Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

160909-PDR-MKT-Yellow Burnt Wing Adams-0507This past summer I was a very pleased father in-law having sucked my two son in-laws into the fly fishing maelstrom. In fact both of them have voiced the notion that one of the requirements for marrying my daughters was that they become fly fishermen. This may or may not be true but I did build two fly rods as gifts for the young couple at the most recent wedding where I was privileged to be the FOTB (father of the bride), just a small hint really.

So it was I found myself wading in the tail end of a deep run that spread out, shallowed and slowed down in the area where I was standing. Laird, my newest son in-law, was standing on a ledge upstream and to my left casting into the same space with a rig that I had put together for him. We were both using a jig head fly called “Willie’s White Thing” primarily for weight. Tied to the hook bend of the White Thing was about 20” of tippet with a #16 Bead Head Pheasant Tailed Nymph of my own design. The rig was working well for me. I was conflicted however because I was enjoying myself pulling out Cutthroat after Cutthroat on this rig and Laird, who I was supposed to be mentoring, wasn’t doing well at all. I had a number of ideas or theories as to why but try as he might using my suggestions nothing worked. Eventually he left moving upstream trying unsuccessfully to hide a fair amount of frustration.

This got me thinking about what it is that makes us successful on the river. There is a combination of things really but one of the practices you hear talked about and written about is “Matching the Hatch”. In fact anglers are often divided into two camps, those who emphasize “Presentation” and those who are hatch matchers.

My practice when approaching a stream where I frequently fish is to rig the rod at the truck based upon past experience. This may not be the most scientific way of approaching the problem of what to put on the end of the line but it works most of the time. In the streams of southern Alberta in late July Adams dry flies in sizes 12 to 16 work very well when fish are rising and a #16 Pheasant Tail Nymph drifted very close to the bottom works well when they are not rising. I also use Elk Hair Caddis and Stimulators with a great deal of success but I don’t rely on these patterns as much as the first two. When fly fishing the Little Red near Heber Springs Arkansas I usually walk away from the vehicle with either a Deena or a Black Wooley Bugger tied on the end of the leader and it isn’t unusual to spend most of the day with one or the other of these two patterns on the line. The Deena seems to be a particularly good pattern to use on the Little Red.

There are times however when try as I might I can’t coax anything to bite. When this happens I pick up rocks looking at the undersides to see what bugs might be available to the fish. These usually reveal Caddis Fly Cases and a few Mayfly Nymphs. Sometimes a big Stone Fly Nymph is crawling around on the rock. With this information I then tie on something that resembles what I found under the rock and continue to cast often without any better results. I believe that the reason why I don’t do very well even after investigating rocks is that the trout aren’t over-turning rocks to find food, they are instead picking food out of the drift and that can be quite different from the obvious things found under the rocks on the stream bed.

One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had was standing in the Bow River just upstream of the Carsland Weir with fish rising all around me, some so close I could have reached out and touched them with my hand, and I wasn’t able to see what they were taking. In this situation I was changing flies every few casts in a fly fishing panic. My only solace in that situation was that none of the other fishermen in the area were catching fish either; all of us had failed to solve the puzzle.

It wasn’t until I moved to North East Texas where a whole new chapter was added to my understanding of trout food. I met a group of guys that fished subsurface with very small flies imitating nymphs scuds and midges. There was one trip to Heber Springs in Arkansas where we used the guiding services of Chuck Farneth and he had us using flies that were tough to see much less put on the end of very fine tippet material. I have to admit to not being very successful that trip but I did learn a lot about midge patterns. Now my fly boxes include one box devoted to a variety of thread midges and small soft hackle flies. These are the alternative I choose when all else fails. I’ve used the midges on a number of occasions in The Lower Mountain Fork River in Oklahoma and they have saved the day.

Midges in their variety make a lot of sense and should be considered as an important trout food by the fly fisherman. They are the ubiquitous bug and found virtually in any of the waters where trout reside at any time of year. Depending upon who you read on the subject midges may be the primary food source for trout in most habitats. I’ve found if I fish these imitations close to the bottom of the stream, often as a trailer off a weighted hook, I am likely to catch fish and there are times when midges are very productive.

