Wipers just might be the hardest fighting fresh-water game fish in America, thanks in part to the phenomenon of hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is the term that biologists use to describe the enhanced strength and stamina that occurs in the sterile offspring of two closely related but different species. The mule is one example, the wiper is another.
Catching wipers by any method is great fun, but catching them on a fly rod is in a league all its own. Long-distance casting, jolting strikes and dogged battles with a powerful and stubborn fish are all part of a game that reaches a higher plateau when played with fly rods. Fly-fishing for wipers is not a difficult sport, but the transition from trout to wipers does require a word of caution.
Ambush on the Plains
From the parking lot on the hill above the boat ramp, John Martin Reservoir looked as lifeless as a puddle in a pothole. There wasn’t a circle on the surface or a fish in sight. There wasn’t even a whisper of wind to wrinkle the water, which is rare for the eastern plains of Colorado. But the calmness was deceptive. Big John was hiding something, and we were in for a big surprise.
We launched the boat, motored a short distance from the ramp, and let the boat drift while we rigged our fly rods and discussed new strategies for locating a school of wipers. Our original plans were to find them chasing shad to the surface near the dam, but that seemed doubtful now. As far as we could see, the surface of the lake was blank.
While I waited for my partner to finish rigging, I picked up my fly rod and made a cast – just for practice. The rod was a fast-action 9-weight designed for distance casting. I laid out a sixty-foot cast, counted the intermediate sinking line dpwn to a depth of about five feet, and started stripping the line back in fast jerks. I glanced back to see if my partner was ready to go and, when I had my back turned, something slammed the fly.
I strip-set the hook and the line snapped taut as a guitar string, sending a jolt through the rod that damn-near yanked it out of my hand. Something big and fast had waylaid the streamer and was running hard for deeper water. Before I was able to apply the brakes, the fish circled a submerged tamarack tree and snagged the line. Although it appeared hopelessly snagged, the 12-pound tippit was holding I could feel the line slipping through the tree as the fish continued to pull.
My partner knew exactly what to do. He started the engine and moved the boat in the direction of the snag while I gathered line on the reel. Over the snag, I plunged the rod tip down into the water and swept the line sideways, clearing it from the tree. The fish took off again – this time under the boat.
I ran to the rear of the boat then back to the front again, trying to keep the line out of the propeller. In the process, I tripped over two large fly boxes, scattering flies all over the place and twisting my ankle. After a run into open water that took me into the backing, the fish finally tired and i was able to get it to the boat. On its release, the five-pound wiper through water back in my face and vanished.
The big wiper was not alone. When my partner leaned over with the net, he saw two other wipers swimming frantically around the hooked fish. We had drifted over a rocky shoal where a school of wipers were busting a school of gizzard shad. Every hapless shad, or reasonable facsimile thereof, that swam over that shoal was promptly chased down and eaten.
After two-hours of combat with the band of wipers, a pair of kind, considerate, thoughtful jet-skiers roared through the battlefield and scared the wipers away. My partner and I retreated to the center of the boat to lick our wounds and survey our losses.
The final tally was:
- Broken: one 7-weight fly rod
- Destroyed: one sinking-tip fly line
- Lost: one dozen streamers
- Mangled: two fly boxes
- Twisted: one ankle
- Bruised: one knee
- Totally trashed: one fishing boat
- Escaped: 15 wipers
- Captured and released: 10 wipers
- Swollen and aching : one right ear (When a lead-eyed streamer smacks the back of a cold ear at double-haul speed, it redefines your perception of pain.
You might get by with a trout rod if the wipers are small, and if the lake is not too brushy, and if you don’t care much about the rod.
The right rods for 5-pound plus wipers are fast-action 8- and 9-weights. And the right reel is one that has a good adjustable drag. When a 5-pounder grabs your fly and hauls tail for the nearest tamarack tree, you need a rod with enough backbone to steer it clear before it gets there. Tamaracks catch but seldom release.
Leaders and tippets should be short and stout. Tapered leaders aren’t necessary; a six-foot section of 12-pound flourocarbon monofilament works just fine.
As for the flies, a Clouser Deep Minnow in chartruese or white will catch just about any fish that eats smaller fish, and that goes for wipers wherever you find them. The standard pattern is hard to beat, and the internet is loaded with recipes and variations.
More important than the fly is the presentation. Wipers usually like a fast-moving meal. After casting the streamer, point the rod straight towards the fly and start stripping in the line with fast snaps about 6-inches long. The faster the better – wipers can be very aggressive. When a wiper hits a fast-moving fly, it usually overtakes it from behind, grabs it, and then makes a U-turn. This stops the line stripping cold.
Because the line already is tight, the strike is telegraphed to your hands like a jolt of electricity. The wiper will set the hook. All you have to do is hang on to the rod.