Gone Fishin’

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!

Tips that will increase your success on stillwater

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

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.

Choosing the Right Fly

Photo by D. Rickards

Early morning catch

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.

Photo by V. Loftus

Denny Rickards

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.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Adult Callibaetis

Photo by T. Loftus

Adams Dry Fly

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.

Photo by V. Loftus

Incoming Storm

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.

Photo by T. Loftus

Gray Callibaetis Nymph

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.

Photo by D. Rickards, all rights reserved

Photo by D. Rickards

Photo by T. Loftus

Stillwater Nymph

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).


Photo by T. Loftus

Orange Seal Bugger

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.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Surface ripple

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.

Photo by T. Loftus

Midge Larva

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.

Photo by T. Loftus

A.P. Emerger

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.

Photo by V. Loftus

Photo by V. Loftus

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.

Photo by V. Loftus

Fishing in the early morning

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.

Photo by V. Loftus

Misty conditions at 7am. What fly would you use?

Photo by V. Loftus

Same location at 9am. Would you change your fly?

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:

  1. There are no fish where you are fishing – Not getting hit is likely the indication of the absence of feeding trout. The solution is, when the bite slows, move to other areas where trout may be feeding. Fish continually move, and so should you.
  2. There may be fish, but the cast may have spooked the trout.  Cast in a different spot, never recast in the same area, because fish will move away due to the disturbance in the water.
  3. You may be fishing at the wrong depth. Your fly may be moving at a depth of 6 feet, but the fish are feeding at two feet. Try probing different depths.
  4. You know the fish saw the fly but refused it: If you are getting repeated bumps and touches, but no takes, then you know the trout have seen the fly, but rejected it. I first change the size or the color before I change the pattern.
Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Summary Tips:
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.

Photo by D. Rickards, all rights reserved

Photo by D. Rickards

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.

Hook ups and Landings…may the odds be ever in your favor!

Photo by D. Rickards, all rights reserved

Photo by D. Rickards

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.

Part 1 Hook up tactics…

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

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:

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

Photo by D. Rickards, all rights reserved

Photo by D. Rickards

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.

Part 2 Landing tactics…

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.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

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.

Photo by D. Rickards, all rights reserved

Photo by D. Rickards

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:

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus



Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.


Photo by Denny Rickards

Photo by Denny Rickards

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.


Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

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!

What Trout See

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

A recent April spring afternoon left me in a state of pure bliss: I had landed 28 trout during an explosive bite. Wanting to determine if the nonstop action would be impacted by the color of the fly, I tested five different seal bugger colors: olive, orange, white, black, and burgundy. Which color do you think was the most productive?

Surprisingly, all colors worked! No matter the color of fly, repeated takes were like being hit by a freight train. Rainbows launched out of the water completing multiple five foot aerials. Yet other times I have found trout can be very finicky in what they take. Understanding how various factors affect light and what trout see will help us refine our presentation and increase our angling success.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Time of day
The amount of light that penetrates the water can vary based on the time of day due to the angle of sunlight penetrating the water. On this recent spring day, when trout looked up towards the surface of the water, the high overhead position of the sun meant the fly could only be viewed as a silhouette. The bright sun’s position midday made it impossible for the trout to distinguish the fly’s color. This is because the smooth, glassy conditions allowed more light to penetrate into the water column causing the flies to be backlit. Trout keyed on the movement of the dark silhouette and less on the color. During midday, when the fly is the same depth of the trout, then and only then is the color distinguishable.

In low light periods such as dawn and dusk, feeding trout will often hunt closer to the surface where they have a smaller field of vision. When fish are deeper, anything above them is seen as though looking through a cone. The deeper they are, the wider their field of vision. When they are closer to the surface, the more restricted and narrow their visible window. If the angler is outside the range of the trout’s visual window, the trout will not be alerted to the angler’s presence.

When sight casting, trout will be just below the surface and color will be more critical. In such conditions, you must be precise with your fly placement in order for it to be seen. Place the fly far enough ahead of the cruising fish to attract it, but not close enough to frighten it.

When trout are feeding near the surface or even in the film, their viewing angle is small and tight and they can see detail close up. This allows anglers to approach feeding fish much closer and not be noticed compared to when fish are holding deeper. When trout are holding deep, they have a larger viewing window of what is above them, including the angler. Long casts keep the angler outside of the trout’s viewing window, which avoids spooking the fish.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reservered

Photo by T. Loftus

Depth of Water
In clear and shallow water, colors will be more recognizable in the top few feet. However, three to six feet down, colors become muted as less light penetrates the water column. Additionally, since water is denser than air, light bends when it hits the water. Light becomes scattered and colors change, and become subdued. In clear water, red and orange (colors with long wavelengths) are absorbed first. Colors with shorter wavelengths (violet, blue and green) remain visible as darker silhouettes.

