Farmington River Mini-Report 6/7/21: I think I’m done with that spot (for now)

I can be a massive creature of habit. But sometimes I like to return to a mark several times within a short period of time simply because I’m curious how things change, evolve, or otherwise go chaotic. I had a little over two hours Monday night, so I revisited an old favorite place on the Lower River. This is where I slayed them two weeks ago, and had a slow night last week. Monday was a repeat of last week: little-to-no hatch activity and even fewer fish rising. I got into a half dozen trout, including some lovely wild browns, but I had to work my butt off for them. I was most disappointed in the lack of a hatch. You’d think with a warm, sunny day, cool water, and not too much of it, you’d get a gangbusters sulphur emergence. Nope. So off to parts elsewhere, when I can, that is. Busy rest of the week. I would think that the vast majority of the Farmington above Collinsville is in its very late spring wet fly wheelhouse. Catch ’em up!

No, I have not forgotten about you. Your time is coming.

Farmington River Report 6/2/21: Hard wet fly times

I guided Larry yesterday and we fished from 2pm-6pm within the Permanent TMA. The river was a very manageable 500cfs, with good water clarity. Angler traffic was light, so we had our pick of pools. Unfortunately, hatch activity — and especially feeding activity near the surface — was also light, and we struggled to find fish that were willing to jump on. We fished three different marks and managed only one hookup. So I had to give Larry the speech that I hate to give. It goes something like this: “You’re not doing anything wrong. Those are fish-worthy drifts. If you do these same things on another day, you will be a wet-fly fishing catching machine.” Kudos to Larry for sticking with it and maintaining a positive attitude! I’m looking forward to getting that email from him where he tells me he hit it right and it all came together. It’s going to happen.

After our session, I ventured upriver to inspect the evening rise. It was a slow wet fly experience there as well (that should make you feel better, Larry!) as I could only manage one trout from 6:30-7:30pm. Hatch activity was solid, with midges, small caddis, and sulphurs, but again the surface activity was not where I would have liked it to be. I switched to dry flies at 7:30 and fooled fish on a mix of Magic Flies, Usuals, and Light Cahill Catskills dries. My two best fish came very late in the game during the spinner fall, both on the Light Cahill, both chunky mid-teens wild browns. A fine finish to a challenging day.

There comes a point in the battle where I wonder, “Is this one of those fat stocked rainbows, or a big wild brown?” No disrespect to the rainbows, but I am highly pleased when the answer is the second choice. Here’s the last fish of the evening. I saw him sipping spinners in some frog water along the opposite shore. Both of these last two browns were hefty, spirited, and refused to come quietly to net. You know you’ve got a decent fish when it sounds and heads for the deepest part of the run. See you soon, fellas.

Farmington River Report 5/27/21: Mother Nature hits the reset button

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.

I took a mix of stocked rainbows and wild browns. My first fish came in some pocket water along the bank. Squirrel and Ginger was the winning fly. Parr marks, halos, a never-say-die fighting ethos — man, I love these wild jewels!

Farmington River Report 5/25/21: Spectacular wet fly action

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.

Lousy picture, nice fish. 16″ of wild Farmington brown taken on a size 12 Magic Fly on a dead drift. He was slashing at emergers at the wrinkled head of a pocket run. It took be a short while to figure out what I’d hooked — it was either one of those fat stocker rainbows or a chunky wild brown. I was glad it was Option B. This guy bulldogged and battled and generally behaved very poorly. I love him for that.

To bead head on point or not? A simple rule-of-thumb for a three-fly wet fly team

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.

If you want to sink your rig, then a bead head on point is good choice. Of course, the size of the bead, the material (brass or tungsten), the speed of the current, your leader length, and your mending skills will all factor into how much depth you can achieve. I’ll use red thread at the head to help me identify the tungsten beads in my fly box should I choose to go heavy. I like to keep the heaviest fly on point; I find it easier to cast, and as the heaviest member of the team it will want to pull the entire rig down.

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.

To keep the team of three near the surface, I’ll switch out a bead head point fly for a soft hackle. If I’m making an upstream presentation to a fish that’s feeding just below the surface, I want the flies on my team likewise just below the surface. Of course, match the hatch if you can. We did this yesterday with a trout that was feeding on caddis in some slower, shallower water. Off came the bead head point fly, on went the unweighted caddis, and a few well-placed casts later, bingo! Fish on.

Farmington River Report 5/17 & 5/18/21: Caddis, Cold Water & Red Hot Wet Fly Action

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.

We had our first taste of success at Spot #2 with a gorgeous little wild brown. I never get tired of these jewels, or the way they attack a wet fly with primal fury.

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.

This is how we do it. One of the biggest challenges a new wet fly fisher faces is how to let the trout do the hook-setting work. After dropping a few fish Monday, Mark began to figure it out. By the time we finished up on Tuesday, he was sticking every trout. Awesome job, Mark! I spent Monday night ruminating where we should fish Tuesday, and decided that on…

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!

Mark’s best fish of the trip was this mid-teens wild brown that we witnessed repeatedly slashing at caddis in a feeding lane. Or, as Mark said: See the fish. Present to the fish. Catch the fish. He did just that, and his instructor couldn’t have been prouder. A Squirrel and Ginger did the trick.

Farmington River Report 5/4/21: North, Miss Teschmacher

I guided Andrew and Brett yesterday and they wanted to focus on wet flies. Monday’s rain was more than I expected, and I didn’t like the height or the color of the Permanent TMA. So we headed north to the friendly confines of WBATSR (West Branch Above The Still River. I just made that up.) This was a good call as the water was running a crystal clear and very wadeable 200cfs. I really liked that height, and I thought there were dozens, if not hundreds of pockets and seams and slots and riffles that would hold trout. Sadly, the trout didn’t get the memo, and we had a very slow day. (We didn’t see any angler other than our group hook and land a fish.) It was the kind of day where I find the next great piece of water, and think to myself, “this is going to be it,” and then nothing happens. These episodes make me throw up my hands and say, “I quit.” Of course, I don’t really mean it, and of course we don’t quit, but I get frustrated just like everyone else.

