Spotting Fish

A 14″ rainbow feeding in flat, shallow water

In some fly fishing scenarios, spotting fish is absolutely critical for success.  Fishing the saltwater flats for bonefish, redfish, tarpon, etc. or the freshwater mud flats for carp will provide little more than casting practice if you can’t see the fish.  In other scenarios, such as fishing a mountain trout stream, you can tell where fish should be by reading the water, and you can catch a lot of fish just by fishing likely spots.  But even when fishing trout streams, the ability to spot fish in the water can sometimes allow you to locate and target larger fish.  In the fall, this is particularly relevant in the Smokies as large brown trout begin moving into flatter, shallower water preparing to spawn.

Spotting fish can be difficult to learn and there is no substitute for years of experience and practice, but there are a few things that can help you get started.  The best place to start is with a pair of polarized sunglasses and this article will help a little when choosing a pair.  The next thing to understand is how trout see, because as you seek out vantage points from which to spot fish, you want to avoid spooking the fish in the process.  Here is an article on trout behavior that goes into a little more detail. Now we’re ready to go spot some fish.

Start by looking for fish in slower water.  The more broken the surface is, the more difficult it will be to see through it. If possible, try to find a higher vantage point from which to look.  This will greatly reduce the amount of light refraction from the water’s surface.  Just remember that the higher up you get, the easier it will be for fish to pick up your movement.  Avoid standing erect on a large boulder, as your silhouette will be far more pronounced.  A high bank with a wooded backdrop is ideal, but you’ll still want to keep your movements slow and minimal.  If you are on a large rock above a pool, get on your belly and peek over the edge. Remember the old westerns where the Indians were looking off the rocky bluffs about to attack the wagon train? That’s the idea.

Now that you’re in position, take your time.  It’s extremely rare that you’re going to step up to a pool and immediately see a 27” brown trout.  You have to methodically scan the pool.  Start by reading the water and looking for fish where they should be.  Look for obvious feeding areas in and around current lanes and foam lines.  Look for areas with obvious cover under and around big rocks and/or fallen trees.  They blend in REALLY well, so look long and hard and train your eye to look through the water rather than at it.

It’s hard.  You’ll spot plenty of fish that turn out to be rocks or pieces of wood.  I once spent 15 minutes casting to a plastic grocery bag hung on an underwater limb. It had the exact shape and movement of a trout!  I was in the water and my buddy was above me, watching from a bridge.  We were both certain it was a fish!

There are four trout in this photo. Can you see them?

Movement and shape really are the best giveaways and that’s why it’s so important to take your time and give long looks to those likely spots.  You may not see anything at first, then you see a little movement and suddenly the fish is visible.  And once you spot one, you often begin to notice others around him.  Watching the actual stream bottom, especially on sunnier days, can be helpful too.  The movement that you often detect is the shadow of the fish.

Another thing to look for is a flash near the stream bottom.  The eyes of a trout are positioned in such a way that they look slightly upward.  When feeding on nymphs on the bottom, the trout has to angle his body to see below and will often “twist” his body when he eats the nymph.  When this occurs, his white belly reflects light and produces a flash.  This is always helpful when looking for fish, but especially in faster water.

All of this is easier the more familiar you are with the stream bottom.  If you have a favorite pool, maybe one where you spooked a big fish before, keep going back there and looking.  You will inevitably begin memorizing the stream bottom and will more quickly and easily be able to differentiate between rocks and fish. Again, it’s not easy and it takes time but like most things, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

So, you’re starting to spot some fish… now what?  Don’t just jump in and start casting the second you see a nice one.  Keep watching.  What is the fish doing?  If you see a big fish just hugging the bottom, he’s not feeding and you’re wasting your time casting to him.  But good news… you found a big fish.  You might come back closer to dawn or dusk when he is more likely to be feeding.

This 22″ brown was spotted and observed for nearly 15 minutes before approach

If you spot a fish up in the water column, he’s likely feeding.  Keep watching him.  Is he looking up?  Does he consistently feed to his right?  Is he staying in one place or is he systematically rotating to different locations within the pool?  Pay attention to all of these things and then you can plan your attack.  Sometimes with big fish, you’re only going to get one shot and you want to make it count.

How much time you spend looking depends on you.  I know guys that do little more than target big brown trout, and they spend far more time watching water than they do fishing.  For me, it depends on where I’m fishing and the conditions.  If I’m fishing pocket water on a high country brook trout stream, I’m not going to spend much time, if any, looking for big fish. I’m going to cover a lot of water and hit the likely spots.  If I’m fishing a big pool on a brown trout river, I’m going to spend at least a few minutes looking before I jump in.  If I’m fishing that same big pool in late fall, I’m going to look a lot more thoroughly!

Flies: Sulphur Comparadun

In the Smokies, we are mainly fishing faster, choppier water and often choose bushier, more heavily hackled dry fly patterns that float well.  In that kind of water, trout don’t get much time to study the fly and their view tends to be distorted by those choppy currents, so the bushier flies tend to do the trick.  Even when fishing pools in the Smokies, you usually have a defined feeding channel that will have at least a little chop to it.  In those situations, a parachute style fly pattern is usally adequate to provide a slightly more realistic profile.

