Join me at Pronghorn Lake Ranch in Oregon for a weekend of trophy trout fishing October 28-29, 2017! For more info about the weekend, click here.
Join me at Pronghorn Lake Ranch in Oregon for a weekend of trophy trout fishing October 28-29, 2017! For more info about the weekend, click here.
Do you have fly tying material in your inventory that just is not the right color? Or perhaps you are lucky to have been given surplus fly tying materials – something which happened to me – but you need a different color.
Dyeing feathers is easy and fun and sometimes can lead to surprises. This article will show you how to dye and how easy it is.
I have found liquid dye provides more uniform color coverage than powdered dye. I use Rit® liquid dye for my feathers. Also, if I want to add another color to create a different hue, I mix the dye before I add it to the water bath. The colors that I selected for this project were Harvest, Dark Brown, Dark Green and Wine.
Tools and Supplies:
Large Pot (aluminum or porcelain lined)
Colander (preferably metal mesh)
Large bowl (glass, porcelain, or stainless steel)
Large strainer to remove feathers from pot
Latex kitchen gloves
1 cup liquid measure
Large towel you don’t mind staining
White Vinegar (1 cup per batch)
Liquid dish soap
Rit® liquid dye
Bags (for feather storage)
Step 1: Choose pot deep enough to hold your feathers
I use a Granite Ware Porcelain Water Bath Canner which is large enough to submerge all the feathers underwater. Porcelain lined pots are preferable so that any residual stains left from the dyeing can be bleached out. I do not use this pot for food preparation due to the caustic chemicals used in the dyeing process.
Fill pot with lukewarm water. Add a tablespoon of liquid dish detergent. Gently move the feathers with tongs, so that all the feathers are exposed to the soapy water. Allow the feathers to soak for at least one hour to become fully saturated which aids in the even absorption of color from the dye.
Step 3: Rinse the feathers with cool water.
Bring your pot of feathers to the sink. Place a colander in the sink under the faucet. Remove a few feathers from the soapy water and place them in the colander. Rinse the feathers in cool water. Continue to rinse the feathers in the colander until the water runs clean of any residual color, debris, or soap that may remain on the feathers.
Place pot onto stove top. Add water, liquid dye, and 1 cup white vinegar (which acts as a color fixative). I use 12 cups of water and a whole 8 oz. bottle of Rit® dye (if you want subtle colors, use less dye). Turn on burner to high. Do not let the water boil since high heat can dry feathers out so that they become brittle. As soon as there is steam coming from the surface, immediately turn the burner off.
Step 6: Dyeing the feathers
Place a sample of feathers into the dye bath. Keep track of the time in the dye. Remove the feathers, then rinse the sample under cool water to see if the desired color has been achieved. The may take as little as a few seconds, or as long as a few minutes. If the feathers have not absorbed the desired color leave them in the dye bath longer.
Note: The color will appear darker when the feathers are still wet.
Once you are satisfied with the color, add the rest of the feathers to the dye bath. Remove the feathers when the right color has been achieved.
Don’t discard the dye bath until you are satisfied with the final color, as you may need to reuse the dye if the color is too light after the feathers have completely dried.
Step 8: Air dry feathers
Note: prolonged exposure to hot sun will dry out the feathers and make them brittle.
As they dry, check to see if the desired color has been achieved. If not, you can reheat the dye bath and place them back in for additional dyeing.
I usually start the drying process outside, weather permitting, and then finish drying them inside. Check to make sure that they are completely dry before putting them into storage.
Surprises do happen!
It is preferable to start with the color white because it is easier to control the outcome of the desired color. However, we must work with what we have, and these were the colors that I had available.
For example, one surprising outcome for me was the yellow marabou. I wanted an olive colored marabou, so I selected a dark green liquid dye color.
The dark green dye made the color of the dye bath look blue rather than green. But the yellow marabou, when dyed, resulted in the exact color of olive that I wanted. This is because when you combine the colors yellow and blue you get green.
On the other hand, when dyeing a naturally colored grizzly saddle in the exact same dye bath, the final color turned out blue-gray.
It is important to test various dye colors to ensure that you create the desired colors. You cannot assume that the name of the color of the dye will provide you the exact color that you are trying to create. While surprises do happen the results of your efforts can be stunning!
The one fly that you can use year-round!
I am excited to share a sneak peak of a new midge pupae pattern I have been testing over the past few years. Let’s hope that the team of fly tyers will soon be busy getting this one completed so that you may add this to your arsenal of stillwater fly patterns.
In this article, I will include examples of a variety of presentation methods to illustrate the versatility of this fly. This fly pattern mirrors the stage of the chironomid that is most important to trout and subsequently also to anglers. Can you guess what it is?
My new UV midge pupae pattern has become a staple in my fly box as it has outperformed other midge pupae patterns that I have tested. I fished this pattern under a variety of conditions throughout Wyoming, Nevada, California and Oregon over a two-year period. I have also found this pattern productive when trout are selectively feeding on the pupae stage of insects as the pupae make their way towards the surface.
Chironomids, like most aquatic insects, are the most vulnerable when they emerge from the larva stage and transition into the pupae stage. Trout prey heavily on the pupae stage of the chironomid as it moves up towards the surface and hangs in the surface film attempting to break through the surface to emerge as an adult.
The UV midge pupae pattern suggests the most prolific source of food eaten year around for trout in stillwater habitats: chironomids. Known as midges (nonbiting flies), they are essential to trout as they are prolific in stillwater habitats. For example, Hal Jensen’s book, Stillwater Fly-Fishing Secrets, cites a study showing how a single square yard of aquatic vegetation can yield 100,000 chironomids.
Features of UV Midge Pupae: The fly’s elongated, slim profile and segmented body, mirrors the natural shape of the midge pupae in stillwater habitats. I have found that incorporating UV materials in the fly pattern outproduced the same pattern without UV. UV Enhancer wrapped around the hook shank mimics the surface sparkle created by the gas bubble inside the pupal shuck. The addition of UV flash material placed at the eye of the hook also increases the fly’s visibility in stained water conditions.
