Tag Archives: fly-fishing

Partial to Partridge (Me, and the Trout)

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, October 25, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

Partridge-hackled flies are best choices


Photo of

I think just about any fly will catch fish at one time or another.

But I’m starting to think that flies made with partridge hackle would catch trout in the Crossgates Mall parking lot during a snowstorm. On Black Friday.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But this is not: Unless there was a compelling reason to use another kind of fly, my first choice on any trout stream in the world would be a simple, yarn-bodied Killer Bug with a brownish hackle of vividly mottled Hungarian partridge.

This is an ancient kind of fly, usually referred to as a soft-hackle, sometimes called spiders in the U.K. The simplicity of it appeals to me — it has the parts a fly needs and nothing else. But the main reason I like these flies is that they work so well.

Back in 1924, John Waller Hills wrote in “A Summer on the Test” that “one of the softest, most compressible patterns is partridge hackle, and, whether this be the reason or not, I consider it the best sunk fly on the Test.”

In recent years, I’ve been fishing soft-hackles much of the time, and I’ve experimented with a few different kinds of hackle feather. There are several good choices for this kind of tying.

Starling, for example, has an iridescent, greenish sheen that (I’m guessing) appeals to trout much the way peacock herl seems to. Flies with peacock herl bodies have serious mojo — the micro-movement of the herl’s fibers and its ever-shifting green, brown and purple colors.

They give an impression of life, at least to human eyes, and apparently to fish eyes, too. Starling is similar. Its very soft hackle fibers wiggle and wave around easily in the water like the flailing legs of a struggling insect. It also has the advantage of being available in small sizes for size 16-20 softies.

Hen is cheap, widely available in many dyed colors and easy to work with. You can make flies that range from tiny to jumbo, and the hackle fibers are nice and uniform, which may or may not impress the fish, but looks nice to the fly-tyer.

Hen pheasant, another popular choice, has an appealing brownish tan color and nicely tapered barbules, and it, too, is very soft, with lots of movement. It’s not quite as easy to find as starling or hen, however, and isn’t much good for flies smaller than size 12.

Red grouse also is less commonly stocked in fly shops, and it too tends to be for larger flies. Its best feature is its beautiful mottling.

But partridge is by far the most popular choice for soft-hackle flies. On a natural skin — and if you want to use this stuff, you must buy a skin, rather than the little packs of individual feathers, most of which are too big or otherwise unfit for use — you’ll find good hackles for sizes from 14 or 16 up.

The pale gray breast feathers with the sharp, fine mottling tend to be the best to tie with, but there are brown feathers on the back, in the middle of the skin, that look great with any generally brown fly, if you can find them in the right size.

The mottling is key. The hackle on these things looks like the banded legs of the kind of spiders that make your kids scream. In the water, drifting and tumbling and darting around, it’s utterly insect-like.

It may look to the fish like a caddis fly pupa, or an emerging mayfly, or a drowned adult mayfly or cranefly or spider. It probably looks like all of them, and trout love to eat them all. Partridge-hackled flies did right by me again just this past weekend. I hooked seven or eight fish on the East Branch of the Croton River in the lower Hudson Valley, and almost all of the ones I landed were at least 12 inches or better.

It was midday under a bright sun, the water was a bit shallow and there wasn’t an aquatic insect to be seen except an occasional midge or tiny olive mayfly. But the trout grabbed that fly with no hesitation, and that’s been my exper­ience much of the time.

So I’m with Hills. Soft-hackle wets tied with partridge hackle are the best sunk flies on the rivers I get to fish, here in New York.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.


Remembering John Merwin

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, February 28, 2013
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By Morgan Lyle

John Merwin

John Merwin, founder of Fly Rod & Reel magazine and author of “The Battenkill,” was remembered as a consummate writer and editor. He died Feb. 20 at age 66. (Photo courtesy the Merwin family)


John Merwin was a private guy. You didn’t see him on TV, or hosting seminars at fly-fishing shows, or liking and commenting on Facebook.

But he had friends and fans, and in the week since his death, they have remembered him as an expert angler, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and one of the most important fishing writers and editors of his time.

Merwin — founder of Fly Rod and Reel magazine, longtime fishing editor at Field & Stream and author of 15 books, including the definitive history of the Battenkill River — died Feb. 20 at age 66 after a brief illness.

