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Tips on How to Fish for Ice-Out Bass

Editor’s Note: This post comes from TFO Ambassador Burnie Haney. Enjoy.

When we talk about ice out bass fishing in the northeast, we’re talking cold water, and believe me, it’s specialty fishing. In short, you must really want to do it, or there’s no point in reading any further. Now, for those of you still with me, we’re going to review what to wear, where to find these fish and review five lures and setups that will help get you bit during this cold-water period.

Dress for the Conditions

First and foremost, remember the acronym C.O.L.D.  Wear Clean clothes, don’t Overheat, dress in Layers and try to stay Dry. Don’t forget you can always take layers off if you get too hot during the trip, but if you don’t have enough on it’s hard to stay warm. Also, nothing will end an ice-out trip faster than wet clothes or cold hands or feet. I prefer to use finger-tip wool gloves that allow me to feel my line, yet they cover 90-percent of the exposed skin, and they still provide warmth if they do get moist or wet from casting. The other required items are a quality set of waterproof boots, a cap with a bill and a nice wool cap to wear over it along to keep your head warm, along with a pair of polarized glasses.

Where to Start

I’ve had my best success starting my search in the northwest corners on most ponds, lakes or reservoirs. This area of water usually warms the fastest after the ice out, and if you can find good hard cover, it’s a big-time bonus. Oftentimes the bass will be relating to deep water structural elements (rock piles, ledges, humps or the ends of secondary points) nearest spawning flats they intend to use in the next 60-90 days. I’ve found using my side-imagining unit I can quickly identify these areas and see if any fish are present. Remember, these fish have had a lid over them for the past 4-6 months and once the water opens, they’re going to feed in anticipation of the annul spawn that’s just around the corner.

As far as the ideal depth, it’s a relative thing depending on how deep your lakes are and where you’re fishing, but I’ve found most often that starting in the 15 to 20-foot zone adjacent to spawning flats is a reliable zone. Once I identify where the fish are holding, I scout around that general area looking for the migration routes out of the deeper water onto the spawning flat. It might be a slight rock vein or old road bed, perhaps a ridge that climbs up onto the flat or maybe a ditch or cut that comes out of the deeper water up onto the flat or one of last year’s submerged weed beds.

Not to over simplify it, but I’ve always treated this cold to warm-water migration much the same as when I go anywhere; I usually have a target destination, and I arrive there by traveling known routes along the path of least resistance. Think of the points, ledges, ditches, cuts or weed beds as sidewalks, not unlike if you or I were going to a store or restaurant. We don’t park our car hop out and then wander around the parking lot; instead, don’t we usually select a route, walk straight to the building open the door and go inside? Well, it’s generally the same thing for the bass; they’re looking to feed up so rather than meander all over the water column they too will take an easily identifiable path to get to the prime areas. In this situation. it’s food and a bit warmer water.

Once you’ve located these migration routes, then it’s just a matter of monitoring them as the water continues to warm, and the fish begin to use them more and more. Once the fish get up onto the flats, horizontal baits will produce the most fish, with the quality fish usually coming on vertical baits that fall and stay right in front of fish’s face.

Five Lures to Consider

For those deep-water fish, it’s hard to beat a blade bait like a Silver Buddy or a Heddon Sonar (3/8 or ½ oz). For this presentation I like to use the TFO GTS Bass C735-1, 7’3 MH rod paired with a 6.3:1 reel spooled with 12 to 15-pound fluorocarbon. It’s a good vertical presentation that allows you to cover water quickly and generate a bite that you can duplicate in similar areas of the lake. I start the presentation with a long cast toward the fish holding area and work it back to the boat hopping it along the bottom with short 12-15-inch pops of the rod tip. On the lift, you’ll feel a violent vibration, and on the fall, just follow the lure back down with your rod tip. Usually the hits occur on the drop, so be a line watcher, but sometimes they strike just as you lift the blade up off the bottom. If that doesn’t generate a strike, then try changing the length of your hop, either go shorter or possibly a tad longer.