Size and color options: I primarily use size a #10 hook during spring conditions when the water is cooler. As the water warms and more insects become available, I switch to a smaller #12 or #14 size hook. I have found the most consistent color has been the black with silver ribbing. However, red and olive or black with copper ribbing are productive when the trout selectively key on color.
The life cycle of the chironomid: Larvae spend most of their life in and around vegetated bottoms and mud. The larvae stage of some chironomids contain hemoglobin and these appear red and are referred to as bloodworms. When the chironomids make the transition from the larva stage to the pupae stage is when they become most vulnerable to feeding trout.
As pupae ascend to the surface, their wiggling motion causes oxygen to build up in between the pupal shuck and adult body it contains. This increases the buoyancy of the pupae as it moves up and down, gradually angling towards the surface. This up and down movement is what feeding trout key on.
Once the pupae get to the surface, they can take up to an hour to create an opening in the surface film.
Midge Pupae hanging in the surface film
When midge pupae hang in the surface film, they will often assume a horizontal position, wriggling to find a weak point in the film to emerge. I have observed cruising trout gulping hundreds of midge pupae in the surface film.
When the midge pupae penetrate through the meniscus, the pupa’s head and thorax begin to enlarge as gas between the pupal case and body expands and ruptures the pupal skin. This allows the fully winged adult to emerge on the water’s surface.
Shucks floating in the water is an obvious sign that midge pupae have hatched.
Hardly a day goes by on the water without some chironomid species hatching. When a hatch occurs, that brief period offers anglers some potentially exciting dry fly action.
After the midge has emerged, it mates and the eggs are deposited on the surface in a gelatinous mass. The larva develops inside the egg and the larva descends to the bottom of the lake. Bright green and red are the predominate colors of the larvae stage, but they also can be found in shades of tan, dark red, and brown.
The larvae resemble a small thread attached to a head, and it feeds on organic matter. Larvae can go through four molts before changing into the pupae stage.
Methods of presentation: The UV midge pupae pattern was productive no matter what method of presentation I used: dropping it under an indicator, casting and retrieving in shallow water, or fishing along shallow shoreline edges.
Floating line: This seven-pound rainbow was taken using a #10 Midge Pupae on Pronghorn Ranch Lake near Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Only a small section of the lake remained unfrozen. Using a floating line with an indicator and a slow hand twist to provide movement to the fly, this knuckle-busting seven-pound rainbow broke my rod while I landed it.
Denny Rickards Intermediate Sinking Line:
I have found the midge pupae pattern productive in early spring, especially when cool water temperatures still inhibit the emergence of insects other than midges. This rainbow was caught using a midge pupae pattern with Denny Rickards’ Cortland intermediate sinking line.
I caught this beauty casting into shallow shore line areas during a spring fishing trip to Piedmont Reservoir in Ft. Bridger, WY. The windy conditions provided the necessary cover for cruising trout along shallow shoreline areas. I hooked this rainbow trout using a slow, short, four-inch retrieve. The trout instantly hit the fly and the fight was on as he ran, taking the line all the way into the backing.
Denny Rickards seven-foot tip intermediate sinking line:
Trout were focused on feeding close to the surface. To keep the fly in the top feet, I was casting and retrieving using Denny Rickards’ 7- foot intermediate sink tip line.
After casting, I paused before I started to strip the line. Once I started the retrieve, this tiger trout was already on the hook – he had taken the fly during the pause. The pause allows the fly to sink which mirrors the natural movement of a pupae moving up and down as they slowly ascend to the surface. The tiger hit the fly like a freight train.
The UV midge pupa pattern is certainly a pattern that I have found to be productive in stillwater habitats. The pattern is suggestive of either as a pupae or the larva stage of the chironomid, depending upon the method of presentation. Future articles will include more detailed information regarding presentation techniques for the midge pupae.
Since my last blog posting I have received several questions regarding line selection from readers that may be of key interest to many stillwater anglers. I will continue this dialogue by posting those questions here so that others will also have the chance to get my perspectives on what has successfully worked for me.
Question: What line should you use when the fish are deeper than six feet, but still may be feeding?
Answer: The dilemma facing anglers when no fish are showing on the surface is determining at what depth the trout are feeding. The one consideration to keep in mind is that when trout are on the bite, they feed in the top four feet in stillwater environments due to the availability of food. Sun penetrates the shallow depth, which in turns supports the growth of aquatic vegetation. Plants provides protection and oxygen which attracts aquatic insects. Populations of minnows also thrive, feeding on decaying plants, plankton, and algae. As predators, trout have adapted feeding behaviors that provide them the greatest return on their investment of energy, targeting shallow zones that have the greatest amount of available food sources.
When trout go deeper, they are inactive. Trout hold deeper when they are not actively feeding and/or are off the bite due to the oxygen content in the water, temperature, or weather conditions. However, during the warmer months, food sources such as zooplankton or scuds migrate deeper to cooler depths due to the high sun and higher water temperature which can cause fish to migrate deeper. Trout will not feed below 10 feet due to the lack of available food sources.
Since trout are opportunistic feeders, if the fly looks and moves like food, it will trigger a reactionary response characterized by a hard strike. When you do get a reactionary strike probing deeper water, it is the result of the fly passing through the depth where the trout are holding. The location of the fly will be in the side of the trout’s mouth. When trout are feeding, you will experience a soft take and the fly will be in the middle of the mouth.
Question: If I want to reach fish that are below six feet, is Denny Rickards’ Cortland Type 2 – Clear Full Sinking Line, the best option?
Answer: The Clear Type-2 full sink line, available through Denny Rickards, was intended for when fish were 6-12 feet down. The problem is that the line continues to sink below this zone, making it difficult to control the depth that the fly is presented and causing a loss of productivity. I consider the line ineffective.
If I want to fish deeper and desire a faster sinking line, my line suggestion for fishing 6-12-foot depth is the Cortland Type 2, 10-foot sink tip which sinks two feet in 10 seconds (available from Denny Rickards). I like this line because it allows me to control the depth of the fly. Other sinking lines that I have used sink too quickly through the feeding zones with the fly ending up below the fish. Fish never feed looking down unless they are in shallow water, pushing their nose along the bottom seeking scuds.
