A short video from last night on a small northern MI trout stream. This was probably one of the bigger fish I had rising (guessing in the 12″-14″ range). There was a big tag alder hanging off the bank just upstream leaving about an 18″ opening above the stick sticking out and the brush to land my fly. That 18″ window was turned into a 6″ window as anytime I got even close to this fish, it stopped eating– so I had to stay at a sharp downstream angle. I lost a few flies to the tag alder, and got eaten alive by mosquitoes, but in the end, victory was all mine.
I was out playing catch with my son in the front yard when this guy caught my eye. I’m pretty sure it just crawled out of the ground. It reminded me of a trip on the Battenkill a few years back where I seined a ginormous (scientific term) black beetle in late April. Ever since then, I’ve carried terrestrials in my fly boxes all season long– not just in the late summer.
And not just beetles.
While on the search for blue winged olive duns in late April on the North Branch of the Au Sable, I observed hundreds of small ants crawling through last year’s dead grass along the bank. Ants are also a staple in my boxes whenever fish are rising.
Back to the shaky beetle video above– I’ll start using a tripod, promise. If you were a trout fortunate to have one of these 18mm long steaks float by, what would you notice first? Rubber legs should be a no-brainer on beetle patterns. I’d also use the heaviest hook I could find to make the pattern sit super low in the film. After all, Gartside gurglers aren’t just for bass.
You’re a female hendrickson spinner. You just went through puberty and its Friday night. Only one thing to do and thats meet up with a few thousand of your best lady friends and fly around over the river. You’re all dolled up in hopes that maybe, just maybe, you’ll meet a good looking guy, copulate, lay your egg sac, and die.
Romeo and Juliet ain’t got nothing on the mayfly life cycle…
Its been a day or three since you were at the river and you decide to do a flyby over that little eddy you spent most of your youth in on your way to the riffle. Feeling homesick, you dip down to take a closer look and just as you can almost make out the submerged log you used to crawl around under, a gust of wind knocks you down onto the water’s surface. Your wings are stuck in the film and it won’t be long before your struggling abdomen has the attention of every trout in the river.
It was crazy how many hendrickson spinners were in the air tonight over the Pigeon. There was a mating cloud over the river, as well as a mile up and down the blacktop road going over it. I didn’t even have to put my waders on to collect what I was after, I just collected in the middle of the road.
As soon as I’m done editing, I’ll be posting the photos I took here on the site, but wanted to share the video above in the interim.
If you’re asking yourself what I’m asking myself, its, “How in the heck am I supposed to imitate that!?”
I built a mini aquarium out of ultra-thin plastic (0.030mm) so I could more easily see what trout see. Something I – and most of you – have wondered is how visible a real or fake fly’s wings are to the trout. For this post, lets focus on Mayfly duns. This first experiment was done with a female hendrickson dun.
This first pic was taken 3-feet theoretically downstream, at a depth of 3-feet, which put me at a 45-degree angle to the bug. Feel free to do the trig if you’d like to figure out exactly how far my camera lens was away from the bug. See that small indentation in the center of the water? Thats our dinner, should we choose to accept it.
- At this point in the game, size/shape/color does not matter.
- The somewhat popular notion that the wing is the first thing a trout sees is bunk – at least at this distance/depth/angle. Don’t forget this is stillwater. Moving water would have even more scattered reflections and air bubbles, etc., making a wing even harder to see.
This next photo was taken at 2-feet downstream from our bug, at a 2-foot depth, and again, a 45-degree angle.
- At this point in the game, color still doesn’t matter.
- Size seems like it should, and shape might just be starting to.
Here we are at our next photo. We’re now 1-foot downstream and 1-foot deep, again, at a 45-degree angle. This is that spot where the angler usually sees the fish swim up to “inspect” the artificial fly pattern. Now we’ve got all sorts of reflections and light play going on. Its also a lot easier to see the dent in the meniscus.
- I was really surprised I still didn’t see a wing at this point. I knew refraction was going to throw a few curve balls, but this really surprised me.
