Housatonic Mini Report 10/29/14: More fun with streamers

After last week’s rains placed her flows into the thousands, the Hous TMA was down to a very wadeable 988cfs. The water, however, still had a moderate stain, and it was noticeably colder than last week. Cloudy conditions with a bit of a breeze. Fished a floating line with a seven-foot leader. I tied up a yellow and white marabou articulated streamer the night before in the hopes that it would discourage the smaller fish from jumping on. That kind of worked. I still had plenty of bumps, but the foot-long fish weren’t making it much past the initial strike stage. I did manage several some-teen-inch fat rainbows that kept me entertained with their cartwheels. In the higher flows, even a mid-teens fish felt substantial. I bounced around to five different name pools, and I had action in four of them. Getting stoked for a steelhead on a streamer next month.

Fat, aggressive, and obstreperous. Just the way I like my rainbows.

Housy Rainbow 1

Do I have something on my lip? I had confidence this streamer would work, but it’s nice to get approval from the target audience focus group.

Housy Rainbow 2

Small Stream Mini Report 10/24/14

A fairly gloomy type of day with drizzle, heavy mist, and fog-covered mountaintops — also known as breathtakingly beautiful. The drive was long, the woods and water chilly, and the creek was up and slightly stained from the recent rains.

The brookies were hunkered down today. I could tell right away that the dry would be unproductive, but I gave the Improved Sofa Pillow and the Bomber a fair shake. After pricking several and landing a couple, I switched to subsurface. That made all the difference. Weighted micro buggers and bead head soft-hackles in both dark and light colors met with approval.

Mountaintop shrouded in mystery. What secrets would her brooks reveal?


I wouldn’t say it was a banner day, but one thing’s for sure: three hours on a remote mountain stream beats the tar out of sitting at one’s desk. Especially if there’s a Rocky Patel The Edge Corona Gorda in the mix.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” vividly rendered on Salvelinus fontinalis flank.

Van Gogh 2

Housatonic Streamer Report: Party Like It’s 1986

I can still remember that October day almost thirty years ago. I had just been let go from my first job, and since I was still living at home (opportunity), I decided to fish my brains out before my parents starting bugging me (motive) about acting like a responsible young adult. One of my adventures took me to the Hous. It was sunny. The flows were perfect. And I had two containers of mealworms and a can of corn to impale on my Eagle Claw snelled hooks. This was at a point in my fishing life where counting fish was critical to defining success. (Idiot.) The final tally was seventeen trout. I couldn’t wait to get home and brag to my father.

These days, the upper Housatonic doesn’t get nearly as much attention from me as it should. Even today, I only managed two-and-a-half hours. But, oh my goodness, what an amazing little session.

The plan was streamers. Last night I tied up a couple old favorites, soft-hackled versions of the classic Black Ghost and Mickey Finn on #6, 3x long streamer hooks. Since I would be fishing with a floating line, I added a large black brass cone head, seated with weighted wire. Ten minutes in, I still hadn’t had a bump. What was a spotty sprinkle hard turned into a steady rain. I was thinking this might not be my day.

Wrong. Once I moved out of the shallows (I still don’t know the river as well as I’d like) and started delivering the Black Ghost into some deeper runs, the hits began in earnest. They took the streamer on the swing. The dangle. And the strip. Sometimes they’d swipe, miss, and come back for more.

After a half-dozen or so, I switched over to the Mickey Finn. Boom! What a pig of a rainbow. Most of the customers were cookie cutter foot-long rainbows, but this wannabe steelhead went on the reel almost immediately. A few of the rainbows today had those telltale wide pink bands, large intact fins, and the disposition of a feral cat. I really wanted that gator brown, but these fish were keeping me well-entertained. I looked at my watch. Two hours in. I had no idea how many fish I had done battle with.

On the way out, I stopped at one of the name pools to watch another angler cast to rising fish. I only stayed for five minutes. Dozens of trout were feeding in a gentle foam line, sipping tiny BWOs.

When I got into my Jeep, the gas gauge said almost empty.

Bullshit. My tank was full.

