Types of Fish
The king of fly rod fish, the Atlantic salmon has devoted followers in North America and Europe. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon can spawn more than once. At sea, the fish stores enough energy to return to its native stream, climb waterfalls, and spawn without having to eat. This species of salmon strikes a variety of dry and wet flies. When hooked, this baby will jump several feet above the water in a majestic, watery display of power.
This inland version of the Atlantic salmon also strikes tiny insect imitations. When winter ice melts in northern New England, anglers celebrate the arrival of spring by trolling flies for landlocked salmon. In the Western states, the kokanee salmon is the dwarf, landlocked version of the sockeye. Hatcheries have introduced the kokanee to waters in several Eastern states, where the fish strike trolled streamers.
Five species of Pacific salmon thrive on our continent and all are exciting to catch on a fly rod. Sockeye, pink, and chum salmon are great game fish, but Chinook and coho salmon are fly-fishing favorites. The Chinook or king salmon is the largest, topping more than 100 pounds. The coho or silver is a spectacular leaper when hooked. Chinook and coho strike colorful streamers resembling herring. When they enter their spawning streams, Pacific salmon stop eating but still strike flies and other lures out of curiosity. These salmon spawn once, then die.
As often as largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass ambush and devour bass bugs, they can be finicky strikers. In streams, smallmouths and spotted bass are especially selective during large-insect hatches. Artificial flies need to match exactly the size, color, and behavior of natural insects called “match the hatch.” Largemouth bass attack almost anything that invades their territory, including snakes, lizards, mice, birds, and frogs. Mostly, largemouths eat crawfish, minnows, and other small fish. Fished on or near the surface, bass bugs (poppers, divers, and sliders) offer much excitement because you can see the raw violence of a predator striking prey.
Largemouths can grow to 30 inches and weigh more than 20 pounds. The spiny-rayed fish do best in warmer water of about 80 degrees, and in weedy lakes and backwaters of rivers. They prefer clean water with bottoms of mud, sand, and aquatic vegetation. They are often found beneath undercut banks during daylight hours. At dawn and dusk they move into open water to feed but return to cover during the day.
Smallmouths, on the other hand, inhabit lakes with current and cool, clear streams at least 35 feet across with bottoms of rocks, gravel, or sand. Smallmouths do not travel long distances. In lakes they are found around rocky reefs and gravel bars. Smallmouths are considered an excellent game fish. They stage spectacular aerial shows when hooked and fight better than largemouth bass.
From Florida to Maine, bluefish slash at flies resembling fish trying to escape. They use their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to chop their prey into bits. When feeding, a school of bluefish can make the water look like it's boiling with the blood of baitfish. Bluefish are attracted to saltwater streamers and poppers simulating silver-and-white baitfish. Attach them with wire or a braided material that can withstand the bluefish's teeth.
These devils are ravenous bottom feeders inhabiting shallow saltwater flats, where wading fly fishers cast to fish they can see. Much of the time bonefish—as they sweep over a flat to feed in water only 1 to 2 feet deep—reveal their dorsal fins and the top half of their caudal fins. Like shrimp, they live in turtle grass near the bottom of shallow water.
An inshore species, they seldom frequent water more than 10 to 12 feet deep. Bonefish weighing more than 20 pounds have been caught on bait in deep water, but they are much smaller on the flats. But even small fish can tear line off the reel, while larger bonefish make a full spool of line disappear in seconds. American fly fishers release most of the bonefish they catch.
Bottom dwellers, these babies are generally caught on bait, but they will strike artificial flies that simulate baitfish. In some parts of Pennsylvania, catfish will rise to the surface to feed on abundant fly hatches at night.
Brook trout and lake trout are actually chars, closely related to trout but with a different mouth structure. The other two North American varieties of char are the Dolly Varden and the arctic char. These beautiful fish have light spots on dark skin, whereas trout have dark spots on light skin. Char readily take flies simulating baitfish, shrimp, and insects.
These strong fighters with long, continuous fins on their backs rise to artificial flies. Though the American grayling is known to strike an unusual fly with its small mouth, the fish often shies from a heavy leader. American grayling group together in schools in lakes and streams in Canada, Alaska, Michigan, and some Western states.
