On the fly

With ponds and creeks stocked with bass, you can find great fly fishing here at home in Southern Indiana.


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I’m standing on the bank of Eagle Creek in Zionsville with the overcast sky above me. Guide Mike Exl stands to my right, out of reach of the sharp hook I’m flinging through the air. I pull my arm back, looking behind me as I cast. When the hook goes all the way back, I cast forward into the water releasing the line. I am on the prowl for a lone carp that is feeding in the water in front of me.

Mike Exl practices his fly casting skills on Eagle Creek. / Photo by Eric Stearley

This is my second time fly fishing. I grew up with a dad who took me fishing in a creek by my house every summer and a brother who has been a fly fish guide in Wyoming and fishes every chance that he gets. I learned that there is a special passion behind fishing, and especially fly fishing. I had been fly fishing in Wyoming, but never in Southern Indiana. I was curious what was here and if it would be as exciting as out West. I was also curious about the angler and what motivated him to spend hours on top of hours throwing a line out, when he could come up empty handed.

Most people think of Montana and Wyoming when they hear fly fishing, but how does Indiana compare to other states in fly fishing?  We have ponds, rivers, lakes and creeks. All of these bodies of water hold various fish, such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and steelhead. Out West, it’s mostly trout. However, you don’t need to travel to Montana because home can offer so much.

I soon found myself talking to Ben Shadley, an avid fly fisherman and senior writer of the Indiana DNR’s Outdoor Indiana magazine. Shadley grew up traveling to rivers and ponds in Southeast Indiana to fly fish. According to Shadley, Sugar Creek in the Crawfordsville area, Lake Monroe near Bloomington and the White River near Indianapolis are three places that are great areas in Indiana to fly fish. He’s also worked at fly fishing shops in Indianapolis and Bloomington.

I left my house at 8 a.m. to meet my guide. Mike Exl, 25, works for Wildcat Creek Outfitters in Zionsville, but he takes people fly fishing all over the state — and well beyond. Mike’s face captures the excitement of a child when he says that when he gets any chance, he fly fishes at Eagle Creek.

He gives me a few tips before we head out to the creek. “Be patient,” he says. Fishing is fun, but it takes time to pick up. Depending on how much the fish are biting, you may or may not catch too many. “Always, always have a fishing license on you. The Indiana DNR can confiscate gear if you don’t and you will be fined,” he warns.

The carp I’m trying so hard to catch this morning isn’t what most anglers are after. Mike says smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are Indiana’s prized game fish. But those fish weren’t always available here.

Smallmouth bass were spread throughout the United States by the rail system in the early 1800s, and today, they can be found in most Indiana streams and rivers. Largemouth bass are sought after because they put up a fight and are readily available. They can be found in most of our ponds and lakes. Shadley says Indiana has always been a good source of fly fishing.

Like any sport, there are certain fishing no-nos. Number one on Mike’s list: lightning. He recalls a time that he was on a boat with some friends and a flash lightning storm appeared. A metal boat, water and lightning are never a good combination. Although they weren’t injured, he says fishers should always keep a close eye out for storms. Mike also says you should be careful of where you fish. Watch out for private property areas and stick to Indiana-owned ponds. The DNR lists areas that are accessible to the public.

Anglers use a specific technique but each line is a little different. / Photo by Eric Stearley

Mike leans his rod against his car and grabs a tacklebox of flies. Around his neck he wears extra line and the equipment he’ll need to cut it. The wind picks up, and before either of us can grab the rod, it tumbles to the ground with a thump.

“Nice,” a fellow guide says to Mike with a chuckle.

Mike looks up and shakes his head.

“Hey, I saw a 22-incher the other day,” he says as he picks up the rod.

“Really?”

They continued to talk with one-word phrases that might as well have been German to me. Around his neck, Mike is wearing a lanyard necklace. Most anglers sport a lanyard so that everything they need is within reaching distance. The lanyard includes clippers to cut a fishing line, forceps to bend the barb of a hook or get the hook out of a fish and line that keeps the fly on top of the water.

The wind is a little chilly as it rips through my long-sleeve T-shirt. It looks as if it will start raining at any time. I cast back too quickly and the hook tangles around my rod. Mike walks over to help and then throws the fly back into the water.

In bait fishing, the lure is weighted. However, in fly fishing, the weight is the line so you have to cast back and forth to get the line out. The flies used in fly fishing are meant to mimic a bug in hatching season. Sometimes you must use a distinct pattern because that is what fish will be eating. Anglers both tie and buy their flies because it can be time consuming. Mike says it takes between five and 10 minutes per fly. Tying flies is considered an art among anglers. When personal flies are made, they are kept a secret — anglers’ superstition. They don’t want everyone to know.