Dr. David Ross, explains in “Fish Eyesight: Does Color Matter?” how color selectivity becomes less critical when fishing deep. At 10 feet, roughly 60 percent of the total light will be absorbed. This causes the color of the fly to appear gray and eventually turn black as the depth increases. Absorption of light and the filtering out of color wavelengths also effects vision horizontally through the water. If the fly is a few feet away horizontally from the trout at a deeper water depth, the fly will appear grey. To get a better idea of how this would appear to the trout, view these seal buggers in black and white:

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

Photo by T. Loftus

Stained Water
Imagine looking through green tinted sunglasses; some colors will be stronger while others subdued. In the same way, colors seen by the trout are affected by particulates in the water. For example, a burnt orange fly in green algae stained water will appear orange/brown. Additionally, since there is less light in heavily stained water, dark flies produce a clearer silhouette and are therefore easier to see and more effective in such conditions.

Trout Vision
Trout and human eyes have many similarities. Both share lens-covered retinas that contain rod and cone photoreceptors. Rod cells perceive contrast in low light, cone cells provide color vision. The trout’s cones are tuned to colors: red, green and blue – the same as the human eye.

One difference is that trout do not use rods and cones at the same time, the way humans do. Trout cones are activated only during the day so trout can see color while the sensitive rods are disengaged to protect them from bright sunlight. At night, the trout’s cones disengage and the rods activated to see in the dark. Since the trout cannot see color at night, they rely on contrast and key on the silhouette.

The only time that trout activate both their rods and cones at the same time is for a brief period during dawn and dusk. Small prey have two-toned bodies: dark on top and a lighter belly. Flies with a darker upper and lighter underside replicate the appearance of natural prey. This is why minnow patters are so successful during dawn and dusk as they offer an appetizing silhouette to feeding fish.

Do fish see UV light? Debate continues…

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Midge Pupae, Photo by T. Loftus

Whether or not to add UV materials to a fly is an ongoing debate in the scientific and angling communities. Some researchers say young juvenile fish still in the Parr stage have the ability to see UV light and which later shifts from ultraviolet to blue. Others say that the ability to see UV light disappears by the time the trout is two years old. Still others believe that certain species use UV for only a part of their life cycle. Some researchers counter that trout retain the ability to see UV light into adulthood.

It is up to the reader to decide if UV seems to make a difference based on their own experience. Personally, I have found that in heavily stained water, the flash of iridescent UV material can add contrast and increase the fly’s visibility. However, an excessive amount of UV flash can spook trout on bright clear days.

Remember, in stillwater all living food sources that trout pursue emit UV light. Can trout see it? Or do they rely on silhouette and movement?  You be the judge.

As anglers transform a simple hook wrapped with material into something appearing to be living, breathing, and tasty, we select our favorite colors based on personal experience. However, those colors will be perceived differently depending on the time of day, position of the sun, and the degree of light penetration in the water.


  • Sight casting requires precision: place the fly ahead of the trout in order for the fly to be seen.
  • When fishing deep with chironomid patterns under an indicator, choose a dark fly.
  • In low light or stained water, select flies with contrasting colors and/or darker colors.
  • Try various colored flies when angling on sunny days in shallow water to determine whether there is a color preference.
  • When the sun is high, any color in your fly box should be equally effective.

A Beautiful Spring Day

Today we enjoyed a beautiful day of early spring fishing. The views were gorgeous. On the way, we had amazing views of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams:

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Mt. Adams

Mt. Adams

When we arrived at our lake it was calm and glassy at first:


Glassy conditions

Wind picked up and we could see Mt. Adams in the distance:

Mt. Adams peeking over the trees

Mt. Adams peeking over the trees

Here’s a fish eye’s view of the lake:

Photo by T. Loftus

Photo by T. Loftus

Check out this  video of one of the trout being caught:

Here’s an underwater slow motion video of that same trout:

In all, we landed twenty 16-18 inch rainbows and 5 bass. Here’s one of them:


Photo by T. Loftus

We always try to treat the fish gently and release them quickly:

Adjusting to Changing Conditions

My first day was epic as I landed thirty-one 18 to 20-inch trout in the afternoon. On the second day, I was so eager to get back on the water, I forgot the most important factor an angler must consider in any stillwater situation. Can you guess what it was?

If you answered that you must first consider conditions to determine the best presentation approach, you are on your way to fish whisperer status. Taking a few moments to observe water conditions before you get on the water is an essential habit that will save you time and increase your hookups. A recent fishing experience of mine reinforced this lesson.

