Best of 2020 #3: Hendrickson Wet Fly Mania

When I give a wet fly lesson, I always tell my clients this: “If you hit a hatch just right, you can have one of those days you’ll never forget.” And it so it was for me on a cool afternoon in April. Hendrickson season can be tough on the Farmington, especially if you’re looking for an unoccupied mark. But sometimes luck smiles upon you, and on this day it was so. The run I wanted to fish was on lockdown, but just as I arrived, an angler left, leaving a prime lie open. Armed with a three fly team of wets, I proceeded to wreak havoc upon the residents. This was one of those days where I quickly lost count of fish, but it was easily in the multiple dozens range. (Fresh fish + epic Hendrickson hatch + wet flies = stupid good.) I had doubles galore. I finally quit because it was so ridiculous for so long. Really. You can read about it here.

I had several evenings of spectacular wet fly action during the sulphur hatches of 2020, but nothing that equaled the craziness of this day of Hendrickson mania! If the water is 450cfs+, or if you want to sink your team a little more, try this tungsten bead head Dark Hendrickson soft hackle on point.

Thank you, the Anglers’ Club of Philadelphia!

This evening I presented to the Anglers’ Club of Philadelphia via Zoom. Although it was a cocktail hour (5:00pm start), I remained steadfastly professional with my tall glass of lime seltzer. The topic was “Wet Flies 101,” and I had as much fun presenting it for the umpteenth time as I did the first! As many of you know, I’m passionate about wet flies, and especially teaching others this ancient and traditional art.

The Leisenring Spider, an homage to the Pennsylvanian roots of American wet fly fishing. An oldie, and a goodie. If you’re looking for speakers for your next club Zoom meeting, wet flies or otherwise, here I am.

Tip of the Week: Fish the hot water

Hot’s got nothing to do with water temperature. Thankfully, the Farmington is running cool even thought they’ve dropped the level (currently about 170cfs in the Permanent TMA). No, I’m talking about the bubbling, boiling (figuratively), riffly whitewater sections of the Farmington. That water is is oxygenated and loaded with food. It’s also studded with small pockets and micro boulders — places trout like to hang out. If it’s at least a foot deep, it’s fair game, and you might be surprised to discover what’s living there. Swing wets, drift nymphs (no indicator), hopper/dropper — all of those are good choices for covering the hot water. Oh. And hold on. The chance of a big fish is always there.

This is what I’m talking about. The angler is one of my clients from a few years ago. On this day the water was far lower than it is today  — I think the flow was only double digits, and the riffle was barely a foot deep. Normally you’d shoot past it without another look. But on this day we banged up trout after trout. Note the method: tight line nymphing. Indicators aren’t necessary here because of the water depth; plus, you’ll feel the strike or see your sighter lag a bit. That’s when you set hard downstream. Please use the strongest tippet you can, and get those fish in fast.

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Farmington River Report 8/12/20: Howling back at the dog days

While it’s positively tropical across the rest of the state, the Farmington continues to offer respite. True, they’ve lowered the flow (165cfs within the Permanent TMA) but the water is plenty cold. This can be a tough time of year to fish: hatches are sporadic and sometimes light at best; and in flows this low the fish are concentrated in certain areas and can be downright spooky. Nonetheless, Dave wanted a wet fly lesson, and off we went.

At this height, the river is still quite agreeable to the wet fly. You’ve got water that’s deep enough to swing, enough water to create a good current, and as a bonus the fish are always looking up. Dave did a great job, and his enthusiasm was palpable. We fished three marks, and found players in one of them, a nice mix of brook trout and a jewel of a wild brown. All of our fish came in faster water/riffles. Dave is awarded the Currentseams Order of the Straight Line: he is my only student this year to make it through a wet fly session without a tangled leader! Well done, good sir, under some challenging conditions (we did not see another fish caught all day).

Guides love bent rods (although I must’ve got him between strips). Fish on, baby!

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This was a stocked brookie, but he’s been in the river long enough to regain some lost lustre and begin to grow some proper Fontinalis fins.

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Farmington River Report 8/5/20: the last second winning drive

I guided Abe yesterday from 2:45-6:45pm. Abe, who said he’d never done particularly well on the Farmington, wanted to focus on wet flies. For the longest time it looked like we’d picked the wrong day. The river was in fine shape, no worse for the wear after the storm. They lowered the flow out of the gate to 160cfs, but the Still was adding another 100 or so to make an ideal summer level, and the water was plenty cold. Getting there was an issue for me: closed roads in Bristol and Farmington turned a 50 minute drive into 90.

