It’s Autumn here in the Rockies, and that means there is a war going on between Summer, and Winter weather. This war happens every year. We all know that Winter wins this war every year, eventually, but we never quite know how each battle will play out. Weather can change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute. This year has been particularly polarized as we’ve bounced back and forth between full on multi-day winter storms with big snows (September 29th and October 9th) and glorious Indian summer sunshine! The complex interplay among high and low pressure systems, cold and warm fronts, bright blue and gray overcast skies, and larger precipitation systems makes picking clothes feel complicated, and making fishing plans feel nearly impossible at times.
Ask any experienced angler about the effects of weather, wind, and changing barometric pressure/water temperature on fish and fishing, and you will surely get an answer. You might get 10 different answers even! You may hear that a falling barometer is a disaster for angling, or that wind can ruin everything. You may also hear that an incoming storm front can trigger a feeding binge of epic proportions. Others paint a more nuanced picture, citing rates of change in barometric pressure, the effect of sunlight on creatures that lack dilating pupils and eyelids, and maybe even throwing in something about solunar tables for good measure.
I have my own theories about weather and how it effects fishing, and sometimes I feel like I am able to effectively apply my opinions to a situation, resulting in great fishing. But I’ve seen a sure thing turn into a bust plenty of times too. I’m pretty confident that extreme weather and pressure changes can put the bite off on a lake, but I also feel like it effects river fish less. But subtle changes are still a mystery to me, perhaps because other factors end up coming into play in a way that makes patterning more challenging. One thing I do know is that if I have the chance to get out fishing, I never cancel the chance because I think a weather pattern will put the bite off. I might switch plans to fish one water to another because I think that I might have an insight as to which will fish better (or which might be less miserable given extreme wind or weather), but I still would rather be outdoors getting skunked than home wondering what might have been.
I will leave you with a final observation that may or may not be relevant to angling. I have three pet goldfish in a tank in my home. I’ve had them for many years, and have spent a lot of time watching them, because I find it both interesting and relaxing. During the summer, my goldfish are active nearly all of the time, swimming around in what I assume to be a happy state. When you walk into the room, they will often crowd into a corner and “freak out”, which I have come to translate as them “begging for food”. During the summer around here, high pressure systems and stable weather patterns are the norm, and my goldfish rarely change in their behavioral patterns. But in the spring and autumn, when we have more tumultuous weather patterns with often rapid changes in pressure, outdoor temperature, and cloud cover, there are times when my goldfish just aren’t their normal happy selves. Some days I catch them sulking, lying motionless with their bellies on the stones. Approaching the tank might make them wiggle a bit, but they don’t bother “begging for food”. I know they are healthy and that there has been no appreciable change in water chemistry/quality in their tank. I can only assume that, at those moments, the weather is having some sort of effect on their mood, as the sulking events typically coincide with the onset of significant weather changes. Sometimes they sulk for half a day. Sometimes it only seems like they sulk for an hour or so. Whenever I see them doing it, though, I wonder if the fish at the lake or down at the river are in a similar foul mood.
Take Care and Fish On,
Streamer fishing is one of the oldest versions of fly fishing, yet it also seems to be one of the fastest growing types of flyfishing today. I don’t know why that is the case, but streamer fishing is certainly an interesting, complex, and exciting way to angle. It also opens up new doors, and allows the fly angler to experience many “new” and exciting fisheries where insect imitation with dries and wets simply cannot and will not work.
You may have already guessed that I’m referring to fisheries where baitfish are the primary prey. You’d be hard pressed to catch many of today’s popular gamefish on the usual mayfly or caddis imitations. Saltwater species like striped bass, roosterfish, dorado/mahi mahi, tuna, queenfish, jacks, trevally, and billfish all eat other fish – and little else. Even in freshwater, anglers will find situations where the fish they want to catch will only eat other fish. I’m thinking of certain trout fishing situations, certainly, but also other targets like smallmouth bass, walleye, freshwater dorado, and more.
Of course, impressionistic patterns may be good enough in many instances. But, more often than not, a good baitfish imitation on the line of a competent angler will win the day, and outfish other patterns.
Baitfish fly patterns go way back in time. Carrie Stevens’ Grey Ghost and other trolling streamers come to mind. With their long shank or tandem hooks, flowing feathery lines, and eyes made of jungle cock nails, they share many features of modern baitfish imitations. But the modern fly tier has access to a nearly infinite variety of materials that have made tying baitfish imitations into more than just an answer to a vexing fishing problem. We can do so much more with the modern materials than we could with only fur and feathers. Tying streamers – particularly baitfish imitations – has become as much a science as it is a craft.
