(Photos courtesy of Beau Beasley) When you walk up to a trout stream flyrod in hand and wonder what fly to tie on, sit down or lean against a tree and watch what’s going on around, in, and over the water. Are bugs hatching, are trout rising, is there a foam line? After a few minutes you’ve figured it out: you don’t have a clue what’s happening, so you tie on your favorite fly or the one that caught your last trout, and you begin casting.
Observing the stream is always a good idea before tying on a fly: you can learn a lot by stopping, looking, and listening. Ideally a trout rises to a nearby insect, and you quietly scoop up one of those flies as it floats by. Oh, it’s a Sulfur mayfly in about a size 16, so you select a perfect match from your well-equipped fly box, tie it to a 4x tippet, cast upstream, and hook the first of many trout that day. In your dreams! Sure, by observing the stream and poking around a bit, you learn something about the habitat, but you’ve done less than half the homework necessary to increase significantly the odds of catching trout regularly.
Gather Info Before You Go
“Hey, Bill, have you ever fished Little Blue Creek? You have, great! What sort of flies should I expect to see and have along this time of year?” And so on. Bill could be a friend, an acquaintance at your Trout Unlimited chapter meeting, or someone in a fly shop near the stream you want to fish. He just made your fly selection a whole lot easier. Now instead of 12 boxes of flies, you could carry only one or two—okay maybe three.
Type in ‘Little Blue Creek’ and hit ‘Enter.’ Before long, the Internet search brings you to the stream you’re about to visit. Even gives directions how to get there, where to park, and what flies to use. Look in the guidebook on your state’s waters—there’s an entry for the stream and a comprehensive insect hatch chart that shows what insects are around and when. A good chart also shows terrestrial insects and other critters, including prey fishes that are available in area waters. What a gold mine.
Trout angling“any fishing for that matter”is mostly about food: place the right kind of food in front of a fish, and it will come. If the fish are eating dragonfly nymphs and you’re throwing a size 12 March Brown dun, at least you’re getting some casting practice and fly fishing is, after all, the best way to fish when you’re not catching fish.
Gather Data at the Stream
Once you park near the stream, take a look at your car’s radiator, front bumper and hood. Sometimes a veritable menu of insects greets the eye. The remains give a good idea of what bugs are available to the trout below. Go ahead, get geared up and string the rod. Walk over to the nearest vegetation. Gently shake the bushes. See what flies up, crawls away, or falls to the ground. There’s a little brown grasshopper. Over there a yellow and black bee and a June bug clad in shimmering green. What’s that clinging to the tree bark? It’s a Grannom Caddis, and nearby some tiny Blue-winged Olives molting into spinners. Good so far: you have a representation of all those creatures in a fly box. Continue toward the creek. Go slowly, watch and listen. Crickets chirp, cicadas fiddle and wasps buzz. Gently, flick the little green inchworm from your sleeve. A trout smorgasbord and you’re still 100-feet from the water!
Spiderwebs along the water are festooned with midges, mayflies, and caddis. A blue damselfly dangles from the silk. Spiders sometimes blow or fall into the water. And that’s a huge anthill over there with all those cinnamon-colored ants doing their thing on the small willow branches hanging out over the creek. See how red they look against those white blotches on the leaves. Hellgrammites, the larvae of the Dobsonfly, will soon fall from those white patches into the water. More trout food.
Here, what’s under these rocks in the shallow riffle at my feet? Wow, look at all those nymphs, pupae, and tiny worms. Pull up a small bit of the nearby aquatic vegetation and watch the scuds and other small crustaceans wriggle and fall off, and these tiny snails are interesting too. Sensory overload; too much food here. Darn trout are probably full all the time and won’t hit a fly. Reach into the line of foam that follows a seam of water or collects in the back of an eddy. It’s mostly bug soup, and you can see insects and other creatures of all description. So from all this data, how do you decide what fly to tie on?
