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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Tricks of the Trade: Catch the Hatch on High Country Still Waters

As though an apology from nature, the best still water fishing of the year in Colorado coincides with the worst fishing of the year in our rivers. As our rivers flow high and dirty our high country reservoirs and lakes begin to experience insect hatches dreams are made of and, consequently, the fly angler is blessed with some of the best fishing of the year. Many fly fishing enthusiasts shun still water angling. But they are, effectively, choosing to miss out on some very good fishing. I often hear that fishing still water is too much like fishing with a bobber and bait. I get that. I don’t much enjoy hanging a scud or egg pattern off of an indicator and waiting for, no, hoping for, a trout to randomly swim by and eat one of my offerings. During a hatch, whether that hatch occurs in moving water or still, trout are anything but random feeders. Trout in still water actively seek out the hatching insects. At its best, the action during a strong still water hatch is fast and furious, requiring intense concentration so as to not end up with more “takes” than “hook-ups.” Still water fish are often surprisingly strong. I have seen many a skeptical client get “knuckle-busted” trying to stop the run of a powerful, 20” Spinney Mountain rainbow. When the hatch is over, and the action has slowed to a bobber and bait crawl, either go shopping or head to the nearest tailwater—which is often just below the reservoir you are fishing!

Here are the insect hatches you can expect to encounter while fishing still water in Colorado, and the hatches you should target: the Giant Chironomid (Midge) hatch, the Damselfly hatch, and the Callibaetis hatch. When any one of these hatches occurs it is time for you to get to the water! Luckily, these hatches are easily imitated by the fly angler. Any good fly shop (including ours) will have patterns that effectively imitate these insects. Let’s talk about tactics we can use to entice the trout in our reservoirs to eat our flies.

Trying to catch a hatch on a still water is usually a mid morning (8am-9am) to early afternoon (1pm-2pm) affair. It is during this time of the day that most of the insects hatch in our lakes and reservoirs. Maybe more importantly, this is also the typical window for the best weather. Being blown off the water by an early afternoon storm is common; probably more common than leaving a reservoir because the hatch didn’t materialize or because the fishing was poor.

Be prepared to spend most of your day fishing under the water. Although you will see fish feeding on the surface, and you may be able to catch a few of them, you will catch more fish if you stay with an underwater approach. That said, I often have a second rod rigged with a dry fly just in case I can’t resist the urge to throw at a sipping trout. As an aside, you can of course fish any flies you want when fishing in still water, including Wooly Buggers, but most often “matching the hatch” tactics will provide the best action.

Use as many flies as the local regulations permit. In Colorado, the use of 3 flies is the standard legal limit. Set-up your rig like you are going to nymph fish a river; only be prepared to go longer between your indicator and your first fly. You may not need to fish deeper than 3-6 feet, but you may have to go as deep as 12-15 feet. Access the water clarity. Fluorocarbon tippet may be necessary.

A typical, initial set-up for still water is the same as for nymph fishing a river except that extra depth is often required when fishing still water. The standard, initial set-up depth of a still water rig is 9 feet. 9 feet is a good “starting out” or “searching” depth ( A depth of 9 feet is achieved by making the distance between your first fly and your indicator equal 9 feet). It helps to start with a larger (beaded and/or weighted) fly as your first fly. It will attract a trout’s attention and encourage any other non-weighted flies to “get down” to the depth specified by the distance between your indicator and your first fly. Avoid adding pinch-on weights as they tend to fall off while casting. If you don’t notice a weight is gone, you may end up losing your bet with your fishing buddy and have to buy the beer, or worse. The next two flies should be more realistic imitations of what is hatching, or what you expect to hatch soon. The next two flies can be attached simply by tying a piece of tippet from the bend of the first (weighted attractor) fly to the eye of the second fly. Repeat the process to tie on the third fly.  