Long before I started fly fishing, I knew the Mickey Finn was an effective streamer for fall trout on the Hous. While I’ve made a few changes in materials for my soft-hackled version, the color scheme is the same. Yup. Red and yellow and silver and black are tasty.

10:14 Housy Raindow

Return of the Good Night For The Five Weight

Some day, I’ll have to tell you about the two nights in October many years ago when I caught seventy-five striped bass on the five-weight. But for Friday night, one was the number I happily settled for. It’s been a tough fall for me, with many hours put in for very few stripers. Such is the price of exploring uncharted potential big bass waters.

So Friday night I returned to some old haunts in Rhode Island. Even on the inside, a steady 15mph southwest blow made casting a chore. The first place I fished was a blank. I wasn’t feeling it from the start. So I went back to the truck for for Plan B, swapping out my three-fly rig for a single fly, a Crazy Menhaden flatwing/bucktail hybrid.

I spooked a bass on the wade out, so that was encouraging. Inside of five minutes, I had a follow and a missed hook set. Also encouraging. Then nothing during a half hour of casting, mending, swinging, and dangling. Weeds were a minor nuisance. Suddenly, bang. I was on. A twenty-four inch bass in a ripping current on a five-weight is about as much fun as you can have wearing nylon pants and rubber boots. If this were a Hardy Boys book, I’d say I chortled.

The last stop was anticlimactic. How far the mighty have fallen: this used to be a place I’d visit when I absolutely positively needed a striper. I don’t think I’ve taken a bass here for three years now. But the heavens were lovely and deep, and a shooting star was my reward for looking up at the right moment.

The wind was still blowing when I climbed into bed at 3am.

Crazy Menhaden flatwing/bucktail. Friday night, one of these in the 7″-8″ range made a crazy good-enough mullet.

Crazy CU

Fall colors

The woods were ablaze this late morning/early afternoon. A substantial leaf hatch, though, is a lot easier to deal with on a small stream. The char certainly had no problem picking out my size 16 Improved Sofa Pillow and size 16 Elk Hair Caddis.

Spooky fish today — most of them gave the fly a single whack, and that was it — no return business. Not surprising given the recent low water levels. A good number of them were hanging out in tailouts, making an upstream dry presentation challenging. Many more were locked into the whitewater plunges and deeper runs. I induced a few larger members of the tribe to strike, but most of what I raised was smaller, which I always like to see, recruitment being critical to the next few years’ outings.

Went subsurface on the way downstream, and as usual, stuck some brookies where none were forthcoming on the dry. Even after yesterday’s rains, the water was medium-low, cool, and clear. Creamy midges and size 18-20 tan caddis out today.

I am fortunate to be able to say, “I feel like going fishing today.” And then actually doing it. What a nifty little dark horse. He took the caddis in a seam just off a pocket plunge.


A Team of Three Wets

This article, written by yours truly, first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

Wet fly anglers know something you don’t: three flies are better than one. Presenting a team of wets is an ancient, traditional practice. It is also a highly effective way to fish. Many people shudder at the thought of casting multiple flies. They picture wind-blown leaders twisted into snarls only Alexander the Great could solve. There will undoubtedly be times when you’ll have to do a little tangle triage. But the benefits of fishing three wet flies far outweigh the downside.

Droppers are the quickest way to find out what the trout want.

Let’s say you get to the river and find swarms of caddis. The water around you is simmering with feeding trout. Yet they will have nothing to do with your caddis offerings. I faced this situation a few years ago on the Farmington River. Turns out the trout were keyed on small mahogany duns. I had a caddis pattern as my top dropper, a size 18 February Red in the middle, and a Pheasant Tail on point. I took trout after trout on the February Red – a perfect match for the mahogany duns. If I didn’t have that fly on, I might still be cursing the day, instead of fondly recalling its multiple hookups.

