How Stuff Works: Polarized Glasses

I once heard a highly regarded fly fisherman say that he considered polarized sunglasses to be his most important piece of gear. These sort of statements always amuse me. I can’t help to wonder how important those sunglasses would be if he didn’t have a rod or a line or a fly! But I definitely get what he meant. While polarized sunglasses may not be THE most important piece of gear, they are often the most underestimated.

Smith Polarized Sunglasses
Polarized Sunglasses

Many fishermen, particularly those new to the sport, probably underestimate them because they don’t understand the difference in sunglasses and polarized sunglasses. They see sunglasses as merely a means of protecting your eyes from bright light. They may opt not to wear them at all on overcast days or in shade. Polarized sunglasses do protect your eyes and reduce eyestrain in bright conditions. But they have greater importance when it comes to tactical applications.

Light usually scatters in all directions. But when it’s reflected from flat surfaces, it becomes polarized. It travels in a more uniform (usually horizontal) direction. This creates a serious intensity of reflected light that causes glare and reduces visibility. The more reflective that flat surface is, the more intense the glare will be. Consider how a signaling mirror works.

Viewing Water Through a Polarized Lens
Looking Through Polarized Lens

Water has highly reflective properties and acts like a mirror that intensifies those reflected rays even more. I’m sure everyone can think of instances when driving where significant glare was encountered. More than likely, the worst glare you ever encountered when driving was during or right after a rain. Pavement is a flat surface that can reflect light and cause glare. Wet pavement intensifies that reflection and creates more intense glare. With that in mind, it stands to reason that you will get even more intense glare when light reflects off the surface of lakes, rivers, streams, etc.

So, “regular” sunglasses will help in these situations by essentially darkening this reflected light, making it less stressful to your eye. But the glare will still be there and will prohibit you from seeing anything on, or in the case of water, under that surface. The chemical filter on the lenses of polarized sunglasses absorbs horizontal light waves, while still allowing vertical waves to pass through. Because light only travels in one direction through polarized lenses, glare is eliminated, or at least reduced.

Contrary to what many anglers expect, this technology does not create “magic fish-seeing glasses!” Fish don’t suddenly appear when you put on polarized glasses. But seeing through the water will definitely help you spot fish. However, there are two other more consistent benefits you will receive from polarized glasses. They’ll help see your dry fly on the surface. And they’ll improve your ability to read water by better recognizing slower seams and deeper troughs and pockets. Additionally, being able to better see the stream bottom will allow for easier, safer wading.

Just how well your polarized glasses eliminate glare often depends on the angle the light hits and reflects off the water. There will be times on bright sunny days when the light reflects at such a severe angle that even the polarized lenses don’t seem to help. During these times, your best bet is to change the angle the light is hitting your eye by repositioning. For example, you may be on the left side of the stream facing and fishing toward the right and encounter an insurmountable amount of glare. Often by fishing from the other side of the stream and facing/fishing the other direction, you can totally eliminate the glare.

Even on overcast days or in shady areas, you can encounter significant glare. I almost always wear polarized glasses when fishing. This is where lens color becomes important. Darker lens colors, like gray, will block more light, making them more ideal for bright conditions. They also work well on deep blue water and better maintain true color. But they block a little too much light in low light conditions. Dark lenses in low light can offset the benefits of polarization.

Lighter lens colors, like yellow or rose, allow more light in and are perfect for fishing in low light conditions. They often even make things appear brighter. But in bright conditions, you want something that will filter light, not magnify it. These are not good choices for sunny conditions on open water.

Do you plan to fish in a variety of different light conditions? You may want multiple pairs of polarized glasses in different lens colors. But if you’re looking for one, multi-purpose lens color, an amber, copper or brown color sort of fits right in the middle. And these lens colors work particularly well in shallow water where most fly fishermen operate.