Another great deep-water presentation is rigging some Berkley gulp minnow on a VMC Mooneye Jig, position your boat directly over the fish and keep the bait about a foot above where you mark them on the graph. I know this sounds goofy, but don’t work the bait. Instead rely on the natural motion of the boat on the waves to give it the slightest amount of movement. Until I tried this technique, I didn’t believe it, but this do-nothing method will get you bit. For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass S734-1, 7’3 M rod paired with a 5.1:1 spinning reel spooled with 8-pound Cortland Master Braid and about a three-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. And for the jig I start with a 3/8 oz. head and might drop down to ¼ oz.

As the fish start moving into that 8-10-foot zone, it’s a good bet the Jerkbait will do most of the heavy lifting on any given day. Remember those weed beds we talked about earlier, this is where the suspending jerkbait rules. Baitfish are still in and around those weed beds, and the suspending jerkbait gets right in their face and just sits there daring them to bite it and most often they will. Again, we’re talking cold water, so you’ll need to keep your movements slow and subtle. I start with a long cast, give it about six or seven cranks to get the bait down, then give it a slight twitch and let it sit for an eight count. Reel up any slack line give the bait one or two light twitches and again let it set. If this doesn’t generate a strike, then I’ll increase the pause from the eight count to maybe 15. However if I find I’m generating follows but no strikes, then I usually drop down in lure size, and that seems to work. There are a ton of jerkbaits to choose from, and I happen to like Lucky Craft, so that’s what I use. However, having said that the most important thing is depth control and the lure’s ability to stay where it is in the water column once you stop the retrieve. For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass 695-1, 6’9” MH rod paired with a 7.3.1 reel spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon.

As the fish start to occupy areas shallower than 6 feet, I’ve enjoyed good success with a Boot tail swimbait in the 2.8 – 3.3 sizes. There are a bunch out there to choose, but I prefer the Keitech Swing Impact or Fat Swing Impact. I’ve found keeping it simple works best for me, so I use three basic colors — Silver Flash, Blue Gill Flash and Tennessee Shad. I rig these swimbaits on 1/8 or ¼ oz jig head (size 1 hook) and fish them on a slow, steady retrieve. For this presentation I use the TFO TFG PSC 703-1, 7’ ML rod paired with a 5.1:1 spinning reel spooled with Cortland Master Braid and a 36” section of 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.

Another nice dual-purpose bait this time of year is the Swimjig. I use Strike King 3/8 oz Tour Grade in three colors, white, green pumpkin and black/blue. For the trailer I use a Zoom Twin Tail (Fat Albert) matching the jig colors. This is a great search bait for scouring the flats and if you see following fish, simply let the lure fall to the bottom, and the fish will usually nose down on it. As they go to it just give it a short twitch and they’ll hit it and if not just start a normal retrieve and they’ll usually grab it. The other nice thing about the swim jig is if you come across a weed bed you can pitch or flip it in there and work the cover the same as you would with a standard jig & pig.  For this presentation I use the TFO GTS Bass 736-1, 7’ 3” H rod paired with a 6.3:1 reel spooled with 20-pound Cortland Master Braid with a 48” section of 16-pound fluorocarbon leader.

I think if you dress accordingly and give these lures and setups a try, that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how many bites you can generate when chasing ice-out bass.

In closing, remember cold-water conditions are no joke and require a clear head. Take a cell phone with you and let someone know where you’re going and how long you’ll be out and be sure to let them know when you’re safely off the water.

 

Good luck and be sure to post those fish catches on one of our social pages. Questions, comments about ice-out bass, let us know those thoughts as well.

TFO Ambassador Chris Thompson

At some point, one’s life memories and friends become so cherished that they can cause you to dream in color. Such has been my relationship with Chris and his two “Brothers”.

Sometime back around 2005, three Gunnery Sergeant Marines ended up in Quantico, VA after multiple tours of duty. One of the three, Alex Colonna, had (and still has) a cute blonde wife (Chrissy) who met and endeared herself to Lefty Kreh at a regional consumer fly fishing show. Alex, Chris and the “third Brother”, Paul Norman, were in various stages of learning to fly fish and Chrissy boldly asked Lefty if she could buy a casting lesson for Alex’s USMC retirement gift. Lefty kindly declined, but offered to have Alex and his brothers come to his house. Paul was deployed and couldn’t join them. Chris tagged along with Alex and they were treated to a full afternoon with Lefty at his home in Frederick, MD.