But in flatter water like you commonly see on tailwaters like the Clinch, particularly weeks into a heavy hatch, an even more realistic profile is necessary.  Trout routinely refuse parachute style flies and probably wouldn’t even consider a vertically hackled Catskill style dry fly.

This problem isn’t new to fly fishers.  In the 1930’s, Fran Betters developed the Haystack to fool trout in slow moving spring creeks.  It consisted of a deer hair wing and tail and no hackle, allowing for a lower riding fly with a much more realistic profile.  Al Caucci and Ed Natasi introduced the Comparadun, a variation of the Haystack, in their 1972 book, Comparahatch.  The pattern is essentially the same but they were able to use more modern microfibbets to create a longer, slimmer, more durable split tail that aided in floatation.

In the mid 1980’s, Craig Matthews and John Juracek took the Comparadun a step further and replaced the split microfibbet tails with a piece of antron or zelon.  It essentially turned the fly into an emerger, with the antron or zelon “tail” suggesting the trailing shuck of an emerging mayfly.  Of course, in any of the patterns described above, the body, wing, and tail/shuck colors can be altered to imitate different insects.

I routinely fish the split tail and the trailing shuck versions, usually during a sulphur or BWO hatch.  And again, I am usually fishing them on the Clinch or possibly in a slow pool in the mountains.  They just don’t float well enough to fish them in faster riffles and pocket water. But on a slow glide on the Clinch, they can be deadly!

Sulphur Comparadun

Hook: TMC 100 (or equivalent) #16-18
Thread: 8/0 pale yellow
Tail: Light dun microfibbets ( or replace microfibbets with small tuft of brown antron for trailing shuck version)
Body: Pale yellow dry fly dubbing
Wing: Coasatal deer hair

Matching the Hatch

Probably 20 years ago, I was fishing the Clinch River with a buddy during the sulfur hatch. I won’t get into what has happened to that hatch, but back then, it was epic. Sulfurs would come off by the thousands for 4-6 hours a day for about 3 months. We would drive down from Kentucky to fish it and on most trips, we would both steadily catch fish, many topping 20”.

On this particular trip, the bugs were coming off as good as they ever had, the water was boiling with rises, but we were both getting blanked! We were both going through every type of sulfur dry, emerger, and nymph in the box, all with the same result. Frustration got the best of both of us and we headed to the bank for a smoke, a bad habit we both enjoyed back then. While staring at the river and scratching our heads, it hit us both at the same time as we simultaneously exclaimed, “They’re eating caddis!”

Caddisflies tend to emerge quickly and almost explode off the water. When a trout feeds on one, it will frequently chase it to the top to eat it before it gets away. Sometimes the momentum will cause the fish to come completely out of the water, but at the least, results in a very distinct, splashy rise – not like the delicate sipping rise to a mayfly. Once we stepped away from the river and watched, we both noticed it.

We went back to the water and began looking more closely. Sure enough, there were caddis hatching, too. There was probably one caddis hatching for every 100 sulfurs, but for whatever reason, the trout were keyed in on the caddis. It’s what is referred to as a “masking hatch.” We both switched to the appropriate caddis pattern and were immediately into fish!

That’s not the only time something like that has happened, and each occurrence has trained me to always pay attention and sometimes try to look past the obvious. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you solve a hatch riddle sometime.

First, we have to address the basics. If you see fish rising and have a pretty good idea what they’re eating but you’re fly is being ignored, check to see that your fly is the same size as the naturals. Also be certain that your tippet is not too large and that you’re getting a good drift. Presentation is most often the culprit when your fly is being ignored. Next, make certain that the color is a close match to the natural. If you’re fishing a bushy pattern, you might try a more subtle pattern like a Comparadun. If that’s not working, try an emerger fished just under the surface or in the film.

Fish Rise

Still not catching them? Take a break and watch the water. You may be able to tell something from the rise rings as I described above. If you don’t learn anything from that, try to find a fish that is rising steadily and watch him. He’s probably feeding in rhythm, like every 10 seconds. Watch his spot and try to time his rises. When you have that down pretty close, try to see what he eats. You should be able to tell if it’s the same kind of bug you’re seeing in the air, or at the very least, whether he’s eating something on or just below the surface. It’s almost like detective work. You sometimes have to go through the process of eliminating suspects before you can zero in on your man!

If fish are actively rising but you don’t see any bugs in the air, check the water. Try to position yourself at the bottom of a feeding lane (downstream of where the fish are feeding) and watch the surface of the water (and just beneath) for drifting bugs. Holding a fine mesh net in the current is a great way to collect what’s coming down the channel, but if you don’t have one, your eyeballs will do just fine. If you see some insects, capture one and try to match it with a fly pattern.

Hatches are puzzles and that’s one of the things that makes them fun. Sometimes you solve it right away, sometimes it takes awhile. Just remember that while the fly pattern is a big part of the equation, it’s not the only one. As mentioned above, presentation is huge. In addition to your technique, a smaller tippet and/or a longer overall leader may be the solution. Also consider your approach.