- Shape and color still don’t matter nearly as much as size and presentation (how high your fly is floating in the film)
Time to get up close and personal. We’re about 3-inches downstream and about 3-inches deep, still at about a 45-degree angle. The ONLY reason we can see the wing here is because our bug floated towards the near-side of the tank.
- Even at this close, in still water, and with the fly turned completely sideways, the wing doesn’t really matter.
- Size, shape, and presentation matter a whole lot.
- Color seems like it matters, but if I backlit this bug to simulate the sky, I don’t know if it really would to any major extent. Color should matter more on cloudy days.
Here is our bug from directly underneath. Keep in mind, if the trout’s eye is this close, that means the fly has already drifted past its mouth. Also keep in mind that if a trout is rising to our bug, at this point in the rise, the fly is in the trout’s blind spot and the trout can’t see it anyway.
- Color finally seems to matter – if the fly isn’t in the trout’s blind spot.
- We can finally see a wing – if the fly isn’t in the trout’s blind spot.
- The only time color/wings matter is for those fish that come up and have the time to drift downstream with the fly. We’ve all seen it. Though from my experience, most fish are getting ready to unleash the suck somewhere at about the photo above. In my opinion, the only time you should worry about color is if you’re off on your size, shape, and presentation. If you have those right, the fish is eating your fly before it gets this close.
My opinion on if you get a refusal at this point, it is because the fly went into the trout’s blind spot and the fish, having a brain the size of a pea, probably thought the fly just disappeared into outer space or something. It didn’t actually refuse. It simply said, the food is gone, no sense sticking around the surface where all the predators can see me.
Still lots of questions to ask and experiments to do…
I remember the winter of 2005/2006 like it was yesterday. It was the first winter after my first full season as a fly angler. After spending the previous year getting rejected by trout after trout– aside from a few lucky breaks, I was determined to be ready for any hatch I might encounter the next fishing season. After all, the reason that all those fish rejected my flies that first season had to be that they just weren’t the right fly, right? Suddenly, I had an insatiable thirst for more knowledge on all things relating to trout and their prey (a thirst that was never quite quenched, which eventually led to this website).
I read every book and website I could get my hands on, and they all confirmed my suspicions; I wasn’t using the right fly, or the fly I was using didn’t look close enough to the natural. Almost all of the fly fishing literature I was feeding myself told me that I had to identify what the fish were eating, match its size/shape/color as close as possible, and I’d be all set.
During the next few years I kept learning, and I progressively caught more and more fish. Then I started to suspect I was still missing something. Something BIG. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I knew there was another factor in fly presentation that was just as important, if not more so, than size/shape/color. A fourth dimension in a parallel universe that would take me from average to awesome. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The answer came another year or so later, and completely changed the way I fish and the fly patterns I keep in my fly boxes.
Action, behavior, presentation– whatever you want to call it– the missing link was how my fly pattern (above and beyond what the angler has control of during a drift) acted in the water. I realized that I didn’t have to tie individual legs, count the number of tails on my dries, or add eyeballs to my dry flies. I only had to make my flies act like the natural to the point where they made the fish think my fly was real food.
The changes I made to my fly patterns were fairly subtle for the most part. I began tweaking standard proportions. I found ways to make my dries float lower in the film, substituted materials to add subtle movement, etc. This all led to one of my proudest accomplishments as a fly tier, “parafoam hackle.” Cause if my dry flies were going to float lower in the film– and as a result, absorb more water, faster– I had to figure out a way to make them stay there longer before sinking. I hate floatant.
To wrap this up and get on with the book review, I’ve been catching more and more fish, since, and have more fun fishing. Then a week or so ago, I ran across a new book title while cruising Amazon, What Trout Want: The Educated Trout and Other Myths, by Bob Wyatt. Intrigued, I read the description and reviews and immediately ordered a copy. The book landed in my mailbox earlier this week and I haven’t been able to put it down since.
Wyatt takes some of the most sacred and embedded principles in fly fishing for trout and reaffirms to fly anglers what many have been thinking all along, you’re making this stuff way harder than it needs to be by looking at it from the wrong angle. I felt like I should be taking notes as I read– and I probably will the second time through– as what he says really makes sense. The author takes the mysticism out of hatch matching, and stresses the importance of fly behavior.
