By Greg ThomasLet’s say you have only hours to live, just a day to fish, the silver lining being you get to throw for your favorite fish, for 24 hours, anywhere in the world. Of course you’ll have trouble picking which species and where, but you may find it more difficult to choose which fly you’ll tie on, because in our hypothetical game you’ve got only one. Here are some choices from total fish-heads who would spend their dying day trying to catch the fish they love.
Montana Brown Trout
If you’re looking for a big brown trout, and you’re willing to throw streamers even in the midst of a lights-out Baetis hatch, you have to hit southwest Montana’s Big Hole River during fall.
The fish you’re looking for won’t eat a dry fly. Instead this fish, which could range between 20-some inches and 20 pounds, lives on crayfish and mice, and burbot and other baitfish. The Big Hole’s largest fish are sterile females, both rainbows and browns, that escape the rigors of the spawn. These trout feed aggressively and put on weight before winter sets in. In addition, the Big Hole’s male brown trout are very aggressive at this time while staking out spawning turf and mates. If you have one day and you want to make the most of it, you’ll tie on and endlessly fish Kelly Galloup’s Sex Dungeon. This articulated pattern—which Galloup calls his go-to fly for large trout—swims with an s-shaped motion and, depending on color, imitates a variety of fish. Yellow is a great color on the Big Hole (possibly matching juvenile burbot), but olive and brown are fine choices, too, effectively matching crayfish and sculpin. —Greg Thomas
There’s a common misconception that steelhead, if in a bitey mood, will take just about anything. But the truth is, steelhead don’t simply bite anything—if they’re bitey, they’ll bite the exact thing you’ve tied on. And if I knew that I had one hour of one day left to fish one river, it would be the hour beginning at first light on October 31 on British Columbia’s Thompson River, and I’d tie on the Raging Prawn.
Tyler Kushnir developed this fly back in 1997, as a variation of Colonel Esmond Drury’s classic General Practitioner. Inspired by the work of Washington State steelheaders Sean Gallagher and Dec Hogan, Kushnir replaced the golden pheasant wings of the original with alternating fluorescent-orange and fire-orange Woolly Bugger marabou, and added peccary “feelers” (tied in a V shape when viewed from below) to augment the tail. Tied on a tube, this fly is lightweight and catches the currents, giving it great action when fished near the surface on a floating line. With its subtle combination of earth tones and shades of orange it often proves irresistible to Thompson steelhead, and it may prove the same on your favorite steelhead stream. —Dana Sturn
North Carolina Albacore
Bob Popovic designed his Surf Candy epoxy fly because he was tired of bluefish shredding bucktail patterns left and right. The hardbody Surf Candy is tough enough to land a couple dozen blues with little more than a scratch—which has nothing to do with why it’s my go-to fly for surface-boiling false albacore along the famed Cape Lookout of North Carolina. Little tunny, as these fish are called, don’t have teeth enough to shear a cracker, so the Surf Candy’s legendary durability isn’t much of an advantage. But often, false albacore don’t have what it takes to turn down a Surf Candy, either. Tied with prism eyes and Ultra Hair, a Surf Candy ripped through a school of albacore channels the squirmy, squiggly, flashy dart of sand eels and silverside minnows. On busting albies, cast a Surf Candy in front of showering bait and rip it back as fast as you can strip. If you miss the frenzy, keep the fly in the water, twitching it to simulate a wounded baitfish that will provide easy pickings for a false albacore circling back for seconds. No matter how you start fishing a Surf Candy, however, you just about always end up the same way: Hanging on. —Eddie Nickens
Florida Keys Tarpon
When it’s your last call (and I don’t mean at the bar), and you’re picking a final bucket-list trip, why not head for the Florida Keys to fish for those fly-slurping supertankers called tarpon? I’d do the same.
The Keys tarpon fishery is second to none, providing a shock-and-awe factor that’s unmatched. To me, there is nothing more exciting than sight-fishing to a giant meatball school of high and happy, triple-digit tarpon rolling in gin-clear water. If that’s not enough for ya, try coming tight to one of these fatties and watching the sky turn silver as your reel starts to melt. One nanosecond later you’ll understand why this fish is called the Silver King.
Given it’s your last trip, and your final day to cast at these fish, you might as well make it count: The fly that makes this happen is my Key Lime Yum Yum. I’d choose this one because it can be effectively fished at different depths and speeds. At a slow and steady creep this fly is non-invasive and looks natural. However, each time you pause the fly the bunny tail flutters straight up, something that tarpon aren’t used to seeing; when you start another strip the tail adjusts to a sleek, straight-swimming motion. This transition within every strip, combined with the tantalizingly slow movement, often creates an aggressive take.
