Farmington River Report 6/12/22: Frustratingly slow, then fantastically frantic

Every day is different. For proof, I offer yesterday. Yesterday was my worst wet fly fishing outing of 2022. If you had shown me the conditions, the mark, the number of actively feeding fish, the time of day, then offered a bet that would not catch a fish, I would have taken your money without another thought, Then, for over 90 minutes, I would have been frustrated to the point of incredulity. I would have eventually won the bet, as I managed one 11th hour trout, but the lack of wet fly hookups was a mystery that I pondered as I re-rigged for dry fly.

My best guess as to what was happening was that the fish were keyed on really small stuff — and they wanted the fly delivered on an absolute dead drift. Over the course of two hours, I had two bumps, both coming when I raised the rod tip to cast. This kind of reaction strike that doesn’t result in a hook set is clearly the result of a fish not committed to the take. I was fishing with Toby Lapinski, and he was working some slower water below me. Toby had a good dozen bumps on his team of three wets, but no hookups. Clearly, these trout were feeding on something other than what we were throwing, and how we were throwing it. Still, I’d expect at least a few accidents — trout being the small-brained-wired-to feed-opportunistic creatures that they are. The final piece to the puzzle that clued me in to the fact that they would only eat on the dead drift (rather than the mended swing or dangle) was that each of our wet fly trout came on an upstream dead-drift presentation.

A hefty mid-teens rainbow taken by Toby on one of my size 12 soft-hackled Hendricksons, which is a fair stand-in for an Isonychia. The late afternoon Iso hatch was pretty good — I’d give it a 7 out of 10 — and yet the trout were not keyed on that bug. That’s too bad, because if they were I have no doubt we would have caught far more trout on wets. We never heard any of the loud splashy takes that are so typical of trout feeding on Isos. The sulphur hatch was disappointing — that gets a 2 or 3 — but hatches progress and evolve and it up to you to crack the code. Which, as it turns out, I did once the pattern changed. (Photo by Toby Lapinski.)

I often talk about making adjustments to increase your fishing success. But sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to fail, and fail miserably, in order to figure things out. To wit: I kept fishing wets on mended swings and dangles to prove that the trout were keyed on small bugs on a dead drift. I was also fascinated by the prospect that they would not hit any of my wet flies (Squirrel and Ginger, Partridge and Light Cahill, Hackled March Brown) even when presented directly over their lie. It’s all more useful data for the fishing experience bank.

But I’d had enough experiments. By 7:20 I was in position and rigged for dry fly. I started with a size 20 because the rise forms were textbook smutting trout. Remember last week when I told you that I stuck fish on seven consecutive casts? On this night, I rose nine consecutive fish before I could rack up a hook set. By then, it was after 8pm and I’d made the command decision to go with a bigger fly. Our Lady of Blessed Magic Fly (size 16) don’t fail me now! And she didn’t.

Any misgivings I may have had about catching fish during this session were gleefully crushed by the last half-hour of dusk into darkness. Using a mix of Usuals, the Magic Fly, and Catskills Light Cahills, I took a good number of trout on the surface. We stayed until dark; my last two customers came when I could no longer see my fly. One was bucket method hook set, the other a sharp tug as the trout, Mykiss the Leaper, came tight to my reel. Toby was still casting to rising fish as he slowly made his way out of the pool in the indigo darkness.

The Farmington will do that to you.

Farmington River Report 6/5/22: Trophy rainbow on a soft-hackle, then even more spectacular dry fly action

It’s almost mid-boggling how a river can go from nothing to boiling in a matter of a couple hours. When I arrived at my mark below the PTMA around 5pm, there were a few haphazard sulphurs, but you’d have been stretching it if you called it a hatch. The surface was dimple-free. That was all good with me, because I knew what was coming. Or at least I thought I did.

There is a distinct meter to most sulphur hatches. This one, as sulphur hatches often do, began slowly. A sip here. A bulge there. Nothing really that would suggest the full-bore frenzy that was to come. I was standing on a gravel bar that drops off into some deeper water, and as the shadows stretched across the surface of the water the fish began to move into feeding lanes. I chose a group of two or three sporadic risers that were about 20 feet downstream. The ignored my mended swing, so I decide to try the Leisenring lift.

