Until January 4, I’d never even heard the term “float-n-fly.” It sounded like a kid’s ride at the fairground, or the street name for some illicit new drug. But I Googled it that day—the same day Oroville, California-based flyfishing guide Ryan Williams, and his partner, Logan McDaniel, won the Shasta Lake Wild West Bass Trail tournament. The first thing that popped up was a 2008 video produced by Kentucky Afield, a fishing and hunting show. And the first words out of the host’s mouth were these: “Everybody in the world is talking about the float-n-fly.” Apparently, it was time I reached out to Williams.
“I learned from a guy who did it with a spin rod, a friend I took out steelheading about ten years ago,” he told me. “He saw that we were using bobbers, and he says, ‘Dude… I gotta tell you about something. You would slay bass using this thing called float-n-fly.’ I was thinking he’d tell me that they use it to go way down deep, but then he said, ‘Tournaments are won in seven feet of water, on a fly.’ That’s when it all clicked for me.”
Float-n-fly is just what it sounds like: A fly (or small jig) hung beneath a bobber. The trick is in properly choosing and fishing each one. Plenty of skill and subtlety goes into perfecting the method. “It’s mostly technique,” Williams says. “It definitely helps to have the right fly, but it’s more about having the right size, the right weight, the right leader-depth, and casting to the right spot—real tight to the bank—all those factors.”
Knowing “all those factors” is what earned Williams and McDaniel their win at Shasta. This wasn’t the Bassmaster Elite Series or FLW Pro Circuit. The pair split $8,400 in winnings. McDaniel fished with conventional gear, and they each caught about half the fish—McDaniel got the biggest; Williams the second-biggest. Nevertheless, Wild West Bass Trail, now in its fourth year, draws high-level competitors, along with major sponsors like Ranger Boats and Garmin. It has become one of the most significant bass tournaments in the West, and this is definitely the first time that a flyfisher, using flyfishing as the only method of competing, has stood atop the podium of any real bass tourney.
It’s also worth noting that the top results weren’t even close. Anyone who just barely follows pro bass tourneys knows that the difference between winning and finishing second is often just fractions of an ounce. Tournaments were formerly scored using pounds and ounces, but now most go by total weight, using a scale that weighs in hundredths of a pound. Williams and McDaniel finished first out of 178 teams, with a weight of 13.87, a couple ounces shy of 14 pounds. Each of the next 19 money-winning boats finished with a total weight of less than 12 pounds.
Spin-casters might use a heavier bobber in order to make the cast, but the trade-off there is that heavier bobbers are less sensitive to the often-subtle take of a spottie. When it comes to casting, NorCal bass fiend John Sherman thinks spin-fishermen have recently made strides that help level the float-n-fly playing field. But he sees other advantages. “I think it’s the flies,” Sherman says. “The spin guys are getting pretty good at casting those light set-ups, but none of them tie flies, and the jigs they use don’t look anywhere as realistic as what Ryan fishes.”
Williams agrees. “The spin guys use store-bought flies that are mostly trash, and because they’re mass-produced, almost all of them are 1/8th ounce or quarter ounce, which are way heavier. Having fly-tying skills makes the biggest difference, because we’re able to really match those baitfish.”
Those baitfish are what bring the spotted bass, a native to Southern states like Kentucky and Alabama that were first planted in a handful of California reservoirs in 1974. “They are more of a shallow-water fish in the winter,” says Williams. “They aren’t afraid get up along the banks. The lakes we fish have largemouth also, but they are way deeper during winter, probably looking for that warmer water.” (Northern lakes experience a twice-a-year phenomenon called “turnover,” occurring at 39 degrees. In winter, the warmest water moves from the top of the lake to the bottom. Come summer, it reverses back again.)
Several logical reasons explain why a fly rod is the better tool for this particular kind of fishing, especially in the winter. “This is a coldwater thing for the spotted bass,” says fellow NorCal guide Hogan Brown. “Everything moves slower in the winter. Many of these reservoirs have a fish called the wakasagi minnow [Japanese pond smelt]. Bass feed on schools of them, but the minnows aren’t moving fast, and the bass aren’t going to move fast to chase them, because the water is like 48 degrees. If you’re ripping a minnow through there super-fast—that’s just not how it looks. But hang a small jig and twitch it under a bobber? That’s the speed.
Using a fly rod, floating line, and a lightweight fly or jig is an ideal way to work the shallow waters along the shore, and it’s obviously not ideal for spin fishermen, because casting a spinning rod requires weight on the line. “We can definitely throw lighter flies than they can,” Williams says. “We use two sizes, 1/16 and 1/32. And I do a lot of 1/32. The spin guys can throw the 1/16th ounce, sort of, but that’s the lightest they can go.”
