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Tommy Lynch: The T|N|T Interview (Part I)

2010 March 6

True North Trout is pleased to publish Part I of the most extensive interview that we’ve done — with angler and fly guide Tommy Lynch (“The Fish Whisperer”). Tommy guides as part of the Hawkins Outfitters guiding team, and specializes in the Pere Marquette River, though he fishes all over the state. Tommy is an Orvis-Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide, and has been at the guiding game for about 15 years.

In this first part of the interview Tommy talks about indicator fishing for steelhead, Spey casting, and night fishing for brown trout with mouse patterns. Look for Part II of the interview in the next week.

More information about Tommy is available at his website and at Hawkins Outfitters. Tommy is one of the top guides working in Michigan and the information he has to share is quite valuable.

T|N|T: According to your website, before you decided to become a fishing guide you were going to college to become a funeral director, which I understand is your family’s business. Was it difficult to walk away from both a solid profession that would have promised financial security and from “the family legacy,” so to speak? How did you come to make that decision?

T|L: Nope, wasn’t a hard decision at all. I have two brothers in that business, but there are simply more smiles in this line of work. I like living happy! My father and I decided in an Irish, highly-toned conversation one day that I could certainly be a decent funeral director, but I would never love it like I loved fly fishing. He was right on both counts, as he usually is.

That's Tommy on the right with his friend, Mr. Big Trout.

Fly fishing is like nothing I had ever experienced, with the possible exception of sex. It just wasn’t the sort of thing that I was able to walk away from or put away and then take out again on the weekends. Once I did it, I had to continue. Every day that I didn’t fish, I felt as if I was digging myself into a hole that would have to “fish myself out of” eventually.

Besides — to be a great funeral director — like my father and my brothers — you have to become a responsible, well-dressed, and clean-shaven member of society … all overrated achievements in the eyes of a trout bum.

I caught a bass at age four in my Uncle Fred’s private pond in New York. But my father didn’t take me to the Pere Marquette River until I was seven years old. He used to tell me, “Tommy, I took you to the river when you were seven, and you never really came home!” My pop was right, and in some way he always encouraged me to do what I loved because he saw that I would be very lucky guy, if I could. In a way I still feel like I am part of “the legacy,” just a different part of it now, as many of my uncles and cousins will come to fish with my father and with me every September. I hope that tradition continues for generations to come.

T|N|T: You mention on your website that you were the first guide to do “chuck & duck”-free, floating-line-only steelhead trips on the Pere Marquette. I remember a time when guides and fly shop owners alike would tell you that “chuck & duck” was the only way to catch steelhead reliably, especially in cold weather. I take it that’s no longer the case. What led you to the decision to not use the “chuck & duck” method?

T|L: “Chuck & Duck” has its uses on the bigger rivers where strong casting might be a problem for clients who have never moved a fly line before — much less 50’ of line with a mend! That being said the best “big river” fly guys I know are now running center-pin versions of indicator techniques – including several of the guys on the Hawkins crew, like Jon Ray and Ed McCoy.

This technique is even easier to apply than small water rollcasting, thanks to the overall size of the water fished on the major tailwaters Also tailwater fisheries get that heavy stocking much more than the smaller streams, and of course the P.M. mainstream gets zero plants, but has one of the best natural returns and reproduction in the Midwest.

For the P.M. it was a no-brainer and a bi-product of Western horizontal nymphing techniques. For me, that sort of indicator technique just got more and more vertical until I was running directly under the floats (much like spawn under a float). But then the floats and rig design itself started to change to cater to different water clarities and target water, along with other changes to compensate for different depths and flows. Without this basic style of casting, mending, and rig design, a true drag-free drift with a tapered fly line would be almost impossible, unless you were drift-casting from a moving boat.

For me, fly fishing starts when you add a taper and a cast to the use of fly line. If you are just waiting for a bump or a stop, and feeling your way through a run, you are not really fly fishing — you are drift fishing with a fly rod. This is especially true when you’re using a non-tapered fly line, or just colored mono, and throwing massive amounts of lead.

The leading cause of foul-hooked fish is due to tippets being dragged across or into the fish, just like they are from the swing of a “chuck” rig. Rigs like that never even allow for a true drag-free drift because the technique doesn’t produce unless you do have drag.

The bottomline is that eggs, nymphs and other food particles will travel down the seam, not across the seam like you get with “chuck & duck” — that is just not a natural presentation and something that needed fixing on the P.M. years ago.

Applications in cold weather are limitless when it comes to indicator fishing. Not only can you fish more water per drift, you can also fish it more accurately. And you will never have to worry about what is on the bottom of the river since you can suspend your flies with a vertical presentation. Fish are never sitting with their bellies on the floor of the river anyway. Normally they are holding about a foot off the bottom. In the fall they hold-off even more. With “chuck” gear the reason so many fish are foul-hooked is because the hooks are underneath the fish before the hook-set.