We all know there’s no use if it’s not chartreuse; the tarpon know this, too. This lightish color is comforting to tarpon, often allowing for a second presentation. A hot-orange throat on the Yum Yum adds a sense that this fish is injured. Have a box full of these puppies and your last hours on the flats could be filled with eats. —Bruce Chard
Bahamas Bonefish & Permit
Bonefishing is so much more than long casts and screaming reels. It’s a game of strategy and tactics that plays out in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s a thinking man’s game, and it rewards anglers who are on their toes.
There’s no better place to catch bonefish than the white sand flats of the Bahamas. As visually stunning as they are rich with life, you never know what you’ll find out there, and it pays to be prepared. You want a fly that gets a reaction. A fly sassy enough to illicit a charge from a 10-pound bonefish, and lifelike enough to fool that picky permit you might run across as a bonus.
There are a lot of great commercial flies available, but I like to fish my own patterns, and my go-to is one I call Cahill’s Ultimate Shrimp. It may not be the ultimate shrimp, but it’s my ultimate. It has a lifelike action and a translucent body with an orange glow, but the details that really bring it to life are the blue accents. Everyone has to believe in something, and I believe in blue for bonefish.—Louis Cahill
Eastern Canada Atlantic Salmon
If you’re looking for a 30-plus-pound Atlantic salmon on the Grand Cascapedia or Restigouche rivers on the last day of your life, affix a Green Spey to the business end of your 10- to 12-pound Maxima with a turle knot, check your reel for a minimum of 200 yards of 30-pound backing, and make sure you’re wearing your sportiest track-cum-wading shoes.
Known simply as “the guide’s choice” on the pellucid waters of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, Marc Leblanc’s Green Spey scores an elusive hat trick in a country known for its hockey mania: a visually stunning profile (wrist shot, upper left corner) with proven effectiveness (100-mph slap shot, inside near post) that is easy to tie (empty-net goal in double overtime). The Gren Spey combines the durability of Arctic fox with the seductive qualities of highly mobile Spey hackle, and I’ve seen outsize Atlantic salmon charge and inhale one from a distance of 25 feet.
Fresh-run Atlantics possess rods and cones in their retina that are particularly attuned to the colors green and blue. The Green Spey capitalizes on this evolutionary adaptation while simultaneously blending with the Caribbean-esque greens and yellows of Gaspésian rivers. This latter quality reinforces my personal maxim that you want a salmon to see your fly, but you don’t want him to see it too well.
The Green Spey combines the classic lines of a Scottish Spey fly with the durability and efficacy of Canadian hairwing salmon flies. In the event you go fishless on the last day of your life, pour yourself a shot of The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky and survey one of the most stunning salmon rivers on the planet. If you successfully landed that elusive 30-pound chromer, thank the Green Spey and repeat the process described above. —Topher Browne
Alaska’s Middle Kenai Rainbows
While the wealth of famous Alaska rainbow trout waters lie to the west in Bristol Bay, the mighty Kenai River south of Anchorage—specifically the vaunted “Middle” stretch of river, from Skilak Lake to Eagle Rock—may well hold the largest river rainbows in North America. Three times since 2002 I have floated over rainbows of absolute epic proportions. How big, you ask? Try 34 to 38 inches! Once, I managed to stop our floating battleship and hiked upstream to where I had seen one of these giants. I fished through a mostly uncastable stretch of this remarkable ditch and stuck a big one . . . just not the one I sought. I quickly taped the 28-inch ’bow and went right back to hucking, knowing that the “Thing” I’d caught a glimpse of was still out there. Unfortunately, I didn’t get him. The legend still swims.
If I get another shot at him, on my dying day or otherwise, I’ll try him again with a Willie Nelson, which is one of a trio of great patterns tied by Wally Adams, of Anchorage. The Willie Nelson, along with the Al Green and Miles Davis, make up the Musical Leech Series that has become synonymous with big rainbows and steelhead throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Willie Nelson has accounted for every one of my four Spey-swung 30-inch-plus Kenai rainbows, with my best coming in at 32.5 x 19 inches. As good as that fish was, my wife, Jennifer, is the family champ, having landed a behemoth of 34.5 x 19 inches, again on Ol’ Willie. Spring or fall the Willie Nelson is a go-to, inner-sanctum fly, at the ready for the Kenai and beyond. —George Cook
Top photograph by Greg Thomas