We anglers are constantly looking for new opportunities to hook a fish, and as the sport of fishing evolves so to do the number of target species. For example: in the past few years carp, a fish long considered “trash” and an unworthy target of the sporting angler, has become an increasingly popular target as anglers have begun to recognize the challenge of landing these big, powerful fish on a fly or lure. As sportfishing has become an increasingly global pursuit other finned critters once unheard-of have gradually become added to our bucket lists: taimen in Mongolia, pacu in the Amazon, or tiger fish in South Africa.
Eventually anglers will have exhausted their possibilities for new fishing opportunities… at least at this point in time on our planet. However, in the not-too-distant future you and I both know that some very smart engineers will unlock the secret of time travel. At that point a whole world of Bradburyian short stories will become available to us; and just as we know there will be hunters desiring to go mammoth-hunting alongside Neanderthals or matching their wits against a pack of Velociraptors, there will be anglers looking for the ultimate tug against some of Earth’s most legendary prehistoric fishes.
Soon after Kyle Zempel changes the name of his business from “Black Earth Angling” to “Back-in-time-Earth Angling”, I’ll begin offering my services as a Master Paleotyer. After all, I did spend nearly a decade as a certified (or is it certifiable?) paleontologist. I even have a few professional papers to my credit. What I’m saying is I know what makes these ancient critters tick, and I have a few ideas for killer fly patterns that will help you land the fish-of-a-lifetime-from-another-lifetime.
Fly Pattern: Trilobite
Target Species: Anomalocaridid
I’m gonna be up front about this… the names of these ancient critters don’t quite have the folksy approachability of “smallmouth” or “brookie”. It doesn’t get any easier after this, either.
The anomalocaridids (pronounced the same as the word “anamolous”) were some of the earliest predators in Earth’s oceans, during a period called the Cambrian. They were not actually fish; at this point in Earth history true fish did not yet exist. Instead, they were invertebrates (lacking a backbone) that mostly scrounged around on the ocean floor looking for tasty morsels to feast upon.
Trilobites were certainly on the menu. Extinct today, trilobites (their name means “three-lobed”, for the three lateral segments distinguished on their exoskeleton) were one of the most common critter roaming the ocean during the Cambrian. Today, we see entire rocks that are composed of trilobite fossils and little else. They were scavengers, similar to modern snails, crawling along the ocean floor eating whatever they could find.
This pattern is tied similar to modern crab patterns for flats fishing, using CCT fur, but you’ll notice that the pattern is articulated (also, googly eyes; science has yet to confirm nor deny that trilobites had them, so I’m going out on a limb here). This is because of the method anomalocaridids used for eating trilobites: the anomalocaridid utilized its two large appendages to grasp the trilobite and flex the animal back and forth until it’s hard outer shell would crack, allowing the anomalocaridid access to its tasty soft parts (think of yourself trying to crack open a lobster, and you get the picture).
Since anomalocaridids generally feeded upon the ocean floor, the trilobite fly would be fished in a similar manner to modern carp or bonefish flies.
Anamalocaridid fishing is not for trophy hunters: while some species likely reached more than 5 feet in length (the largest of any Cambrian animal), most were less than 12 inches long.
Target Species: Dunkleosteus, ichthyosaurs
Cephalopods—a group of animals that include the squid and octopus—have been around for a very, very long time. One major difference between ancient cephalopods and modern squid is the presence of a hard shell covering part of their body. Only one type of living cephalopod, the Nautilus, still has a shell.
Dunkleosteus is an extinct fish that certainly was adapted to crush the shell of nautiloids. These fish could reach huge proportions—the largest species could get up to thirty feet long—and the entire front half of their body was covered not in scales but heavy armor plates. The bite strength of these fish allowed them to easily break the shells of prey species like nautiloids; in comparison, modern snapping turtles have bite strength only 1/6th the power of the Dunkelosteus’ jaw. Fossils of species closely related to Dunkleosteus can be found in the rocks at Estabrook Falls, which means the same place we currently chase salmon and steelhead would be the destination of Dukleosteus Bums everywhere.
Nautiloids have been around for such a long time that they would have been a prey species of many ancient critters—in effect, they were the Clouser Minnows of prehistoric earth. For those looking to combine their Tyrannosaurus rex hunting trip with a bit of fishing, grab a fly box filled with nautiloid flies and go chase some ichthyosaurs, the swimming reptiles that were the dominant predators of the Cretaceous sea.
Modern Nautilus has a shell colored tan-and-white, but my fly pattern here takes on a more colorful approach, and would be fished with a standard strip-pause retrieve.
Fly Pattern: Knightia
Target Species: Mioplosus
Fishing the Green River Formation would be rather familiar to most anglers: multiple large lakes were located in Wyoming and Utah during the Eocene period and were the habitat for numerous fish species that would have been the perfect fly fishing targets. Mioplosus would have pleased panfishers, as they were essentially jumbo perch reaching sizes up to 20 inches long.
Evidence preserved in the Green River Formation suggests that a common baitfish available to Mioplosus would have been Knightia, a small schooling fish that was closely related to sardines. The Knightia streamer looks strikingly similar to the standard Clouser, and likely any small panfish streamer used today would have been deadly on Mioplosus.
The Green River Formation also preserves a number of other, better known fishes including gar, bowfin, pike, catfish, and suckers. Fossils of gar and bowfin have been discovered with Knightia still in their stomachs. No doubt these flies would work perfectly well on these species as well, regardless of the time frame.
In short, much like today one rule holds true for fly anglers: always carry some Clousers with you!