It’s August in Central New York and the daytime air temps are lingering in the mid 80’s to low 90’s. The dog days of summer are here! Summer Fly Fishing is in full swing.
In the northeast, when we start talking about “summer fly fishing” we are not talking about trout. The stream flows are low and the water temps are high. In the best interest of the trout — fly fishers leave the trout alone.
Summer fly fishing in Upstate New York begins around mid-July. And while it may be a “second-best” choice to fly fishing for trout — Warmwater fly fishing is still fly fishing. Done right it is big fun and is a great way to enjoy early summer mornings on the water.
With so many lakes and big rivers in Upstate New York to choose from there is never a lack of targets for the fly rod…Anytime of year. The warm water species I pursue in summer are smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, carp, freshwater drum, tiger muskie, and pike.
Mid-to-late summertime finds my eight, nine, and 10 weight rods traveling in the boat with me. They are rods I love to cast and for summer fly fishing on big water they work great! For carp, pike/muskie, and sheepshead (fresh water drum), stout rods are a must-have item. You need an accurate broomstick that won’t tire you out but will tire the fish out.
As in any form of fly fishing, there are techniques, fine-tuned, for each species. Warm water fish can be quite tough. For a variety of reasons it can be very challenging to get these fish to put a fly in their mouth. There are recipes that connect consistent.
The Common Carp
Twenty five years ago stories of fly fishing for carp started to make their way into mainstream fly fishing magazines. This fascinated me. Carp were — are — so common in local waters and I never had an interest. Until I read these magazine articles.
I bought a cheap Phleuger nine weight graphite rod from Walmart, rigged it up with a cheap Orvis click-and-pawl reel, and then — no skimping — I had the owner of fly shop spool the reel with a brand new Orvis nine weight, weight forward, floating line. A nice, slick, state-of-the-art, fly line. Cost was $70 dollars in 1999.
Someone coined the phrase “freshwater bonefish” in regard to fly fishing for carp. The catch-phrase fits, and then it doesn’t. Over the years I have had several opportunities to go bonefishing. And when I think of the word bonefishing — the world of bonefishing — I think of white sand beaches, tropical climates, topless sunbathers, conch fritters, rum, and Jamaican Lager.
When I think of fly fishing for carp I think of shallow sloughs, canals, mud flats, big lakes, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Carp do behave like bonefish. They school and “tail” on shallow flats and shoals. They will take a well presented fly and are powerful fighters. Which leads me back to my story about the expensive Orvis fly line.
After assembling my nine weight outfit with a short, stout, leader and 10 pound tippet, I launched my brothers 12 foot jon boat from the beach of his north shore home on Oneida Lake. It was Memorial Day weekend.
The year was 2000, and I put my 12 year old nephew, Jacob, on the tiller of the five horse outboard and we motored a short ways to the east. Quickly I found tailing carp in four or five foot of water. Their big tails sloshing side-to side as a trio of them rooted and dug in the rocks and mud.
With the sun at our back, we killed the motor and glided toward the carp. Once in casting rang, I clambered to the front of the boat, and laid one out. The bead-headed brown wooly bugger, with rubber legs tied in the thorax, plopped a few feet to the right of the feeding carp. The fly sank to the bottom, and a big carp slid over and ate it.
When I set the hook the carp wallowed for a moment, then made a surging run, non-stop, of about a 150 yards. The click-and-pawl reel was smoking. Within seconds I was well into my backing.
I shouted for Jacob to fire the outboard and chase after the carp. My brand new Orvis fly line disappearing quickly from sight! My backing beginning to run out!
The engine would not fire, and as Jacob pulled and pulled on the cord, the recoil spring broke. We were dead in the water. I put the brakes on the carp and “pop”…It was gone.
The knot attaching the backing to the fly line had come un-done. Pulled out. A pigtail of dacron braid was all that was left. My $70 dollar Orvis fly line…gone. That was to be my first round with carp on a fly.
Minus the broken outboards and donation of expensive fly lines, that’s the way I chase after carp. Get the sun at your back, early in the morning, and cruise the shallow margins of the lake looking for active carp. Casting is done from the deck of my Lund boat with a state-of-the-art electric prop these days.
On a lake the size of Oneida, the locations are endless. The entire lake is full of giant carp. Stalking carp on Oneida Lake is best done from the deck of a substantial boat. As a 50,000 acre lake will do, Oneida has a habit of getting dangerous fast. With an average depth of 20 foot and strong west winds, she can go from placid and calm — into a raging beast in a very short time.
Use light and surface conditions as the factors that determine where you fish. I have never stalked the shallows of Oneida Lake, anywhere, and not found active carp. Big ones. Tungsten beadhead woolly buggers with rubber legs. Tied brown, green, or black on a size 6 streamer hook have always proven effective.
