Over the last 50 years of fly fishing San Luis Reservoir, I tried hundreds of different fly patterns on this particular fishery trying to get the edge. Many of the old timers feel they have cracked the code on fly patterns for San Luis. The many really talented San Luis Reservoir fly fisherman Ive come to know and respect over the years have greatly influenced the design and content of my fly boxes for the lake stripers. San Luis is a man made lake with an non endemic fish species that grows to world record sizes and is unique habitat for Striped bass with a food chain that is unlike any other. How fortunate we are to have such a playground and laboratory to develop fly patterns in.
It think that one of the many advantages of eating Stripers from San Luis reservoir is the ability to do an autopsy on their last meal. San Luis Stripers have one of the most diverse and eclectic diets on any fish I have ever caught. Aside from the major forage fish in the lake – the Delta (Wakasagi) smelt, Threadfin Shad, and small American Shad which most San Luis Patterns try to mimic. I have found Gobis, Grass Shrimp, bluegills, and Midge Puppa in the stomachs of San Luis Strippers. To make things even more interesting, Ive successfully caught “midging” stripers with poppers, crease flies and gurlglers as well as large spoon flies on the sink. Most stripers in San Luis are not caught on live minnows or flies. They are caught with bait. Coyote Bait and Tackle will tell you that anchovies, sardines, blood worms, night crawlers and grass shrimp have all worked well on San Luis Stripers. Most likely the majority of stripers killed in San Luis have been on bait and we are talking about bait that these have never seen in the wild. Scent may have more importance than we give it. I will leave the smelly fly pattern test for another day. In summery, my observation is when San Luis Stripers are hungry, they will eat any fly, any size,and any color they see no matter what they are currently feeding on. It’s when they are not hungry because of metabolism (cold) or being full ( night feeding in moonlight) that the fly game gets important and perhaps will give you the edge.
Some believe that its more timing than fly pattern, and I tend believe that when fishing gets slow. I have better than average fishing luck on the Solonar peaks in hindsight over the decades. Also, I have consistently had slow days in January and February. With that said, when SL Stripers are not actively looking for food moving in schools and following baitfish at castable depths, they are stationary, suspended , resting or feeding too deep to reach without downriggers. This is when fly patterns are a key factor in success. The design of a really good fly has much to do with what gear guys and pro bass fishermen call the reaction bite than color and size. Many SL Fly guys including myself have caught stripers with huge fishing sticking out of their mouths which suggests that hunger isn’t always the reason fish bite a fly. The reaction bite is a reflex that stripers have to movement and proximity and occurs irregardless of hunger. I watch the fishing reports weekly and when I hear the words the “reaction bite is hot” , the flyfishermen beat the trollers in success.
In the 70s and 80s when the majority of fly caught world records were caught, the fly of choice for Len Bearden and Al Whitehurst and others was the classic Clouser Minnows tied sparse with bucktail. I tied commercially, yellow, tan, grey, purple and pink clouser size 2 and size 1 hooks outfitting fly fisherman for San Luis at the Millpond Fly shop in Los Gatos during that period. After Len Bearden passed away, I inherited his San Luis Fly boxes and by far his favorite pattern was a yellow size one clouser tied sparse with Bucktail or Polar Bear with no flash. The Clouser (Bob Clouser) is probably the most popular Striper Fly in the world today. Over the years, variations on the Clouser have been the predominant fly in the lake. Dan Blanton’s Flash Tail Clouser has been one of the most productive flies in the lakes history and Lee Haskin’s Gurglers are the go to for topwater on the lake and forebay.
A stripped fly has two major movements–the pull and the drop. The pull is the swimming action of the fly and drop is the turn of the fly when the fly stops and\or drops . Five years ago, Jim Matson and Brinefly Innovations, turned me on to pulse discs. Pulse disc effect both the pull and the drop. They are a concave piece of plastic that is tied to the front of a fly. Today I almost feel naked fishing without one. Ive fished with them 99 percent of the time on San Luis Reservoir and have tested them on Peacock Bass, Golden Dorado and trout often leaving all I had with the local guides who had never seen them. The second evolution has been toward the use of Craft Fur wings vs Bucktail, Polar Bear and Flash and Slinky. 40 years ago when I tied flies for Andre Puyans and Hal Janson, they use to teach me about micro motion in small trout flies. Since then, I gravitate toward materials that move better in the water. For streamers, that material is Craft Fur which moves better than any other fiber much like Marabou. Recently, I found a source of long craft fur called Magic Carpet which enables me to tie a 5 inch fly with the material. The third evolution is towards the use of fish masks which I started using a couple years ago attempting to tie large neutral density flies. Balancing the weight from hook to head on a streamer is key to its action on the drop. Sometimes its better to not use fish masks and instead flatten the head to give the fly a forward light weight rudder to turn the fly on the dart.
