Monday, October 16, 2017

Cut Out the Guesswork

As a seasoned fly angler, writer and angling journalist I find social media to provide a plethora of material, the latest being the question of matching a hatch. Social media can also be an endless source of misinformation and as a result irritation! The specific question that brought this particular subject to mind I’ve seen several times over the last few weeks and goes something like this; “I saw fish rising on my local stream but they wouldn’t hit fly X, Y or Z, what should I use?”. Now remember we’re talking about trout actively feeding on the surface of a river. It’s great that budding anglers are asking questions but I feel as a seasoned (maybe a bit too seasoned) fly angler I should be helping to steer those eager to learn toward the correct questions.

Justin Fleming shows off one of many fine trout taken on the South Platte during
our September outing. This one fell to a #24 BWO quill body parachute.

The conundrum that such posts present is “how the heck can I, or any other random angler possibly know what was/is hatching on a river at any given time without being there?”. I’m not sure what it is beyond the desire to help but the “what fly to use?” posts always elicit specific responses that are nothing short of conjecture when flay patterns start being listed one after another. I’m not trying to step on toes but I sure hope these anglers don’t fish like that!!

There is a basic question that any angler of any ilk should ask when they step out to pursue any species of fish in any water type, fresh or salt, moving or still; what does my target species feed on? From that basic question, in most cases, myriad other questions arise. The only way to answer those questions is through study, preparation and observation. In the case of surface feeding trout the observation is far easier than most emerging anglers might suspect. In fact, of all the situations presented to the fly angler this is arguably the simplest to decipher.

When trout are feeding on top simply drop downstream, preferably within the same current seam they are feeding and skim the river surface with an insect seine. Look at what comes up in the net and match it as closely as possible from your fly boxes. That’s the observation part of the equation and at any particular moment the most important aspect of successful angling to surface feeding trout during an active hatch.

Any seasoned and successful trout angler can tell you that what worked yesterday may not work today and what the trout are focused on at any given moment during an active hatch IS going to change in a matter of minutes or at most hours. What is happening now may or may not cycle back around tomorrow. That is not conjecture that is a fact. Hatches cycle daily, with multiple hatches occurring throughout the day and at times multiple hatches will occur simultaneously. The ONLY way for you to know what is happening at a given moment is through observation. The use of a seine is the quickest and easiest way to hone your observation. The one caveat I will ad here is that there are a small number of anglers on a given river that can somehow mysteriously pick the bug and stage by what seems like osmosis. But if you spend a little time around them you realize they just know the water and can decipher what is happening through extensive experience on the water.
It doesn't get much better than a payoff like this one for James Dionizio as Nick Haxhijaj looks on. Together they unlocked the hatch and alternated landing nice trout on the South Platte in Central Colorado. These are hard won trout that require a cerebral approach in addition to surgeon like presentation skills. 

Now if this is a discussion in a bar with a crowd of fly anglers this is the point where someone speaks up and says the fly doesn’t matter and it’s all about presentation or tippet size. This is an argument as old as fly fishing to which I say hogwash….kind of. There are times when there are few active hatches throughout the day and the best approach if you want to fish dry is to throw on an attractor and get to it. A good angler with a good sense of the river can catch quite a few fish. Where I cry “HOGWASH!!” is when there is an active hatch and the trout are focused on a particular stage of a particular insect. True there are usually a few trout in a pod of active, focused feeders that will take a well-presented attractor. But my question to the attractor guy is “Why would I settle for one or a few fish when I can take multiple fish by matching the hatch.

Then there are also times when ONLY the correct fly will do. This past June my friend Nick and I spent 4 days fishing the South Platte River in Colorado. We arrived early one morning to fish a favorite stretch of mine that always provides good dry fly action. Upon arrival there were clouds of tricos in the air and a good number on the water. Trout were feeding steadily on the female duns as they drifted on the surface. I had left my trico dun box back in the room where we were staying. Throughout the hatch I presented BWO patterns of the correct size and stage to them with only minimal takers. Later as the spinner fall started I began to focus on a reliable current seam that always holds the biggest trout in this section of the river.

I knew from experience that the three fish I really wanted were gorging on the spinners. Unable to get into the seam and seine because of the location I started presenting fly after fly opening with size 18 and working my way downward. With each fly change I stepped away from the feeding lane, retied, returned to my casting position and made multiple drifts over the feeding trout without a single look. I even watched in frustration as the size 22 spinner pattern slipped over the downstream trout so perfectly that it pushed the fly upward while taking a natural, not just once but three times!

My last fly change was down to a size 24, the smallest I had on me. I got back into casting position and on the very first drift into the trailing trout’s feeding lane it tipped up a took my fly!! It was a cutthroat of approximately 24”, full of fight that immediately dropped into the heavy current downstream. I followed, and in an attempt to get the trout to move out of the current applied increasing pressure until the hook pulled lose. Slightly downtrodden but exhilarated I stepped back into casting position. It only took two drifts to get the fly over the next trout in line. When it raised its head and took I knew the fly was right. Just a few minutes later I slid a cutthroat identical to first one hooked into my net.
Trout like this over-size cutthroat can be extremely selective feeders.
After many fly changes this one finally took a #24 Trico spinner.
After a few quick photos and an enthusiastic high-five I gave Nick a duplicate of the fly I was using. He made his way back upstream to a large cutthroat that he had made acceptable presentations to with multiple flies. On the first drift into the trout’s feeding lane or rose and took. Unfortunately we did not land that fish but the take proved that the right fly was the only fly that morning while fishing to those particular trout.

A similar experience happened to us the last week in September. Back on the South Platte, Nick and I, as part of a party of four spent hours of both frustration and exhilaration while matching hatches on some of the most technical water in the state. Time and again the correct fly proved to be the difference between cooperative and non-cooperative trout. The key to success and multiple trout landed was three-fold. We had prepared by knowing what insects to expect and tied, purchased the correct patterns. We knew the patterns to have on-hand through previous study. But the most important thing of all was that we observed what was happening by seining the water column and selected the flies that the trout were focused on.

Ever since I was a youngster wanting to be a top-notch fly angler I’ve heard and read about how complicated it is to be successful. In a way, being a successful fly angler is difficult but only if you make it so. Stop guessing what the trout are feeding on. Do yourself a favor and get some type of net to seine the water with and learn the basic bugs you need to have in your fly boxes. And don’t forget the most important aspect to becoming a successful, seasoned angler. There is NO substitute for time on the water.

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