The cloud of spinners in the faster water above me pulsed up and down with a few falling to the water, likely males spent from copulating. I saw one drift by close enough to see that it was floating with outstretched wings, but much lower in the water than my Borcher’s. It likely fell in the fast riffles and was submerged just under the surface film.
I looked at my fly. The hackled collar was causing it to ride high on the water and rest on the lower hackle tips. I pulled out my scissors and cut the bottom fibers of the hackled collar so they were flush to the bottom of the fly, which let the fly ride lower in the film. On the first drift, the trout engulfed it. I caught several more before the light faded. This simple modification changed a fishless evening into a pretty good one.
Close-range refusals sometimes happen with the trout drifting right under the fly, literally nose-to-nose with it, while inspecting it. Those refusals are more likely a matter of color because the size and shape already passed the test at a distance. When nymph fishing, dip your fly in the water and hold it next to the natural so you know the colors will match underwater.
Color is the least reliable feature of a fly or natural insect because it is influenced by the water’s color and clarity. A green discoloration of the water turns red to brown while muddy tan water turns blue to black. So, a trout cannot trust the color of something until they’re right on top of it. For close-range refusals, including those slashy, splashy misses, I’m more apt to change the color of the fly than I am the size of it.
Two schools of thought exist on how to handle refusals; the first being to immediately recast to the fish, while the second advocates resting the fish so it returns to rhythmic feeding. My approach varies with the nature of the refusal.
With refusals like the one I experienced on the Pere Marquette, I will cast again immediately—or at least in that case, as soon as I trim the fly. Nothing occurred that should have put the fish off, and it’ll likely resume feeding in rhythm in a matter of moments.
Many close-range refusals will bite again, at least if you avoid blowing up the fish with an inadvertent hook set. I had a nice trout rise out of the deepening water of a riffle tailout and check out my X-Wing Caddis on the South Platte. It got right below my fly before turning away, so I suspected that it was the wrong color. I needed to catch this fish; Landon and my son Evan were fishing the riffles above me and had earlier landed one of the biggest browns my son had ever caught. I knew I’d be buying the beer that night if I didn’t catch an equally nice fish, so the stakes were high.
I changed to a tan-bodied fly and cast it into the same drift. The fish turned out to be a nice rainbow when we netted it, but not as big as Evan’s. I guess buying a couple of beers is a small price to pay after a great day of fishing.
For the splashy “miss” close-range refusals, I like to rest the fish because they’re usually “put off” by the process, especially if the sudden slash caused a knee-jerk-reaction hook set from me. That much commotion will usually throw a fish off for a bit. While I’m resting the fish, I’m usually tying on a new fly, often one with a slightly different color. Even if the fish won’t take again, the information I gain helps me catch the next fish.
Is a “streamer follow” that doesn’t end in a strike actually a refusal? Sometimes. A large piscivorous trout might follow a streamer during the retrieve as part of the “chase to overtake prey” sequence, in which case, the large trout is considering your fly as a meal. If it doesn’t strike, then you should consider it a refusal.
You might have the wrong fly, but consider animation first; try a sudden change of speed or direction, like a prey fish trying to escape. This maneuver often triggers a strike. If the fish follows the fly to the boat, use a trick favored by muskie anglers—sweep the rod and fly in a modified figure eight pattern with the rod tip just above the water, or even in the water. From farther away, throw a mend in the line to the left or right as you retrieve to snap the fly sharply in a new direction.
Other times a short follow is a defensive tactic from the larger trout to protect territory by chasing off a smaller fish. In fact, not even every strike at our streamer is an attempt to eat our fly; sometimes it’s just a defensive bump to ward off intruders.
The defensive chase often occurs when your streamer is large enough to threaten the larger fish, but too large for the trout to realistically eat. A big predatory fish will be threatened by a fish close to its own size but not by a fish significantly smaller than itself. In other words, a large trout does not feel threatened when a much smaller fish encroaches on its territory; in fact, it’s a greater feeding opportunity. So, if it chases a fish much smaller than itself, it intends to eat it. A good rule of thumb is that if your streamer is less than one quarter the length of the following fish and it doesn’t elicit a strike, you can be fairly sure it’s a refusal.
We have much to learn from trout. According to Proper, “Trout can settle most angling arguments.” Yes or no; take or refuse. But sometimes the answer seems to be maybe, at least for a moment. No matter the answer, we can still learn something from it.
Jason Randall is a frequent contributor to American Angler and the author of the Fly Fisher’s Guide Trilogy. His fourth book, Nymph Masters: Fly Fishing Secrets from Expert Anglers, will be released in January by Stackpole Books.