Shrimp Flies: The Advanced Course…
Written By: Cal Kellogg, September 14, 2012
Using shrimp flies for rockfish…There’s nothing to it! Right?
I used to think so. Shrimp flies where something that beginners used to catch rockfish while I was targeting lingcod with my super sexy jigs. But then I actually started watching what was happening around me on charter trip after charter trip….
Knowledgeable guys using shrimp flies where not only using them to catch limits of rockfish and big rockfish, but they were also slaying the lingcod on flies at times when I struggled to hook up with my jigs.
Yes if you pin squid on a pair of shrimp flies, put an 8 ounce sinker at the end of the leader and drop the rig down on a coastal rock pile even the greenest of saltwater anglers can assemble a respectable 10 rockfish limit, but shrimp flies have so much more potential.
Let’s start with the way you bait your flies. When the bite is hot and heavy you really don’t need to bait the hooks. The silhouette of the fly will be enough to draw a strike, but in most cases bait will help you achieve the best results.
Squid strips are the traditional bait for use with shrimp flies and it works great, provided you cut it into thin strips that move seductively in the water. Globs of squid don’t work nearly as well. With the strips it’s both the taste and the action that makes it so effective.
Along these lines, you don’t have to bait both hooks. Generally I bait the top hook only. My goal is to hook a fish on the baited hook and then hopefully the struggles of that fish will attract another customer that will latch onto the other fly out of impulse.
There’s a trick to getting two rockfish on almost every drop. I drop the rig down with the top hook baited and it usually doesn’t take long for me to hook up. I’ve found that if you just let your fish swim there is a good chance it will shake off the hook. To keep the first fish hooked you’ve got to get it moving toward the surface slowly, so I slowly work the reel. This way I can put on just enough pressure to keep the hook in place, while waiting for a second fish to take the second fly.
Using this method you’ll pick up a lot of rockfish doubles, but you’ll also get your fair share of “hitchhiker” lingcod that latch onto your hooked fish and hang on all the way to the surface and the deckhand’s waiting gaff.
Speaking of hitchhikers, here’s the procedure when you get one while fishing shrimp flies. You’ll be reeling your fish up and your line will get super heavy. The ling might even bolt away and pull some line out of your reel.
Stay calm and reel slowly and steadily. The ling isn’t hooked. You’ve got to lead him up to the surface. Call for the gaff right away and under no circumstances should you lift the lings head out of the water.
If the hitchhiker lets go on the way up. Stop reeling or even drop your rig down 15 or 20 feet and then jig it up and down. At least half the time the ling will storm back in and grab the rockfish again…Tease that sinister beauty up to the surface!
Color is often a factor in how effective shrimp flies are. These days P-Line’s Farallon Feathers set the standard in shrimp flies. These flies come in a broad range of colors ranging from the perennial favorite, white to the tried and true red/yellow, to exotic combos like chartreuse/red.
I always start off with white, but there are days when the fish want those old school red/yellow flies. I’ve also seen days when a blue or purple fly was the ticket. Shrimp fly leaders are cheap and pack easily. I always show up for a trip with a dozen or so sets in a variety of colors.
So far our discussion has been restricted to “traditional” style shrimp fly fishing that is primarily going to produce keeper size rockfish. There are a number of ways you can utilize shrimp flies as you pursue larger rockfish and lingcod.
The first and perhaps the simplest is to attach a single shrimp fly above a jig bar. Using this approach you don’t bait the fly. Your main focus is on catching lings on the bar, but you will pick up bonus rockfish on the fly and sometimes the struggles of that fish will attract BONUS lings that end up hitting your bar.
The key to getting larger fish to hit the shrimp flies themselves is making the flies appear bulkier…Big Bait, Big Fish!
Plastic grubs are great for this work. If you want to make a fly look a bit bigger tip it with a 3-inch grub. If you want a magnum size bait go with a 6 or 8-inch grub. White Gulp! grubs are my favorite. They have a smell the fish love and they are tough so they last for a while.
As a general rule you don’t want to bulk up both your shrimp flies. The biggest fish stay tight to the bottom most of the time, so it’s only the lower hook you want to bulk up. Keep that upper hook fishing for average size rockfish.
If the boat you head out with has live bait, a live anchovy works great for tipping the lower hook of shrimp fly leaders. I’ve seen some days outside the Golden Gate when the lingcod bite was absolutely lights out on red/yellow flies tipped with a live ‘chovy. The largest California lingcod I’ve ever seen caught, a 37 pounder, came on red/yellow fly tipped with a big live anchovy!
Other great fly tippers include whole frozen sardines, smelt or herring. Whole squid pinned through the top of the bonnet are a great choice and produce great results on large rockfish. If you want to catch a cabezon, find a friend that abalone dives and have him save some guts and trimmings for you. Pin those scraps on your flies and you’ll likely be eating cabezon sautéed in butter and garlic for dinner!
In closing I’ll address the issue of “working” the flies. That’s right, there’s more to being a top-notch shrimp fly angler then letting your flies dangle beneath the boat. For the best results you’ve got to work them.
Sometimes the fish respond to 1 to 3 foot slow steady pumps. Other times you’ll want to drop the flies to the bottom and then slowly reel them up 50 or 60 feet before dropping them back down.
When the conditions are calm, great results can often be achieved by simply wiggling the rod tip.
Your rod matters when it comes to getting the most action out of your flies. Don’t go with a pool cue. You want a rod that has plenty of backbone, but you also want some play in the tip.
Finally hook sets are where the rubber meets the road in shrimp fly fishing. First of all you want to be using a rod spooled with braid, because it offers nearly zero power and sensitivity robbing stretch.
When you get hit using braid a traditional hook set isn’t needed. Instead allow the fish to load the tip of the rod a bit and then start reeling slowly at first and then speed up a bit. Generally this will cause the fish to bolt. As the fish dives the hook is set. If the fish doesn’t make a surge give it a sharp jab with the rod tip, but refrain from “swinging for the fences”. You just want to set the barb of the hook. Anything more and you are just pulling a larger whole in the fish’s mouth and increasing the chances of your hook being shaken.