A Beer Lover’s Guide to Fly Fishing
Two Passions That Naturally Go Together
When you think of fly fishing, you probably envision a guy standing knee deep in a pristine trout stream set against a breathtaking backdrop of snow-capped mountains, rhythmically casting a fly rod in time with nature. While it is true that trout inhabit such inspiring places, limiting your fly fishing to trout is like limiting your beer drinking to lager.
Fortunately for beer lovers and fly fishers, lots of options exist for both passions. The most fortunate thing of all is that drinking beer and fly fishing naturally go together. After all, any fly fisher knows that you can’t always count on the fish to cooperate, but you can always count on a good beer when the day is done.
“We all know it is a theoretical impossibility to catch fish without beer,” says John “JB” Shireman of the New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, CO. “At the very least,” Shireman continues, “it’s poor form. Fishing and beer drinking are two endeavors in any sporting gent’s life that evolve over time. While a cooler of cheap domestics and a worm tub once sufficed, no one worthy of the title, Fly Fisherman, would defile a Mackenzie [drift] boat with anything less than a hand-crafted ale in one hand and a nice fly rod in the other.”
I would have to agree. In fact, I will even go one step farther and say that fly fishing makes beer taste better. By far the best tasting beer I ever had was a cheap macrobrew consumed after my brother and I spent five days in the Bridger Wilderness Area of Wyoming chasing cutthroat trout. Or maybe the best-tasting beer was the one I shared with my Padre fishing buddies celebrating my first “tailing” redfish caught on the fly. Or maybe it was the beer my dad and I shared after a Father’s Day spent catching dozens of red-breasted sunfish. Or…well, you get the idea.
Then, again, maybe the real connection between beer and fly fishing is the nostalgia of sharing a day on the water with someone important to you.
Cindy Burchfield, marketing director at Alaskan Brewing Co., treasures wedding anniversaries spent fishing with her husband. “I can’t think of a more romantic way to celebrate: working together, the thrill of the reel, fighting a 15 pound silver salmon. We keep beer on board the boat, but just for good luck: we drink it later. Beer and fishing both bring people together.”
“I brew beer, and I fish. In fact, I brew to fish,” says Dean Schemenauer of Leinenkugel’s Tenth Street Brewery in Milwaukee. “A good beer is the proper finish to a day of fishing with my brothers. When you’re done, you can say the fishing was great, the catching was lousy, and the beer was cold.”
For Greg Owsley, also with New Belgium Brewing Co., the hook was the many great summer days spent fly fishing the Conejos River in southern Colorado with his grandfather, dad and uncles. His grandparents’ cabin was too far away to walk for a beer, so they would stash some behind a certain boulder in the water. Greg recalls that, “When I was too young to admit, Papa and I beat the others back to the beer hole one evening. He opened a beer, handed it over, opened another, clinked mine and winked at me. Before doubt muddied the waters, I seized the clear opportunity I had been graciously cast and guzzled all 12 ounces.”
Fly Fishing Places for Beer Lovers
Now that we have established that beer ought to be available at your favorite fly shop or that your local brewpub ought to carry fly tackle, we need a place to fish. So, where is the best fly fishing destination for beer lovers? That depends on the type of fly fishing you prefer. Cold-water species such as trout and salmon are typically found in northern climes or at high elevations in mountain regions, both in the western and eastern United States. Montana, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Alaska are favorite trout fishing destinations. Thanks to releases of cold water from large dams, trout also flourish in desert climates such as the San Juan River in New Mexico or as far south as the Guadalupe River in the Texas hill country.
Trout, however, are not the only fish that anglers pursue with a fly rod. In addition to cold-water species, saltwater and warm-water fly fishing have soared in popularity. Saltwater fly rod targets include those fish that cruise the shallow flats in search of food or those that tend to create feeding frenzies by marauding through schools of unsuspecting baitfish.
Bonefish, tarpon, permit and redfish (also known as red drum) are popular “flats” fish. The Key West area of Florida is well known for tarpon, bonefish and permit, while redfish thrive in the shallow flats from South Carolina to Florida and all along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas.