“Gruff, erudite, opinionated, tireless, and constitutionally candid, he was a force on the angling scene, pulling the levers of the industry from a lawn chair in rural Vermont,” wrote Merwin’s friend Dave Hurteau of Saratoga Springs, dep­uty editor and columnist at Field & Stream, who wrote an obituary on behalf of Merwin’s family.

Merwin’s “The New American Trout Fishing,” published in 1994, is a superb book — “the best modern book on trout fishing, period,” in the words of Merwin’s Field & Stream colleague, Kirk Deeter.

You could read nothing else on the subject and live a happy life as a trout fisherman.

It’s an ambitious, literary how-to book that treats readers to history, science and commentary along with instruction.

But for Capital Region anglers, Merwin’s most important book was “The Battenkill: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Trout River — Its History, People and Fishing Possibilities.”

There’s never been anything remotely like it written about the Battenkill, or most trout rivers, for that matter. It’s a richly detailed history of the river, and to an extent of trout fishing itself in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one might expect, Merwin writes about the Battenkill’s most famous fisherman, the legendary Lee Wulff. But “The Battenkill” also covers Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and “the half-mythical (Ethan) Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who were in fact a handful of arrogant tavern drunks, bullying New York settlers along the border both before and shortly after the American Revolution.”

It’s not a how-to book, but anyone who reads it will learn how to fish the Battenkill. Merwin will warn them he sometimes takes an hour to wade 100 feet, which drives some of his friends nuts but avoids frightening the big trout. And you can almost see him wag his finger when you read, “use a three- to four-foot-long tippet of 6X [or lighter with ultra-small flies] for everything except streamers, even if the book you’ve read says to use 4X with your size-14 Hendrickson dries.”

Hurteau, who fished with Merwin often, heard lots of stuff like that.

“I met John in 1995,” he recalled in an interview. “I was a young, new punk editor from the wilderness at Field and Stream. John was already a legend. I had no idea who he was. The first words John ever spoke to me in person were, ‘You talk too much.’ ”

But under the grumpy New England veneer, Merwin was a softie. “He showed you in no uncertain way that he cared about you,” Hurteau said. “He went way out of his way to take a lot of us young editors under his wing and take care of us. It’s something that has been lost a little bit in editing circles these days — people are just too busy.”

And Merwin, a Connecticut nat­ive who began his career as a newspaperman after attending the University of Michigan, “was the standard bearer for integrity in fishing writing,” Hurteau said. “We really looked to John for the right way to do things, and he was just adamant about that. He insisted that things be done the right way.”

Hence the great books, and the many great articles and blog posts, and the overall quality of the mag­azines he led.

Merwin wasn’t afraid to show his sentimental side in his writing, at least when he was writing about the Battenkill.

“After about 40 years of chasing trout from Maine to California and beyond, I know that the Battenkill is my favorite place,” he wrote. “The Battenkill is more like Bach; with green hills, covered bridges and white-clapboard villages forming the gently repeating steps of a sweetly insistent fugue in which rising trout play an occasional part. Perhaps you’ll develop a taste for it. As I have.”

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

Casting for Carp Can Be Challenging

Daily Gazette article

Thursday, February 7, 2013

By Morgan Lyle

One year ago, Field & Stream fishing editor John Merwin declared in the magazine’s fishing blog, The Honest Angler, that “Carp Fishing is Not the Next Big Thing.”

In the post, he referred to an art­icle he had written in 2006, comparing fly-fishing for carp to dragging a piece of fried chicken through a senior citizen center. “If it looks good and moves slowly enough, something will eventually try to gum it to death,” he wrote.

Merwin’s been around long enough to see plenty of next big things, and his authority is seldom questioned. Still, carp fishing sure looks like a big deal these days, and seemed to really take off in 2012. In magazines and blogs, on Facebook and YouTube — all summer long, you saw anglers proudly holding up large fish with big scales and vacuum snouts.

This year, Merwin’s partner at The Honest Angler, Kirk Deeter (who is also editor of Trout Unlimited’s membership magazine, Trout) will have a new book out on fly-fishing for carp, and I’m betting it will sell a lot of copies.

Carp fans generally cite two general reasons for their enthus­iasm. The first is that carp are fussy eaters and it’s hard to get them to bite. No veteran fly-fisher can resist a challenge to his or her skill.

The other reason is that carp are so widely available. Carp live in everything from Texas farm ponds to Colorado reservoirs to the flats of the Lake Michigan shore.