And he backs it up with real science from research on the water and off. My kind of guy.
According to Wyatt, trout aren’t selective. Aside from reproduction, their whole life revolves around eating and avoiding predators. All you have to do as an angler is make sure they actually see your fly, and after they do, not give them a reason to reject it. Wyatt goes into the real reasons trout reject your fly and how to avoid presenting them those reasons in the first place.
This book is a real confidence builder and a welcome contradiction to popular fly fishing culture we haven’t seen in book form for quite some time, and its about time.
I have a small photo studio in my fly tying room/bug lab for taking pics of flies and the insects I’m imitating. Last night, I built a small aquarium that will allow me to take better photos of nymphs underwater, as well as floating adults from multiple angles. The first photoshoot in this aquarium took place today while I was home on my lunch break and I am really happy with the first few photos I came away with.
Here is an Early Brown Stonefly resting on the water’s surface.
This is a sample that I collected 5 days ago, and even though its still alive, I expected it to sit low in the surface film. I was surprised to see it is still sitting about half a body width above the surface.
Next, I was curious what it would look like from the trout’s perspective on a sunny day. I purposely took the pic out of focus and with a bad exposure. While its possible that this is what a stonefly might look like from below on a sunny winter day, I realized while editing that I had only captured what I think a stonefly should look like from below to a trout on a sunny winter day. I’ll be setting up a more natural lighting scheme to simulate a floating stonefly heavily backlit by the sun later on tonight and am curious if there is any difference.
The last stop before I had to head back to work was to get a normal shot of the Early Brown Stone from underneath. I am really happy with this one.
Looking at these first few shots has given me all sorts of ideas, as well as a lot of questions that I can’t wait to find the answers to. Science is so awesome.
I spent some time collecting yesterday in between drifting buggers through the holes for steelies with Jason on a local tailwater. The fishing was a little slow, to say the least, but the bug sampling went pretty good.
Early Brown Stone – 1
Early Black Stone – 1
Large Stones – 9
Small stones – 9
Dragon – 1
Damsel – 1
Aquatic Worm – 1
Mayfly Crawler – 8
Mayfly Clinger – 8
Mayfly Swimmer – 3
Scud – 1
A little after noon, we decided to run into the local village for lunch. We stopped into a charming little downtown shop devoted to the alcoholic beverages, but which also has a small deli in back. On the way to order my lunch, I was sidetracked by the liqueur shelves.
“You got any Everclear?” I asked the woman working the counter.
“Sure do!” She answered with a big smile.
“Second shelf up, four bottles from the end.”
I picked the bottle up and looked it over. According to a google search I made earlier in the day, it was the closest thing to pure ethanol I could find without going to a compound pharmacy. ”This stuff may be too strong,” I thought. Then I remembered reading a forum post at TroutNut where a guy mentioned that he liked 100-proof dry gin as it seems to preserve colors better for short term storage. I found the gin and set it on the counter.
“I think the Everclear might be a little too strong.” I said.
“Its serious stuff.” She said. ”There is a guy that comes in and buys it by the case to make moonshine with.”
“I need it for bugs.” I said, quickly recovering with, “for a research project.” After seeing that the weird look was forming on her face.
“Never heard of someone buying liqueur for bugs before, but I guess they need a drink every now and then, too.”
I slid the pint into the chest pocket on my waders and headed back to the deli where Jason was coming back with a steaming bowl of soup and a sandwich. I got a large bowl of homemade chicken noodle and sat down as Jason was coming back from the street.
“I had to run out to my car to pour my drink. She said I could drink a beer inside if I poured it into this pepsi cup.”
“What’d you get?” I asked
“It has to be good, it has a brook trout on the bottle.”
We finished eating and hit one more spot before Jason had to call it a day.
I transferred all of the nymphs into the gin when I got home and photographed the adult stones. After posting the pics on the “Get Bugs Identified” section of TroutNut, I found that both adults are actually from the same species, Strophopteryx fasciata, only one is a male, the other a female. I didn’t realize that you had that much color variation between the sexes with stoneflies. I definitely plan on learning more about them as they’re probably the family of trout stream insects I know the least about. I also learned that stones mate terrestrially, which makes perfect sense as I’ve never seen a cloud of stones getting it on over the water.