Cocoons Fitover Sunglasses
Fitover Glasses

The shape of the frames can also be a factor in how well the glasses work. Frames that “wrap” more will help prevent direct and/or reflected light from entering on the sides. “Straight” frames, like an aviator style, allow more light in from side and rear angles. While prescription polarized sunglasses are available they can be problematic in a wrap style frame. Essentially, you’re dealing with a bent lens on a wrap style frame. The stronger the prescription and the more severe the bend in the lens, the more distortion you’ll get when looking side to side. Straight frames are better for prescription glasses.

If you wear corrective lenses and prefer the benefits of a wrap style frame or if you simply don’t want to fork over the money for prescription sunglasses, fitover” sunglasses are worn right over your regular eyeglasses.

How Stuff Works: Leaders & Tippet

It’s nearly impossible to talk about leaders without talking about tippet, and vice versa. However, we could go into an enormous amount of detail on either of them – so much so that it would defeat the intended purpose of a brief monthly article that attempts to provide a simple definition of how particular pieces of fly fishing gear “work.” So, consider this a broad introduction of how the two things work together as part of the overall fly fishing “system.” We’ll talk about each individually in more detail in future articles.

Orvis Super Strong Fly Fishing Leader Package
Typical Leader and Package

The leader is the monofilament (usually) connection between the weighted fly line and the fly. Most commonly 7’ to 12’ in length, the leader is typically tapered and consists of three parts: the butt, the taper, and the tippet. These parts are completely separate and easily distinguished in formulated leaders created by knotting different diameters of monofilament together. However, most commercially produced leaders are created with an acid process that results in a knotless, seamless taper from top to bottom.

In either case, the butt is the thickest section that attaches to the fly line. Its purpose is to “turn the leader over” with the cast. A leader with no butt, or too thin of a butt, has a tendency to collapse rather than extend and straighten. The tippet is the thinnest part of the leader that attaches to the fly. It allows the energy of the cast to dissipate. As a result, you’re less likely to crash the cast on the water. The tippet also allows for a less visible connection to the fly. The taper is the section between the butt and tippet that provides a smooth, progressive transfer of energy. A leader with a thick butt tied directly to thin tippet tends to “hinge.”

They size leaders by their length and tippet size. So, if you purchase a 9’ 5x leader, it has a tippet size of 5X and its overall length is 9’. As a general rule, longer leaders are advantageous for not only creating more distance between fly line and fly, but for achieving better drifts in “technical” currents. However, they are more difficult to cast and more prone to find overhanging limbs! A shorter leader can allow for more accuracy in tighter areas.

They size tippet by its diameter and indicate the size with a number followed by an “x.” The bigger the number, the smaller the tippet. So a 6X tippet is considerably smaller than a 2X tippet. Without getting too deep into the history of what now seems a rather antiquated system, it all works off the number 11. The tippet size subtracted from 11 equals the actual diameter measured in thousandths of an inch. For instance, 6X tippet is .005”. It works in reverse too. If the actual diameter of the monofilament is .007”, the tippet size is 4X: 11-7=4. Pretty weird, huh?

Orvis Super Strong Fly Fishing Tippet Material
Tippet Spool

You don’t need to know all of that, though. Just remember that you usually choose tippet size based on the fly size. Small flies should have small tippets and big flies should have big tippets. Some leader packages will have cross-reference charts on the back indicating which tippet sizes match which fly sizes. Another neat trick is to divide the fly size by 3. So a size #12 fly would best match a size 4X tippet. Could you use a 5X tippet on a #12 fly? Absolutely. This is just a guideline. But the farther you stray from the guideline the more problems you’ll encounter.

So, tippet is part of the leader. But tippet is also purchased by itself on spools. Tippet material is pulled from the spool and spliced to the leader with a knot to rebuild or alter the leader. For instance, if you start the day with a 9’ 5X leader and you change flies a few times or break off in a tree, your tippet gets shorter and shorter. You can add tippet from a spool when this happens to build the leader back to its original size.

How Stuff Works: Landing Nets

Various Fly Fishing Landing Nets
Variety of Landing Nets

Landing nets enable anglers to land a fish more easily and safely. They are most beneficial when dealing with larger fish. Big fish sometimes make one last dart or head shake when you try to grab them. This often results in the tippet breaking. While in the Smokies, I rarely carry a net. The fish are typically not very large and can be landed by hand with little trouble. A net is just one more thing to carry. But I use a net regularly when fishing tailwaters and delayed harvest streams.