The boys didn’t realize Lefty was a WWII veteran who fought through the Battle of the Bulge … and Lefty didn’t fully realize that they were both active duty Marines with a passion for fly fishing. About six months after that fateful meeting, Paul Norman was medevaced back from a tour in Iraq and they all became great friends of Lefty’s. The bond formed was so strong in the initial meeting that Lefty gave Chris one of our prototype 389-4 Finesse rods that had Lefty’s signature electric-pen engraved on the reel seat. Grateful, humbled and a bit confused, Chris emailed me to find out exactly what he had received from Lefty.

It turned out that Chris had a pre-approved prototype that we action tweaked and not a rod I would suggest he fish. I reply “It will make a great wall hanger-memento so I’ll send you one of the production models”. Chris replied “things are tight until next payday … and I don’t know when I can afford it”. “Chris, if you impressed Lefty to the degree that he gave you that rod – I’m doing the same thing”. We became great friends.

But let’s go back to Chris’ beginnings where he was born in Goldsboro, NC near Camp Lejeune, a major USMC military base. Although Chris’ biological father was active Air Force, he separated from Chris’ mom while Chris was young and many of his formative years were with his biological grandfather, Elmer – a USMC veteran of WWII’s Pacific theater. Both he, and Chris’ dad, Cecil, who adopted him when he was young, were excellent shots and avid anglers so as we say, “the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree” given their early influence with Chris.

After high school, Chris joined the Marines, graduated first in his Scout Sniper school training and after active duty tours, primarily in Europe, he ended up as an instructor back at the Infantry School at Camp Lejeune– and continued to fish for bass with gear until meeting Paul Norman. Paul introduced Chris to fly fishing. In spite of the claim that Paul was not a very good instructor … Chris freely admitted that he was not a very good student either! Chris, Alex and Paul became what I’ve called the “Fly Fishing Band of Brothers”. Another great example of how fly fishing, casting and fly tying makes friendships even stronger.

On one of my early trips to the Project Healing Waters (PHWFF) Two Fly event in Syria, VA, Chris and his brothers offered to both deliver me to the event and to help in any way they could. PHWFF founder and retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson’s response to my suggestion that they would like to attend was “Navy guys love Marines! Bring them along”! Another set of friends entered Chris’ life and he so moved by the good work of PHWFF that he recently assumed the Program Lead position for the PHWFF Camp Lejeune Program near his home.

Of all the great times I’ve had with Chris, one of the most memorable was spending three days in Florida with my longtime friend and television host of The Seahunter where we filmed Chris’ first tarpon, first shark and first blackfin tuna out of Key West with Captain Mike Weinhofer of Compass Rose Charters – the blackfin highlights are here and definitely worth a watch:

Chris’ all-time favorite specie is false albacore which arrive out of the gulf stream to the shallows off NC when the bait balls start coming out of the many estuaries on the way to the Atlantic. Weighing from 15 to as much as 25 pounds and cruising at 40 MPH while attacking bait in water as shallow as 20 feet makes for an incredible fight on fly tackle. His most memorable catch was a near 100 pound tarpon with me and Rob Fordyce (another television event) in 2015. We had chased tarpon all day and finally decided that a certain Flamingo Park flat could produce a chance at redfish. Within minutes of picking up an 8 weight and storing the 10 weight, the tarpon showed up less than 50 feet from the bow … a quick back cast, hookup and great fight brought the magnificent fish to Rob’s hand. I must admit it was one of my more memorable catches to watch as well.

Chris lives with his beautiful fly fishing wife Kellie and three of their five children in Hubert, NC. Saltwater fly fishing opportunities abound and they have only a short drive to the Shenandoah Mountains for trout. We’re honored to have him as a member of the TFO Ambassador family.

Fifteen Minutes with Junior Ambassador Braden Miller

TFO ambassadors and advisory staffers cover a wide spectrum. Young and old. Amateur and professional. Famous and relatively obscure. Young Braden Miller is in a class by himself. After all, how many junior-high kids represent a major fly-rod company?

Braden recently joined TFO as a junior ambassador. He’s just 13, but talks fishing like a seasoned pro. TFO blog editor Mike Hodge reached out to the young man and his mom, Casey, for a brief interview. Here’s what they had to say while taking a break from a hectic afternoon schedule at their Glen Allen, Va. home.

TFO: How did you get involved with TFO?

