I took Don out for a striper lesson this week. Rather than give you a “Dear Diary” account, I thought I would tell you about some of the striper lessons we covered.
Cast and strip is ultimately limiting. You will catch the aggressive, willing-to-chase fish with that approach. But eventually you will encounter bass that are holding on station, feeding on a particular bait, and cast-and-strip will fail you. Learn the art of presentation. Dead drifts, greased line swings, dangles and mends — all of these will serve you well when the going gets tough. If you want to learn presentation, and you value line control, you need a floating line. Period. Find the line taper and grain weight that’s best suited to your rod, how you cast, and how you want to fish. Hint: it isn’t necessarily what’s printed on the blank. You don’t need to cast far to catch stripers. I taught Don what I call the “zero foot cast,” and by using the current, you can delivery your fly to fish over 100 feet away. When the fish are on something small, droppers are your best friend. Multiple baits mean multiple catching opportunities. And as always, droppers are the fastest way to find out what the fish want. If you want to catch more stripers, learn how to read water. Just like you do with trout. And last but not least, alway scope out a new mark in daylight so you can see what’s going on.
So I’m standing in the brook, working out a few kinks in the leader, when I see this large, black blur moving through the forest. My first thought was, “Someone brought their freaking huge dog and now I’m going to have to contend with all kinds of rambunctious behavior.” Then I noticed it was a black bear cub. Great. Where there’s a black bear cub, there’s a mama bear, and the last thing I need right now is a mama bear that thinks I’m a threat to her kids. I calmly lit a cigar — let them smell where I am, and hopefully they hate Nicaraguan tobacco — and began my one-sided calls of “Hey, bear!”
I figured from the way the cub was moving — really fast, past my position, heading up a trail — that he was in more trouble than I was. Everything about his actions said, “Crap, I’m gonna get it, I’m way behind mom!” Just to be sure, I stayed in position for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t see any more Ursas. But I kept that cigar blazing, I kept up my call-and-hopefully-no-response, and I was looking over my shoulder the entire time I was fishing. Of course, I understand that all things being normal, bears generally want less to do with you than you do with them. But it’s always unnerving to see an animal that large in the wild.
To the fishing. This brook was higher than normal, albeit flowing clear, but at this level most of the pools and runs were blown out. I saw caddis and midges and some un-IDed huge mayfly spinner. I fished a dry/dropper, and to my surprise the char only wanted the dry. Even more surprisingly, they ignored almost all of my weighted micro-streamers. I pricked many fish, and most of them were in the 2″-4″ class. I’m content to use a bigger dry for these fish; they never get hooked, so there are are no complications from catch-and-release. I did land a few, and I decided to take a picture of one of them. And here it is.
…I was standing in a river, practicing my greased line swings with a floating line and a 10″ Rock Island flatwing. My casting was good enough. My presentations were spot on. The bass were…not there. At least not in any numbers. We saw some wakes and swirls made by herring, but nothing to suggest that they were present en masse. We heard a couple reports of bass crashing bait, but they were in the first 30 minutes of our 2+ hour session, and then nothing. So it goes. This is why it’s called putting in your time.
I guided Andrew and Brett yesterday and they wanted to focus on wet flies. Monday’s rain was more than I expected, and I didn’t like the height or the color of the Permanent TMA. So we headed north to the friendly confines of WBATSR (West Branch Above The Still River. I just made that up.) This was a good call as the water was running a crystal clear and very wadeable 200cfs. I really liked that height, and I thought there were dozens, if not hundreds of pockets and seams and slots and riffles that would hold trout. Sadly, the trout didn’t get the memo, and we had a very slow day. (We didn’t see any angler other than our group hook and land a fish.) It was the kind of day where I find the next great piece of water, and think to myself, “this is going to be it,” and then nothing happens. These episodes make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit.” Of course, I don’t really mean it, and of course we don’t quit, but I get frustrated just like everyone else.
Andrew had fished with me before, and on that day we had far more active fish than today. Brett is a relative newcomer to fly fishing, and once we smoothed out a few wrinkles he was swinging like a pro. I alternated between both anglers, and we worked downstream, covering several hundred yards of water. Bug activity was very light, with two confirmed Hendricksons and a handful of BWOs, but that was it. As you can imagine, angler traffic was heavy, especially with that section of river the only clear water game in town. With today’s rain and increased flows, I would guess that streamers and nymphing will be, by far, the most productive methods for a few days.
