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Fly Fishing 101, Part 32
Check Your Surroundings For Better Fishing

by Al Campbell

"Whacha usin'?" "Flies." "What kinda flies?" "Hoppers." "Why?" "Cause they worked last year." "But there's no hoppers out this time o'year." "Yea, but the fish like 'em. They bit 'em last year, so they should bite 'em now." "Caught any?" "Naw, they ain't bitin'."

Sound a little familiar? I've heard conversations like this one many times in the 34 years I've been fly fishing. You'll have a hard time convincing the guy with the hopper that the reason they aren't biting is because he's using the wrong fly. After all, hoppers worked great last August, therefore, they must be a good fly. Trout loved them last year, so they must love them this year.

Baetis Spinner How do you select the right fly for the job? Do you rely on the advice of someone who isn't catching fish? What's your favorite fly? Do you use it all of the time, or do you use it only when the insect it matches is present? Do you know what flies are hatching? How, you might ask, does anyone really know what fly to use?

You need to forget about asking the guy who's not catching fish. The only advice he'll give you is bad advice. The only advantage you gain by asking a fish-less person what he's using is knowing what not to use.

You also need to forget the notion that one fly works better than the rest. Sure, certain flies are consistently more productive during the summer than some other flies, but that's because the insects they imitate are present that time of year. Hoppers, for instance, are abundant in August, and a hopper pattern is a great choice then. But, they aren't likely to work in March. The fish only eat what's on the floating menu in front of them, and hoppers aren't on that menu in the spring.

Stone Fly

The first step to successful fly fishing, is not fishing. First, you need to observe what's happening around you. Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and do some investigating, maybe fifteen minutes worth. What are the fish doing? What clues are around you that will lead you to any hatches that are occurring?

Stone Fly Nymph Case

Take a look at grass stems and weeds near the shore line for clues of a recent hatch. Stonefly nymphs crawl out of the water to hatch into adults. This transformation occurs on weeds, grass, rocks and anything else handy near the shore line. Are their cases present anywhere? Mayflies molt after they hatch. This also occurs on grass and weeds. Can you find any clues of a recent mayfly hatch?

Pale Morning Dun

While you look for clues of a recent hatch, see if any aquatic insects are crawling around on nearby bushes. Streamside brush is a great hangout for aquatic insects that have recently hatched and are waiting their turn in the egg laying cycle. If you see a lot of a certain kind of insect hanging around the brush, you can bet on patterns that imitate that insect when you get to the stream.

Spider webs are a great place to look for clues. Spiders make a habit of catching insects that fly around their web. If the web is loaded with unfortunate mayflies, the fish are probably loaded with them too. Here's a perfect opportunity to match the size, shape and color of the fly without trying to catch one on the water.


What are the fish doing? Are they rising to flies, and can you see the fly they're eating? If you don't see rising fish, it's not very likely that they'll eat a fly floating on the surface. If you don't see them rising, a nymph might be in order. After all, nymphs are available to them all of the time.

Is there a cloud of caddis flies hovering above streamside brush? Caddisflies are a common sight in the summer hovering above willows and brush. If you see something that looks like a cloud of tiny moths dancing around a streamside willow, grab your box of caddis imitations and start flogging the water with one, you've just solved a mystery.


I'm not fond of stomach pumps, they can kill fish if they're used wrong. But, if you catch a fish and check the contents of it's stomach, you will have a good idea of what that fish was eating. If it has a belly full of green beetles, all the hoppers in your fly box won't change it's mind about what's on the menu.

A net made of fine mesh stretched between two rods is a good tool to find out what's floating down the stream. Stretch the net across the water near the shore, and see what floats into it. Then try the same thing in the middle of the stream. The results might differ a little between the middle and the edge of the stream, but if you see lots of the same insect in both nettings, you'll have a good idea of what you should be using.

A notebook to record your findings for future reference is a valuable tool. You might be surprised how accurately those findings compare with your observations a year later on the same body of water. In a couple of years you should have a good data base to use when selecting flies for your upcoming fishing trip.

Midge Fifteen minutes spent searching for evidence of the current insect hatches can save you hours of pure frustration on the water.

While the other fishermen are flogging the water with the flies that worked last August, or the fly the last fish-less angler was using, you can have your list of flies reduced to the few insects that are currently active on the water. All it takes is a few minutes of observation without a fly rod in your hand.~ Al Campbell

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