Carbon Fly Fishing Landing Net
Long Handle Carbon Net

Traditionally, nets have been made with a wood frame and cotton netting and that style is still common today. However, wooden frames are more and more frequently being replaced by lighter, carbon frames. Rubber is replacing cotton for the netting. The rubber netting has a number of advantages over cotton. The most notable being that it is better on the fish. Cotton netting can catch and tangle in the fins, gills and teeth of the fish. With trout, cotton absorbs and removes some of their protective “slime.” Fly hooks also catch and easily tangle in cotton netting. Rubber netting eliminates all of these problems and holds far less odor than cotton.

Other things to consider when looking for a net are the size and shape. Obviously, if you’re expecting to catch bigger fish you’re going to want a bigger net. A 20-pound striper just won’t fit in a 16 ½” trout net. They size landing nets by the overall length, including handle, as well as the size of the head (the part that holds the netting). You should choose the size of the net based on the size of fish you’re pursuing. Choose the overall length (or the handle size)  based on how you pursue them. For instance, if fishing from a boat, a longer handle may be desirable since it’s more difficult to get the fish close to you. If wading, a long handled net might be too cumbersome to carry all day.

Magnetic Fly Fishing Net Holder
Magnetic Net Holder

If you plan to carry a net with you when wading, there are a number of options that will help keep the net out of the way, yet easy to access when needed. Most every fishing vest or jacket has a D-Ring on the back. The sole purpose of that ring is to clip your net on it. To make it even easier, there are magnetic connectors that include a section of plastic, “pig tail” type cord that allow you to utilize the net while it remains tethered to you. There are also oversized retractors that accomplish the same thing.

Net Holster for Fly Fishing
Net Holster

Folks who choose to use sling packs or hip packs tend to have trouble finding a suitable location for attaching their net. Attaching it to the pack with a traditional retractor or magnetic connector often leaves it hanging too low or in a location that impedes the casting stroke. I know many who have remedied this by using a type of net “holster” placed on a belt. Store the net with the handle down and draw from the holster when you need it.

Like most things in fly fishing, there doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” solution to the type of net you use or the method you use to carry it. It’s a matter of finding something that best fits most of your needs and carrying it in the least obtrusive way possible.

How Stuff Works: Fly Lines

When spin fishing or bait fishing, you cast a weighted lure or live bait with sinkers. You have a reel of monofilament line and when you cast, you propel the weighted lure forward and it carries all of the monofilament line with it.

Fly LineWe use virtually weightless flies in fly fishing. Many float on the surface of the water. Even weighted flies that sink don’t have enough weight to carry themselves any sort of distance. We use the fly line for that. In essence, the fly line replaces the weight of a lure. When spin fishing, a weighted lure carries a weightless line when cast. In fly fishing, a weighted line carries a weightless lure.

Most fly lines will have a core of come sort and a plastic coating. Saltwater lines usually have a more rigid monofilament core, while freshwater lines usually have a softer, suppler Dacron core. The manufacturer applies the plastic coating in a way that produces a particular taper. The taper determines how the line will behave and perform.

A weight forward taper is the most common. If the fly line is 90’ long, which is typical, the first 50’ or so that attaches to the backing and the reel will be thinner and level. Approximately the front 40’ of line will be thicker except for the last few feet where it attaches to the leader. The intention is for the weight to be in the front part of your line to maximize casting efficiency at your most common distances. For longer casts, the thicker, weighted portion “pulls” the thinner, un-weighted portion behind it with a technique called shooting line.

There are variations on this weight forward design for specialty situations. For instance, a bass line has a shorter but more dramatic taper. They place more weight in a smaller area. The purpose of this is to aide in turning over the heavier, more wind resistant flies commonly used in bass fishing. Some of these variations are referred to as ‘shooting heads.”

