Babies are different of course and that's cool. I have no qualms about it but I don't harass them. It's a form of Snakehead fishing and it's often going to be people's first fish (first fish over 5lbs anyway - gone over to pounds and not kilos by the way!).
A goodish snakehead is around 5lbs. Not big, but when free-rising a really awesome success. Anything under 4lbs doesn't count. They start to get interesting at 7-8lbs. These buggers will smash your tackle, beat the crap out of you, run if you let them (and snag you - jungle snags part 40lb tippet material like butter). You will break some rods. I have broken many learning to fight them.
I've started taking a few people out, for survival reasons initially, but I really love it now too, and I learn just as much, if not more, while guiding. I never realised how much fun it is - and a great way to make new fly fishing friends. I love seeing their success, their learning - hell it's all about learning, for me anyway.
First time no one catches any fish! They've all been good casters. All SW fly fishers and so can cast 70/80 feet no problems and can double haul and more. But they can't make the Snakehead shot. I couldn't make the shot when I first came out here either.
The PUALD shot is the only possible shot 90% of the time, which is why I suspect no one else is seriously chasing free-risers, because i would have heard about it. These fish are amazing. Vicious, spooky, curious, fishy-smart, communicate with others, rear their young, can live out of water for three days and cross half a mile of wet land, can bite through wire, and will beat the absolute crap out of you. But the one thing about them, is they are catchable. Yes they are incredibly difficult but that makes them all the more rewarding.
I've tried a lot of methods, but the one that really works is to slowly creep into a bay after working out where the fish are before you go in, work out your approach which may be to try to catch the biggest, or indeed just to work your way through the shoal - don't drift over them or cross any using the electric outboard because the fish you go over will spook! And that can set up a chain spooked reaction - this is not what you want!
So you creep in - I've camouflaged my boat now - so that you are targeting individual fish (usually, although sometimes several in an area) and wait for the fish to breathe. Now you need good visibility. But this was organised as part of the plan when working out your approach, to have vision! This is sight fishing after all - it's no good if you can't see the fish because then you can't put the fly in its mouth. Often the best position is to look at an angle towards the sun with the jungle backdrop.
You may see him come up. Hopefully he doesn't see you. There are things you should know I'm this regards, for example they often rise away from the sun. That's another handy thing to consider when preparing you approach ie you don't want to position yourself directly away from the sun, or else the first thing the fish sees as he comes up is you! You can do this but then you need position yourself further away.
You can't cast when they are still rising to the surface. Oh no. That's a dramatic spook and a total cock up. You have to wait. He takes a mouthful of air and turns down.
Now you can begin! You have one second to put the fly in its gob. Go, Go, Go!!! Damn too late!
You've got to be an excellent caster to make this happen. This is the hardest accurate shot fly casting imaginable. We are talking an area the size of a dinner plate. And the fly has to land reasonably gently - smacking it down will spook the fish. The fish has to be fed. But the real problem is not the accuracy. The real problem you have only one second to make this happen. Two seconds and you have a "sitter".
"A 2-second sitter! You've got to be kidding?"
Well it is. That's the level you have to get to. A two second shot is a sitter and you don't get many of those. The odd big fish, the occasional cruiser, off babies, and sometimes when they are paired up.
I have to say it's pretty awesome. And took quite a bit of working out different techniques and a lot of practise.
I love the takes. Mostly is a dramatic surface explosion, a bit like a torpedo failing to launch properly and instead exploding at the surface. However sometimes they just quietly sip it down. This is to keep us guessing I suppose. Don't strike whichever it is, you'll just miss the fish. Instead just carry on the retrieve and make sure you're well and truly in the boat because what happens next is frightening...
And this is stage two: The fight. There are two things one needs to know about snakehead. The first is that they have real brute force. They are tough mothers. Imagine a brown trout with twenty times the strength. They fight doggedly but with muscle. And the second thing you need to know is this lake is snag-central. Any snag is a loss of leader. The submerged jungle is unforgiving. 40lb leader gone just like that.
