Spotting Fish

Rainbow Trout in Flat, Shallow Water
A 14″ rainbow feeding in flat, shallow water

In some fly fishing scenarios, spotting fish is absolutely critical for success.  Fishing the saltwater flats for bonefish, redfish, tarpon, etc. or the freshwater mud flats for carp will provide little more than casting practice if you can’t see the fish.  In other scenarios, such as fishing a mountain trout stream, you can tell where fish should be by reading the water, and you can catch a lot of fish just by fishing likely spots.  But even when fishing trout streams, the ability to spot fish in the water can sometimes allow you to locate and target larger fish.  In the fall, this is particularly relevant in the Smokies as large brown trout begin moving into flatter, shallower water preparing to spawn.

Spotting fish can be difficult to learn and there is no substitute for years of experience and practice, but there are a few things that can help you get started.  The best place to start is with a pair of polarized sunglasses.  The next thing to understand is how trout see, because as you seek out vantage points from which to spot fish, you want to avoid spooking the fish in the process.  Here is an article on trout behavior that goes into a little more detail. Now we’re ready to go spot some fish.

Start by looking for fish in slower water.  The more broken the surface is, the more difficult it will be to see through it. If possible, try to find a higher vantage point from which to look.  This will greatly reduce the amount of light refraction from the water’s surface.  Just remember that the higher up you get, the easier it will be for fish to pick up your movement.  Avoid standing erect on a large boulder, as your silhouette will be far more pronounced.  A high bank with a wooded backdrop is ideal, but you’ll still want to keep your movements slow and minimal.  If you are on a large rock above a pool, get on your belly and peek over the edge. Remember the old westerns where the Indians were looking off the rocky bluffs about to attack the wagon train? That’s the idea.

Now that you’re in position, take your time.  It’s extremely rare that you’re going to step up to a pool and immediately see a 27” brown trout.  You have to methodically scan the pool.  Start by reading the water and looking for fish where they should be.  Look for obvious feeding areas in and around current lanes and foam lines.  Look for areas with obvious cover under and around big rocks and/or fallen trees.  They blend in REALLY well, so look long and hard and train your eye to look through the water rather than at it.

It’s hard.  You’ll spot plenty of fish that turn out to be rocks or pieces of wood.  I once spent 15 minutes casting to a plastic grocery bag hung on an underwater limb. It had the exact shape and movement of a trout!  I was in the water and my buddy was above me, watching from a bridge.  We were both certain it was a fish!

Trout Feeding in Slow Water
There are four trout in this photo. Can you see them?

Movement and shape really are the best giveaways and that’s why it’s so important to take your time and give long looks to those likely spots.  You may not see anything at first, then you see a little movement and suddenly the fish is visible.  And once you spot one, you often begin to notice others around him.  Watching the actual stream bottom, especially on sunnier days, can be helpful too.  The movement that you often detect is the shadow of the fish.

Another thing to look for is a flash near the stream bottom.  The eyes of a trout are positioned in such a way that they look slightly upward.  When feeding on nymphs on the bottom, the trout has to angle his body to see below and will often “twist” his body when he eats the nymph.  When this occurs, his white belly reflects light and produces a flash.  This is always helpful when looking for fish, but especially in faster water.

All of this is easier the more familiar you are with the stream bottom.  If you have a favorite pool, maybe one where you spooked a big fish before, keep going back there and looking.  You will inevitably begin memorizing the stream bottom and will more quickly and easily be able to differentiate between rocks and fish. Again, it’s not easy and it takes time but like most things, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, you’re starting to spot some fish… now what?  Don’t just jump in and start casting the second you see a nice one.  Keep watching.  What is the fish doing?  If you see a big fish just hugging the bottom, he’s not feeding and you’re wasting your time casting to him.  But good news… you found a big fish.  You might come back closer to dawn or dusk when he is more likely to be feeding.

Smoky Mountains Little River Brown Trout
This 22″ brown was spotted and observed for nearly 15 minutes before approach

If you spot a fish up in the water column, he’s likely feeding.  Keep watching him.  Is he looking up?  Does he consistently feed to his right?  Is he staying in one place or is he systematically rotating to different locations within the pool?  Pay attention to all of these things and then you can plan your attack.  Sometimes with big fish, you’re only going to get one shot and you want to make it count.

How much time you spend looking depends on you.  I know guys that do little more than target big brown trout, and they spend far more time watching water than they do fishing.  For me, it depends on where I’m fishing and the conditions.  If I’m fishing pocket water on a high country brook trout stream, I’m not going to spend much time, if any, looking for big fish. I’m going to cover a lot of water and hit the likely spots.  If I’m fishing a big pool on a brown trout river, I’m going to spend at least a few minutes looking before I jump in.  If I’m fishing that same big pool in late fall, I’m going to look a lot more thoroughly!

Two Fly Rigs

Dry Fly with a Nymph Dropper
Dry fly with a nymph dropper

I almost always fish with two flies when I’m trout fishing. There are just so many advantages to it. Beside the obvious advantage of potentially offering two fly choices to the trout, it provides you the opportunity to simultaneously present a fly in two different feeding columns. Below, I’m going to talk about some of those strategies.  And I’ll show a few different ways to rig a dropper system. As a bonus, you get to enjoy some of my horrific artwork!

