Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

Brandywine Creek

The concept of “hatch-matching” dominates modern fly fishing for trout. This is largely thanks to the late Ernest Schwiebert, who coined the term in his seminal book Matching the Hatch, first published in 1955. Other, earlier authors had touched on the subject, but not in quite the same way or under the same circumstances. Fly fishing in the United States was in the midst of a sort of “dark ages” in the 1950’s, as the popularity of spin fishing spread like wildfire. When the “fly fishing renaissance” got under way in the late 1960’s there were very few books available on the subject. Schwiebert’s little book was quickly resurrected and went through numerous reprints over the years (my own volume, circa 1972, was the seventh printing).

Historically, warmwater fly fishers have rarely taken an interest in hatch matching. A notable exception occurred in the 1980’s, when a Texan by the name of Jack Ellis launched a fervent crusade to lure warmwater fly fishers away from “the yellow popper.” Ellis published a newsletter, advocating a hatch-matching approach to fishing for bass and panfish. He argued that warmwater species were worthy of the same level of respect and even reverence that fly anglers accorded to trout.

Not that Ellis was a purist, by any means. His second book, Fly Rodding for Bass, involved a lot of compromises. Note the name change—not fly fishing but fly rodding. Almost sheepishly, he admitted to fishing a soft plastic lizard on his fly rod since no fly he designed and tied could come close to its effectiveness. I think he just took too much razzing from his buddies who outfished him using conventional tackle. Although Ellis was a missionary and proselytizing came naturally to him, I guess he finally turned to the dark side.

So, with all of that background info out of the way, let’s get on to the subject of this article. I do fish “the yellow popper,” and the chartreuse slider, and many other attractor and generalist patterns. However, significant hatches do sometimes occur on warmwater fisheries. And under the right circumstances warmwater fish can feed on them with every bit as much selectivity as trout would. A lot of trout fly fishers are gob-smacked the first few times they see this happen. I certainly was. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on, however, once I dropped the prejudicial assumption that selective feeding was something only trout could possibly do.

I still fish attractor and generalist patterns for the vast majority of my warmwater fishing. I do pretty much the same for my trout fishing, frankly. The trick is to recognize selective feeding when you see it, and be prepared with the flies, strategies and tactics necessary to solve the problem of the day. This is true no matter what kind of fish you are targeting.

Whether for trout or warmwater fish, there are basically two levels of hatch-matching. The first is to choose flies and presentations that match or suggest common forage items that you surmise the fish should be feeding on, based on the location, time of year, and time of day. The second and more demanding level of hatch-matching is to recognize if and when true selective feeding is occurring and to successfully match the particular food item in question–with the understanding that the fish can suddenly and for no apparent reason switch their attention to something else–much like channel-surfing television watchers.

It’s always a good strategy to show the fish flies whose appearance and behavior is consistent with the typical items of forage they see and eat every day. The goal is to trigger the fish’s predatory instinct. A prey item that is capable of rapid swimming and escape, like a minnow, can be fished to look like it’s fleeing an attack. However, it can also be fished in such a way as to mimic the behavior of a sick or injured individual. A slower, uneven retrieve interspersed with dead-drifting or even allowing the fly to fall free to the bottom, can also be quite effective.

On the other hand, insect imitations are usually fished dead-drift, whether on the surface or deeper in the water column. Some nymphs swim quite well, others do not have that capability. Although it’s certainly possible to get a hit or two when you’re not fishing a fly “correctly,” you will surely increase your odds if you do.

Crayfish imitations can be very effective on warmwater fish. Like nymphs, they can be fished actively or drifted. I prefer a separate fly pattern for each of these techniques. My favorite pattern for dead-drift presentations in faster water is the Clouser Crayfish. For active swimming, an olive or rusty-colored Woolly Bugger is a good choice. My current favorite is a fly called a Fin Tickler, which has lead dumbbell eyes and a marabou tail as well as a few strands of Sili-Legs and a shaggy body. It rides point-up to reduce snagging on the bottom, is quick and easy to tie and very effective.

When a particular prey item is sufficiently abundant, true selective feeding may be triggered. Fish can become so zeroed-in on one food item that they have little or no interest in anything else. This is what many trout anglers are so reluctant to believe that warmwater fish could possibly do. From personal experience, however, I can assure you that they are most certainly capable of this behavior.