We hit four marks and found spotty action at best. Hatch activity was virtually nil, a 1 out of 10. I don’t need to tell you that that meant a paucity of active visible feeders. Nonetheless, we stuck a few fish in the first mark and had an LDR. The second mark was a bust, with only a couple courtesy taps. The third was even worse, without a single fine how-do-you-do? But the fourth…ah, the fourth. We broke out the wading staff and ventured into a snotty, pocketed, riffly run that always holds fish this time of year. I switched out the Hackled March Brown on point for a SHBHPT to give us a little more weight. Time was running out on our session. Whack! Mid-teens rainbow. Bang! Gorgeous wild brown. Bap! JV Atlantic salmon. Three fish in 15 minutes made for a very satisfying end to our session. Kudos to Abe for fishing hard, fishing well, and never giving up!

You’d be smiling, too, if you’d just landed a quality trout on a wet fly on such a slow day. Our quarry was camera shy. Thankfully, Abe isn’t. While angler traffic was light, we didn’t see anyone else hook up all day.

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Farmington River Report 7/29/20: “We can catch that fish.”

I guided Andrew yesterday and our focus was wet fly fishing, reading water, and finding productive water. We fished two marks into late afternoon/early evening, one within the Permanent TMA and the other above it. Conditions were as about as good as you could want for this time of year, with a healthy 270cfs flow and the water plenty cold. The first mark was frustrating as we found feeding fish, but not a high percentage of players. Like many beginning wet fly fishers, Andrew needed to learn to let the fish set the hook. In fairness, most of these trout were smaller, their feeding sporadic, and as I told Andrew, the bigger fish don’t miss when they commit to the wet fly.

The second mark was a snotty run loaded with boulders, pockets, and all kinds of rocks that wanted to trip you up if you’re not careful. But Andrew was game and we went exploring. Things began slowly, but then we started to see sulphurs, olives, and Isonychia, along with one giant yellow mayfly (Potomantis?) and a corresponding spike in feeding. We found a big rainbow carelessly slashing at emergers at the end of a pocket run, and I said to Andrew, “We can catch that fish.” And then, “Remember, don’t set the hook.” Second cast, bang! Off to the races.

You can see that smile all the way through the mask. Andrew and his prize, a mid-teens chunker rainbow. Not an easy fish to land in a ripping current, but the trout hooked itself neatly on a Hackled March Brown. (Note arms bent at a 90-degree angle. There’ll be no fish thrusting on this site!)

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The battle won, the fish kept wet in the net until a quick photo is taken, then the release. Always a  highly gratifying moment.

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We finished up in another long pocket run that was populated with trout feeding on sulphur emergers. They proved to be tougher customers, but we landed a few on the Partridge and Light Cahill and called it a day. Great job, Andrew! I took a break and then got in a little wet then dry fly session. Hatch and feeding was about a 5/10. But you get what you get and you don’t get upset, especially when you have and entire pool to yourself at dusk.

Tip of the Week: Find the moment you should switch from wets to dries

Late afternoon into early summer evenings can be a highly productive time to fish wet flies, especially if you have a strong hatch and active feeders. Of course, it’s a good idea to fish a team of three (give the trout a choice) and match the hatch (you can match multiple hatches with a team of three wets). If you hit it right, you’ll be the angler that everyone wants to quiz in the parking lot.

Wets will often out-fish dries during the early and mid-stages of a hatch. But there comes a time when you should stop fishing wets and switch to dries. Some of the cues are visual: you begin to see trout taking insects off the top of the water, or the rises leave a bubble (indicating the fish has broken the surface while eating). Others are self-evident: you’ve been pounding up fish on wets for an hour, the feed is still in full swing, but you’re no longer getting hits. Learn to find this moment in time consistently, and you’ll be on your way to catching more fish. Keep a dry fly leader in a handy pocket so you can make the switch even faster.

I have not been fishing Stewart’s Dun Spider nearly enough this summer. This soft hackle has sulphurs written all over it. Change the silk to a light olive for Attenuata? Hmmm…

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Farmington River Report 7/19/20: So many bugs!