Often, the first fly is a weighted Damselfly nymph, the second fly is a large midge larva (Black, Zebra, Red or Olive), and the third fly is a nymph of the Callibaetis persuasion; all purchased or tied hastily the night before on some fly shop’s website recommendation. Be prepared to cut those first flies off and experiment with what is working that day. If the hatch is on, and you aren’t hooking up, try different depths before changing flies. Don’t over-look shallow set-ups—especially if you spot fish sipping or cruising just below the surface. Many times during a hatch a shorter set-up will provide amazing results.

Everyday on the water is different but, in general, successful still water angling involves finding the right flies for the day, the right depth, and keeping the movement of those flies to a minimum. Slow Down! Insects do swim in the water but their movements, while perhaps “twitchy,” don’t cover a lot of ground. I can’t remember the last time I saw a moving angler catch more fish than a stationary angler. An anchored boat, whatever the design, will keep you in the fish longer and encourage a slower presentation. If you aren’t hooking up from your anchored position, but believe you are in a good “spot,” move in 30 foot increments until you start hooking up.. There is rarely only one hot spot. But there may be the “hottest” spot! If someone else has the “hottest” spot, tip your hat to them and hope their boat springs a leak. Maybe also mark that spot on your GPS for next time.

Many times the breeze on the water, or the slight chop on the water, is all the movement needed to fool a trout into munching your offering. When experiencing a dead calm when fishing a still water location, it is often very effective to twitch your set-up or to slowly retrieve it. Be sure to pause during your retrieve, especially if you aren’t getting any strikes, as the real deal doesn’t constantly swim without resting! Sometimes you have to experiment with techniques to find what works best for any given day. On occasion, a quick retrieve of the flies is required to entice a strike. But, more often than not, slow is the way to go!

Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Antero Reservoir, and Delaney Buttes Lakes are all excellent choices for a day out on the flat water. They have good populations of trout and experience reliable hatches of Midges, Damselflies, and Callibaetis. So stay in touch with what insect is hatching on which still water and go fishing. Don’t let run-off get you down. We are entering one of the best times of the year to fish in Colorado………..as long as you are cool with fishing still water.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fishing Streamers Like a Pro

Some days it seems like you can do no wrong throwing streamers. You are seeing trout on almost every cast, hooking more fish than you can count, and landing almost more than you can remember.  You wonder why you ever bother fishing with nymphs or dry flies. On these days, you are a streamer shaman. But what might you do on those days when you feel more like a streamer charlatan? What follows is a combination of insights into trout behavior and suggestions regarding streamer techniques and equipment. Even though we will be talking about fishing streamers to trout in a moving body of water, much of our discussion applies to fishing for trout in still waters as well.
Why does a trout eat a streamer anyway? The answer to that question could be a thesis for a PHD-dissertation paper. That said, a trout generally eats a streamer because of either its prey drive or protective instinct. It either eats your streamer as food (e.g. leech, sculpin, trout fry) or as a way to protect against an intruder (e.g. a threat to a trout’s lie, an egg stealer, a food or spawning competitor). We can generalize that streamer fisherman are appealing more to a trout’s protective instincts during  spawning season and appealing more to a trout’s prey drive throughout the rest of the year. On days when the trout are extremely predatory or protective, you can have a magical streamer experience. On these days, almost any presentation of your streamer gets the job done. But on those less than stellar streamer days, presentation may be the key to triggering a trout’s prey/protective drive. A trout is used to a certain behaviors from baitfish: baitfish flee if approached, baitfish keep their distance from trout, and baitfish rarely approach trout from behind or swim directly towards a trout. So as streamer anglers, we want to mimic the behavior of the trout’s prey.
Most days you need to convince the trout that your streamer is food. Throw your streamer across, or slightly down and across, to the river’s flow. This will allow the streamer to be presented to the trout in a way that is “expected” by the trout. The streamer will neither sneak up on a fish from behind nor will your offering swim directly towards a bewildered trout. In addition, since trout are almost always faced into a river’s current, an across the current presentation helps insure that the trout will be looking at your streamer broadside. A broadside presentation is both very realistic in nature and the large profile provided by the broadside presentation gives the angler a greater chance that the streamer will be seen by a willing trout. We also want a fleeing presentation: a streamer tossed to the bank that lies motionless, even for a few seconds, doesn’t imitate fleeing prey. It doesn’t trigger a strike. So try to start your retrieve as soon as it hits the water. A cast that fully extends and doesn’t collapse is essential if you want to start moving that streamer as soon as it hits the water. Even if you want to let the streamer sink some, a bit of a twitch as it sinks may be enough to trigger a strike.