So, what makes a good or great baitfish imitation? In the end, the fish will be the only relevant judge and jury. There are hundreds of patterns out there available at your local fly shop. Guides carry them too. But there is also a joy in selecting your own or even crafting your own lure. I’m less interested in telling you what flies to buy or tie than I am in getting you to think about this topic a bit more, maybe in a new way. With the remainder of this piece I hope to at least call attention to a few factors that I believe are important to consider when sitting down at the vise with dreams of catching big fish that eat smaller fish.
Color is probably the first thing an angler notices about a fish, a baitfish, or a fly pattern. Tan over white. Olive over white. Brown. Blue. Silver. Tannish olive over white with flecks of blue and silver. Baitfish come in loads of color combinations. I really like how some of the modern synthetics come in complex colors. I try to match the baitfish whenever I can.
Have you considered how baitfish look alive vs dead? A living minnow rarely looks the same as a dead or dying one. A baitfish that is alive but has been in the live well for 2 hours can look different than they do when freshly netted. It can make a difference which color phase of the bait you are imitating, especially in fisheries where live baits or dead baits are used as teasers or chum.
The size of the fly should approximate the size of the baitfish you are trying to match, similar to matching the size of a mayfly during a hatch. While I have not experienced extreme selectivity to overall size, I try to get my fly as close to the expected size of the bait as possible. In instances where a certain baitfish is extremely prevalent, however, it can backfire to match size exactly as your offering will blend in among the thousands of naturals. In that instance a slightly bigger fly can make a difference.
Some fisheries are based on very fast growing prey species. Early in the season, the predators may be used to seeing 3 inch long bait, but a few months later all the bait may have grown to 5 inches. If possible, it’s good to do some research and be ready with the right size flies.
What about a customizable pattern? Some flies can be trimmed on the water to make them smaller while they retain all the necessary fish catching qualities, but few can be made larger.
When I refer to profile, I mean the overall shape of the baitfish. Some are long and thin, others short and fat, or somewhere in between. Some baitfish have a circular cross section – with bodies as wide as they are tall (mullet or sand lance). Some are laterally flattened – a fancy term for taller than they are wide (sardina). Others are dorsoventrally flattened – a really fancy term for wider than they are tall (sculpin).
It goes without saying that fly pattern should address the overall shape of the bait being imitated. Again, material choice plays a big role in this. So does the technique used to attach materials to the hook and build the body. It’s always good to make sure the fly keeps the proper profile when wet and retrieved in the desired manner. More on that later!
Eyes may be the first thing that a predator fish notices about your fly, or it may be the last thing it notices when deciding to either refuse, or gobble your offering. Many baitfish species have prominent eyes, or false eye spots. On translucent baitfish, the eye can be just about all you see of them. For that reason, I like eyes on most of my baitfish flies.
On the other hand, a baitfish like a sculpin does not have prominent eyes, and therefore adding them to your pattern may be less important.
Some baitfish are flashy. Some are not. Simple, right? Sort of.
It seems to me that flash is often the absolute difference maker when it comes to how well a fly works. I’ve noticed that in bright sunshine and clear water that flash is often a turn off for the fish I’m trying to catch, even when I perceive the live baitfish as quite flashy. Maybe the modern flash materials are so reflective that it is easy to overdo it. Maybe we perceive shininess differently than predator fish in some instances.
Then, other times, maybe for a different predator, it seems like you can’t have too much flash. For that reason alone it may make sense to tie a variety of patterns or the same pattern in a variety of flash combinations. I like to think about how I might be able to alter a fly on the water as well. Can I turn a flashy fly into one without flash with scissors or nippers?
Something I learned about many baitfish species is that they look very different in the water vs out of water. In particular, many smaller baitfish are virtually invisible or at least highly translucent in the water. Often, all you see of the prey is an eye, and a lateral line, or the digestive tract.
This is where the modern synthetic materials blow nearly all natural materials away. Pick your material wisely and match the translucence of the live bait. Don’t be afraid to go really sparse as well. Test your flies in the water before you tie 50 of them! If they look bad, make a modification.
Action and Tracking
I mentioned this briefly when discussing profile. Here is a whole lot more.
