Field & Stream Classics: December 1912

This month's classic entitled, "The Dry Fly in America" is from our December 1912 issue.

Field & Stream Online Editors

When trout are rising, hope is strong in the angler's heart, even though he may not have determined in what position or upon what insects the fish are feeding. The fact that they are moving is all sufficient; if the fish nearest him does not take, the one above may, and altogether he is likely to have, if not a fairly good day, at least an interesting one.

Early in the season, if the weather be propitious and the stream in good condition, it is not unlikely that fish will be seen rising throughout the day, if not all the time, at least at periods frequent enough to keep the angler intensely alert.

How different the situation confronting the angler who elects to fish these streams in the hot summer months, when the water is at its lowest mark, clear as crystal--or gin, as the Britisher has it--with not a rising fish to be seen the whole livelong day; and for the good reason that no insects are about to offer an inducement. Even in June these conditions sometimes prevail, with the redeeming feature, however, that toward evening the temperature usually falls low enough to induce a rise of insects, with an accompanying rise of trout, when the angler, having patiently waited for this time, sets hard to work and is content to take a couple of fair fish, in the half hour or so before dark.

However foolish it may be, I confess to a weakness for being on the stream at times when all experts agree that it is almost impossible to take fish--not with the idea of confuting their theories, but with the hope of learning why it is so; and an experience one hot July proved to my entire satisfaction that there are times when trout are neither interested in food nor anything else.

For three sultry hours I cast over every likely spot and never rose a fish, never saw one rise; nor did I see a fish. Coming upon a beautiful pool, shaded and of good depth, considering the state of the water, I felt that my last chance had arrived. After covering the entire pool carefully without result, I deliberately waded into it, in hope of scaring any fish that might be there, and so learn where they were hiding. I did not see a fin and had decided that it was tenantless, when looking down, I saw, close at my feet, the tail of a fish sticking out from under a small boulder. Looking at the upstream side of the stone, I hoped to see the fish's head, but could not as there was no hollow on that side, so I gently stroked that part of the fish in sight with the top of my rod, and received an acknowledgement in a gentle waving of the tail. Placing my gear behind me in the dry bed of the stream, I proceeded to move the boulder to see what manner of trout this could be, and not until I had it completely removed, did he stir--and then but a short distance to similar hiding place. He was a fish about fifteen inches long.

A short distance above this pool there is a dam famous for the big trout which make their home under it. This water I covered faithfully with as little success as before, and when I had finished, crawled out upon the apron of the dam, and saw, directly underneath, eighteen or twenty trout, ranging from six inches in length to one old "lunker" over twenty. As this spot had been cast over many times, I felt it was useless to try again, but determined to test their appetites in another way. Catching a half dozen grasshoppers, I dropped one in front of the big fish which led the school, but without exciting the slightest interest on the part of even the smallest one. I tried again, throwing the grasshopper a bit upstream so that it would floatown in plain view for a longer time; and still no interest. Finally, I killed one of the insects, crushing it so that it would sink, and threw it well above them so that it would be underwater as it neared the fish. It came down as I expected, directly on a line with the big fish, which deliberately moved a bit to one side to avoid having it touch him; and each fish behind him did the same thing, even the smallest ones ignoring it totally.

Now, what sort of fly, wet, sunk, dry, or, if the angler was inclined to try it, what sort of bait could one use to try it, what sort of bait could one use to interest these fish? Under these conditions then prevailing--temperature of the air 94 degrees; of the water 52 degrees--I really believe that the only chance he might have had was with a dry mint julep--and I am inclined to think that it would have required considerable self-denial to have presented it.

This heat was exceptional, however, and fishing in that sort of weather is quite as trying as in the cold, blustering days of early spring; and in either case, if fish are taken, enthusiasm is not greatly aroused on the part of either angler or trout.

What method of fly fishing one might use to entice trout in this extreme of temperature I confess I do not know. A floating fly is unnoticed because the fish is buried under a boulder in which situation it would be almost as hopeless to expect a sunken fly to be seen; and if those not hiding in caves refuse grasshoppers in their natural state, it is quite evident that there is small chance of taking them at all.

Leaving aside these few periods of unbearable heat, the season from June 15th to August 31st may have in store for the careful and persevering many days rich in experience; and though there be days when the fish are not rising to natural insects, even then the pleasure is commensurate with the difficulty of approaching and luring them.

There is possibly some strength in the argument that upon these occasions the trout are hungry and quite ready to take anything that looks like food; but this does not support the theory that the trout is an entomologist, and able to distinguish differences between the natural and artificial. It is quite true that the dearth of fly deprives the fish of the opportunity for comparison; but the difference noted by the fish when both are upon the water is in the action which probably prompts him to take the live insects in preference.