Boasting deeply forked tails, narrowed where they join the body, the iridescent, streamlined mackerel are superb, swift swimmers that travel in schools. Feeding on herring and squid, they also strike shiny streamers retrieved quickly. These fish are exciting catches for the fly angler.
The largest member of the pike family, the “muskie” is a long, thin fish with spineless dorsal fins, large anal fins, and long, narrow jaws with formidable teeth. It eats fish, frogs, snakes, even water fowl, and can grow to 70 pounds. The fly you cast must look like a large meal, and you should retrieve it quickly, working it all the way to your rod tip, where the fish may strike.
Related to sunfish and sea bass, white and yellow perch usually offer only a sluggish fight but a delicious dinner. Colors range from brassy green to golden yellow above with lighter bellies. Yellow perch are easily recognizable by the distinctive six to eight broad, dark vertical bars on their sides. Yellow perch also have a dark area near the posterior base of the shiny dorsal fin. They grow to 14 inches and can weigh as much as 2 pounds.
On ponds, perch take a variety of flies including small streamers and nymphs fished slowly. During a major insect hatch, the fish will feed on the surface. Sea-run white perch hit flies resembling grass shrimp and baitfish.
This ferocious predator of arctic waters, with powerful jaws in its toothy duckbill mouth, is a suitable adversary for the fly fisher. A pike can grow to more than 50 pounds, but 8- to 10-pound fish are more common. In the spring, a pike (like the bass) charges at long flies that simulate another fish invading its territory.
The largest member of the herring family the shad is found from Florida to New England. They boast spectacular leaping ability and bright flanks. Each spring shad migrate from the salt water to their native streams, where they strike brightly colored flies drifted on stream bottoms. Though bony, American shad are delicious.
Natives of North America's West Coast, steelhead resemble giant rainbow trout. They are like salmon in that they are born in freshwater streams, migrate to sea, then return to spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning. They take a variety of wet flies, many of which look like salmon patterns, and even dry flies. Like Pacific salmon, steelhead have been transplanted to the Great Lakes, where they thrive and provide exceptional fishing action.
Three Basic Needs of Fish
Fish have some fundamental needs: (1) protection or shelter from predators such as the heron, cormorant, eagle, hawk, or other bird of prey; (2) a food source ranging from mice to insect larvae; and (3) water quality, oxygen levels, aeration, and temperature.
Sporting game fish, stripers are most abundant along the East Coast. They are often called rockfish because they hug rocky shorelines and reefs. Fly fishers cast baitfish imitations to stripers, but the fish also take poppers, worm simulations, and floating bugs that look like miniature crabs. Because striped bass commonly feed at night, the best time to catch them on a fly is just after sunset and before dawn. Striped bass are found on all three American coasts.
Spiny-finned, freshwater fish with flattened bodies, sunfish are the most colorful and include bluegill, bream, and pumpkinseed. They strike a variety of flies including most nymphs, dry flies, small streamers, and poppers. Because sunfish have small mouths, flies should have hooks smaller than #8. Besides offering anglers much action, sunfish provide good fishing practice. Besides, they taste delicious fried.
This fly line devourer can weigh more than 200 pounds and is strong enough to tow a boat for miles. Tarpon range from Cape Hatteras to Brazil. Just hooking one of these giants is a dream of many experienced anglers. Landing a tail-walking silver king on a fly is a bonus. “Smaller” tarpon in the 20-pound range hit drab streamers as well as brightly colored feathers.
Big tarpon haunts include the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Most anglers agree that of all the game fish in salt water, these are the toughest of the jack family. Among its many species are the amberjack and jack crevalle.
Sometimes erroneously called “walleyed pike,” walleye are actually the largest member of the perch family. In summer, walleye feed in shallow water at night and move to deeper waters during the day. Spawning occurs in early spring in cooler water, and they return to the same spawning area year after year. They feed throughout the year and can be caught through the ice in winter. Walleye can be difficult to catch until you learn to locate them in a particular body of water.
While purists may disdain this fish because they usually take any fly you throw at them, that very quality makes them fun to catch. Mountain whitefish in Western streams offer action throughout the winter, taking various small flies.