This line has been useful for me particularly during the warmer months when the fish are feeding at cooler depths. I use this line to target pupae that are emerging up through the water column. I can also use weighted flies with this line counting down the time that it sinks until I start getting strikes at the depth the fish are holding.
Another line selection consideration is: how easy it is to cast? The Cortland Type 2, 10-foot sink tip line casts like a dream, and it can be picked up easily any time during the retrieve and recast. Other sink lines that I have used do not cast as well or allow me to pick up and recast as easily.
Question: Is there a standard in the industry that defines accurately the sink rate of a line?
Answer: Since there are no market standards, each manufacture can produce a fly line stating their own definition of sink rates. There seems to be a lot of variance between manufacturers even though the sink rates may be marketed similarly. I have found Cortland sink rates to be accurate.
Summary: Stillwater Line Recommendations: If there was one thing that I believe is critical to being successful in stillwater it is presenting the fly at the depth that feeding fish are cruising. Understanding what depth your fly is presented then allows you to target feeding fish. The following lines have worked for me, and the result has been higher catch rates.
I appreciate the questions from many of the readers of the blog. Keep them coming! Until I see you on the water….Good fishin’!
Thank you for your interest in this blog! I hope it is helpful to many people interested in getting into and improving their stillwater fly fishing skills. I was happy to recently receive an email from a reader containing some questions regarding floating vs. sink tip lines. I think topic would useful to many others, so I am posting questions and answers inspired by that email.
Question: How do you approach fishing when fish are sipping midge pupae from the surface? Do you really need an intermediate sink tip?
Answer: When trout are feeding near the surface, they are focused on either the adult or pupae stage of the insect. When I observe a head-dorsal tail rise on the surface, it is a clear indication that fish are feeding on the pupae stage of the insects that are trapped in or suspended just below the surface film. This is easily observed when the water is calm and flat.
When fish are feeding on pupae, my go-to line is the 7-foot camo sink tip (available from Denny Rickards). This line maintains the fly in the top few feet. Trolling this line maintains the fly in the top 8-10 inches, exactly where the trout will be feeding on emerging pupae or midges dangling in the surface film. This is important because if the fly is not presented at the depth the trout are feeding, it will likely be ignored. The line that you use determines the sink rate of the fly, and the intermediate sink tip line is perfect for this application.
Question: Why can’t you use a floating line in this case?
Answer: In my experience, floating lines are best suited for dry flies and indicator fishing with small nymphs or chironomids.
A floating line leaves a shadow and causes surface disturbance when retrieved. In addition, in windy conditions, fish face into the wind which requires a cast across the wind resulting in line bow and drag. This will result in trout refusals of the fly as the presentation does not effectively mimic the insects’ natural movement.
Additionally, research conducted by John Goddard and Brian Clark has found that light colored floating fly lines can also be a significant handicap as they may spook fish due to the reflection of light off the line. The light is reflected as a flash of light across the field of view of the fish. To counter this effect, some anglers have resorted to long leaders. Goddard and Clark’s research found that the drag of the line and leader created visual disturbance when viewed below the surface of the water. The amount of disturbance was proportional to the speed of the retrieve. Anything other than the very slowest rate of retrieve will cause surface ripple in the surface film, which flashed as light spooking the trout. A sink tip line maintains the line and leader below the surface, reducing or eliminating the surface disturbance during the retrieve.
Not only does the floating line and leader disturb the surface when it is retrieved, it also casts a shadow when fished during period of high sun. The 7-foot intermediate camo sink tip has reduced these issues as it has a dark green colored floating line that is married with a transparent intermediate 7-foot intermediate sinking tip.
This line is also ideal for probing shallow shorelines or weedy areas where you want to avoid hanging up on the bottom. I also add 3-5 feet of fluorocarbon tippet (Sightfree) to a 9-foot monofilament leader. The fluorocarbon has the same density of water so that it visually disappears, avoiding spooking the trout.
Question: Isn’t there an issue with picking up and recasting a sink tip line?
Answer: I can easily pick up the line and recast any time during the retrieve. I have not found this to be true with other sink tip lines that I have used. If I am sight fishing, and not immediately hit after the cast, I usually pick up the line after the first 5 feet of the retrieve and easily recast.
Question: If you guess wrong on line selection, why not take all lines to begin with rather than going back to base to get another rod and line?
Answer: Since 90% of the time fish focus on aquatic stage of insects that feed below the surface of the water, I primarily use two lines: the 7-foot camo intermediate sink tip and the camo intermediate full sink line (both available from Denny Rickards). Only 10% of the time do I use a floating line: to either fish dry flies or chironomids.
Most of the time I take the rods with the appropriate line in my pontoon boat. However, when conditions do change and I for some reason did not have the line that I want, I will adapt by changing the rate and speed of the retrieve to adjust the depth of the fly in the water column.
For example, if I want to fish deeper with the 7-foot sink tip line, after casting it out, I can start retrieving immediately, or count to 10, 20, or 30 before I start retrieving. This line sinks a foot every 10 seconds. Longer pauses and slower retrieves will allow the line to slowly sink presenting the fly lower in the water column. This presentation technique is effective when fish are still feeding in the top few feet but are focused on intercepting the emerging stage of pupae as they are slowly making their way to the surface.
It is all about having the right tools in your tool box and knowing how to use them. The 7-foot intermediate sink tip has increased my productivity and has well been worth the investment as seen in the picture of this brown trout was taken on the shoreline in between the weeds.
Here is the link to Denny Rickard’s web site if you want more information.
Hi, fellow anglers! I’m heading out in search of monster fish in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, California, and Nevada. So I’ll doing more angling than writing until snow forces me back indoors. So my next blog entry won’t be until probably November. Good luck out there!
Want to know how to increase your productivity in stillwater? The following tips provide a short summary of tactics I have found to be critical to success in fishing lakes. These tactics are unique to stillwater environments. Try these yourself and see whether your luck fishing lakes improves.
