Learn something from every fish you catch, but learn more from every fish you miss.
[by Jason Randall]
If you ever get the chance to fish with Colorado guide and author Landon Mayer, I highly recommend seizing the opportunity. Fishing with me last summer, he shared a bit of wisdom as we ate our lunch on a log overlooking the South Platte River. “You learn something from every fish you catch,” he said, “but you learn more from every fish you miss.”
I’ve thought about that a lot since then and broadened the concept; it applies to near misses, too, including refusals. Too often, we see a refusal as an indication that the trout didn’t like something about our fly when we should see it as a compliment; there’s something about our fly that they liked—almost enough to make a sale. We should look at refusals as a learning opportunity.
I remember fishing the White River with my wife, Jo, and Dally Fly Shop’s head guide, Chad Johnson, during hopper season several years back. Our fishing buddy and expert fly tier, Tom Starmack, and his wife outfished us from guide Ben Levin’s boat. We used the same hopper pattern as they did, but Tom caught the fish and I got so many refusals, I thought I was back in college.
The experience left me scratching my head; what was the difference? I interrogated Tom about it afterwards over a beer. Was it drag or was he adding something different to the presentation? Perhaps a twitch? A lucky charm?
More often than not, we should also include missed strikes in the category of refusals—not the kind where a trout takes our fly and we fail to set the hook, but the kind where the trout slashes or boils at our fly and seems to miss. We misinterpret this, thinking, That trout missed my fly—he must be blind. But in reality, these are often close-range refusals. The trout changed its mind at the last second. With the eyesight trout have, they don’t miss as often as we might think.
Learning from Rejection
Lacking the ability to interview a trout, we must deduce its preferences from its response to our offerings. In his 1982 book, What the Trout Said, Datus Proper wrote, “The trout is asked for his opinion and we must listen to his answers.” Every time we present a fly to a trout, it is either yes or no, “take” or “refuse.” Analyzing refusals, how and when they occur in the presentation, gives us a lot of insight into the trout’s opinion of our offering.
The most common refusal is the one we most often overlooked; it’s the one when fish never really seem to consider our fly in the first place. Maybe we should call this type of refusal a rejection, but to view this immediate response in any other way is to ignore what the trout just said, which is, “No!”
If we present our fly several times to a feeding trout and it doesn’t so much as turn its head, that’s the most blatant type of refusal; the trout decided no without a second thought or glance. This decision is made by a trout early in our presentation and from a long way off. We either have the wrong fly—or one that imitates the wrong food type, the wrong size, or the wrong profile—or a lousy presentation. These features of our fly are immediately obvious to the trout. Don’t worry about changing from one shade of olive to another; the problem is something more apparent than that.
First, make sure you’re getting the best presentation possible before changing flies. Cast again with enough slack in the leader to ensure a dead drift. Maybe on the next pass, try a twitch or imparting some swimming movement to the flies, especially if they’re supposed to be imitating something that can move like a swimming mayfly or a hopper.
If the fish still isn’t reacting, present them to several trout on a variety of feeding lies rather than just one or two, and make sure the trout are eating so you can avoid changing flies every few minutes. Look for juking—movements from side to side or up and down in the current—as an indication of subsurface feeding. You might see a flash of white as the trout opens its mouth, sometimes called a blink. Surface-feeding trout are a little more obvious because you can usually see riseforms. I’m careful to observe the trout (if possible) for any sign it’s interested. If a trout still ignores me, it’s time to change flies. If I know it’s the right fly, I’ll try a different size.
The easiest way to check beforehand is to capture a natural bug and hold it next to your fly before you even tie it on. Look for adult insects in the bushes that line the shore or along grassy banks. Mayflies molt before mating and most insects rest in riparian vegetation before laying eggs. Examine the underside of streamside rocks for immature stages and crustaceans. Make sure your fly has the right size and shape compared to the natural.
Refusals also occur when a fly rides in the wrong layer of the surface film. For visible rises, make sure you correctly identify the right feeding layer of the water; just because you can see rises doesn’t mean they’re eating flies from the surface. They may be feeding on something just below the surface. I’ve seen trout rise to look at a dry fly on the surface and fade away, only to catch it minutes later on a fly riding lower in the film.
Many summers ago, I fished the evening gray drake spinner fall on the Pere Marquette River with a Borcher’s Special—a dry fly locally renowned in Michigan. It’s a good imitation of a gray drake; with a hackled collar, it looks like a skinny Adams, not the parachute type. A nice brown trout began to rise from the bottom in two feet of soft, rippled water as my fly approached, but it turned back to the bottom before it got close to the fly. I tried a few more passes and failed to get any reaction. I’d already tried several other flies before the Borcher’s, and got nothing, so this was as close to the right fly as I’d come. But something still wasn’t quite right, something fairly obvious to the trout at a second glance, so to speak.