I was fishing a couple days last week at an OFC lake property near Mt. Adams in Washington State. It was a sunny and windy spring afternoon, and after landing 31 trout, I camped overnight fully expecting similar success the next morning.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Day 1: Sunny and windy

The following morning, I shivered as the air temperature held at 27 degrees – but I was not deterred. Anticipating a bounty similar to the one enjoyed the previous day, I grabbed the same rod and fly line that worked so well the day before and headed onto the water. The water temperature had dropped to 47 degrees overnight and the was sun still low on the horizon. The surface of the flat, glassy water reflected a completely different picture compared to the previous day’s wind rippled water and bright warm sun. After 15 minutes my enthusiasm waned and I began to wonder why the trout were ignoring my fly.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Day 2: Cold and glassy

Assuming what had worked yesterday would again work today, I wasted a lot of time. If I had taken a few more moments before getting into the water to notice how the conditions had changed, I would not have had to paddle back to get the appropriate rod and line…as well as try to find humor, and remember the value of humility and importance of patience. There were now visual signs of feeding fish on the surface – feeding behavior different from the previous day. In order to be successful, my presentation had to be adjusted instead of blaming my failure on the mysterious and unpredictable behavior of trout.

The reason that the fish were feeding just below the surface was due to the availability of food sources, as well as the darker light conditions offering the trout protective cover from predators. Trout were now feeding on emerging pupae in the top few feet of water. One could observe the surfacing dorsal fins of the feeding trout. Due to the flat, glassy water conditions, I replaced a cast and retrieve approach with a trolling presentation to minimize surface disturbance. Instead of positioning the fly in the top four feet (as I had the previous day), I used the 7-foot intermediate sink tip to position the fly in the top two feet of water. As a result, I immediately hooked into fish and landed thirteen, 18-inch trout within the next hour.

Since fish feed in the top 5 feet of the water column, staying in the 7-foot water depth range targets trout in the feeding zone. When fish hold deeper than 10 feet, you may be able to trigger a reactive bite, but they will not be feeding. If you have no fish finder to determine depth, use your rod to probe how far you are above the bottom. Focusing on the zones where fish are feeding will increase your number of hook ups. Feeding trout also may cruise in the shallow water. I have caught my largest fish early morning in 1-2 feet of water near shoreline edges.

Conditions and Presentation Approach

How productive we are as anglers depends on the ability to adapt to changing conditions by modifying our presentation accordingly. For example, the bright afternoon sun pushed the feeding trout deeper in the water column. An intermediate full sink line presented the fly in the top three to four feet at the same level the feeding fish were cruising. This presentation approach was successful as I landed 31 trout.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Anglers that rely on a floating line in windy or sunny flat water conditions are met with a variety of challenges. A floating line reflects sunlight during the false cast and creates a shadow under flat water which can spook trout causing them to run for cover. Floating lines are not meant to be retrieved as the movement of the line across the water creates surface disturbance. Windy conditions cause floating lines to drag and develop a belly which causes unnatural movement in the fly. Simply put, skittish trout refuse the fly as it does not mimic the natural movement of their food source.

Floating lines are most useful when fishing a chironomid under an indicator and/or fishing dry flies during a hatch. A stillwater angler using only a floating line fishes with a tremendous handicap – it significantly limits the angler’s ability to effectively adjust to a variety of conditions. Having the right tools and knowing when to use them is vital to being able to catch fish consistently regardless of the conditions.

Windy conditions
While windy conditions can be a nuisance to anglers using floating lines, I use the wind to my advantage when casting an intermediate sink line. Instead of casting downwind as many anglers do, I make casts across the direction of the wind. Keeping my back to the wind, I cast to the left and right of my pontoon boat. This is because trout face into the wind, waiting for tasty morsels to float to them thus conserving energy chasing after food. Casting perpendicular to the wind increases the number of hook ups as more fish will see the fly in full profile. Also, the intermediate full sink line in windy conditions does not cause surface disturbance which can spook trout.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Cold water conditions
In cold water conditions target shallow or shoreline areas because water temperatures warm up faster than deeper areas of the lake. Reduce the speed of your retrieve as trout are more reluctant to chase after the fly in cold water.

Tips to success:
To be successful, the itinerant angler who braves the wildest weather in search for trophy trout must accept that fish feeding behavior is determined by the conditions. Choosing the most productive presentation is always the immediate challenge and absolutely critical to success. When you start outfishing everyone else by applying this knowledge, you will move closer to earning the legendary title of fish whisperer…especially during cocktail hour.