Fly Line Tapers
Fly Line Tapers

A double taper line is becoming less and less popular but is one I still really like for fishing smaller streams like in the Smokies. It has a more gradual taper and it tapers equally from the middle of the line out to each end. This design allows for more delicate, accurate presentations at distances of 40’ and closer, and it roll casts extremely well. It’s also nice because you when you wear out one end of the line, you can turn it around and use the other. It is a disadvantage for distance casting because when you get beyond 40’, you get into the “reverse taper.”

You may also run across level lines, especially at discount type stores. There is no taper to level lines. They can be attractive to the beginner because they are so inexpensive but they cast horribly. Unless you are getting into some specialty techniques, I would avoid level lines altogether.

Most fly lines float. Even when fishing weighted flies in streams, a floating line is most often used because the fly and leader can usually sink enough to get the fly where it needs to be. However, there are sink tip lines available in different weights, where the front part of the fly line will sink to get a fly down deeper and faster. These are more commonly used for streamer fishing in lakes or deep, swift rivers. Full sinking lines are also available but not used very frequently. They allow the entire line to sink but are extremely difficult to cast.

Fly Line Weight Chart
Common Fly Line Weights

Fly lines are sized by a line weight that is designated by a single number like a 4-weight or 9-weight. This is intended to match the same designation on a fly rod, so you would use a 5-weight line on a 5-weight rod. It takes the amount of weight in a 5-weight line to properly flex or “load” a 5-weight rod and make it cast its best.

If you use a 2-weight line on a 5-weight rod, there’s not enough weight to load it. You throw your arm out trying to get the line out. If you use an 8-weight line on a 5-weight rod, it overloads it and it’s hard to control. There may be some specialized situations where you may want to over-line or under-line a rod. But 99% of the time, you want to match the line weight to the rod.

You choose what line weight (and rod weight) you need based on what you’re fishing for. For trout, you’re typically casting smaller flies to fish in clear water and trying to achieve delicate presentations. Lighter lines in the 3 to 5-weight range are common. For largemouth bass, you’re probably fishing more stained water and commonly casting bigger, more wind resistant flies. You’ll be able to better accomplish this with 7 to 9-weight lines/rods.  In saltwater, you probably want heavier lines not only for heavier flies, but also to contend with heavier winds.

Early Spring Fishing – Locating Feeding Trout

Early Spring on Abrams Creek
A Smoky Mountain River in early spring

If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.

Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.

So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer. In early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice. There are always variables based mostly on weather. But your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10. You’ll have time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.

This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.

Little River in Spring
The heads of large pools can be great locations for feeding trout

Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.

The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy. The water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen. But in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity. This will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed. I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots.” Sweet spots are good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.

Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!

Fishing Low Water

In normal years, there are going to be periods that are dryer than others, and in a rainfall driven fishery like the Smoky Mountains, water levels routinely fluctuate and you have to be able to adjust your strategies to match the conditions. While some years can give us low water conditions any time of year, late summer and fall is historically the driest time of year in the Smokies.  We’re fortunate that we’ve had a fairly wet summer this year and have a little more “reserve” going into fall, but September and October will undoubtedly show us drier conditions and fishing low water can be a challenge.

What’s particularly bad is when we have a summer drought with low water AND warm water temperatures. That’s a pretty tough combination. But when you’re dealing with the typical low water we see in September and particularly October, water temperatures are cool and trout are very active. So, there’s one obstacle, warm water temperatures, out of the way. Below are some tips for dealing with the other obstacle.

Using Stealth on a Small Stream
Staying low will help keep you out of the trout’s view

The biggest problem low water creates is it makes already spooky fish spookier. While having less water depth can be an issue, the real challenge is having less water flow. When streams are full, the extra flow of water helps conceal you and your movements. The surface is more broken, making the trout’s view of the outside world more distorted and the extra flow helps to dampen the noise you make when you move in or near the water. In a nutshell, you’re going to have to be a lot stealthier when you fish for low water trout.

