Musky fishing is such a unique art. We interview a lot of big time musky hunters here at Dock Talk 365. But we have yet to encounter someone that exclusively focuses his or her musky efforts with a fly rod. Today’s interview is with David Sullivan who chases down big Quebec musky with a fly rod in his hand. As you read this interview, you will see this guy has a dedication and passion for what he is doing. While he doesn’t consider himself an expert yet, he gives us great insight into how he is approaching his pursuit.
When and how did you catch the musky bug?
The musky bug… it’s been a wild ride so far and it has only just begun. The winter of 2015 I packed up and moved to Quebec from Newfoundland, that following August after pursuing a few different species without total satisfaction I seen my first musky fly hanging on a paper clip in the local fly shop. I’m certain this was the moment I was hooked without even seeing this fresh water beast for myself.
Your specialty is in fly fishing for big muskies. Is this how you started fishing for them or did you start with traditional musky tackle?
Being ‘specialized’ in such a pursuit is not entirely accurate. I’m learning something new with every fish that follows and with every fly that come off the bench. I have always been a fly angler with deep rooted connections to wild Atlantic Salmon and brook trout back east so this transition was not as painful as one might think. I wouldn’t even know where to begin fishing for musky with conventional gear. While your on the water looking for these predators with a fly rod the chance is always there for that ‘fish of a lifetime’. I chase the species and not the size although some days you get lucky and catch a glimpse of a real stud or queen of the river.
What are you favorite bodies of water to fly fish for musky?
I’m very fortunate to be smack dab in the middle of my very own musky country. The vast and beautiful river systems in this part of the country offer endless possibilities for the musky fly angler. Each river has its advantages and drawbacks but I would have to say the Ottawa is by far the most diverse and appealing water body. It’s shear size and biodiversity is key to a healthy musky population and it’s never difficult to find some solitude. If your looking for that legendary trophy then this is where you wanna put your time in.
The Gatineau River is intimidating but has some real northern charm with its deep cut rock banks, fast cool water and evergreen dotted shoreline while the Rideau offers the genuine urban fly fishing experience with a stellar population of healthy fish.
When on a new body of water that you have never fished for the first time, what are some of the critical elements to breaking it down and finding places that musky can be caught on a fly?
The where and how are things I’m still working on. These fish are very much influenced by water temps, seasonal changes, aquatic plant growth and weather systems. Apparently moon cycles also play a roll in a successful musky outing. From my understanding the difference in the fly approach from conventional gear is minimal. I usually do a little research before I hit some new water whether I badger some experienced locals or comb through some charts I always head out with some sort of plan. I love early season with emerging weed beds and hungry post spawn fish.
As the water warms up and the weed growth reaches the surface I concentrate my efforts on defined weed lines or very obvious structure like sunken timber or current breaks in faster water. Creek mouths can also be a jack pot anytime of the year. If it looks and feels ‘fishy’ then I’d suggest you hit it.
What fly fishing gear are the minimum requirements for someone pursuing musky on the fly?
Your gear choice really depends on your ambition and intentions. I use 12wt 9′ rods with 450-500 grain lines ranging from a full floating line for top water to triple density fast sinking lines when the fish are deep. These beefy set ups allow me to throw the biggest flies at maximum distance and when the time comes to tangle with a large fish you won’t be out gunned.
10wt and up are the norm and for what it’s worth I would not suggest anything lighter. The flies are big, the days can be grueling and the last thing you want to happen is missing that one opportunity to capitalize because of fatigue.
Hook sizes can range from 2/0 up to something like a 6/0 flipping hook, most of my flies are doubles but singles are effective also for the experienced musky fly angler. Make sure it’s sharp!
Seems how these fish seldom make long runs and usually battle boat side the reel capability is not critical. It should be balanced nicely with the rod to help with casting and comfort. You don’t have to break the bank on this one.
The bite guard can be either fluorocarbon or wire. I only use wire but 80lb fluorocarbon is also a popular choice. The rest of my leader is 4′ of 40lb monofilament. You can experiment with different lengths and see what works best for you. Keep your knots clean because they do a lot of running up and down through the guides.
A good pair of polarized glasses are also important for tracking your fly and seeing following fish.
How do your fly fishing tactics change as the seasons change?
As mentioned before during early season I’ll look for emerging weed beds and structure. Mid summer I find tough as the fish pack into the weeds and deal with warm water temps. Weeds can be very frustrating for the fly angler so I tend to shy away from open pockets in the weeds and fish the defined weed edges.
As the water cools and the weeds die off the fish become more nomadic and will leave there summer range. I’ll look for fish on steeper drops, shoreline structure with deep water close by, saddles and creek mouths. On larger bodies of water like the Ottawa I’ll try and find schooling bait fish. Musky will also suspend over open water this time of year and they tend to be deeper. By nature fly fishing is more of a definitive target, point and shoot, sort of game so it can get very repetitive and discouraging fishing open water in hopes of finding a fish in the fall.
This is the major disadvantage fly angling has when it’s stacked up against conventional gear. With trolling out of the question, shorter casting distances and slower retrieval rates, covering water is the biggest challenge anytime of year really. You really have to choose a spot you think or know is fishy and really pay attention to detail. Cover the water thoroughly and always keep an eye a couple of feet behind your fly. Always finish your retrieve with a figure 8, a large O or L before casting again because ya never know what following just out of sight.
What is the fish story behind your biggest musky caught on a fly?
It’s the 31st of August, eve of a new moon and clear skies on Ottawa. I mostly use white or light coloured flies but this creek mouth up ahead had a nice defined sediment line as its dumping into the Ottawa and black shows up much better in these conditions so I went with my gut and made the switch. On the second pass of this area a fish decided to eat and 2 minutes later I was face to face with an Ottawa river trophy musky. 51.5″ of pure predator and to see such a fish with a 14″ fly sticking out of its mouth is something I’ll never forget. After some quick pictures and the release I was flooded with emotion, it’s very difficult to describe.
You have your own line of musky flies. What makes your flies stand out and work so effectively?
The best thing about tying musky flies is it’s difficulty and it’s ability to set you free. Anything goes, only a few basic rules and the rest is up to you. I think my flies are productive because I have faith in my ability and I truly love tying. As I’m spending an hour or so on each fly I’m visualizing how it will swim and look in the water. It’s truly an art form that I enjoy as much if not more then the fishing itself.
The material proportions are critical to the flies success. Trial and error is also an important factor, pay attention to how the fly performs and make adjustments on the next one.
3 pieces of final advice to anyone who has read this and wants to give musky fly fishing a try?
1. Confidence in yourself and your ability is so important I cannot stress this enough. Soon as you loose faith in yourself your done.
2. Always stay alert and concentrate on EVERY fly retrieve and figure 8 on the end of EVERY cast.
3. Last but not least have fun and don’t stress. It’s not about the size of the fish or how many you net. So many anglers today have lost themselves in social media following and appearances. Do it for yourself, do it because you like a challenge. Every fly caught musky is a real accomplishment so get out there and don’t trout set.
I love the last piece of advice for all of fishing, especially musky fishing. To learn more about David and get more information about his fishing and Urban Fly Co, check him out on Instagram and Facebook.