Williams grew up flyfishing Putah Creek—the closest trouty tailwater to the Bay Area. He worked at Sweeney’s Fly Shop in Napa, and began guiding in 2006. But his focus shifted in 2008 when he moved north to Oroville. Williams still guides for trout and steelhead on the Sacramento and Feather rivers, but over the past six years, he has increasingly focused on guiding for bass on Oroville, Shasta, and Clear lakes, all while spreading the float-n-fly gospel. “No one really knew that you could guide on the lakes up here with a fly rod and be successful,” he says. “I was kind of the first to really take a gamble on that. And now it’s finally paying off.”
Clear Lake in particular has an intriguing story, being the biggest freshwater lake entirely in California. Though it doesn’t have spotted bass, it holds some of the fattest largemouth in the country. The lake record is a 17½ pounder caught 30 years ago, but during two weeks in April 2019, Clear Lake produced a 12-pounder, a 14-pounder, and a 16-pounder. Clear Lake currently has only one flyfishing guide: Ryan Williams.
“Ryan is the guy who figured this out with a fly rod,” says Brown, adding that Williams began studying float-n-fly methods a decade ago, because that’s how conventional guys were winning tournaments on Shasta and Oroville. But even after he started developing his own flies and floats, Ryan’s friends still weren’t buying it. “Look, I’m a striper guy,” says Brown, of his mentality at the time. “If the fish ain’t eating it as fast as I can strip it, then I wasn’t interested.”
Of course, some anglers just aren’t that enamored with the fish-n-fly approach, John Sherman among them. “It’s definitely effective,” he says. “But… You’re still casting a bobber. Into a lake.”
Other doubters eventually came around, including Hogan. “I think it was around 2015, we had a huge winter and the rivers were all blown,” Brown says. “As a steelhead guide, I didn’t have work for months. It was Chuck Ragan [the musician and fishing guide], who’d been doing the bass thing for a while, and he said, ‘You’ve gotta come guide bass on the lake—that’s all there is.’”
Ragan was right: At that point, Hogan didn’t have much of a choice. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but I am not fishing bobbers,’” Brown says. “Then I went out for a day with Chuck, and I had a blast. There’s so much more to it than I thought. And from a guiding standpoint, the reservoirs fish no matter what. Every river in the state could be blown out, and you can still go to these reservoirs and catch fish. You could bring a couple kids out who’ve never touched a fly rod, and put them on 10 or 20 bass.” (Hogan and Williams are both involved as volunteers with the non-profit Cast Hope, which provides free fishing trips to kids.)
While winning a conventional bass tournament is no small feat, what Williams has accomplished over the past decade—essentially creating a winter guided-stillwater scene for NorCal flyfishing—may be even more impressive. Williams pioneered the float-n-fly with a fly rod on just a few NorCal lakes, but he has parlayed his unique skillset into a highly specialized slice of the classic Western side-hustle: guiding and fly-tying—both run through his company, North Valley Flyfishing. He guides Clear Lake for largemouth, carp, and crappie. (Is there another flyfishing guide in America advertising a three-month crappie season on his website?)
THE FISH, AND THE FUTURE
Spotted bass still remain Ryan’s favorite. “They are just an awesome sportfish,” he says. “More similar to smallmouth than largemouth, but kind of a combination of the two. They like higher-elevation rocky areas, with clear, clean water. And they crush topwater, I think they’re more prone to hit topwater than large or smallmouth. And they are just made for the fly rod, they’re way more like trout in that way; they like currents and feeding on the surface.”
The aggressiveness of spotted bass is a big reason for their popularity. But they have another, possibly even more attractive trait. “Spotted bass may have come from Kentucky, but the world record ones are now in Northern California,” says Brown. “As a species, they thrive in these flooded canyon reservoirs.”
Indeed, the state record spotted bass in Kentucky is seven pounds 10 ounces. The record in Alabama is eight pounds 15 ounces. And on Feb. 12, 2017, California resident Nick Dulleck pulled a female spotted bass out of New Bullards Bar Reservoir that weighed 11 pounds four ounces. It was 20 inches around, more than two feet long, and remains the current IGFA World Record. (New Bullards also has a strong population of kokanee, which helps fatten-up the spotties.)
Will Ryan need to catch a bass that size to repeat? “We’ll see,” he says. “The next tourney is on Oroville [March 13], about two minutes away. That was the whole reason I signed up for these tournaments, was Oroville. I said, ‘Well, I’ll try Shasta, I think we have a shot at it.’ But I feel real confident about Oroville.