Nick Smith is one of the world’s foremost billfish fly anglers. Here’s his rundown of what to expect and how to handle what happens between hook up and successful release of a blue marlin on the fly. The following assumes 20-pound class tippet (things change with lower test class tippets). This description begins with the strike, once the fish has taken the fly.
Photos and text by Captain Dean Butler
Without a doubt, fly rodding for billfish is a great challenge for even long-term fly fishermen. Much of the recent interest in giving it a go arises from anglers, captains and crews from a conventional fishing tackle background. This factor adds another level to the challenge.
As familiar as you may be with the target species, there’s a whole new realm of tackle, technique and IGFA rules to get your head around. This article aims to ease the transition to fly fishing by providing a range of information about aspects of the sport. Beyond the hardware and recommended procedures, though, I encourage anglers to treat every encounter as a part of the learning process – live-action reference data for understanding billfish behavior and for honing new tactics to catch them with a fly.
While the Bear Trail Lodge in Alaska is different than the standard bluewater fare featured on InTheBite.com, it provides a unique experience full of angling excitement and natural wonder. Perhaps it may warrant a place on your fishing travel itinerary next year….
Photos and Story By Pete Robbins
I’ve been to exotic fishing lodges all over the world – from Zambia to Brazil to Mexico, and all over the continental United States. I’ve also fished with legions of bass pros, including numerous Bassmaster Classic champs and Hall of Famers.
But I’d never mixed the two until Texas legend Keith Combs and I visited Bear Trail Lodge in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska this August.
It is not an easy task to get a dedicated bass angler away from his preferred quarry, especially when that means taking him out of his comfort zone. You’d think there’d be a “band of anglers” spirit and a certain esprit de corps among those who’ve dedicated their lives to chasing fish, but sometimes the distinctions and cultural differences create more barriers than bonds. Trout fanatics keep a safe distance from the bass guys, who avoid the catfish freaks, who certainly don’t understand the bonefish set. So you could forgive Combs if he entered the lodge and was a bit freaked out by the fully-stocked fly tying table front and center, or the wader room, or the books on entomology.
The beauty of Bear Trail Lodge, though, was that they meet each angler where he or she resides. If you want to explore difficult two-handed casting techniques or highly-technical approaches, they can do that. If you’ve never held a rod before, you’re still going to catch ridiculous numbers of fish.
Combs and I fell somewhere between those two extremes. I fish probably 70 days a year. He’s out there a minimum of 200. Nevertheless, between us you could count the number of days we’d spent fly fishing on one hand with fingers left over. We were happy to use conventional gear to land big king, chum and silver salmon, but in the end it was the two fly fishing flyouts to Katmai National Park that were most memorable. Fishing amongst legions of brown bears, we tapped out on all five species of salmon, plus grayling, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char. While we hadn’t caught most of those species before, our angling experience gave us a leg up in figuring out how to read water, fight the fish and approach the next spot.
Lodge owner Nanci Morris Lyon has never caught a bass – indeed, Alaska is the only one of the fifty states that has none (although one was reputedly caught and killed in 2018) – and Combs was new to the world of salmonids, but they bonded because they are both at the top of their game. Combs has won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic three times, including in 2014 at Lake Fork, when he set the tour-level record for a three-day, five-fish limit event with 15 bass that weighed 110 pounds. Likewise, Lyon holds multiple IGFA worlds. Even if they didn’t fully understand each other’s worlds, each could respect the level of talent and dedication that it took to reach their mutual pedestals. Over Alaskan Brewing Company Freeride Pale Ale drawn from the tap, a dinner of prehistoric king crab claws, and a dessert built on a base of just-picked berries, they found common ground and regaled each other with (true) fish tales all evening.
The beauty of Bear Trail Lodge is that from May to October, the fish are always biting, and with nearly 50 flyout locations, as well as record-class fishing on the Naknek River just out the back door, there are more productive stretches to explore than you could fish in a lifetime. Even if you don’t fish at all, the plentiful gourmet food and unforgettable scenery and wildlife are compelling – but if you go, you’re going to want to fish. There’s no snobbery here, no barriers to entry. If you’ve ever walked into a tackle store or down a marina dock and felt like you were out of place, like a hundred sets of eyes were scrutinizing you asking “What’s he doing here?” then you need to make this easily accessible, yet remarkably exotic trek. You’ll be fully within the borders of the United States, yet it’s every bit as grand and wild as the sights of Africa, Brazil and Costa Rica.
For more information about Bear Trail Lodge, go to www.beartraillodge.com or call (907) 246-2327.
For more information about Bassmaster Elite Series pro Keith Combs, go to www.keithcombsbassfishing.com.
White’s Tackle is a full service tackle store located in Ft. Pierce and Stuart Florida. The staff are knowledgeable anglers who’ve fished the globe learning the secrets from the best captains and crews, and will be glad to pass them on to you. For over 90 years White’s Tackle has been outfitting inshore and offshore anglers from all over with the best tackle and service imaginable. If you have any questions feel free to call the Fort Pierce Store at 772-461-6909 or the Stuart Store 772-266-4010 or send an email to: email@example.com
Filmed entirely in Belize, the Columbia team worked closely with Badfish TV who chased Permit, Tarpon and “whatever else that may eat a fly” in the shallow water flats. The Badfish TV crew also tested out Columbia’s new Spring 18 technology, Omni-Shade Sun Deflector, throughout the week of filming.