Plain Bug Talk
It helps to know something about the life cycles of the major aquatic insects that trout eat, particularly mayflies and caddisflies, although stoneflies and midges are important too. Knowing the life stages helps immeasurably in fly selection. There are a zillion mayflies and you really don’t need to know the Latin scientific name of any of them to be a good trout angler. The appealing little common names we give mayflies—Quill Gordon, Pale Morning Dun, and Leadwing Coachman are but a few examples—suffice to identify the living insect and its imitation. Or just stick with names like “little yellow bug” in about a size 18 and you’ll be fine too.
Mayflies lay eggs on the water usually in gentle riffles. The eggs fall to the bottom and eventually hatch into nymphs that live and feed underwater for about a year or so. Trout love to eat nymphs. When it’s time, nymphs swim to the surface and attach briefly to the underside of the surface film in the emerger phase of the circle. Trout love to eat the rising nymphs and the emergers. The insect sheds its skin and the wings unfold; the nymphal shuck is discarded and the dun—so named for its brownish-gray color—floats along the surface while the wings dry. Trout love to eat the helpless duns as they bob along in the current. The wings dry quickly and the dun flies away to nearby trees or bushes and, usually within a day or two, molts into a sexually-equipped spinner, so called because part of the aerial mating dance is a spinning maneuver. At this stage, the insect’s wings are cellophane clear. Once mating is done, the female places the eggs on the water and dies. The male spins around a bit longer, then tailspins dead onto the water. Trout love to eat spinners of both sexes.
Caddisflies females may deposit eggs on the surface of the water by dropping them or by dipping on the surface while releasing eggs. Some species swim to the bottom of a stream while others crawl to the bottom to lay eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae which live in cocoon-like cases, in nets they spin similar to spider webs, or crawl along the bottom on the creek or river. Trout love to eat cased and free-living caddis larvae. The larvae change to pupae when they’re ready to emerge to the surface. Here they cling to the underside of the surface film until they become adults and fly away. Trout love to eat the caddis pupae before they “hatch” and adults before they fly off. Caddisflies also spend a lot of their adult lives dipping and skittering along the water, and trout often leap, sometimes clear of the water, to catch these tasty morsels.
Midges are tiny insects that look a little like mosquitoes, but they’re not. The life cycle of the midge is similar to that of the caddisfly, except the pupa stage creatures cling longer to the surface film of the water and travel greater distances before hatching into adults. Trout love to eat the nymphs and pupae of midges, particularly the latter. Although they are very small, sometimes adult midges are taken by trout on the surface even when larger flies are on the water.
Stoneflies seem simple compared to the other bugs: there is only the nymph and the sexually-mature adult. Trout love to eat both. The nymphs eventually crawl from the water to hatch into adults, that hang out in nearby vegetation or around streamside rocks, and fly to the water to lay eggs. Stoneflies are slow, rather clumsy fliers, and the trout often have a go at them as they flit above the water laying their eggs.
If at First...
An acquaintance found his answer to the perplexing question of what fly to use. He ties and fishes only one fly at all times: an Adams. Sure, he ties them in different sizes, but it’s the same fly. I’ve not fished with him, but mutual friends report he catches as many or more fish as everyone else. Now the Adams doesn’t represent any particular fly, yet it sort of looks them all; it is truly a fly for all reasons and seasons.
The Adams-only angler reminds us by example that fly fishing for trout is not rocket science, and we often tend to complicate what could or should be a relatively simple matter. If trout aren’t hitting one thing, throw another. But don’t change flies at random. Use what you know about the signs along the stream from your car’s hood to the spiderwebs. Use what you know of the life cycles of the insects that comprise part of a trout’s diet. Try the nymph or emerger phase of the insect you know is active on this particular stream. If that doesn’t work, cast a smaller size or slightly different color. Try the head of the pool as well as the tail. Fish deeper or higher in the water column. Use an attractor dry fly and attach an emerger or nymph dropper to plumb several depths at the same time. Just remember, oftentimes the fish won’t bite regardless of what you present to them. That’s just the way it is. When all else fails, try an Adams.