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 Welcome to the home of Don's 
Guide Service and fly fishing

To Retrieve or Not to Retrieve

For many new and even seasoned anglers, fishing on still waters can be quite intimidating. Vast amounts of water, usually no fish showing, few or no food sources easily recognizable and just a general feeling of being overwhelmed can strike quickly. Most fly rodders usually come equipped with some general attractor or search patterns and can usually find some success if they can recognize productive water and are patient. One of the biggest factors in fishing still waters is presenting the imitation at the right depth in a realistic or at least enticing manor. In this article, I am assuming that you are at the lake, have either a floating device to get you around or are wading and fishing from shore. In addition, I assume you have a workable line (floating, sinking, or combination will all work in most cases), have adequate leaders and tippet material, and have some flies that represent general lake food sources like midges, leeches, baitfish, damsels, dragons, mayflies, caddis flies, snails, scuds..... etc. OR have at least some good attractor patterns like general nymphs, leeches, wooly buggers (lots of forms and variation) or anything else that looked fishy (is that a general description or what?) from the local gas station/market/fishing store. So lets get ourselves set up for success and learn about different kinds of retrieves. Hey, take some notes and read them frequently.

Find a likely spot for fish to hang around, like points, inlets outlets, channels, weedbeds, productive bays (hey, the guy at the gas station or some clown with a web page told you were to go!) or just the place where you can park close to the water (at least the ice chest is close by!). Rig up and lets do some casting from shore or wading.

Retrieves for Wading Anglers or From Shore

Lets first talk about approaching the shore. Many fish will forage along the edge of the shore and are easily spooked. I have watched for years as anglers wade right in on top of fish and are surprised to see the wakes heading away (or not seeing anything at all!). Pay attention! Be stealthful, and cast quietly along the shore before wading in or tossing your tube or pram into the edge of the water. That said, use a systematic approach to fishing. Start along the edges and cast SHORT distances in a radial pattern. Then start to work your way out but don't forget that most of the fish you want to catch are coming in to shore to get their food. If you wade in and move out until you are at your waders limit, many of the fish you want to catch are in water more shallow than you. Work your way out slowly and realize you don't have to test the limit of your waders. Most prey in the shallows and along shorelines are moving toward or along the shore, so your best opportunities will be a retrieve that moves the imitation in the same life like way.

I have yet to see any subsurface food sources except small baitfish move more than at a crawl. Strip slowly and then SLOW DOWN. Start with a 1/2 inch (yes I said 1/2 inch) strip and continue at a very slow pace. Mix in some slow 3 inch strips and an occasional pause. Many nymphs and other insects swim slowly and then rest while sinking a short depth. If you retrieve and let the imitation sink (that is the pause time), you will usually find the fish will take the bug when it is sinking and as soon as you start to retrieve again, presto! there is the fish! Most new anglers like to use the 8 inch rip retrieve with their patterns and yes that can be successful at times if for no other reason than it gets the fish's attention. I still think a retrieve that imitates the natural's movement will be best. Another method that is of interest to mention, is letting the imitation sit on the bottom or hang in the water and then start a varied retrieve if you see signs of a fish or what I call "nervous water" (another story, but a good one!). For those who just like to wade, have confidence in knowing that if you are prepared, practiced, and patient, then wading can be one of the most productive methods on many waters. I did not mention using an indicator because I will discuss that in a different section on the NO RETRIEVES. I have not mentioned every type and variation of retrieve, but will put most in a table at the end of this article.

Retrieves for Anglers Using a Floating Device

It does not matter whether you are in a float tube, pontoon boat, pram, canoe, kayak, boat, or anything else that floats. ( I once sat mesmerized watching people pull their boats up to floating port-a-potty on the opening day at Crowley Lake, that was more interesting that the fact that I was the only fly fisher in a crowd of 16,000 anglers!) Anyway, back to the task at hand. I would remind floating anglers (that's how we will refer to anglers in this section) to fish the shore before getting in and moving away. Remember those shore foraging fish? As you move away, turn and fish along the shoreline and cast so you can strip back toward the shore. After working the shallow areas carefully and thoroughly, move out into the bays, off points, near or over weed beds or any other of a multitude of productive water. I will assume you are using either a floating line, intermediate (every still water angler should have one loaded up!), or variable sinking line. The idea is the same for all. The differences come from fishing at different depths. Obviously, the faster the sink rate, the deeper you can generally (OK I know about the exceptions) get your imitation. Start by working the full potential of you line. If I have a floating line on, I will start by moving my pattern just under the surface. Then I will start to wait (some people call this a countdown) increasingly longer and longer between casts to work the pattern at different depths. The last try with the floating line might involve casting your pattern on a long leader and then having a drink of water or snack (this means wait a long time folks!) before I start to retrieve. By the way, if you do that fast retrieve, then you have just wasted you time waiting for the imitation to sink. Think slow and keep the imitation down deep. Pause frequently and be very patient. The other lines that sink at different rates really accomplish the same thing except they will get down deeper. I really like to get my imitation down to the bottom or top of the weed beds and then shorten my wait time. Most of those fish are going to be at a general level and once you get to that level and your success starts to improve, REMEMBER THAT DEPTH AND RETRIEVE!, it should work well for at least a while. There are reasons that fish are layered at specific levels in the water. It could be temperature, food, safety, and a lot of other reasons. Don't try to be a biologist, just capitalized on the information you worked hard to find out. Some of you may want to hear something about just tossing out you pattern, leader, line and then paddling, rowing, motoring or using some other way of moving your imitation. THAT IS NOT FLY FISHING! IT IS TROLLING, even if you cast once in a while. Will it work? Yes, your imitation is in the water all the time and you cover a lot of water. But have you accomplished what fly fishing is really about, the game or the idea of fooling a fish in their natural habitat with your skills and knowledge. If I hurt your feelings, sorry, but you might as well sit back in a comfortable chair with the ices chest on one side and listen to the the weekend Nascar race on the radio. Why spend all that money on expensive equipment. Enough opinion, there is a lot to be said for enjoying the outdoors and catch and release, so who am I to condemn? If you really want to know why I feel t his way, read my article on Hands and Flyfishing. Again, I will address the bobber (opps I mean indicator) methods under the no retrieve section.