Continually move on the water: You will increase the number of hook ups if you cover more water. Since trout are constantly on the hunt for food, it is critical that the angler also move. If you are not getting hit after a few casts, move to another location. When you do start getting strikes and/or hook ups, make sure you cast in a 360-degree pattern around you before moving. Avoid casting repeatedly into the same spot because the surface disturbance will spook and scatter the trout. Plus, caught fish can scatter other trout that are in the same area, so move on once the strikes begin to diminish. Give that area a rest by fishing elsewhere, and come back later to try again. For more on this topic, see Keep on moving, baby!
Target the feeding zones: To find feeding fish, cast from the water to the shallow shoreline areas at first light and late in the day. Midday, target shallow areas of 2-6 feet when trout show on the surface; trout will move away from shoreline edges once the sun is on the water. During hot summer months, try fishing drop-offs into deeper habitat areas. These offer a refuge from warmer shallow waters and support prolific chironomid populations.
Choose presentation based on rise types: Surface and sub-surface feeding trout provide clues as to what stage of the insect they are feeding upon. If you observe surface rings, that usually means trout are sipping adult insects off the surface or pupae just below the surface. If the rise is splashy it usually indicates larger insects like an adult caddis, damsels or terrestrial insects like ants or grasshoppers. If you see a tail and dorsal rise it usually means that trout are feeding on the pupae stage of aquatic insects. If you observe boiling in shallow waters, it indicates trout feeding on insects like scuds or chironomid larvae on the bottom. Knowing how to read the water allows you to adjust your presentation accordingly.
Target your cast a few feet ahead of a cruising trout: If you observe which direction the trout is moving, target your cast a few feet ahead of it. By casting ahead, trout are more likely to intercept the fly. If it is not apparent which direction the trout is moving, cast to the left or to the right of the ring. Casting directly to the ring rarely brings a strike as the trout is always on the move.
Master the skill of casting long distances: Long casts are essential when: a) there is a flat surface and the sun is overhead, b) fish are feeding on or near the surface, c) the water is gin clear, or d) the fish are feeding in shallow areas. A 40-foot cast is adequate when there is surface ripple, the cover of darkness or when the water is tinted with algae. Casting 60 feet will avoid spooking fish. Also, a longer cast increases the time the fly will be presented to prospective trout increasing chances that more trout will see your fly.
When trolling, stop moving when retrieving the line: While trolling in a pontoon boat, stop to retrieve the line. Never retrieve the line while you are moving. After retrieving the fly, recast and begin trolling again. The speed of your boat combined with the rate that you are retrieving the line will move the fly too quickly through the water. Trolling speed and the amount of line you put out controls the depth your fly moves through the water. Forty to fifty (40-50) feet is about right. Too much line in the water causes slack in the line resulting in missed strikes and poor hook ups.
Cast perpendicular to the wind: Keeping your back to the wind, cast perpendicular to the direction of the wind. Remember, fish face into the wind in order to intercept food that is blown downwind thus allowing them to conserve energy while hunting. When you cast perpendicular to the wind, trout will see the fly in profile view which increases your chances for hook ups.
Add lines to your arsenal that maintain the fly in the feeding zone: Use a floating line for dry flies and flies that are suspended below the surface under an indicator. Floating lines are not suitable for cast and retrieve presentations because retrieving a floating line creates a surface disturbance which spooks trout. Add an intermediate full sink and intermediate sink tip line to your fly fishing tackle. The intermediate full sink line will enable you to cast and retrieve the line and effectively maintain the fly in the top six (6) feet of the water column. This line allows you to present the fly at different depths where feeding trout are cruising. The intermediate sink tip line is used for fishing pupae in the top two feet.
Factor in the conditions which are relative to time of day and time of year, and the whims of mother nature: Where and when fish feed is relative to the conditions, which requires an adjustment in your presentation. For example, in early June when the water warms up mid-morning and triggers hatches, I present the pupae stage of the aquatic insects just below the surface in shallow areas. In fall I fish streamers at first light along the shallow shoreline areas where large brown trout and rainbows cruise. During the cooler winter months, I wait to fish midday, allowing the sun to warm the water, and fish chironomids vertically up through the top 6 feet of water.
When the feeding behavior changes it can be directly related to changes in weather conditions such as north winds, low pressure system, or full moon. These situations cause trout to seek cover and impact their feeding behavior. For more on this topic, check out Adjusting to Changing Conditions.
Use a non-slip mono loop knot to tie the fly to the leader: The loop knot allows the fly to swing freely. Since trout react to movement, allowing the fly to move freely simulating the movement of the natural insect. The only time that I do not use the loop knot is when using dry flies and/or suspending chironomids under an indicator below the surface.
Use fluorocarbon for the tippet: I use monofilament for the leader, and fluorocarbon for the tippet because fluorocarbon is less likely to leave a shadow in the water which can spook trout. The density of the fluorocarbon tippet is the same as water so light passes through the tippet rather than reflect off of it. Add 3-5 feet of fluorocarbon to a 9-foot monofilament leader. Fluorocarbon can be stiffer than monofilament, so be sure to use a loop knot to attach the fly. Tie one size smaller tippet to the leader.
Avoid bead head flies: It is not possible to suspend a bead head fly mid depth because the head of the will fly drop down and point the tail upward (opposite of the natural position of emerging insects). The weight on the fly should distributed over the shank of the hook which will create an undulating movement when retrieved through the water. The bead head fly drops more drastically and takes you out of the strike zone. The only exception to this is when trolling or using chironomids suspended under an indicator; it does not seem to make a difference if a bead head is used. A discussion of bead head flies and a video showing their underwater movement can be seen in Selecting the Perfect Fly.
How do you decide what fly to use? In the past, choosing which fly to tie on always presented me with a quandary. I would fill my fly boxes to overflowing with flies of every size, color, pattern and shape and tie on whatever fly previously had been effective. Then, after hours of pounding the water and not getting hit, I would randomly select another fly and try again. If I was lucky enough to be with buddies who were landing fish, I’d ask what they were using and switch to that fly. Sound familiar?