“What are the best soft hackles (or wet flies) for fishing the Hendrickson hatch?” is one of those questions I get a lot this time of year. As always, the best flies are the ones in which you have the most confidence. I should also make this clarification: technically, with Hendricksons you’re fishing wet flies under the hatch. On the Farmington River, prime time for swinging Hendrickson wets is generally in the 11 am-to-3 pm window. Every day is different. Once you see duns on the water, and trout snapping at them, the wet fly game is all but over. But if you want to catch more trout, you should be swinging wets in this pre-hatch time frame. (Of course, you’re fishing a team of three wets. Here’s how to build a wet fly leader.) And so, in no particular order, these are some of my favorite Hendrickson wet fly and soft-hackled patterns.
Monday’s Hendrickson hatch in the lower end of the Permanent TMA was a solid 8 out of 10. (The pre-hatch bite was slow, and the duration of the duns-on-the-surface feeding frenzy was brief, otherwise I would have graded it higher.) So I headed back yesterday to see what secrets the river would reveal. Crowds continue to be a factor; if you’re looking for solitude within the Permanent TMA, you will be disappointed. I chatted up my new buddies from yesterday, Andy and Bob, who were likewise back for more, and when some water opened up — people do leave — I jumped on it. Conditions were as nice as you could hope for, with a clear flow of 275cfs and hazy sun and far less wind than Monday.
The section I fished was perfect wet fly water: moving at a brisk pace, mottled, multiple current seams. Wet fly continues to be a highly productive method for fishing under the Hendrickson hatch, especially when it appears as though nothing is going on. While many other anglers are lounging on the river bank, or standing mid-stream like statues, I am working the water with a team of three wet flies. Wet fly anglers will always discover that something is afoot subsurface before dry fly anglers, and that was proved again yesterday. Around 1pm, I had an intense flurry of activity for 15 minutes, including hits on four consecutive casts. Then the action slowed.
Then, just like that, it was over. I added a shot above my middle dropper to see if I could tight line nymph up some trout, but they weren’t having it. (This is something I teach my clients: when you walk into a pool, you simply don’t know what’s been happening. The trout may have had the feed bags on for the previous hour, and now they’re simply just done.) So I got out of the river to warm up a bit. With the pool rested and my legs a little less frozen, I waded back in around 2pm.
Since I was hoping to find the fish that were already looking up, I switched out the bead head on point for a fly I’d never fished before. It was the Old Blue Dun, one of Leisenring’s favorite twelve. I’d always thought it would make a fine Hendrickson, and since to this point I’d seen more olives in the air than Hendricksons, it seemed like a proper why not? moment. It was a good decision, as a rugby ball-shaped survivor strain brown hammered the fly on the dangle.
On Monday, the Hendrickson duns were on the surface thick by 3pm. That was not the case yesterday; we probably had about two-thirds less mayflies. Still, I brought several trout to net on Hendrickson Usuals and Comparaduns, two patterns I like in choppy water as they provide a good profile when viewed from below. I had to be off the water by 3:30, so reluctantly, I pulled myself away from pleasure and headed off toward responsibility.
On Monday I fished from 11:30am to 3:30pm. It was cold and crisp and the wind was honking. I started off on the lower River, swinging a team of three wets (Squirrel and Ginger on top, Dark Hendrickson winged middle dropper, tungsten bead head Hendrickson soft hackle on point. I fished both faster pocket water and slower, deeper pools. Both produced, despite the lack of hatch activity (I saw only two Hendricksons and no other bugs.) The takes were savage, all the them from recently stocked rainbows. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly these fish adapt to their new home. While I can’t get super excited about them, I have to say that these fish are quite powerful, not to mention great leapers. But with no signs of a hatch, I decided to head to the Permanent TMA.
