This is part 2 of a series. You can read part 1 here, where I discussed ideas about finding wiper, which I believe to be the majority of the challenge in wiper fishing. Before I go into the rest of this article, I want to bring up a couple of more things about finding wiper.
First, bring binoculars with you. When you have a lot of water to cover, extending your eyesight could give you the edge. They are an invaluable tool on the water when trying to locate busting fish. If you see or hear some splashing on a distant shoreline, break out your binoculars and see if they’re spawning carp, shore birds, or really wiper crashing bait in shallow water. Scan over the lake to see if you can find any surface disturbance or any birds actively feeding. One day a pair of binoculars might be the difference between boom or bust.
Second, it should be mentioned that we don’t always find wiper in large, tight schools. We often see sporadic wiper spooked by the boat jetting away from the boat. I don’t think these are necessarily solo fish, but I don’t think they’re in large schools either. If you see this happen, take some time to fan-cast the area looking for more. Take note of where you saw the fish and come back later. And more importantly try to find some other spots that fit the same makeup where you saw the fish, paying attention to wind direction, structure, depth, etc.
Now on to actually fly fishing for wiper…
Presenting Flies to Wiper
Presenting to wipers with a fly is not rocket science. Consider the fly and setup you use to be a tool. When you are fishing to wiper in the upper water column, present your fly there. When fishing to wiper down deep, present there.
The type of fly rod you use is determined by what you’re throwing. You will often want to cast far, so I’d recommend not going lighter than a 6wt rod. If you’re finding wiper relating to the surface you will want to throw poppers or high-riding streamers, therefore a 6wt is adequate with floating or short sink-tip lines. If you want to fish a few feet down, throwing a 150-grain RIO 24-foot sink tip is the ticket, and again a fast 6wt rod should do the trick. When you need to get deeper, say 5-10 feet deep, throwing a 200 or 250-grain RIO sink tip would do the trick and you will want to be using a 7wt or 8wt rod simply to be able to handle the heft of these lines. Go to a 300-500 grain line to get deeper, upgrading to a rod between an 8 and 10 weight to carry the load. With a well-made rod with some backbone, you should be able to play even the largest wipers available in the state.
Having a fly rod with a strong backbone is essential for landing the biggest wipers Colorado has to offer.
The main factor with what tippet to use is strength. I am not a firm believer in leader shyness when fishing streamers to stillwater fish. As long as you’re not using telephone cable and you’re not fishing super slow, I don’t think wipers will be deterred by your tippet. I will most often use 15-20 pound fluorocarbon tippet which for me has not broken off on a strike yet. The worst mistake you can make is to go too light and break off on a fish. I’ll use a couple of feet of 40-pound mono looped to a couple feet of 20-pound mono looped to the fluorocarbon tippet. So typically my entire leader is not much more than 6 feet long. However when I fish on or very near the surface, I will go longer.
When you’re fishing to wiper, you will want to vary your retrieve until you find what works best. Typically you cannot strip fast enough through busting schools. But often you will find that quick short strip-strip-strip-pause retrieves work better in other conditions and to well-fed wiper. Vary the pause length….you may be surprised to lose hold of your line as you look up to say something to your buddy on one of the pauses and a wiper grabs the suspended fly and turns at Mach 1 in the opposite direction. One thought that should play into your technique is the belief that some of the biggest wiper will sit below schools of shad, waiting for easy pickings. If you drop your fly through and under the baitfish school you may find a heavy surprise down below. Experiment every time you go out, the mood of the fish seems to change daily.
Bait size is a factor. In some studies on bass feeding, it is proven that fish in certain bodies at a given time of year will have a preferred bait size. For wiper, I have been told that they like to eat baitfish that are as long as the width of the gape of their mouth when open. Experiment with streamer sizes if you’re having trouble locating and hooking fish. If you’re fishing with a partner, start off the day fishing different colors and different sizes until one of you has more success than the other, then switch over to the hot bait. We have had success with streamers as short as one inch to streamers as long as six inches.
Which color fly to use is opening a huge can of worms. As my good friend and perennial fisherman Phil Small says, “If it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use.” That often may be the case, although we fish chartreuse very often which may skew the numbers. One theory I believe in is contrast….to use a fly that is two-colored, often with a light and a dark. The reason this may be effective is that fish see colors differently throughout the day, and therefore may pick up on the contrast if one or both of the colors is less visible at the time. You may try to “match-the-hatch” or go with more of an attractor pattern….and either may work, but I do not know of any tried-and-true pattern that works every time all of the time. It took me a long time to believe in any color theories, but I now believe color has something to do with the equation. So again, experiment daily with color, determine if one pattern is working more so than another, and run with it.