While I typically like to cast upstream to fish so that I can stay behind them, they will sometimes shy away from your fly in slow runs if they see your line or leader. I will sometimes try to get above fish in slow runs and cast down to them so they are sure to see the fly first. You have to land your cast short of them with slack in the line, and feed slack to enable the fly to naturally drift to them. This is a challenging presentation and it is critical that you carefully position yourself out of the trout’s line of vision.
Again, it’s a puzzle and there’s not one universal solution to every challenge.

Pay attention to your technique and everything what you’re doing (or not doing). Most important, pay attention to the fish. They’ll usually tell you what to do!

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Setting the Hook

If you’ve ever spent anytime fishing in the Smokies, you have missed plenty of strikes. And if you’ve ever been fishing with me in the Smokies, you’ve no doubt heard me say that no matter how good you are and how often you fish, you’re going to miss strikes from these fish. I’d say that’s true most anywhere, but in the Smokies, it’s a guarantee. I’ve had the pleasure of fishing for trout all over the United States and I am yet to find trout anywhere that hit and spit a fly quicker than they do in the Smokies! But while nobody is going to hook them all, there are plenty of things you can do to increase the number of fish you hook.

Before we get into those things, let’s first talk about what exactly is going on when a trout hits your fly. I once guided a gentleman who was having an excellent day as far as activity goes, but he was missing A LOT of strikes. I was giving him plenty of tips along the way but midway through the day, I realized we just weren’t on the same page when, after missing another strike, he commented, “I don’t know how trout even survive.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

He replied, “It seems like it would be hard for them to survive when they miss their food so often.”

I asked more emphatically this time, “What are you talking about?!?”

He said, “As often as they miss the fly, you know they’ve got to be missing the real food, too.”

I exclaimed, “They’re not missing. You are!”

Don’t get me wrong. I have missed plenty of strikes in my years of fly fishing. Like I said, we all do, but it’s always been my fault, not the trout’s! Sure, every now and then a fish will “short strike” the fly or bump it with his nose, but for most anglers, that is very much the exception.  Even when that is the case, it’s probably still your fault. If you’re getting short strikes, it’s probably because your fly is too big, or your tippet is too big, or you have drag… Again, all of those things happen to everyone, but blaming the fish will never fix any of them!

So, what actually happens when a fish hits your fly? It depends on the kind of fly you’re fishing. When you are fishing a streamer (a fly that imitates a baitfish or something else that swims), you are usually stripping it and keeping a tight line. Typically, the trout will chase and/or ambush something they think is a wounded or fleeing baitfish. The strike will usually be rather aggressive and because you have a tight line, you will feel the strike. When you’re swinging wet flies or straight-line nymphing, you usually feel the strike as well, but it’s usually more subtle than the often violent strike that comes on a streamer.

But most of the time on a trout stream, most fly fishermen are imitating aquatic insects that are drifting in the water column. Whether adults on the surface or nymphs below the surface, these bugs are drifting helplessly in the current. When trout feed on these natural insects, it’s not necessary or efficient for them to swim around ambushing them. Rather, a trout will position facing a current, where the insects will drift down his feeding lane. All he has to do is maneuver slightly up, down, or to the side to pick them off.   When a trout feeds in this manner, he’s more or less just moving in front of the bug and opening his mouth.

But there are a lot of things coming down the current and some of them, like small twigs or leaves, may look like an insect to a trout. When he takes one of these foreign objects by mistake, he immediately spits it back out. It’s what a trout does all day. Real bug = swallow, stream junk that looks like a bug = spit it out. When you drift an artificial fly down the current and the trout hits it, he immediately spits it out because it’s not real. So you have that split second between when he eats it and when he spits it to set the hook.

Wild trout, like in the Smokies, are highly instinctive and tend to make this decision pretty quickly. Stocked trout were raised in hatcheries where they were fed daily. They tend to “trust” food a little more and consequently, will hold on to a foreign object (like your fly) a little longer before spitting it out. For that reason, fishermen tend to have a better strike to hook-up ratio on stocked trout vs. wild trout.

In either case, you are rarely going to feel the strike in these scenarios. To avoid drag and present the fly naturally, you will have to have some slack in your line and the fish doesn’t have the fly long enough to tighten your line enough for you to feel it. You will need to visually recognize the strike to tell you when to set the hook. With a dry fly, it’s fairly obvious because the fish will have to break the surface to eat your fly. As soon as you see that, set the hook. It is incredibly difficult in most situations to see a fish eat your nymph, so we often use a strike indicator positioned on the leader. When the fish eats the nymph, it will move the indicator, providing your visual cue to set the hook.

Now, with all of this in mind, here are some tips that may help you connect on a few more fish, particularly when dead-drifting dry flies and nymphs.

