THE ANGLE OF EMERGENCE
I learned a very valuable lesson on a central Idaho
trout reservoir early in my float tubing career. The
fishing had been extremely slow, so I was experimenting
with a hi-density sinking line as deep as I could get
it in the 40-foot deep lake. I thought perhaps the fish
were lying on the bottom with their eyes closed and if
I bumped their heads with my fly, I might just wake them up.
On my third cast I had counted my fly down to the bottom,
and was just beginning a handtwist retrieve when a "light"
suddenly blinked on and I knew exactly which fly I should
have been fishing. In order to tie the new (hot) fly on
as quickly as possible, I began a super-fast retrieve,
and had ripped in about half of my line when I had a
smashing strike. I landed a fat 2-pound rainbow. By
the end of the weekend, I had hooked and released more
than 30 fish, all on this super-fast retrieve. At the
time I really didn't know why the trout in that little
lake were taking my flies so enthusiastically on this
quick retrieve. I now think I do. I don't think it was
the speed of my retrieve that turned the fish on, as
much as it was the angle of emergence of my pattern
(a small Zug Bug I was fishing because of the midges
I had seen hatching). By letting my flies sink deep,
I was retrieving my patterns almost vertically; the way
the midges were probably emerging.
Over the past 15 years that I've been teaching classes
in aquatic entomology and stillwater theory, I've lectured
my students that "the difference between catching trout,
and not catching trout, may be the angler's grasp of what
'angle of emergence' really means... and how to imitate it."
It doesn't make much difference which aquatic insect order
we're talking about, angle of emergence applies. Damselflies
emerge by swimming towards a shoreline or some other
structure they can crawl up on and shed their shucks.
Their angle of emergence is mostly horizontal; and they
are not in any great hurry. The angler, therefore,
should use a line that allows him to present his
damsel nymph imitations horizontally, with a fairly
slow retrieve. And he should move his flies in the
same direction the naturals are moving. Callibaetis
mayflies in lakes, on the other hand, tend to emerge
in a somewhat erratic motion. They may emerge straight
up; They may swim in circles to the surface; Or they
may swim towards the surface, then spread their legs
and drop back to the bottom, before finalizing their
hatching process by continuing to the surface. It
usually takes a bit of experimenting before we can
come up with the right angle of emergence for mayflies.
Midges and caddisflies are more reliable in their hatching
process. Both tend to understand that if they dawdle, they
may end up in the stomach of a fish. Their emergence is
on an angle that most fly fishermen have trouble imitating
when they are fishing stillwater. Our chironomid and caddis
pupa patterns should, whenever possible, be fished from
the bottom of the lake straight up.
Here's how you fish a chironomid or caddis pupa emergence.
In 15 feet of water, for example, use a deep-sinking line
like a Type III full sinker, and a fairly short leader.
Make a 25-foot cast, instead of the more normal 50-footer,
and let the fly sink all the way to the bottom. Work the
fly along the bottom for about 6-feet, then retrieve it
as vertically as possible. As the lake deepens, use a
deeper sinking line and extend the cast in accordance.
If I'm using a caddis emerger, I lift the fly from the
water with a continuous motion as it nears the surface.
Trout are used to seeing caddis split their shucks and
fly off quickly. We should take pains to closely imitate
that type of emergence.
Chironomids take a bit longer to shed their outer skeleton
and fly off to mate. I like to "worry" a chironomid pupa
around a bit on the surface before I lift it clear and
Regardless of the insect order you're trying to imitate,
the angle of emergence of your imitation is one of the
most critical factors that you have control over in your
day to day fishing. Study how each aquatic insect order
emerges; then duplicate their angle of emergence with
BE FLEXIBLE WITH LEADER LENGTHS AND TIPPET SIZES
When all else fails in the day's campaign, consider
restructuring the leader. Leaders are a somewhat
controversial component of the fly fisher's tackle.
How long should a leader be? How thin at the point?
How thick at the butt? And...what material is best?
The correct formula is really quite simple. Long
enough and thin enough at the point to fool the fish...and
strong enough to land it. Since there are so
many quality brands available, I will not make any
recommendations on which material is best, or whose
leader to buy. That's another entire article.
To fool a wary trout, you might need a 10-foot leader
one day, while the next time out a 3- or 4-foot leader
will do the job. Some days you can use 2X tippets and
hammer the fish, while on other days you may have to
go as light as 7X just to get a strike.
Clarity of water, wind, light and associated conditions
usually dictate leader length and tippet strength, but
not always. I fished a lake on the Blackfeet Indian
Reservation a couple of years ago, when all of the
rules went out the window. The little lake was colored
with a thick algae bloom and I wanted to use a fairly
heavy tippet because the lake contained rainbow trout
up to 15-pounds. I started with a 6-foot leader, a
3X tippet, and a size 12 Stayner Ducktail. A combination
that I frequently use with a great deal of success.