So what have I learned about matching the hatch? Firstly experience on a particular stream at a specific time of year can make your choices very simple, usually what was successful in the past will be successful now. This is why it is wise to hire a good guide who knows the water you are fishing. You will learn more in a single trip with an experienced guide than you would learn in a large number of trips on your own. Secondly those of us who grew up fishing dry flies need to broaden our horizons to include the large variety of trout foods that exist subsurface. Learning to fish nymphs, midge, scud imitations and streamers will expand your fly fishing tool box and increase your catch rate significantly.

So what should I have said to Laird before he left the hole we were fishing this past summer? The answer might be found in something as simple as depth. I was fishing this hole deep with my strike indicator a long way up the leader. My intent was that the weighted fly bounce on the bottom and the trailer fly following just an inch or two above the bottom. I didn’t check to see if Laird was doing the same. In my experience trout either feed on or very near the surface or they are right down on the bottom. There doesn’t seem to be as much feeding occurring in the mid-levels of the water column. Also except when the water is fairly shallow and fish are feeding on or near the surface you don’t see trout move very far vertically or laterally to take a food item. Instead they appear to focus on things in the drift at their level and more or less in front of them. It’s this trait of their feeding behavior that has given rise to the concept of feeding lanes. This in turn requires us to be fairly accurate in our casting and placement of our flies in the stream.

So is it important to match the hatch? I think it’s important to be using flies that are roughly the same size and color of the food items that are currently in the stream but you also need to be putting these Bug Puppets where the trout can see them and the behavior of the imitation needs to resemble the behavior of the real bug. So the answer to the puzzle is that both presentation and matching the hatch to some degree are important. To be a consistent catcher of fish we all need to build our fly fishing tool box of skills, techniques and knowledge. This of course is the beauty of the sport. You can never become a “know it all” in fly-fishing you can only ever become a “know it some”.

4 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I very much agree with you, but consider “matching” as an integral part of the presentation. I also tie on my fly often enough at the parking lot, solely based on past experiences. What you say you’ve learned can also apply to warmwater & salt species as well. The “match” doesn’t require precise detail, but as long as it’s close in size & profile, plus perhaps color (sometimes), getting it where it needs to be will often result in a take. Of course what we believe the fly “matches” may not even be what the fish mistake it to be! Only they know for sure.

    The majority of trout fishing I’ve done has been with nymphs, streamers & terrestrial patterns, not matching a hatch, but presenting something else that they may be eating at the time. With these fly types I’ve yet to find it critical for the pattern to be too exact. Close is good enough, often enough. Only once do I recall getting skunked because the trout were being selective to the hatching insects & I had nothing that represented the natural in size & color. I tried my usual array, but they were keyed on the hatch. A lesson learned too that day probably 25 years ago.

  2. Enjoyed the article Phil! I rarely try to match ‘hatches’…but I do try to start with something I think is likely to represent something naturally and occasionally in the current. As you point out, that can be a lot of different kinds of things, and so one could be as good as another as long as it gets in front of the fish.

    I too rig at the car…or even the night before…based sometimes on what my memory says has worked best there, or based often on the last time I drove home after having done poorly, when I found myself shouting, “Oh! Right! DANG IT, I wish I’d tried that one, that would have made the difference!” So I often tie strange new things like a madman after some poor outing, acting on some new theory or other, and one of those new patterns is the thing I start with next time. Then I go to other reliable patterns. (More tinselly flies I generally never try at all.)

    But to your point that presentation in the water column is so important, I find that the most important thing on my leader is often the Dinsmore’s egg shot, including what size it is and where it’s placed. I record those details in a log as much as I record the type of fly. Helps me remember what rig worked and what didn’t.

    Again, great article.

    – Mike

  3. Hi Mike, thanks very much for reading the article. I appreciate the comments and your insights above. A few years ago I bought a fly fishermen’s log book to record all kinds of things but I haven’t been very faithful in filling it out.

    Tight Lines

    Phil R.

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