MATCHING THE HATCH – PLAN B
Plan A - Virtually every fly angler knows and uses Plan A for matching the hatch. Find rising fish, put on the best imitation you have for what is floating down the stream into the fishies’ feeding lane, execute the perfect presentation, time your strike just right and bring the fishy to hand.
Plan B – Virtually no fly anglers that I’ve talked to are familiar with and use an alternative approach to fishing hatches that can be very effective.
Several years ago, while fishing the South Fork of the Snake in SE Idaho, I came across a pod of trout consistently rising to a hatch (most likely PMDs considering the time of year and conditions). The pod was feeding nearer the other side of the river. I could wade out far enough to barely reach the stretch of water they were working with the 3 weight rod I was using that day. But they were far enough away that I could not reach them and maintain a decent drift with a dry fly. After a short exercise in the futility of implementing Plan A, I decided to try something else.
I changed out my floating line to a Class II full sinking line and rigged up with a Thunder Creek minnow. It’s easier for me to cast the full sinking line and I can cast it further, typically, than a floating line. So it was no problem to cast far enough to cover most of the pod of rising fish. But that wasn’t even the point. With the sinking line and a small baitfish streamer on, the last thing I cared about was a good drift. I wanted to move the fly through the pod – swinging it and stripping it right through their feeding lanes.
The little Thunder Creek minnow lit the place up immediately. It wasn’t getting a take on every cast, but the action was fast and furious. I didn’t get every fish in that pod, but I got a lot of them in a very short time.
Over the next ten days or so, I fished that same hatch the same way four or five more times, only changing from the 3 weight to a 5 weight and using a Scott Sanchez Double Bunny streamer alternatively with the Thunder Creek minnow. An added bonus was that with the 5 weight line, I got deeper than with the 3 weight and after working through the fish rising to the hatch, I could continue downstream and fish to the trout that weren’t eating bugs that day.
That was the beginning of Matching the Hatch Plan B.
Over the course of that summer and fall, I followed Plan B on several other streams to match several different hatches. The two events that were most remarkable were the days on the Big Lost River in the Central Mountains of Idaho and on Big Elk Creek in SE Idaho.
The Big Lost, the tail water section below Mackay Reservoir, is a fine rainbow trout fishery. It promises a great midge hatch supplemented by a strong BWO hatch on a regular basis during the late fall and early spring. The day that I committed to Plan B, I had to walk half a mile upstream past consistently rising fish before I started fishing. That was the most difficult part of the “experiment.” Fishing one of my own PSC streamers with a down and across presentation, again swinging it with a short stripping action, I hooked up with a significant number of trout over about three hours of fishing while the fish were actively rising to the mixed midge and BWO hatches. Both for quantity and quality of fish that was one of my best days on the Big Lost.
Again, the experiment with Plan B on the Big Lost provided a bonus. Not long after my first Plan B day on that piece of water, I was back fishing to rising fish with dries and droppers. There was one large pool that held a bunch of large rainbows – but it was too deep for me to get the smaller flies down where they needed to be. I changed out to a full sinking line, tied on a PSC, and went at it. In fifteen minutes or less, I had three bows over twenty inches and one about eighteen inches in hand.
Big Elk Creek is a fabulous cutthroat fishery. Summer afternoons there include a Western Green Drake hatch that you could almost set a watch by. Most of the trout are in the twelve to eighteen inch range, but there are some larger ones that come up from Palisades Reservoir, especially when the Kokanee spawning run is on. From an hour so before the drakes start coming off until the hatch ends, starting with emerger patterns and finishing with dry dun patterns, it is dry fly fishing at its best.
It was difficult to commit to Plan B for that hatch on Big Elk especially when the fellow with me was going to be fishing dry flies. But I was determined. And it paid off. In an hour and a half of fishing a PSC streamer through that drake hatch, I brought fifteen beautiful cutts to hand, including the largest one I had caught up to that point in time on Big Elk. I shouldn’t mention that the cutthroats that inhabit or invade Big Elk Creek are one of the truly beautiful fish that you can fish to – but I will.
The year after I started using Plan B (and I really don’t use it often, having a preference for Plan A), I was reading an old fly fishing magazine. My recollection is that it was a mid ‘70’s “Fly Fisherman”. In it, I ran across an article by Art Lee on the subject of fishing baitfish style streamers to fish rising to a hatch. He made the observation that the little fish are out there eating the same hatching flies as the big fish, and the big fish take advantage of the situation to eat the little fish. The interesting thing is that even though this approach has been around for quite some time and publicized at least once, it seems that even now very few fly anglers are aware of it or use it.
Not long after reading the article by Art Lee, I ran across another tidbit in an article on streamer fishing. Can’t recall where I read it or who the author was. The point was that small fish, baitfish, when they are out in open water, swim very high in the water column, very close to the surface. That is at least consistent with Art Lee’s observation on streamer fishing through a hatch, and it is consistent with my experience with Plan B and every day streamer fishing for trout.
One final point, more about streamer fishing generally than Plan B specifically, but quite germane to Plan B. I have a strong preference to fishing unweighted baitfish style streamers. First of all, that old saw about trout going after injured baitfish is an old saw because there is some truth to it. But I think there is a larger truth to consider – if trout waited for injured baitfish to come along, they’d starve to death before you ever got a fly in front of them. Unweighted streamers, to my experience, look and act more like healthy baitfish than do weighted streamers. And healthy baitfish are what big trout eat most of the time.** Second, unweighted streamers will ride higher in the water column, which is a good thing. The largest trout I have ever had on, an upper twenty inches brown trout on the Henry’s Fork rose to eat a PSC just after it hit the water – the fly couldn’t have been more than a few inches below the surface when he hit it.
Some time when you are headed out to fish a hatch, take along some streamers. Give Plan B a fair chance and enjoy feeling those sippers slam a streamer.
**Recently on the FAOL Bulletin Board, someone posted a link to a video of Kelly Galloup tying his Zoo Cougar. During his presentation, Galloup mentioned a preference for unweighted streamers, citing the same reason.