Thank you Basil Woods Chapter of Trout Unlimited (and the Question of the Day)

A late but hearty and heartfelt thank you to the Basil Woods TU chapter from central New Hampshire for hosting me via Zoom last Thursday! I presented my original “The Little Things” to a very enthusiastic group. More and more fly fishing clubs and TU chapters are taking advantage of technologies like Zoom to hire guest speakers like me. If you’re outside reasonable driving distance, you can do the same. For more information on programs, visit my Presentation Menu page here.

Here’s a brief Q&A segment from post-show. Q: Do you arrive at the river rigged for streamers or do you start with emergers? A: It depends. Sometimes I make up my mind well in advance that I’m going to fish a specific method, consequences be damned. For example, there are days in the winter when I’ve decided that I’m going to fish streamers solely because I’m willing to risk catching one large trout — I hope — rather than a bunch of smaller ones. Or maybe I just don’t feel like nymphing. There are times in the spring and summer when I’ll plan to swing wets, and then, as the hatch moves out of the emerger stage, switch to dries. Other times I’ll get on a nymphing kick, and that’s how I’m going to fish — simply because that’s what I feel like doing. So, fish the method that pleases you most. And know that if you want to catch more fish, you’ll need to be fluid in your choice of methods as conditions and time of day/year dictate.

Happy angler syndrome occurs when you a) Fish the way you like; b) Fish the method that is most productive for the conditions; or c) ideally, both.

Kicking off the 2022 Fly Fishing Speaking Season

Happy Monday to all. It’s hard to believe that Labor Day Weekend is nearly upon us, but that’s a fact. I’ve got stripers on my brain, an itch I’m looking forward to scratching in the next few months…plus trout…and steelhead…and can we please get some meaningful rain?

Fall also means this road warrior will be out and about, hopefully at a club or event near you! My first gig will be next Tuesday, September 6, at the Long Island Flyrodders in Levitttown, NY. Despite what the website says, I go on at 7:30pm, with the group’s social festivities/casting lessons beginning at 6:30. Meetings are held at the Levittown VFW, 55 Hickory Lane. The group tells me that all are welcome. My subject is “Wet Flies 101” which is a gateway to wet flies, soft hackles, and how to fish them. You too, can become a skilled practitioner of this deadly art. Hope to see you there, and as always, please come say hello.

So simple, just like a trout’s brain. Wet flies like these soft hackles have been catching trout for hundreds of years, and the fish aren’t getting any smarter. Come learn more at “Wet Flies 101” next week at the LIFR meeting.

Amidst the heat, the August Blizzard arrives

The Hous is low (175cfs in Falls Village) and getting dangerously warm. I’ve recently taken readings over 80 degrees in the late afternoon; 78 degrees is the threshold where smallmouth begin to stress, so if you must fish, pre-dawn to a few hours after sunrise is best, with evening/night the second choice. You should carry a thermometer and use good judgement. (The bite stinks in full sun, anyway, so you’re not missing much.)

Overall, the fishing continues to be generally poor, with the bass in numbers so small (compared to, say, 2016) it’s hard to realize it’s the same river. The fish are scattered in isolated pockets, so if you do find a bronze crew, please don’t fish it (literally) to death. I’ve been doing best with low, slow presentations and smaller (about 2″) jig hook/bead head mini-streamers in rusty crayfish colors.

The white fly hatch has started and in some areas is already winding down. I have experienced two hatches this summer that were an easy 10 out of 10, with so many flies whizzing upstream that leaving the river without eating/breathing in/wearing them was next to impossible — and spinner falls so heavy it looked like the surface of the river was paved with spent white carcasses. Ironically, these mega hatches don’t offer the best fishing; there’s so much protein in the water that it’s hard to get your fly noticed.

For now, I’m giving the bass and the river a break. I encourage you to do likewise.

This is what I’m talking about. Madness!
I’ve found the August White, swung on a team of two, to be its usual wonderful self. I use it during the emergence and the spinner fall. One night I had to cut one fly off after my second double. Wet fly hook size 8-10, white hackle fibers for the tail, white silk or thread for the body, white hen cape soft hackle.