Back then, fly selection was confusing and seemingly dictated by an indecipherable number of variables. When I wasn’t getting hit, I would sometimes empty my entire fly box switching flies trying to discover which fly worked the best. While fishing with Denny Rickards, he would tell me that he lets the fish dictate what fly to use. How to do this initially eluded me. Over the years, I dedicated myself to the quest for understanding why and when to use which fly.
Now my fishing buddies ask me what fly I have on. I let them know and provide them with samples of the fly while silently reminding myself, “this is what the fish told me they wanted.” To know how to do this, you must understand the relationship between the trout’s feeding behavior and the conditions. Gaining this knowledge peels back the layers of mystery in fly selection, and its lessons are applicable to any lake whether you are using dry flies, nymphs or streamers.
Is it important to match the hatch? Fly fishing anglers have long followed the tradition of matching the hatch, especially while fishing rivers. However, in stillwater environments, it has been my experience that when fishing dry flies, the fly does not have to be an exact imitation of the natural. I have found that an approximate representation of the natural is sufficient in size, color and shape. Size is the most critical element, because if the size of the fly does not approximate the natural, it will likely be refused.
When trout are selectively feeding on the adult stage, they will not take time to stop and evaluate whether the fly is an exactly match to the natural food source. If the fly looks like food and behaves like food, trout will eat it.
When trout are focused on the adult stage of the insect, insects in the nymph stage will go unnoticed. The only time during a hatch that I have found that trout take a nymph is just before and near the end of a hatch. I experienced this just before an epic mayfly hatch while fishing a lake in Wyoming.
Using my callibaetis nymph patterns, I had just landed an 18-inch trout. The bite stopped as soon as the mayfly hatch started. Using an Adams dry fly pattern, I hooked a fish on every cast. This lasted 10 minutes and I landed three 20-inch trout. The feeding frenzy was cut short when windy conditions forced the adult insects off the water. Immediately, the trout stopped feeding on the Adams dry fly, but were lured again when presented with the nymph pattern.
Since ninety percent of the time trout feed below the surface, it becomes a dilemma to know which insect stage of development the trout are feeding on. For example, take standard patterns like the prince nymph, pheasant tail, hare’s ear and zug bug – all nymph flies used for years. The reason they work is because these are all patterns which suggest various aquatic insects in pupae form. (midges, caddis, mayfly and damsels). It is not the insect, but the stage of the insect that our flies imitate.
If the fly imitates the natural undulation and movement of an aquatic insect, the trout will see it as food and react. Whether it is a chironomid, streamer or aquatic insect, it is the movement of the fly that triggers the response.
How do you determine whether to use a chironomid, streamer or aquatic insect pattern? The answer to this is based on several factors. I will cover three: water conditions, time of year and time of day.
A. Match the fly to conditions
Keeping an eye on barometric pressure trends is important as it indicates changing weather conditions. Weather factors like rain, wind, sun, and temperature impact conditions under the water and subsequently affect the trout’s feeding behavior. When conditions change, changing flies may be indicated.
Prior to a change in weather conditions, trout seem to sense a change. For example, while fishing Crittenden Lake in Nevada, before an incoming storm arrived, the trout started feeding more aggressively. Using a grey callibaetis, I successfully landed several 20-inch trout. When strong winds arrived, the bite fell off. I switched from a small aquatic fly to a seal bugger because the seal bugger, when retrieved, creates an undulating movement. The movement of the fly grabbed the attention of two more trout I was able to land.
A change in weather conditions impacts water conditions and subsequently affects the feeding behavior of trout. The following guidelines outline how to select the fly relative to weather conditions.
Cloudy Skies – If trout are making surface rings, use small aquatic patterns (e.g. the stillwater nymph or callibaetis nymph).
If there is no visual surface activity, use suggestive flies like a seal bugger.
Trout perceive that it is safer to move out of their protective cover to feed under cloudy conditions.
Windy with incoming clouds – Surface ripple will also provide protective cover so trout feel safer to feed. Use small aquatic flies like the stillwater nymph. Active feeding behavior can precede an incoming front, and in many cases, the bite will briefly accelerate.
Cloudy and stormy – Midges, seal buggers or stillwater bugs are effective when probing the depth where the trout may be feeding. Fish with darker colored flies in the top 10 feet. Clouds, wind, precipitation and abrupt temperature changes, which are consistent with low pressure, will cause trout to seek cover in deeper water and/or underwater structure and become less active. A consistently falling barometric pressure may indicate that a storm is coming. Once the barometer falls below 29.9 inches, you might as well go back to your fly tying bench because trout will go off the bite until the storm front subsides and the barometric pressure starts climbing.
Mostly clear skies – If there is surface activity, select emerger patters like the A.P. emerger, midge pupae, or other small aquatic flies, and fish in the top 2-3 feet. Trout will resume feeding in the shallow between weedy areas or shoreline areas.
Clear – Use your favorite bright flies because the bite will return to normal when the weather is recovering from a low barometer and the fish have had a chance to stabilize after a day or two. Fish the shoreline areas early and late with suggestive flies. Use your favorite pupae patterns when fishing in the top few feet.
B. Match the fly to the time of year
Fly selection must also factor in the time of year, because the time of year determines what food will be available.
In early spring or late fall, when the water is cool and aquatic food sources are scarce, chironomids and seal buggers are productive.
Summer, when the water temperature increases and aquatic insects begin to emerge, use impressionistic patterns of aquatic insects. If you see shucks in the water you know that there has been a recent hatch. It is a good place to start fishing pupae nymph patterns.
During the fall, I decrease the size of the fly because insects during that this time of year are smaller. Larger flies that worked well in the spring may now scare away fish in low, clear water.
During the winter months, due to the colder water, midges and seal buggers fished near the bottom may entice reticent, dormant trout into a reactive bite.
C. Match the fly to the time of day
Early morning before the sun is on the water and well as late in the day, seal bugger, minnow or leech patterns are productive enticing big trout cruising the shallow shoreline edges with the promise of tasty morsels of protein.
In lakes with silt bottoms, weed beds and shallow shoreline edges, hatches start mid-morning as the water temperature warms. When this occurs, I change my fly to an emerger aquatic pattern like an A.P. or callibaetis nymph.
