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Zero to Hero

Kelly unhooks a small rock bass with pure glee on a light fly rod. (Photo by Alyssa Lloyd)
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Zero to Hero

How fly fishing tricked anglers into enjoying new species

Fly fishing has taken the outdoors world by storm and now anglers have branched out to unlikely fish.

We’re all guilty of it. Prejudice towards some species of fish or another.

Some anglers blame pike for eating too many walleye; others say walleye are no fun and that only bass will do. Then muskie anglers chime in with a "your bass is my fish’s bait." And the cycle continues.

Before I picked up a fly rod, I had two species I’d chase every day without question: pike and muskie. While some people curse these esox, I adore them. They are the very reason I picked up fly fishing in the first place.

muskie fly
A muskie fly ready for action on a lake in Ontario's Highlands. (Photo credit: Alyssa Lloyd)

My process was backwards compared to any typical fly angler’s cycle—most start with trout in streams or panfish, but I went straight to 8-inch flies and 10-weight rods. Pro tip from my experience: I do not recommend this.

As I learned more about fly fishing outside the world of big meat streamers and broomstick rods, I became more and more interested in species I didn’t spend much time with before. My usual sentiment was that anyone can catch a bass. Now I was slowly changing it to “could I catch a bass on this fly, or how about this fly?” The day I discovered the olive woolly bugger, you better believe I changed my tone.

woman angler holding bass
The author with one of her first smallmouth bass on the fly.

Bass aren’t the only fish I look at differently now. Suddenly I enjoy sight fishing trees for panfish and steep drops for walleye just to see if I can do it. The challenge and changes in technique that fly fishing requires, was exactly the motivation I needed to broaden my horizons.

I’m not the only one with a changed mind. The more you focus on certain species, the more you notice the trend. I’ve spoken to die-hard walleye anglers who decided to pick up a fly rod to chase muskies, a fish they’d normally curse.

There are anglers all over the world hell-bent on catching carp, a fish commonly scoffed at for being a garbage fish, and guided tours, especially for gar, which I’ve always thought, were incredible but their numbers simply made them an old hat to others.

Perhaps the biggest change I’ve personally seen, especially in Ontario, is the attitude towards northern pike.

netted northern pike
Northern pike are a worthy opponent on a fly rod. (Photo credit: Alyssa Lloyd)

If you’re scoffing at this sentiment, you likely haven’t caught one on the fly. And if you have, I don’t know what you could possibly complain about.

Pike are, hands down, one of the greatest freshwater game fish you can target in North America. And when it comes to Ontario’s pike? You better believe they’re a riot on the fly. Unlike their fickle muskie cousins, pike are willing eaters and they grow larger than 40 inches.

I’ve spoken to fly anglers all over the world and their enthusiasm for these water wolves is unlike any other. Buying heavy rods and specialized fly line, spending thousands on fly-tying material, and investing even more time trying to find decent wire leaders. Pike fly anglers will devote their entire season to fly fishing for these beasts, when they can just as easily toss a walleye rig out and land them as a by-catch.

Does this seem like a lot of fuss for a fish you can catch by accident every day across lakes in Ontario? You’d be forgiven for thinking that way if you haven’t had the pleasure of catching one on the fly.

angler releasing northern pike
The author releasing a pike back to Lac Seul. (Photo credit: Aaron Jolicoeur)

Pike hit like freight trains; your 10-foot rod will buckle under their agility, and aerial jumps will create tension between you and your boatmates as you want to scream “get the net!” at their faces, but refrain. Yup, pike are one hell of a poison.

The challenge and art behind fly fishing has undeniably drawn angler’s attention to otherwise undesirable species. On gear, the fish may be too simple or too common, but on the fly, it’s the choices you specifically make to catch that fish that make it more interesting.

Not to mention the fight. A 2-pound bass on a gear rod is like hauling in, well, a 2-pound bass. Meanwhile, a 2-pound bass on a 7-weight fly rod feels like you’re battling a 6-pound bucket mouth.

Witnessing an experienced and accomplished angler giddily laugh while lifting a 4-ounce rock bass into a boat? Priceless.

woman angler standing in boat
Kelly has a riot sight fishing for rock bass on a light fly rod. (Photo credit: Alyssa Lloyd)

While this trend of previously undesirable fish being appreciated by fly anglers can be witnessed on all bodies of water, even our oceans, I’m glad it’s happening here. Ontario has so many game fish species to be targeted and opportunities for anglers to have fun doing so, it’d be a shame if we closed our minds completely.

If it takes a fly rod to inspire targeting new species, so be it.

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