All of this explains why foul-hooking is so common since people usually finish their cast with a lift and they normally set whenever the “bump” feels fishy enough. This practice of fishing is so easy, though, that “a caveman can do it,” which is why some people, I think, still practice it.

Of course, fish use wood as structure so that they have a place in which they can hold safely, but “chuck & duck” anglers will pass by those spots for that very reason — they can’t fish in the wood. But a good indicator angler will look at a woody spot and see opportunity rather than inevitable defeat. This in turn builds confidence, and there isn’t a fly in your box that will out fish that quality.

Being able to fish a spot without touching the bottom is always huge, but when you’re fishing an INDI with an 11’ switch rod, then you only have to bring-in a few strips before you cast again. Contrast that with “chuck” gear where you have to strip-in at least 90% of your running/mono line before you can “chuck” it out there with that famous pendulum-like lob.

In the winter an added bonus is that, with less line stripped-in per cast, there is less water being pulled-off the line and so your rod guides freeze-up slower. The more line you strip in when the air is below freezing, the more time you will spend popping the ice out of the guides.

Consider as well that, just from the standpoint of efficiency, the amount of water covered per “chuck & duck” cast is really low compared to the use of the indicator method. If your fishing an indicator, then you’re matching the speed of the current and covering more water without having to work as hard with all that lobbing. The catch is that you have to learn how to actually fly cast, as you can’t just lob the lead out there anymore.

For little ones getting their first salmon or steelhead, “chuck & duck” does have its uses, but as a fly fishing guide, you’re paying me to learn how to fly fish, and if I take you “chuck & duck” fishing, I should just give you your money back because you will never learn to fly cast doing that, nor will you learn if I have you fish a fly line with zero taper.

Slowing down a drift for the cooler water is more about placement than about lead. If a fish is holding in slower water because it is cooler, you can accurately present your flies to that specific slower water better because you’re fishing with an indicator. You’re not only using the indi-bobber as a strike detector, but you’re also using it for fly placement because that way you know right where your flies are relative to your float through the entire drift. From a learning standpoint an indicator truly lets you understand where the fish are when they bite. When the bobber drops and disappears you get a nice mental picture of where that fish was holding when revisiting that spot on future outings.

I remember specifically a couple of fellows passing me just above the New Access one year when we had a good run of fish and we were running the floats with consistency. They were laughing at me, and giggling that I was using a bobber (a Thill Gold Metal Ice Float) and a real fly line. But before they were out of eyesight around that next bend, I was playing a dandy and those fellows were back there putting ketchup on their previous words and taunts.

“Chuck & duck” is old school, and a technique designed really to crash flies into stationary targets. It is quite a distance, in my opinion, from actual fly fishing. Do fish take flies on “chuck” gear? Yes. Do they also get blindsided and snagged with the same technique? Yes. Will an indicator presentation out-fish “chuck” gear three-to-one or better in most situations? Yes. And it is genuine fly fishing, to boot.

“Chuck & duck” is kind of like tie-dyes — sooner or later you just have to let it go.

T|N|T: On your website you talk briefly about Spey casting, which, while it’s anything but a new technique, is still relatively unknown in the Midwest. Is this something we should all be getting interested in? Why or why not?

T|L: It is a really cool technique and a great place to go for steelhead fishermen in Michigan looking to diversify their game beyond straight nymphing. “The tug” or “grab” is as addicting and gratifying as catching ten trout on indicators. Battles are dampened-down thanks to the larger gear and heavier tippets, but that initial hook-up when the fish drives with all of his weight is worth it. It is really almost too short-lived, like most intense sensations in life.

Mystery and surprise trump shear numbers with constant mending and casting, though it can get a little boring sometimes on your hang-downs or repetitious casting. A streamer grab is much more “shock & awe” than just an egg gulp or a nymph take. They hit that Disco Leech like it owes ‘em money, and that’s why you swing — not for numbers — but for that very personal take that only occurs when a fish moves in for an attack instead of just a passive bite.

Though nymphing produces more steelhead than any another other fly technique, if I had a dollar for every time we’ve hooked-up with a giant October or November fish that just kicked our ass on the lighter tippets, I would be able to afford another Spey rod rig that could give the same fish an attitude adjustment. When the moon and stars align, then sooner or later your going to hook a super donkey, and though your 10’ seven-weight has landed several fish over ten pounds, that same rod will buckle when tangling with a fifteen-pounder in 50 degree water. Having a big, bad 12.5’ eight-weight Spey gun and goat rope tippets fitted to a larger streamer hook makes landing the fish of your career on a fly much more realistic.

The trick is making that otherwise untamable fish say “cheese” before going about his business.

Spey casting is something that will literally make a fishless day of fishing totally successful — especially if you have a good matched line. When you are Spey casting, whether double or single Spey, or even using Snap-T applications, each cast is unique, critical, and just flat-out fun to do. Timing is everything, and if you’re off just a little, you may wind up wearing your fly instead of casting it. If you cast is correct though, it is like hearing a violin when it is played just right and it is great to watch that line travel like a sound wave across the water accordingly.