If you look at the tips of each abdomen in the photo above, you can see some differences between the male and female — male on left, female on right.
I think I have all of the photos I need for the adult phase of this species. I’m going to do some measurements on them tonight- body length, wing length, widths, etc.. I have some stonefly adult fly patterns in my head, and want the proportions to be perfect.
I came across a free online version of an old book last night, “American Trout Stream Insects,” by Louis Rhead. It was published in 1916 and set out to be the first American fly fishing book dedicated to entomology. As I read, I instantly became a fan of the author. He talks about matching the hatch almost half a century before Schweibert coined the phrase. He calls out other fly pattern designers of the time for making some little change to a particular pattern, field testing it under favorable conditions, calling it the next greatest thing since sliced bread, and then naming it after themselves.
At the time of its publication this was one of the first and most comprehensive studies of stream entomology ever published in America.
Paul Schullery in American Fly Fishing—A History (1987) says this about Rhead:
Louis Rhead was one of the most creative, fresh-thinking, and stimulating of American fly-fishing writers, a man of extraordinary gifts. … his major effort was American Trout Stream Insects, a book based on several years of trout fishing in the Catskills.
As most of my angling friends can confirm, the last type of fly you’ll ever find in my fly boxes are Catskill dries. It was great reading that even 100 yeas ago, when Catskill-style dries were becoming all the rage, that anglers of the day were looking at them and thinking, “These things don’t look anything like what I’m trying to imitate.”
Check out Rhead’s book when you get a chance. Some of the terminology is a little dated. Mayflies are called “drakes,” Caddis are “duns,” midges are “spinners,” and stoneflies are “browns.” But once you get past the differences in lingo, there is still some good info for fly anglers reading it, even 100 years later.
I came up with Parafoam style dries a few years ago when I was playing around with paraloop style hackle. I didn’t have the right size mono I needed and dug through my tying material bins for a substitute. “Foam!” This style of dry floats forever while riding nice and low in the film. I’ve since used this style of fly to tie everything from emergers to spinners, and mayflies to midges.
After posting a photo of one earlier today on facebook, a friend asked if I’d explain the process. Click the photos to enlarge.
Hook: #16 Dry Fly Hook
Thread: Adams Gray
Shuck: Olive/Brown Polar Chenille, Brown Kinky Z-lon
Body: Light Olive, Olive Superfine Dubbing
Parafoam Post: 2mm craft foam
Hackle: 1 Grizzly, 1 Med Dun
Insert your hook into your vise. If you’re fortunate enough to be tying on a Regal, just grab the hook with your vise. If you’re tying on something else, don’t worry, I’ll take a few swigs of Two Hearted while waiting for you to set up.
Lay Down a smooth thread base.
Tie in a few strands of olive/brown polar chenille.
Tie in a few strands of kinky Z-lon
Dub the abdomen. Try mottling several colors indicative of whatever mayfly you’re imitating. They’re never a solid color.
Tie in a strip of 2mm craft foam. The width of the strip you cut should be about 2/3 the hook gap. Be sure not to over compress the foam. If you break your thread like I did, just restart over top of where it broke and keep going.
Tie in two hackle feathers. Again, mix and match for better realism.
Dub the thorax. Take a wrap behind the foam to for a more realistic profile and to hide where we’ll fold it forward in a couple steps.
This is the tricky part, but with practice, isn’t a big deal. I watched a 7-year-old little girl master this part after two flies at a local TU meeting. Wrap the hackle up the post clockwise (looking down). Stop at the height where when you fold the foam forward, the hackle is just short of the hook eye. When you fold the foam forward, it pins the hackle feathers down and keeps them from unwinding. Take a couple wraps around the foam, being sure to simultaneously tie off the hackle feathers at the same time.
