October 13th, 2003

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Kickin' It Up

By Buddy Davis (2weight)

We've all been there. Fishing started great, then like a light switch, it turned off. Things get slow. Rises trickle to a halt. Insects seem to all but disappear. Even the river itself seems to change character. So, what now? For many anglers the answer is one of two things. "Time for a break" some may say. While others move to increasingly smaller, more 'natural-looking' flies and finer tippets. If either of these is your way, then I say great. But for me and maybe for you after this article I say, "Kick it up!"

I can't speak for all anglers, but I certainly don't get enough time on the water. Taking a break on a short day trip sometimes is just not an option for me. Now before anybody gets the wrong idea, I love the outdoors as much - or more - than most. I can enjoy a beautiful sunset or a flock of migrating grackles with the best. But come on, there is water to be cast upon! Take a break? It's just not in me when I have rod and reel in hand.

For a time, I tried the other approach. When things got slow I would tie on a 22 midge or BWO to a 7X tippet, slow my casting stroke, and stealth my way to a few more fish. This approach is not only effective, but offers great challenges that can hone an angler's skill (not to mention their eyesight). There is also something very special about bringing a fish back to rise after a deafening stillness sets in. To be honest however, I just got bored with this approach and I wasn't that good at it anyway.

So I asked the simple question - 'I wonder if the fish are bored too?' Well, we all know fish have tiny brains so let's just leave that question to the philosophers. My real question was this, 'can I trigger these fish into activity?' I think we will all agree that fish have certain triggers that can cause them to pursue prey. One of these triggers that I think is most often overlooked in fly-fishing is what I call the 'reaction' strike. It happens when a fish sees something that resembles a meal but has limited opportunity to react. For instance, when a school of frightened minnows flush down a riffle past the hideout of a trout. This trout may be keyed on gently floating nymphs caught in the current. Inspecting each upon its approach and gently slurping them down as they pass by. Suddenly, a flurry of shiny things with eyes rush past - and in many cases continue on, minus one. In this circumstance the fish had only an instant to decide to strike. We would have to ask the question, did the fish really 'know' it was striking a minnow? Could it have processed enough information in that tiny brain to really make the decision or was it reacting to instinct based upon a simple prey-predator model? 'It wiggles and it is close - strike!'

So, how could I cause this reaction strike? The answer was enlightening and I must confess FUN! Causing a reaction strike can be done in many different ways and many different situations. One way to attempt this trigger is by putting on a streamer pattern and stripping aggressively. Work the water hard with strips that cause the streamer to 'wake' just under the surface. Try letting the fly almost reach bottom and then bolting it up towards the surface. Cast along exposed structure like logs, rocks, or bridge pilings. Generate long sweeping turns by casting down and across the water. Many times as the fly passes over these 'sleepy' trout it can generate an almost explosive strike. Good patterns to consider are Muddlers, Mickey Finns, Trousers (trout sized Clousers), and yes the old standby, the Woolly Bugger.

Another method is to use the riffles and faster currents to your benefit. Tie on a high floating dry pattern like an EHC or Devil Bug and work right in the middle of that boiling water. There are many pockets underneath the surface of that current we land creatures fail to see where fish reside. As the fly passes over these pockets, hungry trout will at times almost clear the water in their attempt to take the fly. Using wets to simulate swiftly rising insects can be effective as well. Any high floating dry or 'leggy' wet pattern suited to your local water should suffice.

The idea is simple - present something that simulates food in such a manner that fish have a very limited window of decision. Strike or miss a possible meal. Many times the answer is strike and boy what a strike it can be! By the way, for all you 'fast-taper' anglers I would recommend you give those slower action rods a second chance. It will likely save many lost flies and fish, as well as decrease those frustrating, jerk-the-fly-out-of-the-water, misses. Fast action rods are great tools but this is one time a little cushion on the hook set is a good thing.

Now I'm sure that this method will not work all the time or in all waters, but I have successfully turned slow periods during trips into a trips to remember with this approach. I hope the next time you find yourself in the middle of a slowdown this offers you a fun and hopefully fruitful alternative. ~ Buddy Davis (2weight)


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