How to make simple adjustments to fool pressured, finicky trout.
[by Phil Tereyla]
FEW THINGS BRING FLY FISHERMEN MORE FRUSTRATION than trout that staunchly refuse to eat flies. Whether you’re continually offering to cruising fish in a lake or sight fishing to trout aggressively feeding in a riffle, fish that snub perfect presentations can turn any situation into a real head scratcher. Some days the fish even move away from the buffet, even though every time before it, they held their position.
The fact is selective fish are becoming more and more common on easily accessible and pressured waters. These fish have seen it all and some days they are not afraid to let you know it. By nature, large trout are often more selective; they are no stranger to anglers and reached trophy proportions by maintaining their wits. So when you have a large, selective fish in a setting that makes it feel especially anxious, you have to alter your strategies to have any shot at being successful.
Notice I said “alter” and not “overhaul.” There are days when small, simple adjustments to things like fly selection, the use of weight, and even a touch of imagination when it comes to your line, leader, and tippet setup can make for a great day on the water. I spend close to 200 days a year on some of Colorado’s most technical fisheries, and for me, helping clients fool the fish of a lifetime during those toughs days on the water comes down to three keys of fly selection, adjusting to what the fish are actively doing, and changing terminal gear like tippet or leader diameters.
Choosing the right flies to entice a selective fish to eat is one of the first hurdles to overcome. Even when a fish appears to be moving side to side in fast water, seemingly eating everything that comes its way, it does not always mean that the trout will find your offering suitable. Odds are that if you are on a pressured waterway, the fish that call the river home have seen most patterns at one point or another.
Red Ribbed Flashback Pheasant Tail
HOOK: TMC 100, sizes 14 through 22.
THREAD: Brown 8/0.
TAIL: Ringneck pheasant-tail fiber tips.
RIB: Fine red wire.
ABDOMEN: Ringneck pheasant-tail fibers.
WINGCASE & LEGS: Pheasant-tail fibers.
WINGCASE OVERLAY: Medium pearl tinsel.
THORAX: Peacock herl.
Hot Spot Scud
HOOK: TMC 2487, size 12 through 20.
THREAD: Olive 8/0.
TAIL: Tan ostrich herl.
RIBBING: Small silver wire.
SHELLBACK: Wapsi light olive Sow-Scud Back.
BODY: Wapsi light olive Sow-Scud Dubbing.
ANNTENAE: Tan ostrich herl.
HOT SPOT: Orange Sow-Scud Dubbing.
Puterbaugh Foam Caddis
HOOK: TMC 100, size 14 through 18.
THREAD: Black 8/0.
BODY: 2mm Black or tan foam.
WING: Natural elk hair.
HACKLE: Brown rooster.
Start by targeting a specific fish with generic, subsurface patterns like a Pheasant-tail or a Hare’s-ear Nymph or flies like an Adams or Elk-hair Caddis on the surface. If a fish shows even a little interest but doesn’t commit, change your offering to a more hatch-specific pattern like a Barr’s BWO Emerger or Puterbaugh Foam Caddis depending on the most prevalent insect activity. If fish continue to refuse, experimenting with variations on hatch-matching patterns like a flashback or soft-hackle version can make or break the day—you’d be surprised how subtle changes like adding a little flash or tying patterns with slight color nuances, like a small hot spot on the head, can change the mood of fish.
In fact, flies with hot spots are a great way to set your pattern apart without overkill. By tying a small section of red, purple, or orange into the body of the fly, the fly is more likely to stand out and spark a trout’s interest. For example, while Pheasant-tail Nymphs are usually tied with a copper-wire ribbing, try a few with red or purple wire to set your flies apart from others trout see day after day. The same can be said with patterns tied with beads. I like to color my copper beads with a black permanent marker or use glass beads when the extra weight is not necessary.
At times, especially on pressured Western tailwaters, anglers will fish eggs exclusively during spawning seasons. I have witnessed firsthand fish move out of the way of an egg pattern and then return to their feeding lane as if mocking the offering. When trout behave in this manner, I’ve found that substituting an egg pattern with a small fly of similar color can change a fish’s demeanor. For example, by changing from a small egg to a size 18 or 20 copper colored Copper John, the fish is still able to focus on a color similar to that of an egg without removing itself from the path of your drift.
Additionally, when I say “variations” on fly patterns that also includes variations on fly size. Downsizing to a smaller fly or one that sits flat on the water’s surface or in the surface film, like a Parachute Adams or Parachute blue-winged olive a size smaller than the naturals, can look more convincing to fish, though keep in mind this may also mean a switch to thinner, lighter tippet.
When changing fly patterns, it’s important to give the fish something they don’t see ten times a day. Think outside the box a little. For instance, there are summer days when fish are not thinking about spawning but will crush egg patterns. The idea is to catch the fish off guard; just because they haven’t seen eggs in a couple months, doesn’t mean the sight of one won’t trigger it to strike.
This can also mean fishing the “secondary” hatch, like midges during a PMD hatch or a blue-winged olive pattern during a massive caddis hatch. A lot of times this does nothing more than allow a fish to pick your fly out of a mass of naturals. When there are a thousand of the same bug on the water, imitating the secondary hatch can set your fly apart and make a much more positive impression on the fish.
A third factor when fishing either dries or nymphs is the size of the fly itself. Changing the size of the fly can turn a fish into an eater. When you have a pattern that matches the hatch exactly and trout still deem it unsuitable, try downsizing. If a size 16 or 18 caddis is coming off, try throwing a size 20. By sizing down your imitation, the fish is more likely to see it as a natural bug. Going with a sparsely tied, undersized bug will often entice reluctant fish to eat.
The reverse of that logic is to sometimes throw a larger morsel; something that packs a heftier protein punch and spurs an otherwise lethargic fish into an opportunistic feeding. Even if there’s signs of a bug emergence, try to mimic big food sources that contain a large portion of a trout’s daily caloric needs like crayfish, leeches, worms, scuds, or cranefly larva. These types of flies are often forgotten about, especially on technical tailwaters where the focus is largely on small invertebrates, but can be a great way to turn the odds of success in your favor.