Choose Your Weapon
The more you fish, the less concerned you should be with flies. It’s borderline embarrassing at times, but with the inundation of new and kooky fly names, I probably know the exact pattern I’m fishing about half the time. That said, you don’t need to know the name, just why you picked it. That requires some knowledge of the specific river, of course, but a general understanding of water types and trout behavior goes a long way.
The first concern is getting the fly into the water without spooking the fish. It follows then that heavy, big-bodied flies are rarely winners in a tailout or slick. The flip side is that a Trico or blue-winged olive is not going to get noticed in a frothing pit of white water. Remember, a huge percentage of what trout eat is ¼ to ¾ inch long (hook sizes 18 to 8) and drab in color. If the water is roiling, work around the bigger, flashier end of the spectrum, and if it’s gin clear and slow, stay drab and small.
I know plenty of guides who fish “secret” patterns. Admittedly, I have a few of my own. However, the most effective dry fly pattern I fish is a Parachute Adams in sizes 12 to 20. Again, the holding water and a fish’s mood will help guide your decision on fly selection, as will any bugs present. To be safe, assume a fish you can clearly see wants a little fly. On the other hand, that swirling green bucket between two midstream currents probably deserves a size 12 or 14. When you get a rejection, change your fly. A pale Comparadun is always my backup to an Adams because of its drastically different profile. If you still can’t convince a fish to even look, it’s time to think subsurface, and you can get a lot done with a size 10 to 18 Beadhead Pheasant-Tail Nymph on freestone rivers. Carry a few with jig heads and tungsten heads, and use the heaviest bugs only when you need to get down deep to fish. If I’m on a tailwater, my go-to is a scud with a hot-head bead. Just as you do with dry flies, work by process of elimination and start small. It’s not a bad thing to have a fish fail to notice a size 16 Pheasant Tail. It’s a catastrophe to plink him on the head with a size 6 Pat’s Rubber Legs.
Have an Exit Strategy
Whack! Fish on. It’s over 21 inches long and you found it holed up behind a rock, surrounded by white-water waves, and seemingly inside the trunk of that tree. Now what?
In the first few seconds of a fight with a big fish, there is an opportunity to turn its head. In essence, steer the fish before it’s full of steam and takes control of the fight. As a wading angler, you need to know which way to steer the fish before it eats. Again, it can become instinctual, but landing a big fish generally depends on your ability to get it into slow, deep water where you can tire it by applying changes in rod angles, to a point you can tail or net it. Be aware of landing zones around you, and have a plan to get the fish into one before you set the hook.
There are certain areas where you never want to fight a fish for a prolonged period of time, namely fast tailouts and wave trains. If you find yourself in a situation where a fish is downstream of you in that type of water, reposition downstream and use the swift current and some side pressure to coerce it through the danger zone.
When you finally bring the fish to hand, it’s time again to heed Emerson’s advice. You worked your tail off to find this trout, get into position, make the presentation, and outwit it during the fight. Make sure to take a patient moment to enjoy your success and properly release the fish. Believe it or not, I can count the tangible success of many of my most memorable wade-fishing days as a single digit.
Wade fishing is all about the intangibles—the measured chess moves, the intimacy between you and the river, and the patience. In short, the pace of nature.
David Bertsch lives and writes in Alpine, Wyoming. He is the author of two books, Death Canyon and River of No Return.