- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

Longtime readers of this space surely have noticed that fly-fishing has never been treated as a priority item. The reasons are simple: While fly-fishing can be a lot of fun, it rarely is the most productive method in the sport of angling, and — protests notwithstanding — it is practiced by far fewer people than those of us who use what fly-fishers refer to as “conventional tackle.”

Read that to mean that spinning reels and rods, spin-casting and bait-casting outfits are considered conventional, which then would render fly-casting unconventional, wouldn’t it?

The fact of the matter is that among the 50 to 60 million American anglers (precise numbers are hard to come by), less than 10 percent of the folks who pick sportfishing as a lifelong hobby choose to whip a fly-rod through the air, paying out special line that is always heavier than the “lure” — the dry fly, the streamer or popping bug.

In fly-fishing, it’s the line that propels the artificial fly. In conventional fishing, it’s the opposite: the weight of the lure or baited hook pulls the line from the reel.

Sparse as they are, allow me to offer my fly-fishing credentials. I’ve caught Arctic char, grayling and silver salmon with a fly-rod during visits to Alaska. I’ve also hooked rainbow trout on caddis flies in Chile’s Patagonia region and in an Argentinian mountain lake, Nahuel Huapi, adjacent to the Andean resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche.

But my friend Lefty Kreh, successful author, video fly-fishing teacher, super photographer and arguably the finest fly-caster in the world, once told me that I was the worst fly-fisherman on Earth.

We were after smallmouth bass in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River and Lefty caught five bass for every one I hooked.

Eventually, Lefty gave up with his fly-casting lessons. He watched me, winced in mock pain, and finally said, “Mueller, you’re terrible, but somehow you manage to put the line where you want it to go, so I’m not going to say any more.”

Occasionally, fly-fishing purists ask me to join them along a stocked Virginia or Maryland trout stream and I decline, telling them that the best way to catch those trout would be to put a piece of Purina Fish Chow on the hook because that’s what they were fed when they lived in the cement ponds of local hatcheries.

However, I do enjoy a number of outings with a fly-rod every spring. It happens when the bluegills and other sunfish are spawning in public lakes, rivers, creeks or farm ponds.

This supremely democratic fish makes fly-fishing a joy. In fact, a sunfish just might prove that a fly-rod is the best way to go after this feisty warm-water species when it hangs around in shallow water, which is now.

I do it the easy way. Of the four fly-fishing outfits I own, the lightest one is an 8½-foot, 5-weight rod with a standard fly reel that is loaded with No. 5 weight-forward floating line. (A 3-weight outfit would actually be better.) The line’s business end is attached either to a store-bought tapered leader or a standard 4-foot piece of 4-pound monofilament line to which I tie a size 10 or 12 popping bug, imitation black gnat, bumblebee or a hand-tied spider supplied by a friend who is a real fly-fishing nut, not a part-timer like me.

I try to put out about 30 or 40 feet of line by whipping it back and forth, steadily feeding line through the guides until the desired target has been reached. But if you’re new at this, start by stripping maybe 20 feet of line onto the grass of a farm pond’s shore, let the leader line with the fake bug and a few feet of heavy fly line dangle from the rod tip, then check the area behind to make sure there isn’t a tree waiting to steal a popper during an initial back cast. Hold the remaining fly line with your left hand as the right holds the rod, then simply swing it back over your shoulder, behind your head, then snap the wrist forward. The line begins to sail forward and as you feel the pull of it, let the rest of the line that is laying on the ground glide through your left hand and out across the water. The leader line with the bug will roll across the target area and settle down.

You’ll be surprised how quickly you can get the hang of it. If the popping bug or gnat lands on or near a bluegill spawning bed, watch it get sucked under with a loud slurping sound and now you had better hold tightly onto the line with your left and pull it in, or use the reel.

Half the fun is in practicing all this. I know you’ll score — big-time.

c Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.