Looking for Clues

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Looking For Clues

with Philip Rowley
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Choosing a fly pattern is often a difficult choice. There are thousands of patterns available. Under the right conditions most should be successful. Do we choose a dry fly or a nymph? Perhaps a streamer of some kind, what size or color do we choose? How shall we move it through the water? We often base our choices upon criteria we choose and not necessarily something the trout might find appealing.

Fly fishing is about imitating the various food sources available for the fish you are trying to catch. The majority of successful stillwater fly fishers attempt to imitate something that will trigger a feeding response as opposed to a response born out of aggression or curiosity. There is no doubting the success of some attractor patterns, but most are more successful using more imitative patterns. When we consider the trout, we are fortunate that they prefer to feed on smaller organisms. While trout are certainly capable of eating large food items they generally prefer those smaller ones. They are not as likely to feed upon a frog or other large food item to the same degree a bass or pike would. This means that they have to open their mouths to feed more often. Every time they open their mouth to feed is one more opportunity for us. Remember trout of double digit proportions still feed upon mayflies, chironomids, and the like.

That is why knowing what trout feed upon in stillwaters is critical to success. You don't need a degree in Latin to be successful, but you should be able to distinguish one organism from another. You should know how each food source behaves and when they are most active and available. As each fishing season progresses the size of each generation of insect decreases, in other words Callibaetis mayflies may be a size 12 during the initial hatches of the season but later on will possibly be a size 14 or smaller. Even during the hatch the insect size is subject to change. For instance chironomid larvae will usually be larger than the pupa which in turn is larger than the adult. Therefore on the surface you may see size 14 adult chironomids but a size 12 pupa might more approximately match the hatch. There are also variations in color. When an insect has just emerged into an adult its color is often lighter than those of older adults, this is good reason to use lighter patterns when fishing during the hatch. Emerging pupa or nymphs are often lighter than the adult stage too. Don't forget to fish the immature stages of the various food sources available to the trout. We tend to concentrate on patterns that imitate fully mature items, forgetting trout feed upon large amounts of the immature stages. Choose small patterns later on in the season. Many of the larger more mature insects have already hatched in the spring. Remember that some insects such as dragon flies have species that spend in excess of 3 years as a nymph.

Another successful strategy involves looking for signs of insect activity or availability. The first tactic involves some snooping around on shore. Look for signs of recent hatches amongst or on shoreline vegetation. Docks are another great spot for clues of a recent hatch. Remember, damsels, dragons and some species of caddis emerge out of the water so their cast husks are clearly visible. Spider webs are another great source of information. Often recently hatched adults can become victims in the spider's web. Turn over logs and rocks along the shoreline. Look amongst the weeds and other features along the shoreline. Often the cast husks and those insects that have drowned during the emergence process end up washed into the shallows. Take note of what you see not only in quantity but size and color if possible. If you capture something watch how it moves through the water and adapt your retrieves to match what you have seen. Once on the water take note of any husks or shucks you see upon the water. Remember the wind can drift them from further upwind. Birds are a great indicator of hatches. The knowledgeable salt water angler uses gulls to identify bait fish and so can the stillwater angler use bird activity to track down localized hatches. Birds such as Swallows, Nighthawks and Bonaparte gulls are all partial to feeding upon insects. Find actively feeding birds and you should find feeding fish.

The stillwater fly fisher has a couple of tools that can help in identifying the food a trout may be feeding upon at any given time. The first is a simple aquarium net. An aquarium net allows you to capture swimming nymphs, emerging adults or probe slightly deeper waters to determine what food sources might be available. The second tool is the stomach pump, used properly it is an invaluable tool and one I would not want to be without. You can use the stomach pump to determine a what depth fish might be feeding. If a sample contains emergers and adults' chances are the fish are at or near the surface. Often the organisms a stomach pump removes from the fish are alive. Organisms that are alive often possess unique characteristics that are often keys for the trout. Trapped air and gases in various chironomids and caddis pupa give a distinct glowing appearance that is a key factor for the foraging trout. I have squirted stomach pump samples into a petry dish and had my own mini hatches in my boat. Stomach samples from cleaned fish are another source of information. Be careful however as you can get yesterday's news depending upon where in the stomach you take your samples from. Stomach acids also have a negative effect on the color of the organisms a trout feeds upon. The stomach pump gives you up to date information and is far easier on the fish, but please don't use a stomach pump on small fish as it will mostly likely injure them. Make note of the insects and other food sources you see and after time you will notice certain preferences and patterns that you can use as reference for future outings.

Determining what trout are feeding upon is often reminiscent of detective work. It can be frustrating full of dead ends and failures at times. If you stick with it and be observant you will become more and more successful. You will begin to see things' others tend to miss. As you position yourself on the lake for the days' fishing you will be quickly eliminating those patterns that are least likely to be successful for that day. You will base your fly selection upon the clues' mother nature has left you. You will cast your offering to the waiting fish and retrieve it with confidence. One time you will make your pattern selection and be instantly be rewarded with a fish followed hopefully by numerous others. Other anglers will stare enviously at you wondering what you are doing. Most of the time the clues are right under their noses.

Philip Rowley

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