And that’s the beauty of the three fly team. You’re giving the trout a choice. Different flies, colors, sizes, and even life stages. If you’re not sure what’s hatching, you can pick out three different species that might be on the water. Perhaps size – or lack thereof – will be the trigger: a big, fat, juicy drowned hopper on point, an ant in the middle, and a tiny midge or BWO on top. The trout will always tell you what they like. Some days, they’ll have specific preferences. Others, they will be equal opportunity feeders. With a team of wets, you’ll be ready for either situation.

A Farmington River brown that picked out this Pale Watery wingless wet from a team of three during a hatch of creamy mayflies.

Brown PWWwet

Which flies, and where?

There are no hard rules about fly placement. While I occasionally mix things up, this is how I usually order my flies.

Top dropper – Almost always an emerger pattern, for the simple reason that this fly will be closest to the surface. Soft-hackles excel in this position. A good rule of thumb is to make the top dropper the size and color of what’s hatching.

Middle dropper – Make it a high-confidence fly, like a pheasant tail, or a fly that offers a contrast in size and color to the other patterns you’re fishing. Or, if you’re unsure of what’s in the water, try something you suspect might be hatching.

Point fly – This is where I typically place the largest or heaviest fly, such as a bead head pattern or an underweighted fuzzy nymph. The point fly will always be the deepest fly on the team. Occasionally, I’ll tie on an attractor fly like a Peter Ross. I find a three-fly team easier to cast if the largest, heaviest fly is on point.

How and where to fish a team of wets.

One of the things I love about wet fly fishing is that I can walk hundreds of yards of river, cast down and across, throw a few upstream mends, and let the current do the rest of the work. It’s called the mended swing, and it is a beautiful, relaxing way to cover water – and catch fish. The mends slow down the speed of the swing, forcing the flies to travel at a more natural pace. At the end of the swing, let the flies hold in the current below you, especially if they are hovering over likely holding water. This is called the dangle, and during it you’ll experience some of trout fishing’s most powerful takes. Resist the temptation to make a sudden reaction hook set. All you’ll do is pull the fly out of the trout’s mouth. When you feel the tug, ask yourself, “Are you still there?” In the time it takes you to do that, the trout will have turned away with the fly, neatly hooking himself in the corner of the mouth.

On any given river, the best wet fly water is often overlooked and under-fished. I call it the snotty water – swift riffles, runs with a mottled surface, boulder-strewn pocket water. Look for current that is moving at a good walking pace. Target seams, eddies, shadow lines, transition water between depth and shallows, and especially what I call “the cafeteria line” – the main drag clearly marked by a line of foam. Be sure to present your flies on both sides of it.

Mottled surfaced and boulder-strewn runs are an ideal place to swing a team of wets.


Even the most experienced casters suffer the occasional wet fly dropper disaster. To minimize tangles, keep false casting to a minimum. Pile casts are a sure recipe for trouble – you want your team of wets to lie out neatly in a line. Check your team often; once a compromised rig runs downstream, the tangle gets exponentially worse. On windy days, try to cast during lulls between gusts.

Building a three fly team.

Rather than being attached to each other by the hook bend, each fly swims freely on its own tag, further enticing trout – and making it easier for them to take the fly. I like to start with a six-foot section of tapered leader, then add three sections of Maxima four- or six-pound for the droppers. Maxima has a large relative diameter, which helps the flies stand out from the leader.

If it looks complicated, think of it as simply tying three triple surgeon’s knots, two of them with extended tags. Of all the leader materials I’ve tried, Maxima is by far the best for dropper tags. I use both Ultragreen and Chameleon.


Farmington River Report 10/14/14: Beware the leaf hatch

From my perch twenty-five feet above the river bank, I could tell I was going to be up against it. Hundreds and hundreds of orange and yellow swimmers. And that was just one run. Still, I was all in for swinging wets on this overcast, humid, decidedly August-in-October morning.