Farmington River Report 7/15/22: Low and slow, but plenty cold

I guided Mike and his son Deven yesterday from late morning to mid-afternoon. We had a gorgeous sunny summer day. Although flows are low — 90cfs from the dam plus 40 from the Still — the water was delightfully cold (I got 60 degrees mid-day at the upper end of the PTMA). That’s great news for both anglers and the fish. As always, I urge you to aware of water temps in low, summer flows. If you don’t have a stream thermometer, please get one.

We started off in the PTMA. Mike, who’s an intermediate level fly fisher, decided to tight line nymph. Deven, who’s just getting started, spent a little time with me working on his casting; I then rigged him up with a two-fly wet team and we had at it. The action was slow, but, yes, Deven stuck a trout in a swift little slot under some overhanging branches. Well done, young man! Meanwhile, Mike got into a fish downstream. The action was very slow, however, and we decided to move on. (Many thanks to the very courteous and chill anglers who so graciously shared water with us.)

Next stop was a riffle near the top of the PTMA. Sadly, goose eggs. On to a mark above the PTMA. Deven and I concentrated on swinging wets in some faster water, then on using an indicator in some slower, deeper water with a large drowned hopper and a nymph dropper. We blanked, but Mike, who was now dry fly fishing, stuck one more fish on a tiny caddis emerger before we called it a day. A pleasure, gentlemen, and you both did well under some very challenging conditions.

Thankfully, what’s coming out of the bottom of Hogback is cold and clear and very trout-friendly.

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.

Farmington River Report 6/1/22: A wet fly lesson, then spectacular wet and dry fly action

I guided Dan yesterday from noon-4pm. Dan has attended several of my wet fly tying classes and seminars, and now it was time to put those lessons into practice. We began in the Permanent TMA; there was no visible hatch activity, but we managed a swing and a miss before we connected with a gorgeous wild brown on the top dropper, a Squirrel and Ginger, in some faster water. (The current flow, 175cfs, is on the bottom end of ideal for wet flies. You’ve got a lot of fish looking up, but unless there is something going on subsurface, you’ll find your best action in the faster water, riffles, dump-ins, and pockets.) Next up was a mark below the PTMA that’s usually good for a fish or two. Sure enough, Dan scored a nicely colored brook trout on the point fly, a Hackled March Brown. We finished at another mark upstream, but couldn’t find any trout willing to jump on. It was kind of a funky afternoon, with a cold front coming through the night before, rain showers, and very little bug activity. So Dan did well with two in the hoop — great job, Dan! You’re on your way.

This gorgeous creature was Dan’s first Farmington River trout on a wet fly. There’s a certain sort of poetry in catching a brown that was never seen the inside of a hatchery tank or a stocking truck. What a jewel!

After our session, I decided to do a little experimenting. I was curious about the mark below the PTMA Dan and I hit earlier, so I started there with a team of three wet flies: Squirrel and Ginger on top, Partridge and Light Cahill middle, Hackled March Brown on point. This was about 4:30pm. It was slow. I managed a few bumps from smaller fish and two bigger brothers to net. When I left, creamy mayflies were just starting to show.

I headed a few miles downstream to walk a snotty run. It was just OK; I covered water, kept moving, and banged up a few fish. My wade brought me to an oddly-structured riffle that dumps into deeper water. It’s now about 5:30pm. Still no bugs in the air, but I began catching fish on wet flies in earnest. I wasn’t crazy good, but I was steadily connecting with fish with no bugs in the air and no visible risers. This is usually an indication that there is something good coming your way, namely a strong hatch. Now I could see creamy mayflies and sulphurs and an occasional March Brown. The surface began to simmer. I don’t often change flies on my wet fly team, but on a hunch I switched out the Hackled March Brown for a Pale Water Wingless, AKA The Magic Fly. The trout immediately demonstrated their approval.

My Pale Watery Wingless variant, upper left. It’s a wet. It’s a dry. It’s the Magic Fly. Fish it and you’ll see why.

