Fish snap up flies in the briny

TIE ONE ON: Saltwater fishing without bait using jigs and flies is a recipe for success, if you know what you’re doing. This red gurnard was caught on a homemade lead jig.
Zane Mirfin
TIE ONE ON: Saltwater fishing without bait using jigs and flies is a recipe for success, if you know what you’re doing. This red gurnard was caught on a homemade lead jig.

There's nothing quite so satisfying as catching fish on flies and lures that you've made yourself. Apart from the enjoyment of hand-crafting successful lures, they are often less expensive than shop-purchased versions, designed to fit local fishing conditions, and made with superior components and stronger hooks. Sometimes they can even work better than any other commercially available options, too.

I've always made many of my own flies, lures, jigs, and sinkers - ever since I was a young lad. I can still remember being besotted with the fly-tying set and instructional books my parents bought me at 9 years of age. For hours on end, I'd sit at the kitchen table, practising tying techniques and cranking out flies, lovingly laying my creations out on the table to admire and fantasise about big fish I would one day catch with them.

And I did. My first trout on a fly rod was caught fishing the fast waters beneath the Bulford Bridge on Marlborough's Rai River when I was just 10 years old. The spotted brown trout was no monster, but beautiful just the same to my youthful eyes. Having both parents witness my achievement, and catching it on my home-tied pheasant tail nymph made of red copper wire only enhanced the beginning of a personal fly fishing journey that is still ongoing.

Fast forward to the future, and my flies would appear in calendars, international magazines and fishing books. One New Zealand company, Manic Tackle, even has some of my dry fly and nymph patterns tied in some overseas sweatshop and shipped back for sale in Australasia.

I still love fly tying and Aimee calls it my "escape" where I can disappear into another world while creating solutions to angling problems. I have a permanently set-up bench in my garage with a lifetime of fly tying supplies accumulated with schoolboy pocket money and nearly 28 years of commercial fishing guiding behind me.

Many of the materials were harvested myself, shot with a boyhood air rifle, and later shotgun and rifle, or synthetic materials bought back from overseas guiding trips. I'm still accumulating materials and regularly tie flies so I can have the exact size, weight, colour, shape and style, to be consistently successful when guiding anglers from all over the world.

The past few years I've been fishing flies more often in saltwater. Durable synthetic materials and small mega-strong hooks have revolutionised salt water fly tying, allowing anglers to tie amazingly realistic flies that discerning saltwater fish are very partial to. In freshwater fishing, this is known as "match the hatch" where you use trout flies that imitate the insects that the trout are selectively feeding on and it's really no different in the salt. Give the fish what they want to see, at the right depth and with the right action, and success should be inevitable.

Saltwater fish feed on many items including fish larvae, shellfish, molluscs such as snails and mussels, minnows, marine worms, even crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps, crayfish, and krill.

Every fish species is different, and has a unique place in the food chain. By understanding the habits and food sources of fish you can become a more successful angler by offering fish something that resembles more closely what they prefer to eat. Flies can be hyper realistic or flashy but the key consideration in my mind is size. Most anglers fish with bait and hooks that are too big for the fish to get their mouths around.

I'm a great believer in going smaller and lighter when fishing. We use lightweight soft bait sets that can cast a long way from the boat, with sensitive, fast-action rods that can feel every bite and have the power to set hooks fast. Braided GSP line is another modern essential that has no stretch and offers incredible bite detection. Braided line comes in many bright colours so you can watch the line move and detect fish taking bait, flies and jigs. A fluorocarbon leader one to three times the length of the rod is attached with a bimini twist, kaneit knot, or other attachment system before the terminal tackle is tied on.

Because most fish are down near the bottom, a "drop-shot" or ledger-type rig is best with a sinker attached to the bottom and flies/hooks attached via droppers. Droppers can either be tied directly into the line using blood knots or even using three-way swivels, depending on the species you are targeting. You can catch all sorts of fish like this, either drifting or at anchor, but common Tasman Bay catches include snapper, kahawai, trevally, blue cod, tarakihi and gurnard. Often you catch other common reef fish like scarlet wrasse (parrot fish) and even leatherjackets (creamfish).

We often do away with a sinker and use a homemade jig as weight to get the rig to the bottom. Sometimes it will catch the best fish of the day or the flash will act as a fish magnet to your flies. With these rigs you can fish with or without bait, the choice is yours. Fishing with flies is nothing new, and basic commercial "flasher rigs" have been available for years and work extremely well but more imitative flies on longer shank chemically sharpened fly hooks work well for us.

You can put bait on the flies, with thin slivers of squid being especially successful, giving some more movement and scent. Bait isn't essential, though, especially if the flies are moving and are tied with materials such as flashabou, krystal flash, silicon rubber legs, marabou, spanflex, neve fibre, rabbit fur, or bucktail.

Fly tying is actually pretty easy to learn and you can set yourself up with a vice, tools, threads, materials, and hooks and be tying workable flies within an hour or two. My four kids love going down to my desk and tying flies on their own. Some of their efforts are pretty rudimentary but the fish eat them up.

Fish are attracted by eyes, either painted or tied onto any lure or fly, and dumbbell eyes can really make a saltwater fly come to life. Flies tied with multiple colours of egg yarn to imitate chunks of berley work great too, and you never have an empty hook down there when the fish are in a feeding frenzy.

We also make our own lures, jigs and sinkers too by melting lead outside and pouring it into moulds.

Hey, I just got emailed a photo from my brother Scott Mirfin of a kingfish he caught on one of our homemade lures during the beautiful sunny winter weather we've been basking in. At about 35-40kg, it was the only big fish of the trip and was released unharmed.

Score one more for homemade gear.

Nelson