All who fish for trout with an artificial fly will agree, I am sure, that the really great fascination of the sport lies in the challenging problems of stream strategy. The strategist, in the ultimate, reckons not only with the habits and moods of the trout and the behavior of its insect food but also with the whole character of each stretch of stream: the speed of the currents, the depth of water, the variations in pools and riffles, the surface winds, the sunlight and shadow and an infinity of immobile stage props—trees, brush, rocks and logs.
The real reward of the observing and skillful angler lies in his ability to plan an attack that penetrates the natural defenses of the trout, tempts it to strike a fly and brings it through the obstacles to his net. The instruction in stream strategy offered in this second of three parts on The Art of Fishing with the Wet Fly is, like the first article in last week's issue, based largely on the lifetime accomplishments of the late James Leisenring, an angler who is still respected for his skill and strategy with the wet fly. Leisenring took more than a lucky share of trout because he understood the trout and its food, and also because he adjusted his various techniques to fit the character of the water. He knew where the trout were. Equally important, he selected a strategic position on the stream that enabled him both to present a fly temptingly to the fish and to play the fish with ease and convenience once it had been hooked.
The wet-fly fisherman explores both surface currents and those in the deep water below. Leisenring hooked trout at the surface, below it as his fly was descending and moving at various depths and also—perhaps better than any other angler—as the fly was rising to the surface. He used the tensions of the currents to activate the hackle fibers of a fly so that it seemed to move with the joie de vivre of the insects themselves. In brief, he presented a fly, as he put it, "naturally, so that the trout will enjoy and appreciate it." On the following pages you will learn fine points of Leisenring's strategy, tactic by tactic, as they apply to typical stream conditions. First, however, you should know something of the basic ecological features of the water as Leisenring understood them.
The currents of a stream, illustrated above (right) in the cutaway of a stretch of typical trout water, are food lanes, and trout are attracted to them by hunger. Other factors, such as the urge to protect themselves, may divert the trout but, in the main, fish are found where the food is. If Leisenring were fishing uncomplicated water, like that shown here, he would first cast into the relatively quiet water short of the main current. Such an area is not so likely to hold trout as the lane of secondary velocity farther out, where the broken surface water offers better concealment and where the trout can wait for food sweeping by in the main current. But the quiet water sometimes does yield trout; in any case, if the fly is cast there first, then advanced, cast by cast, into more promising areas, the trout, wherever it is, will see the fly before it sees the leader or the more disturbing ripples and shadows made by the line.
April 4, 1960
When the angler advances his fly beyond the main current, as above, he runs into a common, recurring problem: drag. Any fast current that drags on line or leader causes the fly to move unnaturally fast. Sometimes the simple expedient of holding the rod high so that the line enters the water beyond the main current solves the problem.
Often, however, when fishing beyond the main current, you must resort to a maneuver known as "mending" your cast. To mend your cast, you first release a little slack line through the guides. Then, by simply flicking your wrist, you impart a circling motion to the tip of your rod, which will throw a loop of the slack line upstream. With this extra slack on the water, your fly for a little time is undisturbed and unaffected by drag.
If the structure of streams were as simple as that we have shown on these pages, there would be little more you would need to know than the behavior of trout, their food and the effects of currents. But few streams are this simple, and on the following pages the finer points of strategy are covered as they apply to the true, complicated character of typical streams.
A Pool Full of Hidden Hazards
The stream situation shown in the drawing at the right presents a fairly common but always intriguing problem of strategy. The moment you approach the bank of the pool shown in the foreground you watch for trout feeding at the surface. If there is no surface activity, you can still presume trout are feeding beneath the surface, as they do most of the time on all streams. On a pool which looks as promising as this one, a wet fly fished deep could produce a fish almost anywhere. And here, as on many pools of medium size, you might cast from any of several positions. Your choice of position—indeed, your whole plan of attack—depends on what your ambitions are. Will you settle for any fish, or do you want a large one, perhaps the largest in the pool?
