10 Tactics for Catching More Trout on Flies
Old-school tricks and practices that fool today's fish.
In fishing, change is sometimes a matter of babies and bathwater. New gear and methods, fresh ideas and approaches replace existing ones, and in the general rush to the cutting edge, older techniques get pushed aside, the priceless along with the worthless. Here are my votes for 10 flyfishing practices that have fallen out of general favor in the past few decades and are worth reviving.
1. Hand-Tie Your Leaders
There’s no disputing the convenience of machine-tapered knotless leaders. But the old-fashioned kinds offer an angler some indisputable advantages. Knowing the exact architecture of the taper allows you to easily rebuild a broken leader on the stream or to modify its performance characteristics to meet changing fishing conditions. You get more versatility at a tiny fraction of the cost. All you need are spools of tippet material, the know-how to tie a Blood knot (if you don’t, go to field andstream.com/bloodknot), and a formula. Here’s my basic leader recipe, a 9-foot 4X, for everyday use and as a platform for alterations:
|TIPPET DIAMETER||TIPPET LENGTH|
|.021 inch||36 inches|
|.019 inch||18 inches|
|.017 inch||16 inches|
|.015 inch||8 inches|
|.013 inch||8 inches|
|.011 inch (0X)||8 inches|
|.009 inch (2X)||8 inches|
|.007 inch (4X)||26 inches|
2. Skate a Spider
Fishing dry flies on a dead drift is a classic maneuver, but skating has a long history, too. Otherwise reluctant trout will often crush skittering dries in big, implosive strikes. The older flies designed for this technique—called spiders and variants—are tied on short-shank hooks with long, oversize hackles that cause the flies to bounce and skim on the water. Keep the fly and leader well greased, and use rod motion or the current drag to draw the fly across the surface, in a smooth pull or in stuttering twitches. By the way, you can skate swinging wet flies as well, lifting the rod until only the leader is on the water and the fly is kicking up a little rooster tail. It’s a terrific short-line, pocket-water technique.
The length of the butt section allows for 6 inches of line to be used when you’re nail-knotting it to the fly line; the other sections allow 2 inches each for the intermediate knots.
If you break a leader, it’s easy to determine the correct tippet size to start remaking the taper. Just begin at the butt section and count down from 21 by twos (21, 19, 17, etc.) to find the diameter in thousandths of an inch. If you need a lighter leader, cut the 4X back to 6 inches and add a 5X or 6X tippet. For a heavier one, cut back to 0X (.011) and add a 1X or 2X tippet. Avoid joining materials that are more than .002 inch apart in diameter because the knot may not hold well.
3. Dap a Dry
One of the oldest and simplest tricks in the book, dapping is now dismissed as a technique for children and simpletons. But this approach is ideally suited to situations with no casting room, like brushy little streams or tight, bankside runs. Stay a rod-length back from the water. With only the leader through the rod tip, lower the fly to the surface, let it drift a few inches, then pick it up and set it down again, essentially “patting” or “dapping” the fly on the water—mimicking precisely the behavior of an egg-laying caddis or mayfly. Listen and feel for the strike. Crude? Possibly. Effective? Without question. It allows you to get a fly into otherwise unfishable spots.
4. Lose the Bobber
Today’s anglers rely heavily on yarn or foam strike indicators even though old-style nymphing is often more productive. Forget the indicator when:
1) Nymphing deep, briskly paced runs. Given the top-to-bottom current differential and the weight needed to get the fly down, an indicator can cause unnatural drag.
2) Working pocket water. Short, twisting current tongues and narrow chutes make it difficult to put the fly and indicator on the same drift. Fish a nymph on a short, barely taut line.
3) Fishing clear, shallow, glassy stretches. Indicators can spook fish. Instead, grease the leader to within a foot or two of the end.
Watch where the line or leader meets the water for the tiniest pause, twitch, dart, burp, or hiccup.
5. Make Flies From Hide Fur
Prepackaged fur dubbing for tying flies is marvelously handy but limited. It’s usually chopped and blended rabbit or squirrel hair. In contrast, fur on the hide, which has been used for centuries, opens up a wealth of choices, particularly for newer fly-tiers who may only know the processed stuff in sealed plastic bags. Muskrat and otter are terrific dubbings; mole fur is superb. Badger, lynx, coyote, beaver, bobcat, opossum, raccoon, and nutria are excellent as well, and all of these hairs are still obtainable. Fur on the hide is pleasing to work with, offers a range of subtle natural colors, and allows the option of including or omitting the guard hairs in the mixed dubbing to control the texture of the finished fly body.