 

  • Know that you will probably not feel the strike and trust the visual indication of the strike. Even when streamer fishing when you DO normally feel the strike, there are times when the fish hits between strips when the line is slack. You may not feel it but you’ll see the fly line dart forward. Trust what you see!
  • Expect a strike every time the fly is on the water and be ready. As silly as it sounds, many strikes are missed because the fisherman just isn’t paying attention. Stay focused on what you’re doing. Don’t look at the bird overhead. Don’t look at the next pool up the river. Don’t stand there with your hand on your hip. Be ready!
  • Similar to #2, pay attention to your slack. The cast isn’t when your job ends – it’s when it starts. Particularly when fishing upstream, be prepared to immediately begin collecting excess slack as it drifts back to you. Many fishermen think that they’re missing strikes because they’re too slow when, in fact, their reaction time is fine but they have too much slack to pick up to tighten on the fish. Leave just enough slack to achieve a good drift but no more.
  • Keep your casts as short as possible. Not only will you be more accurate and probably get more strikes, but you’ll have less line to move when setting the hook. In some situations, like slow pools, we are forced to make long casts, but fish from better, closer positions when possible.
  • Move the line. Your hook set should be like making a quick backcast. In other words, if you miss the strike, the line should go in the air behind you like a backcast. If you miss a strike and all of your line is still on the water in front of you, you didn’t move enough line to set the hook.
  • Your hook set should be quick but smooth, and when possible, in an upward motion. A snappy or jerky hook set is a good way to break a tippet. A downward hook setting motion has a tendency to pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth, rather than up through the lip.

Setting the hook is also very much a timing thing. The more time you spend on the water, the better your timing will be and you may find that you sometimes even anticipate the strike just before it happens. And you may find that you have to adjust the timing of your hook set on different rivers. For instance, you may need to slow down a little when fishing for stockers or you may have to speed up a little when fishing for wild trout.

In either case, you’re still going to miss some and that’s okay. As far as fishing problems go, missing strikes is a pretty good one. To miss strikes you have to get strikes. And if you’re getting strikes, you’re doing something right!

Trout of the Smokies

Native Smokies Brook Trout

Over the years, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is about the trout in the Smokies. What kind are there? Where did they come from? How big do they get? Why don’t they get bigger? Why don’t they stock fish in the park? The list goes on and on. I thought I’d take this opportunity to satisfy some of the curiosity of enquiring minds.

Trout fishing in the Smokies starts with brook trout. They are the native fish of the Smoky Mountains. The terms native and wild are often confused and misused when referring to fish. To clarify, a wild trout is a trout that is not stocked but was born in the stream. However, it may have been introduced through stocking at one time. All trout in the Smokies are wild – there has been no stocking since the early 1970’s. A native trout is one that has always been there and was not introduced by humans. Brook trout have been in the Smokies since the last ice age!

Wild Smokies Rainbow

It used to be that every stream in the Smokies had brook trout and rainbows and brown trout were non-existent. The intense logging of the area, prior to its designation as a national park, sparked that change. In the early 1900’s, logging practices simply weren’t very responsible and they cut any and every tree they could get to. When trees near mountain streams were removed, critical canopy to provide shade on these waters disappeared and water temperatures climbed to levels in the warmer months that made them uninhabitable for coldwater species like brook trout. Many of the brook trout migrated to high elevations for cooler water. The ones that didn’t died.

Over time, logging operations came to a stop – in some places because there was nothing left to cut, and in others because the national park was formed and the land was protected. In the former, many streams were stocked with trout (mainly rainbow) to appease some of the emerging sporting clubs and camps. Brown trout were also introduced in a handful of rivers. Even after the formation of the park, the National Park Service continued to stock these rivers with trout.

Wild Smokies Brown

By the time the forest regrew to a level of maturity and much needed canopy returned to cool low and mid elevation streams, the rainbows and browns had established a foothold, and the native brook trout could not compete for the limited food source, forcing their relegation to the high country.

This changed again in the early 1970’s when the NPS began using electroshocking techniques to sample streams for data on fish population and size. Prior to that, they had to rely solely on creel surveys – asking fishermen how many they caught and what size. Well, as you hopefully know, just because you’re not catching fish or seeing fish doesn’t mean there are no fish! The electroshocking proved that, and they learned that they were stocking fish on top of fish. The rainbow and brown trout were all reproducing, and had been for some time.

They ceased the stocking of streams at that time and they have been thriving as wild trout fisheries ever since, boasting park-wide populations of anywhere from 2000 to 6000 fish per square mile. The only two things that seem to make that number fluctuate are flood and drought. They have determined that fishermen have absolutely no impact on the fish numbers. In fact, fisheries biologists agree that it could very well be a healthier fishery, at least when it comes to fish size, if more fishermen kept fish to keep the numbers down.

Brook trout and rainbow trout in the park only live about 4-5 years. Brook trout rarely exceed 10” in size and rainbows rarely exceed 15”. There are no regulations, like catch-and-release or slot limits, that can change this. These mountains are some of the oldest in the world and consequently are more acidic. Streams with low ph levels have less aquatic insect life, which is the primary food source for rainbow and brook trout.