If you want a large trout, the place to present your fly is near the half-submerged rock on the far side of the main current. On the downstream side of this rock, decently concealed from predators by the broken water eddying around it, a trout can hover with ease on the edge of the food-laden current. Logic would indicate that the trout by the rock is a good one. The best trout are usually found in the best places.
You can cast to the rock from the bank in the foreground—but should you? If you reconnoiter along the bank, you will notice sunken logs crisscrossed out in the stream. Below these, the current smashes into driftwood piled against the bank and sweeps into the riffle below. A large trout played from the near bank could create crisis after crisis amidst these obstacles and be lost at the logs, the driftwood or in the fast water below.
If you can get to it, the small island just beyond the rock is a far better casting position. On the island you would not be casting across the main current. There would be no drag, and the shorter cast from this spot would enable you to present the fly more temptingly. Moreover, once you hooked a fish from the island, the pull of your rod would be away from the logs. The island, therefore, is your choice.
The fast riffle between the bank and the island is deep and impassable, but farther downstream you have access across broad shallows. As you wade to the island, you will note that both the shallows and the deep riffle seem free of obstacles—a clear path for both the trout and you to the big water below, where a large fish can be played, exhausted and netted.
Ready now on the island, standing well back, you cast upstream so that your fly sinks before it drifts back to the rock. You guide the fly past the side of the rock away from you, in the current that brings food to the trout. As the fly passes the rock, you raise your rod tip with a slow, gradual motion that causes the fly to rise naturally toward the surface. You pivot your body, following through with the lifting motion, until the fly reaches the surface six or eight feet past the rock. The trout may strike just below the rock or he may follow the fly on downstream to inspect it. Your lifting motion imparts a lifelike movement to the hackle fibers and forces a decision from the trout, since the fly is escaping in a way that the trout readily recognizes as the behavior of many hatching insects.
You may see a swirl or a flash of color near your fly at any time, but most often the fish will rush as the fly approaches the surface. If there is no strike, you let the fly float along a few feet more, imitating another characteristic of many insects.
When the trout strikes, set the hook—but not with a sharp jerk. A lift of the wrist will do it—at the instant you see the flash of color or swirl near the surface. If the fish you hook at the rock is big, it will be several minutes before you can attempt netting him safely. Since he is familiar with all the aspects of the pool, you can expect him to surge toward the logs, a haven where he has gained freedom often, probably, when less circumspect anglers hooked him from the wrong bank. If he heads for the logs, exert pressure on the rod, trying to steer him away. Should he get under them, he may sulk there only briefly and, hopefully, come out the way he went in. Your pressure should be firm but not excessive. Success with a big trout often depends on such small matters. But even if he does not get into the driftwood, the trout with his full strength can cause you trouble at any time by surfacing and rolling. During a surface roll, you relax rod pressure to avoid breaking the leader or tearing the hook out. If he turns toward the driftwood area of deep, fast water, encourage him to leave the pool by steering him firmly into the avenue of fast water leading downstream. Follow him down, rod held high to keep as much line as possible out of the water as he strips it and part of the backing from the reel. You still have to play him out, recover lost line and bring him to net, but at this point, with nothing save open, easy moving water between you and the fish, the strategic battle is won.
In this situation, you have avoided the old bugaboo, drag, presented your fly more temptingly to the trout and minimized the hazards of the stream. The big trout of the pool is your reward for planning the whole campaign well.
Tactics to Fit Quiet Water
As free of obstacles as a swimming pool, the long, deep flat in the drawing above presents few problems once a trout is hooked, but it is a good test of your tactical skills. Bright sunlight in this clear water exposes trout to their enemies so well that, unless a stiff breeze ruffles the surface, desirable fish are seldom active during the day. Early in the morning or in late afternoon, when dim light prevails, such water will yield trout. Small fish may venture up from the bottom or out from the banks for a fly at any time of day, but the larger trout seek cover under the bushes along the left bank or hide in the shadows or beneath the grass-covered, undercut bank on the right.