Andrew had fished with me before, and on that day we had far more active fish than today. Brett is a relative newcomer to fly fishing, and once we smoothed out a few wrinkles he was swinging like a pro. I alternated between both anglers, and we worked downstream, covering several hundred yards of water. Bug activity was very light, with two confirmed Hendricksons and a handful of BWOs, but that was it. As you can imagine, angler traffic was heavy, especially with that section of river the only clear water game in town. With today’s rain and increased flows, I would guess that streamers and nymphing will be, by far, the most productive methods for a few days.

Andrew doing battle with a chunky rainbow. He scored two trout, both on the bead head soft hackle I had tied on in the point position. In my experience, wet fly can be challenging in high flows, so I’d wait for the water to get down to 500 or less before swinging. Great job, Brett and Andrew, for persevering though some tough fishing conditions!

The best soft hackles and wet flies for fishing the Hendrickson hatch

“What are the best soft hackles (or wet flies) for fishing the Hendrickson hatch?” is one of those questions I get a lot this time of year. As always, the best flies are the ones in which you have the most confidence. I should also make this clarification: technically, with Hendricksons you’re fishing wet flies under the hatch. On the Farmington River, prime time for swinging Hendrickson wets is generally in the 11 am-to-3 pm window. Every day is different. Once you see duns on the water, and trout snapping at them, the wet fly game is all but over. But if you want to catch more trout, you should be swinging wets in this pre-hatch time frame. (Of course, you’re fishing a team of three wets. Here’s how to build a wet fly leader.) And so, in no particular order, these are some of my favorite Hendrickson wet fly and soft-hackled patterns.

Bead Head Soft-Hackled Dark Hendrickson
Dark Hendrickson winged wet
Hendrickson Spiders. Size 12, wet or dry fly hook, gray or rusty brown thread, tail material of your choice, a dusting of muskrat fur or dubbing, then brown partridge or dark dun hen hackle.
Bead Head Soft-Hackled Pheasant Tail
Old Blue Dun
Squirrel and Ginger. Yeah, I know. Not a Hendrickson pattern. But on the Farmington, we often get a strong caddis hatch around Hendrickson time. If you place this as your top dropper, you’ll be covered if the trout are selectively feeding on the caddis.

Farmington River Report 4/27/21: trading numbers for size

Monday’s Hendrickson hatch in the lower end of the Permanent TMA was a solid 8 out of 10. (The pre-hatch bite was slow, and the duration of the duns-on-the-surface feeding frenzy was brief, otherwise I would have graded it higher.) So I headed back yesterday to see what secrets the river would reveal. Crowds continue to be a factor; if you’re looking for solitude within the Permanent TMA, you will be disappointed. I chatted up my new buddies from yesterday, Andy and Bob, who were likewise back for more, and when some water opened up — people do leave — I jumped on it. Conditions were as nice as you could hope for, with a clear flow of 275cfs and hazy sun and far less wind than Monday.

The section I fished was perfect wet fly water: moving at a brisk pace, mottled, multiple current seams. Wet fly continues to be a highly productive method for fishing under the Hendrickson hatch, especially when it appears as though nothing is going on. While many other anglers are lounging on the river bank, or standing mid-stream like statues, I am working the water with a team of three wet flies. Wet fly anglers will always discover that something is afoot subsurface before dry fly anglers, and that was proved again yesterday. Around 1pm, I had an intense flurry of activity for 15 minutes, including hits on four consecutive casts. Then the action slowed.

This 16″ Survivor Strain brown crushed my BH Hendrickson soft-hackle on the mended swing. In heavier current, trout will set the hook if you let them; you feel the hit, wait, and ask “Are you still there?” The answer will always be yes.

Then, just like that, it was over. I added a shot above my middle dropper to see if I could tight line nymph up some trout, but they weren’t having it. (This is something I teach my clients: when you walk into a pool, you simply don’t know what’s been happening. The trout may have had the feed bags on for the previous hour, and now they’re simply just done.) So I got out of the river to warm up a bit. With the pool rested and my legs a little less frozen, I waded back in around 2pm.

Since I was hoping to find the fish that were already looking up, I switched out the bead head on point for a fly I’d never fished before. It was the Old Blue Dun, one of Leisenring’s favorite twelve. I’d always thought it would make a fine Hendrickson, and since to this point I’d seen more olives in the air than Hendricksons, it seemed like a proper why not? moment. It was a good decision, as a rugby ball-shaped survivor strain brown hammered the fly on the dangle.

With superabundance of meat on his flanks, this 16″ Survivor Strain brown gave me a challenging battle in the swift, cool waters of the Farmington River.

On Monday, the Hendrickson duns were on the surface thick by 3pm. That was not the case yesterday; we probably had about two-thirds less mayflies. Still, I brought several trout to net on Hendrickson Usuals and Comparaduns, two patterns I like in choppy water as they provide a good profile when viewed from below. I had to be off the water by 3:30, so reluctantly, I pulled myself away from pleasure and headed off toward responsibility.

Farmington River Mini-Report 4/21/21: First wet fly fish of the year

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.

It always feels good to land the first wet fly trout of the year, even if it is a stocker rainbow. This one treated me to two aerials. The last two were fatter, and took a bit of forceful coaxing to come to net. I didn’t see any Hendricksons or caddis, but then again I only fished until 1:30pm. My wet fly box desperately needs a restocking!