The Samurai Has Many Skills
Quick review. Flies, as discussed previously, are most simply divided into
three general groupings: dry flies, wet flies, and nymphs. Dry flies are meant
to imitate adult aquatic or terrestrial insects floating on the water’s
surface. Wet flies represent such things as swimming or emerging aquatic
insects, smaller fish, crayfish, leeches, and scuds (“freshwater shrimp”).
These are fished in the water column from just subsurface to near the stream
bottom, a wide range of depths. Lastly, nymphs imitate immature aquatic insects
living in, on, or near the stream bottom.
The Beginner’s Trap
If given a choice I suspect that 99%
of all fly fishers would choose dry fly fishing as the single technique that
holds the most pleasure and satisfaction for them. Watching your dry fly drift
on the currents when suddenly a trout pierces the surface to inhale it is always
exciting and memorable. These are the most dramatic moments in fly fishing, an
unmatched visual fishing pleasure.
“Pleasure” is, too often, a pejorative term. It has a bad rap, as if pleasure
is selfish and sinful. Most normal people are hedonists. They seek pleasure.
Whereas pleasure can be fattening food, drunken fun and frolicking on Saturday
night, it can also be enjoying time with your family, or the joy of volunteering
at the local nursing home. Fly fishers are hedonists in the best sense of the
What I am leading up to here is the alluring
trap into which fly anglers --- especially beginners --- may fall when it comes
to fishing the dry fly. I, too, fell under the Sirens’ Song.
Here’s the familiar story. The determined fly
fishing beginner acquires some good equipment, reads a book or two, learns the
rudiments of an adequate casting stroke, and eventually finds a few good places
to fish. Most fly fishing beginners I encounter are familiar with dry flies,
so that is where they start. It is clearly understood to them that a fish is
interested in their fly when they can actually watch the trout take it.
Confirmation and positive reinforcement are received. And, a little success
goes a very long way in embedding dry fly fishing behavior in the angler’s
psyche. Successfully fooling a trout on a dry fly is pleasurable. More
pleasure is, therefore, sought. Just like the rat pressing the food-release bar
in its cage, more casts are made until another rising trout is caught. The dry
fly habit is being reinforced.
The standard, classic presentation of the dry
fly begins with a cast that is angled upstream, somewhere between 45 degrees and
straight into the current. As the fly drifts back to you with the current most,
but not all, of the slack line is gathered by stripping it under one or several
fingers of the rod hand. It is often helpful to put little “s” curves in the
line so that the fly is not readily pulled unnaturally fast by a tight line and
leader. To accomplish this simply shake the rod tip laterally and quickly
before the line lands on the water as you make the cast.
For casting across or down-and-across the
current, make a regular straight line cast, but just before the line settles on
the water thrust the rod tip in the upstream direction. Then, follow the drift
of the line downstream with the rod. That is, move your rod tip downstream as
the line drifts downstream so as not to tighten on the line and retard the
natural float of the fly.
Caddisflies are very active as they emerge. As
the adults emerge they flit, flutter and bounce on the surface. At such times
casting the dry fly downstream at 45 degrees, skating it on a tight line, can be
very effective. And, add an occasional twitch to the skate. You may be
The Parachute Adams and Stimulator are two excellent dry flies. I carry the
Adams is sizes 14 – 18, and the Stimulator, a buoyant skater, in sizes 10 – 14.
Olive, orange and yellow are productive Stimulator colors. Use a 9’ leader with
the tippet diameter matched to the fly size.
There WILL be those days where the fish will eat floating insects with abandon
and the dry fly angler will dwell a spell in Nirvana. But, problems arise (pun
intended) when the rise to the dry fly does not happen on a very consistent
basis throughout the fishing year. Most of a typical fishing day finds few, if
any, fish striking surface flies. The one-dimensional dry flyist will be
disappointed, even discouraged. The moral: learn and practice other fly fishing
Simple Can Be Best
A wet fly, as the descriptive name
would imply, is fished subsurface. Wet flies represent such things as swimming
or emerging aquatic insects, smaller fish, crayfish, leeches, and scuds
(“freshwater shrimp”). These are presented to the fish in the water column from
just subsurface to near the stream bottom, a wide range of depths.
The simplest method of presenting the wet fly is to cast it on a floating
fly line down-and-across the current. If straight across the current is 90
degrees, the wet fly is most commonly cast between 45 and 75 degrees. A short
blink after the fly line has started to drift downstream lift the fly rod high
and move the tip upstream, drawing an imaginary vertical semicircle. In fly
fishing jargon this is called a “mend”. The mend situates the fly line upstream
of the slower drifting fly, and straightens the alignment of the line-leader-fly
system. You get a better presentation of the fly, a better chance to detect the
strike, and a greater likelihood of hooking a striking fish.
After mending the fly line, merely let it drift in the current until it swings
straight downstream from you. Don’t pick up the line immediately. Instead, let
it hang momentarily. Twitch the rod tip up and down a few inches several
times. This sometimes entices a reluctant trout which followed the fly but was
not convinced it was edible. The twitch made the fly look alive.