After casts like that, with the added gratification of just watching that giant loop open up and fold out with a nice tug at the end, well, who needs a take or a fish at that point? Your cast was a success!

T|N|T: You’ve had the opportunity to guide and fish in some of the most desirable locations in the fly fishing world–Western trout rivers, Alaska, the Cayman Islands—and yet you returned to make your home and your living as a guide in Michigan. I’m guessing the rivers and the fishing here must compare favorably to what you found elsewhere?

T|L: Don’t get me wrong – “Out West” is a Mecca for all trout fisherman because of the shear amount of incredible fishing water, as well as the phenomenal numbers of trout per mile. And then there are the amazing scenic backdrops in places like Alaska. But of course the downside is that water is well-fished and full of cookie-cutters and ‘bows. I found out a long time ago that the more of the same-sized fish I caught, the less each one before that catch meant to me. The variety of fish that we have here in Michigan is very diverse. In a given day of hopper fishing you will catch everything from steelhead smolt 5” long to two-foot browns that will likely eat that same smolt, if brought-in slow enough. You may not get twenty fish in the middle-teen class to the net, but you may see several browns over 20” long, which makes Michigan’s Big-Fish-to-Fish-Number ratio pretty impressive.

There is no doubt in my mind that the fish of the salt are the meanest pound-for-pound fish in the world, especially Bonefish. But, like tarpon, there are many of them out there and they all look alike. One could argue though that the permit is the brown trout of the seas just because of their rarity and wariness.

I can almost remember every brown trout I ever caught — and it isn’t hard, especially when it comes to the bigger ones. Unlike steelhead and even bonefish, no two browns ever really look alike. They are kind of like snow flakes in that respect, and that makes them very interesting to me. To me each one a different piece of eye candy – unlike just tearing another ‘bow or bone off the line and to make another cast for another fish that could be it’s twin. One day I may even get to go to Argentina with Chuck and his boys … saving my pennies so I can chase the gold.

Like other world-class fisheries, Michigan has lots of good fishing, especially when that certain bite turns on. One of the neatest things about Michigan fly fishing is every month of the year seems to have one of these “turn-ons” — whether it is Mousin’ Midnights or trophy steelhead in the snow, the truth is that I can usually walk out my door and do some world-class fly-fishing, with real variety, all year long. If that isn’t worth posting up a tent, I am not sure what is.

T|N|T: One of the best features of the Pere Marquette is that it can be productively fished just about every day of the year, in almost any weather. When is your favorite time to be on the water?

T|L: Mousin’, baby! There is no other time, after seeing so many trout sections over and over again in this state, that the mystery and anticipation for a take is so heightened in me as when the lights are off and the game is on. If you haven’t fished at night, then you’re missing a soul-deepening event. All your senses are magnified as you lose the ability to see what is right out there in front of your face.

Casting flies into the blackness of night is an acquired taste, but it is addicting – particularly once you hit a 20+” trout on a fly. Those first few nights your mind will play tricks on you and it will turn that small frog in the grass behind you into a bear sniffing within feet of your neckline. But stay with it and you will appreciate fishing in a whole new light, or lack thereof. Use the force, Luke, and do give into the Darkside, for those that do are paid in feet and not in inches.

Surprise and size is why we suit up after dark, and sooner or later it does pay to be out there. This sort of fishing isn’t about listening to and identifying birds, or watching the “bikini hatch” come down while you are fishing midday with hoppers, though that can be very nice, too. This is about swinging for the fences at night when solitude is limited midday because of thriving daytime air temps and canoe liveries that seem to spawn canoes with no limit. Of course, even on warm summer Saturdays, though, that only lasts until 6 PM — then the fisherman and wolves get to go with the flow.

I refer to brown trout as “wolves” because they live just like them, especially the big ones. They prefer to live in the wood or log jams, taking cover during daylight, but they storm-out and take up strategic positions after hours so they can maximize their predatory productiveness under the cover of night.

They prefer to pounce as much as chase, but also love to study all their prey before any attack, and are seldom seen until they do. They stay off the radar until the very last second and then launch a rude campaign of pain on whatever got too close or couldn’t run out the clock. Brown trout are moody and witty and will keep you up at night in some way or another.

As a fly angler, you’re going to improve your casting and fishing skills much more at night. When you are forced to truly feel your way through a cast and then calculate where a bank or bush might be in order to “make it happen, captain,” then it is truly is like going Jedi with a fly rod. You’re using more of your mind to outwit that fish then you ever would with the lights on, but the joke is on the fish because as you improve with your midnight skills, the fish will bow to your impossibly-placed after-hours cast and maybe fall victim to a 8089TMC or worse.

In no time they will be forced to say “cheese” in the moonlight. I’ve learned more about my casting, and how to do it right, in the dark then I ever have in daylight. In daylight you can make a bad cast work, or compensate on a forward cast to clean up a bad back cast. But in the dark, if you don’t have the right timing and angles, you will never get a cast to roll or stretch out.

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