E very angler hopes to hook a big fish. That pretty much defines the expectations at the beginning of each trip.
Yet, with some regularity, the big fish fail to cooperate. Sometimes, thinking small can salvage an otherwise poor outing. It is significant to note that in virtually all water—fresh and salt, near or far, small catchable fish far outnumber large catchable fish.
The best way to take advantage of this unfortunate imbalance is to understand the available options and carry suitable light tackle as a backup.
It’s been said many times that the best way to make the most of a small fish is to use a small rig. Put another way, a good way to devalue a potentially rewarding fishing experience is to use heavy tackle. When the mismatch is ridiculous the whole experience becomes boring—and the small fish gets an undeserved bad rap.
The concept of “light” is relative, but for many applications we’re talking about a light- or medium-light action spinning rod and an open-faced reel spooled with six- to eight-pound monofilament. The fly angler is looking at a four- to six-weight rod. You can cover a lot of light-tackle opportunities with these outfits.
For example, school specks under lights are an excellent light-tackle opportunity for coastal anglers. Night lights on docks and piers in the bay systems attract swarms of “jug trout.” However, most of these popping, swirling schoolies are short of the minimum length limit of 15 inches.
Once a school gathers, the action can be fast—and visual. At close range, you see the specks ghosting and flashing amid the glowing arc. This reliable pattern can save a slow day on an overnight trip, especially if kids are among the crew.
You can use a conventional 12- to 15-pound casting outfit to yank small specks from the glare. However, the catch-and-release drill on schoolies is much more fun with a little spinning rig or a light fly rod. The little rod often is more effective. The smaller minnow and shrimp imitation, mated with lighter line does a superior job in “matching the hatch” on the little glass minnows and shrimp attracted to the lights. Also worth noting, the single hook of a small jig or streamer is less damaging.
Just to keep you out there, a legitimate “keeper” trout or a nice red might boil up and smack the jiving lure.
Offshore, the same spinning or fly rig stands ready when a dazzling school of one- to three-pound “chicken dolphin” races from under a weed line or a floating log. These hard-running, high-jumping fish are no match for kingfish tackle but provide terrific action with the little rod.
In freshwater lakes and ponds, the bluegill sunfish is the classic light-tackle option. The hand-sized “bream” that hits a crankbait intended for largemouth bass is little more than a nuisance, but the same fish on a tiny jig or a fly rod popper can be terrific sport.
The summer weed beds rimming many ponds and coves usually hold swarms of panfish. An hour or two of chasing bluegills might not totally compensate for a lack of bass, but under the right circumstances, the session can take the sting out of a slow day.
Another great setup for light tackle is the typical Hill Country river. Many of the bass in these scenic, clear-water streams are small—certainly smaller on average than those in the big reservoirs and managed private ponds.
But a one- to two-pound largemouth—or, better yet, a smallmouth or a Guadalupe—is ideal for the finesse approach. Along the coast, you never know when something with real shoulders might strike a diminutive lure.
The traveling angler also should consider packing a light stick as a backup. The formula applies virtually everywhere, but one fine example is Alaska. Most anglers fly to the “Great Land” in quest of salmon and trophy rainbow trout. Many ignore smaller species such as the plentiful Arctic grayling.
Granted, the average one- to two-pound grayling doesn’t measure well against a six-pound wild rainbow. And the over gunned grayling can’t do much against a stout seven- or eight-weight fly rod and a disk-drag reel. Hooking one can be a major letdown if you are trying to sight cast to “major bows” in a shallow stream.
But, under proper circumstances, the grayling is one the finest fly rod experiences. A four- or five-weight rod, a small clicker reel and a dry fly transform this scorned fish into something special. Graylings in slow current over a gravel bottom rise voraciously to dry flies. Often, the larger ones will arc a foot or two into the air and grab the fly on the way down. Or maybe it’s on the way up. Either way, it’s a very impressive “take” with the fish flying its colors and flashing its broad dorsal sail.
And, on the light gear, a solid grayling will run, taking line and using the current, often leaping several times. Packing the proper outfit makes the most of this readily available option when, for example, you are “weathered in” and cannot reach a prime rainbow river.
Near or far, we all lust for big fish. And, certainly, there are days when the game plan is focused on the specific goal of one big strike. Good examples are grinding dogwalkers for a career sow speck in Baffin Bay, or chunking big plastics for a “double digit” bass in Lake Fork—or stalking the Rock Hole for that 30-inch rainbow on Lower Talarik Creek.
However, when Lady Luck and Old General Average fail to be impressed with your best efforts—well, going small beats nothing at all.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]