From the moment I arrived at the river — about 6:00pm — till the moment I left — about 9:20pm — the water and air above was crackling with mayflies and midges. After enduring several recent outings marked by poor hatches, this was Mother Nature’s make-good outing. As a bonus, this was a working session, as I’d planned to shoot video for a new wet fly presentation I’m building. Conditions could not have been better. First it was sulphurs, size 16-18, then an influx of olives, size 18. Micro midges were everywhere. The fish were still feeding when I left the water.

This is a video still, so the quality is not great, but splashy rises like this were everywhere for the first 90 minutes. I enjoyed some spectacular wet fly action, swinging a team of three (Squirrel and Ginger, Partridge and Light Cahill, and Light Cahill winged wet). I took numerous fish on all three patterns, presenting upstream, downstream, and across. There came a time when the fish no longer took the subsurface fly, about 8pm. That’s when I switched to dries.

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Another video still. I can’t say that I can get too excited about domestic rainbow trout, but the Farmington rainbows this year are in a new class of fun. They’re fat, they’re feisty, they’ll bulldog you the entire fight, and many of them are taking on holdover characteristics like intact scales, deep coloration/pink bands, and well-formed fins. Corpulent mid-teens inches rainbows like this one are in faster water everywhere. Most of the browns I took came after 8:30pm.

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Tuesday Night Zoom! “Matching the Hatch with Wet Flies” May 5, 8pm

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Thanks to everyone for all the excellent Zoom topic suggestions. This one showed up (in various iterations) multiple times — and so by popular demand, you shall have it.

Wet Fly Questions Answered

I’ve been getting a lot of wet fly questions, and I thought I’d share my answers with the group. I’m excited that so many of you are interested in this ancient and traditional art. So here we go:

Q: What size and length rod are you using on the Farmington? A: My dedicated wet fly stick is a 10-foot 5-weight Hardy Marksman II. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it. It’s got a good backbone for helping manage bigger trout in snotty currents, but I wish it were a bit softer in the flex. What’s important is that it’s a 10-footer, which I find useful for mending. Note: I still take the 7’9″ Tonka Queen out for an occasional wet fly jaunt, albeit in moderate/slow currents. That cane pole is a dream for mending.

The Queen in action. This rod gives me an ultra-fine level of line control.

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Q: Do you use an indicator? A: My joke answer is “yes” — the splash of the take, the spray of water, and the jolt of the rod tip all indicate a strike. The real answer is no, not in the traditional sense. The vast majority of time, you need no visual aid to tell you the fish has taken the fly. An exception would be when you’re fishing upstream, drawing the line toward you as the rig moves downstream. I’m watching the tip of the line like a hawk for stalls, shudders, or stoppage that would indicate a delicate strike well below the surface.

Q: Do you use a floating line? A: Yes. (I’m a line control freak.)

Q: When you’re casting and mending, is it basically a dead drift, then the flies start swinging and rising? A: Kindof. Unless you introduce slack into the presentation, you’ll never really have a true dead drift. So even when I’m doing a quartering down or straight across cast and mend, the flies are moving downstream and across, albeit in a slower manner than they would with a traditional wet fly swing.

Q: You’ve said that in spring, you focus more on pool-type water, and faster water in the summer. I’m having trouble finding the right type and depth of water. Any advice? A: Generally speaking, the colder it is, the greater the chance that trout will be in deeper pool-type water. That doesn’t mean you won’t find trout in 1-foot deep riffles in December. The bottom line is: there is no substitute for experience on the water. Get out and explore. Keep a log. Where and when did you fish? Were you catching? Were others catching?  What was the weather like? What was the water height? You can see where this is going. And finally, a wee plug for myself: take a lesson. I hear this a lot from clients: “I’ve driven past this spot a hundred times and never thought to fish it.”

Q: I fished wet flies and only had one bump. What was I doing wrong? A: (This person was out on the Farmington this week.) You’ve got a lot of elements working against you. For starters, I don’t like to fish wets in the Permanent TMA in any flow over 500cfs (it’s been 750cfs and higher). 250cfs-400cfs is the wheelhouse. Hatch windows also have a lot to do with the wet fly bite. For example, right now (Hendrickson and caddis hatches) you want to be swinging anywhere from 11am to 3pm-ish. You’re trying to entice the trout that are taking the emergers. And this cold, wet weather isn’t helping, either.

When you hit the emergence just right, the results can be magical.

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Keep on swinging.