They’re versatile fish that can tolerate water that’s much warmer, dirtier and oxygen-poorer than trout — so while the trout angler often drives anywhere from an hour to a day to find a suitable stream, just about everyone lives within a few miles of carp water.

One of the best places to fish for carp in the Capital Region, and in fact one of the coolest places to fish for any species, is the mouth of the Mohawk River near Peebles Island State Park in Cohoes, where Cobleskill fly-tyer Pat Cohen took me carp fishing one day last summer.

Pat's carp fly box. Or one of them, anyway.

Pat’s carp fly box. Or one of them, anyway.

In case you don’t know — and every fly-fisher in a 50-mile radius of Albany should — this part of the Mohawk is a vast, warm-water fly-fishing playground, with acres of water that’s shallow enough to wade and holds smallmouth bass, carp, the occasional striper and heaven knows what else. There are two waterfalls and many riffles, runs and pools. There’s an angler parking lot behind the U-Haul depot on Ontario Street in Cohoes.

You don’t fish the water when you’re after carp; you target ind­ividual fish. And don’t bother casting to carp rolling and cavorting on the surface; they’re not feeding, and your fly will be ignored. You cast only to fish that are actually feeding.

In fact, even when you do cast to a fish that’s feeding, there’s a good chance your fly will be ignored. Mine was, all day long, despite Cohen’s expert help. He stood on a 20-foot bluff, looking down at the water, and called out directions for me to cast.

“Morgan, there’s a fish 40 feet away at 11 o’clock,” he’d say.

Most of the time, I couldn’t see the fish or even the plumes of mud they kicked up when rooting around for food on the river bottom, but I cast where I was told, or as close as I could.

“Perfect,” Cohen would say when I dropped the fly right where he wanted. “Strip, strip, strip. He sees it, he’s turning, keep stripping.” But every time, the fish seemed to sense that something was wrong, or maybe just lost interest, and went about its business, and Pat had to look around and find me another fish to cast to.

Everything I’d heard about carp being fussy and finicky proved true for me that day. Fortunately for my ego, Cohen didn’t do any better during the few minutes he fished instead of spotting fish for me.


Pat Cohen of Cobleskill fishes for carp on the lower Mohawk River in Cohoes, N.Y. last summer. Big, abundant and challenging to catch, carp are increasingly prized by fly-fishers. (Morgan Lyle/For The Daily Gazette)

Finally, just before it was time to leave in the afternoon, I hooked up. It was my only hook-up all day, and I struck too hard and snapped the 12-pound tippet.

It was a fun day of fishing. I agree with those who say the common carp offers a real test of skill, not to mention the possibility of a tussle with a big fish. And I do appreciate not having to burn up a lot of gas and time to find them.

Of course, carp are butt-ugly, a fact that even their biggest fans don’t dispute much. I guess you take the good with the bad.

Why does Merwin think carp are not the next big thing?

“If my local fishing options consisted solely of carp, I would indeed be an ardent carp angler. But I can fish for three trout species, largemouths, smallies, walleyes, pickerel, pike, and even a few muskies within a 50-mile radius, so I don’t ever bother with carp,” he wrote.

“We have far too many other opportunities on and in the water. And because of that, the carp-fishing ren­aissance here that some are predicting just ain’t gonna happen.”

Far be it from me to argue with John Merwin. But I’m going to buy Kirk Deeter’s book.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.


Fly-Fishing: On Montauk Point, patience is key

Thursday, October 4, 2012
By Morgan Lyle
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Anglers are shown fly-fishing at Montauk Point last weekend. Most fly-fishing at Montauk is done from boats, but the beach can be productive when striped bass are in the shallows.

Anglers are shown fly-fishing at Montauk Point last weekend. Most fly-fishing at Montauk is done from boats, but the beach can be productive when striped bass are in the shallows.

It was a fool’s errand, I knew, but I went to Montauk Point over the weekend to fly-fish for stripers — from the beach.

I didn’t catch a thing in the few hours I was there. Then again, neither did the other four fly-fishermen I saw on the beach, nor the 200 or so surfcasters tossing plugs, so I didn’t feel so bad.

I did see several fly-rodders hook up with fish while fishing from boats a couple hundred yards offshore.

“If they’re not gettin’ ’em, nobody’s gettin’ ’em,” a surfcaster groused good-naturedly from the window of his SUV, his bumper plastered with all the stickers you need to drive on Long Island beaches for fishing.

