The Ginger Caddis of the Smokies is known in other circles as the Great Brown Autumn Sedge. Many lump it together with a few other similar species and refer to them all just as October Caddis. No matter what we decide to call it, fish just call it food! Caddis of numerous varieties are available most of the year in the Smokies but really seem to come into their own in fall. And of the many caddis species hatching in the fall, the Ginger Caddis is the undisputed king.
Ginger Caddis are big, big bugs – in the hook size #10-8 range to be exact. They are in the stream all year, most of the time in a larval encasement of lengthwise sticks. They feed mostly on decaying leaves throughout the winter and spring, and in early summer, when that food source has diminished, they seal off their cases and remain inactive until late summer. They begin pupation in late summer, with emergence, mating, and egg laying occurring in early fall. Eggs will hatch in late fall when most of the leaves have fallen, and the larvae will again begin feeding on this foliage. Their entire life cycle is completely synchronized with this food source and they are one of the most important converters of leaf material in the woodland streams of the Eastern United States.
What does that have to do with you? Well, it gives you a good idea of what to tie on the end of your tippet. You will probably only see a handful of these on the stream as the adults tend to fly mostly at night, but there is plenty of spillover near dusk and dawn. And trout don’t seem to care that their not supposed to be seeing them in the middle of the day because they regularly take imitations with plenty of vigor!
While there are a number of more exact imitations out there, I have found few flies that work better than an orange Stimulator or an orange Neversink Caddis in sizes #12-8. Even when they’re not hitting the dries, these are both highly buoyant dry flies that do a great job of suspending a dropper. For dropper nymphs, the usual suspects like Pheasant Tails, Princes, and Green Weenies are always good choices. Or you may try a #12 orange soft hackle pattern to imitate the Ginger Caddis pupa.
Actively fishing an orange soft hackle by itself or in tandem with another nymph can be very productive, especially in the early morning. Refer to the Active Nymphing article in the Journal section of my web site for tips. Ginger Caddis begin showing up (hatching) in the Smokies in mid to late September and typically hang around until late October.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
Winter seasons are not typically known to produce large hatches of aquatic insects, particularly in our part of the country. However, if you’re going to run into a hatch worthy of bringing fish to the surface during the cold winter months, it’s likely to be a hatch of Blue Wing Olive mayflies. Blue Wing Olives, or BWO’s as they’re commonly called, are one of the most erratic hatches that I know of. While most aquatic insects hatch at fairly predictable times of the year, BWO’s are likely to come off anytime of the year, typically on the crappiest day imaginable.
I can remember guiding someone in the park several years ago in early May, a time when we’re usually seeing good sulfur hatches (and about anything else yellow). We had an unusual and harsh cold front come in where highs were hitting 50-degrees at best. It was cold, windy, and raining and the fish had more or less shut down. We’d had a tough morning to say the least and while shivering through lunch, we were considering calling it in.
I suggested hitting one more nearby pool and to our surprise, it had fish rising in it… a lot of them. Without giving it much thought, I tied a sulfur on his line since that’s what had been hatching… Every. Single. Day. But when he began fishing to them, the sulfur imitation repeatedly drifted through rising trout, untouched. So I switched him to a different, smaller sulfur pattern. Same result. Then, I switched him to a sulfur emerger. Nothing.
I was making a mistake that a lot of fishermen make. I was making decisions based on what the fish had been or should be doing rather than paying attention to what they were doing. I finally waded out to the channel in the very back of the pool where I wouldn’t disturb the fish and focused closely on the surface of the water. What I found was not the size #16 sulfurs that had been hatching for the last week. Instead, I saw dozens and dozens of size #20 BWO’s. Fly selection is 45% experience, 45% science, and 10% dumb luck, and I had been relying 100% on experience! We made the appropriate fly change and were into fish for a solid four hours before the hatch ended and the fish went cold again.
There are a lot of morals to this story but the one most relevant to the topic of this article is that BWO’s can hatch anytime. And they usually like to hatch on the foulest of days. With that said, don’t rush out to the Smokies in February because Rob Fightmaster said there would be a great BWO hatch. But if you’re on the water in less that ideal conditions and fish are rising, look for BWO’s. If you don’t see anything but just want to try something on the top, try a #18 or #20 BWO. I ALWAYS have at least a few BWO’s in my fly box in these sizes. I carry different versions but prefer something with a dark olive body and medium dun hackle in a parachute or comparadun style pattern.