These are some of my most commonly used flies when fishing for wiper. From top, l-r: A saltwater popper, perch-colored Rainy's CF Baitfish Streamer - unweighted, a home-tied big clouser-style shad imitation, chartreuse/white clouser, another big shad imitation, a streamer weighted body with wrap-around lead, and my favorite crayfish/bugger pattern with twist-tail.
Whether you use weighted streamers or not is another item to experiment with. We have had success fishing very light flies, lead-head or clouser-type flies, and weighted-body flies. Clouser-type flies work very well when using the strip-pause retrieve and when fishing a little lower in the water column. Weightless flies seem to work better when fishing high and fast especially on a sink-tip…but don’t fail to experiment fishing very light flies on floating line quickly right in the surface film which gives an injured baitfish kind of look. You may also try fishing clouser-type flies on floating line to fish just under the surface. If you’re looking for fish down deep, sinking lines and heavy flies will allow you to cover more water quickly.
Whether to use a sparsely tied or a very hairy fly is yet another option that the wipers will help you decide. To give some guidance based on my observations, try sparser streamers in water with good clarity, and thicker, hairier streamers in discolored water or mudlines. Flies that produce more water disturbance as they’re retrieved will appeal better to the lateral line senses utilized more so by fish in darker waters. This is also the case for night fishing.
One area I have yet to experiment with greatly is the use of surface flies, namely poppers. Definitely give poppers a chance, especially in low-light conditions or in busting schools. Vary retrieves from a pop-pop pause, to ripping the popper through the surface film. The typical rule of thumb in top water presentation is to create just enough disturbance to attract fish. You’ll want to try fishing larger poppers that make more noise in choppy conditions, and smaller poppers in still conditions.
And do not forget flies other than streamers. As I mentioned before, we’ve caught plenty of wipers on bugger and crayfish patterns, especially around pods of carp when we were most inclined to throw them. The rule of abundant and available applies anytime you fish. If there’s an abundance of crayfish available to wiper, you better give it a shot. One way to know for sure what the fish are concentrating on is to look for undigested food coming out of a fish you’ve caught. One weekend fishing on Horsetooth Reservoir for smallmouth, we noticed a small orange chunk of crayfish spewed from the mouth of a bass we had on the hook next to the boat. It had been a tough day finding any smallies that day as we rotated between a variety of streamer patterns and retrieves. Truth is the smallies had turned onto the molting crayfish much like trout key in on insect hatches.
Presenting crayfish with a fly rod is not as easy as fishing a tube jig on a spin rod. You want to fish them slow and low, preferably in areas with various sized rip-rap and boulders, even ticking the rocks. Doing so will often lead to plenty of hang-ups and lost flies. To improve your efficiency, fish a short sink-tip line with crayfish patterns designed to ride hook-point-up. The best crayfish patterns are those that are tied more like a wooly bugger, with short or no pincers (chelae), and in a color leaning more towards orange/tan than dark brown. In studies that relate to this subject, smallmouth bass preferred softer molting crayfish over larger hard-shell crayfish, the former tending to be of lighter color.
The jury is still deliberating on whether fishing insect imitations to wiper is effective. I myself have not tried this one lick. Whenever I have found wiper smacking the surface in a manner that might suggest that they are eating insects, a streamer always did the trick. But, perhaps this is a technique to consider. I believe all fish eat insects at some time or another – and I would guess that wipers may do so more than one might think.
For slower fishing, and when letting our fly drop below shad schools, I like to go with a shinier and more active streamer like this sparkly clouser-style streamer.
The wiper fight is what you came for. These fish take a fly in what was described by Dennis McKinney’s DOW Outdoor’s Journal article “Wiper Watch” as a U-turn fashion, which I completely agree with. The initial take is a hard thump, as if they hit it going 30 MPH in the opposite direction. Setting the hook should not be a problem as they tend to hook themselves.
Getting the fish to the reel, meaning picking up all the slack so your reel drag is activated, is not difficult to do with wiper. They will typically take all the slack line at your feet out with them on the first run. Just make sure you’re not wrapped around your feet, bushes, or items in your boat before the strike. Doing so may bring the fight to an abrupt halt and will cost you about one fly.
