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  • Matt Reilly


Updated: Jan 29, 2021

To be completely honest, I often put the fly rod down and throw a spinnerbait when the water is higher than usual, and with any significant color to it. Particularly during the pre-spawn period—sub-60 degrees, or so. I usually opt for a chartreuse and white combination, ½- or 3/8-ounce, with a big gold Colorado blade for the deep vibration and flash.

Given clearer water, I might move to all white with the more subtle willow leaf blade to ply the banks with. Spinnerbaiting is an incredibly effective searching technique for smallmouth early in the season, and usually puts some of the heaviest fish of the year in the boat.

That said, I’d rather catch anything on the fly, if at all possible, and a cold, winter-heavy smallmouth is certainly no exception. Unfortunately, there just isn’t an awesome substitute for a spinnerbait made for the fly rod, but I think I may have found something that’ll do.

Chartreuse and white bucktail covers color and bulk. A heavy dose of flashabou covers flash. And a spun deer hair head, along with the general bulk of the fly, attempts to mimic the thump of a blade. I’ll need a sink tip fly line. That’s for sure. But I absolutely know they’ll get eaten.

I’ve tied a half dozen of them between the dull-gray light of a world covered in snow and the warm light of my desk lamp. I’ve placed them all, symmetrically and neatly, in my boat box, stared at them, and stroked their fibers back. Not a hair out of place. Soon they’ll be darting and dodging in the river, at the behest of my line hand, covered in warm sunlight, or otherwise damp, but comfortable, in the warm humidity of spring.

With the faux spinnerbaits come the crayfish, hellgrammites, and baitfish—main food groups and staples in my fly box, time-tested. I know what they’ll do, and they’re ready to serve. On to the next project.

The almost strikingly warm sun of late-spring beats down on me as pleasure-boaters cruise a sparkling reservoir. The first few 80-degree days of the year almost seem unbearable, but it’s a welcome event—a harbinger of true summer.

Bugs almost as old as I am, thousands—maybe millions—of them, whirr in the trees. It’s intoxicating and numbing. Motoring the boat close to the shoreline, you can see them swarming in the trees, occasionally falling to the water’s surface.

The Magicicadas differ from our annual, summertime cicadas in that they spend 13 or 17 years underground as larva before emerging to complete their life cycle. It takes a few days for them to key in on them, but fish of all species—particularly big, lazy carp—take advantage of their numbers and gorge on them. A well-presented imitation is your ticket to some of the greatest fun you can have with your clothes on.

I can almost hear the ringing, the buzzing, coming from my mostly-full fly box, battling for my attention against the whistle of the wind outside. I trace the outline of cicada wings with an orange Sharpie pen onto a sheet of gummy cicada wings to be cut out and lashed to life-like foam imitations. Unlike the more muted annuals, Magicicadas are brilliantly colored. Orange wing veins and abdomen segmentation and bright red eyes seem to betray the drama and scale of their life events. Cutting the wings out along the outer edge of the tracing leaves a bright orange wing border—like the real thing. Red ball-capped push pins cut off close to the plastic and pushed into the foam for eyes, completes the look.

I could tie more. The promise of big, reckless, surface-sipping carp could make me do just about anything. But I’ll stop at a couple dozen. Heavy tippet and a limber rod does a lot to minimize break-offs with carp if you use them to your advantage. On the other hand, a fish that sounds into a brush pile or log jam can be hard to handle. Maybe I’ll tie more, later.

My legs and back are stiff. It’s necessary to take a break—get up and walk around every once in a while—to pull off all-day fly tying binges. I throw my flip flops on and walk out into the snow to check the mail, real quick. Just for a minute, I’ll be fine. The afternoon sun makes the temperature outside just a stone’s throw from mild for late January, and I swear I can feel the water temps trudging slowly in a positive direction. February, don’t let me down.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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