Again, a hatch can occur at most anytime but you’re most likely to encounter them between late fall and early spring, at least in this part of the country. And you’re just as likely to see them hatching on a tailwater as you are in the mountains.
Of course, for every fishing eating a BWO on the surface, there are probably five eating a BWO nymph. The nymphs are also usually dark olive in color and can typically be imitated with an olive Pheasant Tail or olive Pheasant Tail nymph. Both are good choices during a hatch or just blind “nymphing” in the winter months.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
Blue Quills represent one of the first good mayfly hatches of the year in the Smokies. By “good,” I mean they can come off in big enough numbers and with enough consistency for trout to really take notice. As with most aquatic insects, water temperature determines when they hatch and being an early season bug, there can be as much as a three week variation from year to year.
In the Smokies, we tend to see them begin hatching in late March and continue through the third or fourth week of April. With a warmer than average February, they can get started a little earlier or they may get going a little later in a cold spring.
They tend to hatch sporadically through the day with the heaviest activity occurring between noon and 4:00pm. Water is often higher and faster this time of year, so pay close attention to soft current edges, eddies, and slow pockets for trout feeding on them. Water temperatures also tend to be chillier this time of year, which can retard emergence. An un-weighted nymph fished in the surface film or just below can be very effective, particularly on cooler, damp, or overcast days.
The nymph is a reddish brown color and typically a size #16 or #18. The bugs tend to get smaller as the hatch progresses, so while we’ve mostly been seeing #16’s, expect #18’s to be more common in the coming weeks. There are specific Blue Quill nymph patterns but a standard Pheasant Tail Nymph works as well as anything.
The adults also have a reddish brown body with a light to medium dun wing and are also found in sizes #16 and #18. Again, very specific Blue Quill dry fly patterns are available but a Parachute Adams serves as a worthy imitation.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
I have repeatedly heard these two statements throughout my fly fishing life, and I’d have to say, I agree with both. Ants are not only abundant in nearly every stream where trout live, they’re pretty easy pickin’s once they make their way into the water. And for Smoky Mountain trout, they’re one of the few meals available in the summer months.
From a fishing perspective, I love ants for their versatility. Whether it’s topwater in heavier current, topwater in low, slow runs, or below the surface… There’s an ant for that!
Made popular in the American West, a Chernobyl Ant is an oversized ant pattern, often tied on a size #6 hook or even bigger! While they are considerably larger than most natural ants, the trout don’t seem to mind. Trout may actually take them more for a beetle or some other type of terrestrial, but who cares? They eat them. I typically find the traditional Chernobyl Ants too big for slower water, though I have had a number of nice fish eat them on slow, shady edges of summertime pools. The Chernobyl is best suited for heavier water with a little more chop and because of its buoyancy, is a great dry fly to support a dropper nymph.
Most of the time, however, I scale the fly size down to a #12 or #14, making it more of a “mini-Chernobyl.” At this size, it makes a great generic searching pattern from late spring through early fall. It rides a little lower in the water, sometimes making it difficult to see in choppy water or where there is excessive glare. But with a brighter piece of foam on top of the fly, you can pick it up most of the time.
In late summer and early fall, or anytime when the water is low, fish are spookier and big foam flies (even the mini-Chernobyl) can send the fish running for cover. A parachute ant pattern can be more effective during these times. It lands softer and provides a little more natural silhouette. I typically fish these in smaller sizes like #16 and # 18. Tying these with a white or orange post makes them visible in most conditions.
One of the most underutilized methods for fishing an ant is to fish it below the surface. Ants are not particularly strong swimmers and often find themselves drowning when they’re in the water. Fishing an ant between the surface and the middle of the water column can be highly productive. Hard bodied ants or, my favorite, soft hackle ants, in a size #14 or #16 are great for this. I’ll often fish one as the top fly of a two-fly nymph/wet fly rig, especially when streams are running full. When streams are low, I like to put a soft hackle ant as a dropper off a dry fly. It hangs in, or just below the surface film and will often fool the most finicky of trout.