Montauk in the fall is an interesting scene. The stony beaches where no one ever sunbathes in summer become a city in October — a city of men with four-wheel-drive vehicles who fish right through the night and sometimes stay for days.

They fish during the day, too, and so do the fly boys in the boats — $30,000 center-consoles with deep hulls and powerful motors, chasing blitzes of false albacore, bluefish and striped bass.

Somewhere, a few gulls will materialize over the waves, some frantic splashing will be evident on the surface, and all at once, six or eight bobbing boats will turn, get up on plane and speed to the blitz a quarter-mile away.

Sometimes, by the time they get there, the blitz is over (sometimes, put down by the boats themselves). But often enough, a few lucky fly-fishers will hook up with some of the strongest, fastest fish they’ll ever fight.

Meanwhile, the guys on the shore keep throwing their plugs, and the few fly-fishers cast as far as they can, hoping a blitz will break out close to the beach, as they sometimes do, or a lone bass prowling the shallows will be in the mood to bite.

That actually happens often enough to make it worthwhile to keep trying, even after you get skunked. It’s never happened to me at Montauk, but it has at other Long Island beaches, and it’s great fly-fishing.

It helps to be familiar with local features like inlets or sandbars, and the tides and times of day when bass tend to be around them. But mostly, to be successful from the beach, you have to put in your time.

“Fish have fins,” I’ve heard Long Island beach anglers say, meaning there might be fish within casting range or there might not. Just because there were bass here last night doesn’t mean they’ll be here again tonight.

But with persistence and luck, you eventually will hook up, and when you do, it’s so much fun that there’s another saying: “One from the beach is better than 10 from a boat.”

That may be overstating the case a bit. I’ve fished blitzes from boats a little bit, too, and it’ a lot of fun. But my heart is with the guys on the beach, whether they’re throwing plugs or flies.


Marla Blair, the well-known guide on the Farmington and Housatonic rivers in Connect­icut and the Deerfield River in Massachusetts, will give a talk at the monthly meeting of the Clearwater chapter of Trout Unlimited at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15. The meeting is free and open to the public, and will be held at the Albany Ramada Plaza Hotel, 3 Watervliet Ave. The meeting will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a fly-tying demonstration.

The chapter is also looking for volunteers to help with its annual streamside clean-up on the Battenkill River in Cambridge, starting at 9 a.m. on Oct. 20. For more information, visit www.clearwatertu.org.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

Introducing the Stewart Stone

I’m just not a morning person. A real fisherman would have been up at 4 and on the water at first light. I settled for being up at 6:10 and on the water  by 8. Fortunately, most of the Muscoot River below Amawalk Reservoir is in the shade all day anyway, so the bright July sun wasn’t a problem.

I’ve never done very well on this beautiful stream. Today, I landed two, lost two others and had a few dismissive flips. I’ll settle for that, too.

What made it interesting was the fly. I’ve come across several mentions of big tenkara flies lately, so I decided to try one myself. It’s probably not unique enough to merit a name, but I gave it one anyway: the Stewart Stone, named for TenkaraBum Chris Stewart of New York.

It was Chris, after all, who popularized the yarn used to make the Killer Bug. That stuff has some serious mojo,  and I think it’s the most important part of the Stewart Stone. In  the water, the yarn (Jamieson’s Shetland Spendrift, in sand, colored with a Prismacolor marker, also in sand) is complex stew of shades that combine to create a meaty, live-looking pink, with a fuzzy halo.

The fly that became the Stewart Stone differs from a big Killer Bug in a couple of significant ways:

  • It has a tail and a hackle, both olive-dyed Hungarian partridge. (Chris’s Killer Kebari has a hackle, but no tail.) Brown-dyed or natural partridge would probably work just as well.
  • It has a pronounced taper.

I tied the fly on a size 8 Orvis 1524 hook – a 1X heavy, 2X long nymph hook that I would normally use for Woolly Buggers. I’m not used to tying or fishing nymphs that big. Sure, I’ve always had a few big black stoneflies handy, but only used them as a last resort and never had much success (probably because by the time I tie on the last resort fly, my own mojo is on the wane.) The Stewart Stone is  not a lovely fly to cast on an Ebisu with a TenBum hand-tied line, but I can more or less put it where I want it. Yes, it makes a loud plop when it hits the water. This doesn’t seem to bother the trout. Most strikes to this fly have come right after splashdown.