I’ve talked about this first piece in the article Dress for Success, but it all starts with what you wear. When you are fishing in the Smoky Mountains, your backdrop consists mostly of trees and bushes. When you wear bright colors, your silhouette against that woody backdrop is much more pronounced, and the trout more easily detects your movements. Dress in dull, earth-tone colors like brown, tan, olive, or grey. And stay low. Crouching, squatting, kneeling and/or staying behind boulders will help eliminate your silhouette altogether.

Without the benefit of faster currents, you have to stay farther away from the fish. Simply staying back farther and casting farther can cause drag issues when you’re working across currents, as more line will be on the water. Use the longest rod you can get away with to allow for extra reach across those currents. With shorter rods, take extra measures to position yourself as much downstream from the fish as possible. This will put your line/leader more in the same speed current as the fly and provide a better drift.

Speaking of lines… Heavier fly lines will make more commotion on the water and will drag more. Try using lighter lines, 4-weight and smaller, and keep them off the water as much as you can by keeping the rod tip up. Longer leaders with longer and finer tippet will also help with less drag and less commotion on the water. For small to mid size streams, I usually fish 9’ leaders in low water, and often 12’ leaders on larger rivers.

Griffith's Gnat
Griffith’s Gnat

Lower, slower moving water also gives the fish a better, longer look at your fly. Larger, bushier flies will often produce “short strikes,” where the fish merely bumps or noses it, or stops just short of taking it. Smaller flies and low profile flies like parachutes or comparaduns, will often solve that. A Griffith’s Gnat in a size #18 is a favorite late season, low water pattern. A Parachute Adams in size #18 is another favorite. Terrestrials are still abundant this time of year and a small parachute ant or a soft hackle ant dropper can be very effective in these conditions.

You may also try to seek out choppier water. Fish will often position themselves more in choppy water during these conditions to remain less visible to predators.

Mostly, success in low water is going to boil down to movement. Keep your false casting to an absolute minimum, like, not at all if you can. Don’t go rushing into each new spot. First, assess the pocket, pool, or run from afar, then keep a low profile and approach it slowly.

After doing all of this, as simple as it sounds, be ready! Your strike is most often going to come on the first cast and you don’t get many second chances.

Trout Behavior (Part 2)

Understanding How Trout Feed and the Importance of Presentation….

There is a belief held by many that Smoky Mountain trout are among the most difficult to catch. Talk to a few Smoky Mountain anglers for any length of time and at some point, someone will say, “If you can catch them here, you can catch them anywhere!” That’s not entirely true. Simply driving a little north to the Clinch will teach you that. Employing Smoky Mountain fishing tactics on that big tailwater may reap rewards in a few areas, but the long, slick waters of the Clinch will require different skills to be consistently successful. Almost every fishery has certain characteristics and little quirks that make it uniquely challenging.

But this much is true. If you are catching fish in the Smokies on a consistent basis and understand why and how you’re catching them, applying those skills to other freestone rivers, such as those in the American West, will put you a step ahead of many anglers. But why? What is it about these little mountain streams that is so challenging?

First, you typically have a significant volume of water in a small space. Rather than water flowing through a broad basin, where current speeds are somewhat consistent and concentrated in long, broad channels; in these small streams, the flow breaks and changes speed dramatically with every boulder it hits. So in many situations, in one fishy run, there may be fifteen different current speeds with which to contend. That may not be a big deal if you understand how that phenomenon can impede drift and you can approach those runs properly. Failure to understand this can convince many an angler that there are no fish in these streams!

I’ve seen a number of VERY good fly fishermen come to the Smokies and get skunked. In most cases it is because they are big river fishermen and they approach these streams in the same way they approach the big rivers they normally fish. That usually entails standing erect at the bottom of a run and making a 40-60 foot, up and across cast to the top of the run. The result is 40-60 feet of line being grabbed by fifteen different current speeds, and an attached fly dragging like RuPaul!

All but the smallest and dumbest fish in the Smokies will not tolerate a poor drift, and with the exception of the rare slow pools, there is no way you’re going to be able to cast that much line and be able to control your drift. Executing a good drift in the Smokies is going to require getting closer to the fish.