Most of the ants I fish are black but can be effective in brown, tan, or cinnamon as well. You can fish them almost anytime of year but they will be most productive during the summer. Ants also tend to be most active through the middle of the day so that is when trout are most likely to see them.
In any case, you should have at least one ant pattern in your fly selection, preferably two or three variations. You can find the mini-Chernobyl and the Soft Hackle Ant in the Boys of Summer fly selection on my web site.
Learn more about Smoky Mountain hatches and flies in my hatch guide.
As many of you know, I spend nearly 200 days a year fishing and guiding on small mountain streams in the Smoky Mountains where creel surveys indicate that approximately 90% of (unguided) fishermen never catch a fish. Meanwhile, the 10% who do catch fish tend to catch A LOT of them. When fishing small streams, it’s a fine line between getting skunked and catching 50, and most of the time, the difference isn’t what’s in your fly box. In the Smokies and other similar small mountain streams, approach and presentation is the name of the game and to have success, you may need to adjust a few of your techniques. Listed below are 10 tips that may make your next small stream fishing trip more productive.
Dress for Success: As simple as it sounds, one of the biggest keys to being successful is not spooking the fish. There are a number of ways you can spook a trout but it all starts with what you wear. Leave the coral casting shirts at home. Instead, dress in earth tones like olive, tan, and grey. You don’t need to be a fly fishing commando with face paint and twigs in your hat but you do need to blend in.
This doesn’t matter as much on big, open rivers because you’re usually casting farther and your backdrop is the sky. On small mountain streams, you’re closer to the fish and your backdrop is usually trees, bushes, and rocks. Brighter colors stand out against that backdrop and allow the trout to more easily detect your movement.
Wade Quietly: Think Great Blue Heron and not Labrador Retriever when you’re moving through the stream. Step slowly, quietly, and try not to drag your legs through the water. Again, you’re closer to the fish in these streams and the fish are going to be sensitive to splashes and rocks scraping together. For this same reason, I don’t encourage wearing studded wading boots on these streams.
Move Upstream: Trout are going to be facing upstream watching a current for food. By moving upstream, you will be staying behind the fish making it more difficult for it to detect you.
Stay Low: A trout has a cone of vision that allows it to see things above it. The closer and higher up you are, the more the fish will be able to visually detect your movements. As before, you don’t have to be a fly fishing commando and belly crawl from spot to spot. Just try to crouch more when approaching a run and take advantage of natural barriers. For example, if there’s a boulder in the water, stay behind it rather than standing on it.
Read the Water: Trout won’t be just anywhere in the stream. Aimlessly casting your fly around the creek is not only unproductive, you risk spooking the good spots by throwing your line across them. Most of what you’ll find in small mountain streams is pocket water, which is just faster water interspersed with large rocks. Almost everywhere a current breaks over or around a rock creates a holding area for a trout, usually on the edges of the current and directly above and below the rock.
Reading water becomes very instinctive with a little experience, but at first, you’ll have to think about it a little more. Look at each spot you’re approaching and consider that trout need three basic things: food, cover, and comfort. Food is typically going to be concentrated more in the currents rather than in still water. Cover is typically going to be found in deeper water and/or under things like rocks. Comfort is going to be found in places that don’t stress the fish, like slower currents rather than turbulent white water, or shade rather than sun on a bright, warm day.
Position First, Cast Second: Making a good presentation is the other biggest key to success on small streams, and one of the most challenging. Many anglers mistakenly stay too far back from their target and cast way too much line. In smaller mountain streams, you typically have a fairly large volume of water moving downhill through a narrow area. Everyplace the water breaks around a rock creates a velocity change, resulting in dozens of different current speeds. Making long casts puts line across all of these currents and creates drag on the fly. Drag on the fly means you don’t catch fish.
Attempting to overcome this exclusively by mending line is often impractical not only because of the numerous varied currents, but you simply don’t have time to do that much mending when casting to such small target areas. Your best course of action in pocket water is usually to get closer to the target where you can keep most of the line and leader off the water, often eliminating the need to mend altogether. At the very least, it will be easier to mend a short length of line on one current than a long length of line on five currents.