Stocked Clinch River Rainbow

So we simply have too many fish for the available food source. Years with heavy flooding or intense drought often kill a generation of fish, reducing the population significantly. In the year or two following such an event, even though the fish population might be decreased by a third, fishermen still catch the same number of fish they always did, but the fish they do catch average 1-2” bigger. More food for fewer fish equals bigger fish.

Brown trout in the Smokies seem to be the exception to all of this. While they are only in a limited number of streams, they can live 15 years and reach lengths of 30”! Biologists believe one of the main reasons for this is their tendency to add bigger fare to their diet. Rainbows and brookies pretty much stay bug eaters in the park. While brown trout also eat bugs, when they reach a size of 8 or 9”, they also begin eating crayfish, mice, leeches, and smaller fish – including smaller trout!

Brown trout like low light, do a lot of their feeding at night, and are just generally reclusive. So they don’t get caught very often. You simply don’t go to the Smokies expecting to catch 20” brown trout on every trip. But in the right rivers, it’s always a possibility. In general, if you catch a trout in the Smokies bigger than 7” you’ve caught a pretty good fish. If your goal is purely to catch big trout, go to a tailwater, the Smokies isn’t for you.

Tailwaters are rivers created by water release from a dam and there are several in East Tennessee. They are stocked regularly by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Most of the trout they stock in these rivers are 7” or bigger and grow quickly thanks to the ample food supply found in these fertile waters.

When it comes to fish size, the bottom line is it’s relative to where you are fishing. A 12” native brook trout in the Smokies is a rare thing and surely qualifies as a “trophy.” A 12” stocked rainbow in the Clinch River is a dime a dozen.

Flies: The Hidden Terrestrials

We often hear about the importance of fishing terrestrials in the summer months. Out west, the conversation usually focuses on hoppers. Around here, we talk more about beetles, ants, and inchworms.   Regardless, there are a number of land-based insects from beetles, ants and hoppers to cicadas, bees and black flies that find their way into the water during the summer months.

Just the other day on a guide trip, a customer caught a brook trout that had a mouth full of small beetles. The fish had obviously been very recently gorging on them, but if you studied the surface of the water in that pool, you’d have a tough time finding a single beetle on the water. You would also be challenged to see ants, inchworms, or any other terrestrial. However, if you used a bug seine in that same pool, you would get an entirely different picture.

The fact is these land-based insects are not particularly good swimmers. Most of them, particularly ants, beetles and inchworms, briefly attempt to swim on the surface of the water but soon are caught by currents and swept below the surface.   But nearly every fisherman who fishes terrestrials, fishes them on the surface… and for good reason. Nearly every fly shop or fly manufacturer almost exclusively sells topwater terrestrial patterns. And most of these are constructed of foam or some other highly buoyant material to make the fly ride high on the water.

While you can certainly catch plenty of trout on these patterns and have a blast doing it, you are missing out on A LOT of fish. If you are a fly tier, try tying a few ants with a dubbed body and a hen feather rather than foam and hackle from a rooster neck. Tie some beetles without the high-vis sighter on the back and instead add a few wraps of lead wire. If you don’t tie flies, place a split shot above your favorite terrestrial pattern next time you go fishing.

A great way to fish them in pocket water is with a straight-line nymphing technique, allowing them to swing at the end of the drift. In pools, fish them a few feet under a strike indicator. Or tie on one of those big, buoyant foam hoppers and drop a submerged beetle or ant about 15” off the back. I probably use this method more than any other.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Active Nymphing – Rethinking the Dead Drift

I could write thousands and thousands of tortured words on how to nymph fish. There are countless methods and variables that can be determined by anything from water conditions to the type of nymph you are trying to imitate. Needless to say, it’s a little more than we can chew in a newsletter article but consider this an introduction to what I like to call active nymphing.

I differentiate it with the word “active” because mostly, we are taught to fish our nymph(s) on a dead drift. In other words, we try to get our nymph to drift at the same speed as the current, usually under a strike indicator, with no motion or “action” at all. In many situations, this is a highly effective method for catching trout and one that definitely shouldn’t be abandoned. But there are some situations when putting a little movement in the fly, “little” being the key word, may produce a few more fish.

If you’ve spent much time fishing nymphs, this has probably happened to you at some point. You dead-drift your nymph(s) under a strike indicator multiple times through a great run with no results. When you quit paying attention to do something else (probably change flies), the line and nymph(s) straightens downstream, dragging in the current, and a fish hits it.

Nymphs will sometimes deliberately “drift” to other parts of the stream in a sort of migration. Other times, nymphs may unintentionally become dislodged from a rock and find themselves drifting down the stream. In either case, they are most often not particularly good swimmers, and are basically at the mercy of the current. Your dead-drift nymphing technique is primarily designed to replicate common scenarios like this. However, some nymphs, like the Isonychias mentioned in the other article in this newsletter, ARE good swimmers, and they don’t drift helplessly with the current. Caddis especially tend to be good swimmers.

Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail

And at certain times, such as when it’s time to hatch, even poor swimming nymphs will uses gases to “propel” themselves through the water column to reach the surface. These nymphs are often referred to as emergers, and during these times, that upward, emerging motion of the nymph is often what triggers the fish to strike.   So, that fish you caught “by accident” when you let your line get tight and drag behind you may not have been such a fluke. When your drift ended and the line straightened, your nymph “swung” from the stream bottom to the surface, likely resembling an emerging nymph. The trick now, is to replicate that how and when you want to, rather than by accident when you’re not paying attention.

The best way to get started with this technique is by finding a good stretch of pocket water or a nice riffle with some deeper seams and cuts. With faster current, you’ll be able to get closer to the fish and employ a high-sticking method. Use a longer rod, probably 8-9’, and use a leader approximately the same length as the rod. Tie on a generic, all-purpose soft-hackle pattern, like a soft-hackle Pheasant Tail or Hares Ear, and put a small split shot about 8” above it. Forget the strike indicator.

In a smaller pocket, keep just a couple of feet of fly line out past the rod tip, and make a short cast up and across to the top of the pocket. You should be slightly more than a rod length away from your target, preferably with a faster current between you and the target (this will help to conceal you from the fish). Keep your rod tip up and out by extending your arm, and try to maintain an approximately 90-degree angle between the line and rod. By keeping your rod tip up, you can keep most of the leader off the water. If you want the nymph to go a little deeper, drop your rod a little lower. It depends on the depth of the water.

Move the rod with the drift at the pace of the current to maintain the 90-degree angle, and allow the drift to continue in front of and slightly below you. You may get a strike during this portion of the drift. If so, you’ll probably feel it since you have most of the slack out of your line, but keep a close eye on your leader. It will tighten if a fish strikes and be another cue for you to set the hook. When you reach the end of the drift (bottom of the pocket), quit moving the rod with the drift. This will force the fly to swing from the bottom to the surface. If the fish hits during this portion of the drift, you will likely feel a very hard tug.

You can use this same method when fishing a bigger pocket or a longer seam in a riffle. You may just be using slightly more line and have a little longer drift. You may also choose to try one more technique on these longer drifts. Do everything as described above, but when the fly and line are passing in front of you, give your wrist 3 or 4 intermittent, slight upward twitches.   This will allow the fly to “jump” or “pulse” in the current. Keep in mind that you want those wrist twitches to be very slight. Quickly and aggressively “pulling” the fly from the bottom to top will not look natural.

Girdle Bug

I suggested using a soft-hackle fly for this technique, mainly because the design of the fly lends itself well to the motion-based presentation, but I fish a variety of nymphs in this fashion. Definitely give it a try with your favorite caddis nymphs and emergers. And next time that water is a little high and stained from rain, give this a try with a dark Wooly Bugger or a dark, rubber-legged nymph like a Girdle Bug. You might be surprised at what you find!

More visible leaders with colored butt and mid sections can make this method of fishing  much easier.  They help a little with strike detection but mostly, they help you see and track the leader and better gauge the depth of the fly.  I make leaders specifically for these short-line techniques and they are available for purchase here.

What Trout Eat – A Quick Glance at Aquatic Insects

When many people think of fishing with flies, images of more familiar insects such as houseflies and mosquitoes are typically conjured. While some of these familiar terrestrial insects like ants, beetles, and hoppers are a source of food for trout, especially in the summer, it is aquatic insects that are most abundant to fish throughout the year and what most artificial flies are intended to resemble.

There are a number of aquatic insects in streams and rivers with mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges being the most common. They are defined as aquatic because most of their life is spent in various stages in or on the water. The four groups listed above vary respectively in their life cycles, but are similar in that they begin in one form under the water, emerge and transform to another stage, and ultimately return to the water to lay eggs and start the process again. Let’s use a mayfly as an example.

Mayfly Adult

First of all, the term mayfly is as general as the term flower. Just as there are many different flowers such as roses, daisies, and tulips, there are also many different mayflies such as Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, and Sulfurs. And just as certain flowers bloom at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year, certain mayflies hatch at specific, somewhat predictable times of the year. Around here for example, you’ll usually see Quill Gordons in mid March, Sulfurs in May, etc.

The mayfly hatch that you hear about is technically the second time they hatch. A mayfly will first hatch underwater from a tiny egg into a nymph. The nymph is the juvenile stage of a mayfly’s life and it takes place entirely underwater. As a nymph, the mayfly has a very flat, streamline profile and typically lives beneath rocks on the stream bottom where it feeds on algae and such.

Mayfly Nymph

A typical mayfly nymph will live for about a year in this stage until it reaches maturity. At that time, the nymph will emerge to the surface of the water, a shuck splits open, and an adult mayfly (often called a dun) crawls out. The adult will be on the surface anywhere from seconds to minutes while it dries its newly formed wings before flying off to nearby vegetation.

With no mouthparts in this stage, the adult will usually not live for much more than a day so its sole purpose is to mate. After this occurs, the females will return to the water to lay their eggs until they finally lay spent on the water. So a mayfly’s only role in nature seems to be to feed trout.

But it’s not just trout that eat aquatic insects.  Birds probably get the lion’s share and most aquatic insects are naturally camouflaged with this in mind.  Understanding this can give you a leg up when it comes to fly selection, even when you don’t know what’s hatching.