Action is the way a fly moves in the water. If your fly looks and acts wrong, you are probably out of luck, so I think this factor is worth a decent amount of discussion. Part of a fly’s action is the motion that the fly angler imparts to the fly to make it look like a real fish, or at least to make it move (or not) in a way that elicits a take. While the retrieve has a lot to do with the action of a fly in the water, the true action of a fly begins with material selection and construction at the vise. In reality, the two must work together perfectly and the angler is well served to take both elements into account when selecting a fly.
Different materials move differently in the water. If you have fished with me, or followed my old Frontpage rants on Sexyloops.com, you probably have heard me say that “nothing moves like rabbit”. Well, that’s true. Similarly, nothing moves like marabou, or EP fiber, or bucktail, or slinky fiber, or kinky fiber, or (name your favorite material). Knowing the relative stiffness and wiggle of materials and purposefully experimenting with them in your baitfish patterns can really take your flies to the next level.
More than anything I would urge to you observe how the bait you are imitating acts in the water. Do the baits dart quickly then dive for the bottom? If so, maybe you need some weight up front to create a jigging action when stripped. Do they swim continuously, without pauses, in a straight line? Then consider stiffer materials that hold profile under constant tension in the water. Do you want your fly to have motion even when it isn’t moving? Softer materials will do that for you, but watch out for fouling. Do the baitfish twitch and dart left and right and up when injured? Time to get really creative with your tying and experiment with intentionally off balanced patterns.
Tracking is another part of fly action. I consider tracking to be the way the fly moves through the water relative to its own vertical axis plane. The concept is similar to tracking in fly casting. Keep it in line for best results! If a fly unintentionally “tips” off its vertical plane or flips over when retrieved, then I consider it to be tracking poorly. Fouled streamers track poorly, and I feel like that is why they don’t work. Poorly designed flies also track poorly. Baitfish (most of them at least, when they are healthy) swim effectively and remain “upright” even when moving at maximum speeds. Predator fish are used to this behavior. If a predator is following/chasing down your fly, and the fly happens to tip over on its side for even a split second, there is a chance that you will experience a fantastic refusal. This is particularly true, in my experience, with roosterfish. I started thinking really hard about this after seeing dozens of roosterfish refuse flies at extremely high speed and at very close range after the fly wobbled or tipped just slightly.
In the Pacific Northwest, many conventional anglers “pull plugs” for salmon. These guys and gals know that the way the plugs run or track (straight and true) can make a big difference, and so they spend hours “tuning” their plugs to ride just right. Why should it be different with flies? I am now a huge believer in tank testing patterns. Bathtubs, sinks, ponds, rivers, puddles, fountains, etc. have all been used as testing grounds. Not just one of a pattern, either. Every fly! Sure it’s crazy, but it gives me confidence in every fly I have in my box.
This last factor is one that I consider most abstract and difficult to test and understand. For that reason it is a wildcard in my own mind. Maybe the real reason that some flies out produce others for no apparent reason.
Water transmits sound and vibrations much better/faster than air, and fish are equipped with a lateral line that allows them to pick up on vibrations from other fish, predators, and prey. We know that fish use feel to navigate, feed, and avoid danger. Conventional anglers use vibration and the way their lures sound or feel much more than fly anglers. Why should it be that way? I’m not suggesting that we equip all of our flies with spinner blades and rattles, but it makes sense to consider the way a fly pushes or displaces water. It may be more important than we fully understand.
Of course, there is much more that could be said. But I think I’ve said enough for now. It’s time to fish. After all, there is no substitute for experience, gained through hours and days on the water. So, get out there. Fish. Observe. Learn. Enjoy the day.
Thanks for reading. Take care, and Fish on!
Originator: Brian Chou, MFC Signature Tier
Shank: Cut off hook or pre fab shank, Straight eye
Trailing Hook: Owner SSW, #6 or 8
Trailing hook connection: Coated wire
Weight: Cross Eyed Cone, ¼”. Substitute tungsten for extra depth.
Thread: 6/0 black
Tail: Marabou blood quill, Pearly Krystal Flash, and a pair of matching grizzly hackle tips in matching or contrasting color.
Body: Ice Dub, color to match pattern (olive, uv black, pearl, rusty, purple)
Legs: MFC Barred Sexi Floss
Collar: Guinea hen, palmered, color to match pattern
Notes: This pattern is a real winner from the bench of my good friend Brian Chou. Originally tied to fish for trout from a drift boat on Washington’s Yakima River, the Fortune Cookie has, in recent years, become a real favorite among Trout Spey and swung fly enthusiasts from Montana to New Zealand. The fly’s moderate size makes it easy to cast on lighter Trout Spey setups, and the profile has all the right qualities to suggest baitfish, sculpin, or crayfish. Contrasting colors and wiggly materials help to move those fish who might not be on the feed, but are in the mood to be influenced into making bad decisions. The weighted head makes it very versatile in terms of action and presentation. On a straight swing it planes out, stays deep, and wiggles. Bounce the rod tip and you get a great jigging action and tons of motion. This pattern comes in great colors too: Olive, Black, White, Purple, and my favorite, Brown/Yellow!
