Written by: Kip Vieth, Wildwood Float Trips
I have been at this game a long time, and the most common question I get asked is, “What size rod should I bring up for our trip?” I guide 99% of the time for smallmouth bass and musky on the rivers of Northern Minnesota. This question is probably a bigger issue for warmwater anglers than is for your average trout angler. Many fly fishers are new to warmwater fishing, and their lack of experience makes them a little uneasy. The unknown puts doubt in their minds and sometimes leads to poor decisions that affect both the fish and the angler. To avoid a forgettable or disappointing day on the river, here are a few pointers to remember when trying to figure out what rod to bring on your next trip.
1. Go Big or Stay Home
This is perhaps one of my biggest issues, year after year. The worst thing that an angler can do is bring a knife to a gun fight. I get asked at least ten times a year, “Can I use a 6-weight?” The answer, for the most part, is “No.” We’re talking about casting for smallmouths on big water. The flies that I use run on the big side, we are fishing out of a driftboat, and there is always the wind to battle. You also have to keep in mind most trips average between eight and ten hours a day. How many false casts does your arm have in it? I try and limit my anglers to two false casts per cast, and in a perfect world, a simple “pick it up and lay it back down.” (This doesn’t apply to musky fishing.)
I have struggled with this for years. I have let anglers try their smaller rods, and they are usually cooked before lunch. Smallmouth fishing in the north is a lot different than your typical wade-fishing outing that most smallmouth junkies are used to. There is only a small, and I mean small, handful of anglers that can pull this feat off, and they will usually take a break and pick up a bigger stick. Use what works best, and trust your guide’s experience and wisdom. Don’t be a hero. It’s hard to get a hero shot when you can no longer fish because you’re wiped out.
2. Play Nice
The real reason to use a gun instead a knife is that it’s better for the fish. Here is where I get the most push back every year. “I want to feel the fish fight.” I hate to sound like a jerk, but from a pure selfish reason, I do too. But I want to feel it fight on the line of an angler next season. Anglers who are undergunned kill a lot of the fish that they land. They have completely stressed the fish by the time they get it to the net, and the chances of it surviving into next year are slim. I recently looked at a picture of an angler holding a fish of a life time. It was a magnificent fish, something to be very proud of. I looked at the picture closer and noticed the rod. It was a trout rod. There was no reason for the angler to be using that rod. I don’t know for sure, but I would be willing to bet a day on the water that that specific fish won’t be there this season. I was super happy for the angler, and then, all my feelings turned south. The person who let that person fish with that rod didn’t do future anglers any favors
The fish in question was anywhere from 15 to 20 years old. They don’t make many of those beauties, so why not do us all a favor and use the best tool to insure the future of our fisheries? I know all the craze is on light fly rods. That’s fine if the rod matches the game you are pursuing. You wouldn’t hunt an elephant with a .22 so why would you fish for a large fish with its equivalent? If you ask, I’m sure your guide or a fishing partner has a proper rod for you to use. I would rather lend my equipment to you than watch you struggle and possible harm a trophy fish. I know that fishing is a blood sport, and we must keep this in mind. We are going to kill fish. It just is the nature of the beast, but we don’t have to do it for our own selfish reasons. We fly anglers pride ourselves on the catch-and-release ethic. Let’s make sure that we practice this in all aspects of our angling.
Simply put, if you have questions, ask them. I know that there are a lot of opinions out there, and we all have one. That said, take them all in and ask yourself what would make the most sense for yourself to have an enjoyable day on the water, and what will do the least amount of damage to the resource. This is true to all fly anglers, whether you’re chasing smallmouths, muskies, steelhead, trout, or tarpon. We all have a responsibility to do what is best for the quarry we pursue.