Selecting the Perfect Fly
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!