Retrieving Using Devices That Keep Your Imitation at a Specific Depth

I won't address keeping the imitation on the bottom here, but I do occasionally use lead or split shots to keep my imitation on or near the bottom or down at a specific depth. I am going to divulge here a couple of ideas that I don't talk about much, first is my most productive damsel nymph retrieve and the second is a multiple retrieve method for fishing midges and especially blood midges when the pupae and adults are present.

The damsel method consists of "hanging" the nymph anywhere from 16 to 4 inches below the surface. I like about 10 inches the most with changes for different patterns. I just use a small piece of cork (OK so a bright indicator works too!). I cut back to the position where the tippet meets the leader or just cut in the center of the tippet and thread the cork onto the leader using a sewing needle. I then tie a blood knot or double surgeon's knot below the cork and let it jam against the cork. I can start with a longer section below the cork and then shorten it to match the depth fish are cruising at. By the way, did you know that the fish will cruise at anywhere between about 2 feet and 5 inches below the surface looking up to spot damsels. I have some good video of this happening. This method works just as well for most other imitations also. While I am here, I might as well talk about damsel movement. If you have spent as much time as I have watching damsel nymphs swimming you will start to notice that they move rather quickly (ONLY FROM SIDE TO SIDE) and slowly in a forward motion then rest frequently (there is that pause again). set the depth, and THEN fish them in the proper way. Most (I would guess 70% or more) of the fish caught on damsel nymphs are when the bug is stopped or just started to move in the retrieve. When using this technique to fish midge larvae, I will use a tippet and leader long enough to get the pattern down to just below the level where fish are holding, and then strip as slow as I can letting the imitation rise and fall in the fish zone. I may not strip at all or just strip and then let go. (Hey that works well for snails too!, if you watch snails, they will rise quickly toward the surface and then sink slowly in a very enticing way)

The No Retrieve or Let it Hang

OK this usually involves just letting the imitation just sit and just strip enough to stay in contact with the bug. It can be done with an indicator or any type of fly line. This seems to reinforce the idea that fish will key on food sources that are resting while swimming or are just suspended at a range of depths. I would rather teach a new fly fisher to use this method than to have them strip unrealistically. It works! Sometimes just letting you line hang downwind or quartering across and downwind make this method very hot. If the wind is howling this method gets even better. Doug Oulette, a super fly angler and fellow fishing guide out of Reno, once spent a day proving to me that casting directly accross the wind and letting the imitation swing as it is stripped or just hanging is one of the most deadly methods on lakes. Doug has demonstrated numerous times that staying on the lake when the wind is howling is one of the more productive methods. Remember that we have observed how important the concept of letting the imitation hover or sink slowly occasionally is to fly fishing and will realize the No Retrieve is an important tool in your arsenal.

Last Thoughts

After reading all this garbage, I really have to say that you are going to be most successful with the retrieve or no retrieve that you feel most comfortable with or that worked for you. We don't want to mess with success and I encourage you to do what you like, until it is not working. Then, try some new retrieves and give them a chance to work. A good angler will do whatever it takes to make things happen, even if I don't like the method. Hey, I am not the one fishing, you are and whatever works..........

Thanks for putting up with my mindless mush. don


Retrieve Name Retrieve Speed Imitations it works with Description

H and H (heave it and leave it.

None, just cast and let it sit. Midges, snail, nymphs, many attractors...etc Pretty easy, just cast the damn dummy.
H and HC None, except keep the line incontact to imitaion. (little or no slack Same as above and almost anything else Cast out and then strip VERY slowly to keep in contact to keep line unkinked
Mousestrip From very slow to somewhat fast 3/8 to 1/2 inch pulls. NO longer Any, but really good with nymphs and midges Cast out and wait for your desired depth.
Zip 3 From very slow to very fast 3 in rips or pulls Good for leeches, damsels, dragons, mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae and emergers....etc Keep line under rod hand and make the pulls with your reel hand.
Zip 6 Slow to very fast Baitfish, general attrators, leeches and many larger imitations Same as Zip 3 just make longer pulls.
Mix Up Vary speed and length of strip from 1/2" to 6 inches. Good with attractors and getting a fishes attention. Cast in likely area or in front of observed fish.Then wait for needed depth and begin.
Stop and Go Same as above, but interject pauses to entice more fish Same as above Same as above.

Hand Twist

(a must for still waters)

Very slow to medium Any After casting, begin to retrieve the line by wrapping in your hand . It is easier to look this one up and practice.
2 Hand Rip Very Fast Baitfish ....? (Really works well on Large foraging fish, trout, bass, stripers.... After casting, place your rod under your arm and start to retrieve with both hands as fast as you can.
Kick Drag Depends on how fast you can kick the boat. If it is windy, you may choose to just let it hang and move. Any Cast or strip out line and then just paddle at different speeds to keep bug moving at the desire depth until it works.

Note- these are all subjective and can be changed in any mannor you want. Let me know if you have a favorite that works and I have not covered it. don