The fight can vary, but typically they will make a very pronounced initial run followed by a rest period and subsequent sharp runs. Do not overplay the fish to the point it is exhausted, and do not try to net the fish so green that it will injure itself flailing about. Take advantage of their “rest periods” by turning their heads gently, pumping your rod, and reeling in line to bring them closer to you. Let them take drag when they want to run. Do not put too much pressure on the fish as you may wear a hole in their lip that will make escape much easier for them. And do not, by any means, give them slack line.
After a few runs, if the fish seems to be losing some steam, put more pressure on the fish to bring it to the net. Once landed, if you plan to release the fish, handle it gently, support its weight fully when lifted for a photo, and return it to the water promptly. I have had no problem reviving wiper when handled in this manner. We always fish barbless and have not lost any fish due to this factor alone (if we do lose a fish it’s typically our own fault for allowing slack.) I encourage barbless fishing for any type of fishing you may try…hooks are easier to get out of your skin when the inevitable occurs, the hooks set deeper, and as long as you keep your line taught I do not believe you will ever lose a fish due to barbless hooks. But you will lose fish to weak hooks, so use strong saltwater hooks for your wiper flies or they might come back as straight as an arrow.
Smaller Wiper can be "thumbed" out of the water, but if you plan to release the fish, be sure to support their full body and don't leave them hanging by the lip.
Colorado Lakes to Fish for Wiper
Pueblo produced the new state record not long ago and receives the most hype for wiper fishing in the state. And for good reason. There are a lot of big wiper in the lake, and they are well sustained. Some of the other lakes in the Southeast have suffered from low-water conditions which have had a detrimental effect on wiper populations, so Pueblo has received even more pressure.
If you live in the northern part of the front-range, there are several good wiper lakes. Union Reservoir near Longmont has received a lot of attention recently, primarily in the early season since the wiper stack in and around the inlet area and are very accessible to shore fishermen. This lake has a good population of quickly growing wiper. As long as regulations are enforced and followed, this lake will continue to produce large and plentiful fish.
Another lake in the north to visit is Jackson Lake which also receives quite a bit of press for wipers. Early season is best as the water drains quickly from this lake, and if you time it right the fish may run into the inlet for some interesting fishing. While you’re there check the outlet stream for fish that have escaped the impoundment.
Other good lakes in the north for wiper include Lonetree, Douglas, North Sterling, and Wellington #4 Reservoirs. Horsetooth was a promising wiper lake before dam renovations and other dynamics ceased stocking, but a few wiper remain and can be found in optimal conditions. They are definitely worth considering, as the fish that remain are very large.
Closer to the Metro Denver area, check out Barr Lake, Aurora Reservoir, and Cherry Creek Reservoir. I spent a day on Cherry Creek assisting with the walleye spawn and helped release around 20 wiper caught in the nets, none under 24 inches (keep that in mind when you tussle with a powerful 16 incher!). Or drive east to Bonny Reservoir, just know that water levels have been very low there for a long time which may effect the populations as well as your ability to fish effectively. You may head up to Standley Lake as well which has a very decent population of wiper.
This is one of the smaller wipers DOW's Ken Kehmeier got to handle and release at Cherry Creek.
One final point to make that is not necessarily common sense, is that the wiper is a hybrid and sterile fish…meaning they do not reproduce. So keep only the fish you plan to eat if you keep any, and by all means, keep only what you are allowed. The populations of wiper stocked in each lake are all that are available; there will not be any more until more are stocked, assuming that the stocking program continues. As I mentioned before, wiper are largely control fish that can help reduce over-abundant forage populations. By the same token they can also wreak havoc on a forage base, and that is plenty of reason for officials to stop stocking programs in certain lakes.
In conclusion, if you have not hooked into a wiper on the fly, you’ve got to give it a shot. But be aware that it may turn you into a wiper junkie. Finding wipers is a majority of the battle, so concentrate your efforts there, and when you do find them get ready for a battle! These observations are only from my experiences and a lot is yet to be written on this subject. I would appreciate hearing any feedback on this article and your experiences. Have fun and I hope this information helps you find and catch these silver torpedoes of the Rockies!
Even smaller wiper like this 17 inch fish will give you quite a run for your money!