Good call. By the time I arrived, the emergence was over, and two anglers, Andy and Bob, graciously allowed me a quick spin through their mark just to be sure. Wet flies are great way to determine the stage of the Hendrickson hatch; if you see fish rising, and you feed them the wets, and they mostly or completely ignore the flies, you know they’ve switched to the dun. (This is why you can be pounding up fish on Hendrickson wets, and then suddenly, despite visual evidence that the fish are still feeding, your catch rate slows dramatically. You’re fishing in the right place at the right time, just the wrong way.) I connected with only one fish on the wet, but I could also see the adults on the water, and the trout began snapping them up. So I hastily rigged a dry fly leader and had at it with some Hendrickson Usuals. Boom! All you had to do was mark a rise, then drift over it. There were so many trout rising, I was cackling with glee. By the time I left, the activity was waning. I wonder how the spinner fall was with this wind?
Toby Lasinski and I spent a few hours Saturday night banging around the shores of LIS looking for stripers. It was a slow night, with only one fish to hand, silvery sub-slot bass that nailed Toby’s surface swimmer. Not a touch for me, fishing a Rock Island flatwing/bucktail, and then a deer hair head whatchamacallit. There’s not much for me to tell, other than I saw some new water and got in some casting practice. (OK, the company and the cigar were pretty swell, so that counts for something.) Every day is different, and at some point this slowness will surely change. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
As I continue to pore through Gary LaFontaine’s masterwork Caddisflies, I’m reminded of the sheer volume of universal concepts that apply to fly fishing. So, even though he’s talking about fishing for trout that are feeding on caddisflies, LaFontaine could easily be talking about stripers feeding on sand eels or grass shrimp. A true maverick, he isn’t afraid to think or act differently, to challenge conventional wisdom, or conduct experiments to prove his theories. (Listen to the science. You’ve heard that one before) The more you fish for trout and stripers, the more you begin to see patterns and similarities between the species and how you should be fishing for them. Here are three themes in Caddisflies from which I think striper anglers and fly tyers who want to dramatically elevate their game could benefit.
Realism is the least important factor in fly design. I don’t have the actual stat, but I’m comfortable in saying that nine out of ten striper baitfish patterns feature glued on, ultra-realistic eyes. (Other than on these pages, when was the last time you saw a squid fly without big googly eyes?) If realism, from eyes to full-bodied profile to opacity to exact coloring, etc., is so important, how come my baitfish flies (and yours, and everyone else’s) continue to catch stripers long after they’ve literally been ripped to shreds? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer anyway. It’s because the bass are keying on certain bait or environmental characteristics that serve as bite triggers, and those triggers are still present in the remnants of the fly. LaFontaine knew that making a favorable impression on the fish — by showing them at least one primary feature or action that identified the fly as something that looked like what they were eating — was far more important than rendering a carbon copy.
Energy efficiency is the reason for selective feeding. Fish, especially bigger ones, are essentially lazy. So when they’re glommed onto grass shrimp in a feeding lane, you can engage in the futile activity of ripping and stripping a big fly past them, or deliver what they’re eating to their waiting mouths. This is why there is no one-size-fits-all “go-to” striper fly — and why learning presentation with a floating line is so important. Match the hatch, learn its nuances, make it easy for the stripers to feed, and you’ll catch more bass.
Fish are not intelligent. There is no such thing as an educated striped bass. Fish cannot reason. They are programmed for survival, and these primal forces have nothing to do with fly fishing or why you can’t fool that lunker. The fish is simply doing what’s it’s doing, and it’s up to you to crack the code.
I only had 90 minutes to fish, so I chose the lower Farmington because it was closer to my house, and also to where I needed to be at 2pm. Plus, there was that front bearing down on us. Didn’t want to get stuck in that mess, especially after witnessing a foreboding fork of lightning slicing through the sky. After waiting for the dark clouds to disperse, I was on the water a little before noon. The plan was to swing wets and see if there was any Hendrickson action. Conditions weren’t great — 600cfs is a little high on the Farmington for wet fly, so I used a tungsten bead head Pheasant Tail soft hackle on point to sink things a bit. Still, the water I fished was fast and heavy, and if I was interested in numbers, nymphing would have been the way to go. I had a half dozen whacks in the fast water, with no hook sets, before I connected in a deeper slot. The wind was also a factor — forget roll casting for any distance — and I had to be vigilant to keep the rig from tangling. But by the end of the outing, I had three trout to hand, two on the BHSHPT and another, the biggest, on the top dropper, a Squirrel and Ginger. A My Father Le Bijou 1922 Gran Robusto proved to be a fine companion. Speaking of fronts, I can’t believe how much the temperature has dropped.