I decided to think of the pattern as a stonefly last weekend, when I saw lots of big stonefly shucks on the rocks protruding from Esopus Creek. A few small, wild Esopus rainbows endorsed it that day. Two days earlier, on a hatchless afternoon at the Hale Eddy riffles on the West Branch of the Delaware, a chubby trout grabbed the fly as it swung below me, and several others nipped at it but wouldn’t commit.

I guess it might imitate a stonefly, but I think of it as more of an attractor. There aren’t many insects around right now, so maybe the trout are less fussy. At the very least I know they’re seeing it.

A Bass Tourney on Lake Champlain — for Fly Rods!

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, July 5, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

Did you hear about the bass-fishing tournament on Lake Champlain?

No, not the FLW Tour event — that was last week. I’m talking about the Ditch Pickle Classic, a fly-fishing-only bass tournament in Missisquoi Bay on the Vermont side of the lake, not far from the Canadian border. Now in its third year, the DPC will run July 14-15.

Fly-fishing tournaments, mostly for fun and usually benefiting a good cause, seem to be more and more popular in recent years, but most of them are trout-fishing contests. So the Ditch Pickle Classic is a rare breed in a region most fly-fishers associate with trout and salmon.

“I could spend whole summers up on Missisquoi Bay and never see another fly angler,” said Brendan Hare, a graduate student at the University of Vermont and an organizer of the Classic. “I just wanted to get the word out that we had this great fishery with shallow-water bass fishing, sight fishing in some cases.”

The good fishing of Lake Champlain is no secret to the FLW Tour anglers, who consistently rate the lake among the nation’s best. Missisquoi Bay, in Swanton, Vt., offers big fish in a pristine, shallow-water setting. In fact, while other FLW Champlain tournament anglers headed for fishing holes in Ticonderoga, the eventual winner of the tourney, David Dudley, made a beeline for Missisquoi Bay and caught most of his fish in two feet of water.

There’s no livewell and weigh-in at the Ditch Pickle Classic. Partic-ipants in two-angler teams simply photograph each other’s fish next to tournament-issue rulers, a format known as catch-photo-release. A 12- to 13-inch fish is worth one point, and a 20-incher or better is worth five.

This year, for the first time, the contest will span two days, so anglers can fish until dark on Saturday and be on the water as early as they like on Sunday.

The low-light hours will offer the best shot at surface action. While the bay is known for shallow-water fishing, anglers may need to reach as deep as 25 feet to find willing fish during the heat of the day, Hare said.

The fishing is done from boats — anything from canoes to motorboats.

“We got some pretty slick boats last year,” Hare said. “No full-on bass boats with 200-horsepower Mercs, but we had guys that had flats boats that were over from Massachusetts.”

The registration fee is $25 per angler. Of that, $15 will go to the Friends of Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, and the rest covers the participant’s keepsake T-shirt.

Without much publicity, the Ditch Pickle Classic (the name comes from a slang term for largemouth bass) is becoming an established event. It’s also expanding interest in a great resource that’s underutilized by fly-fishers.

“A lot of people never exper-ience Lake Champlain,” Hare said. “There are a lot of people that fly-fish in Vermont, and you still hear, ‘You can catch bass on a fly?’ Not only can you, but these are four-pound smallies and four-pound largemouth bass that, to me, are a lot more impressive than the average stocked trout we all wind up catching out of the rivers.”

An Awesome Montauk Surfcasting Video Needs Our Support

If you’re a fly-fisher on Long Island, chances are you’ve found yourself in the fishing department of Camp-Site Sport Shop in Huntington Station, N.Y., which has a great selection of fly-fishing and fly-tying stuff.
The manager of the Camp-Site fishing department, Richard Siberry, is a very knowledgeable angler — but he’s also a brilliant photographer and, now, video producer. His nearly finished documentary, “Montauk Rocks,” captures the fun of hardcore surfcasting — and the spirit of the characters who are devoted to the game — better than anything I’ve seen.
We all have a chance to help get this doc finished and onto the screen, by contributing to it through Kickstarter — a “crowd-funding” service that helps creative types with grassroots fundraising. I chipped in a few bucks and I hope you will, too. Check out the trailer.
No, this isn’t strictly speaking a fly-fishing video, although there is fly-fishing in it. But I have to believe anybody who likes any kind of fishing — or anyone who enjoys first-class outdoor recreation journalism — will love “Montauk Rocks.” Seriously. Check out the trailer.

Montauk Rocks Kickstarter page & trailer