First, it is important to understand where the fish will be and why. You can find fish in the slow pools but these are among the most difficult to target. Without a defined channel to concentrate food, fish in these pools are very spread out and often cruising, feeding opportunistically. Unless there is a significant hatch coming off to motivate consistent feeding and reveal fish when they break the surface for a meal, catching them in these environments is going to require a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of plain dumb luck. This is certainly not to say you can’t catch fish in slow pools in “hatchless” situations, but the odds are not with you.

For heavier concentrations of actively feeding fish, you should be in the riffles and runs where there are clearly defined channels. The stream funnels insects and other food items into these channels, and where you find food, you find fish. And in these food abundant areas, fish are typically “holding,” waiting for the meal to come to them. But because there is so much “stuff” coming through these chutes, from aquatic insects to stream debris, the fish instinctively ignore passing items that don’t look like food. Your imitation dragging through the feeding zone faster than the current because another current is pulling on your fly line, qualifies as something fish will ignore. To control the fly you have to control the line. In order to control the line in a run with multiple currents, you have to get closer.

To get closer, you’ll want to employ the strategies discussed in Part 1 of this article. Dress accordingly, stay low, and be stealthy. The idea is to get into a position where you can use the length of your rod to keep the fly line out of any currents other than the one where your fly is. So you’re keeping the rod high, keeping most, if not all, of the line off the water so that there is very little to impede the drift. By following the fly with your rod tip, you can extend your drift through the run. There are going to be a number of these little feeding zones within a run. Hit the first one, reposition yourself, hit the second one, reposition yourself, and so on.

High Sticking a Mountain StreamCheck out the photo above – a typical stretch of water in the Smokies. You can easily see the numerous changes in current speed and direction in just this small area. Rather than standing at the bottom right of the photo and casting 40-50 feet to the top left of the photo, our angler is intelligently breaking this stretch into defined sections. He has likely already fished the water below, to his left, and right in front of him. Notice his rod is high, keeping the line off the current directly in front of him. The fly should drift nicely in the current breaking around the right of the boulder. Next, he will likely step up to the boulder and fish that large pocket above it. Well done!

Smoky Mountain FishermanThe angler in this photo is also doing a good job with a little more line out. Notice he is concealing himself behind a boulder. He’s holding his rod upward, keeping the current lip in front of him from grabbing the line. The line that is on the water is all in the same current speed. Again, well done!

He likely fished the current below that boulder before stepping into that position. It’s all about planning your attack. Determine your targets and carefully place yourself in the proper position before casting to them.

Setting the Hook

Fishermen in the Smokies also miss A LOT of strikes. Some of the misses can be attributed to the fact that trout in the Smokies are fast! They hit and spit a fly with amazing speed. You can just go on and plan on missing some strikes when you fish here. And you can plan on getting hung in a few trees. It’s all part of it!

But you can greatly increase your number of hook-ups by implementing the above strategies. Many anglers miss strikes because they’re not ready or they react too slowly. Just as many anglers miss strikes because they have too much line on the water. The more line you have out, the more line you have to move and tighten to set the hook. And when that line has a lot of slack in it, there will be even more delay.

It’s a delicate balance. In most cases, you have to have a little bit of slack in your line to allow your nymph or dry fly to drift without drag. Keeping that slack to an absolute minimum will allow the rod tip to lift and tighten the line on the fish much more quickly and will certainly result in more fish to hand.

Trout Behavior (Part 1)

Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach….

On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform. They don’t watch college football or pay the mortgage. And they don’t care who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct. Their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.

Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.

One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food. It constantly delivers hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed. They’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!

So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But you spooked him. Think about a situation when your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.

Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!

You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.

You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but to an extent, they can see things behind them. Trout are predators and prey, and their vision benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. They use this vision to look straight ahead and to each side. Consequently, there is little distortion and it’s very clear. It’s similar to how we see under water.

Trout Cone of Vision
The cone

But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them.

It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You can see objects but the distortion makes it difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree. But you can pick up movement. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, is clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird. At least the silhouette is much more distinct. This ability is highly effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.

As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. The fish can detect everything that makes its way into the cone. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers crouch or squat when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”

The other thing you should consider is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.