Dry Fly / Dropper
This is the two-fly method with which many fly fishermen are most familiar. It seems that even less experienced fishermen will tell you this is how their guide rigged them up when they were fishing out west during hopper season. When you rig like this, you are typically tying on a larger, or at least more visible, dry fly and attaching a smaller nymph off the back of that dry fly. You’re covering the top of the water with the dry fly and you’re covering usually the middle water column (sometimes the bottom) with the nymph. The dry fly serves as sort of an edible strike indicator for the nymph.

Dry Fly with a Nymph Dropper
Dry fly with a nymph dropper

I typically rig this by tying my dry fly directly to the main leader and tippet. I’ll then take probably 18”-24” of tippet material and tie one end to the nymph. The other end attaches to the bend of the hook on the dry fly. There are certainly a lot of variables, such as water depth or where you think the fish might be feeding, that determine how far apart you put the two flies. The amount mentioned above is a pretty good “default setting.” I like to use a clinch knot to connect to the bend of the hook. But whatever knot you usually use to tie a fly on should work fine.

You want to make sure that the flies you select for this set-up compliment each other. They should also be appropriate for the type of water you’re fishing. For example, a small parachute dry fly may not support the weight of a large, heavily weighted nymph. Parachute type patterns will easily support the weight of smaller, lighter nymphs, particularly in slower water. So, a #14 Parachute Adams with a #18 Zebra Midge dropper would be great for a tailwater. And it will work on a slower run or pool in the mountains. But a #14 Parachute Adams with a #8 weighted Tellico nymph, fished in faster water is going to be trouble. Heavily hackled, bushy dry flies or foam dry flies are better choices when fishing in faster water or with heavier nymphs.

Dry Fly with a Dry Dropper
Dry fly with a dry dropper

With that in mind, know that this method may not be suitable for every situation. For instance, if you need to get a nymph deep, particularly in a faster run, you’re going to need a lot of weight. Using a dry fly–dropper rig is not going to be effective. You’re better off using traditional nymphing techniques for that. But for fishing hatch scenarios where fish are actively feeding on and just below the surface, or for fishing to opportunistic feeders in shallower pocket water, it’s pretty tough to beat.

I also like to fish this same rig with two dry fly flies. On occasion, I’ve found myself in a situation where I have trouble seeing my dry fly. This is usually when trying to imitate something small or dark like a midge, Trico, or BWO. In those situations, I’ll often tie on a larger, more visible dry fly with the smaller, darker dry fly tied about 18” off the back. Sometimes, having the more visible fly as reference allows me to actually see the smaller fly. But if I still can’t see the smaller one, I know to set the hook if I see a rise anywhere within 18” of the visible fly.

Two Nymphs or Wet Flies
Just like the dry fly-dropper rig above, fishing with two nymphs or wets allows you to cover two different feeding columns. Only now, you’re typically covering the middle column and the bottom. I think another advantage with a two nymph rig is they tend to balance each other out and drift better.

Nymph with a Nymph Dropper
Nymph with a nymph dropper

There are a few different ways to rig for this and there are numerous strategies for fly selection and placement. If I have a nymph pattern that the fish are really after, I will sometimes fish two of the exact same fly. There have even been a few occasions when I’ve caught two fish at once! But usually I’m searching and I’m trying to provide the fish with options. I’ll most often have two different fly patterns.

Keep in mind that (most of the time) your lowest fly on the rig will be fished near the bottom while the higher fly will be fished more in the middle column. I try to select and position flies with that in mind. For example, it’s far less likely to find a stonefly in the middle of the water column. They’re going to be found near the stream bottom. So logically, I want my stonefly nymph to be the bottom fly of my two fly rig. On the other hand, an emerging mayfly is more likely to be found in the middle feeding column. So, a soft hackle wet fly would probably be most effective as the top fly on my nymph rig.

You can rig like this with totally different flies or stay in the same “family.” If you’re in the middle of or expecting, say, a caddis hatch, you may rig with a caddis emerger as your top fly and a caddis larva as your bottom fly. I’ve also had a lot of success choosing one nymph to act purely as an attractor. I may tie on a larger or brighter nymph as my top fly and a smaller or subtler nymph as my bottom one. Very often, the brighter or bigger nymph gets their attention, but they eat the subtler nymph below it. I tend to fish the nymphs a little closer together in these situations.

You can rig a pair of nymphs the same way we mentioned above. Tie one directly off the hook bend of the other. This is referred to as the in-line method. This is probably the easiest way to rig and fish two nymphs. But some don’t like this method because they don’t think it allows the top fly to drift freely.

Using a Tippet Ring for a Double Nymph Rig
Using a tippet ring for a double nymph rig

A common way to rig two nymphs that will allow the top fly to drift more freely, is to use a blood knot to attach a section of tippet to the end of your leader. When tying the knot, take care to leave one long tag end, to which you will tie the top fly. The bottom fly will be attached to the end of the new tippet section. This definitely allows the top fly to have more movement and it puts you in more direct contact with both nymphs. Though for me, this method results in a lot more tangles so I only use it for specific scenarios.