However this may be, it cannot be determined that when the streams are low and bright, great circumspection and care are required in approaching fish, or likely places, and in presenting the fly. Any error made is at once detected, and any subsequent effort, in this event, being wasted.

If the trout are ready to feed, and the angler so conducts operations that his fly is delivered accurately on the first cast, over or near a fish, it will, in all probability, be taken at once; and if this occurs with any degree of regularity, the angler may flatter himself that he has fulfilled all the necessary requirements in locating the fish, keeping out of sight, presenting his fly properly--and he is rewarded. But what if the fish is not on alert for food, or particularly for that sort which appears on the surface?

After carefully casting over and thoroughly fishing a likely piece of water without response, the conclusion should not be too quickly reached that it contains no fish. If it happen to be one of those days, now too frequent in the experience of the present day angler, when a great length of stream may be traversed without the slightest indication of a rising fish, he may comfort himself with the thought that the fish are not feeding or, at any rate, not on the specimens offered. I hope to show that upon just such days the proper use of the dry fly will measure the great difference between an empty creel and even a single good fish.

There would be many blank days recorded in the diary of the English dry-fly angler who fished our eastern American streams by rote, and cast only over rising fish. Day and days might elapse without his discerning the "dimple" of a big fish, or even the splash of a small one except, possibly, just at dusk; and then his skill and patience would be taxed heavily as ever by any smutting fish on a chalk stream.

Because a fish is not risen on a few casts here or there, does it follow, as the English purist would seem to suggest, that he has no inclination to come to the surface, or that the inclination cannot be aroused in him? Experience has proven to the contrary; and if to bring a rise on the first cast or two calls for the exercise of those attributes of the expert fly fisherman, what measure of skill must be ascribed to the angler who succeeds in inducing a rise after innumerable casts in the one spot?

The entire theory of the method I advocate is based upon the belief, formed from the experience, that a trout may be decoyed from one position, occupied when not feeding, to one fixed by the angler; provided, of course, the fish is not asked to come any great distances.

The practice of this method necessitates considerable knowledge of the fish and the character of the places it frequents; and the fly placed twenty times, say, in close proximity to the supposed lair of a fish will prove, in nine cases out of ten, more effective than the same number of casts placed indiscriminately over the pool, or piece being fished. But no glaring mistake, such as undue splashing or frantic waving of the rod in front of him, is overlooked by the fish; and if such errors have been committed, the angler had better retire and try some fish that has not become acquainted.

Having chosen the point of vantage from which to assail the fish, which choice should be governed first, by reason of its being out of range of the trout's vision, and then by the availability of casting room behind--the angler should note the order of importance--the single fly should be placed a foot or two to the side of the spot where the fish is presumed to be; instructions given in regard to casting to bulging fish so as to produce the eler, when a great length of stream may be traversed without the slightest indication of a rising fish, he may comfort himself with the thought that the fish are not feeding or, at any rate, not on the specimens offered. I hope to show that upon just such days the proper use of the dry fly will measure the great difference between an empty creel and even a single good fish.

There would be many blank days recorded in the diary of the English dry-fly angler who fished our eastern American streams by rote, and cast only over rising fish. Day and days might elapse without his discerning the "dimple" of a big fish, or even the splash of a small one except, possibly, just at dusk; and then his skill and patience would be taxed heavily as ever by any smutting fish on a chalk stream.

Because a fish is not risen on a few casts here or there, does it follow, as the English purist would seem to suggest, that he has no inclination to come to the surface, or that the inclination cannot be aroused in him? Experience has proven to the contrary; and if to bring a rise on the first cast or two calls for the exercise of those attributes of the expert fly fisherman, what measure of skill must be ascribed to the angler who succeeds in inducing a rise after innumerable casts in the one spot?

The entire theory of the method I advocate is based upon the belief, formed from the experience, that a trout may be decoyed from one position, occupied when not feeding, to one fixed by the angler; provided, of course, the fish is not asked to come any great distances.

The practice of this method necessitates considerable knowledge of the fish and the character of the places it frequents; and the fly placed twenty times, say, in close proximity to the supposed lair of a fish will prove, in nine cases out of ten, more effective than the same number of casts placed indiscriminately over the pool, or piece being fished. But no glaring mistake, such as undue splashing or frantic waving of the rod in front of him, is overlooked by the fish; and if such errors have been committed, the angler had better retire and try some fish that has not become acquainted.

Having chosen the point of vantage from which to assail the fish, which choice should be governed first, by reason of its being out of range of the trout's vision, and then by the availability of casting room behind--the angler should note the order of importance--the single fly should be placed a foot or two to the side of the spot where the fish is presumed to be; instructions given in regard to casting to bulging fish so as to produce the e