Life’s Lessons: Fly Fishing For Trout

One of our good customers had one of the most productive days as a flyfishing guide. But it was also one of the most frustrating. It was early summer on Colorado’s South Platte River, here is his story.

As evening approached, a smorgasbord of bugs popped onto the film, and the water began to percolate. A few eager rainbows slashed at stoneflies in the riffles. Others boiled over drakes in the deeper slicks.

I watched a pack of egg-laying caddis flies dart past and dip the surface, then looked up to see mayfly spinners hovering overhead. Downstream in the tailout, the snouts of heavy browns started bobbing above the surface.

I had a talented angler for a client. He’d picked off several nice fish on nymphs and streamers during the day and even coaxed a eat or two with attractor dries where no fish were rising.

But now, with trout surfacing everywhere, and despite my best efforts, we couldn’t get a single take. “Sometimes you just have too much of a good thing,” I concluded.

That’s when the late, great Colorado guide Tom Whitley sauntered up the bank. He could see I was struggling and lightened the mood with a joke or two, as he often did. I didn’t want to ask, but I did. “What are they eating, Tommy? I’ve tried everything on my patch.”
“A good drift,” he quipped. He suggested that we take a few steps out of the fast, uneven currents around us and reposition to where the flow was calmer and more uniform, and where fish were also rising.

Lesson One

When lots of bugs are on the water, the surest way to kill your chances is to present a fly that looks even slightly unnatural. As it was, the current at our feet was grabbing the fly line immediately after the cast, causing microdrag. Until we got the presentation just right, it didn’t matter what pattern we tried.
Whitley stepped into the water and waded over to us to break things down a little more. “Make it a meal,” he suggested. “If you were a trout, wouldn’t you want a big cheeseburger of a bug if you had a chance?”

Lesson Two

If you see fairly equal numbers of different insects, opt for the larger species for starters, and size down from there. Even if you see slightly fewer size 12 drakes than size 18 sulfurs, for example, try the drake first. On the other hand, if the bigger fly appears only here and there amid a blanket of smaller duns, stick with the latter.

Lesson Three

“Find the bugs in the happy water,” Whitley explained. As you survey the scene, you should be able to identify different bugs in different types of flows— stoneflies in the chop, mayflies on the bubble line, and so on. Trout are most likely to feed in seams that offer quick access to deeper water or cover, so go with a pattern that imitates the naturals you see in the prime water.

“And don’t forget the vulnerability factor,” he coached. In other words, some bugs are easier for trout to eat than others. Compared with a skittering caddis or a swimming nymph, a mayfly spinner doesn’t go anywhere but downstream. Likewise, a cripple pattern—which imitates an emerging insect stuck in its shuck—often stands out to an opportunistic feeder.

With this final lesson in mind, I tied on a size 12 Green Drake cripple. My sport cast it into a seam where we’d seen natural drakes drifting. The fly had barely touched down when a stout rainbow clobbered it—the first of many fish we caught that evening.

Watch And Learn

When bugs of seemingly every size and species are mixing on and over the water in early summer, there are no absolutes. Whitley would have been the first to say so. But his lessons will help you focus your approach. First, take the time to study the scene before making any casts.

Zero in on the bugs where fish are most active and then choose a pattern that stands out—because it’s either a tad larger, or a bit more vulnerable-looking. Be careful to make a drag-free presentation, and you’ll have done all you can to make your first shot the best one.

The beauty of this scenario is that you have plenty of options if your initial tries fail. Switch just one element at a time. Go to a smaller fly, say, but one that still seems vulnerable, like a sulfur spinner. Or stick with a meatball pattern, like a big stonefly, but cast it in a faster but even-flowing seam where you can still get a good drift.
If none of that works, hit the original seam with an emerger or nymph. The key is to keep trying some combination of the elements above until that first trout climbs on your fly and turns a frustrating evening completely around.

Keyword: Lessons in trout fly fishing, three lessons in trout fly fishing.