You can also rig quite similarly using a tippet ring (discussed in another article in this newsletter). With a tippet ring attached to the end of your leader, you tie one shorter piece of tippet to the ring, to which you will tie your top fly. And you tie a separate, longer piece of tippet to the ring, to which you’ll tie your bottom fly. This is a pretty simple way to do things but will also likely result in a few more tangles than the in-line method.

These are just examples of a few of the more common methods for fishing and rigging multiple flies. Play around with it and find what combos and techniques work best for you. Never be afraid to experiment!

Matching the Hatch

Tying On A FlyProbably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Rise Ring from a Trout
Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

Midges on the Water
Midges on the water

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel. If you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them. But they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. To do this, you have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line. Continue feeding slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation. It’s critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.

Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge. Pay attention to your technique and everything that you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Stream Etiquette

Crowded River
Believe I’ll fish someplace else…

When I first started fly fishing, it was a different time. It was before everyone had access to the Internet. There were no message boards. Twitter didn’t exist and neither did Facebook. Many fisheries didn’t receive nearly as much pressure simply because not nearly as many people knew about them. And to the fishermen who did know about them, they were closely guarded secrets shared only with a handful of trusted friends.

I realized that early on and I respected it. I learned quickly that I not only needed to learn and develop a set of skills to be able to catch fish, but I also needed to conduct myself in an appropriate way to earn the trust and respect of fishermen who had been doing this a lot longer than me. Part of this simply meant knowing how to keep my mouth shut when someone did share a particular fishing spot. It also meant not behaving like an inconsiderate moron when you were on the stream.

The current trend of photographing and videoing every single fishing trip and sharing it, complete with GPS coordinates, on multiple social media outlets is probably the subject of an entirely different article. But regardless of how you feel about the trend, it has most certainly resulted in a lot more fishermen on more remote streams. And with easier access to this information, many of these “newer” fishermen have never been exposed to the idea of stream etiquette. Some folks are always going to be inconsiderate no matter what. Most violations of etiquette likely occur simply because someone doesn’t know better. Since it is just as important now as ever, if not more so, I thought this would be a good place to share a few basics.

Stream etiquette really just boils down to common courtesy and common sense. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are not entitled to any piece of water. If you have a favorite pool or stretch of water and someone is fishing it when you arrive, get over it. Move on, and fish it next time. Even if that someone is not in the pool but they are approaching it, don’t try to rush up and cut them off. Particularly in smaller mountain streams, fishermen don’t typically stay in one spot for long periods of time. Rather, they move up the stream covering stretches. The assumption is that the fisherman is working upstream and you should give him plenty of space to continue.

The appropriate amount of space to give another fisherman is always up for debate. On a crowded tailwater with limited walk-in access, that space might be 100 yards. If it’s a somewhat crowded roadside river in the mountains, that space may be a quarter of a mile. On a backcountry stream where there are very few fishermen, that space may be a half mile to a mile. You kind of have to get a feel for the traffic flow and act accordingly. I always think of it like a movie theater. If it’s opening night for ‘Star Wars’ and the theater is packed, you’ll likely be sitting right next to someone else. If there are only two other people in a movie theater and you sit right next one of them, you’re being an ass.

When in doubt, communication is always the best way to ensure everyone has a positive experience. “How far up are you planning to fish?” Most fishermen appreciate this and will typically extend the same courtesy… Typically. On one occasion when guiding a couple of fishermen on Little River, we found ourselves walking up the trail alongside two other fishermen. Since we were already a couple of miles up the trail and obviously heading in the same direction, I made conversation with them and asked how far up they were planning to go. In a gruff tone, one of them replied, “Farther than you!”

If I had been by myself I might have hiked all the way to the stream’s headwaters purely out of spite! Instead, I politely explained that I just didn’t want to get in each other’s way. By being so obtuse, he was sabotaging an easy way of accomplishing what we both wanted to accomplish. Most fly fishermen, particularly in the backcountry, are nice folks and they’re in the backcountry for the same reason you are: to get off by themselves. Usually, there is plenty of water for everyone. Being willing to communicate will help ensure that everyone gets what they want. Be nice!

And if you make a mistake, apologize and move on. There have been plenty of times when I inadvertently cut someone off in a stream because I didn’t see them. It happens to all of us. When this happens and you’re close enough, apologize and move on to another area. If you’re far away, wave and move on to another area. If someone inadvertently cuts you off and acknowledges it with a wave or an apology, cut them some slack. Mistakes happen. Be nice!

A Lot of Rocks Stacked in a Stream
This trend is WAY out of hand

Finally, stream etiquette includes blending in with your environment. Don’t take away from someone else’s current experience by making a lot of commotion like shouting up and down the river. And don’t take away from someone’s future experience by altering the landscape. This most definitely means don’t leave any garbage behind. It also means don’t litter the landscape with “sculptures” made of sticks and stacked stones.

Again, as mentioned earlier, this all pretty much boils down to common sense and common courtesy. Unfortunately, both seem to be in short supply these days.