At first it seemed like I’d made a poor decision. Nearly every cast produced a hook-to-foliage connection. Finally, a bump that was readily distinguishable from the benign pressure of ex-flora. A recently stocked rainbow on the soft-hackled BHPT. Moving on, I was having a rather uncoordinated wading day. Even though the river was down, it seemed like it was my destiny to stumble. After recovering from one near swim, I discovered my rig was hung up on a submerged rock. I gave the line a roll cast to try and free it, but no. With a temper just short of rage, I gave the rod an upward set. The rock thrummed with energy. Now, surprised glee. Another rainbow, this one broad of shoulder and cantankerous, on the Hackled March Brown. One more trout a hundred feet down, then back to the truck to rig for depth charge.

They sure look pretty on the trees. But oh, what a pain-in-the-ass once they’re in the river.

Farmington Foliage

There was another angler in the run I wanted to nymph, so I watched him throw his streamer for a few minutes. As he moved a polite distance downstream, I entered the run where a disorganized series of riffles formed the head of the pool. First cast, the indicator stalled, I set, and an acrobatic rainbow cleared the water like a proper steelhead. Sadly, his leap was sans hook. I gave him a few minutes to rest, then went at him again. This time, hook set. Off he went, peeling line. I didn’t think he was fish-on-the-reel big. Turns out he wasn’t. Foul hooked just below a pectoral.

I was going to visit another spot in the TMA that I hadn’t fished all year, but you can’t lie to yourself. I wanted to go to that other place. So I hurried to a favorite deep, mysterious hole where, as the poet said, stone is dark under froth. Only a juvenile Salmon seemed willing to eat. Three more casts, I said. And on the second, the indicator dipped.  A wild Farmington River brown, some-teen inches long, on the size 16 soft-hackled Pheasant Tail dropper.

I valued that fish above all others today. But the rainbows reminded me that Pulaski and November are coming soon.

A credible summary of today’s conditions.

October Brown 2014

Currentseams Q&A: attaching a soft-hackle to the hook shank

Q: When tying soft-hackled flies do you tie in the tip of the feather or the butt?

A: I’m almost always a tip guy. The stem of any feather is more flexible at the tip, and therefore easier for me to wrap. Also, feathers like starling are quite fragile — when I try to grip the tip of a starling feather with my hackle pliers, I often break off feathers to the point of rage. We don’t like rage when we’re tying. Maybe I just need to dial back the wrapping pressure. Or quit lifting weights.

Tying in by the tip is neither right nor wrong. It’s just the way I like to do it. I originally learned from Dave Hughes’ book Wet Flies, and he advocates tying in by the butt. I tried it that way, then tried it this way, and here we are. I encourage you to do the same in your tying and fishing: try different methods and pick the one that suits you. If I am tying a pattern like Stewart’s Black Spider, where I am starting at the head then winding the hackle rearward along the body, I will tie the feather in by the butt. This results in a tapered flow of hackle from large in front to small in back.

These hackles were all tied in by the tip. They look OK to me, and the trout certainly like them. So I must be doing something right.


The Downstream Wet Fly on High-Gradient Brooks

This piece first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

It all started with a bushy dry – an Elk Hair Caddis – that I was presenting upstream. I was fishing one of my favorite thin blue lines, a high-gradient brook nestled deep in the Appalachian foothills. “Brook” may be too generous a word; it’s more of a connected series of waterfalls than anything else.

For years, I had been fishing this exquisite gem with dry flies, always moving upstream, casting into the white water at the head of its plunges. While I’d had a few takers on this day, the brookies weren’t throwing themselves at the dry with their usual fervor. Of course, in unspoiled waters such as this, catching is secondary to simply being there. But on my return down the trail, curiosity got the better of me.

Surely, I reasoned, there were char in the pools where I blanked. Maybe they were just bashful about showing themselves on the surface. A quick rummage through my fly box produced a bead-head micro-bugger, about a size 14. The fly had barely settled beneath the surface when it was set upon by a band of shadowy marauders. Clearly, I was on to something.

The science behind the subsurface magic.

Small stream wild brook trout aren’t renowned for their selectivity. In streams where significant, regular hatches may be a luxury, highly opportunistic feeding habits are crucial for survival. But survival isn’t solely about eating. It’s also about limiting exposure to predators. Every time a brookie rises to the surface, it becomes a target for birds and mammals. Bigger fish are older fish, and older fish get that way by minimizing their chances of getting eaten.