CHECK OUT the 360 degree view on MFC’s website!
Originator: Denny Rickards, Stillwater guru and trophy trout specialist
Hook: 2x heavy nymph hook. #10, 12, or 14
Thread: 8/0 Olive
Weight: Either unweighted or with 6 turns of fine lead wire placed toward the head of the fly.
Tail: Marabou, burnt orange
Body: Olive Simi Seal or other seal substitute dubbing
Hackle: Dry fly grade saddle hackle, grizzly dyed burnt orange
Rib: UTC Ultra Wire, gold, small
Wing case/shell back: Olive marabou or mallard flank fibers. These can be coated with UV clear cure resin for durability.
Notes: About 20 years ago I had the good fortune to attend one of Denny Rickards’ stillwater seminars right down the road at Hebgen Lake. At that time, I’d really only fished dry flies on Hebgen during the Callibaetis hatch, and fooled around with a woolly bugger here and there on other lakes on other occasions. Listening to Denny (and seeing his big fish pictures) inspired me to buy an intermediate sinking line and get a little more serious about subsurface lake fishing. At the end of the class, he handed me a scruffy looking olive and orange fly and suggested that it would be a very good place to start experimenting. His words gave me the confidence to try it, and many of his other patterns. The Stillwater Nymph was a great fly for me from the start, and still is today. Fished slowly, with a hand twist or short pull and pause retrieve, this is a great fly to fish when you might not be sure what to tie on, or when you know the trout are around but there aren’t a ton of any specific insect hatching. It’s suggestive nature, and smaller size seem to get it done even in August, when the fish get a bit more choosy.
As members of the Big Sky Anglers community (a diverse, extremely clever, and good looking lot if there ever was one), our lives can all be described in terms of many different things, including fly fishing. And since this is a fly fishing website, I don’t feel bad talking about that here. It’s crazy for me to think that I first flung a fly into the water over 35 years ago. In that time, I’ve been truly fortunate to have fished in so many amazing and inspiring places with so many friendly and wonderful people. I’ve come to know more than a few amazing places as my home waters, and I’ve forged some of my most cherished relationships around angling.
Blah, blah, blah. Right? Sorry. Hang on. I’ll get around to it.
Spending time on the water (experience) manifests itself in knowledge and skills gained. That knowledge and skill, when applied correctly, often results in the achievement of the most basic objective in fly fishing – catching a fish; or a bunch of fish; or a big fish. But that most basic objective is certainly not the only reason that people are drawn to fly fishing. And, in the end, no matter how skillful and knowledgeable you become as an angler, there will always be those days when the fish just seem to disappear, leaving you standing by the water with a slack line.
I used to dread those bleak, fishless days in my younger years. They felt like some sort of failure back then. I don’t mind them so much any longer. Now, on the days when the fish just won’t show themselves, or I just can’t manage to crack the code, I just string up the subconscious 6-weight and have a go at fishing for something else. Memories.
Turns out, they are a lot easier to catch than fish.
If you fish enough [How much is enough?], over time you will likely amass more than a few wonderful memories to conjure up while you aren’t catching fish. For me, the great thing about being out on the water is that simple attendance makes it super easy to recall (catch) all those memories.
It turns out that there is a well-known technique for remembering unstructured information (like fishing stories) called the Roman Room. To use the method, one associates the individual pieces of information they wish to remember with the items in a room of an imaginary or not-so-imaginary house.
I didn’t even know this method existed until a couple of years ago, when I came across it while reading a magazine. Perhaps, over the years, I’ve unintentionally created a Roman Room out of every fishing spot I’ve ever been to, and associated memories with each rock, seam, run, and tree on the river bank? Every detail of the memories seems to just spring forth out of the water like a hungry cutthroat rising for a fat grasshopper – expected, but also unexpected. And those memories can make an otherwise slow day fly by, or a lonely day into a full and happy one.
I won’t bore you with examples of my own memories. They likely won’t mean a thing to you. But I’m sure you have your own to recall the next time you are out there not catching any fish, or maybe…
Take Care & Fish On,