As many of you are already aware, my favorite caddis soft hackle, the Squirrel and Ginger, is featured in the “In The Vise” column of American Fly Fishing (May/June 2021). You get my narrative, materials list, and step-by-step tying instructions. Please support publications like American Fly Fishing, one of the few remaining fly fishing magazines.
On the heels of Tuesday night’s red-hot wet fly action, I returned to the scene of the crime. We’d had a little rain Wednesday night, so the flow was up 100cfs to 550cfs, which is still a very average flow for the lower Farmington this time of year. I fished from 6:30pm-8:30pm. Despite a warm, sunny day, neither the caddis nor the Light Cahills came off in any numbers. Rather than being surrounded by trout eagerly taking emergers, I experienced a boil here, a boil there, but nothing steady and rhythmic. Whereas all I had to do on Tuesday night was drift my team over a fishy area or target an active riser, on Thursday I had to work hard just to reach a half dozen trout. Not that I mind that. It’s just fascinating to me how unknown factors can have such a dramatic impact on the day-to-day fishing. I also went for my first swim of the season. It’s not an awful time to experience the sensation of water spilling down your waders and soaking into your drawers, but it’s still mighty unpleasant. As I write this today, the lower Farmington has topped 1600 and is no doubt the color of chocolate milk. More rain is on the way. Reset. Pause. Then we’ll start again.
After my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) post the other day, I wanted to see for myself. So, following the advice of my rose bushes, I headed for the lower end of the Farmington River to fish the Light Cahill hatch.
The water has come down nicely — in fact, I’d call 445cfs just about right — and it’s still plenty cold. I started off at a favorite mark around 5:30pm, and worked my way down a series of snotty riffles and pockets. The action wasn’t quite what I expected, even though I stuck a half dozen trout. There just wasn’t nearly the hatch activity I’d expected, nor were there many fish feeding near the surface. I’d started out with a Squirrel and Ginger (sz 12) as top dropper, a Starling and Herl (sz 14) in the middle, and a Partridge and Light Cahill (sz 12) on point. After no hookups on the dark middle fly, I made two command decisions: replace the Starling and Herl with a Pale Watery Wingless (sz 12) and move to a new mark.
And those two choices made all the difference. I was in the water by 7pm, and for the next 90 minutes I took trout after trout. It was one of those I-have-no-idea-how-many-fish-I caught nights. What was most interesting to me was the difference a half mile makes. The new spot had more bugs and far more active feeders. The fish were mostly stocked rainbows (and a bonus big brook trout), but I did get a few wild browns in the mix, including a hefty 16″wild thing.
If you’ve taken a wet fly lesson with me, you’ve heard me say that when you hit it right, wet flies will make you look like a fly fishing wizard. I caught every riser I cast to, save for one. I caught them on all three flies. I caught them on the mended swing, the dead drift, the dangle, and the Leisenring Lift. Folks, I hit it right, and you can, too. Wet flies, people. Wet flies.
I guided Eric yesterday and we had a mix of sun and clouds and moderate, cold flows (380cfs in the Permanent TMA and 445cfs on the lower River). We fished two marks with mixed success. At the first, there was very little hatch activity and we observed no fish rising. One bump was the best we could do, so we decided to seek our pleasure elsewhere.
And that’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give you if you want, like Eric, to learn how to fish wet flies: if one spot isn’t producing, find one that is. And, once you get there, work the water. Cover as much of it as you can. Determine where you think the trout will be holding and feeding. We fished a three fly team of a Squirrel and Ginger on point, a dark soft-hackle of Eric’s creation in the middle, and a BHSHPT on point. All of our action came on the point fly. Eric did a great job of navigating some not-that-easy-to-wade water (sometimes it pays to get into those more difficult areas). While the second mark was not as productive as I’d hoped — the caddis hatch was disappointing, and there were no regular, active feeders — Eric managed to stick four nice trout.
Last week, while you were asleep — certainly some of you were, as the tide widows crept into the wee hours — I was banging around several marshes and estuaries looking for stripers feeding on grass shrimp. I found substantial numberqs of grass shrimp in every mark I visited, and varying numbers of bass. Grass shrimp are present year round, but they spawn when the water warms, and it’s getting to be that time of year. You can find grass shrimp swimming around if you shine your light in the shallows, but they mostly prefer to skulk along the bottom. They’re translucent creatures, so they’re not as easy to see as, say, a green crab. Their eyes reflect your headlamp beam, so that’s an easy way to spot them.
I almost always fish the grass shrimp swarm with a team of three. The patterns vary, and sometimes I’ll throw a clam worm like the Orange Ruthless into the mix, but last week I fished a deer-hair head on top dropper, a black General Practitioner on middle dropper, and Micro Gurgling Shrimp on point. I took fish on all three flies, although I was intrigued that I only caught bass on the black GP on the one night when I had bright moonlight. (The lessons are never-ending.) The fish weren’t very large — 20″ was the best I could manage — but I could tell from some of the feeding pops that there were bigger bass around.
The more you fish wet flies, the more you’re going to encounter situations where you want your team of three to behave in a very specific way. This can happen from day to day, location to location, and even from moment to moment within a single run. As always, ask yourself the question “What do I want the fly to do?” Let the answer be your guide.
Say you’re fishing a bead head pattern on point, and you notice an active riser above your position. The fish is taking emergers just below the surface. In this case, a sinking rig may not be to your advantage — you want to make it easier for the buyer to buy.
Mark contacted me over the winter about learning the ways of the wet fly. He booked two half day sessions, a brilliant move on his part, as we experienced a mixed bag of weather and catching on the first day, and then the Farmington River at its finest today. We fished both days from 11am-3pm. Water was 425cfs in the Permanent TMA, and 600cfs below it. The water is a little colder than usual, due to not only the weather but also the greater percentage influx of water from the dam. Caddis is king right now, and we saw good numbers both days, particularly today. Midges, too, and some tiny olives on Monday, par for the damp day course.
Monday 5/17: We started out with brilliant sunshine, then got poured on. Our first mark had the dreaded guide-catches-on-the-demo-cast (I’d rather the client do that), but we eventually connected with a couple fish, though none of them made it to the hoop. There was a decent amount of bug activity, but little in the way of consistent risers.
Thunder eventually drove us off the water. Rather than wait it out, we solved the problem by driving miles away from it. We finished up below the Permanent TMA, and this set the stage for Tuesday. We found some trout that were willing to eat, and even though the numbers were not what I expected, the day absolutely qualified as a good one. Mark was a solid caster, a dedicated student, and best of all, a strong wader. That meant we could get into some areas that many anglers would find a challenge to navigate.
…Tuesday 5/18, we would pick up at the same mark where we left off Monday. I wanted to see if the warmer air temps and sunshine would kickstart the hatches –and the trout — and that’s exactly what happened. Caddis, caddis, everywhere, size 12-14 — and then huge swarms of micro caddis. We didn’t fret about those, since the trout were more than eager to jump on the bigger flies. We took them on Squirrel and Gingers (top dropper), Starling and Herl (middle dropper), and generic bead head gray soft hackles on point. We took them on the dead drift, the mended swing, the dangle, and with upstream presentations. I lost track of how many trout, which is always a good day on the river. On Monday, I had kept telling Mark, “You’re doing everything right. You just need to find some cooperative trout.” I’ve made that speech to numerous clients, so it was gratifying to be there when the cooperative trout showed up. We played through the run, then walked 500 yards upstream where Mark — now a dangerous wet fly machine — connected with a spunky rainbow. Great job, Mark!
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.