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Casting Away the Drama


 



Over the past few years, the fly-angling circle in Hampton Roads has been reeling (pun intended) from in-fighting over an effective style of angling, with a small but very vocal following. You may see "haters" routinely joke about 50-foot leaders and be curious. You may see others downplaying the success of conventional fly anglers and wonder where the vitriol comes from… and I have the answer for you. 


Norway. 


Well, not really. It's actually two brothers from Richmond who are 4th generation Norwegians.


Let me introduce the "Norwegian Twitch Method" or "long leader fly fishing." This is a technique (originating in Virginia but named for the inventors' Norwegian heritage) that James and John Losen have brought to the forefront in local fly-fishing circles. With social media's help, it was popularized and villainized by photos of significant harvests, often in seasons when many of us struggle to bring fish to hand.


This method uses a fly rod with a level line and a long section of braid extending from that line, followed by a straight length of fluorocarbon for a total leader length that extends twenty feet (or more). Attached is a small but very heavy fly made with traditional materials like bucktail and flash, along with lead weighting, not dissimilar to dumbbell eyes found in common and popular patterns like the Clouser minnow. The fly/lure is cast into the water, requiring that the line be slack, and you identify a strike by watching the tension of the fly line where it attaches to the braid. This combination presents a small and lively lure/fly on the bottom. When done correctly, this has proven to be very productive. It has garnered strong opinions in this area and encourages us to question… again… "What is fly fishing?" 


The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) maintains the international angling rules and records defining several classes and styles of fishing. Pages of regulations offer formal rules for angling of all kinds, including – and paramount to this discussion – fly fishing.


Many of us don't hunt for world records, but if you have the combination of luck and skill to hook into one, you had better play by IGFA rules if you want the recognition. World records are obviously a rare feat, but Hampton Roads boasts several fly-based records by local anglers like Kevin DuBois (class tippet Summer Flounder), Cathy Kallberg (W-class tippet records for both Cobia and Speckled Trout), and Carl Welborn (length record for Red Drum).


The IGFA uses two pages, in small font, to outline everything that must be in place to define "fly fishing." Yet many fly anglers casually dismiss certain rules, are likely unfamiliar with some, but hold on tightly to others.


Leaders are discussed in depth, and there are no limits to materials or overall length. Class tippets must be strictly followed, with a maximum breaking strength of 22 pounds (10 kg). Anything beyond that is not officially considered "fly fishing" by the IGFA. David Mangum, widely considered the best tarpon fly-fishing guide active today, used to use a straight 60-pound monofilament leader from his fly line. Back in 2018, a client of his was able to sight, cast to, hook, and land a 215-lb tarpon, a would-be world record for one of the most renowned and pursued gamefish in the world, but the leader prevented it from qualifying. Here on the lower Chesapeake Bay, fly anglers routinely use a 50-lb butt section connected to a 30-lb tippet on our world-class red drum. According to the rules, that doesn't qualify as fly fishing either.

Yet, many conventional fly anglers will overlook these regulations, seeing as all other traditions were kept in place, accepting the catch as a great accomplishment.


The IGFA doesn't stop at equipment but delves into technique as well. Under fly-fishing angling regulations, "The major criterion in casting is that the weight of the line must carry the fly rather than the weight of the fly carrying the line." Regarding the Norwegian Twitch method, this creates a problem, as leader length makes this almost impossible. A heavier fly is required to propel the leader forward, and most casting with this method is done through a water-loading technique made popular by Lefty Kreh. It's tough to think this is where some fly anglers draw the line, as Lefty is firmly engraved onto the Mount Rushmore of fly fishing. Euro-nymphing is commonplace in many fly-fishing circles and has the same trait. Almost all of us with freshwater experience have high-sticked a streamer through a run at some point in our fishing career. So, where is the line being drawn between the two styles?


It's how success on the water is measured.


Saltwater fly fishing has only gained popularity in the last 50 or 60 years. When most people envision it, schools of bonefish tailing on Belizean flats come to mind. It's a tarpon aggressively leaping out of gin clear water near Islamorada. Even our local redfish, surrounded by flooded spartina grass, flicking the iridescent blue of their tails just above the water's surface.


Up close and personal, sight-fishing is the name of the game, and even when blind casting is the route chosen, it still feels targeted. This is not a numbers game. It's an attempt to stalk and fool your prey. Often, just one fish, one you may remember for a lifetime, makes for a highly successful day. That's not for everyone, and it's not what you get from using the method the Losen brothers are bringing to the forefront. They are presenting a fly in a way that covers a lot of water and catches a lot of fish. With the long-leader method, limits of multiple species overflowing a cooler makes for a highly successful day. 


James Losen admits that large harvests posted online have created animosity on sites he used to frequent. Early boasting of large catches on the fly in off-seasons, from out-of-towners, were met with the modern-day proof demand, "pics or it didn't happen". When those pictures backed claims of maximum legal harvest day after day, the fly-fishing community responded harshly. As fly angling originated in mountain streams and smaller fisheries, a conservation mindset was ingrained within the community early on. Over time, catch-and-release has become the norm rather than the exception.


James Losen photoshopped by another facebook user expressing frustration with his harvest numbers.



But the Losen brothers don't exceed the limits set in place by the VMRC, and when a 26-1/2" speckled trout took James' fly a few years ago for a personal best, it was photographed and released. James says he doesn't take "the big and beautiful ones." 


Listening to James vocalize the skills required to be highly productive with his method convinces you of the technique's merit and fit into the fly-fishing catalog. It is a unique set of skills that offsets it from other fly-fishing forms; rather than the long cast to blitzing stripers or a precise and delicate one to a redfish milling in a foot-and-a-half of water, long-leader fishing requires its angler to possess a perceptive focus of the line itself. Understanding the relationship between the fly line's response to the lure's movement and deciphering each change in line tension as requiring a specific response is critical to the success the Losen brothers have enjoyed.  


So, the purist diminishes the accomplishments of the long-leader angler. The long-leader angler mocks the fly purist for not catching as many fish. When someone says, "I'd love to learn more about fly fishing in Hampton Roads," two distinct parties claim they have the "right" way to fly fish. Both parties are wrong. We all approach the water and what enriches us from the water differently.


Variations in style and our motivations for fishing abound, but we all have room to learn.

Our preferences determine which direction we suggest when a newcomer wants to learn more about fly fishing in Hampton Roads. When those preferences become so polarizing that they dissuade rather than teach, it doesn't help anyone.


This watershed is rarely discussed as the excellent fly-fishing destination it is, yet we have an abundance of opportunities here. Shallow-water sight fishing and big water blitzes are the domains of the conventional fly angler. Systems with deeper water that hold so much of our biomass can be accessed far more efficiently with the long-leader technique. Both can be found in and near Virginia Beach. The journey of learning this fishery, confirming or disproving your fishing beliefs, and growing as an angler can offer far more fun and value than that familiar thump at the end of your line. Sharing your fishing knowledge to support others while respecting different techniques helps the region gain the lofty respect it deserves.

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