Jim Leisenring often hooked trout in such water regardless of breeze or time of day. His technique was used by the ancient Greeks and later by English anglers, who called it "dapping with a Flye." In dapping on this stream, your target is the trout concealed near the bank. On a bank where the trout is virtually underfoot, naturally you must step lightly to avoid vibrations. You stand as far back as possible to keep your shadow from the water. Then, using a fly which imitates such favorite trout food as the black ant, with a short line or only the leader hanging from the rod tip, you touch your fly gently to the grass at the bank edge and allow it to fall naturally from the grass to the water. Dapping is delicate, oftentimes blind fishing: the slightest movement of the leader is significant. Large trout often sip in the fly silently and splash only after they feel the hook.
Playing a fish here where there are no logs, rocks or fast water is largely a matter of keeping the fish away from roots and out of the pockets under the bank. After a fish is hooked, you improve your chances of netting the fish by stepping into the shallows near the bank. Although advanced, more sophisticated anglers may look down on dapping as "cheating," the fisherman who enjoys hooking, playing and netting trout will not ignore it.
When no insects are visible but you see fish rising under the bushes along the left bank, it is quite possible they are feeding on tiny midges. Tie on a small Black Gnat and use a tippet no larger than 4x. With a sidearm cast put your fly in under the bushes upstream from the spot where you have seen a fish rise. As your fly nears the fish, be ready to lift your rod tip on the slightest provocation. Your fly will be just beneath the surface—tiny flies do not sink well—and any slight sign near your fly should be interpreted as a striking fish.
On an overcast day good-sized fish may feed on flies hatching or drifting at various depths anywhere in this stretch of stream. Fishing a sunken fly representing the insects you see in the air is a reasonable tactic at such times. A long, fine leader and light line are important: finesse and delicacy in presenting your fly are a vital part of your strategy. On smooth, clear water a slight ripple is very noticeable, and heavy line and leader cast stark shadows on the bottom.
Tricks in Mixed Water
In water like that shown in the drawing below, Jim Leisenring often fished the wet fly first at the surface, a tactic that might bring a trout in a splashing surface rise such as dry-fly fishermen cherish. The fast main current sweeps past the outer side of the half-submerged boulder in the stream. Inshore from this boulder is inviting, productive water—a collecting area for insects flying against, or blown against, the rock bluff edging the stream. Logically, fish often lie in this relatively quiet backwater, waiting for such easy pickings.
Though most anglers believe wet flies should be tied on heavy hooks, Leisenring tied many patterns on light wire hooks so they would drop lightly to the surface, float for a few moments and respond more realistically to the changing forces of the water. May flies, sedge flies, stone flies and ants touch the water lightly and often float momentarily, until pulled down in a swirl of water. They move wherever the current may take them—into an eddy or backwater, down behind a boulder and up again. Many insects, caught temporarily in the current, are submerged only to rise to the surface again, float along low in the water and crawl back to safety on a limb or rock
In fishing a collecting area where insects drop, it is a smart trick to use a fly tied on a light wire hook, and barely touch it to the water on your first cast or two. On the piece of water in the drawing, you would try the very edge of the stream, along the base of the bluff. Touch the fly briefly and withdraw it. In this way Leisenring teased and excited trout. Then, after false-casting once or twice to dry the fly, he would permit it to float on the surface film for a few feet downstream over any eager trout that might be lying there.
The current on both sides of the half-submerged boulder in the drawing below is strong, and any trout there is probably holding close to the boulder. Here you can make the rock itself work for you. A fly cast upstream sweeps by too fast to have much effect. Since there may be trout feeding out in the fast water, one approach is to cast your fly upstream, and as it drifts down guide it toward the area below the boulder. Here, where there is less direct pull of the current, the churning water of the eddy will activate the hackles of the fly. Another approach is to cast your fly into the pocket of water below the boulder so that your leader falls across the rock. In this position the fly may float and move free of drag. This tactic is often useful with dry as well as wet flies.
