Fish “The Hang”
While imparting some action to your flies will give them the appearance of life, you can also add a slight variation to mimic something fleeing for its life. Because trout respond to a flight response, you can take advantage of predatory instincts by pausing or hanging your flies at the end of a retrieve, prior to lifting the rod to recast. It’s a technique Rowley created that he calls “the hang.”
“Just about every stillwater fly fisher has probably seen a trout make a vicious swirl, felt a solid tug, or seen the flash of a fish as it attempts to pounce on a fly as you raise the rod to cast at the end of the retrieve. Prior to this last-minute frenzy of interest, all was quiet, causing you to ask, ‘Why the last-second interest in the fly?’ The answer is simple. Two things occurred during the rod lift. Your flies changed speed and direction as you raised the rod in preparation to cast. This action appeared like something fleeing, and as a predator, trout instinctively charged the fly. This is no different than a dozing cat pouncing on a length of string as it’s pulled, or a hapless hiker deciding that sprinting from a bear is a wise tactic.”
The hang is best accomplished with a 9- or 10-foot-long rod and from a seated position to avoid spooking trout. Begin raising the rod as though you are preparing to cast. Once the fly reaches the surface, stop lifting the rod to give any fish accelerating to catch the fleeing fly a chance to eat as it dangles. If you are fishing multiple flies, raise and stop the rod to give each fly the chance to hang at the surface. If there aren’t any takers, you’re in a perfect position to cast and present your flies again.
The hang technique is easy with a floating line, but gauging how close you are to the end of your retrieve is not so simple with sinking lines. Hang “markers” help alleviate this issue by giving you a visual cue as to how much line is in the water. You can place one or more at any interval along a line, though I typically create a hang marker 10 feet from the end using a ½-inch-wide section of high-visibility white, bright orange, or hot pink thread. After attaching the thread, coat the wraps with Loon’s UV Knot Sense or Aquaseal for added protection. Hang markers don’t negatively affect the castability of the line, and as you work your fly through the water, you’ll either see or feel it as it touches your retrieve hand.
There is no set time on how long to hang flies or how fast you should raise the rod. Constantly experiment until you find a pace and hang time that coaxes a strike. On some occasions, I’ve hung flies for up to 30 seconds. I recall one day on Idaho’s Henrys Lake when I let a fly hang for over 20 seconds before a bright cuttbow rocketed from the depths to snatch it. Give it a try. The visual thrill of seeing a trout shoot toward your hanging fly will be etched in your mind forever.
While the size of a stillwater may be intimidating, there are specific areas that consistently hold feeding fish. An expert stillwater angler and the author of Fly Fishing Strategies for Stillwaters, Brian Chan, explains the importance of targeting drop-offs— areas with a significant change in water depth over a short span or distance. For example, the water in the first few feet from the bank of a lake may be only 3 to 4 feet, and then immediately drop to almost 15 or 20 feet deep.
“Life is pretty simple for trout and char living in productive stillwaters. Ideal habitat offers easy access to available food sources, which are in close proximity to the protection of deep water. A drop-off area offers both, which in the end benefits trout by conserving their energy for other life activities,” Chan says. “Drop-offs are the transition areas that slope off to the deepest parts of the lake. It is the last zone of habitat that is under the influence of the sun and the benefits of photosynthesis. Drop-offs can range from long, gradually deepening slopes to short, abrupt, almost clifflike drops to deep water.”
A typical drop-off supports a variety of aquatic plants—lush stands of pondweed, native milfoil, coontail, lily pads, and bottom covering chara all provide excellent habitat for both fish and food sources like dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, mayfly nymphs, caddis larvae, chironomid larvae, leeches, scuds, forage fish, and snails.
But drop-offs aren’t ideal trout habitat just because of available food—they provide safety from predators. Feeding around the shallow shoal areas of a lake makes fish vulnerable to ospreys, loons, and other animals. Feeding along the slopes of a drop-off makes it easy to quickly escape into deep water.
Drop-offs are also seasonally important, such as during the warm summer months when water temperatures in shallow water become too warm for trout to inhabit, at least during daylight hours. Warm water also doesn’t support so much oxygen, which is a bad combination for cold-blooded trout. A drop-off becomes a summer refuge where cool water and elevated oxygen levels remain ideal for trout to continue feeding and living in comfort.
During summer, you can see fish in clear lakes swimming along and parallel to the face of a drop-off slope. Other times you can see trout moving up and down the face of a slope. Pay attention to the trout’s behaviour—it can give you clues to what you should be imitating. Varied swimming actions are typically in response to the movement patterns of particular food sources. You can effectively fish the drop-off zone with either a full sinking or floating fly line so long as you’re presenting your fly or flies at the depth where the fish are most concentrated.
One of the most effective ways to fish a slope is to anchor along the shallow edge of a drop-off, cast into deep water, allow the flies to sink, and then retrieve up the slope face, back to your boat or float tube. Remember, trout are looking for food items close to the drop-off, so keep your patterns against the slope contour as much as possible.
Stillwaters are some of the best places to find trophy trout. While you might see many of your angling brethren casting and soaking nymph rigs for days on end, that doesn’t mean everyone should fish the same way. Twitch your flies or fish the hang to trigger the attention of cruising fish. Likewise, slowly strip nymphs and use drop-offs to your advantage. Finally, don’t forget to focus on your depth. You may find the greatest key to targeting stillwater trout is your willingness to make simple adjustments.
Philip Tereyla lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and guides full-time on the South Platte River. You can see more of his work at www.addictiveanglingcolorado.com.