A simple variation of this technique is to impart small twitches throughout the
entire drift of the fly. I have found this most effective by alternating
twitches with a two-count pause. Twitch. Pause, pause. Twitch. Pause, pause.
Remember the twitch of the rod tip moves the fly only a few inches.
As for fly patterns, I am very partial to dull-colored soft hackle flies such as
the Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle. I use the bead-head version when I need some
extra depth. A copper or gold bead. Select the un-beaded version when the fish
show a preference for the fly presented very near the surface. Another
excellent pattern is a Hare’s Ear Soft Hackle. For the streams of western
Oregon I find hook sizes 10 – 14 most useful. A 9’ leader with a 4X
fluorocarbon tippet is a good universal choice for these flies in the
If I spy rising fish that refuse some of my reliable dry fly patterns I quickly
change to a wet fly. I position myself upstream at an angle of about 45 degrees
to my target. Cast upstream of a riser and let the fly swing across the
suspected lie of the trout. Cast, mend, swing without a twitch. Twitch once or
twice as the fly hangs in the current straight below me. Recast. Mend, twitch,
pause, pause, twitch, pause, pause, twitch, . . . No response? Change my
position angle to the fish, or search out another riser that might strike. Move
around, covering different water. Experiment with fly size before switching to
a different pattern.
The Samurai’s Sword
I’ve saved the best for last: nymph
fishing. If I had to catch a fish to win a bet or feed my family using only one
fly fishing method I would choose nymphing. Compared to wet fly and dry fly
method, nymphing is more complicated, more detail-intensive. However, once
mastered you have the equivalent of fly fishing weapon of mass destruction. Yup,
it’s that deadly! (You understand that I am speaking figuratively,
Let’s start with the classic upstream presentation of the nymph. In order to
entice a stream trout into eating your artificial nymph, know that your end goal
is to get your fly near the river bottom, and have it drift naturally with the
current. Toward this end, I want some weight (lead, tungsten, split shot, or
metal bead) in the fly, on the fly, or attached to my leader. The astute angler
will adjust the amount of weight to match the combination of current speed and
depth. Too much weight, the fly is slowed or stuck on the bottom. Too little
weight, the fly drifts over the heads of fish unwilling to ascend from the
bottom to strike it.
Though it seems counterintuitive to those new to successful nymphing, I suggest
and use only a floating fly line in streams. Since I try to confine my
nymphing to water depths of 6’ or less, my nine-foot leader has no trouble
allowing my fly to sink to the bottom. Because a trout will hold an artificial
fly only a very short period of time --- often, a second or less --- a sinking
fly line is not nearly as effective for detecting the subtle “take”. Let me
During my underwater observations on Oregon
State University’s Berry Creek property, among other things I discovered that
trout casually move to intercept a potential food item as it drifts into
their vicinity. They don’t charge it, then dart away to eat the morsel. It
would be easier for the fly angler if they did. In that case the trout would
immediately signal to the angler that the fly had been grabbed and the line
tightened, perhaps even obliging to hook itself in the process. But it doesn’t
often work that way.
Once a fish has determined that the item taken into its mouth for examination is
inedible it quickly expels it. The time lapse is often less than a second.
This is a major challenge for the fly angler who attempts to dead-drift (drift
naturally with the current) a fly along the bottom of the creek. Whatever line
type is chosen – floating or sinking --- the line must have some amount of
tension-free slack in order to allow the fly to move with the flow naturally.
Once the line is tightened by the angler in hopes of feeling the fish strike,
the fly is pulled off the bottom, no longer drifting uninhibited and, perhaps,
removed from the fish’s zone of interest. If the fly is presented with slack on
a sinking line the submerged curves and coils created by the stream currents
prevent a full tightening of the line to let the fisherman know the fish has
intercepted the fly. The telltale hesitation of the fly is absorbed into the
slack line, momentarily tightening a bit of the slack line but not all of it.
The fish releases the fly before the angler knows anything has happened.
You may read about the Brook’s Method of nymph fishing. This employs the
use of a fast-sinking fly line. It is my belief that, because the line must be
drifted tight to detect the strike, that many fewer fish strike the fly, and
fewer fish are landed than with a floating fly line in skilled hands.
Additionally, because the fly line has a larger diameter than a normal leader,
drag on the drift of the fly is increased as the current sweeps the line
downstream. In my chosen profession I know scores of skilled nymph anglers.
None use a sinking line to present a natural-drift nymph. However, if trout are
willing to take a sweeping or ascending nymph at the end of a drift as the line
tightens, you can catch stream fish on a sinking line. But, you might as well
use a floating line to accomplish the same thing. It’s easier to pick up to
recast, usually casts more pleasantly, and is far easier to control and
manipulate once in the water.
