American Fly Fishing

By Steve Schweitze

It’s a good thing the world is two-thirds salt water, because without it, Russ Hampton would have to find another hobby. The variety of fly fishing provided by salt water has entertained Hampton for a large part of his life. He spent much of his childhood and teen years in Florida and Virginia. After college, where he obtained a degree in air conditioning and circulation, he served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. After his tour, he was sent back to California, where he ended up staying for most of his working career, and, ultimately, where he developed a passion for saltwater fishing. After a typical working day, Hampton would walk the beaches in Southern California, fishing for rockfish, halibut, jacksmelt, and surfperch. A man of many decades, he fished warm water for bass and panfish in the 1970s, even competing in spin-fishing tournaments. In the 1980s, he went back to fly fishing almost exclusively, for warm-water fish, saltwater game, and even trout in the Sierra Nevada. In the 1990s, he started focusing on blue-water saltwater fishing—for big fish, with big flies.
   Hampton taught himself to tie flies, and concludes, “It’s all about understanding the fish you are fishing for and what its feeding habits are. That’s what gave me the direction I needed to teach myself fly tying.”
   Despite fishing with flies since the 1970s, he didn’t get started in fly tying until the late ’80s. “I got started in fly tying because I couldn’t buy what I wanted to fish with,” he says. “Nobody was tying anchovies and sardines.”
   If it swims in salt water, Hampton most likely has tied a fly for it to eat, or to match it. Today, he focuses on blue-water flies for billfish, tuna, and roosterfish. He even ties saltwater-style flies for peacock bass in Brazil—streamers 5 to 7 inches long, all with yellow, yellow/brown, or baby peacock bass-colored synthetics. As he has done since he started tying, Hampton relies heavily on synthetic materials, but reminisces that, in the old days, he didn’t have the wide variety of synthetics that are available today. In fact, when he was just starting out, he hand-colored his materials with permanent markers.
   “I’ll tie almost any style of fly as long as it’s white,” he told me with a half-serious and half-chuckling voice. “I could use markers to color the fly to the color I needed. I quickly found out that coloring a fly dry and coloring a fly wet demand two different techniques. But I rarely do that anymore, because the material choices and color options are nearly limitless.”
   His favorite materials today are Steve Farrar’s synthetic wing material, the newer flat Krystal Flash, long crimped nylon, and wig hair. When asked where one finds wig hair, he matter-of-factly says, “At the wig shop,” as if one should already know that. “I walk in and get a piece that is 30 inches long and 6 inches wide for under a dollar. Of course, they have all the browns and blacks and such, but I like the dance-crowd colors—the bright wild ones. Great for long streamers.”
   He adds that the most significant advantage of today’s materials is being able to tie a fly with one-third of the materials he used in the old days, from a large bulky head profile tapered to almost nothing at the tail. In stark contrast to the big blue-water flies he ties today is a fly he created many years ago, the Bass Spider Fly, now in its third iteration. It’s a streamer-style fly that fishes like a jig. “I quickly learned when fishing bass tournaments that the jig was the most important bait to have, so I tie a fly to be like one,” he explains.
   He ties two versions: a bottom-feeding adaptation and a swimming version. The swimming version is particularly effective when bass feed on shad. It’s tied on a 60-degree jig hook, Clouser-style. Early versions used plastic tails, but over time became fragile. His newer models use silicon, which is easier to tie with and more supple.
   Big flies demand big rods, and Hampton’s rod arsenal would make a trout fisher cringe with vivid memories of tennis elbow pain. Russ maintains a selection of 14- to 17-weight rods in the U.S. and in Mexico, where he spends six months a year. He’s tried 11- and 12-weight rods, but says they just don’t have the muscle required for the billfish he targets. And, he is a strong proponent of anti-reverse fly reels, particularly for saltwater fishing. “Do you know how long it takes a billfish to strip out 300 or 400 yards of line?” he asks. “You can’t even see the handle spin when they start their run.”
   He recounts a recent trip: “I hooked a marlin, and when it ran, the line cut a rooster tail in half. To top it off, that marlin straightened out my hook. I didn’t have a chance. I used a 14-weight Sea Level fiberglass-graphite composite rod.”
   To Hampton, today’s graphite rods don’t have the lifting power needed for saltwater big game; glass rods have the muscle. “You need that power, especially when fishing for tuna,” he notes. “Tuna go straight down when hooked; you need the lifting power a glass composite rod has. Most graphite rods can’t take that kind of pressure.”
   Hampton is a man of means, of practicality; he’s pragmatic, with a streak of creative ingenuity. And even with the “old salt” approach to saltwater fly fishing, he is a passionate and patient fly-tying and fly-fishing teacher to local middle-schoolers when he is stateside, although it’s safe to say he doesn’t start out the youngsters on a pool-cue 17-weight. Having no remaining family and maintaining places in the U.S. and Mexico, he says, “I give myself all the toys and I spend a lot of time fishing.”
   He adds, with a mischievous smile, “I chase fish and women equally, and practice catch-and-release on both.”
   As he says, it’s all about understanding your quarry, and its feeding habits.


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