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.
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!
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?
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.
Don took a wet fly lesson with me in July, and while the bugs and trout weren’t very cooperative, we still had enough action to make things interesting. I always tell my students that if they keep on with this wet fly thing, good things will follow. Don has been in touch since then, asking questions, practicing and tying, and most importantly, spending time with a team of three on the water. That’s how you become a better wet fly angler.
In my report from that day, I stated that if Don learned wet flies, he would become a dangerous fish-catching machine. Although conditions have been challenging in the last couple months, Don has kept at it. Last week he scored this gorgeous brown on a Squirrel and Ginger. I think it’s a Survivor Strain broodstock — that looks like a left-eye elastomer and clipped adipose. Way to go, Don!
“Do you always fish three wet flies at the same time?” I get this question a lot. “Almost always” is the answer. The “almost” comes from days like today when I had to remove the middle dropper because I was catching multiple trout on every cast.
I certainly didn’t expect it to be that kind of day.
Wind was an issue. Cold was another. The Hendrickson hatch I experienced was nothing extraordinary — I’d give it a four out of ten. But I hadn’t done a session dedicated to wets this year, and the start of the Hendrickson hatch seemed as good a time as any.
Spot A below the permanent TMA was a blank. Off to Spot B inside the permanent TMA, which was fully occupied. (If you haven’t been to river yet, you may be shocked by the number of anglers. Church Pool was as close to looking like the Riverton Opening Day Fishing Derby as I’ve ever seen it.) But then, as luck would have it, one of the anglers decided to leave, and I took his place in the lineup. Thank you, generous stranger, because I discovered a pod of ravenous trout that showed themselves the moment the hatch began.
Today’s lunch, fresh from a captured brown’s mouth.
So, for two hours, I bailed trout. The tally was surely in the multiple dozens. I know I had close to ten doubles, even after I took one fly out of the mix. Business was about 10% on the Squirrel and Ginger and the rest on the Dark Hendrickson Winged Wet, which, if you don’t tie, you should. (You can thank me later.)
Having so many active feeders was certainly a plus, but the guy above me was nymphing and I didn’t see him hook up. Ditto the guy below me, who, after I waved him up and he changed to wets, began catching in earnest. I’d say most of my fish came from placing my team over the positions of active feeders. The trout did the rest.
This is great time of year to be swinging wet flies. Hit a prolific hatch (like the Hendrickson) just right, and you’ll be giggling in your waders, too.
I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful. But it’s so true. And it’s played out multiple times in my last two trout outings. “The Wrong Fly Presented Correctly…” strategy is part of my new presentation, The Little Things 3.0, and I wanted to share it with you so you can catch more fish on your next trip.
Situation A: I’m fishing a snotty dump-in at the head of long pool with several feet of depth. I see small (size 16) caddis and tiny BWOs and what looks like a smaller (size 16) sulphur in the air, and a few swirls of rising trout. Problem: I’ve only got my streamer pack with me; the only wet flies I have are big size 10 white fly soft hackles from a summer smallie trip — not even close to what’s hatching. Nonetheless, I rigged up a makeshift wet fly team of two on 8-lb fluoro. Not ideal on a number of fronts — the fly is way too big, it’s the wrong color, the leader system is clunky at best. And yet, I was making it easy for the buyer to buy — and sometimes that’s all you need to do to make a sale.
This handsome brown proves that it’s rarely a bad idea to feed the fish something that looks alive and good to eat (even if it’s the wrong size and color and species) — as long as you feed it to them the same way they’re taking their food.
Situation B: Long, languid water, hardly classic wet fly structure or speed. You’d think dry fly all the way on this mark. The trout are smutting on tiny BWOs, producing gentle rise rings, the kind you see with midges or Tricos or — tiny BWOs. I’ve been fishing streamers, so I’ve got an 8-weight WF line — a really bad choice for this kind of water. I do have some smaller BWO wet fly patterns this time, and so two of them go on the team of three. But I like to give the fish a choice, just in case. So I tied on a size 12 Squirrel and Ginger top dropper. This fly is 10 sizes larger than what the trout are feeding on. But I’m fishing in the film, using a mended swing and dead drift to bring the team of flies to hungry mouths, just like the naturals. You can see where this is going…
Bingo! Wrong fly, right presentation, big brown. Go forth and do likewise. Oh, yes — the same rule holds true for stripers.
I guided Rand and his son Sam yesterday and the break in the heat didn’t seem to do the fishing — make that catching — any favors. We pounded two confidence-is-high runs with nymphs for three hours and only managed to stick one trout. Bug activity was virtually nil. Then we switched to wets and found only one more fish willing to jump on. We didn’t see another trout caught in four hours on the water. Kudos to Rand and Sam for persevering through a tough bite window. Multiple hookups and tight lines for both of you to come!
Rand swinging his wets over some holding water.
Like father, like son. A pleasure, gentlemen!
I had a 20 minute window on the way home so I jumped into some snotty pocket water about 1-2 feet deep to swing wets. Here, the trout were open for business, and I managed three wild stunners, one on each of the flies, a size 12 Squirrel and Ginger top dropper, a size 14 Drowned Ant, and a size 12 Gray Hackle. So maybe that kind of water and method was the key to yesterday, although it was not an appropriate run for inexperienced waders.
The first wild brown came on the S&G.
My wife says the halos are gold. I’d say the entire fish is worthy of such lucre. Last brown, taken on the Gray Hackle.