Setting the Hook

Hook Set Smoky Mountains
Hook set

If you’ve ever spent anytime fishing in the Smokies, you have missed plenty of strikes. And if you’ve ever been fishing with me in the Smokies, you’ve no doubt heard me say that no matter how good you are and how often you fish, you’re going to miss strikes from these fish. I’d say that’s true most anywhere, but in the Smokies, it’s a guarantee. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing for trout all over the United States and I am yet to find trout anywhere that hit and spit a fly quicker than they do in the Smokies! But while nobody is going to hook them all, there are plenty of things you can do to increase the number of fish you hook.

Before we get into those things, let’s first talk about what exactly is going on when a trout hits your fly. I once guided a gentleman who was having an excellent day as far as activity goes. But he was missing A LOT of strikes. I was giving him plenty of tips along the way but midway through the day, I realized we just weren’t on the same page when, after missing another strike, he commented, “I don’t know how trout even survive.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

He replied, “It seems like it would be hard for them to survive when they miss their food so often.”

I asked more emphatically this time, “What are you talking about?!?”

He said, “As often as they miss the fly, you know they’ve got to be missing the real food, too.”

I exclaimed, “They’re not missing. You are!”

Don’t get me wrong. I have missed plenty of strikes in my years of fly fishing. Like I said, we all do, but it’s always been my fault, not the trout’s! Sure, every now and then a fish will “short strike” the fly or bump it with his nose, but for most anglers, that is very much the exception.  Even when that is the case, it’s probably still your fault. If you’re getting short strikes, it’s probably because your fly is too big, or your tippet is too big, or you have drag… Again, all of those things happen to everyone, but blaming the fish will never fix any of them!

So, what actually happens when a fish hits your fly? It depends on the kind of fly you’re fishing. When you are fishing a streamer (a fly that imitates a baitfish or something else that swims), you are usually stripping it and keeping a tight line. Typically, the trout will chase and/or ambush something they think is a wounded or fleeing baitfish. The strike will usually be rather aggressive and because you have a tight line, you will feel the strike. When you’re swinging wet flies or straight-line nymphing, you usually feel the strike as well, but it’s usually more subtle than the often violent strike that comes on a streamer.

High Sticking a Smoky Mountain Pool
Keeping line off faster current

But most of the time on a trout stream, most fly fishermen are imitating aquatic insects that are drifting in the water column. Whether adults on the surface or nymphs below the surface, these bugs are drifting helplessly in the current. When trout feed on these natural insects, it’s not necessary or efficient for them to swim around ambushing them. Rather, a trout will position facing a current, where the insects will drift down his feeding lane. All he has to do is maneuver slightly up, down, or to the side to pick them off.   When a trout feeds in this manner, he’s more or less just moving in front of the bug and opening his mouth.

But there are a lot of things coming down the current and some of them, like small twigs or leaves, may look like an insect to a trout. When he takes one of these foreign objects by mistake, he immediately spits it back out. It’s what a trout does all day. Real bug = swallow, stream junk that looks like a bug = spit it out. When you drift an artificial fly down the current and the trout hits it, he immediately spits it out because it’s not real. So you have that split second between when he eats it and when he spits it to set the hook.

Wild trout, like in the Smokies, are highly instinctive and tend to make this decision pretty quickly. Stocked trout were raised in hatcheries where they were fed daily. They tend to “trust” food a little more. Consequently, they’ll hold on to a foreign object (like your fly) a little longer before spitting it out. For that reason, fishermen tend to have a better strike to hook-up ratio on stocked trout vs. wild trout.

In either case, you are rarely going to feel the strike in these scenarios. To avoid drag and present the fly naturally, you will have to have some slack in your line and the fish doesn’t have the fly long enough to tighten your line enough for you to feel it. You will need to visually recognize the strike to tell you when to set the hook. With a dry fly, it’s fairly obvious because the fish will have to break the surface to eat your fly. As soon as you see that, set the hook. It is incredibly difficult in most situations to see a fish eat your nymph, so we often use a strike indicator positioned on the leader. When the fish eats the nymph, it will move the indicator, providing your visual cue to set the hook.

Now, with all of this in mind, here are some tips that may help you connect on a few more fish, particularly when dead-drifting dry flies and nymphs.

  • Know that you will probably not feel the strike and trust the visual indication of the strike. Even when streamer fishing when you DO normally feel the strike, there are times when the fish hits between strips when the line is slack. You may not feel it but you’ll see the fly line dart forward. Trust what you see!
  • Expect a strike every time the fly is on the water and be ready. As silly as it sounds, many strikes are missed because the fisherman just isn’t paying attention. Stay focused on what you’re doing. Pay no attention to the next pool up the river. Don’t stand there with your hand on your hip. Ignore that bird overhead. Be ready!
  • Similar to #2, pay attention to your slack. The cast isn’t when your job ends – it’s when it starts. Particularly when fishing upstream, be prepared to immediately begin collecting excess slack as it drifts back to you. Many fishermen think that they’re missing strikes because they’re too slow when, in fact, their reaction time is fine but they have too much slack to pick up to tighten on the fish. Leave just enough slack to achieve a good drift but no more.
  • Keep your casts as short as possible. Not only will you be more accurate and probably get more strikes, but you’ll have less line to move when setting the hook. In some situations, like slow pools, we are forced to make long casts, but fish from better, closer positions when possible.
  • Move the line. Your hook set should be like making a quick backcast. In other words, if you miss the strike, the line should go in the air behind you like a backcast. If you miss a strike and all of your line is still on the water in front of you, you didn’t move enough line to set the hook.
  • Your hook set should be quick but smooth, and when possible, in an upward motion. A snappy or jerky hook set is a good way to break a tippet. A downward hook setting motion has a tendency to pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth, rather than up through the lip.

