Trophy Hunting with Chad Johnson

Photo Courtesy Steve Dally of Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher

 Fine Tune Your Streamer Skills with Simms Ambassador, Chad Johnson.

Throwing dries might be the purist way to catch trout, but when it comes to catching the one, take a lesson from a guy who makes a living putting his clients on the biggest browns of their lives with streamers. Chad Johnson of Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher. Born and raised in Mississippi, Johnson now resides a stones throw away from the renown White River in Arkansas. While he happily guides dry fly and nymphers, his true passion and expertise lies in throwing giant streamers to some of the largest brown trout in the world. If you want to up your streamer game, read on and take the advice from one of the best in the biz.

Simms: How did this whole streamer game start for you?
Johnson: Oh I’d say it all started about seven years ago, Alex Lafkas came down from Michigan to fish. He was throwing smaller streamers and wasn’t really turning anything so for a laugh, he put on a giant muskie fly. While fishing, Alex broke a rod and called Dally’s to ask if he could borrow a rod. I grabbed a rod and brought it down to him and asked if he had done any good. He told me they caught some really nice fish and showed me what they were catching them on. It was a fly that was about 9 inches long and to me, it looked like it must have been tied with an entire pack of marabou. After they left, I got in touch with him and got a few more details of what he was doing and that’s really where the experimenting started. A couple years later, we were dialed in enough to start guiding anglers who specifically wanted to trophy hunt using streamers.

Simms: Now that you’ve been at the big fly, big fish gig for some time now, what do you think the most common mistakes most streamer anglers make?
Johnson: I’d say it’s not being comfortable throwing sinking lines. I get a lot of clients who think the transition from a floating line to a sinking line is going to be nice and smooth but the reality is, it’s two different animals. The other thing is, once the client can hit the bank at 60 feet with an eight inch fly, they often feel like they can just rip it back to the boat and think they are fishing. That’s a huge mistake.

Simms: Can you talk a little more about that? What’s the right way to strip a big streamer?
Johnson: Always, always, always — you have to strip with purpose. What I mean is you always want to fish contours and structure whether that’s pausing to let your fly fall into a pocket, pausing to let a deerhair fly roll over on itself or pausing to let a fly sweep a log jam. Pausing is everything. It’s that pause that gives the fish the perfect kill shot.

Simms: What do you mean exactly when you say “kill shot”?
Johnson: Predatory fish see smaller fish swimming around all the time. What is it that makes them key in on one and say “oh, that’s the one I need to eat”? Fish want to use as little energy as possible to get their food so I want my fly to look like an easy meal for the fish. If you look at a healthy fish in a river, it doesn’t just stop in the current at 90 degrees or roll over on itself unless it’s wounded and obviously, a wounded bait is easy to grab. The kill shot is when the fly moves in a way that makes it look like a wounded baitfish.

Photo Courtesy Chad Johnson

Simms: Is there anything specific you are doing with your strip to impart that “kill shot” action you’re talking about?
Johnson: For me, the most important thing with a fly is that it moves on it’s own when you pause, it’s that movement on the pause that makes it look like a wounded bait. So it’s not really what I’m doing while stripping, it’s what the fly is doing while I’m not stripping. It really has a lot to do with the type of fly we are throwing. We are designing flies to move in a specific way when we pause. Does that make sense?

Simms: It does, but on that note, can you give us a little more detail on how you are choosing/designing your flies?
Johnson: Okay — for example, if I’m fishing slow water, I’m probably going to go with a bug with a big deer hair head. That buoyancy/bulk of that big deer hair head allows me to slow it down and let it twitch and turn on the pause. If I’m in a little bit faster water, I’d likely go with a deceiver or something I can work a bit faster and still get that 90 degree profile without having to slow my strip down. I always pick bugs for the type of water I’m in rather than picking a type of strip for the water I’m in.

Simms: Do you prefer using weighted or weightless flies?
Johnson: I think for streamer fishing you should have a selection of bugs that cover the upper, middle and lower portions of the water column. Like I say, I’m a big believer in fishing the fly that’s needed for the given water. If I’m trying to get down seven feet in fast current, I’m not going to use a weightless fly. Also, you’ve got to remember, weighted flies give you a different action than a weightless fly. Weighted flies are going to drop when you pause while weightless flies might give you that 90 degree turn when you pause which goes back into what I was saying about the importance of the fly to move on the pause. Either way, that drop or 90 degree profile gives a predatory fish a kill shot.

Simms: What’s the typical leader setup you are using when throwing streamers?
Johnson: Well, in general, I’m fishing bigger water and because of that, I’m using longer leaders than a lot of streamer guys. On bigger water, I’m throwing a leader that’s 6 ½ to 7 feet long. Basically it’s about 3 feet of 30 pound Albrighted to 3 and a half feet of 12 pound. Now if I’m fishing smaller water, I’d go with a more traditional streamer leader, say 36 inches or so.

Simms: What’s the advantage of a longer leader on bigger water?
Johnson: With that longer seven foot leader, you can allow the fly line to free fall longer and get deeper before it has the struggle of pulling down the fly. When the fly line free falls an gets deeper than you fly, your first strip is just going to dive bomb that fly. But remember, I’m fishing shelves and things like that. I’m not necessarily fishing up against the bank. If I was hitting banks, I would go with that shorter leader setup so the fly can get down quicker off the bank.

Simms: Do you have any theories on color and flash with the flies you are using?
Johnson: I pretty much live by the theory of dark water, dark flies; dark skies, dark flies; clear water, bright flies; clear skies, bright flies. Now why that is — I don’t know. I just know in my experience, it makes a difference. As far as flash goes, I feel that the majority of the time, you can’t have too much flash. I didn’t use to think that way but over the years, I’ve become super confident with flashy flies.

Photo Courtesy Chad Johnson

Simms: When you are looking for water that might hold a trophy brown, what are you looking for?
Johnson: It’s pretty complicated, but basically, I’m looking for a deep pool that’s adjacent to an upper shoal. Those bigger fish lay up in the deep pools but use the shallower shoal as a feeding zone. I like to work from the mid-part of the shoal to the mid-part of the pool, expecting to get bit in the upper half.

Simms: Since that day when Alex clued you in to using big flies, what do you think the biggest development you and the other guides in your area have made over the years?
Johnson: Really, I think it’s been getting away from the stigma of, you can never stop your fly. All the old books and such seem to stress on keeping the fly moving. Well, in our opinion, if you never stop the fly, you aren’t making your fly look like a vulnerable which is that kill shot that’s so important. Along those lines, it’s the flies we are using now. Like I say, we are developing flies to give a specific action on the pause.

Simms: Being that your specialty is streamer fishing, do you only guide streamer anglers?
Johnson: Not at all. We do all kinds, we do plenty of hopper and dry fly fishing as well as some nymphing. It’s just that over the years, I’ve grown to especially love streamer fishing, especially in our area. In the early days, we were going out and throwing streamers year round but after a couple years, we realized there were really two peak times to throw big streamers, pre-spawn which is generally August through September and post spawn, which is generally the last week of January through March. We never mess with the fish during the spawn. I love guiding all types of anglers no matter what their preference is — however, if you want to commit to a streamer trip and have the best opportunity of catching a trophy, it’s those two windows that I’d highly recommend.

Check out how to tie a couple of Chad’s go-to streamers:

Chad’s Sluggo

Alex Lafkas’ Modern Deciever