Popular bait-chasing fish include striped bass, false albacore, bluefish and Spanish mackerel. Striped bass, or “stripers,” can be found on both the East and West Coasts but are a New England fly-fishing staple, as are bluefish. Spanish mackerel can show up just about anywhere, and one of the best places for false albacore (or “little tunny”) is Cape Lookout, North Carolina.
Warm water fly fishing opportunities are just about everywhere. From small ponds and streams to large lakes and rivers, fly fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass or one of the many sunfish species is almost as much fun as enjoying a beer afterwards. Another species gaining popularity as a warm-water fly-fishing target is common carp. These somewhat silly looking relatives of goldfish are big, strong fighters and are found virtually everywhere that there is some fresh water. They will test the mettle of any seasoned fly fisher. I know that fly fishing purists are skeptical of carp, but scoffing at carp on the fly is like refusing a free beer. Obviously, one of the attractions to warm-water fly fishing is that you can do it in your “own backyard,” but some popular destinations include Texas, Florida, Virginia and the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Minnesota.
So with all these choices, how does a beer lover decide what makes a great fly-fishing destination? For me, I apply the “Four Factor” test. Try it and you won’t be disappointed.
The Four Factors
Ease of travel: I prefer places that I can fly into relatively easily or that are within a reasonable driving distance, or better yet, within walking distance.
Accessibility: Some areas simply don’t have a lot of public access or perhaps require an expensive boat to get you there. Be cautioned, though. Too accessible may mean too much fishing pressure. That’s why I like to apply the “15-minute” rule. For instance, at a stream I will hike at least 15 minutes farther than the last fishermen before I start fishing.
Great Fishing: How you measure “great fishing” is up to you. Lots of fish, big fish, lots of big fish, or simply enjoying your time on the water.
Local Brewpub: A nearby brewpub or at least a local brewery is mandatory for a great fly-fishing destination.
Ok, so the test is pretty obvious, but if you at least stick with number four, you will be assured of a successful fly-fishing trip. That assumes, of course, that the fishing isn’t so bad that the all the fly fishers spend more time at the pub than on the water, causing the pub to run out of your favorite beer.
My Three Favorites
Three of my favorite destinations all pass the “Four Factor” test. For trout fishing, my favorite is the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming. With the multitude of attractions (skiing, fishing, hiking, rafting, etc.), airlines regularly fly into Jackson. The Snake River essentially flows through town, and the river and its many tributaries offer great fly fishing for cutthroat trout. Jackson is also the gateway to the Grand Tetons, Bridger Wilderness Area and Yellowstone National Park, all of which hold literally thousands of places to fly fish for trout, on public lands. Jackson is also home to Snake River Brewing Co. and the Jackson Hole Pub & Brewery, both a must for beer-loving fly fishers.
My favorite saltwater destination is South Padre Island, TX. Just a short plane trip from Houston lands you in the heart of the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island. The Laguna Madre contains miles and miles of seemingly endless shallow grass flats that provide the fly angler with great places to hunt for redfish and speckled sea trout. Another game fish, snook, are also frequently caught, and in the late summer and fall, the area around the jetties attracts tarpon in the 30- to 60-pound range. In fact, fly fishers can attempt the “Texas Grand Slam,” which entails catching a redfish, speckled trout, snook and tarpon all in the same day.
Fly fishers can access the jetty from a county park or try wading to the flats along the island. Be forewarned, however, that the jetty rocks are slippery and stingrays are sometimes encountered while wading, so both should be done with caution. When the flats fishing goes flat, then head to Padre Island Brewing Co., the island’s only brewpub. Here the beer is never “flat,” although I do understand that a shortage may occur during spring break.