Midday when there is high sun, trout are more reticent to come out of their protective cover to feed. This was illustrated when my fishing buddy and I were fishing a lake in Central Oregon during a clear summer day. The day was sunny with just a slight ripple on the water. Water temperature was 56 degrees in the channel. We both fished the same shoreline, the same pattern (an orange stillwater nymph), and the same retrieve and line. However, he was successful in landing three brown trout, while I did not even get a nibble.
The reason why was due to the time of day. I fished the channel three hours earlier when the sun was high in the sky. He fished the channel late afternoon, when the sun was low. The lower light conditions later in the day enticed the browns to move out into shallow shoreline areas to feed.
When do you change the fly?
If you are doing everything possible and still not getting hit, when do you change the fly? If you face any of the aspects included in what I call the “trifecta of doom” which is a north wind, low pressure, or a full moon, changing the fly will not make a difference. Trout will stay sheltered and uninterested in eating until conditions change. Under such conditions, go visit a favorite restaurant or attack your honey-do list until conditions improve.
However, when you are not dealing with any of these factors, and repeated attempts pounding the water have not yielded a hook up, one or more of the following situations usually exist:
Remember it is not the insect, but the stage of the insect that our flies imitate. The reason that various patterns all work is that they represent various aquatic insects in pupae form.
Be aware of the current conditions, time of year and time of day, and evaluate how it will affect the feeding behavior of trout before you make your fly selection.
A fly that worked yesterday may not work today due to changes in the trout’s feeding behavior as a result of changes in their environment. Be willing to adjust your fly selection accordingly.
Change the size or the color before you change the pattern when you know that trout have seen but have refused the fly.
If not getting hit, try fishing different depths, move to another location, and avoid repeated casting into the same area before you change the fly.
Note: If there are any questions that you would like me to answer, please send them to me using the contact form. I would be delighted to hear from you.
I remember my first experience catching large fish years ago at Monster Lake in Wyoming. It was a day filled with broken tippets, unbuttoned fish, and fish weeding me and breaking off my fly. The fish schooled me that day!
More recently, my education was furthered while fishing Piedmont Lake in Wyoming. It was first light in the morning, when a brown trout hit my fly like a freight train and turned my knuckles white with tension as I held fast to the rod. Flashing above the water surface, the span of the brown trout’s tail exceeded six inches. He started to run directly away from me, shooting though the water like a torpedo. He disappeared into the dark depths while my reel screamed, spitting out line and backing. Reacting with laser focus, I kept letting out line while attempting to maintain only a light tension on this runaway monster.
Suddenly, everything just stopped, and the line that an instant before was electric with tension and speed now dropped lifeless and motionless from the tip of my rod: the running trout had completely straightened the hook and secured its escape. Was his victory inevitable, or could it have been averted?
Fish break off during the hook set and when you try to land them. This article describes what tactics I have learned work, and why (including what I should have done in the example above). These tactics have increased my success hooking and landing behemoths and can help you too! Read on to find out what tactics to add to your angling skill set to increase the odds ever in your favor of hooking and landing trophy trout.
Set the hook by lifting the rod tip or by using a quick strip set: Setting the hook either too lightly or too hard will reduce your chances of a successful hook up. When setting the hook, if the hook set is too lightly, the fish can easily shake off the hook. If the hook set is too hard, either the fly is pulled out of the fish’s mouth, or you may pull smaller hooked fish clean out of the water and launch them flying over your head into the next county – I have seen this happen. Setting the hook is a matter of reflex. The stronger the take, the harder we instinctively react. Learning to fine-tune our hook set is important in order to increase the number of successful hook ups.
When a fish takes a fly, it will be either a reactive bite or a feeding bite. When you feel the fish aggressively take the fly, it is a reactive bite because the fish saw the fly in profile. Also the location of the fly will be in the side of the trout’s mouth.
If it is a soft take, you may not even feel the trout take the fly. This is because the trout approached the fly from behind or from the front, and sucked the fly in as food during the pause between your retrieves. You might feel only a slight movement of the line as if the fly is moving though weeds. Set the hook immediately! Trout hooked in this way will have the fly in the front of the mouth:
Keep your rod hand in the hook set position: Get in the habit of holding the line in-between the index and middle finger of the hand holding your rod (“rod hand”). This is important because if you happen to get an immediate hit once your fly touches the water, your hand will already be in position to set the hook by either lifting the rod tip or by a quick strip.
Keep the rod tip in the water to avoid slack: Avoid break offs by keeping the tip of the rod underwater. When the rod tip is above the water, the dangling line creates slack which may cause missed hook ups. I’ve observed anglers repeatedly miss hook ups because they kept their rod tip a foot or more above the water surface. Hookups were missed because they first had to strip in the slack line before they could set the hook. The slack line hurts you in two ways: you won’t immediately feel the fish is on, and you won’t be able to quickly initiate a hook set. Both place you behind the 8-ball in your response time and lower your chances of a successful hook up.
Use the free hand to strip the slack out of the line after a hook up: Strip the line from behind the index and middle fingers of the rod hand into a stripping basket. For those anglers who rely on the reel to remove slack, it is virtually impossible to respond fast enough to a fish quickly changing directions. The reel’s drag setting has to be perfect, since too tight or too loose of a drag can cause a break off. For example, if a fish doubles back and creates slack in the line, it is extremely difficult to reel in the slack quickly enough. In my opinion, relying solely on the reel to maintain line tension is like taking a shower with your waders on…neither is productive or effective.
This rainbow trout found cover under a row of willow trees completely submerged in the water. Casting near these trees was a risky undertaking because, once hooked, these behemoth trout would immediately go deep, bury themselves in weeds, wrap the line and tippet around the willow branches, and escape capture. Being outwitted by these wily fish previously had forced me to replace many hooks, tippets, and leaders. I was determined not to donate more gear to the depths and come out empty-handed.