To get closer and keep from spooking fish, the idea is to keep something between you and the fish, like a boulder or simply a fast current. If you want to drift a fly on the inside edge of a current, you’re going to approach from the lower outside of the current, using that current to conceal you from the fish on the other side. Try to get close enough to use the length of your arm and rod to reach across the current and keep line completely off of the faster water. A longer rod will be beneficial because it’s going to give you more reach, allowing you to stay back a little farther. Of course, utilizing steps 1-4 are critical to making this work.
As you move up the stream, you’re constantly repositioning yourself for the next spot. Sometimes you’re repositioning yourself within the same pocket by fishing the near current first, moving closer, then fishing the far current. Remember, it has nothing to do with how far you can cast. Rather, it’s where you need to be to control line for the best drift. In pocket water, I’d estimate that 80% of the fish I catch are with less than 4’ of fly line past the rod tip.
When you come to a bigger, slower pool, you may not be able to get as close because you don’t have the faster currents to hide you. You also don’t have the faster currents to screw up your drift. Stay back and make slightly longer casts here. Just be careful not to make long casts to the head of the pool before fishing the tail or you can spook half the fish by lining them. Everything gets broken into pieces here. Whatever you’re going to spook first, fish first.
Minimize False Casting: Or just don’t do it at all. Most of the time when fishing small streams, you’re making very short casts, and in pocket water you’re often using a fixed amount of line. Repeated false casting is unnecessary and is movement above the fish. Wild mountain trout are in the middle of the food chain and they typically associate movement above them with a kingfisher or heron swooping down to eat them.
Use a Longer Rod: There’s a common misconception that you need to have a short rod to fish small streams to stay out of the trees. Again, the idea here is not to make the longest cast possible up the stream without hanging a tree limb. You want to move closer, make short casts, and reach to keep line off of currents. A longer rod will better allow you to do that and I like to fish as long a rod as I can get away with. In the tiniest, rhododendron-choked mountain streams, that may only be 7’, but for typical mountain streams in the Smokies, it’s 8 ½’ – 9’. And yes, even longer tenkara rods can be highly effective for fishing this type of water.
Accuracy is Everything: All of the best small stream fly fishermen I can think of have two things in common. They know exactly where to position themselves before making a cast, and they are great casters. Unfortunately, great casting is often associated with double-hauling 110’ of line, and that’s hardly what I’m talking about. These fishermen aren’t making long casts, but can put the fly exactly where they want it the first time, the second time, and every time. In pocket water, if your first two casts are off target and/or drag a little bit, you still might catch a fish on the third cast, but you’ve probably already spooked the big fish of the hole.
If you’re not one to practice casting in the backyard, you should be. If you are, don’t just try to cast it as far as you can. Instead, practice with 20’ of line and less and try to hit a small target. Try to do it with an overhead cast off both sides of your body. Try to do it side arm. Try to do it with a roll or circle cast. You’ll find that the more you practice off the water, the “luckier” you’ll be on the water.
Keep Moving: In small streams, especially in pocket water, you’re going to catch more fish by covering more stream. Identify the likely spots in a pocket or run, put a half dozen drifts in each spot and catch your fish. If you miss a couple of strikes, put a few more drifts through and move on. If you don’t get a strike, don’t spend an hour there changing flies until you do. Move on. This doesn’t mean speed fish the stream, as you still need to be methodical in your approach. But when you get good at reading water, positioning and casting accuracy, you’ll be able to cover the water quickly and efficiently.
If you’ve ever fished with me or have read more than two articles in this newsletter, you undoubtedly know how much I emphasize the importance of water temperature when fishing for wild trout. Often in the summer, it can be too warm in many places, causing trout to be lethargic or even migrate to cooler water. In winter, it can be too cold, causing changes in metabolism and a shut down in feeding. In early spring, you’re often fishing right on the edge of good water temperatures. Throughout the day, you may encounter totally different feeding behaviors – from hour to hour and from pool to pool.