Setting the hook is also very much a timing thing. The more time you spend on the water, the better your timing will be. You may even find that you sometimes anticipate the strike just before it happens. And you may find that you have to adjust the timing of your hook set on different rivers. For instance, you may need to slow down a little when fishing for stockers. You may have to speed up a little when fishing for wild trout.

In either case, you’re still going to miss some and that’s okay. As far as fishing problems go, missing strikes is a pretty good one. To miss strikes you have to get strikes. And if you’re getting strikes, you’re doing something right!

Flies: The Hidden Terrestrials

Soft Hackle Ant Fly Pattern
Soft hackle ant

We often hear about the importance of fishing terrestrials in the summer months. Out west, the conversation usually focuses on hoppers. Around here, we talk more about beetles, ants, and inchworms.   Regardless, there are a number of land-based insects from beetles, ants and hoppers to cicadas, bees and black flies that find their way into the water during the summer months.

Just the other day on a guide trip, a customer caught a brook trout that had a mouth full of small beetles. The fish had obviously been very recently gorging on them. But there wasn’t a single beetle visible on the surface of that pool. We didn’t see ants, inchworms, or any other terrestrial, either. However, if you used a bug seine in that same pool, you would get an entirely different picture.

The fact is these land-based insects are not particularly good swimmers. Most of them, particularly ants, beetles and inchworms, briefly attempt to swim on the surface of the water but soon are caught by currents and swept below the surface.   But nearly every fisherman who fishes terrestrials, fishes them on the surface… and for good reason. Nearly every fly shop or fly manufacturer almost exclusively sells topwater terrestrial patterns. And most of these are constructed of foam or some other highly buoyant material to make the fly ride high on the water.

You can certainly catch plenty of trout on these patterns and have a blast doing it. But you are missing out on A LOT of fish. If you are a fly tier, try tying a few ants with a dubbed body and a hen feather rather than foam and hackle from a rooster neck. Tie some beetles without the high-vis sighter on the back. Instead add a few wraps of lead wire. If you don’t tie flies, place a split shot above your favorite terrestrial pattern next time you go fishing.

A great way to fish them in pocket water is with a straight-line nymphing technique. Allow them to swing at the end of the drift. In pools, fish them a few feet under a strike indicator. Or tie on one of those big, buoyant foam hoppers and drop a submerged beetle or ant about 15” off the back. I probably use this method more than any other.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Active Nymphing – Rethinking the Dead Drift

I could write thousands of tortured words on how to nymph fish. There are countless methods and variables. And they can be determined by anything from water conditions to the type of nymph you’re trying to imitate. Needless to say, it’s a little more than we can chew in a newsletter article. But consider this an introduction to what I like to call active nymphing.

I differentiate it with the word “active” because mostly, we are taught to fish our nymph(s) on a dead drift. In other words, we try to get our nymph to drift at the same speed as the current. This is usually with strike indicator, with no motion or “action” at all. In many situations, this is a highly effective method for catching trout and one that definitely shouldn’t be abandoned. But there are some situations when putting a little movement in the fly, “little” being the key word, may produce a few more fish.

If you’ve spent much time fishing nymphs, this has probably happened to you at some point. You dead-drift your nymph(s) under a strike indicator multiple times through a great run with no results. When you quit paying attention to do something else (probably change flies), the line and nymph(s) straightens downstream, dragging in the current, and a fish hits it.

Nymphs will sometimes deliberately “drift” to other parts of the stream in a sort of migration. Other times, nymphs may unintentionally become dislodged from a rock and find themselves drifting down the stream. In either case, they are most often not particularly good swimmers, and are basically at the mercy of the current. Your dead-drift nymphing technique replicates common scenarios like this. However, some nymphs, like the Isonychias mentioned in the other article in this newsletter, ARE good swimmers. They don’t drift helplessly with the current. Caddis especially tend to be good swimmers.

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail Fly Pattern
Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

And at certain times, such as when it’s time to hatch, even poor swimming nymphs will uses gases to “propel” themselves through the water column to reach the surface. These nymphs are often referred to as emergers. During these times, that upward, emerging motion of the nymph is often what triggers the fish to strike.   So, that fish you caught “by accident” when you let your line get tight and drag behind you may not have been such a fluke. When your drift ended and the line straightened, your nymph “swung” from the stream bottom to the surface, likely resembling an emerging nymph. The trick now, is to replicate that how and when you want to, rather than by accident when you’re not paying attention.