BM: “I’ve been going to the Virginia show for the past couple years. I was showing people my flies. I got a booth and then I got asked to tie. Collins Illich stopped by and asked if I wanted to do an interview. I did an interview with Alex. Rick Pope was there talking about BVK rods. I stopped by the Edison Show, and then Lancaster was when I was asked to join the family.”

TFO: When you go to the shows, do you do the same thing that the adult ambassadors and advisory staffers do?

BM: “I go to shows. I go to the TFO booth. I go back and tie a little bit. Then I go back to the TFO booth and promote rods and talk to people.”

TFO: Let’s talk fishing. That’s probably more interesting for you to talk about. … What’s your favorite fish to catch on fly?

BM: “My favorite fish on fly would be the musky.”

TFO: Why so?

BM: “They’re a challenge to catch and they’re super powerful. Once I’ve hooked them, I’ve not be able to move them. They’d make a run and I’d have to let them run. I’d do the same thing, try to move them and let them run, until I could get them up to the boat. It’s like dead weight.”

TFO: And your favorite place to fly fish?

BM: “So far my favorite place to fish would be Alaska. The last time I went to Alaska I wasn’t super into fly fishing. I still had my fly rod there. I was fishing for rainbow trout and dolly varden.”

TFO: Any place locally in Virginia that you’re fond of?

BM: “Probably Atlantic Beach for albacore. That’s exciting.”

TFO: A lot of kids your age might be into basketball, baseball or football. Why invest so much time into fly fishing?

BM: “Early on I had a choice of fly fishing or baseball. Recently I got in car accident and broke my elbow. My shoulder got messed up and all that. Since then, I’ve been enjoying fly fishing. I can’t make any money in baseball. I can make money in fly fishing, with casting, selling flies and all that. Fly fishing, I like it. It’s calming, relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

TFO: I understand you got a chance to fish with TFO’s Blane Chocklett. Tell me what that was like.

BM: “That was awesome. I had never done any (musky) fishing like that. It was really cool. He knew exactly where the fish would be holding. The challenge was getting one to eat and hooking one and fighting it right up to the boat. He instructed me exactly how to cast, how to tease the fly. It was amazing.”

TFO: What did you learn from Blane? What’s one thing that you took away from fishing with him, that you maybe didn’t know before?

BM: “Casting. I learned a lot about casting. I was focusing on my casting instead of letting the fly actually go. Too many back casts, then I’d mess up my entire cast. And then letting the fly sink where it needed to be. That one was one of the main things, too.”

TFO: How much have your parents factored into your fly fishing?

BM: “They help with everything. Mom brings me. Dad looks after everyone else, who’s not coming. Sometimes they come to shows when they can. Mom drives me. She’s even willing to tie flies.”

TFO: Casey, what has Braden gotten out of fly fishing? What’s the value of it for him?

CM: “He has always been great in fishing, since he could walk. Fly fishing has been a totally different sport for him. He has learned more patience when it comes to fishing. Between tying his own flies and the fishing, he has really learned patience. Before, he would really be upset if he didn’t catch fish. Now he’s learned that it’s not about going out there and catching fish every time. It’s about being in the outdoors and enjoying himself. He’s really learned a lot from the people who have helped him out.”

TFO: Braden, last question, what is your favorite TFO rod and reel?

“I really like the Axiom II rods, and my favorite reel is the BVK in whatever range. I have I, II and the III. The III with a 7-weight would be my favorite combo. Super light weight. Casts like a dream. Large arbor reel. Picks up line super quick.”

Questions or comments about Braden? Feel free to visit one of our social media pages.

TFO Ambassador Joel Stewart by Rick Pope

In my 50 plus years of fly fishing and 25 years in the industry, I’ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people, made some lasting friendships and heard stories from all sorts of fly fishing luminaries. Get ready for a really good life story on Joel Stewart, Captain (USN).

Back in early 2005, my first introduction to Joel was through a mutual friend and frequent fly fishing bulletin board contributor, Ed Laine. I found out through Ed that he knew of a Naval LT transferred to Baghdad’s Camp Victory surrounded by several of Sadam’s palaces … and lakes, which Joel soon discovered had various warm/hot water fish swimming around. On a whim, he had brought along a fly rod and soon found out that the carp and various carp like species would, in fact, take a fly. As soldiers rotated in and out of the facilities, Joel’s fly rod attracted a ton of attention and interest.

