Figuring out how to strategically target fish: the ideal presentation for the current, the best cast to get around structure, and which fly, lure, or bait is most likely to get eaten captivates fishermen. But one of the less discussed aspects of fishing often happens away from the tying bench and tackle shop. Creative anglers do more than just change spots or try different lures. They make subtle but important modifications and adjustments.
I remember a time when I was spoon obsessed, but the spoons I liked came with a hook about four sizes too big. I’d spend hours replacing them with a pair of split-ring pliers in one hand and responsibly-sized hooks in the other. That attention to detail served me well when I started fly fishing. Most store-bought flies are over-dressed with heavy materials made to appeal to bin fishermen and fly box decorators. Again, I found myself wasting time undoing manufacturers’ efforts to replace them with my own. In fact, I spent so much time replacing hooks and thinning out excess flash and marabou that I eventually started buying naked spoons in bulk and tying my own flies.
As necessary as modifications are, however, they don’t always come pre-packaged or available for purchase. On the water situations regularly require further modification of gear we’ve already tampered with or made ourselves. Common examples include faded colours, loosened wraps, torn-out components, and weakened epoxy. Sometimes our gear may be perfectly constructed, except it’s the wrong size or colour. Recently, on a trip to Lake Okeechobee while filming an episode of MeatEater’s Das Boat along with Oliver Ngy, I found myself borrowing a box full of bass flies that were perfect for the fish, but not for the fishery. The lake averaged three feet deep, so the fish were hiding amongst reeds and lily pads. I cursed every snag and hung up on almost every cast the first day. So, that night, I sat down with a sewing kit to tie in weed guards by hand. I didn’t have a vise or heavy monofilament, but I did find an old zip tie poking out from the grass. With a little jerry-rigging, half-hitching, and trimming, I soon had weed guards on a handful of flies, greatly increasing my confidence—and success—on the second day.
Sometimes modifications require a little creativity—maybe even a little frustration—but it all just adds to the satisfaction of catching more fish. Here are some tools you should bring out on the water:
Scissors satisfy a multitude of needs. I use them to cut leader and fly line, to alter flies, and to trim my nose hairs when I can’t stand the itch. That said, scissors aren’t the best tool for all fly or jig modifications. Natural feathers and furs should be shortened or tapered by hand rather than by blade (this doesn’t apply to nose hairs—definitely use scissors for those). The tips of natural feathers and furs taper, so cutting them with scissors usually makes their ends blocky and unrealistic, especially when wet. Instead, start by grabbing the natural material at its base and then proceed to make short, jerky tears to rip off the ends. It’s always better to remove too little rather than too much, as you can incrementally shorten until you reach your desired length, but you can’t put the material back on.
But some materials won’t break by hand, or they stretch out in the process. Tearing flash, for example, leaves a cute curly-Q best suited for Christmas presents and party decor. Scissors are helpful when working with flash, zonker strips, stinger hook material, feather stems, and air resistant foam, deer hair, or cork popper heads.
Sharpies have been my little secret since my early days of fishing. For years I’ve used them to colour, texture, and even to thin out obnoxiously fluffy feathers. When I first started tying jigs, I rummaged through my mom’s closet and sewing basket to find materials and threads to tie onto hooks. It didn’t take me long to learn that coloured Sharpies work wonders when it comes to adding colour to white, or hiding undesirable pastels and fluorescents. I use black to add stripes and dots, and red to imitate gills. Nowadays, permanent markers are available in all sorts of colours, and they’re a must-have when bringing white popper heads to life.
I tie almost exclusively with white thread then use a marker to add colour at the head. This is a great trick for tying subtle egg-sucker leeches when you don’t have fluorescent materials or beads handy. Taking it one step further, I use Sharpies to help remove plumage from fluffy feathers. The ink acts almost like a burning agent, giving it a sleek appearance like bleach-burning and other chemical processes. A felt pen adds very little weight to your pack, and I often find other uses for it on a fishing trip.
I have a love-hate relationship with flash. How much I use depends on the water clarity, time of year, and the species I’m targeting. There are times when I like my fly to parade like a Vegas showgirl—and just as many times when I like it to take on a more organic, hairy armpit role.