The best way to start with this technique is to find a good stretch of pocket water. Or a nice riffle with some deeper seams and cuts will do. With faster current, you’ll be able to get closer to the fish and employ a high-sticking method. Use a longer rod, probably 8-9’, and use a leader approximately the same length as the rod. Tie on a generic, all-purpose soft-hackle pattern, like a soft-hackle Pheasant Tail or Hares Ear, and put a small split shot about 8” above it. Forget the strike indicator.

In a smaller pocket, keep just a couple of feet of fly line out past the rod tip, and make a short cast up and across to the top of the pocket. You should be slightly more than a rod length away from your target, preferably with a faster current between you and the target (this will help to conceal you from the fish). Keep your rod tip up and out by extending your arm, and try to maintain an approximately 90-degree angle between the line and rod. By keeping your rod tip up, you can keep most of the leader off the water. If you want the nymph to go a little deeper, drop your rod a little lower. It depends on the depth of the water.

Move the rod with the drift at the pace of the current to maintain the 90-degree angle, and allow the drift to continue in front of and slightly below you. You may get a strike during this portion of the drift. If so, you’ll probably feel it since you have most of the slack out of your line, but keep a close eye on your leader. It will tighten if a fish strikes and be another cue for you to set the hook. When you reach the end of the drift (bottom of the pocket), quit moving the rod with the drift. This will force the fly to swing from the bottom to the surface. If the fish hits during this portion of the drift, you will likely feel a very hard tug.

The same method can be used when fishing a bigger pocket or a longer seam in a riffle. You may just be using slightly more line and have a little longer drift. You may also choose to try one more technique on these longer drifts. Start by doing everything as described above.  When the fly and line are passing in front of you, give your wrist 3 or 4 intermittent, slight upward twitches.   This will allow the fly to “jump” or “pulse” in the current. Keep in mind that you want those wrist twitches to be very slight. Quickly and aggressively “pulling” the fly from the bottom to top will not look natural.

Girdle Bug Fly Pattern
Girdle Bug

I suggested using a soft-hackle fly for this technique, mainly because the design of the fly lends itself well to the motion-based presentation. But I fish a variety of nymphs in this fashion. Definitely give it a try with your favorite caddis nymphs and emergers. And try it next time that water is a little high and stained from rain.  Use a dark Wooly Bugger or a dark, rubber-legged nymph like a Girdle Bug. What you find may surprise you!

More visible leaders with colored butt and mid sections can make this method of fishing  much easier.  They help a little with strike detection but mostly, they help you see and track the leader and better gauge the depth of the fly.  I make leaders specifically for these short-line techniques and they are available for purchase here.

What Trout Eat – A Look at Aquatic Insects

Golden Stonefly Nymph
Golden stonefly nymph

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects like houseflies and mosquitoes often come to mind. Many familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout. Those are especially important in the summer.  But aquatic insects are most abundant to fish throughout the year. And most artificial flies imitate these water-born bugs.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers. Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges are the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles.  But they are similar in that they begin in one form under the water. They all emerge and transform to another stage. And they all ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Quill Gordon Mayfly
Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Quill Gordon Mayfly Nymph
Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day. Its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, females will return to the water to lay their eggs. Upon completion, they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds will get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Fly Fishing Gear Maintenance

Repairing a Leak in Waders
Repairing a wader leak

I recently saw a post on Facebook from a gentleman who had broken two fly rods on one trip. Another person commented about “having the record” for taking the most broken rods back to his local fly shop. They proceeded to boastfully go back and forth about this as if it was some sort of badge of honor. Accidents happen and rods do break from time to time, but I had guided one of these gentlemen and it was no secret why he had broken so many.

Animation of a Fly Rod BreakingWhen we first met, I cringed as he pulled his rod from the trunk of his car. It was not in a tube and there were a variety of items piled on top of it. I’ve seen a lot of rods break over the years, but I’ve never seen a single one break while it was in the tube. If you knew him, it would come as no surprise that he forgot to bring a reel for the rod, so he ended up using one of mine.

When he caught his first fish, he removed the hook and literally threw the rod on a rocky bank about ten feet away in preparation for a photo.   I let it slide but when it happened again on the second fish, he got the “lecture.” Not only was he damaging the rod every time he did that but also the reel. Actually, he wasn’t doing the fly line any favors either!

Whether it’s cars, tools, fly fishing gear, or anything else, I was always taught that if you take care of your gear, your gear will take care of you. While taking care of your gear often means simply handling it responsibly in the field, simple maintenance out of the field can greatly extend the life of valuable fishing gear and insure that it’s ready to perform when you need it to. And what better time than winter for inspection and a little preventive maintenance?

Rods:

Fly rods don’t require a lot of maintenance. Basically, don’t heave them into rocks every time you catch a fish and keep them in a tube for storage and travel. However, be careful not to store them wet for an extended amount of time in an airtight tube. Simple off-season maintenance includes checking rod guides and wraps for any damage. If you notice a loose guide or a wrap beginning to fail, you can send it back to the manufacturer for a preventive repair, rather than waiting for the guide to come off while you’re fishing. When you are doing this, also check the ferrules (where the rod pieces join) for a good, snug fit. If any seem loose, apply a small coating of wax to the male end.

