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WHY CAN'T I CATCH THAT FISH?
We have all been there; we can see the fish, it's rising or we can see it feeding underwater, but everything we try fails to produce a take. You can hear yourself thinking, "Why can't I catch that fish?" What, if anything, can you do the next time you encounter such a frustrating situation? While I don't have all the answers I will make a few suggestions that may help.
When faced with a fish or a fishing situation where I am unable to get a response to my offerings the first thing I do is stop fishing. For most anglers the tendency is to keep changing flies with the results being that the frustration level just continues to rise. I have watched anglers become a complete basket case when the fish are rising all around and they are unable to buy a strike. I have watch as their casting became worse and worse and the time between fly changes decreases as each offering is refused. That's the reason that I stop fishing when confronted with such a situation.
When I stop fishing I don't take off my gear and go home, but I sit down and rethink the situation. Obviously there is something that I am missing and once I discover what that something is I should be able to start moving fish.
First, if I'm frustrated by a particular fish I just sit quietly and watch. If the fish appears to be taking something off the surface can I see what it is? I often carry a small pair of binoculars in my vest just for such occasions. If I don't have that option I try to get as close to the fish as possible without spooking it and watch very intently. Fish that appear to be rising to something on the surface may, in fact, be taking emergers just below the surface. This type of rise often appears to be a surface take and you can float dry flies over that fish for an hour without getting so much as an inspection/refusal. Change to an appropriate emerger and you might get a take on your first presentation.
If I can see that the fish is actually taking something off the surface but I can't see what it's eating I dig out my aquarium net and try to get below the fish and see if I can see what's on the surface that I may have been missing. Flush floating spinners, especially small ones, are easily overlooked. This goes for midges and several forms of terrestrials. Several years ago in mid-September I arrived at a famous trout stream to find the trout feeding vigorously but I could not see what they were eating. By getting my nose right down on the water surface I could see some very tiny insects and a quick swipe of my net produced the answer – tiny, very tiny flying ants. They were too tiny for anything that I had in my boxes, even a size #28 trico imitation was too large. I tried a few other flies but the trout would have none of it.
If I have the right imitation but I'm still not having any results it's time to check my presentation. Once again I stop fishing and watch the fish feed. Does this particular fish have a feeding rhythm or is its feeding pattern more random? Is the fish holding in one spot or is it moving around? In stillwater situations and in quiet places in moving water, like eddies and even deep pools, fish often cruise looking for food, and often they have a pattern as they cruise around eating something here and something over there. Many times a few minutes of observation has allowed me to adjust my fishing method to produce results.
While I'm watch a fish feed I'm not only looking for their feeding pattern but I am also watching the currents that are delivering the food to the fish. If I have been putting my fly over the fish without results, and I feel confident that I have the right imitation I generally suspect that there is some subtle drag that is causing the fish to refuse my imitation while continuing to feed on the naturals. To correct this situation may be as simple as adjusting my angle to put my fly and leader into the same current as where the fish is feeding.
This also brings up a very important point when casting to a fish that is feeding on or close to the surface of the water. Many anglers cast too far in front of the feeding fish and that allows all kinds of problems to develop by the time their fly reaches the fish. Subtle currents catch and pull on their leader and even though it appears that they are getting their fly to the fish they continue to be ignored. You have to feed the fish, and the best way to do that is to place your fly within inches of the feeding fish. When I'm fishing to fish visibly feeding on or near the surface I rarely place my fly more than a foot above the feeding fish and often I drop it even closer. This requires that you can cast accurately and delicately but the results are that your imitation doesn't have time to drag before it reaches your intended target. Works for me and it will work for you.
If you have tried all those things and the fish continues to feed while ignoring your best offerings you might try the old trick of giving the fish something completely different than it is eating. If it's eating small mayflies try giving it a similar imitation a couple size larger. Toss it a terrestrial pattern like an ant or a beetle. Drop a fly off to one side of its feeding position, or give your offering a twitch when it approaches the place where the fish is feeding. Sometimes these unorthodox procedures will produce a take, and if you have already exhausted everything else you really have nothing to lose.
If you have finally hooked that frustrating fish don't presume that ever other feeding fish is doing the same thing. Sometimes all the fish in a particular place are eating the same thing but more often one fish is taking dry flies, another fish is eating emergers and yet another fish is still eating nymphs. For me the most frustrating fish are those individuals that are eating a little bit of everything but without any discernible rational. First it eats a fly from the surface and then maybe another one, but then it lets several bugs float passed but eats an emerger and then eats several more surface flies before darting off to one side to grab a nymph several inches below the surface. In cases like this I generally stick to one particular imitation and keep feeding the fish until it either eats it or I grow tired and move on to find a more cooperative fish.
Finally, realize that you can't catch them all. When I encountered those trout that were eating ants that made a size #28 imitation seem like Gulliver among the Lilliputians after trying a couple of alternate patterns without success I went looking for more cooperative trout. I was not willing to spend an entire fishing trip trying to catch fish that were feeding on a food source that I could not imitate. Fortunately such situations are rare but they do happen.
This brings me to my final point. You may encounter fish that you are unable to catch because your skills are not good enough to allow you to feed the fish in a way that will result in a take. Many anglers are frustrated by fish that they can't seem to catch because their presentation skills are not good enough to produce the desired results. One of the challenges of fly fishing is learning how to achieve the proper presentation that will allow your fly to be shown to the fish as naturally as possible. I believe that there is nothing more important than proper presentation, and the angler that has mastered presentation is the angler that will consistently catch more and bigger fish. It's not what rod you're using, your brand of leader or how well your fly is tied that ultimately makes the difference. If you can't give the fish what it wants and how it wants it the finest equipment in the world will still leave you empty handed and frustrated at the end of the day.