I cast only 20 feet from my pontoon boat, and within seconds, the trout took my grey A.P. emerger, pulling the line with her as she fought to dive into the abyss amidst the willows – her favorite refuge where she would gain her advantage. Immediately I began stripping line with my free hand to maintain tension and prevent the trout from going deep. I was determined to win this epic battle. However, the fish had other plans. She turned and aimed straight towards me, and as fast as a runaway freight train, headed directly under my boat while aggressively pulling my rod tip downward. I had to quickly adjust and give her a slack line to prevent her from breaking the rod tip. I finally was able to lead her into the net.
Learning how to quickly use the rod hand index finder as the brake and the free hand to feed or strip line as needed is critically important in order to quickly adjust, react and respond to the unpredictable movements of a large, frisky, hooked trout who displays attitude.
Run your leader through your thumb and index finger to check for any abrasions or knots: Wind knots or abrasions from rocks weaken the tippet. A large, energetic fish can break off usually at the location of a wind knot or a section weakened by an abrasion. Inspect the tippet and leader before you’re on the water. Don’t chance it; replace any knotted leader or tippet section as soon as you see the knot because you want to keep the odds in your favor if you chance to get “Walter” on the line.
Increase the size of your tippet and leader if you repeatedly experience break offs: Break offs can happen when using tippets that are too light and leaders of too small a diameter. This is because small diameter leaders have less overall strength as well as less elasticity and stretch – the latter of which are necessary to absorb the shock from a fish strike or large fish making sudden changes in movement. Even though the angler may be skilled enough to land a fish with lighter weight tippets and leaders, they may have to play the fish longer in order to do so successfully. When a fish is played longer, it places greater stress on the fish and decreases their survival rate once released.
Keep your hooks sharp and replace bent hooks: Hooks that have been bent and then bent back into shape after fighting an energetic fish are weakened. They lose their strength and may fail when “Walter” gets on the line. Hooks that are dull or may have a scale attached to the point may also prevent a successful hook up. Check your hooks often – especially after you land a fish.
Maintain a tight line by stripping in the slack: Big fish run faster and the bigger ones go deep. Over challenging a fish at hook set can cause breakoffs. If the fish runs either to the right or the left of you, keep slight pressure on the fish using the left hand to control the slack and the right index finger (of the rod hand) as the brake.
Keep the line taut by putting only slight pressure on the fish if the fish runs directly away from you: Too much tension placed on the line when the fish is moving directly away from you increases the chances that the fish will become unbuttoned or straighten the hook (as that fish at Piedmont Lake did to me).
Reduce pressure when you feel the head shake: Back off the line pressure and let the trout finish its head shakes during these intense moments. After the fish finishes shaking its head, strip in the slack.
Reduce pressure when fish go airborne: Reduce line tension on the fish when the fish jump. This avoids pulling the fly out of its mouth during the aerial acrobatics. Strip in the slack when the fish lands. Putting pressure on the fish is what causes the fish to go airborne.
Keep the rod tip up and use side pressure on the rod: If fish goes left, move the rod tip to the right. If the fish goes right, move the rod tip to the left. The rod should bend in the mid-section. The rod is the shock absorber, compensating for the sudden jerky movements of the fish. Let the rod bend; they are made to bend and absorb the pressure and shock.
Avoid horsing the fish: Horsing the fish (trying to bring the fish in too quickly) can cause the fly to pull free or the tippet to break. On the other hand, I have seen anglers overplay fish, which stress the fish and increases the mortality rate – especially when the water is warm or cold.
Keep your back to the wind: When landing a fish in windy conditions, remember to keep your back to the wind. This provides greater agility and control when guiding fish into the net.
First place the net into the water, then guide the fish in head first:
Be prepared for the fish to make a run, freak out, flip you the fin (and give you a shower), and then run away under full steam when they come near the boat, see the net, or come into shallow water. When landing the fish, lower the net into the water first, then guide the fish headfirst into it. If the net is already into the water, the fish’s own motion will propel them head first into the net. Don’t try to scoop up the fish into your net from behind or from the side as the fish will likely be able to escape the net.
Reduce pressure when using smaller hooks, leaders and tippets: Hooking large trout with a small hook is not the problem, landing them is. While catching large trout on a small #18 dry fly can be the emotional high point of your day, being able to land these oversize monsters can be challenging. The size of the gap in the smaller hook often lightly hooks the trout, giving the trout a greater chance to break free.
The most important tactic of all to hook and land big fish is to spend time on the water: More time on the water exposes you to more diverse experiences and opportunities to experiment with and master the techniques that work for you. There are a lot of different ways to hook trophy size fish in stillwater, but you must also be able to successfully land them. The big fish that have escaped me are the ones that I think about in the middle of the night. The ghostly images of their sleek forms gliding away from me is what compels me to keep coming back.
I’d like to hear from you!
I am interested in your questions and your feedback! Send me comments on this or other articles as well as your questions and your comments using the Contact Me link. I will incorporate your feedback and questions in future blog entries.
Fly selection is driven by tradition, long held beliefs, personal preferences, and experience. My fly box overflows with patterns that hold promise of catching that 10-pound behemoth. The theories for fly selection have crystallized into universally accepted guidelines repeated by anglers as gospel truth. Do these theories hold true in stillwater environments?
“Big flies for big fish”
Trophy size fish have grown large because they have honed their survival skills and remain wary in their underwater habitat. Even the slightest casting mistake can send them diving for cover. If they take our fly, that is the exception. Although these large trout would most likely prefer a single, big, juicy gulp of protein verses expending the energy chasing many smaller insects to eat the equivalent amount of protein, they are opportunistic feeders; if it looks like food, they will eat it. However, they may selectively key into size and silhouette. Big browns are known to refuse the big streamer or leech pattern and take a smaller fly instead.
For example, last fall I was fishing late afternoon at East Lake in Oregon and was casting in between weed beds. A 10 lb. brown seized my fly, surfaced, and disappeared into the depths to hide in protective vegetation. Burrowing deep, he held me at bay, unyielding to any of my attempts to bring him up to the surface. After a tense standoff, the brown finally broke free, snapping my 12 lb. fluorocarbon tippet and taking the fly with him to disappear again into the recesses of the shallow bottom. This great brown rejected my previous offering of seal buggers in favor of the smaller emerger.