Reels:  
Penn Reel Grease
Reel Lube

Fly reels are pretty low maintenance, too. First, check to make sure the reel is turning smoothly. If it’s not, first be sure that there’s not too much line on it. Assuming excessive line isn’t preventing it from turning smoothly, you likely have a bent frame or dented spool. If it’s minor, your local fly shop might be able to fix that. Otherwise, it will need to go back to the manufacturer.

Assuming the reel is turning properly, all it really needs is a cleaning and “tune-up.” Remove the spool and rinse it and the frame with water. Wipe away any excessive grime build-up and apply a small amount of reel lube around the gears. Allow the reel to dry before putting back into storage.

Fly Lines:  

Fly lines probably require more maintenance than any other piece of equipment. You don’t have to completely remove it from the reel, but pull out at least the first forty feet of fly line. You can pull out the entire amount if you wish, but most people don’t use more than the first forty feet and it’s what will need the most attention.

Rio Agent X Fly Line Dressing
Fly Line Dressing

Spread it out someplace other than the ground, such as between a couple of trees in the back yard. Take a small container and fill it with water and a couple drops of dishwashing liquid. Dip a clean cloth or paper towel in the liquid and run the cloth back and forth over the fly line. You’ll likely see a dark, grimy stain on the cloth after you do. Repeat this process with a clean cloth until you no longer see a stain, then do it one more time with just water and no soap.

The above method is pretty simple and effective. If you want a more thorough method, here are two videos that will walk you through it:
Cleaning a Fly Line Part 1
Cleaning a Fly Line Part 2

Now that your line is clean, you’ll want to treat it with something to keep it slick and prevent cracking. There are specific fly line treatments available at fly shops for this. Just rub into the line using the same method described above. Or something I like to use is ArmorAll. You buy the wipes and simply run the wipe up and down the line several times. Some fly line manufacturers claim that ArmorAll is not a good choice for line treatment. I have personally never had a problem with it.

These steps should keep your line floating better, allow it to shoot through the rod guides better, and simply make it last longer. It wouldn’t hurt to do this periodically throughout the year, but at least once a year. It depends on how much you fish and where you fish. Fly lines used on scummy lakes and ponds will need more frequent attention than lines used in clear mountain streams.

Waders:

 Most wader care needs to happen throughout the season and that mostly involves being careful of thorns, etc. Probably the most damage occurs to waders when people are putting them on or taking them off at the truck. I regularly see fishermen put on their stockingfoot waders and then walk around looking for the boots or other items. This is just an invitation for gravel or other pointy objects to puncture the feet of the waders. The feet of my waders never touch the ground – boots are on the ground ready, foot goes into wader, wader goes into boot. If you’re not comfortable doing the “one leg hop,” keeping a mat to stand on is a great idea.

Also be sure not to store waders wet. Hang them to dry when you get home, preferably not in direct sunlight. Occasionally washing them through the year will help with their breathability and water repellency. Wash them on gentle cycle with a mild detergent. I recommend Ivory Snow, a detergent commonly used for baby clothing.

Winter is a great time to repair any leaks and/or treat with DWR. If you have major punctures or tears in your waders, you’re probably better off sending them to the manufacturer for repair or replacement. But most folks just encounter minor leakage caused by a pinhole or seam leak, and that’s pretty easy to fix yourself.

First, try to narrow down the location of the leak. For instance, if you’ve been getting damp on the inside of your right leg from the knee down, chances are pretty good that the leak is somewhere around the inside right knee. Sticking with that example, make sure the waders are completely dry, turn them inside out, and generously spray rubbing alcohol all around the suspected leak area. Still keeping the waders inside out, fill the right leg past the knee with water and look closely in the area where you sprayed the alcohol. You should see discoloration where the leak is. Mark that spot with a permanent marker.

Now that we know where the leak is, it’s time to repair. Again, allow the waders to dry completely. Where you made the mark with the marker, liberally smear Aquaseal on the area. Aquaseal is available at most fly shops and many camping/outdoor stores. Usually a small tube of it comes with your waders. Put the treated area of the waders in direct sunlight to cure. When the Aquaseal feels “solid,” the waders should be immediately ready to go. However, I’d move them inside to a dry place and wait 24 hours before using.

Water Beading on DWR Fabric
DWR water repellency

Treating your breathable waders with a DWR is a great winter project. As a matter of fact, if you have a breathable rain jacket, grab it and treat it at the same time.   DWR (Durable Water Repellant) is basically going to allow the water to “bead” and roll off the fabric rather than absorb into it. I’ve had old waders and jackets that I never treated that, even though they were still waterproof, were absorbing so much water that they felt heavy and even clammy. DWR is good stuff. There are a few brands out there and can usually be found at camping/outdoor stores. I’ve personally had good luck with ReviveX Spray-on Repellant.