  • Always take a few moments to observe water conditions and select your presentation approach accordingly.
  • After determining your initial presentation approach, be prepared to make constant adjustments as conditions change.
  • Include an intermediate full sink and 7’ sink tip line to your arsenal.
  • Cast across the wind, not with the wind when using a full sink intermediate line.
  • Be constantly aware of the water depth to target feeding fish. Stay in 7 feet depths where feeding trout are cruising.
  • Early spring conditions require slowing down the trolling speed and the speed of retrieve due to cold water conditions. Target shorelines and shallow water areas as they warm up quicker.

What’s more important: fly or presentation?

Most anglers believe selecting the appropriate fly pattern is the key factor to catching fish. When fellow anglers see me on the water their first question is always “what fly are you using?” In order to catch fish consistently, is the fly pattern selection the most crucial factor? Perhaps the more fundamental question should be: how do we present the fly to entice those hungry trout? This story demonstrates the importance of presentation versus pattern selection and explains why.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by Vickie Loftus

My husband and I kicked out in our SuperCat pontoon boats on a private Oregon Fishing Club lake close to Portland one recent midmorning, savoring a break from the long, cold, and rainy Northwest winter. The sky was cloudy, the air temperature warming up to 50 degrees. Water temperature was 48 degrees and the surface was glassy with a few midge pupae floating in the surface film. A few surface rings were visible indicating fish feeding in the top two feet of water.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

We both used an intermediate 7’ sink tip line to keep the fly high in the water column where the fish were feeding. Both of us used the same fly, a grey callibaetis pupae nymph. This fly is a productive pupae pattern when there are emerging insects.

It did not make a difference if we fished either along shoreline or in deeper water as long as we fished the upper two feet of the water column. The trout were dispersed due to the oxygen-rich environment throughout this small lake.

As I trolled the lake, I would stop kicking approximately every 50 feet, make 10-12 slow, 4-6 inch strips, wiggle my rod tip releasing the stripped line back into the water, then start moving again. This allowed the fly to sink, simulating the natural movement of the insect. If you troll the same time you strip, that increases the speed of the retrieve, which in cold water reduces hookups. Therefore, it is important to stop trolling before you start stripping in cold water conditions since fish are reluctant to move. Using this kick, stop-and-strip, release-and-kick method of trolling, I immediately hooked fish. This told me I was presenting my fly at the correct depth in the water column where the trout could see it. I am sure they saw it as food, and the retrieve imitated the movement of the fly similar to the movement of their natural food source.

However, I wanted to test whether adjusting the way the fly moved would make a difference in my catch rate. We both continued trolling with identical lines and flies, but I changed the speed of the retrieve. Here is what happened:

As I sped up the retrieve, I continued to receive a lot more bumps, nibbles, and pecks, but overall the fish would not take the fly. By this time, my husband had out fished me 3-to-1, landing six fish to my two. This is a striking indication how important the retrieve is in simulating the natural movement of the insect. Since I knew that the rate of the retrieve and the importance of the pause was critical in my catch rate, what would happen if I changed the fly?

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

I changed the fly to a A.P. pupae emerger and tried the fast retrieve. The fish continued to refuse taking my fly. I then modified my retrieve back to the original slow, short retrieve with a pause in between the strips. The fish started taking the fly again and I was able to hook them.

This experiment illustrated that the retrieve, not the fly, significantly influenced the behavior of the fish. Both flies were effective in catching fish, but what made the difference in the hook up was the speed of the retrieve and the pause in-between retrieves. The slower retrieve with the pause made the fly’s movement more closely mimic the natural movement of an insect. My husband continued to catch fish during my experimentation which made for a lot of shared laughter over cocktail hour.

Fly selection in late winter when there are visible clues that fish are feeding:

Late winter or very early spring is not normally a time to use small flies – unless visible feeding is present. If the water temperature warms enough to generate an insect hatch, it will be primarily limited to midges during midday. When midges are hatching and you are fishing in cold water (water temperatures below 50 degrees), go for a pupae emerger fly pattern. Slow down the speed of the retrieve and incorporate a pause between the strips. Length of the retrieve should match the type of fly. Shorten the length of your retrieve to 4-6 inches for smaller flies.

Present the fly in the same depth of feeding fish:

When you see midge pupae dangling in the surface film or midges dancing on the water, it suggests feeding fish are present in the top few feet of water. Presenting your fly at the same level in the water column where the fish are feeding is critical. This is because trout react to food sources that are at or above their level in the water. Their eyes do not allow them to scan below in the hunt for food unless their nose is on the bottom rooting for insects. If the trout sees the fly, they will investigate it.