I have no idea how many fish I landed before 7:15. (There’s a lull in these evening hatches, and it usually comes in the 7pm-7:30 time frame. It lasts about a half hour, and then the party resumes.) What intrigued me the most was that while I was fishing in a steady rain, the wet fly takes near the surface remained unaffected by the barrage of droplets. I doubt that if I was dry fly fishing I’d have had the same success.

Once you see duns being snapped off the surface, it’s time to switch to dry. So I did. The rain stopped, the hatch came back with a vengeance, and the feeding frenzy began building exponentially to its crescendo. I fished a mix of Usuals, the Magic Fly, and Catskills-style Light Cahills. All three produced multiple fish. Around 8:15 I tied into an obstreperous trout that immediately went on the reel. The way it peeled line and cartwheeled subsurface made me certain that I’d foul hooked it. Nope. It was just a pig of rainbow, powerful, spirited, and worthy of honorary steelhead status.

Fish were rising everywhere. I had two or three that were working less than a rod’s length away. There were so many bugs and so many feeders that it became a challenge to focus on a single area or trout. (I recommend you find an active feeder, observe its rhythm, and target that fish. If you go shotgun during an event like this, you can get lost in frantic shuffle.)

All good things must come to an end, and since it was long past the time when I could see my fly, I began the wade back. Of course, I fished along the way. Thwack! One more glutton nailed the Light Cahill. I lost the trout to a popped 5x tippet, no doubt compromised by a toothy mouth of gill plate.

This was the kind of night that you dream about during those dark winter days. You relish them because they don’t come along too often. I wish I were going back tonight, but duty calls on the home front. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go fishing tonight.

In fact, I think you should.

Farmington River Report 5/17 & 5/18/22: The curse of the cold front, then getting warmer

I can’t remember the last cold front that came through that was good for fishing. I can, however, remember plenty of times when it was bad. Like just a few days ago. Still, you take what nature gives you, and you do your best. That’s all anyone can ask. And maybe you still manage to have fun.

Tuesday May 17: I guided Herb today. Herb was dedicated to learning the ancient art of the wet fly — gotta love that — so we headed to a stretch of classic wet fly water. This was the morning after the cold front came through, and predictably, the action was slow. Hatch activity was virtually non-existent; we only saw one fish rise in four hours. It was a breezy, gusty day, and we got soaked by a couple of random rain squalls. We moved to a different location within the Permanent TMA. This was a difference maker as we had a couple bumps and then, hooray!, a hook set. Herb landed a lovely fat rainbow in a soft riffle, and there were smiles all around. Great job, Herb, for sticking with it, and I’m excited for you to swing wets under more favorable conditions.

Wednesday, May 18: Fred and Bud joined me for a late morning/early afternoon lesson within the Permanent TMA. Conditions were much better: still gusty, but sunny, warmer, and the water great height for wet flies (270cfs). Both anglers began with drop-shot nymphing, Fred tight line and Bud with an indicator (use the method in which you have the most confidence). Both of them caught fish. There came a point in the early afternoon when bugs started to pop, so we switched to wets. Because of the wind, I kept both anglers to a two-fly team. I think my favorite part of teaching these gentlemen was watching them improve as each hour passed, and doing it in the lovely stretch of water we had all to ourselves. Sometimes you get lucky. Kudos to Fred and Bud for fishing hard and well!

Why is this man smiling? A fat, well-fed trout, feeding right where we thought he’d be. My Hendrickson soft-hackle and Fred’s well-placed cast and mended swing did the trick.

Farmington River Report 5/5 and 5/6/22: Hot and then ice cold

“Every day is different.” That’s something my clients hear from me a lot. Thursday and Friday this week were the proof. I guided Jon and his grandson Jake; Jon’s an experienced fly angler, Jake not so much, but very eager to learn. It was exciting to have two generations of fly fishers on the water, and have the opportunity to teach them.

