Guest Blogger: Joe Dellaria, Learning from the River
This article is intended to be provocative. I have found that challenging the “time tested beliefs” in any area of life can lead to new findings. It can also lead to a colossal wastes of time so it pays to challenge the “status quo” only when you have some new information suggesting it is worthwhile. I want to explore whether bigger flies always lead to bigger fish.
The mantra for many sport fish is “Bigger baits catch bigger fish.” I have paid my dues casting and retrieving heavily weighted bunnies and other large streamers for trout. There is no doubt they turn some big fish and even catch some nice ones. And, there is the thrill of the jarring strikes that nearly pulls the rod out of your hand. Casting big flies is a great way to get an adrenaline rush!
While all this can be true, it seems to me that it is a lot of work to turn a few fish and catch even fewer. I have taking an informal survey the last two seasons and found that I am doing nearly as well as my big fly pounding friends both in numbers and in size using #12-#18 nymphs.
Over the years, I have collected little bits of data suggesting maybe “bigger isn’t better”. I am not proposing this is absolutely true in every situation, but I think for the sake of aging shoulders and wrists it’s worth at least entertaining the possibility that bigger flies aren’t always necessary to catch bigger fish.
Just to be clear, bigger is better under at least two situations: 1. Run-off conditions where the water looks like coffee with cream, and 2. Fishing at dark. Under these conditions, a big fly offers visibility and “big meal appeal”. Last year I wrote a blog on “Handling Cloudy Water,” and recounted an outstanding outing where a big bunny fly was the ticket under run-off conditions. While I haven’t done much night fishing, I have read that big flies are better and I have talked to several guys who fish exclusively at night. I always check to see what they are using. While they all preferred a different fly, all of them were using something big, and some were using something really big as in 6-8” streamers.
The next issue to get under our belt is “What constitutes big?” As my favorite statistician always says, “It depends.” If you live in New Zealand, Chile, or fish a big forage rich stream, big is in the upper twenties and even over thirty inches. On the streams I fish, big is a mid-upper teen fish and really big is anywhere in the twenties. This is necessary to calibrate the discussion. My assumption is that my Midwest (west central Wisconsin, to get specific) techniques would translate to larger fish if applied out west. That’s at least reasonable as the few times I have fished out west, the average size of my fish increased by over 4 inches (sorry, I am a scientist and I track these sorts of things).
So back to the question, “Will bigger flies always produce bigger fish?” My answer is not always for sure and I am starting to lean towards maybe not even most of the time. Here’s why.

Cicada
Cicada (at left) found in the 15” brown caught on a #20 parachute midge (at right)

It all started 6-7 years ago. There was a fish rising in an eddy tight to a deadfall. I had him on several times that summer but something always went wrong and he managed to get off. That changed on one of those super humid summer evenings. The sun was almost to the horizon and the fish was rising again. It appeared to be a midge hatch so I put on a #20 parachute midge pattern and started casting. You had to hit the perfect current line to get the fly to naturally wash into the dead spot where the fish held. After several failed attempts, I hit the current line and the fish sipped in the fly. Miraculously, I hesitated and waited for the fish to turn before setting the hook (I have a habit of pulling the fly out of the open mouth of nice trout) and the fight was on. It proved to be a fat 15” brown, which as I said earlier is a decent trout on this river.
We were having a trout dinner with friends and I was short one fish, so I kept him. Besides getting to enjoy some delicious fresh fish, I also get an opportunity to check the contents of the fish’s stomach. In this case, the stomach looked like an overstuffed sausage. One end was clearly hard as a rock. It turned out the other end of the stomach was full of tricos from the morning spinner fall and the hard end proved to be a cicada. I did a rough calculation after measuring the fly and the cicada and found the cicada was nearly 200 times bigger than the fly! So clearly big fish eat both big and little things! I tucked this away for future reference.
The next piece of information came on a trip out west in late September. We fished a number of rivers but spent the bulk of our time on the Rock River, just west of Billings Montana and south of I-90. Most of our time was spent in the section near Red Lodge. We were struggling to find what the fish wanted. Nothing was working consistently until my friend, Gerry, figured out a hopper with a #10 girdle bug dropper worked. The small girdle bug was a total accident. We had donated all our #2 and #4 girdle bugs to various trees and rocks. We found the flies at the hardware store in Red Lodge. All they had were #10s, so that’s what we got.
When we got back I tried the #10 girdle bugs and had an unsuspecting friend fish a #4. The smaller girdle out fished the bigger one more than 3:1 (I know, you are thinking I am a three times better fisherman. Thanks for the compliment, but my partner was an accomplished angler.).
I was beginning to suspect the pattern was true when I was eating my lunch while watching the river from the bridge. I watched two 20+ inch browns come out of the shadows to feed on nymphs in over 5 feet of water. My lightning quick mind (much like a two-wheel drive vehicle trying to accelerate on a slick and icy road) added things together and remembered that studies show that between 80-90% of a trout’s diet is nymphs (i.e. small stuff). This was an epiphany for me (maybe you already figured that out).

19” brown
19” brown with two crayfish in its mouth

In any event, I started using a parachute lead fly with long droppers (30-40 inches) with #16-#18 bead head nymphs. Early in the season, I use tungsten bead heads to get the fly deeper. Both numbers of fish and size have increased with this technique. The icing on the argument came in the last week or two when I caught a 19” brown on a #16 gray Hare’s Ear bead head nymph. That’s a respectable fish on any river. What made it more interesting was when I went to unhook the fish I found two crayfish hanging out of its gullet.

#16 gray Hare’s Ear Nymph
#16 gray Hare’s Ear Nymph used to catch the trout (the crayfish was slightly longer than the fly box)

Big flies certainly get trout excited but I find they often chase and swat at the fly without eating the fly. This approach relies on a trout’s innate aggressive nature which is why it can work. However, when the trout are not aggressive, I see few if any fish following the bigger flies. On days like that, I switch immediately to the parachute and dropper combination and catch fish where the big fly didn’t turn any fish. As one friend put it after looking at the 19” brown with two crayfish in its gullet, “There’s always room for dessert no matter how full you are!” The smaller fly and slower presentation keeps the fly in front of lethargic trout longer and ups your odds for catching the fish.
As always, there’s a time and place for every fly fishing technique. When the big fish are active it’s awfully exciting to throw big streamers and watch them nail it with a bone jarring strike. But, when the fish are less active, presenting a tempting dessert slowly in front of their face can be irresistible and produce some great fishing. Besides, as you get older, your casting shoulder and wrist will appreciate a break from those big flies. I can tell you from personal studies, this technique can produce a lot of fish and some with decent size.
As a side note, think of the parachute lead fly as an edible strike indicator. Over the last three outings I have caught at least one 16-17” brown on the lead fly. One came out of nowhere in the middle of a run and torpedoed the parachute. He hit the fly so hard he skidded three times before getting under the water. It pays to select the lead fly based on what might be hatching when you are fishing.

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