At various times and places, I have seen warmwater fish selective to Damselfly nymphs and adults, to Tricorythodes spinners, flying ants, midges, and Blue-Wing Olive dry flies. As a result of these experiences, my warmwater fly box contains at least a few flies that will serve to imitate these hatches—just in case I encounter this type of situation.

Although I have not seen a lot of selective feeding to them, I’ve seen many other hatches of aquatic insects on warmwater streams. These include various caddis species, several kinds of mayflies, as well as terrestrials like annual and periodical cicadas and various moths, bees and wasps.

In particular, the Brandywine and the Perkiomen Creeks, near my home in southeastern Pennsylvania, see hatches of huge Hexagenia mayflies and White Miller caddis. These insects are notable for both their size and density when hatching. These hatches occur during August and September and are exciting to see. I enjoy attempting to match them, even when it’s not strictly necessary.

Keep your eyes and your mind open when fishing warmwater streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. You may learn a lot about hatches and fish behavior.

11 Comments

    1. Thanks, Judy. I know you know all about warmwater hatches after seeing that great Hexagenia emergence on the Perkiomen the other night, and catching that big Smallmouth on a fly that suggested the nymphs.

  1. I’ve noted the same here in my “local”, having seen mayfly hatches coming off in numbers and sunfish rising to them much as do trout. I’ve made a point of having some small whitish mayfly patterns with me in case it happens. Hendricksons also work well in the fall when most insect activity is on the decline but butterflies are still active.

    1. Your experience comes as no surprise, Hayden. I’ve seen big bluegill in a Pocono “trout” stream lined up in a scum line and taking caddis adults exactly as trout would.

  2. Great article Mary. You mentioned the Fin Tickler fly…but I’ve seen any images online. I’d be curious to know what it looks like. Is it a “Tom Tickler” made with Fin Raccoon hair? I’m sure many of us would be curious to see how it’s tied, should you be searching for another article topic…. : )

    Again, I enjoyed your article; thanks.

    – Mike

    1. I’d have to go back in my files and find the information. I’m pretty sure I got this pattern from a magazine article, although I don’t recall which magazine. I’m surprised you didn’t find anything on-line, I thought it would be floating around out there. You’re right, it might make a good blog item. If I can’t find a reference, I just may do that.

      1. A bit of digging in my morgue of saved fly tying articles and I was able to find the source for the Fin Tickler. I clipped it from the July/August 2016 issue of Eastern Fly Fishing magazine. I also found out why Mike could not find it on-line. I left out part of the name. The fly is the invention of Dennis Collier, and the correct name is DC’s Fin Tickler. Try this reference and you’ll find it right away. Now that I’m reminded of the original dressing, I see that I’ve made several modifications in materials. Perhaps I will put writing it up here on my “to-do”list.

        1. Thanks Mary…see, I’m not crazy. I’ll try to look this fly up (although it doesn’t appear to be on DC’s own website), as I’m always on the lookout for a new crawdad imitation. And I look forward to your modifications, should you decide to write them up.

          – Mike

  3. Hi Mary, nice article. I think I’ve seen the fin tickler before, is it a carp fly? It looks like many of that style of buggy upside down patterns that present the hook point to a feeding carp. If you’re familiar with Ralph Long I believe he created a pattern called the Ruff Chuck that I like to use.
    Thanks Mary.

    1. I think you’re right, Joe, it was primarily intended to be a carp fly. It would surely make a good one, for the reasons you cite. Big panfish and Smallmouth Bass like it fine too! I’ll check out that Ruff Chuck, thanks.

  4. Great article Mary,
    I made a discovery of my own regarding matching the hatch for warm water species a couple of years ago.
    I live in northern Michigan and in my neck of the woods the venerable rubber spider is the fly of choice for many of the bluegill anglers here. I tied up a batch of experimental spiders and discovered that my local panfish were very selective of the leg color of these little flies. Black bodies with “grizzly” colored legs were are and still are the preferred pattern. All summer long I see black and white striped dragon flies zipping over the surface of the lakes I frequent. Through a bit of experimentation with leg color I discovered that the local ‘gills would snub any other color pattern on the legs of the spider. They had to be black and white barred legs. It was my observation of the dragonflies that led me to this conclusion. The fact that my fly had almost nothing in common with the size or shape to the actual insect seemed irrelevant to the panfish as they would aggressively eat the black and white spider all season long. I’ve been told by many in the fly fishing world that size and shape come first then color for both trout and warm water species. My 40+ years of fishing experience has taught me a different lesson.

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