Another example was demonstrated during the spring when fishing Piedmont Reservoir in Wyoming. Trout were taking small flies while refusing larger patterns. Casting a small midge pattern into the shoreline where feeding trout were cruising rewarded me with several 24-inch trout. Again, these large trout were selectively keying in on the profile, size, and silhouette of the smaller midge while refusing larger patterns.
When targeting large trout, it is not the size of the fly that is the most important factor, but rather the time of day that I am fishing. Big fish make their appearance during specific times and conditions. They seldom leave the safety of their refuge unless they feel it is safe to do so (e.g. under the cover of darkness, wind ripple, or in cloudy, nutrient-rich water). Early morning and late in the day are excellent times when the cover of darkness provides protection and they emerge and hunt for food.
“Fishing two flies is better than one”
Using multiple flies as a presentation approach is a matter of personal preference. Many anglers prefer this approach and can be very successful. However, this approach can present a unique challenge when using a floating line and two different wet fly patterns (e.g. a seal bugger and a small chironomid). The question is: that how do you determine the best retrieve to simulate the natural movement of both flies? The larger fly requires a longer, fast pull and the smaller fly requires short, slow pulls. Since you can only do one retrieve, you can only match the movement of one fly while sabotaging the movement of the other. The solution to this dilemma is to use two flies that that require the same speed of retrieve. This can be an effective method to increase your chances for hook ups.
Another effective two-fly presentation approach for sight fishing is to cast a floating line with a dry pattern as the indicator and suspending a nymph pattern below it. The challenge with this approach is the you cannot avoid creating surface disturbance upon the retrieve. However, applying this technique at Monster Lake in Wyoming during late spring was tremendously fun as the huge trout I hooked often took me down to my backing.
At Crittenden Reservoir in Nevada last week, I watched anglers use multiple small chironomids suspended under an indicator. This was an effective presentation approach and they landed beautiful 18 to 24-inch trout in sunny flat, clear water conditions where the slightest surface ripple would spook the trout. Which fly was more successful? It depended on which fly was at the correct depth where feeding fish were cruising.
“Bead head or not to bead head,” …the discussion continues
Traditional brass bead heads are an effective and popular way to get the fly down fast. However, I no longer use flies with bead heads. When retrieving a fly with a bead head it is difficult to suspend the fly in the water column. Compare two flies, identical except one has a bead head and the other does not.
Watch how head of the fly with the bead head drops unnaturally up and down during the retrieve in this underwater water video:
Both flies were weighted equally and tied with the same materials. The difference was that the fly without the bead head was wrapped with twenty wraps of .020 lead distributed along the shank. When the weight is distributed, it allows the fly on the pause and retrieve to rise and fall in a more natural motion. The fly without the bead head has more of an undulating movement and depending upon the speed of the retrieve, makes the fly’s motion more suggestive of a natural food source.
“Match the hatch”
Very respected fly fishing angers stress the importance of matching the hatch. This presents a dilemma for stillwater anglers when, ninety percent of the time, fish feed on aquatic insects that live below the surface that are either larva, emergers or pupae. Only when fishing dry flies is it critical to match the hatch (size, shape and color). When trout become selective, it is always the stage of the insects they key on first (larva, pupae or adult). They will key on it for a short period of time, but not all day.
To match the hatch concept in stillwater, focus on how the fly will appear to the trout below the surface. Mirror the natural form of the insect in: size, shape and color by the use of suggestive flies that can mimic a variety of insects.
Pattern size is determined by the type of insect that the fly imitates. I reduce the size of small flies that I use during the summer and fall because aquatic insects are smaller. The size of the fly you should use is relative to the time of year.
For example, reservoirs used for irrigation during the summer and fall experience water drawdowns which transforms the aquatic habitat. At these times, water is normally clear and the insects smaller. Because of these conditions, when fishing with flies that imitate aquatic insects in the summer and fall, I reduce the size of the fly from a #10 to a # 12.
When trout are feeding on a particular food source, having that fly in more than one size is a good idea. For example, when fishing Clear Lake in Oregon during the summer, trout refused to take the size #10 all-purpose emerger, but eagerly accepted the smaller size #12 of the same fly.
If experiencing nibbles, bumps, but no direct strikes, switch to a smaller fly. The exception to this rule is that when fishing larger flies such as seal bugger and leech patterns; I seldom change from a size #8. Unlike hatching and flying insects, leeches do not become smaller during the summer and fall.
Color can be crucial, but it depends on the light conditions. If the sun is bright and backlights the fly, color is not so important because the fish will only see the silhouette. Therefore, if the fly is backlit by the sun or there is low light, color becomes less of a factor. Color is important when there is sufficient light to see the different hues. The most common colors found in my fly box are: olive, burnt orange, white, black, and burgundy. When trout go off the bite, changing the color of the fly does not usually bring the bite back. If changing the color of the fly does not make a difference, return to the original color that you used.
Matching the proportions of the natural food source in tail, body, thorax, wings and legs creates a silhouette that looks like the food trout seek. Since trout key in on the silhouette, if the fly looks and behaves like food, the trout will interpret it as food. If the motion of the fly replicates their natural food source, as opportunistic feeders, the trout will be more apt to take the fly.
We all have our favorite flies – those flies with which we emerged victorious from the water after catching the biggest size and largest number of fish. We favor the colors and patterns that brought us success, collecting flies, framing and hanging them on the wall. We generously share our flies with strangers and buddies alike, all eager to experience similar success. When we see another angler knockin’ ‘em dead while we sit struggling to get a bite, the first thing we ask is, “what are you using?” So be generous in helping your fellow fishing buddies by sharing not just a fly, but the size, color, and/or shape that seems to be working.
Thanks for your interest in my blog! For my readers I want to share a fly summary guide I developed describing three of Denny Rickards’ signature flies: all-purpose emerger, seal bugger and callibaetis nymph. It describes the retrieve and when to use each fly. Enjoy and share!
Click here to view the guide, which you may print, save, and/or forward to your friends.
My next blog will be upon my return from fishing stillwater lakes in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming. I should be back after June 15th. Until then…tight lines!