The Leisenring lift is one of the most misunderstood presentations in fly fishing. It’s also a challenge with a shorter rod (I was wielding my 7’9″ cane.) To do it correctly, you’ve got to effort the rise of the flies so that it coincides with the exact position of the trout. Even if you do it right, sometimes the fish just won’t have it. But on this day, I had a bump on my first cast. I made the same presentation and felt another bump.

The third time was the charm. The trout struck and set herself. When she rolled, she sounded large. Right away, I could tell this was going to be an adventure on a whippy cane rod.

To add to the challenge, I was also using an old click-and-pawl reel. But I had a good hook set and 4-pound Maxima on my side. You pressure the fish as much as you can, don’t let ’em breathe, and if the planets align the fish is in the hoop before you know it. Now, I could have used a bigger net for sure. My net opening is 17″ — she was well past that — and as you can see, baby got some back. And that pink band! This shot really doesn’t do the fish justice; she’s over 20″. Thanks to Joe for being my photographer. Taken on a Hackled March Brown, size 12.

Whew! I took a short breather and waited for my hands to stop shaking. When I got back into position, I could see that while the hatch was beginning to ramp up, I was in the wrong spot to fish it with wet flies. Most of the good, slashing-at-emergers activity was in the faster water above me, but that real estate was occupied. I didn’t dare move, especially since I knew this small area would be money once the feed turned to surface action. I had no doubt, though, that if I was in a position to fish the faster water, I would have done very well.

I did manage another cracking rainbow on a wet fly. This lovely trout, taped at 17″, gave me a spirited battle. On any other day, it could have been the fish of the evening.

The hatch intermission came around 7pm. I took the opportunity to re-rig for dry, warm up my legs, and light a victory cigar. (For those who will want to know, it was an EP Carrillo La Historia E-III.) By 7:30, I was back in position. I reckoned I had a good 75 minutes left to fish. If time does indeed fly, it does so with unmatched alacrity during the waning hour of a sulphur hatch. Depending on the mood of the fish, that hour can be an exercise in frustration and humility or a giddy delight. The fates chose option B for me. Trout rose to my dry flies (The Usual, The Magic Fly, Light Cahill Catskills style) seemingly at my command. During one fortuitous stretch, I stuck a trout on seven consecutive casts. I don’t usually count fish in volume, but I thought tonight that might it might be fun to do so. I was having so much fun, I forgot to keep track after a dozen. The overage was certainly impressive.

As is my SOP, I was the last angler off the water, long after it was practical to have a hope of seeing my fly in the darkness, even if it is a size 12 and white. The last two fish I landed inhaled the fly without any visual clue of the transaction; I knew I was on only after I felt a sharp tug-tug.

You’d think that a writer could come up with a better word for an ending. But sometimes simpler is better, even if it’s unimaginative (or dare I say lazy). So we’ll go all in.

Wow.

Thank you, Mid-Hudson Chapter of TU!

Many thanks to the members of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of TU for being my virtual hosts last night. The topic was one of my favorites, Wet Flies 101. We followed up with an excellent post-Zoom Q&A session. I was delighted to meet everyone, and I look forward to being able to do it person in the future! Hope to see some of you tonight for my Tuesday Night Currentseams Zoom, “Almost Anything Goes: Fly Fishing Q&A.”

The Hackled March Brown from one of Nemes’ books. Responsible for one of the biggest brown trout I’ve ever landed.
You can check out the fly-tying video here.

Tying wets (what else!) on a wet Friday

Much to do today, and in between projects and responsibilities I’m trying to make a dent in my 800 Followers contest winner swag. Here’s a Hackled March Brown in progress.

As you can see, my tying bench trends toward messy. There’s something mad scientist/struggling artist that I like about materials and tools scattered everywhere…

Farmington River Report 7/13/20: What hatch?