In fast water so characteristic of a western stream a heavy wire hook is often good for sinking the fly to greater depths, where trout often feed. Bear this in mind the next time you visit a tackle store. For if you equip yourself with hooks of varying weights you will have both a light touch on the surface and also an effective lure in the depths.
Secrets of Success in a Big Pool
A trout stream may brawl through canyons and run fast and wide in shallows; but here or there, sooner or later, almost all streams slow down and for a moment lose their force in a large, deep pool. In these pools, such as the one in the foreground of the illustration at left, the normal food lanes all but disappear. The water is calm and looks easy to fish; but such pools hold challenges, testing the angler's casting skill and his knowledge both of fish behavior and of insect behavior above and below the surface.
Desirable trout often rest during the day in the deepest water, difficult to reach with the small flies which Leisenring preferred for this type of fishing. In such water the angler must fish far and fine, not only lengthening his casts to reach the more distant points but also using extra-long leaders, tapered to 4x or 5x and tied to nymphlike flies of the smallest sizes. To the casual fisherman these minute particles of feather and fur may appear laughable, but as an angler matures on the streams he comes to appreciate their value in winning trout.
At dawn and dusk, trout stream insects often become quite active. Hatching nymphs swim upward through the water, take wing, fly about to mate, then drop to the surface, where the females deposit their eggs. During a hatch at dusk, particularly, the surface of a pool is broken by the swirls of feeding fish. The novice assumes the trout are feeding on floating flies. Quite often he is right; this can be the dry-fly fisherman's finest hour. Equally as often, however, the angler may be mystified and frustrated: he sees trout swirling everywhere, yet his dry fly floats along untouched. Why? In this whirl of activity, when trout seem to be feeding on floating insects, they are often feasting on swimming nymphs just beneath the surface, an inch or so below the domain of the dry-fly fisherman. There in the dim light of dusk the trout are safe from all their enemies except the angler skilled in the use of the small wet fly.
Such an angler was Jim Leisenring, whose deadliest technique is the one he evolved to use with a wet fly close to the surface. Here, in fact virtually at the surface, at the crucial moment of the insect's metamorphosis into the mature fly, the essential drama between insect and trout takes place with greatest intensity. The heart of this drama is the sudden exposure to the trout's view of a hatching insect struggling upward naturally and about to escape. Leisenring, in fact, learned early in his career that this phenomenon of escaping, free-swimming insects, like the caddis pupa shown in the drawing at the lower left, was so exciting to trout that an imitation of the action could be used not only during a hatch in a pool, but almost any time of day, wherever an angler can maneuver a wet fly naturally. This favorite technique of Leisenring—called the "Leisenring Lift"—is executed by maneuvering line and fly in the water as shown in the drawing below.
Keys to stream strategy are the currents which bring food to the trout and also occasionally offer broken surface water to hide them from two of their main enemies, the osprey and the fisherman. By reading the currents and understanding their value to the trout, the angler knows where to present his fly. With experience, he also learns to take advantage of the curtain of broken surface water that hides the trout from him by using it to hide himself from the trout.
Main current as a rule carries the bulk of the food supply during the day, whether insects are hatching or not. Stray insects such as beetles, bees and ants that are blown into or drop to any part of the surface of the stream are usually drawn into the main current.
Secondary currents of lesser velocity at the sides of the main current are the areas generally preferred by trout, since the fish can hold its position in such areas with less effort. Hovering in the secondary current, the trout can swerve into the main current for insects going by or move into quieter water where, if it is deep, the trout may forage for nymphs or struggling insects. During the day trout usually shun the shallows, which offer little concealment from predators.
Next Week: Tying the Wet Fly
In next week's issue you will learn, step by step, how to combine feathers and fur to create the lifelike wet flies which Leisenring found effective in tempting and deceiving trout.