And when they're not with babies, most snakehead are in found in the snags. You use very little rod leverage to fight and try to hang on! Point the rod at the fish, any bend in the early part of the fight must be only in the butt. You are effectively hand lining and the give that protects the leader is not in the rod, it's in the body. I give from the elbow and when it tries to run I give from the elbow all the way to a straight arm, I only give line if I have to, and then I try to turn the brute as quickly as possible and hang on again.
Small ones to 6lbs or so will simply kite straight under the boat - get the rod away from the gunwales!!! Hold it outwards, pointing the tip straight down. This is a very dangerous rod breaking situation. If you don't point straight down the fish will break the rod, if you down reach outside the boat you'll break the rod on the side of the boat. In either case your rod breaks! I don't know how many I've broken learning the technique. 5 this trip alone I think. There's been lots of repairs. In fact I'm fishing a Hot Torpedo 8 with the top two sections joined with superglue and thread. It's now a three piece rod :))
So then we have the big fish. A big fish for me is anything over ten pounds. I've been measuring them in kilos with a electric luggage scale (in the net, subtract the net afterwards) and this trip my three biggest have been one of 5 and two 6 kilos.
When they get to this size they become a bit difficult. I've lost a lot more and some in the high teens of pounds. I think this is my challenge, which I'm aspiring to, which is to fully master playing these big Snakehead.
SW fly fishermen already know how to fight fish and so with a adjustment can learn this quite quickly. However even for them it's a different close-quarter fight. Incidentally first trip, no hookups. Second trip hookups but no fish landed. Third trip and, well, you're completely obsessed by then!
I find them to be a very beautiful fish. I particularly love their colours, the purples and the dark blues. I have to be a bit carful handing them, I'm quite sure a large one could bite clean through a finger. Maybe I'm wrong and it would just take you to the bone. I think I've had four bite clean right through wire. The entire insides of their lips are sharp sandpaper teeth. They can bite fish in half. And they will thrash around. After all they can breathe out of water! And they can be a bit slippy and difficult to grip. Many people use Boga-grips and hold them up this way. I just don't think this looks good for the fish and we've all heard that it can injure them. So I brave it. Although I unhook them with the Boga in their bottom lip and the longest forceps you've ever seen!
They always go back well too. Extremely stable fish.
I find them a very fascinating species and have been trying to learn all I can about them. Problem is there's not much to read. I've discovered a few interesting things by studying them. For example they live in groups. And can travel together. They move around the lake like this, taking residence in certain spots for a while. And they communicate. Spooking one fish can set off a chain reaction. I've seen this with trout particularly in New Zealand but here it is a frequent occurrence. You know when they're spooked by the way because then they don't rise gently up-and-down but quickly up-down with a splash. You can't catch those ones!!
Incidentally I've managed to spook an entire shoal from gentle rises to spooked by just fishing a sinking line and with no takes. And a few times.
I love the shots. I close my eyes at night and all I see is shots. Can you imagine the anticipation that comes from waiting for a snakehead to surface, from you're not quite sure where, knowing that you have only one second to make the shot? And if you hesitate, or throw too soon, or screw the shot - then it's game over, or another 5 minute wait, but if you get it right you're going to be attached to an angry bull of a fish.
I showed Chuan this fishing last week and he likened it to whacking moles at a fair ground. That's a great analogy. Whacking Snakehead. That's exactly what it's like, but you're also feeding them. What you're actually doing, when you start to get good at this game, is force feeding them.
And that's why I'm living in the jungle!
Ps you Sexyloopers in the USA should learn the skills on them there and come out with me where they are native. Fishing in the jungle has its attractions too! And then there are Gourami, the final frontier of dry fly fishing!
It will be interesting to find out if Snakehead behave differently in America, where they've been introduced. I'll have to go and find out at some point. But the native stuff is always best - I'm a bit snobbish about that. Less so with trout of course. Browns are awesome everywhere :)
Anyway at the end of the day it's all about species and fishing.
This year, in fact this year this month, I believe I'm right in saying, I've been a professional fly casting instructor for 20 years!! The World Championships are just around the corner, in Estonia this year in August. If they have whack-a-mole competition I'll be taking gold. In any case, I'll be around the accuracy comp in 16 seconds.