I guided Don yesterday for four hours mid-though-late afternoon. His goal was to work on wet fly fishing, and we had some great stretches of water to ourselves in and out of the Permanent TMA. Water was 225cfs, an excellent wet fly height, with a hint of stain, no doubt from storms upstream. Spot A produced two fish, a swing and a miss, and some finks that wouldn’t take. Spot B was a disappointing blank. Spot C held some players, and we had fun fooling them with the Hackled March Brown. While it was a very fishy feeling day, the hatches were terrible. I’m being generous by giving them a 1 on the 1-10 scale. Still, Don done good under some truly tough conditions. He’s going to be a dangerous wet fly machine.

Skunk’s off with this lovely rainbow. Check out that pink band! This fish was in great condition.

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Gotcha. I love these smaller wild Farmy browns. See you in a couple years, OK?

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Farmington River Report 6/17/20: a little wet, a little dry, a lot of fun

I guided Stephen Wednesday afternoon. We fished within the Permanent TMA from 2:15-6:15PM. Water was 280cfs and plenty cold. I wish we had a better hatch — there was no consistent hatching (and thus, no corresponding consistent feeding). Still, we managed to stick a bunch of fish. Best of all, we had the entire mark to ourselves, an increasing rarity on what has become a crowded destination river.

Check out the big wet fly brain on Stephen! This was not an easy fish to catch — it was haphazardly rising in some in-between water. We got nothing on our first three drifts. Surprise on the fourth! In my experience, if a trout doesn’t take the wet on the first pass, he’s less likely to take on the second, and even more so on the third. Thankfully, I don’t need to be right. Middle dropper was the selection, a Partridge and Light Cahill.

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We spent most of the session working on wets, in particular casting and presentation. Even though there was no sign of trout taking duns off the surface, we capped off the day with some dry fly fishing, again with the emphasis on casting and presentation. I also turned Stephen on to the The Usual (you’ve got a bunch a creamy colored ones from 16-20 in your box for sulphurs, right?). As you can see, the trout got turned on, too. Great job, Stephen!

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A hefty mid-teens Survivor Strain brown, taken on a Hackled March Brown wet.

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Hackled March Brown Tying Video

The Hackled March Brown is one of my favorite big fish wet flies. Long time readers may recall the first time I wrote about it — you can read that piece here. I don’t have much to add, other than this has become a supremely reliable pattern for me when the Isonychia are flying. (Next time you’re fishing sulphurs, and you hear a rise that sounds like someone threw a bowling ball into the river, betcha your lunch money it was a trout eating an Iso.) The Hackled March Brown is almost always my point fly on a three fly team. Fish it this summer and you’ll see why I recommend you tie it on a 2x strong hook.

 

The Hackled March Brown Spider

“March Brown” is a name you see attached to a lot of different wet fly patterns. Some of them are caddis; others, mayflies. This spider is intended to represent the latter. I discovered it on page 116 of Sylvester Nemes’ Two Centuries of Soft-Hackled Flies. It was originally published in 1936 in an English book, Trout Fishing From All Angles.

The Farmington River is not known for its March Browns; while we do experience that hatch, it’s not on the level of, say, Hendricksons or Sulphurs. But we do have a good showing of Isonychia, and I have taken to fishing the Hackled March Brown spider in the late summer to represent those substantial mayflies.

Last August, I was fishing a snotty run that was studded with boulders and pockets. There wasn’t much going on hatch-wise, and I had the Hackled March Brown spider as the point fly on my team of three wets. The hit was one of unrestrained violence and brutality, such that it ripped the line from my hands. The trout went immediately on the reel; I never saw it until I was able to coax it into the shallows. Over twenty inches long, it was my biggest trout of 2013.

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Hook: Wet fly, size 12
Silk: Orange Pearsall’s Gossamer
Tail: Grey partridge fibers
Body: Hareline Dubbin Rust (HD23)
Hackle: Brown partidge

 Tying notes: A straightforward, simple fly to tie. The original calls for a body of “hare’s ear dyed red ant colour.” I have settled on “rust,” and the trout seem OK with it. You could make the body a little buggier than I have here, but I like this fly with a thin profile. There are a multitude of brown feathers on a standard partridge skin; they’re located along the back of the bird.

The Hackled March Brown Rogues’ Gallery:

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