“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.
I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.
Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.
Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?
Finally, after so many disappointing outings, I hooked and landed my 100th steelhead. Not the prettiest fish given the time of year, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. It was an eventful day — full report to come next week. In the meantime, here’s a picture worth a hundred words.
This one’s going to be brief, folks, because I have nothing good to report. Well, that’s not entirely true. I got to meet up with old striper partner-in-crime Bob. We each enjoyed a cigar on the walk out. And I got to shake some of the rust off my two-handed casting. Beyond that, it was cold, the wind was blasting out of the east at 15mph (with higher gusts), it rained most of the time we fished, seaweed and grassy detritus was an issue, and neither of us got a single touch. I saw one striper caught by a spin angler. I talked to another fly angler in the parking lot who said he caught two small fish, and that it had been fairly slow thus far. I wish I could tell tales of the Bass-O-Matic, but that will have to wait for another day.
Just a quick two-hour session on the lower River last Friday. The sun was shining, the air was warm, the water was low and crystal clear, and there was a strong caddis (size 16-18) hatch. I fished three marks and found acton in only one. I purposely stayed away from areas that I knew had been stocked as I wanted to try to find the Salmo that had made it through the winter. I tried several techniques, each to match the conditions and marks I was fishing: tight/long line micro jig streamer, tight line drop shot nymphing, and then indicator nymphing.
Funny thing! I had just landed my first fish, a tiger of a wild brown, when lo and behold, Ye Olde Stocking Truck showed up. What I found fascinating — and I’ve witnessed this before — was that within minutes, the fresh fish were porpoising and snapping at caddis emergers in a back eddy. It doesn’t take long for them to discover where their next meal is coming from. It’s genetic programming at its finest.