Though it’s not quite this exact, 50-degrees is kind of the magic number we’re looking for. When we see water temperatures at or above 50-degrees for the better part of the day, we typically start to see actively feeding fish. This is due to not only the change in metabolism, but also the increase in bug activity. It can be deceiving, though, when we start to have these warmer days but the overnight temperatures are still getting pretty cold. It may be late morning or early afternoon before the water has had time to warm to a “stimulating” temperature.
So forget what your granddad told you about getting to the water at dawn. That’s great advice during the heat of summer, but in early spring, it will usually only give you a lot of casting practice until things heat up later in the day. While there are, of course, variables based mostly on weather, your best fishing this time of year will probably be between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, get to the water around 10 so you have some time to gear up, and enjoy your afternoon.
This is also not the best time of year for making that 7-mile hike to a high elevation brook trout stream. With very rare exceptions, your water temperatures are going to be considerably cooler at high elevations. This is the time to focus on lower and mid elevation streams.
Now that you’re at the right place at the right time, there are other things you want to look for. While slower pools often fish poorly later in the year, they can be great places to fish in early spring, mostly because of the abundance of food. The best hatches, at least in the Smokies, occur in the spring and you can target a lot of feeding fish in these pools. Dry fly fishing can be at its best on early spring afternoons and it’s a great opportunity to find a larger brown trout feeding on the surface. Even if there is not an active hatch, there are plenty of bugs preparing to hatch. Drifting nymphs along the bottom, particularly near the heads of these pools can be very productive.
The other advantage to larger pools this time of year is they typically have less tree canopy and the water gets more direct sunlight. Seeking direct sunlight is counterintuitive to many fishermen, but in the early season, it often means warmer water. And even if the sunlight isn’t significantly warming the water, it is likely stimulating more bug activity, which will in turn, stimulate fish. Still, bright sunlight can have a negative impact on fish and their willingness to feed, so I try to seek out and pay particular attention to the “sweet spots” – good holding water that has a nice mix of sun and shadows.
Finally, when choosing days to fish this time of year, really try to pay attention to the overnight lows more than the daytime highs. Warmer overnights will better maintain those water temperatures we’re looking for. And don’t be afraid to get wet. A warm rain can raise water temperatures and turn fish on quicker than anything this time of year!
Understanding How Trout Feed and the Importance of Presentation….
It has been claimed by many, beginner and expert alike, that Smoky Mountain trout are among the most difficult to catch. Talk to a few Smoky Mountain anglers for any length of time and at some point the statement, “If you can catch them here, you can catch them anywhere!” will certainly be heard. That’s not entirely true. Simply driving a little north to the Clinch will teach you that. Employing Smoky Mountain fishing tactics on that big tailwater may reap rewards in a few areas, but the long, slick waters of the Clinch will require different skills to be consistently successful. Almost every fishery has certain characteristics and little quirks that make it uniquely challenging.
But this much is true… If you are catching fish in the Smokies on a consistent basis and understand why and how you’re catching them, applying those skills to other freestone rivers, such as those in the American West, will put you a step ahead of many anglers. But why? What is it about these little mountain streams that is so challenging?
The first thing is simply the fact that you typically have a significant volume of water in a small space. Rather than water flowing through a broad basin, where current speeds are somewhat consistent and concentrated in long, broad channels; in these small streams, the flow breaks and changes speed dramatically with every boulder it hits. So in many situations, in one fishy run, there may be fifteen different current speeds with which to contend. That may not be a big deal if you understand how that phenomenon can impede drift and you can approach those runs properly, but failure to understand this can convince many an angler that there are no fish in these streams!
I’ve seen a number of VERY good fly fishermen come to the Smokies and get skunked. In most cases it is because they are big river fishermen and they approach these streams in the same way they approach the big rivers they normally fish. That usually entails standing erect at the bottom of a run and making a 40-60 foot, up and across cast to the top of the run. The result is 40-60 feet of line being grabbed by fifteen different current speeds, and an attached fly dragging like RuPaul! All but the smallest and dumbest fish in the Smokies will not tolerate a poor drift, and with the exception of the rare slow pools, there is no way you’re going to be able to cast that much line and be able to control your drift. Executing a good drift in the Smokies is going to require getting closer to the fish.
