The dichotomy between fly fishing and conventional fishing has always felt a little silly to me. If you truly love fish and the glorious pursuit of them, you’ll do it by whatever means necessary. Sometimes fly tackle is far more effective for a given situation. Oftentimes spin or baitcast tackle takes the day. Other times it’s a toss-up with a spirited debate likely to follow.
For many of the best anglers, I’ve noticed that those lines eventually begin to blur. Many fly fishing guides carry spin rods in their boats in case the weather conditions deteriorate. Lots of conventional captains haul fly tackle to spice things up. But the real visionaries take gear and insight from one sector of the fishing industry and adapt it to another. These tricks might seem obvious to some, objectionable to others, but you still may be surprised how few anglers employ them.
Swivels If someone would please invent a swivel that floats, I’d use them for dry fly fishing too. Big, foamy, leggy stonefly or terrestrial patterns are especially prone to twisting up your leader, but that’s a problem you can easily solve for nymphs and streamers. West Coast steelhead Spey anglers have been using this hack for years to keep their long, wind-resistant, Intruder-style flies running straight. I’ve seen folks place swivels in the middle of their leader, between the leader and shooting head, and between the shooting head and running line. Rio Products offers super slick swivels with loop connections on both sides for those very purposes.
If $10 per swivel seems a little steep to you, you can also use any standard, quality swivel from your conventional box—the kind that come in packs of 25 for less than $10. On my trout, bass, or pike streamer rigs, I’ll often put one between the butt section of the leader and the tippet or wire to prevent line twist. I put it in about the same place on heavy nymphing rigs, just below the weight. You just want to make sure that the hardware never comes through your guides unless it’s very low-profile like those custom offering from Rio.
Clips/Snaps The other place you can put a swivel is right in front of your fly (duh). Snap swivels are incredibly common, basically mandatory for spinners and spoons, and can be used in exactly the same manner with flies. It will affect the action and sink rate of smaller bugs but has obvious benefits for bigger ones. Clearly there’s the leader twist reduction, but it also simplifies changing patterns since it takes far less time and hassle to open and close a snap than to clip off and retie a loop knot on 60-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet. You also get the added benefit of a little more bite protection from toothy fish like pike and muskie.
I also sometimes employ simple snaps without a swivel attached for ease of changing flies rapidly. Sometimes it really pays to cycle through presentations quickly, and removing knots from the equation increases efficiency. Rio made that even easier with their Twist Clips, which allow you to simply pivot your hook eye on and off the hardware.
Tippet Rings I learned this amazing hack at a fly shop in Germany some six or seven years ago. American fly anglers still look at me sideways when I tie one on, but usually grasp the wisdom of it soon enough.
Tippet rings are tiny metal O-rings usually not more than an eighth of an inch wide. Some are circular and others oblong. The intent is to tie your leader to one side and your tippet to the other, negating the need for tricky line-to-line knots like the blood or double surgeon. The rings are strong and the small ones are light enough to not even break the surface tension of the water and can be used for dry fly fishing. When your tippet gets too short, you can just add a new section without losing more of your butt section leader to the knot. This tackle also allows an angler to add droppers at a right angle from the leader for Czech nymphing or the increasingly popular “pogo” or “Ubangi” rigs, which use droppered nymphs and weight at the terminal end of the leader.
Weights Speaking of, I pirate all manner of weights from my walleye and bass tackle boxes for fly fishing applications. In a deep-water nymphing situation, you can either stack a ton of split-shot or you can use one big weight like an egg or tear-drop sinker. I’ve also seen folks using “slinkies,” those weights made out of parachute cord filled with ball bearings, for an especially snagless drift.
A great way to get a little more depth and bounce out of your streamer, whether you’re stripping or swinging, is to slide a bullet sinker on the tippet right in front of the fly. It’s the same way you’d set up a Texas-rigged worm for bass. Just make sure not to go too heavy or your casting ability will suffer (and the back of your head might too).
Jig Heads and Tails Steelhead angling is a breeding ground for crossover from conventional gear to fly. Many of us started with the former and transitioned slowly—and not entirely—to the latter. Many coastal rivers are deep and fast and often require more weight than fly anglers usually have to deliver.
Time and again I’ve seen fly steelheaders using small jig heads for nymphing, often the same ones the bobber-and-jig guy just downstream is using. Fly tying on a hook that already has weight is easier and more durable than lashing in dumbbell eyes or cone heads yourself. Placing the bulk of the weight at the terminal end of the leader assists with some casting and rod styles. It also gets your presentation deeper faster than would split-shot halfway up the leader.
And if I haven’t completely offended your delicate fly angler sensibilities by now, this one should do it. Soft plastic baits, tails, and trailers can be downright deadly for a wide variety of fly fishing applications. Miles Nolte and Joe Cermele love little, brightly-colored plastic grubs for winter trout fly fishing. Tons of serious pike and muskie anglers tie in twister tails at the back of their big bucktail streamers. I caught one of my biggest steelhead while nymphing a hot pink rubber worm on a 9-foot 7-weight fly rod. Plastic beads imitating salmon eggs have long been ubiquitous for Alaskan trout fishing.
Is it a fly without feathers or fur? I’ll let you decide, but keep that decision to your damn self. If you want to be fussy about what qualifies as “fly fishing,” that is your right. But projecting your own ideals on others isn't good angling etiquette. The goal of fishing is to catch fish—and creativity is highly advantageous to that end.