Mono on the Fly

Think you need to be Lefty Kreh or go to Orvis School to catch steelhead on the fly? If you do, think again! Like many North Shore steelheaders, you're probably already using all you need to effectively present flies to steelhead - Monofilament Line.

The key to fishing flies on monofilament lie in recognizing the optimal time and conditions to fish them, then using the right equipment and presentation. That and a big dose of confidence if you've never tried it.

Any rod will work with this setup, but there are some things you should consider to be really effective. First, longer is better for a couple of reasons. Long rods offer increased breakage protection for lighter leaders and tippets required to fish late-run conditions. Sometimes even early run conditions dictate light tippets. A longer rod will absorb more energy from a fighting fish that would break the same leader/tippet fished on a shorter rod. Long rods allow you to follow and control your drift for a longer period of time, and longer drifts mean more time in the strike zone.

Long rods also allow you to easily "high stick." The quick and dirty theory behind high sticking is that you want to keep as much line off the water as possible by holding your arm up and keeping your rod-tip high. This means that the mono enters the water at point just above the fly, and at a steep enough angle that the least amount or length of line required is in the water at any given time. This reduces drag on the terminal end, allows pinpoint accuracy and is critical for proper presentation.

As for length, a 9-1/2 to 10 foot rod works very well. You can go longer or slightly shorter, but arm fatigue becomes a factor in longer rods, and the above lengths will effectively cover most North Shore situations. You don't have to break the bank to find a suitable rod either. I prefer to use fly rods so I can switch back and forth between fat line and mono as required; but there are a plethora of other applications out there that work well for steelheading (certain crappie rods come to mind), and you can be in business for under 75$.

What you do want however in any rod would be a minimum of IM6 graphite, a range from say about 4-10lb. line and an extended butt section. This doesn't have to be a rounded "fighting butt" style, however the extension should be there as it allows you to stabilize the rod against your forearm and reduces fatigue along with helping you fight fish.

Reels? Up to you... You can use a large-arbor fly reel, a Martin 72 "Coffee Grinder", any open-faced spinning reel, a Zebco 505 or even the reel off a Snoopy pole if you like. The effectiveness of the rig lies in the rod and presentation.

Setting the Stage
Take a really close look at the water in the photo below. Typical rocky North Shore pocket run right? Absolutely, but it's what's going on both at the surface and at the bottom that's critical. There are many many different current speeds and multiple seams in front of me there along with the general downstream flow and one large back-eddy plus a boil.

What you're not seeing is also critical. In just the small section from directly in front of me to the upstream edge of the picture, the water depth varies from mid-calf depth to over belly deep. There are lots of rocks, but also patches of washtub size gravel pockets, and these get a LOT of scrutiny from both steelhead and kamloops on their way upstream, although they are infrequently used for spawning. Again, very typical North Shore stream composition with limited suitable reproduction habitat below the main upstream barrier.

Let me set the stage just a bit further. This day was very early in the run however, flow was up and stream temps warmed from approximately 38 degrees to 44 degrees. Visibility was apparently about 6-8 inches clarity. My partner and I were also using identical flies.

Where and Why Does it Work?
Again, if you look at the picture above, it illustrates the ideal conditions in which to use mono for presenting flies: A multitude of current speeds, highly inconsistent bottom depths, and stream temperatures in the 42+ degree range. Steelhead and kamloops are creatures of metabolism, and position themselves according to water temperatures as well as flow. On this day as the temperatures rose into the 40's, fish not only began to move upstream in search of gravel, but began to move out of deep holes and into the faster pocket-water in numbers. Fish in faster water have a split-second to decide whether something is food or not. In slower water they can scrutinize potential food at their leisure, often following flies for several feet downstream before ultimately rejecting them for any number of reasons. Sometimes in slow water they simply mouth the fly and reject it faster than you can react, oftentimes before you see the take whether by mouth flash in clear water or before the indicator even moves when indie fishing. This is why bait like spawn works so well in cold water: It looks, feels, smells and tastes like food, and the fish will grab it and hang on a long time. But again in faster water there's no time for leisurely scrutiny, and the suddeness in which your line stops or moves allows you to see these more aggressive takes, which in combination with line drag many times causes the fish to hook itself.

On the North Shore, streams go from babbling to raging very quickly, This tends to scour the bottoms of steeper sections clean. However, the reason the gravel pockets develop in the sections illustrated above, are the same reasons fish utilize them. The pockets where gravel develops are better protected from higher flows, and offer places where the fish can dart out for food, or food simply comes to them. Essentially the lower the flow, the smaller the substrate that can develop. This is why you see none or only large rocks on top of bedrock in steep, fast sections, and muddier clay-type bottoms in the deep, flat and slow pools of North Shore tribs. In these faster sections, the current breaks provided by small bedrock ledges and large rocks causes current speed to drop. Gravel-sized substrate then gets deposited in these depressions and breaks where it builds up. The fish use the natural current break to hold in while waiting for food, but they are also looking at the gravel as potential redding sites. Usually these pockets are too small and of too poor quality to provide a good redd, but even as females test the gravel, they dislodge invertibrates which get picked off by fish nearby.