The next time you answer the call of the wild and find yourself on the water, willingness to adapt to conditions may allow you to turn potential failure into success. Have fun experimenting and focus on keeping your fly at the same depth where the feeding fish are cruising. This can mean all the difference turning a slow day into one filled with great fish stories.

Things to try:

If the bite slows, first change the retrieve before you change the fly. When trout refuse a fly it is more likely due to the method you are presenting the fly verses the actual fly pattern.

If the water is below 50 degrees, slow down the rate of the retrieve and incorporate pauses. Also, fish mid-day when the trout are more active.

When emerging insects are present, fish the top two feet of the water column so they can see your fly. This should increase your chances for hookups.

Length of the retrieve should match the type of fly. Shorten the length of retrieve to 4-6 inches for smaller flies.

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Water Temperature

What is the most essential tool you should never be without when stillwater fishing, the one item that directs your choice of line, where and when you fish, your presentation approach, retrieve styles, and fly selection? Hint: one tool answers all of these questions.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by V. Loftus

Did you guess thermometer? If so, you got it! Using a thermometer and understanding how water temperature effects feeding behavior is critical to success. Water temperature is the supreme ruler in determining where trout seek shelter, find food, and whether they have adequate oxygen. If their basic needs are not met, trout will not feed. External conditions such as low barometric pressures, northerly winds, and a full moon can stop the bite or at a minimum drastically slow it down. Water temperature, however, is key to determining what, where, and when fish eat.

A quick trip over to one of the Oregon Fishing Club lakes offered a delightful respite from the long, dark and rainy Northwest weather. Lakes in the Portland Valley lose their ice in January as they are low in elevation. Frigid air temperatures have cooled the surface water temperature which causes the water to stratify into layers separating the cooler water above from the warmer regions below. During winter conditions, fish hold in the deeper water where it is warmer. Fish are cold-blooded and are unable to regulate their core temperature. In colder water their metabolism slows, their movements become lethargic, and their need for food reduced. Fish holding in deeper water are not feeding, so all you can do to catch them is to provoke a reactive bite. In this case it is not a matter of line selection, specific pattern or retrieve that assures success.

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

Since the water temperature warms first along shallow shoreline areas, I began by probing the shoreline. Since there were no insects on the water, I used a full sink intermediate line with a sealbugger, a suggestive pattern. Yielding no results, I moved into deeper water, probing depths of 4-7 feet. As water warms, a thermocline layer develops that separates the warm and cooler levels of the lake. Fish will move into this layer which is normally 4-6 feet below the surface. The timing that this occurs is relative to external elements including elevation, size, and depth of the lake.

Slowly I moved along in 7-foot water using a slow 6-12 inch retrieve. Long slow retrieves caused the fly to sink deeper in the water column. Stopping the retrieve allowed the fly to sink even deeper. I took a break from fishing to enjoy an energy bar. While eating my snack, a trout took the fly. I started the retrieve, realized I had a fish on, and my energy bar went flying into the water as I tried to land the fish. The hook up occurred because the fly was slowly sinking and provided the necessary time for the fish to react without having to chase the fly. As a result, I added a 4-6 second pause between the strips resulting in hooking another fish. I yearned for the energy bar that had sunk to deeper depths of the lake.

I continued scouting the lake looking for underwater structure and weed beds where trout would be holding. Weed beds provide prime habitat for various food sources as well as protective cover and oxygen for the trout. During the daylight hours, plants in the top layers of the lake absorb energy from the sun and absorbing carbon dioxide while giving off oxygen through photosynthesis. I located some weed beds and cast the fly in between the weeds. This yielded a few more hook ups from the lethargic trout. With very soft takes the trout took the fly during the pause between retrieves.

In summary, during early spring conditions, start your day by taking the temperature of the water. If water temperature is below 50 degrees, fish will be reluctant to chase anything. Adjust to the cold water conditions by slowing down all aspects of the presentation, allowing more time for the trout to see the fly. Retrieve twice as slow as normal and then slow it down even more. Another form of presentation is the use of a floating line with an indicator and present a chironomid a few feet above the bottom. This can be a killer approach in attracting reluctant trout who are not willing to move in cold water conditions.

Tips when fishing in cold water:

Probe shoreline areas where water temperature warms up first.

Fish in between weedy areas that offer trout shelter, food, and oxygen.

In early spring fish mid-day when the water temperature warms.

Use suggestive patterns such as a seal bugger, leech, or minnow patterns when aquatic insects are not available.

Use slow retrieves with pronounced pauses in between.

Watch for the February Blog which discusses the question – “Which is more important fly or presentation?”


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