In the very early and very late seasons when there is no foliage on stream side trees, aquatic insects need to blend in with the actual branches.  Consequently, most everything that hatches during that timeframe will be dark in color (Gray, black, etc.).  In the late spring and summer when foliage is full and vegetation is thick, most everything that hatches will be lighter in color (yellows, greens, etc.).  And in the fall – you guessed it – most of the bugs that hatch will be drab, rusty colors.

Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.

Dressing for Winter Fishing

The arrival of November usually means cold weather is not too far off, but it doesn’t mean that you have to quit fishing. Certainly the fishing for wild, mountain trout can slow down significantly as water temperatures fall, but tailwater trout and really any stocked trout will continue to feed well, even in the coldest of temperatures. In recent years, winter guide trips to Delayed Harvest streams have become a favorite of many clients, mainly because of the potential for really big trout.

In East Tennessee, the average winter day is not unbearably cold – at least not compared to many other places in the U.S. The coldest month of the year here is January where, in towns like Knoxville and Maryville, the average high is 46-degrees and the average low is 29-degrees. However, this is deceiving in a couple of ways. When most folks view this forecast, they don’t take into consideration that you’re only going to experience that high temperature for a couple hours out of the day. Additionally, in the case of Delayed Harvest waters, we’re usually fishing mountainous areas where there’s a little more elevation and the sun spends a lot of the day low and behind the ridgeline. In other words, you can easily shave another 5-degrees off those highs and lows and when you throw in a little wind, you’ve got a pretty darn cold day on the water.

So, a typical full day trip in the winter will go from about 9 to 5. If the forecast is for a high of 46-degrees, that will be more like 40-degrees on the stream, and you’ll reach that high temperature probably around 3pm. That means for the majority of the day, you’ll be fishing in temperatures in the 30’s. Unless you grew up someplace like Alaska, North Dakota, or Maine, that’s cold! Don’t get me wrong, it can be a ton of fun and it never feels as cold when the fish are biting, but to better enjoy your day on the water, you better know how to dress. Below are a few tips to prepare for a winter fly fishing trip.

  • Dress in Layers: You hear this advice a lot from the weather person on your local news but I don’t think they usually understand the difference in dressing in layers and simply dressing warm. If I’m just going out in the cold for a while, I can just throw on a heavy coat and a hat and be set. However, when I’m going to spend the day outside in the cold, I’m likely to experience a variety of changing temperatures and conditions. Dressing in layers allows me the flexibility of adding or removing layers as conditions and activity levels change.

 

  • How to Layer: There are three basic layers to consider. The first are the
    Long underwear with turtleneck top

    garments closest to your body, and their main objective should be to wick moisture from your body. If your body gets wet, from perspiration or anything else, you’re going to be cold, no matter what you’re wearing as an outer layer. Consider wearing a thin, synthetic “liner sock” on your feet and synthetic long underwear for your legs, arms and torso. Long underwear with a turtleneck top is a bonus as it gives an added layer on your neck.

The next layer is the insulating layer that is designed to keep you warm. Depending on how cold it is, this could actually consist of multiple layers. For the feet, a thick, heavy wool or fleece sock should be sufficient. The 3mm neoprene foot on the wader is also going to serve as insulation. For the legs, a fleece pant designed for cold wading is great and I also like traditional fleece lined pants. Up top, I typically wear a mid-weight fleece pullover followed by a heavier fleece pullover or jacket. As the day warms, I might remove the heavier fleece. Again, it’s a bonus if one or both of these upper layers covers the neck.

The third and final layer is the shell. Its purpose is to protect from wind and moisture. For your lower half, the waders serve as your shell. Up top, I just add a light to mid-weight rain jacket. The hood will act as a shell layer for your head.

  • The Extremities: By extremities, I’m mostly talking about your head and your hands. These can be the most challenging and most important to protect. The challenge with the head is to keep it warm without interfering too much with necessary senses like sight and sound. For that reason, I HATE wearing a hood, though sometimes it’s necessary on rainy days.
Under Armour Infrared Hood

I layer my head with a product from Under Armour called an infrared hood. It’s the same thin-layered garment you see football quarterbacks wearing under their helmets in cold weather games. It covers the entire head, including the ears, but doesn’t interfere with hearing like earmuffs do. It also has a piece that can be pulled up to cover the face on particularly cold, windy days. Because it is relatively thin, I can wear a traditional ball cap over it on milder days or a warm stocking cap on colder days. This is one of the best pieces of cold weather fishing gear I’ve found!

Fold-back Fingerless Mittens

The hands and fingers are the toughest part. Trying to keep warm while maintaining the necessary finger dexterity for fly fishing is one that I haven’t totally figured out. While there are fleece gloves and mitts with fold-back hand and finger pieces, they still leave your fingers exposed while fishing and the fold-back piece is just one more thing for your fly line to hang on. I prefer just standard wool or fleece fingerless gloves. They keep my hands warm and if the fingers start getting too cold, I take a break and put my hands in my pockets.