There are a number of ways to approach flash. One approach is to tie in too much of it and then thin it out later. Another is to tie in none (or very little) and then add it when necessary.
My brother-in-law, Steve Morrow, showed me a great trick when we used to guide together on the Dean River. Every year, long seasons of tying client flies wore us down. By our 60th consecutive day of working, Steve was keen to save every minute he could—even if it meant stealing it from our tying sessions. His solution was to carry a pack of saltwater Mylar in his wader pocket, then simply use an overhand knot to tie a strand of it onto his leader. The water’s current made it slide down over the fly, and the fish went crazy for it. It was just too damn easy, which is my favourite type of modification.
There’s nothing quite as disheartening as a productive fly or jig that unravels as a result of aggressive casting or toothy fish. It’s always a good idea to travel with a sewing kit. Sewing kits are one of those lightweight tools you’ll wish you had during a moment of need.
You might think monofilament would work for fixing jigs and flies, but I haven’t found that to be true. It’s hard to make mono hold taut when tied over other materials, and it bulks up fast. Braid is a more realistic alternative, but it can also bulk up quickly. Thread has a thin diameter, it’s easy to work with, and is perfect for locking materials into place.
Thread not only helps fix damaged flies and jigs, it’s also an excellent way to add materials to them as well. But 99% of the time you won’t have a vise, bobbin, or whip-finisher on you, so it’s important to know how to do these sorts of revisions and repairs in hand. A simple overhand knot won’t hold up to even short periods of fishing, so you’ll need to be comfortable whip-finishing or half-hitching without any tools. If you’re one of those people who was born with two thumbs, you should probably read this next trick.
Glues and UV Resins
Oh, let me count the ways Superglue has saved my ass. From repairs on boats to temporary stitching on open wounds, I’ve used Superglue to help me get out of some serious trouble. Over the last decade, many glues have taken a backseat to some of the more modern materials on the market, but the general consensus remains the same—don’t get caught in sticky situations without something sticky to help fix it. When it comes to fly and lure revisions, glue can help even the most hopeless tiers. An inadequate tie-off or broken plug can withstand some strain if it’s been coated in good glue.
It never hurts to carry a spool of heavy monofilament. Thick mono can come in handy for all sorts of modifications, but it’s also helpful for use in leader butts and bite tippets. I like to have some on me just in case I encounter large, toothy fish. There are many uses for 40-plus-pound monofilament, but at the top of that list are weed guards and stinger hook loops. Weed guards can be tied in at the eye of the hook in single strands or as a loop. They should extend past the hook point, acting as a blockage from aquatic vegetation.
I add stinger loops so that I can run an additional hook off the back of a fly or lure. They’re great for hooking short-striking fish, switching out hook sizes, replacing dull hooks, and adding leverage for fighting fish.
I try to tie in weed guards and stinger hook loops during my initial construction, but there are times when I need to improvise and tie them in on the water. I also often replace stinger loop material that has broken or fallen limp. Mono is a great material to do this because it’s affordable and accessible, however, it must always be reinforced. Mono is slippery and prone to pulling out from even the tightest of thread wraps. To reinforce, simply fold the tag ends over top of themselves, then wrap your thread snugly around all four pieces (two tag ends and the two “working pieces”). Again, in a worst-case scenario, pull out the glue!
Worm Weights and Tungsten Beads
There’s nothing quite as disheartening as showing up for a trip with all your gear, only to find out it’s not heavy enough to get down to the fish. Rather than limit myself to pre-tied flies and jigs, I prefer the flexibility of just adding weight if I need to. A great way to do this is with bullet-shaped worm weights and tungsten beads. I carry a small package of weights in various sink-rates and colours. In only a matter of seconds, I’m able to slide a weight down my leader, or take it off if I’m touching bottom.
It is worth mentioning, however, that when weights are cast repeatedly, they’ll eventually wear out a leader. This is easily solved by pushing the weight directly onto the fly or lure, or by inserting a small piece of plastic tubing into the weight itself. I admit that I’ve had plenty of successful days just lazily slipping on a weight and letting it rub freely on my leader, but I strongly recommend checking your leader for frays or obvious signs of wear and tear.
Effective anglers anticipate the unexpected and arrive prepared. Creativity is key, but having the necessary tools and accessories allows you to deploy your creativity more effectively.