was on. He hung onto that mouse for several minutes while the clients took pictures. He finally let go and I recast to him and the battle begin all over. Quit the tussle on a 7 wt. rod and a 12 lb fox.

  9. I hooked a seagull while fishing topwater one. I was stripping in muscilin slicked streamers across topwater for tiger musky in between milfoil beds. The fly was quite a ways away since I had to throw some bomber casts to avoid spooking fish; I saw the bird come down and splash but didn’t think anything of it until I felt the tension. I tried to break it off but with the thick mono leader I was using, it was a no go. I was in a float tube so I just kept tension on the line to that he wouldn’t get wound up even more. Once I had my hand on him, he didn’t even really bite and, I think, was glad to be let go.

  10. A few years ago, my son and I were fishing a fly’s only water while a hatch was on. The swallows were also taking advantage of the hatch when my son asked me if I had ever caught a bird. Just as I was replying I hadn’t in 45 years of fly fishing, one of the swallows picked up his fly on a backcast..

    When we were teens, we would out of boredom occasionally take a spinning rod out to a local gopher town and leaving a slip knot loop around one’s hole we caught a couple gophers. Heck of a battle on a light spinning rod and absolute hell to get the loop off the little guys.

  11. I hooked a duck once and it took me 20minutes to get it in… Best fight of my life. That same trip I caught a dragonfly it actually took the fly while I was false casting and had it in its hands

  12. Muskrat. I was Bass fishing with topwaters in the early morning hours, well before first light. I felt the line tighten up so I set the hook, and the “creature” slowly and powerfully swam right past the front of the boat and out into the lake. After quite a struggle I had him next to the boat, and was able to reach down with a paddle and knock the hook out. Thank goodness for barbless hooks. I tried to go back to fishing, but the Muskrat popped up about 20 feet from the boat and cussed me out good. He wouldn’t stop yelling at me. So I apologized and left.

    Then there was the Kingfisher incident, but that’s for another time.

  13. Along with the usual trees, grasses, logs, rocks, shirts, hats, nets, etc. some of my unconventional catches with a dry fly have been bats, muskrats (took the fly on my back cast) , a 1200 pound steer (on the rump), and my lower lip. After the last one, I went permanently barbless.

  14. I’ve hit a few bats whilst night fishing but seen one chap hook onto a Kangaroo on his backcast which peeled off a considerable amount of line before breaking off, another hooked onto a platypus. A bit trickier trying to unhook this critter as it has a lethal poisonous spur on one of its hind webbed feet, rather than risk being scratched on harming the animal much further, its was decided to cut the line as close as possible to the hook and let tne little chap go back about his business; the hook would naturally deteriorate with time,

  15. A few weeks ago I helped, along with a few of my friends, take some vets fly fishing on the Salmon River near Pulaski, NY. While fishing a nymph I hooked, fought, and landed a box of split shot that were the size of musket balls. There were about 10 of them and as I began to reel them in I couldn’t image what I had on the line. I would say the plastic container and split shot probably weighed about a half a pound or more.

  16. Well, lets see between my husband and I…my jacket, a copperhead, a duck, a cat who was being stupid who now steers clear of all fishing rods, a dog who was being even more stupid who also stays far away from the fishing rods, a mud turtle the size of a manhole cover who caught the fish we were reeling in…let it have the fish because we like our fingers where they are, but perhaps the most memorable was the day we were fishing a small stream in North East TN and I heard my husband call me with a tone that clearly meant he had a problem, usually a snake of some sort. As I approached I see his line above his head and he was pointing to something overhead. On his back cast that had gone just a little bit wrong, he had managed to snag a……hornets nest. We let the hornets have the fly and line and called it quits for the day.

  17. A swallow came down and picked one of my flies up one year and carried it high before the lines tension pulled it from its mouth. It didn’t get ‘hooked’.

    I gave myself my first and only piercing when a gust hit me several years ago as I cast.

    Yesterday, the saddest thing ever… I hooked a baby duck as it and it’s siblings emerged at the moment I near a grassy rock in the river, they were on it or behind it and i had no idea. All 3 pounced on my dry golden stone fly… one got hooked. I think it will survive, but it was quite traumatic!

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