Streamer selection is very important. We all have our favorite streamer. It is hard to cut off your favorite streamer to try another one. Why not throw 2 steamers? Just tie about an 18” piece of heavy tippet (at least 10 pound but up to 20 pound) from the bend of your favorite streamer to the eye of the one you want to use in your experiment. Try varying your experimental choices by: length, overall shape or “bushiness,” and color. Many guides favor trailing a smaller streamer behind a larger one. Conversely, many guides want the smaller streamer in front of the bigger streamer so as to simulate a larger predator chasing its prey. Try using both the realistic looking streamers as well as the impressionistic ones. Trout are also notorious for striking short which results in poor hook-ups. Fly selection is important here as well. Try using an articulated streamer with two hooks. The second hook should be hidden in the “tail” area of the streamer for it to be effective. Or try adding a “stinger” hook to your single hook streamer. In addition, short strikes are sometimes not “short” at all but, rather, a product of lifting your rod on the hook-set. In this case, the short strike is actually a miss on the angler’s part. When fishing streamers for trout think saltwater technique; keep your rod low and set the strike with a strip-strike instead of lifting your rod. Another remedy for short strikes is to try leaving your streamer in place after a short strike. The trout will often treat your streamer as a stunned baitfish and come back seconds later to “finish the job.” Executing these two tips alone will greatly increase your hook-ups!
Are you fishing deep enough? Pros know that the depth of the fly in the water, and this is true with both nymphs and streamers, can make a huge difference in the level of success on any given fishing day. Many days, all that is needed to be a successful streamer fisherman is using a streamer that is “close enough” in size and color to trigger a strike. Some days the trout seem to be “looking up”; they seem to prefer a streamer that rides high in the water. But on those days when you aren’t having much luck “chucking and ducking” with your floating line, think about using something that will get your fly deeper. Often, throwing two weighted streamers will be enough to get your fly deeper. You can also add split shot. But both of these remedies can get tricky to cast. A better option is to use some variation of a sinking fly line. Rio’s “VersiLeader” converts a floating fly line into a relatively inexpensive sink tip line. The “VersiLeader” comes in 2 lengths and several different sink rates. It attaches via a loop to loop connection to the end of your floating fly line giving you a sink tip that can be easily removed for indicator or dry fly fishing. Of course, there are a host of streamer tip lines, sink tip lines, and full sink lines available to the streamer angler. Choosing the perfect sinking line for the conditions is a matter of experimentation. However, just getting your streamer deeper “somehow” is usually enough to improve your cast to strike ratio.
Are you a “one trick pony” when it comes to your streamer fishing? We are all creatures of habit; same flies, same river, same spots on the river, same time of day, same retrieve, same clothes, same beer, same cigar. You get the idea. Pros don’t always know what to do when the fishing slows down but they know that they better try something different if they want to catch fish. Sometimes that something different is simply switch tactics altogether. Maybe they try dragging nymphs under an indicator or throwing dries tight to the bank. But if you are committed to using streamers in spite of experiencing poor results try to think outside your box. Try changing up your game. Do you always fish streamers regardless of the light conditions that day? Many pros feel that fishing streamers is more productive in low light conditions. If you always fish streamers in high, direct sunlight perhaps it is your timing rather than your technique that is at fault. Try different retrieves:  Long pause, short pause, long strips, short strips, long and short strips linked together, let your streamer swing. If you are only fishing only the 15 feet nearest the bank try staying with your retrieve longer; perhaps even continue the retrieve until it is at your feet. Conversely, if you are retrieving to your feet, but getting the majority of your strikes near the bank, perhaps you should focus on just the “fishiest” water near the bank. If you are getting strikes but few hook-ups, try leaving your streamer in place like a stunned baitfish. Perhaps the trout will come back to “finish the job.” Try covering more water. Since you are having a tough streamer day already, you need to concede that, on this day, the trout’s prey/protect instincts are not in high gear. Therefore, you should cover more ground in order to show your offering to more fish. When the streamer fishing is slow, don’t spend more than 5 minutes in water that you have covered already. Also, try fishing water that hasn’t been very productive in the past. Most likely, the reason you have “never caught fish there” is that you have never really fished there; you gave up too easily in favor of your “go to spots.” This is one of the huge advantages a boat angler has over the wade angler. A boat angler can easily float miles of water and present a streamer to thousands of fish. A float angler will throw a streamer almost anywhere because float anglers will fish the water that is right in front of them without regard to whether they caught fish there in the past.  A boat angler can easily float miles of water in a day and present a streamer to thousands of fish. A wade angler would do well to cover a mile or two in the same time. A boat also enables an angler to consistently present their streamer in the desirable “across the current” manner. Try fishing streamers early or late in the day. We all know that the biggest brown trout are low light feeders. Get out there. Even if you don’t catch a monster trout you’ll experience little fishing pressure and probably better than average fishing success.
I want to leave you with the best piece of advice my father received during his fishing life. Once, while visiting a famous fishing lure company, he came face to face with the owner, and master fisherman, of the company. “Finally”, my father thought, “I am going to know what to do when the fishing gets tough.” My father didn’t beat around the bush. He blurted out, “Any of these lures you sell catch all kinds of fish when the fishing is good. What do you do when the fishing is slow?” The master didn’t miss a beat, “When the fishing is slow, I go home.” So go fishing. But don’t forget to bring some different beer and different cigars.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thermometers: Not Just For Skipping School