6. Mind Your Streamside Manners
New fly anglers are born every day. New trout streams are not. That means more crowded waters. But it doesn’t mean that old-fashioned stream etiquette must go the way of oiled-silk fly lines and gut leaders. On the contrary—good manners are more crucial than ever. The prime, and most frequently violated, directive: Give an angler on the water some space. Determine which direction he’s working, then put in well behind him and maintain your distance. If you think you may be crowding your fellow fisherman, you probably are. At the very least, politely ask whether he minds sharing a spot. Never poach another fisherman’s water by putting in ahead of him, regardless of whether he’s working upstream or down. In crossing paths when fishing, the angler moving downstream yields to the one working up, exiting the water and walking farther below him. Conversely, if you’ve already found a promising pool, fish it well, but don’t homestead it. Keep moving and give others a chance. If the hatch is on, and you’ve found rising fish, you need far less room than when you’re prospecting. Nothing breeds goodwill like offering someone else a piece of your hotspot. The governing principle in all of this is simple: Respect other people’s enjoyment.
7. Fish Wet Flies
To most anglers in the last 50 years, flyfishing has automatically meant dry-fly fishing. Reliable floating lines have made it the method of choice. But the old style of wet-fly fishing will often catch trout when floating patterns fail. It’s also a simple technique. Cast a wet fly across stream or quartering down. Follow the fly with the rod tip as it swings on a tight line in an arc across the current and comes to rest directly downstream. Mend the line or use the rod tip to swim the fly in front of boulders, into seams, and beneath overhanging brush.
When you’re fishing a tight line like this, pinch the fly line against the rod with your index finger, leaving a foot-long loop of slack hanging between your finger and the reel. The loop, pulled taut when a fish hits hard, gives a kind of cushion and more reliable hookups.
Fish two, or even three, flies this way, each on a 12-inch dropper tied to the bend of the hook above it.
8. Learn the Water Haul
With the emphasis these days on big water, and big casts, this sneaky presentation has almost been forgotten. But when you’re hemmed in by low-hanging brush, the water haul delivers. Let the current carry the line directly downstream of you. Hold the rod 45 degrees downstream, then sweep it upstream with a short arm motion and a flick of the wrist. Keep the rod tip low, moving parallel to the water, and you can shoot a cast that never rises more than a few inches above the surface, snaking a fly deep under tree limbs and bushes. And because you can remain stock-still and perform this cast with the rod low and a minimum of motion, it’s a smart choice for fishing spooky trout that are holding close to you.
9. Use Your Feet
Today’s anglers cast longer lines and fish at greater ranges, in many cases simply because modern tackle makes it easily attainable. But unless the situation calls for it, reaching way out there is actually one of the worst ways of catching trout. Accuracy suffers, drag problems increase, and hooking percentage drops. Great anglers of the past, such as Ray Bergman, understood that being a good fisherman and being a strong caster aren’t the same thing. Smart positioning and stealth will outfish a whole lot of fly line. It’s a little like defense in basketball; the best players rely more on their feet than on their arms. Study the currents and subdivide the water into individual fishable sections. Then walk or wade to the one optimum spot for working each section of water—a position that allows you to throw a fairly short, straight, precise cast. This is not always possible, of course. I’d say only about 98 percent of the time.
10. Roll Cast
Most fly anglers learn the roll cast first—then quickly brush it aside as merely a step on the way to “real” casting, an attitude encouraged by the stiff, fast rods now in fashion and the overwhelming use of weight-forward fly lines, neither of which roll cast particularly well. But when your back’s against the wall (or the brush), with no room for a conventional overhead delivery, a roll cast keeps you fishing. With a moderate-action rod and double-taper line, it gives surprising range, and it’s perfect for wet-fly fishing, where false casting can dry the fly and inhibit sinking. The cast is achieved in a single, efficient motion that keeps your fly on the water instead of logging frequent-flyer miles in repeated, unnecessary false casts.