Ed let me know that Joel wanted to start the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing so that he could share fly casting and fishing techniques with soldiers during their down time at the camp. “They need some rods and reels” per Ed and TFO was perfectly positioned to help them out with 5 weight outfits. Several months later, Joel sent me a very prized photograph of a group of soldiers in battle dress with M4s … and fly rods … standing on the bank of one of the palace lakes. Take some time and check out the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing as I know you’ll find the pictures and stories entertaining.

After Joel’s tour ended in Iraq, he served as Navigator on the USS Makin Island (LHD 8), a Wasp Class amphibious assault ship. Through a couple of years circling the globe, Joel kept me entertained with all sorts of saltwater fly fishing adventures that of course, requited the use of an arsenal of rods and reels beyond the 5 weight class. Joel reminded me that when he first met Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot at an event in New Orleans, Lefty peppered him with questions about the various locations, species and opportunities Joel had experienced. I doubt very much that Lefty even mentioned his time in WWII and the Battle of the Bulge. They became good friends – once again drawn together by their passion for fly fishing and desire to share knowledge with others.

At that same New Orleans event, Joel also met Captain Ed Nicholson (USN Retired) who concurrent with Joel’s fly fishing efforts in Baghdad, Ed started Project Healing Waters for wounded veterans in recovery at Walther Reed Army Medical Center. Once again a close friendship ensued and Joel continues to support PHWFF at every opportunity. In fact, Joel’s book written about his fly fishing opportunities – A Fly Rod in My Sea Bag – is full of great stories plus, all profits go to support PHWFF and their over 50 active chapters throughout the US and internationally.

But let’s first go back to Joel Stewart’s origins in Great Falls, MT where he was raised as the oldest of four – one brother and two sisters. Joel’s father worked at the Great Falls Sporting Goods Co. which sadly closed around 1980. This was the genesis of his Christmas gift when he was twelve … an early seventies vintage 3 piece South Bend glass rod and an automatic Perrine fly reel. He worked hard at casting and managed to attain great distances (at the time) of up to fifty feet. Through high school, Joes worked part time at the Mountain Bait & Tackle where he “sold everything from night crawlers to dry flies”. As fly fishing began to consume him, Joel’s epiphany moment was catching an 18 inch native cutthroat trout. Although a bit ridiculed for targeting carp with his fly rod on the fabled Missouri River, he loved the challenge and the fight, little did he know that these experiences would serve him well in the Baghdad palace lakes. Years later, Lefty Kreh’s 101 Fish book, published in 2012, validated Joel’s enjoyment of “a fish is a fish” approach to what would become his exotic and global fly fishing adventures. For Joel, this closed the circle he started by targeting carp in the Missouri River as a teenager.

Upon his 1985 graduation from High School in Great Falls, Joel enlisted in the Navy so that he would eventually be able to apply college benefits and hopefully become the first member of his family to get a college degree. After his enlisted duty ended, he and his wife Barbara agreed that a career in the Navy held great promise and this proved to be the case. Although less than one in a hundred Navy enlistees are ultimately promoted to the rank of Captain, Joel’s dedication and interpersonal skills allowed him to do just that. His progression has been as impressive as any I’ve ever known.

Just this past year, Joel returned from an assignment in Bahrain where once again, he found opportunity to bend his favorite TFO A2 fly rods. You’ll enjoy this article Joel wrote for the Amberjack Fishing Journal on fly fishing for queenfish in Dubai. He is currently stationed at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Upon completion, he anticipates assignment to amphibious operations in San Diego where he expects to ultimately retire. With 33 years of service in the US Navy, 19 of those at sea, he deserves some time off as well as a big THANK YOU from all of us for his service. He plans to return to his favorite fishery in Montana’s fabled Bob Marshall Wilderness in order to chase his favorite wild west-slope cutthroat once retired and who knows … he just might find carp out there too!

Joel will join TFO in our booth at the Virginia Fly Fishing and Wine Festival in Doswell, VA January 12 & 13 – then he will join us again in Edison, NJ January 25, 26 & 27th. If you have a chance to attend either of these great fly fishing shows, please be sure to stop by and meet one of what Lefty called “a truly great American”.