Water level plays a significant role in how you decide to fish a brook. Many small streams are dependent on rainfall to supplement their flows. During extended periods of low water, wild fish settle into survival mode. They keep activity to a minimum, especially in daylight. You may not see them, but they’re there, hunkered down along the bottom, beneath deadfall, submerged ledges, and undercut banks. Good luck getting these ultra-cautious, spooky fish to rise to a dry. But, a submerged fly is an entirely different matter. Even the wariest trout finds it difficult to resist the temptation of a meal drifting past at eye level.

High or deep water also presents a unique set of challenges. Some of the plunge pools I fish are overhead deep, even during normal flows. Trying to coax a brook trout to move six feet to the surface to take a dry is not a high percentage play. Use a weighted soft-hackle to shift the odds in your favor. James Leisenring encouraged anglers to fish their fly “so that it becomes deadly at the point where the trout is most likely to take his food.” Translation: fish beneath the surface. Make it easier for the brookies to eat.

What’s more, brook trout are highly curious creatures. They are eager to investigate new arrivals to their world, especially if it poses no threat, looks alive, and seems like it might be something good to eat. Just as it happened that first time I fished a deep wet, I find that brookies will race each other to take the fly. Often, the competition doesn’t end until the last char has been hooked.

Presenting the downstream wet.

I like to position myself in front of the head of the pool I’m fishing; that often means I’m standing in the tailout of the pool above, along its banks, or on the rocks that create the waterfall (if there is one). Stealth is a matter of conditions and experience. Some pools have a deep holding run with a lane of whitewater or a riffly, mottled surface; in these, you can take a more cavalier approach. Others demand that you channel your inner commando, crouching, crawling, or hiding behind saplings and boulders to get into casting position.

In a plunge pool, I’ll begin by jigging my fly into the whitewater. Delivering the fly can hardly be called a cast; I’m simply dunking it and manipulating the rod tip with an up-and-down motion. If I don’t get a strike – and I’m always surprised when I don’t – I’ll strip out a few feet of line and repeat the process a little farther downstream.

Shallower runs invite you experiment with classic presentations such as the wet fly swing or the mended swing. With the former, you’re making a quartering cast down, then letting the fly swing across and up toward the surface. To slow the speed of the fly as it swings, simply add a few upstream mends.

Letting a soft-hackled wet fly hold in the current downstream – also known as the dangle – is almost never a bad idea on a small stream. As the hackles flutter in the current, they whisper to the brookies, “I’m alive.” By all means, add to the illusion of life with short, pulsing strips, or by drawing the fly toward you, then letting it fall back in the current.

Three proven small stream wets.

Starling and Herl
Hook: 1x fine, size 10-18
Thread: Black
Body: Two strands peacock herl, twisted on a thread rope
Hackle: Iridescent starling body feather

In the warmer months, terrestrials are a major component of the small stream trout’s diet. The Starling and Herl is an old English pattern that makes a fine imitation of an ant, a beetle, or even a dark caddis or stonefly.


ICU Sculpin
Hook: TMC 5262 size 14
Bead: Chartreuse tungsten
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Black Krystal flash
Body: Black peacock Ice Dub
Hackle: Grizzly
Sculpins are a favorite snack of wild brook trout, but this pattern is more of an impressionistic attractor than an exact imitation. Whatever the brookies think it is, the high contrast of the ICU Sculpin’s chartreuse bead against its dark, sparkly body makes this fly easy to see, even in a pool several feet deep.
White Mini-Bugger
Hook: TMC 5262 10-12
Thread: White
Bead: Copper tungsten, seated with weighted wire
Tail: Short marabou wisps over pearl Krystal flash
Body: Small white chenille, ribbed with pearl flash, palmered with soft white hen

I’ve made several strategic changes to the classic Woolly Bugger template. The tail is shorter and sparser, which cuts down on nips away from the hook point. The hackle and collar is soft hen. And with a tungsten head and wire underbody, this fly sinks like a stone, causing it to rise and fall like a jig when you strip it.