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How to Use Trolling Flies, Jay Fair's Keys to Success

By Gary Heffley
Jay Fair gained his fame and reputation as a fly tier, guide and innovator on the use of trolling flies to catch trophy trout on Eagle Lake and other Northern California and Southern Oregon Lakes. Jay shared some of his secrets, formulas and techniques with me recently when we sat and talked about his Hall of Fame career. Jay and his son Glen also graciously sent me home with a DVD titled “Jay Fair’s SURE FIRE Trolling Flies For Big Fish The No-Nonsense Approach to Fishing” as well as some trolling flies to try out. The DVD outlines Jays flies, techniques, unique terminal set up and thought processes that have proven so effective that numerous publications have proclaimed Jay as the “Sage of Eagle Lake” or call him simply, “Mr. Eagle Lake.” To watch Jay put his techniques to work on the video just reinforced the tips I had received in person.

Jay Fair Trolling Fly

Jay has given me permission to share some of his knowledge and I can’t wait to try them out on the water. Jay’s concepts on envisioning the fly and to think like a fish, putting yourself into the fish’s mindset as to where would I eat, where would I seek shelter. These are the things that Jay thinks about when fishing. Some of Jay’s other main points of focus are related to location, speed, depth control, temperature, fly selection and rod set up. Photo above is "All Around Best."

The rod set up was one of most intriguing concepts for me. Most of Jay’s trolling set ups were on bait casting reels, but his set up could be done with spinning reels or fly reels. Jay puts about 50 yards of 20 pound test Dacron backing followed by 85 feet of floating fly line, yes we are talking on level wind reels not just fly reels.

Jay Fair Trolling Flies, Chartruese

Jay attaches a proportional amount of 18 lb. test lead core line to the depth he wishes to fish to the floating line followed by a 15 foot, 8 pound test monofilament leader to which he attaches the fly. Photo at right is "Chartruse."

Using the standard 20 ft of lead core for every 10 feet of depth to fish at 7-8 feet, a 15 to 16 foot section of lead core will be sufficient to control the depth of the fly in this target zone. To target fish at the 20 foot depth a 40 foot section would be needed. While monofilament could be used in place of the floating fly line, the fly line has some excellent qualities using Jay’s system. First the fly line is highly visible allowing better visual control with less opportunity to snag or tangle with other lines. It will keep the fly’s depth consistent even when making many turns and the line actually serves as an indicator, as often a trout’s take of a trolling fly is subtle. The flies are slurped more often than they are hammered like a trolled lure.

To use monofilament on the reel instead of floating fly line the ratios of sink to depth are different as mono sinks faster than the fly line sitting on the surface. For 68 ft of 10 lb. mono in lieu of the fly line to fish at a depth of 10 feet 15 feet of leadcore would be needed. For a depth of 20 ft, 30 ft of leadcore would be needed. Straight leadcore can be used from the backing but the ratios again change as a 30 foot leader of mono is needed to insure that the fly trolls far enough behind the boat. Each color of leadcore equates to 6 foot of depth.

While 8 pound test may seem heavy to most for trout leaders, Jay questions the leader shyness of big trout and the leader must be strong enough to handle the big fish that Jay and this system targets. When trolling along weed lines and flats Jay likes to position the flies a 18 to 24 inches above the bottom.

Jay Fair, Eagle Lake Trout
Jay Fair releasing trophy-sized Eagle Lake Trout

While we are on the subject of big fish Jay finds most big fish frequent the same area, as big fish are lazier when it comes to searching for food. To Jay, it his “Restaurant” premise. Equating it to human terms, the best place to find a big man may be a restaurant, maybe a smorgasbord as he did not get big by not eating well, it must be a from a filling diet. So too with big trout, they will settle in an area, their very own restaurant, where the quantity of food is available, with easy access and protection. Jay finds that big fish tend to be loners; they do not want to share their food source. Jay also finds that the same areas that produce big fish will usually always produce a big fish. If one big trout is caught and pulled out of a prime location, the spot is usually filled by another large trout soon after. Smaller trout 3 pounds and under tend to school up more often than the larger 5-8 pound trout.

Jay also strongly believes that trolling speed should be at 1 to 1.2 miles an hour and the line should be at least 100 to 125 feet behind the boat. Never troll in a straight line. Turn, be it working in a circular pattern around marked fish or working along subsurface contours of ledges and channels or along weed lines and shorelines, zigzag or make subtle turns. The turns help impart action and the speed of the fly changes as the inner trolling line to the turn slows down and the outside line speeds up. These subtle speed changes can often spur on the strike of a trailing trout.

Another key to Jay’s success is to always hold the rod. This serves a two part function, one you can more easily detect a subtle strike and secondly by holding the rod you are able to impart extra action to the fly. By gently rolling your wrist of the hand holding the rod, this gives the fly a pulsing action causing the marabou to breathe as it is pulled through the water. Also while Jay trolls, he keeps the rod tip just above the water surface about 8 inches to a foot. This keeps the wind from blowing the line all over the place and also for better line control when fishing along weed lines allowing the fly to go through the target zones.

Jay Fair with some more examples of his fly-tying skills. Glen Fair, Jay's son, learned from his father how to catch big Eagle Lake trout and tie flies. Many others have learned to use his ideas and techniques to catch more trout.

A blue bird, high sky, no wind day can usually provide you with great pictures, of the surrounding scenery that is. To catch quality trout it is best to have a breeze on the water, overcast and even rain doesn’t hurt the prospects. A boat will usually spook a trout as it passes over, especially in shallow water. The trout will return but will move off initially and then circle back. That is one reason for trolling so far back and for trolling in a non straight line pattern, your flies will pass over the spooked fish. The wind, clouds and rain can deflect the sunlight allowing the bait to be seen better and can make the trout less spooky when the boat passes. Also wind can cause food to blow onto the water along weed beds or off grasses and trees along the shore. The wind or breeze will cause surface disturbance that gives protection from the trout’s natural predators such as eagles and osprey. Trout will move from deeper water, be more likely to feed and therefore be easier to catch. First Light is also a great time to target big fish as again the fish feel safer from predators and will use this period to feed.

Trout like cooler water, so look for springs, incoming flows, not only will these waters provide cooler temperatures they also will provide improved oxygen levels especially as the summer months increase surface temperature. In the winter when the temperature is colder shallow areas will hold the heat longer. Trout will seek temperatures in the 52 to 58 degree range whenever possible.

Jay’s trolling flies are made carefully to imitate many different food sources from minnows, to mayflies and leeches. Jay feels that while color is important, movement is even more so. Jay does recommend that for deeper water, over 20 feet yellow and orange seem to work best. While most fly colors will be seen as black to a trout at over 25 feet, the color copper seems to hold up in deeper water conditions.

I have talked with shop owners and guides who have used Jay’s flies and who have given testimony to their effectiveness and how much they have learned from Jay and his system over the years. Some have adapted his system to their own, such as trolling his flies in rod holders using down riggers to control the depth and using dodgers to impart movement. Jay even told of one down rigger fisherman who attaches a rope to the cable so he can tug on the cable to give the fly action. After watching the video and spending an afternoon chatting with Jay and his son Glen it is hard to argue with his successful time tested methods or his Hall of Fame results.

To order a copy of Jay’s Video, which was filmed on Eagle Lake or to order his Trolling Flies or new Translucent Swimming Hackle material, contact Jay and Glen Fair at 530-347-5811 or look for Jay’s products in leading fly and tackle shops.

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of wetting a line in Northern California or Southern Oregon waters. What have you learned? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater), what species you target or how you fish, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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