In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. Don’t worry about dressing in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here. Just dress in earth tones. Wearing browns, olives, khakis, and greys will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!

Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.

A Matter of Degrees – Water Temperature

Understanding Water Temperature

Checking Water Temperature
Checking water temperture

One of the most significant factors that determines how, when, or even IF a trout feeds, is water temperature – at least with wild trout. Stocked trout are raised in hatcheries and fed every day, so they are used to eating every day. Water temperature can impact the way they feed but not nearly to the extent it does a wild trout.

Cold Weather Fishing
A cold weather stocker

An ideal water temperature for a trout is in the upper 50’s to low 60’s. If you show up at the river, dunk your thermometer in the water, and get a reading of 60-degrees, chances are you’re going to have a pretty good day – assuming you do everything else right. On the other hand, if you do everything exactly right but the water temperature is 38-degrees, you may not even get a strike.

On a broader scale, I think of anything between 50 and 68-degrees to be reasonable. But there are variables. 52-degrees and falling due to a cold front may result in tough fishing. 48-degrees and rising due to a warm front may produce excellent fishing. Fish will probably be sluggish if it’s 68-degrees and rising in a summer drought. But 68-degrees and falling because of a summer rain may really turn them on.

With warmer temperatures, it’s more about the oxygen than anything. Trout need oxygenated water and typically, the warmer the water, the less oxygen. If water temperatures hit 75-degrees for more than a few days in a row, trout can’t survive. They’ll either search out more suitable conditions or die.

Stream Thermometers
A stream thermometer can be a valuable tool when searching for active trout

With excessively cold water, it’s more about metabolism. As a survival mechanism, their metabolism changes when water temperatures get extremely cold and they don’t require as much food. It’s similar to a bear during hibernation. So if you’ve ever tried to get me to take you fishing in the Smokies in January and I talked you out of it, that’s why. I have great gear and am not afraid of getting out in the cold, but the fish just wouldn’t be feeding.

On some extremely fertile rivers, this may not be the case. There may be enough food through the winter to keep the fish feeding. I know I’ve fished some excellent winter hatches in Montana. But the streams of the Smokies are the opposite of fertile. They’re some of the oldest mountains in the world and consequently very acidic and nutrient poor, which means there is just not a lot of food, especially in the winter.

There are a number of things that can influence water temperature, with air temperature being one of the most obvious. In the mountains, air temperature and consequently, water temperature can vary significantly by elevation. For instance, a river at 2000’ elevation may see an air temperature of 85-degrees in July with a water temperature of 68-degrees. But if you go to a stream at 3800’ elevation on that same July day, you may find an air temperature of 75-degrees and a water temperature of 61-degrees. That’s why I typically like to focus on high elevation streams in the middle of the summer.

Of course, the opposite is true early in the season. The high elevation streams may be too cold while the low elevation streams are starting to turn on. I once guided a local gentleman on a high elevation stream in July and we had a very productive day. He called me, frustrated, the following March. He said he’d just been to the same stream I took him to, did everything the same way, but didn’t even get a strike. In July, the water temperature had been 60-degrees on that stream. When he went back in early March, it had been closer to 40-degrees. It matters.

Tree canopy can also have a big impact on water temperature. A bigger, more open river may not be very productive on a late June afternoon. But a smaller, more heavily canopied stream at the exact same elevation might be very productive. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but the more direct sunlight that reaches a stream, the warmer the water is going to get.

Time of day is another big factor. A lot of people think you have to be on the water at the crack of dawn to catch fish. This is only sometimes true when you’re talking about stream trout. In the heat of the summer, very early and very late in the day are probably the times when you’ll find the most active fish, because you’re getting slightly cooler water temperatures. However, if you’re fishing in early March or late November, you’ll likely find more active fish in the middle of the day, when water temperatures are slightly warmer. That’s one of the reasons why our peak fishing seasons are in months like May or October. The temperatures are mild pretty much all day, and the fish are active pretty much all day.