First, it is important to understand where the fish will be and why. You can find fish in the slow pools but these are among the most difficult to target. Without a defined channel to concentrate food, fish in these pools will be very spread out and often cruising, feeding opportunistically. Unless there is a significant hatch coming off to motivate consistent feeding and reveal fish when they break the surface for a meal, catching them in these environments is going to require a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of plain dumb luck. This is certainly not to say you can’t catch fish in slow pools in “hatchless” situations, but the odds are not with you.
For heavier concentrations of actively feeding fish, you’ll want to be in the riffles and runs where there are clearly defined channels. The stream funnels insects and other food items into these channels, and where you find food, you find fish. And in these food abundant areas, fish are typically “holding,” waiting for the meal to come to them. But because there is so much “stuff” coming through these chutes, from aquatic insects to stream debris, the fish instinctively ignore passing items that don’t look like food. Your imitation dragging through the feeding zone faster than the current because another current is pulling on your fly line, qualifies as something fish will ignore. To control the fly you have to control the line. To control the line in a run with multiple currents, you have to get closer.
To get closer, you’ll want to employ the strategies discussed in Part 1 of this article: dress accordingly, stay low, and be stealthy. The idea is to get into a position where you can use the length of your rod to keep the fly line out of any currents other than the one where your fly is. So you’re keeping the rod high, keeping most, if not all, of the line off the water so that there is very little to impede the drift. By following the fly with your rod tip, you can extend your drift through the run. There are going to be a number of these little feeding zones within a run, so you try to hit one, reposition yourself, hit the next, reposition yourself, and so on.
Check out the photo above – a typical stretch of water in the Smokies. You can easily see the numerous changes in current speed and direction in just this small area. Rather than standing at the bottom right of the photo and casting 40-50 feet to the top left of the photo, our angler is intelligently breaking this stretch into defined sections. He has likely already fished the water below, to his left, and right in front of him. Notice he has his rod high, keeping the line off the current directly in front of him, and allowing the fly to drift nicely in the current breaking around the right of the boulder. Next, he will likely step up to the boulder and fish that large pocket above it. Well done!
The angler in this photo is also doing a good job with a little more line out. Notice he is concealing himself behind a boulder and his rod is help upward, keeping the current lip in front of him from grabbing the line. The line that is on the water is all in the same current speed. Again, well done!
He likely fished the current below that boulder before stepping into that position. It’s all about planning your attack. Determine your targets and carefully place yourself in the proper position before casting to them.
Setting the Hook
Fishermen in the Smokies also miss A LOT of strikes. Some of the misses can be attributed to the fact that trout in the Smokies hit and spit a fly with amazing speed. You can just go on and plan on missing some strikes when you fish here – just like you can plan on getting hung in a few trees – it’s all part of it!
But you can greatly increase your number of hook-ups by implementing the above strategies. While many strikes are missed due to the angler just not being ready or reacting to slowly, just as many are the result of too much line on the water. The more line you have out, the more line you have to move and tighten to set the hook. And when that line has a lot of slack in it, there will be even more delay.
It’s a delicate balance. In most cases, you have to have a little bit of slack in your line to allow your nymph or dry fly to drift without drag. Keeping that slack to an absolute minimum will allow the rod tip to lift and tighten the line on the fish much more quickly and will certainly result in more fish to hand.
Understanding a Trout’s Vision and Instincts for a Better Approach…. On numerous occasions guiding clients in the Smoky Mountains, I have been met with a suspicious and doubting eye when I provide certain instruction regarding approaching and presenting the fly to wild mountain trout. The reply is often something like, “Are they really that smart?” No, trout aren’t that smart. They have the brain the size of a pea. But the fact that they aren’t that smart is what allows them to be so good at what they do. Unlike us more “intelligent” humans, trout aren’t distracted by health care reform, college football, paying the mortgage, or who got voted off American Idol last night. Their entire existence is ruled by instinct, and their only real concerns are receiving enough oxygen, eating, and not being eaten! When your life is that simple, it allows you to remain pretty focused.
Think about a simple housefly for a moment. Trying to catch one is difficult. A housefly isn’t smart. It’s not planning out evasive maneuvers in the event of a human attempting to catch it. First I’ll cut right, then I’ll go up, then I’ll get behind the blinds at the window…. It’s pure instinct. Survival. Something we humans have to go through rigorous, repetitive training to achieve.