A side note here is you are probably crowding the eye. I know it goes against everything you’ve been taught, but for this style of fly, you WANT to crowd the eye. We’re trying to make the hook eye look as if it is part of the head. If you crowd to the point where you won’t be able to thread your tippet through, just take your finger nail and slide it up the eye, pushing the materials back slightly.
Trim off the tag end of the foam and hackle feathers.
Hit the exposed foam with a marker. Match the body color, or color to match the natural. This is a great way to match the orange or lime colored eyes some mayfly species have that are sometimes larger than their head.
An old timer with an 8-inch Buck knife strapped to his belt once told me that mousing for trout was invented on the North Branch of Michigan’s Au Sable River. Not long after brown trout were first introduced there– shortly after the grayling were gone– an angler was field testing some bass poppers he had carved, and accidentally figured out that these new fish were eager to eat under the cover of darkness.
For the last 100 years, we’ve rarely heard of mouse fly patterns being used outside of the wolverine state– aside from Alaska and other localities of the Pacific Northwest, and even there, its primarily something done in the day. Anglers elsewhere around the country just don’t have the compulsion Michiganders do to mirror the trout’s nocturnal behavior for the latter half of the summer.
Having sewed my fly fishing oats on northern Michigan trout streams, it kind of blew me away when I moved to New York and found out that all those famous Catskill streams were completely vacant in the middle of the night. All of that classic, picture perfect trout water, just empty.
I asked a friend who lives out west if they did any mousing out there. “Not really, too many bears.” I asked a friend on the Arkansas tailwaters if anglers around there ever tried it. “Not really.” Same thing in the northwest, the Tennessee Valley, and in Colorado. Only during the past few seasons has a small, secretive group of anglers taken to famed rivers like the Madison and the Delaware when the rest of you are back at some bar speaking latin; and they’re killing it.
You might have ran into them at the boat ramp. Their skin is as pale as the moonlight. Still wearing yesterday’s clothes, smelling strongly of 5-Hour Energy and brown trout, they shuffle out of the water like zombies as you’re struggling to tie on your favorite trico pattern. Their bloodshot eyes just sort of glaze over when you start talking about geo fluvial principles and the underlying physics behind a drag free drift. Don’t take it personally, its just that after they got into mousing, hatch matching, leader tapers, and catching dinks on 7X just kind of got the volume turned down.
While you think you know the river pretty well, these guys can literally fish it with their eyes closed. Just don’t ask them to fish it with their eyes open, as some have never actually seen it. They have no idea that the beaver meadow is covered in wildflowers, only that their backcast picks up some goldenrod every now and then.
You don’t need all of those hip new accessories to do it. A headlamp, some waders, a spool of #20 Maxima in your chest pocket, some bug repellent with “jungle” in the name, and a box full of articulated rabbit and foam mice.
Leave all of the other gizmos at home, including the camera. If you’re only doing it to post a killer trip report on your local internet message board, you’re wasting your time. Unless they’ve done it, those guys are never going to understand what its like out there in the vacuum of space. They won’t be able to relate to the feeling of floating through a forest in a drift boat, head arched back, watching the stream of stars flow overhead through the tree lines. And as hard as you try, you will never be able to explain what a brown trout really sounds like when it decides to dine on a small muskrat.
Its not extreme fishing, if there even is such a thing. And its definitely not about going big, or about catching those fish you know are there but never come out during the day.. Its about not getting a 4/0 mouse pattern stuck in the back of your head. Its about knowing where those cedar sweepers are before they clothesline you out of the boat.
Its about channeling your inner bat so you can determine how far your mouse just splatted off the opposite bank. Its about the surreal feeling of being out there waiting for the moon to set. Its about the suspense of working a mouse down and across while feeling completely vulnerable to those things-that-go-bump-in-the-night sounds that stand up the hairs on the back of your neck.
You’re not after fish, you’re after a fish. Its the one you and your friends have never seen, and the one biologists tell you doesn’t exist. Its the one that took half the adipose fin off the 18-inch rainbow you got stripping streamers last fall. You’re not going to catch it eating mayflies. You’re not going to catch it on a little 6-inch streamer. You’re going to catch it on the biggest, blackest mouse you can tie..