Nothing happened. Not a strike for nearly an hour,
even though I went through several of my most dependable
patterns. I considered all of the variables, and
lengthened my leader to 8-feet, and reduced my tippet
strength to 4X; Again changing patterns several times.
Still no action. I figured the fish might be off their
feed, but decided to again change my tippet. I went to 5X.
I caught two fish in three casts, on a number 12 Stayner
Ducktail. I now knew the proper pattern and size, and
since I had three more weeks to fish the lakes on the
Blackfeet, I decided to use the little lake as a laboratory.
I went back to my 6-foot leader and 3X tippet. Nothing
happened. Even with the Ducktail tied on with a Duncan Loop.
I returned to the 8-foot leader and 5X tippet and caught
two more fish in about a dozen casts. I dropped my tippet
strength to 6X and had strikes on almost every other cast.
I still had a problem. The fish were running between
3- and 5-pounds and I broke off a fly on about every
third hook-up. In order to be able to turn some of
the fish, I went back to a 4X tippet.
Well...to make a long story short, I compromised with
a 5X tippet and had fairly decent fishing for the rest
of the afternoon. Until, that is, I lost all of my size
12 Ducktals to the larger fish and heavy weed-beds. It
was the only size the fish would accept. This was a
totally unusual situation. When fishing Ducktails,
with the standard fast retrieve, I usually get by just
fine with 4X tippets on 6-foot leaders- even in bright
When fishing stillwater, I usually begin a day's fishing
with a 6-foot leader and 6-pound tippet. I call it my
"6 X 6 strategy." My first change, if the fish aren't
cooperating, is to lighten the tippet to 5X. If that
doesn't work, and I'm convinced I have the right fly on,
I usually go to 6X. If I haven't produced results by
this time, I will lengthen my leader to 8-feet. I
rarely go longer when fishing stillwater, unless I'm
fishing a crystal clear high mountain lake.
If I'm fishing over really large trout, like I was on
the Blackfeet, I will often start with a
Through-The-Eye-Twice Clinch-Knot for my fly. If the
fishing gets tough, I will go to my favorite knot, the
Duncan Loop. Although not as strong as the two times
through, the open loop of the Duncan allows for a more
natural movement of the fly and will often spell the
difference between success and failure when the fish
are really fussy.
Under some conditions, usually in crystal-clear water,
the fly rodder may need to lengthen his leader. But
when fishing extremely deep lakes, with high density
sinking lines, my strategy with leaders is usually to
shorten them. A 5-foot leader, for example, will usually
put the fly deeper than will a ten-footer. Unless I'm
fishing dry flies on the surface, or emergers near the
surface, I try to put all of my sinking flies right on
the bottom before beginning my retrieve.
There are those who disagree with my short leader theories.
Some years ago I ran into some fly rodders at central
Oregon's Davis Lake- mostly from the Portland area- who
were exponents of the long leader and strike indicator
techniques. Their leaders were more than 20-feet long,
and they were all using floating lines. They were fishing
from boats and having only minimal success with chironomid
My group, from the Boise area, were all using float tubes,
full sinking lines, short leaders, and various fur and
chenille wet fly patterns; all much larger than the flies
the Oregonians were using. After a week on the water,
we had beaten them by a wide margin. I believe the
secret of our success was that we were putting our
flies nearer the bottom than were our competitors.
We were no doubt imitating something "down under" with
our sinking lines that the guys from Portland could not
duplicate with their floating lines.
We were camped in Davis Lake's East Campground, at the
mouth of Odell Creek, and the Oregonians were camped in
the West Campground (just across the creek). One night
we could hear them plotting and planning how they were
going to beat those "damned Idaho belly boaters." They
were quite loud as they plotted their strategy (probably
buoyed by a few rounds of old John Barleycorn). They
were going to swim across Odell Creek, when we were asleep,
and "cut our float tubes to ribbons."
When I joked with their leader the next day about the
midnight swim that didn't take place, he laughed and
admitted they had become pretty frustrated. "We have
some really well respected fly fishermen in our party,"
he told me with a laugh. "And they don't cotton much
to having a bunch of 'Idaho potato farmers' beat them
"And," he added, "they don't have a very high regard for
When I published my first book, Float Tubes, Fly Rods and
other essays, in 1979, one of the first orders I received
was from a group of fly fishermen from the Portland area.
In a note they said when they recognized my mug shot on
the book, they just couldn't resist buying a copy. They
felt that if they ever bumped into me and my "gang of
spud farmers" again, they might end up with a level playing
Who knows...they might also have ended up buying float tubes. ~ Marv
Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal,
More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More
Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from
Marv. You can reach Marv by email at
firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 208-322-5760.