In my fly box today, the basic clouser shape is still there but my fly box today is very different than it was 30 years ago mainly due to the advent of new materials. Today the flies I tie are about sink rate, movement and flash. Yellow is still my go to color with chartreuse second. Much of the success of clousers comes from the way they drop on the pause. This jigging action on the drop one of many triggers for Stripers to strike. By design, the classic clouser weight is near the center of the fly which according to Bob Clouser, gives the fly a point up, swimming action vs eyes that are tied toward the eye of the hook having a dropping jig action. Both actions can be effective and today clousers are tied in both ways. I think the vertical jigging action of a front weighted clouser is sometimes irresistible. I once witnessed a guy catch a striper on a lead head jig with no feathers. On the other hand, center weighted clousers have a more swiming and horizontal darting movement which is often more effective eliciting a reaction bite. The same physics that create the walking the dog action on a Zara Spook Topwater Lure helps create a back an forth darting movement on a sunken fly, namely rear weighting with the right combination of strip and leader stiffness. Rattles are also seem to work well at times as well. After playing around with rear weighted flies for awhile, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t get as much action out of size 1, four inch rear weighted fly as I could with a pulse disc especially using leader in the 20-30 lb range. Finally, over the years I’ve used bucktail, polar bear, Yak fur and many different synthetics like Flash n slinky for wing material on clouser style minnow patterns. The most action Ive seen in a resting fly however is with Craft Fur which is now my choice in wing material. Its consistent, cheap and its very versatile with respect to bulk. I like using select craftfur and Magic Carpet which seems to be thicker and denser than the yards of it that Ive bought from fabric stores like Joanne’s. When I like to fish a sinking fly that suspends, I use middle placed dumbell eyes. Like many saltwater fly fishermen, I believe big eyes are also a benefit when it comes to reaction bites. My favorite way to attach eyes is with fishmask plastic fly heads. They are heavy enough to make the fly aerodynamic and tough enough to take pounding without loosing an eye and you can balance the head with rear weight in order to get a slow sinking straight fly. Its a shame that you cant buy them bulk unless you are a commercial fly tyer.
If you were to look in my flybox today, my fly of choice is a size one 4 inch craftfur fly tied weightless with a size 6 fish mask. I like this fly on a t-11 with a pulse disk and a short leader and as well as on a t14 with a short leader for deep presentations. I fish the fly with sharp retrieves and long pauses. The fly suspends and yet casts well because of the neutral buoyancy fish mask. I like the flash because I think its more visible from further away than fluorescent colors in deep water. I also use Ice wing material which also has micromovement much like craft fur and is a bit more subtle. I think stripers in San Luis are always looking for the fatter profile of a threadfin shad which are in black blue and silver spectrum , vs the thin outline of a Delta smelt that is smaller thinner and in the brown yellow silver spectrum. The flies I am tying this season are in the silhouette of the threadfin shad, in the colors of a Wakasagi Smelt and are designed to suspend and dart with a pulse disc. I think the pulse disc works better with a non jig hook even though I have had good success on jig hook tied flies with a pulse disc. Its funny how success with a fly can make you a believer. Last season on San Luis was possibly the most productive of my life with over 10 fish in the 15-32 lb range and more 5-10 pounders than any year before. The big rains has made San Luis great again. Dan Blanton this season caught over 100 fish including a 23 lbr on his darting rear weighted fish mask fly and its the first fly he ties on at San Luis these days. Plus the theory of “big fly bigfish” is being seriously challenged with many of my large fish caught on small flies (also true in the 80s). Fly selection is a very personal choice so by no means is this the magic formula. but if you want a starting point to develop the perfect San Luis Fly, I think these flies have elements from all the greats over the last 50 years.