  • Adjusting Layers: Most of this is common sense. If you’re cold, add a layer. But it’s important to pay attention to your activity level because you don’t want to be too insulated while active and start to perspire. Perspiration during cold weather, once you become less active, can create a cold that’s hard to come back from and it’s a common cause of hypothermia when not addressed.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is overdressing for the car ride to the stream. Wearing too much in the car can cause you to perspire, particularly your feet, and you’re going to be cold all day. Wear the bare minimum of layers in the car, from head to toe, and add the additional layers when you reach the stream.

  • Fabrics: You may have noticed repeated references to fleece or synthetic fabrics. That’s a really important piece of the puzzle for staying warm, dry, and comfortable. Synthetic materials like fleece are not only more breathable, but offer insulating properties even when wet. Wool does the same thing though it is often heavier. This is important with all of your clothing in case you take a dunk in the stream, but it is particularly important with your gloves, as your hands will constantly be exposed to water while fishing.

Winter Fishing in the Mountains

We’ve talked a lot about water temperature in many of these articles and for good reason. Things like approach, presentation, and fly selection can determine whether or not a fish will take your offering, but water temperature can determine whether or not a fish will take any offering! You can read in more detail about water temperature in A Matter of Degrees, but to keep it simple here, wild trout in the Smokies just don’t do a lot of feeding when the water temperature is in the 30’s and low 40’s.

Tailwaters are different because the water comes from the deep, insulated layer of a lake, and the water temperature remains relatively constant, regardless of air temperature. Stocked trout in a freestone stream are different because, well, they just don’t know any better. They were raised in hatcheries and were fed the same amount of food every day, regardless of temperature. But wild trout in freestone streams have never had that luxury, and in order to survive, their metabolism changes and they become nearly dormant. This doesn’t mean that they won’t feed at all but if you’re going to fish the Smokies in the winter, come prepared with a great deal of patience.

I spend more time looking this time of year than I do actually fishing. Blind fishing a run in the spring can be very productive because all or most of the fish should be feeding and they’ll often move up and down and side to side for food. In the winter they typically won’t move much for food and you need to put the fly right on their nose. To do this most effectively, you really need to see the fish. Take your time and watch the water, paying particular attention to the slower currents on the edges and lower parts of a run. Ideally, you want to locate fish that are up in the water column rather than hugging the bottom. Fish that are up a little in the column are more likely to be feeding.

If you can’t actually see the fish, look for flashes on the bottom. Any fish that is feeding will likely be picking nymphs off the bottom. When a trout eats a nymph off the bottom, they usually “tilt” their bodies sideways and you’ll see the flash of their lighter colored bellies. You may have to scope out several pools or runs before you see fish or fish activity. Experience will teach you the kind of water to focus on, but deeper, slower runs will usually produce better than fast riffles and pocket water this time of year. And try to pick the warmest part of the day, probably late morning to late afternoon.

Once you think you’ve located feeding fish, it’s time to think about fly selection. On warmer winter days, you may actually see some insects hatching. If you do, they’re likely to be small and dark: Blue Wing Olive mayflies, small black stoneflies or caddis, dark olive or black midges… Rarely anything bigger than a #18. On rare occasions, you may see fish feeding on the surface during one of these hatches. Small Parachute Adams or Griffith’s Gnats are a pretty good bet in those instances. Mostly though, they’re going to feed more on the nymphs, so black Zebra Midges, small Pheasant Tails, and small black or olive Hare’s Ears will be pretty good bets.

If I don’t see any kind of hatch, I may still try one of the above mentioned nymphs, but more likely I’m going with something big, like a stonefly nymph. It may be more psychological, but I feel like I’m more likely get that lethargic fish to eat if I show him a bigger mouthful. Girdle Bugs, black Wooly Buggers, Yuk Bugs, and Bitch Creek Nymphs in sizes #10 – # 4 are personal favorites.

Girdle Bugs

Regardless of your nymph selection, you’re going to want it to drift as slowly and as near the bottom as possible. I like to use heavy flies and I like to use split shot. Take your time and adjust your weight regularly as you move to areas with different depths and current speeds. If you’re not hanging up on the bottom from time to time, you’re not deep enough. If you’re hanging the bottom every time, you’re too deep. Take the time to get it right. That fly needs to be right in their nose!

Adjusting your strike indicator (if you’re using one) can help too, but usually the answer is more weight. Most fishermen just don’t have their nymphs deep enough in the winter. A great way to learn about the effects of different current speeds vs. the amount of weight on your line is to spend some time fishing a fly you can see under water.  For instance, tie on a bright pink egg and watch how deep it sinks, how fast it sinks, and how it drifts with no weight, then 1 spit shot, then 2 split shot, etc. Try it with a strike indicator and without to learn how the indicator can impact the drift, too. This is just a great way in general to better understand nymphing, and sometimes you’ll even catch a fish on that trashy pink egg!

Again, don’t expect near the number of strikes that you might in spring. But if you’re just itching to get out of the house and are willing to be patient, you might just be surprised at what you find.