Yeah, we all did it. Just put that old mercury next to a light bulb for a second or two and, yep, you were sick enough to watch TV all day and feed that fever (or is it starve a fever?) until you really were sick. But now we are older and more mature (well, some of us). We don’t need to play with thermometers anymore. Or do we?

This past summer, we recommended our customers carry thermometers to determine when a high water temperature was causing too much stress on a hooked/caught fish; that temperature is somewhere around 65 degrees and a water temperature above 68 degrees is definitely too high to successfully practice catch and release. But there are other reasons to pack a thermo. For example, a thermometer will help you determine when a specific insect hatch might occur. So here goes with a basic, and admittedly “local,” tutorial on the relationship between water temperature and insect hatches.

As a river warms from its winter lows in the mid-30’s to its summer highs in the upper 60’s there is a general, and consistent, sequence of hatches that occur in our rivers year after year. For simplicity, let’s consider the Central Rocky Mountain Rivers near and around our fly shop in Silverthorne, Colorado. So we are talking about such rivers as:  the Blue River, the Frying Pan River, the Colorado River, the South Platte, the Arkansas River and the Roaring Fork River. The annual January through December hatch sequence goes something like this: Midges, Blue Winged Olives (Baetis), Caddis, Salmon Flies, Golden Stones, Green Drakes, Yellow Sallies, Pale Morning Duns, Tricos, and back to Blue Winged Olives and to Midges. The corresponding temperature sequence goes something like this:

Midges: almost any water temperature above 32 degrees.  But at around 42 degrees expect to see the first significant, consistent hatch of the year.  Midges hatch year round and are very often a trout’s primary food source.

Blue Winged Olives (Mayflies of the Genus Baetis): These babies like to hatch when the water temperatures are in the 46-54 degree range. You will see them in both spring and fall as the water warms from the winter’s frigid months and as the water temperatures come down from the summer’s heat. Overcast, drizzly conditions are also famous for triggering  significant BWO appearances.

Caddis: Caddis will hatch spring through fall. The magic water temperature to see the first significant emergence for the year is right around 56 degrees. Very often the strongest Caddis hatches occur on very sunny days.