The big advantage to using mono in these sections -and there are a lot of them on the North Shore- lies in it's smaller diameter with decreased line drag in combination with the high-stick method. Once you have established the proper amount of weight, you can pick apart the run with almost surgical precision, dancing the fly around rocks and down into the pockets where the fish are. The reduced drag on the line combined with no line lying on the water allows you to navigate the multiple current speeds without uncontrolled line drag causing the fly to ride up out of the strike zone. Think of it this way: If you have a length of line lying across the water as depicted above, some will be going faster, some slower, and the fly will be moving at it's own speed. If the fly slows but the line above it speeds up, the fly gets dragged up and out of the strike zone. If the fly speeds up but the line above slows, the fly still gets dragged up out of the strike zone. Now picture lots of line out lying across many current speeds and it becomes impossible to keep the fly where it's supposed to be - In the strike zone.

Nuts and Bolts
Here's how to set it up (See also the graphic below, Click for Larger Image). I like a high-visibility 10lb. monofilament running line such as Iron Silk in Solar Mint on the reel for a couple reasons; most importantly because you need to be able to see and follow your drift's progress along with making sure you are keeping the line off the water all the way to just above the fly. The green/red/orange line above the water also acts as your strike indicator. With this method, you CAN NOT use an indicator. If you do, your fly will ride right over the top of too many pockets.

At the terminal end of the running line you tie on a 6-9 foot leader in 8-10lb. test. You can use a small barrel swivel if you like, or tie a blood knot or similar. If you use a barrel swivel with longer leaders, you may have trouble with the swivel hanging up in the end guides while casting, particularly if they are icing up, just something to consider. I like an abrasion-resistant fluorocarbon line for this section because the end where the tippet section is tied is going to take a lot of abuse and should be checked frequently.

The tippet section is nothing more than a short 15-20 inch section of line chosen based on conditions. Clear water dictates lighter, slightly longer tippet. Dirty faster water means you can get away with shorter, heavier tippet. Remember however, one of the advantages to the longer rod means you can fish tippets as light as 2lb. test and still effectively fight large fish. Here I tend to use quality fluorocarbon line, just be careful to wet the knot.

As for tying this section, a surgeon's knot or surgeon's improved works fine. Whatever knot you use, be sure to tie it with a 3-5 inch long tag. After tying, clip the leader section tag, but leave the lighter tippet tag in place. This tag is where you'll add your weight. Put a granny knot at the very bottom of this tag which will act as a bumper and prevent your weight from sliding off the line.

There are several purposes for this weight dropper: First it provides more of a direct line connection to the fly and I am a firm believer in the fact that it allows you to detect takes quicker than having weight directly on the line. Secondly, weight directly on the line is a sure recipe for unfortunate breakages at exactly the wrong time. Crimping that weight on the main leader or tippet damages the line, and hangups cause it to slide up and down further fraying and weakning the line which is bad steelhead ju-ju. Third, having the weight on the tippet tag means that you can usually break the weight off when you hang up, rather than breaking off the entire line from the weight all the way down and loosing your fly as well.

Last obviously is the fly. If you're just starting out, our Flybox Section is a good place to start. You don't need an entire box full either. Since you can fish yarn very effectively with this method as well as flies, a two-sided box with yarn on one side and a small selection of flies and glo-bugs on the other will serve you very well and won't break the bank.

Fishing Method
Once you get set up, the next critical step is to locate the fastest water in front of you within the section you want to fish. Shallower fast water is better because it gives you a better baseline for gauging the required weight. Simply test-cast and then add weight until you feel the shot ticking along the bottom every 1-3 feet of drift. Once you have the necessary weight established it's time to fish.

Start by casting quartering upstream far enough so that the fly begins ticking along the bottom before it gets to the area you are targeting. A couple things need to happen on your part: First, Immediately get any spare line onto the spool and maintain a tight line throughout the drift. Second, keep your elbow out slightly from your body with your forearm at about a 45 degree angle forward, and hold the rod-tip high so as to keep all the line off the water until the point of entry. The ideal angle between line and water is 45 degrees or more (45-90 degrees). Less than that (0-45 degrees) means too much drag and a fly not in the strike zone. Thirdly, lead your drift slightly with your rod-tip throughout the entire drift. This will allow you to direct your line in and out of seams and around rocks with a minimum of effort. The absolute beauty of the rigging (and why it's critical to set it up in the faster water) is that as the dropper weight and fly move into deeper slower pockets, and the weight overcomes the current's ability to keep it moving, the increased drag on the extra -yet still minimal- line in the water help to keep the rig moving at the proper speed until current picks up again.

So give it a try if you never have before. Use glo-bugs or yarn first to build skill and confidence, but don't overlook nymphs, particularly if it's late in the run and water temps are warm. As for what happened in the photo above. When we saw the water temps were hitting 44, we quickly left a very crowded hole and tailout for a wide-open pocket water section. I swapped out my fat line for mono while my partner stuck with fly line. Without a sink-tip, he just wasn't getting down to the fish and the constant need to mend componded the problem. As for me, the bend in the rod tells the whole story. Just don't grab it above the upper grip like that unless you want to consistently break rods. Yikes!

Regards and Good Fishing-


nice blog... since im facinated by how other states and regions steelhead.. I decided to follow you.. hope to see some cool stuff!
Glad to have you on board!

We have a unique steelhead fishery here that spans the entire length of the Minnesota side of Lake Superior - The North Shore.

We hope you find what we have here interesting.

Tight lines to you in 2011.
Ryan said…
Hello, I found your blog today through OBN. I like it and will "follow" along. =)

The Average Joe Fisherman

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