March 3rd, 2008

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Common Sense Trouting
By: William Sodeman MD

The depth of winter provides a useful vantage point from which to ponder how to improve my days on the stream. Improve here does not mean catching more fish, rather catching better fish. The fly fishing magazines and catalogs have lots of advice, but multiple decades of my attention have found most of these suggestions to be a little thin on the ground, as well as on the stream. Time for common sense.

Not rules. Thoughts!


Consider the fishing day. There are four periods. These are before the hatch, during the hatch, nighttime, and everything else. You do not get all four periods every day.


In the absence of a hatch you can nymph, you can streamer or you can attract. Selecting the dry fly for the hatch of the day before that hatch has its first stirring for the day is a bummer. Trout have not yet keyed on that fly. I want something they will not ignore. My choice of nymph, streamer or attractor is best determined by the water to be fished. The common sense rule tells me it is time to revive an interest in the traditional wet fly swing. Drag is hardly an issue and with one or two droppers there will be room for traditional ties and soft hackles as bob flies and a nymph on the point.

If it is to be streamers, I use one that is new on the stream, a tested pattern, but one that is new to the stream. This eliminates most of the current things in the catalogs and in the shop bins. Common sense tells me that the trout in the Au Sable have been looking at these for some time. I open Joe Bates' book, Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Mine is the 1966 edition, but it has been updated with a 1995 edition, and there are piles of tested patterns in it. More often than not I substitute hair for the feather wings just because it seems to cast more easily with less fouling of feather around the hook. One striking feature is the frequent use of Jungle Cock nails on the head in these older flies. This was touted as mimicking gills, but when you look at the plates these are eyes. Eyes make a big difference when it comes to convincing trout that this is food and there are multiple ways to achieve this with paint, stick–on eyes, dumbbell weights or the traditional bead chain. If you do not tie the stick–on eyes permit upgrading store–bought streamers.


The interval before the hatch is nymph time. Nymphs begin stirring on the bottom well before they emerge in the film. Hatches are fairly predictable even allowing for the weather and cloud cover. I shift to nymphs an hour before the hatch is expected to start. The style of nymphing is a personal one. For me the common sense rule calls for bouncing a weighted nymph, on a short line down the bottom as the method of choice. You can call it Czech nymphing, Polish nymphing or high sticking as you like, but it is deadly and easy. It takes a heavily weighted nymph then the key seems to be to stand in one spot long enough to permit the trout to resume feeding, and move slowly, creeping up or down stream a foot at a time.


At hatch time the choice for matching the hatch is a fly that will float in, not on, the film. I grew up with classic Catskill ties that look (to me and the trout) like the floating mayfly drying its wings. Trout eat them but they eat far more mayflies struggling out of a shuck in the film. Parachutes, no-hackle dries, Kilnkhamers and flies tied with trailing shucks all seem to work. I like the Kilnkhamer but the common sense rule suggests I replace the conventional parachute hackle, which is over–large on the heavy Kilnkhamer hook, with CDC spun with the Petitjean's Magic Tool.


It is true that bigger fish feed at night. To fish this one needs intimate knowledge of the wade or a boat. At my age I will stay in bed.


Spend more time looking for fish and less time thrashing unproductive water to a foam. Work a specific fish, not the water. Steelheaders do this all the time. Most of the rest of us fish structure and hope a fish is there. Seeing trout is an art form. Rarely do I see a whole fish. More often it is a tail waving or just a shadow on the bottom. Common sense now tells me that fishing works better if I know a fish is there. I should have learned this with my big fish, a twenty– six and one half inch brown taken from a tiny spring creek on the South Island of New Zealand. Alas, I did not achieve this big fish on my own. I had a guide. The guide walked the bank paying attention to his cover until he spotted a suitable fish. He tried to get me to see it as well but usually settled for positioning me and directing the cast. We were using tiny nymphs. He continued watching. If the fish did not move after three good floats he changed the nymph. If it moved but did not take, he changed the nymph size. It worked three times in a row for the best fishing day of a lifetime (so far).

It would be handy if I could walk the bank looking for fish, but most of the banks on the Au Sable branches are either privately owned or overgrown cedar bogs. There are a few places, nonetheless. It is not as easy while wading, but spotting a riser counts as spotting a fish.


Avoid red garments. All studies show trout are particularly aware of the color red. Stealth goes by the board if you are wearing a red hat, bandanna, shirt or jacket. I can still catch fish just not often if I go red.


Fish upstream wherever and whenever possible. Streamers, nymphs and wets are downstream fishing work but even they can have upstream moments. In most of the trouting world dries are fished upstream largely to avoid spooking a fish yet permit a short enough line to give some reasonable hope of a drag free float. Halford thought it was ethically wrong to fish any other way. Thank fortune, Skues taught us otherwise. Sic transit gloria mundi. The tradition on the Au Sable is a downstream wade derived, one supposes, from the early experience with the downstream float and the tight cedar sweeper coverage of the banks. Common sense tells me to look for risers, then keep to the other side of the stream away from the fish, slink down as quietly as possible, then turn, cross to the other side and work them from below. I will spook fewer fish and perhaps land a few more. The bigger the pool the better this will work. Where reasonable I wade upstream from my entry point as far as my stamina will permit before turning for the downstream wade. At islands I wade downstream on one side, the bad side, then turn and fish back upstream on the other before resuming the downstream wade.


Spend at least one day each trip trying for big fish. The Europeans call these specimen trout. This entails making a gear change to a heavier rod, bigger reel, sinking line, shorter leaders and big streamer flies, crayfish, mice and what have you. You can (and some do) land big fish on a fourteen or sixteen Dark Hendrickson or Sulphur, but if you read down the Trophy Club list at Gates Lodge big sunk flies take big fish. Common sense tells me to change tactics if I want to find big fish. Buggers, Cougers, Monkeys, Dogs and Sculpins hurled at structure, not at random, will answer but I have to give them a chance.

In the end will common sense improve my fishing? Without a doubt more than all the gadgets I can buy.


Credit: This is an excerpt from the Quarterly Newsletter of the Anglers of the Au Sable, The Riverwatch, Spring 2007.

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