Smaller and quieter can be better

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I’ve noticed a theme among new and once-in-a-while fly fishers: they worry that trout can’t find their fly. It’s a logical concern—there’s typically a lot of water out there per fish. But as it turns out, it’s often an unreasonable concern—trout’s lives are simple and they do the few things they do (avoid predators, mate, and find food) exceedingly well.

Yes, parts of a river or lake hold few trout while other parts may hold an abundance of them. If you don’t know which parts are which, you’ll need to bone up on reading water. But if you are fishing in the promising parts of water known to hold good numbers of trout, odds are those trout are seeing your fly.

So while fly fishers who don’t know this are retrieving their flies ever more wildly and tying on ever larger flies in an effort to get them noticed, the answer may be to cut down or even eliminate action imparted to the fly and to go small.

Of course, fishing isn’t a science. Or, if it is a science, it’s a very loose sort of science in play with a lot of other elements. At its heart, fishing is really a blend of knowledge, detective work, experimentation, experience, and sheer luck. Because fishing is such a roulette wheel, a big, lunging fly may produce best even where it’s generally considered inappropriate to the point of heresy—as on such hallowed spring creeks as Pennsylvania’s Letort Spring Run and Idaho’s Silver Creek, where exact presentation of miniscule flies is not only standard practice, but revered tradition.

Therefore, if a size 2 Woolly Bugger darting madly can work, why not always rely on it, along with other massive trout flies and frantic retrieves? Answer: because they can also fail.

Imagine that you’re standing in the shallows and the trout are showing well out at the surface of the river, feeding in gentle rhythms. Do you twitch a Clouser Minnow past their noses? Maybe. Do you send a big Chernobyl Ant out there, a fly you and the trout can’t miss? Perhaps. But you’ll probably do better by watching the water closely, seeing what insect appears—mayfly, caddisfly, midge, something else?—seeing how that insect moves or doesn’t move, and then picking out a fly that matches its looks and size and making that fly behave as the natural behaves.

Particularly during a hatch, a group emergence of a particular insect, trout tend to lock in on that insect at a certain stage and refuse all else. It’s a glorious time for the fly fisher who loves the challenge of getting the fly and its presentation right, but a frustrating time when he or she can’t. On average, it’s a useless time for big, busy flies. Many of the waters that are famous for the fussiness of their trout—the Firehole River in Yellowstone Park and Big Spring in Pennsylvania, for example (both of which I’ve fished, and yes, they were tough)—make their devotees fill their fly boxes with dozens of modest imitations, all the way down to size 24. Why? Because these flies work there. Rising trout usually respond to flies that match the insects that are hatching out in open water.

Some challenging trout rivers are all about tiny flies—Colorado’s South Fork of the Platte, New Mexico’s San Juan. Size 26 flies won’t impress the old hands on those waters.

So succeeding during a hatch is normally about paying attention to small or modestly sized insects and flies. Going smaller than the prevailing insect may also be a good strategy. An old rule is: Put on a fly that matches the hatch and, if it fails, go down one size. If that doesn’t work, go down another size. This strategy often works well with persnickety trout. Going up one size rarely pays off in my experience; for some reason, fussy trout tend to prefer smaller flies over larger ones during hatches. Now that you know this, what will you do the next time a rising fish drifts off its position to let your size 14 Parachute Adams drift by untouched? (I hope your answer will include something about tying on a size 16 Parachute Adams.) In “Smaller and Quieter Can be Better, Part II, we’ll explore how little nymphs and dry flies can be the answer for trout when no insects are hatching.

Skip Morris is a name fly fishers know well—he’s published 13 books on fly fishing and fly tying over the past 23 years (including Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, Western River Hatches, Trout Flies for Rivers, and Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes) along with over 200 magazine articles on these topics. He’s also played host on a national fly-fishing television show and several DVDs.

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