Thursday 5/5: warm, sunny conditions, and a reduced flow. Hot-diggety! As we arrived at the first mark, below the Permanent TMA, blocky caddis, size 12-14, filled the air. I liked our chances. Our first lesson was indicator nymphing with a drop shot rig. Jake did a great job figuring it out; in no time at all he was casting and making quality drifts.

Not bad, kid! A mid-teens wild brown Jake hooked while drop-shot indicator nymphing. Jake’s quote, pre-battle: “I think I’m stuck on a rock.” Nossir. You got a tank of a brown. Jake did a great job playing and landing the fish. We talked about proper release and photo techniques, in particular keeping the fish submerged until ready to shoot, then 1-2-3 lift, and shoot. Note the water dripping from Jake’s hands. This gorgeous fish took the top dropper, a Squirrel and Ginger size 12.

We moved upriver into the lower end of the permanent TMA for a wet fly lesson. The Hendrickson hatch was decent enough (5 out of 10) and both Jake and Jon connected with fish. I had them both rigged with a Squirrel and Ginger top dropper and a soft-hackled Hendrickson on point. I’d kept it a two fly rig on purpose, hoping to reduce the chance of tangling disasters; while I highly recommend a three fly team, two flies is certainly better than one. Both gentlemen caught fish on each fly. When the hatch matured and the trout wanted the dry, we switched over and had fun trying to fool them on the surface. The run was crowded, with seven anglers, but we all managed to share the water and keep it positive. Everyone got into trout on this glorious early May Day.

Friday 5/6: This is why I hate cold fronts. We carpet bombed the first mark with nymphs; not a touch. We moved to a second mark and tried wets; nothing doing. This was particularly frustrating because I know that particular run is infested with trout. But: the hatch activity stunk. No caddis. No Hendricksons. Over the course of four hours, a visible rising number I could count on a hand. We saw only one other angler hook a fish. Ugh. Jake and Jon deserved far better for their efforts, as both fished hard and well. All you can do on a day like this is make quality presentations and hope things turn. They didn’t for us, but we left the river with our heads held high. Great job, Jon and Jake, and you were a pleasure to guide.

Farmington River Report 4/27/22: I can’t wait for April to get here

Another unseasonably cold, windy afternoon on the river. I decided to check out the lower section below Collinsville, mostly out of Hendrickson curiosity. The water was higher than I’d like for wet fly (755cfs is still chugging; sub-500 would be best) but you don’t know if you don’t go. I began in a faster, snottier boulder-studded section; not surprisingly, it was a wet fly blank. I didn’t nymph it, which might have produced a different result.

Bug activity was, at first, minimal. Ubiquitous midges, then a mystery mayfly (see below), and then a few precious H-words. The mystery mayfly far outnumbered the Hendricksons, probably 10:1 or so. When the sun peeked out, the hatch ramped up. And when the clouds took over, the hatch stopped in its tracks. I managed a good half dozen trout on wets — this was in slower moving water — catching them blind and also by targeting active feeders. While few and far between, the active feeders all pounced on a well-placed wet fly. I fished the same team as Monday, a Squirrel and Ginger on top, followed by two tungsten beadhead Hendrickson soft hackles. I had an accident trying to land a trout by hand, and lost the middle dropper; when I re-tied, I exchanged the point fly for a tungsten SHBHPT.

I wasn’t satisfied with the surface activity, so I did a bit of nymphing. Normally I would use a traditional drop shot nymph rig, but this time I kept the three fly team and added a drop shot section to the point fly and one of my home-brew year indicators to the tapered butt. It worked just fine, and some of the takes were highly aggressive, almost bordering on frantic. After 2 1/2 hours, I’d had enough. I tried for one more trout on a swung wet, and, once successful, headed for the warmth of the car.

The mystery bug, about a size 14-16. Some kind of olive? Quill-something? Whatever it is, it far outnumbered Hendricksons. I don’t stress when I can’t ID a bug; if you try to match the general size, color, and profile with a wet fly or nymph, you’ll tend to do well. This is why it’s a smart idea to carry soft hackled Pheasant Tails in various sizes, beaded and unbeaded. That pattern looks like a lot of things in general, and almost always like something that’s alive and good to eat.