This is all very specific to free flowing streams. Tailwaters are totally different animals all together. When a river is dammed to form a lake, they release water from the dam every day to control flooding and to generate electricity. The river that is formed below the dam from these releases is referred to as a tailwater.

Norris Dam
Many rivers below large dams maintain nearly constant water temperature all year

The water that they pull from the lake to form the tailwater comes from near the bottom of the lake. Because that water is so deep, it receives no sunlight and is basically insulated by all the water above it. So, the water that comes out of the dam is approximately 50-degrees, regardless of time of day, time of year, or air temperature. That’s why that big, wide-open river can support trout. Spring Creeks are very similar because the water source is deep underground, insulated by earth.

How deep the lake is determines how much cold water “storage” it has. That and the volume and frequency of water releases determine how far down river the water stays cold. Your typical East Tennessee tailwater will maintain these temperatures, and support trout, for about 25 miles. So when it comes to tailwaters, you’re always going to have about the same water temperature, making them year round fisheries. With tailwaters, it’s mostly the timing and duration of the water releases that determine when, or even if you can go and how much success you’ll have.

Back to the mountains, water temperature is one of the things that I pay the most attention to when deciding when and where to fish. I’ve been doing this a long time so I just kind of know based on all of the conditions. Until you “just know,” a stream thermometer can be one the most valuable pieces of gear in your bag.

Clouser Minnow

Clouser Minnow
Clouser Minnow

In freshwater or salt, one of the best baitfish patterns around…. I recently went to Perdido Key, FL on vacation. Once a year, my wife and I take a beach vacation somewhere, usually with another couple. And while these trips are more about relaxation and socializing, I always try to work in at least a little fishing, sometimes with a guide. I didn’t know much about this area and never really even took time to research. I just packed some gear and planned to figure it out when I got there.

On our first day, while kicked back on the beach enjoying an adult beverage, I observed a tremendous amount of feeding activity in the surf. Schools of bigger fish were ripping through schools of smaller fish. It was happening up and down the coast as far as I could see. I wouldn’t have to do any scouting after all. All the activity I needed was right outside my back door!

My big problem was that I didn’t know what kind of fish were getting eaten and what kind of fish were doing the eating. Don’t you just love beach problems? My saltwater experience is just as limited as my saltwater gear, so I approached it in the exact same way I would approach an unfamiliar freshwater situation. When in doubt, go generic. It was apparent that they were feeding on some kind of baitfish. And what is the most generic, universal fly for imitating a baitfish? A Clouser Minnow.

The fly was originated by Bob Clouser in 1987. Bob was a fly shop owner and guide in Pennsylvania. He developed the fly for smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River. I first learned of the fly in the early 90’s and fished it regularly on the smallmouth streams of Central Kentucky. Over the decades, it has been varied in color and style, and has accounted for nearly every species of fish known. Whether freshwater or salt, the diet of nearly every big fish includes small fish. And whether freshwater or salt, most baitfish have some very common characteristics. Most have a long, slender profile, a darker back and a lighter belly, and pronounced eyes that often act as a trigger for predators.

Clouser Minnow Colors
Clousers are tied in almost every color combo

While there are various color combinations to better match specific baitfish, all Clouser Minnows have the above-mentioned characteristics. They also have lead eyes positioned in such a way as to allow the fly to ride hook up. And with their bucktail bodies, they retain very little water. This makes them feel lighter and easier to cast than most other flies their size.

While I most often use this fly for warmwater species, I’ve taken a number of trout on it. It works in tailwaters and even the occasional large brown in the park will eat it. You can bet I’ll fish it more than once in late fall in the park. It’s great when those big browns begin moving before and after spawn. I tie them on traditional streamer hooks for trout, on larger gape hooks for bass, and on stainless hooks for saltwater species. I’ve had success with a number of different color combinations but my “go to” colors are white and black and white and olive.

So the first morning I was at the beach, I got to the water at sunrise with a black and white Clouser tied to my leader. On the second cast into the first school of feeding fish, I hooked up. The ol’ Clouser did it again. Add a couple of speckled sea trout and a whole lot of ladyfish to its list of victims!