No, I’m not talking about your speed on the roadways, although that’s a good idea to keep in mind unless you just want your insurance rates increased and your license suspended. Winter time fishing can be some of the most productive of the year but the one thing I keep forgetting to keep in mind when I hit the ponds or the saltwater flats, is the speed of the retrieve and how fast to work the fly in general. There isn’t another single time of the year when this is so important and we’re constantly getting questions about how quickly to work a fly through the strike zone for various species. Unfortunately there isn’t any one single solution but rather a batch of questions the angler needs to ask while they’re out there casting away.
The first consideration is what am I trying to imitate and how quickly does it move through the water when relaxed and how much faster when frightened. The dry fly fisherman is going to say that his bugs only move as fast as the current it’s riding while a barracuda fisherman will respond that a needle fish can truly haul the mail when a giant is tight on its tail. There isn’t any single correct answer but instead it’s key to keep the prey in your mind and what frame of “mind” it’s in at the time.
Secondly, I take a look at the species being pursued and the type of feeding it generally does. A large bass is primarily an ambush feeder that doesn’t chase anything further than a foot or two (similar to giant snook, and gator trout), while a smaller specimen of the same species may actively chase down its dinner from time to time. Speedsters like mackerel, bonita, barracuda, ladyfish, and others, are relentless and amazingly fast; chasing down and devouring their meal like they may not get another. Trout like brookies and cutthroat rarely chase anything, they rely on the current to bring dinner to the table, at which time they can dine at a leisurely and easy pace, sipping or grabbing their food as it passes. The retrieval rates vary greatly depending on species and size as you can see.
Thirdly, am I appealing to the fish’s hunger, territorialism, or shear anger? Bedding fish are not really in the mood to eat and therefore don’t often pursue things that aren’t passing relatively close to their location. Objects that pass by closely, but too quickly don’t get chased either, so you need to slow it down, and sometimes stop the retrieve so the fly lies still in the bed, before eliciting a strike out of anger and the need to protect the brood. Striking or highly predatory fish are often more willing to chase or follow prey, or your fly, over greater distances and at higher speeds.
Lastly, we need to consider that the same species will likely change its feeding habits due to a slowing or speeding up of its metabolism as a result of changing seasons and varying water temperatures. Bass are a prime example of this and the reason I wrote about the topic in the first place. Experiencing a slow and deliberate bite on the drop into a deep pond left me amazed and frustrated by my inability to slow down enough without losing total concentration on the task at hand. I awoke from a daydream at one point, realizing I’d been struck only because the line was swimming away at right angles to where I had originally casted. The bit was so subtle that I hadn’t even noticed it. I invariably lost that fish because of an ineffective hook set. My inability to slow down may also be the reason behind my lack of success with black drum on the flats as well.
There are a lot of things to consider before making that first cast of the day if you want to have some semblance of success, not the least of which is the speed (or lack thereof) in your retrieve. Pace, pausing, long, short, jerky, call it whatever you want because there isn’t any single answer to the question. Only more questions.
Brian “Beastman” Eastman