I am often asked if a bright red, orange, green, or neon yellow fly line alarms
the fish. New Zealanders, in particular, are strident proponents of
neutrally-colored grey, beige and olive lines. In my experience, which includes
fishing a broad variety of streams and conditions in New Zealand, I have never
felt that my success was in any limited by the color of my fly line. It is the
splash and shadow of the line, and the exposed position and movement of the
angler that disturbs wary trout, not the line color. One man’s opinion.
To detect the subtle strike of a nymphing trout, some anglers will scrutinize
their drifting leader where it enters the water. If the visible portion of the
leader hesitates or gets pulled under during the drift, the hook is set. Others
will watch the very tip of their highly visible floating fly line for the same
visual cues. Just as I recommend to my guided clients and students, I use a
strike indicator on my leader to detect that a fish has intercepted my
nymph. This is a floating attachment made of bright adhesive foam, cork, or
synthetic yarn. I prefer to locate the indicator about to feet farther from the
fly than the water depth I’m fishing. As an example, if the water is three feet
deep the indicator is attached to the leader at a distance of five feet from the
Fishing Two Flies
Fishing two flies can increase your chances of catching a fish. There are
a variety of methods to secure a second fly to your leader. My preferred
method is cut a new leader about 15" up from the end of the tippet. Rejoin
the two pieces with a Double Surgeon knot. You will have two short
sections of line to trim at the knot when finished. Trim only the short
end that points up the leader towards your rod tip. Leave the short end
that points down to your terminal fly. With a little planning the short
end that remains is long enough to secure a dropper fly with a Clinch knot.
The dropper section should be no longer than 2". If longer, the dropper
line will tend to wrap around the main leader as you fish it. The flies on
your leader for NYMPH fishing in a stream should be about 12" apart. For
fishing two wet flies, or a wet fly / dry fly combo, separate the flies by 24".
Pick a stretch of likely fish-holding water. Position yourself at the
downstream extremity of the water you choose. Cast the nymph anywhere from 45
degrees upstream to almost directly upstream as you systematically cover the
run. The approach in covering the water is essentially the same as that of the
classic dry fly method. Approach from downstream to cover fish which are facing
into the current, looking away from the angler. After the cast, allow
the fly to sink on a slack line. Gather some of the slack as the line drifts
back to you. Watch the indicator for any deviation from its normal drift. Know
that this interruption can be quite subtle, a very slight hesitation. If there
is any suspicion whatsoever set the hook by smartly raining the rod tip.
There are three flies you will always find in my nymph box. The first, the
Prince, in sizes 12 and 14. Some with a gold bead head, some without. The
second is a Flashback Hare’s Ear, in 12 and 14. No bead. And, I always carry
heavily-weighted stonefly nymphs, sizes 6 and 8, black, dark brown and dark
golden olive. Some with gold bead head, some without. Use a 9’ leader with the
appropriate fluorocarbon tippet.
Be versatile. Be open. Take what
the fish will give you. Think of them as tiny dance partners. The fish always
gets to lead.
During most of the average fishing day trout are
not rising on any consistent basis. In this scenario think of fishing the
bottom first, mid water as a second resort, and dry flies as the last option.
If fish are rising, try dry first, experimenting with fly size and pattern.
Experiment with presentation. Be willing to quickly change to a wet fly fished
barely subsurface on the chance the trout are preferring emerging insects
as the bugs struggle in the surface film to free themselves from their nymphal
or pupal skins to emerge as winged adults. Vulnerable emergers are easier
targets than a floating adult which may fly off just before the trout rises to
Have fun. Enjoy the endless journey of fishing
Money in (on) the
McKenzie River Bank
It is common that as I survey the
McKenzie River fishing scene --- my Oregon trout favorite --- there will not, most
likely, be rising fish to be seen. The sporadic, occasional rise may
be the exception. But, because many of my guided fly fishing clients have the urge to fish
the dry fly, they may act against common sense, and my advice, to tie on
a floating pattern. If they insist, I have a suggestion: fish near the
Trout, like people, display
individual differences. Bank-feeding trout have learned that they have
increased the likelihood of a meal by positioning themselves near overhanging
vegetation, bushes and grass where adult aquatic and terrestrial insects rest
and roam. These insects --- ants, beetles, crickets, caddisflies,
stoneflies, mayflies, grasshoppers --- often fall or get blown into the water.
A bank-feeder will take advantage of the opportunity. An astute fly angler can
create an opportunity. And, these streamside trout are rarely selective.
Some of my favorite McKenzie River flies: Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and
Parachute Royal Coachman are excellent choices.
The best shoreline holding
areas are those that have some depth and accompanying structure. The ideal
flyfishing water is usually 18" - 30" deep with a boulder, ledge or wood debris
to break the current a little and provide shelter in the event of a threatening
intrusion. The best cast is often the one that has the fly landing barely
a few inches from the the bank. My preference is to cast from a
comfortably-distant upstream position, casting downstream with a soft parachute
cast presentation. This best insures that the fly will float over my
quarry before leader and line. Consider using a light tippet for the most
natural, non-drag drift of the fly.