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when approaching fish is doing so from upstream. To a trout, a stream is a conveyor belt of food, constantly delivering hatched aquatic insects and terrestrials on the surface and juvenile aquatic insects (nymphs) between the surface and the bottom. Trout aren’t looking down the conveyor belt to see what they’ve missed, they’re looking up the conveyor belt to see what meal is coming next. If the trout see something suspicious at the top of the conveyor belt, like you, they’re going to likely quit feeding until they feel safe again. They may even go hide!
So the trout knows I’m trying to catch him? No! But he’s spooked. Think about a situation you’ve been in where your senses were heightened. Maybe you’re walking alone late at night on a dark street and you hear a strange noise up ahead. Is it the wind? A stray cat? Another person? A serial killer? You don’t know, so what do you do? Do you race up ahead to check it out? Do you ignore it and keep on as if nothing happened? You would probably stop doing what you’re doing and assess the situation. You might even turn around and go the other way. It’s the same thing if something disrupts a trout’s comfort zone while they’re feeding.
Another interesting way to look at it is if you take the dark street scenario described above and insert a thirteen year old rather than an adult. Due to limited life experiences and a feeling of invincibility, the thirteen year old may proceed with less caution, if any at all. Now you know why big (old) fish are harder to catch than small ones!
You’ll be far more successful if you approach the fish from downstream and cast upstream. This puts you behind the feeding fish where you are less likely to be detected. Notice I said less likely. You can still alert fish to your presence by making a lot of commotion through careless wading. When possible, stay out of the water or right on the edge. When you do enter and move through the water, do so quietly and deliberately. Stomping along the stream bottom and/or splashing through the water will produce excessive vibrations, again alerting the fish to possible danger.
You also want to keep a low profile to remain unseen by the fish. So trout have eyes in the back of their heads? No, but they can still see things behind them – to an extent. Trout are predators and prey, and they are blessed with vision that benefits them in both roles. Like humans, they have binocular vision that allows them to see straight ahead underwater. Because of the placement of their eyes, they also have an extended range of peripheral vision, allowing them to see things on either side of them. Since this vision is used to look straight ahead and to each side, there is little distortion and it’s very clear – much like we would see under water.
But trout also have a cone-shaped field of vision above them that allows them to detect predators from above. Because of the distortion caused by light refracting as it hits the surface of the water, trout are unable to clearly make out objects, so this is used to visually detect movement more than anything else, such as a Kingfisher swooping down to get them. It’s the same as if you were to lie down on the bottom of a swimming pool and look up. You would be able to see objects but they would be so distorted it would be difficult to differentiate between a person and a tree – until that person started to move. However, something that is right on the surface, like a mayfly dun, will be clearer to the trout than something above the surface, like a bird – at least the silhouette will be much more distinct – making this ability effective for feeding on adult insects and terrestrials.
As you’ll notice in the poorly illustrated drawing above, that field of vision does extend a little behind the trout – upward and outward. Everything that makes its way into that cone can be detected by the fish. So, when approaching a trout from behind, how close you are determines whether or not you’re in that cone of vision. Notice however, that a short object can be directly behind the trout and unseen while a tall object would be in the field of vision. This is why many successful Smoky Mountain anglers can be seen crouching or squatting when closely approaching fish. The lower profile keeps them out of the fish’s “window.”
The other thing that should be considered is the type of water you’re fishing. The faster and more broken the water is, the more difficult it will be for the trout to detect you, making it easier for you to get closer to the prey. On the other hand, trout in the slower, flatter runs and pools are going to be able to detect you much more easily and may require you to stay back a little more and put a little more distance on that cast.
In any situation, the more you can conceal yourself, the more successful you will be. Stay low. Wade slowly and quietly. Hide behind rocks and boulders when you can. And for God’s sake, leave the bright orange, hot pink, neon yellow clothing at home. You don’t have to be dressed in full camo with twigs and branches in your hat to catch fish here, but simply dressing in earth tones – browns, olives, khakis, and greys – will go a long way toward not scaring every fish before you even make a cast!
Check back soon to see Part 2 of this series about how trout feed and how to effectively present your fly.