Finally, for warm water fly fishing, my own backyard, the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, is my favorite place–mainly because there are plenty of accessible ponds and warm-water rivers and I don’t have to drive too far. One great place, the Eno River, is just five minutes from the house and offers plenty of action for largemouth bass, Roanoke bass and red-breasted sunfish. Several small creeks in the area provide sight casting for 5- to 10-pound carp that will take some of the same fly patterns used for trout. Large reservoirs such as the Harris, Falls and Jordan lakes provide great largemouth action. The Triangle also boasts some great brewpubs. Carolina Brewery and Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery are both located in Chapel Hill. In Raleigh, Greenshield’s Pub & Brewery, Southend Brewery, and Taps Billiard Brewpub provide warm-water fly fishers with cold-water brews.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
What else does a beer lover need to know about fly fishing? Well, if you are new to the sport, a little information about tackle is helpful.
In a nutshell, fly rods are classified by the “weight” of the line. Fly line weights are measured in grains for the first 30 feet of line. You don’t need to know how many grains a line weighs, just that fly lines range from 1 to 15, with 1-weight being the lightest. Fly rods are designed to cast a certain weight line and your rod, reel and fly line should always “balance” (just the way hop varieties, malt types and yeast selections combine to create a beer of a particular style).
For most freshwater situations, simple fly reels suffice, but for saltwater fish, disc drag reels made of high tech non-corrosive materials are essential. Flies are hand tied using various hooks and materials to imitate the foods fish eat. Flies may be tiny dry flies tied to imitate various aquatic insects, or they may be 6-inch-long streams tied to imitate bait fish eaten by large saltwater fish.
For the basic cold-water trout angler, a 5-weight, 8-foot-long rod is a great choice. Since trout fishing sometimes calls for delicate presentations using light leaders, rods that flex easily are preferred. For large western rivers that require long casts in the wind, you’ll need a rod with stiffer action.
Flies needed depend on the situation and typically “match the hatch” of insects at that point in time. Your local fly shop can provide information. If not, take them a six-pack or better yet a homebrew and I guarantee they will provide plenty of good information.
My favorite types of beer for trout fishing are amber and pale ales, or a good India pale ale. Like fly fishing for trout, these brews are traditional, delicate, and they remind me of the pristine waters trout inhabit.
For the warm-water enthusiast, a 6- to 8-weight rod, 8 to 9 feet, is your best bet. On large, windy lakes, a stiff, fast-action rod will help make longer casts, but a medium-action rod is more forgiving and helps turn over the bulky and often weighted flies. This type of fishing is usually not too delicate; rather, it’s sort of “blue collar” in nature. The water is often “off color” as opposed to crystal clear. Leaders are heavy, and typical flies consist of colorful popping bugs that make a commotion on the water when retrieved or larger streamers imitating wounded baitfish. To do justice to a big, brawling bass, fly fishers ought to drink a stout, or my personal favorite, a black and tan made from Guinness and–of course–Bass Ale.
Since saltwater fly fishing runs the gamut from spooky bonefish to big blue water billfish, fly rods used for saltwater fly fishing run from 6-weight all the way to 15-weight. For most salty fly anglers, an 8- or 9-weight rod, 9 feet long, will handle most situations. Stiff, fast action rods are the choice to boom long-distance casts. For flats fish, flies often imitate shrimp or small crabs, but the dominant fly type for saltwater fishing is streamers tied to imitate all manner of baitfish, tiny or large.
To complete your saltwater outfit, don’t forget a disc drag reel, preferably made from bar stock aluminum loaded with plenty of fly line backing since these fish often run and run and run. The newer, large arbor fly reels may be a good bet for saltwater anglers since they retrieve more line than traditional fly reels to help you catch up to the fish. Sometimes, though, you don’t catch up with the fish but the hot sun and salt air catch up to you. After a day on the salt, I prefer a dry, lighter beer such as a fine pilsner, suitably hopped, or a German-style wheat beer. Nothing seems to quench my thirst better.
Of course, any beer seems to quench my thirst after a long day on the water. And that’s all that a fly fisher needs to know about beer. At the end of the day, no matter whether you catch lots of big fish or have to sit at your computer writing an article while your buddies are downstairs trying to fix the boat, your fly fishing trip will be successful as long as can hook into your favorite beer.
Terry L. Hackett
Terry Hackett is an environmental consultant who would rather spend his time fly fishing or writing about fly fishing. When not on the water, you can find him at his brother's fly shop in Durham, NC, tying flies and enjoying a cold brew.