Small flies and big fish

BURLINGTON – Be it a “wooly bugger” or a tiny chironomid, it will catch fish. It doesn’t have to be perfect either.

Byron Grubb, Burlington, flies against what many believe to be an absolute for fly fishermen. Fly fishing lore says that, to catch a fish, a savvy fly fisherman must “match the hatch.” That is, present fish with a perfect replica of what they are feeding on. Anything else, even the slightest difference in size or color, just won’t do.

Phooey to that concept, says Grubb – and he’s got hundreds of trophy fish to prove his reasoning.

“That’s just picky old,” says Grubb about fellow fly fishermen who have an unceasing dedication to presenting the perfect match to the hatch. “You cannot match the natural. What you are really presenting is a caricature of the fly or insect. It’s like a decoy. You’ve got to use something that catches their eye.”

Grubb has had a fly rod in his hand since 1953 and became an exclusive fly fisherman in 1964. At one time he owned the North Dakota state record for chinook salmon and ran a charter boat on Lake Sakakawea. He’s fished all the species in North Dakota and many others throughout the world.

“I’m a fly fisherman, but not a purist in the sense of the concept of fishing a dry fly on the surface,” explained Grubb while securing a tiny hook in a fly-tying vise. “Five to 10 percent of the time, a fish may be feeding on the surface. It’s all underneath. Big fish feed on the bottom. Little fish feed on the surface, with some exceptions. No matter what is going on, if you fish a nymph form underneath the water, you are going to catch more fish.”

Grubb has hundreds of hand-tied flies, all carefully placed in small boxes that can easily be packed for a fishing trip. He prefers to do his open water fishing out of a kick boat with solid pontoons. Complete with a small electric motor, he can work water carefully and thoroughly.

One of his “go to” flies is a wooly bugger, a style of fly he ties in a variety of fish-enticing patterns. Another of his patterns, a “crystal yellow boy,” is a catalog fly – meaning it has been published for other fly fishermen to consider adding to their arsenal of miniature presentations.

“Others have dozens. I’ve got one or two. That’s just the nature of fly fishing,” said Grubb. “People are always developing new variances of old patterns and somebody sticks a name on it.”

Don’t think fly fishing is limited to trout and salmon. Grubb uses his fly rod to challenge any fish, including finicky walleyes. He’s been very successful, too. His biggest walleyes have come on a very tiny fly on a No. 12 hook, a few millimeters in length.

“It’s a tiny little hook, but a great walleye fly,” said Grubb convincingly. “The four walleyes that I’ve caught in my life over 10 pounds have all been on that fly, up to 12 1/2 pounds. On that fly, that size. Is that incredible?”

Most walleye fishermen employing crankbaits, or a crawler and spinner, will never encounter a 10-pounder. Big baits equals big fish, right? Not in the world of fly fishing.

“Walleyes eat a lot of nymphs and bugs. They’ll take a tiny fly right now,” stated Grubb. “Even an 8-ounce jig is heavy to them. They’ll spit it out even before you know it. You’d be surprised, too, at how little the flies are we use to catch 8-, 10- and 12-pound trout.”

Midges sometimes hatch by the thousands at North Dakota lakes. The small insects often appear over the water in tornado-like swirls. To a fly fisherman, that means it is a good time to go small for big fish.

“Fish are actually feeding on the submergent form of those midges,” explained Grubb. “I’ve got a special little box of just chironomids, the pupae form of the midge. Chironomids are always a good thing.”

With midges visible on the surface, Grubb will likely be fishing tiny chironomid replicas underneath them. He’ll do what is necessary to get flies down as deep as he thinks big fish will roam. In far north Manitoba, he has used a Five of Diamonds spoon as a flasher to get down to the desired depth. Behind the spoon, on a light fluorocarbon leader, he’ll trail a tiny fly. That method has led to catches of very large lake trout, some exceeding 50 pounds.

“My concept is to fish where the fish are, not where you’d like them to be,” stated Grubb.