This love/hate relationship I have developed with carp is the result of twenty years trying to catch them. Revere them as sport fish? I can only slightly respect them. Why? Because Carp Are Jerks. Indignant as well.
The smartest fish in the lake, the common carp has intense senses. It is well aware of its surroundings at all times, and has one of the most highly developed lateral lines of any freshwater fish. The carp is very sensitive to disturbances or activity around it. Attempting to sneak up within casting range of a school of large carp — with a boat or wading — is a high art.
Many of us who pursue carp with a fly in shallow water often fail. Our stalk and cast to carp is too often met with an explosion of silt, with big brown submarines fleeing at full speed. Such occurrences, in succession, can make one swear and spit and begin to develop a slight disdain for the carp. The challenge of catching one never wanes, however, and the carp saga continues.
Northern Pike And Muskellunge
Streamers. Streamers. And more streamers. The ones I like are the Dorado style nylon flies they use in the Amazon. They are indestructible, light, they do not absorb water, are easy to tie, and they catch fish. They can be dressed heavy or light in a seemingly infinite variety of colors and shapes. It is their cast-ability and durability that win me over.
These simple flies are attached to a four or five foot section of 30 pound fluorocarbon with an improved cinch knot with a long tag end. No loop knot. Intermediate line is necessary, but I always have a rod rigged with a rocket taper weight forward floater. Sink tips are a waste of time.
The intermediate line I use is the Cortland Camo. It has a nice slick finish, is low profile, casts well, and can be found for less than $60 dollars. Intermediate lines provide a more horizontal presentation lower in the water column.
Concentrate on weed edges, in and around any healthy, green weed beds you can find. Pike love the weeds and spend most of their time deep within the forest of weeds during the summer. They hide adjacent to pronounced edges, holes, or channel in the weeds and ambush their prey. The invasion of milfoil in the lakes and rivers of Upstate New York has had a major impact on the summer fishing for these species.
Cast the fly deep into the weeds and let it sink. Then a fast-retrieve. Long, fast, pulls on the fly line. Race the fly parallel to weed edges, though holes and channels in weed beds, and alongside the boat. Don’t let them look at it very long and be prepared for crushing takes! If you are picking up weeds on your line incessant, you are doing something wrong and need to change your fly, leader, or knots.
Different colors are attractive to esox species at different times. Different times of the year. Different times of the day. Size of the fly is also important. In the summer there is a wide variety of different sized baitfish in the lakes. The fry form the previous Spring spawn is an important food for all the piscivorous fish, even big pike. The flies I cast are no longer than four or five inches in length. I will often go smaller, but rarely larger.
Rainy, overcast, shitty days, offer the best pike and muskie fishing on pressured lakes and rivers. In fact; the shittier the better. Pike enjoy low light, cloudy days, with rain — and will strap on the food bag when these conditions occur. On lakes and rivers that see great fishing pressure, flies can be very effective on rainy days.
Freshwater Drum (Sheepshead)
In the world of fly fishing, freshwater drum could be considered exotic? In the St. Lawrence River, Oneida Lake, and the Barge Canal System they are quite common. They grow to a large size, travel in small schools, will take a fly…and fight as well as any fish I have ever hooked.
The sheepshead is a shoal dweller. It forages crustaceans, crayfish, mussels, and also feeds on minnows and insects. It’s habitat is mid-river shoals with current and deep water nearby.
With the bow-mounted Minn Kota electric prop. I stalk these big shoals. Starting at the downstream or leeward end, I work the boat along the edges, upstream or forward, in tight — so I can see the top of the shoal — . Calm, clear, bright, and windless mornings, with the sun at your back, are the ideal conditions.
The weather is the most significant factor in successful fly fishing for drum. To sight fish for these fish you require a bluebird day. With the late morning sun at your back, you patrol big shoals with the electric prop. Starting on the downstream end of the shoal, you work the boat forward, and around the edges. You should be close enough so that you can see the shallow top of the shoal.
If sheephead are present, you will see them on the shoal. Again, tungsten wooly buggers in green, brown, or black, dressed with rubber legs, will do the trick. Sheephead will feed head down, in trios or pairs, rooting along the shoal. A well-placed fly out in front of them often works. Sheephead are a strong, powerful, fish!
With thousands and thousands of acres of high quality public fishing water in Central New York, the avid fly fisher can find great fishing for warmwater species. Wether you wade and stalk, use a canoe, a paddle board, or a fully-decked 18 foot Lund with a Minn Kota Terrova — there are plenty of targets out on the big water of Central New York in the summer!