Treating Fabric with DWR
Treating fabric with DWR

Start by washing the waders and/or jacket with a mild detergent as described above. Hang the garment(s) and spray evenly and thoroughly with DWR while the garment is still wet. I usually apply a little heavier around seams and stress areas such as the knees and crotch area on waders. On jackets, I put a little more emphasis on the shoulder area. You can then simply allow it to air dry where it’s hanging or put it in the dryer on low/medium for about an hour.

That about covers the big stuff. I also like to use winter to go through fly boxes and remove rusty hooks. Those have a way of contaminating the entire box after a while. And it’s a great time to go through your first aid kit and make sure everything is up to date. You can also put new batteries in the flashlight, etc. Then, when spring rolls around, all you have to do is fish!

Keeping Your Dry Fly Floating High

Yellow Humpy Fly Pattern
A buoyant Humpy dry fly

In April, dry fly fishing really starts to turn on in the Smokies. Not only are there a significant number of hatches, but water temperatures are getting ideal and fish are just looking up, even when no hatches are present. Presenting a dry fly that rides high on the water, not only tends to produce more strikes, it is much easier for you to see. Here are a few tips to keep your fly floating high in the fast moving currents of the Smoky Mountains.

First off, if you don’t tie your own flies, be sure buy high quality dry flies. It can be tempting to find Internet companies or box stores that offer really cheap prices on flies. They are cheap for a reason. These dry flies often have less hackle and/or use a very low-grade hackle. They are simply not going to float as well. Bushy, heavily hackled flies will float the best, as will flies that utilize foam and/or deer hair. These are all great for most of the riffles and pocket water you encounter in the Smokies. However, if you’re fishing to slow water risers in a slick pool, you may want to use a more slender, low profile fly like a parachute or comparadun pattern.

Treat your flies before you fish them. There are a number of great products on the market that accomplish this and are generically referred to as fly floatant. The most common are silicone based and have a gel consistency. Just squeeze a drop on your finger and rub it into your fly. Orvis, Aquel, Loon and Gink are probably the most common brands. They’re all probably about the same but everyone seems to have their favorite. I use Orvis Hy-Flote.

Orvis Hy-Float Fly Foatant
Fly Floatant

Once you’ve selected your high quality dry fly and gooped it up with fly floatant, the worst thing you can do to it is catch a fish! They take it under water and slime it up to the point where it doesn’t want to float as well, especially after you catch 2 or 3 fish. When this happens, a mistake a lot of anglers make is to re-apply the same gel floatant they used to pre-treat the fly. However, you’re often just trapping moisture in to the fly at this point. You need to remove as much of the moisture from the fly as possible.

On bigger rivers such as tailwaters, your false cast can keep a lot of moisture out of the fly, even after several fish. But in places like the Smokies, frequent false casting is often not an option due to the tighter quarters. It’s also not advised because of the increased risk of spooking fish. There are a number of methods I use to dry a saturated fly in these environments.

Shimazaki Dry Shake
Dry Shake

One is to press the fly against an absorbent material. Amadou is a material sold at many fly shops that works great for this. You can carry a patch on your vest or pack and just squeeze the fly in it. Chamois cloth is another good option. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have either, just press the fly against your shirt. After employing this method, blow on your fly. Finally, consider carrying a second, powder based floatation product. These are desiccants, similar to what’s found in the small, “do not eat” pouches packaged with some clothing and electronics. Again, there are numerous brands. Frog’s Fanny is a favorite of many anglers. My favorite is Shimazaki Dry-Shake. It has a large-mouthed bottle that allows you to drop the fly in while still attached to the tippet. Close the lid, shake vigorously and remove. It will be floating like new.

The final tip for keeping that fly floating high is technique. What causes flies to get waterlogged more than anything else, especially with novice anglers, is drag. When your fly doesn’t drift naturally, and pulls against the current, you have drag. When you have drag, you won’t catch many fish. And your fly will become more waterlogged, requiring far more maintenance to keep it floating.

Think about what you’re doing. Instead of dragging the fly through the run 2 or 3 times before making a good drift, read the water. Identify the varied currents that will pull your line at a different speed than the fly and try to position yourself where you can eliminate them. If you can’t eliminate them through position, think about how, when, and which direction you’ll need to mend BEFORE you make the first cast. And pick your fly up when it reaches the end of the target area, rather than letting it drift (drag) into the fast shallow riffle at the bottom of the run.

Fishing a Smoky Mountain Brook Trout Stream
Keeping the line off the current lip at the rear of the pool provides a drag free drift through the sweet spot

Experienced anglers often do most of this instinctively, so it looks like they’re just casually moving around casting. The good ones always make it looks easy! If you’re newer to fly fishing or even if you’ve done it awhile but only get out a few times a year, it won’t be instinctive and you’ll have to think about it. This is just good advice, period. If you execute a good cast and drift in the right place the first time, you’ll not only keep your fly floating better, you’ll catch more fish!

Finally, on a similar note, carry your fly in your hand when you move from spot to spot. I see a lot of people who will let their fly drag behind them in the water as they wade up to the next pocket or run. If you do this, the best-case scenario is that you’re going to waterlog your dry fly. More often than not, you’re also going to hang your fly up on every rock and stick in the river!