Anglers use artificial flies to catch their prize while fly fishing. / Photo by Eric Stearley

The next time I cast, the hook falls in a heap only a few feet in front of me on the water. I start to laugh.

“Any pointers?” I ask. He gives me advice on timing and making sure the line goes all the way back before I pull it forward. I thank him for the pointers and he thanks me for listening.

Mike learned early on not to take things personally when it comes to fly fishing. When he takes people out on guided trips, he is used to skepticism about his age. He graduated from Purdue University in 2009 — right around the turn in the economy.

“Luckily I had this job that turned into a full-time job. It has also given me the opportunity to travel places that I might not have been able to go otherwise,” Mike says. Wildcat Creek Outfitters leads guided trips not just in Indiana, but all over the world. The hosted travel trips go to places like Michigan, Ohio, Montana, Chile, Argentina, Canada, Alaska, Mexico and the Bahamas.

There is a certain camaraderie that comes along with fly fishing. Mike remembers a trip to Chile in 2009 with his father — it was a “last hurrah” trip before he graduated from college. He recalls a picture of him holding the biggest trout next to his dad and the experience they had. Ben Shadley has a similar story about fly fishing. “In general the most memorable times fly fishing have been with my father as a young guy. The camaraderie growing up and times spent bonding over fishing has become sentimental, not the specific accomplishments,” Shadley says. Fly fishing allows for a common bond among people as they cast toward what they hope will be their next big catch.

I’m not sure Mike and I are bonding as I cast again and this time the hook gets caught on a rock. I apologize over and over, but he laughs it off and says that it’s okay because he’s only been hooked three times. Only three times? He has been hooked in the back, ear and under his thumbnail. The thumbnail was the worst, he says. He was 16 years old, and he told his mother that they needed to go to the ER. But, before they made a trip to the hospital, she wanted to see if his father could get it out. He tried to sit still as his father attempted to pull it out with some pliers. Without any luck, they finally went to the hospital.

Mike has perfected his cast, but he sees it as more of an art than a science. / Photo by Eric Stearley

Some people believe that fly fishing takes more of a delicate approach than other types of fishing. It’s seen as more of an art, resulting in various casting techniques among anglers. Shadley’s best advice: “Don’t worry about fly fishing technique and definitely don’t stress. This method is related to an old angler thought process, but the whole point is to catch fish. Don’t spend your time worrying about what other people think of your technique.” Mike advises fishers to watch the cast all the way through to find flaws — technique will develop over time. There are always people willing to help or give advice on casting. Most anglers would be more than happy to share their insight on perfecting the cast.

I cast back this time, and it feels right. I pull forward and the fly lands in the water in front of the carp. Exact location. Mike gives me an excited smile, but stays silent knowing that the fish can hear us.

“I think he’s going to bite,” he whispers.

I stand there for a few minutes before Mike says, “Set the hook, set the hook!”  We had been so busy talking about preparing to fish, that I hadn’t asked what to do if I actually had a fish bite. The carp pulls on the fly and swims away as I try to figure out how to set my hook.

“That was awesome,” Mike says as he walks over. He tells me that he has been out with people when carp won’t even take a bite. He explains how to set the hook.

We try to look for a fish somewhere else. We walk for a few minutes before stopping at another area. I look out at the water but don’t see any movement or fish. “There are some bluegill out there, but with the trees behind us there is no way to get a cast out,” Mike says.

“You’re magic,” I say. He can spot fish so easily. He laughs and tells me that that he has polarized sunglasses. Mike says once he was out on a boat and saw people fishing in a foot of water, but they had no idea because they couldn’t see.

“You don’t want to be that guy, but I had to ask, ‘Catch anything yet?’”

“‘No, not yet,’ was always the response.”

The rain starts to come down as we decide to call it quits. I walk away reluctantly. I really wanted to catch a fish. After spending a few hours on the water with Mike, it’s easy to see why fishing can be so infectious. It’s the thrill of what might be caught, along with the camaraderie and stories shared. This summer you can expect to see me trying out my flycasting skills on Sugar Creek, until I finally catch that fish.

Want to take a guided fly fishing trip in Indiana? Here are three places that would love to help you get the experience you are looking for:

Wildcat Creek Outfitters
317-733-3014
575 South Main Street, Zionsville, IN 46077
Cost: $375 (equipment provided)
Meet the guides: Chad Miller, Mike Exl and Marc Dixon

Indiana Fly Fishing Guides
317-258-8608
1404 Lawrence Road, Carmel, IN 46033
Cost: $225 (loaner equipment provided)
Meet the guides: Jeff Conrad and Ed Devine

Anglin’s Guide Service
574-210-2844
409 Fox Street, LaPorte, IN 46350
Cost: $250 (equipment provided)
Meet the guide: Jay Anglin

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