Salmon Flies (Pteronarcys californica): Perhaps the most anticipated, yet most difficult to anticipate, hatch of the year. This giant insect likes a sustained water temperature in the middle 50’s. However, the time of year plays a significant role in the Salmon Fly emergence. In Colorado, the Salmon Fly usually hatches in late May to early June. Further, it does not live in all Colorado rivers. And if this isn’t already confusing enough, the Salmon Fly hatch generally needs to occur during run-off. So getting a water temperature of 57 degrees in April—it could happen, maybe---before run-off starts typically won’t trigger a Salmon Fly emergence. 
Golden Stone Flies (including Yellow Sallies):  The bigger Golden Stones usually follow shortly on the heels of the Salmon Fly. And the Yellow Sallies begin to be seen shortly after, or in conjunction with, the larger Golden Stones. The Sallies will hatch through much of the summer and long after the larger Golden Stones disappear.

Green Drakes: Green Drakes are also notoriously difficult to time. 58 degrees is about the temperature you should begin looking for them on the water. However, on some rivers, Green Drakes are infamous for only hatching at specific times of day. For example, on the Roaring Fork River, they favor the late evening into the darkness of night. On the Upper Arkansas, Green Drakes seem to like to hatch around 11 am.  While on the Blue River, a Green Drake hatch could occur at almost any time of day (or night) in late July into early September.

Pale Morning Duns (PMD’s): PMD’s usually like to see daily water temperatures peak out at near 60 degrees before gracing us with their presence. Though these bugs can hatch into the late summer, especially on tailwaters, PMD’s are usually thought of as the July bug. In July, it is not uncommon to see Yellow Sallies in the morning and PMD’s in the afternoon; or even both simultaneously!

Tricos: Another insect that, in Colorado at least, depends on time of year as well as water temperature to hatch. The Trico hatch is a late season affair on many of our rivers. I don’t have an exact temperature in mind but it seems that the overnight low water temperature needs to be about 55 degrees to trigger a Trico hatch (Tricos hatch in the early morning hours and the spinner fall generally occurs mid to late morning).

BWO’s:  Look for the water temperature to return to the mid-50’s as the water temps begin dropping with the shorter, cooler days of fall. BWO’s should continue to hatch until the daily high water temperatures fail to reach the mid-40’s.

Midges: So as it began, so shall it end. Midges will hatch year round but it is in the fall they again become very important to the fly fisherman. Midges will often hatch in good numbers along with the fall BWO’s. But eventually the water will cool down enough that the BWO hatch stops and they are longer a significant food source for the trout.  Midge patterns will be then be your go to flies.

We want to leave you with a few final thoughts. First, when talking about water temperatures in relation to a specific insect, We are referring to the river’s maximum water temperature for the day. Second, this is by no means a comprehensive list of insect hatches in Colorado. There are lots of hatches I didn’t cover. We are only trying to give you an outline of the important relationship between water temperature and insect hatches. Third, with the exception of Midges and BWO’s, once a river “runs through” a water temperature it also “runs through” the insects that hatch at that water temperature. For example, if a river’s maximum temperature goes from 62 degrees back into the middle 50’s, you wouldn’t expect a previous hatch to resume; you wouldn’t expect to see Green Drakes, Salmon Flies or large Golden Stones to hatch again. In most cases, once a hatch is over, it is over until next the year. The primary exceptions to this are the Midges and the BWO’s: As summer slides into fall and winter, the BWO’s will make a fall appearance as the water temperatures again fall into the low 50’s. Likewise, when the fall water temperatures fail to reach the high 40’s, thereby also failing to trigger a BWO hatch,  the Midge will once again become the dominant insect for your day of fishing. This will last until the water becomes too cold for even the mighty Midge to hatch with any consistency. This generally occurs when the river temperatures don’t rise above 38 degrees. Even so, they still gotta eat sometime……so get out there!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mitch Melichar

“There’s no such thing as a defective hopper pattern for a dry-dropper set up. If it continues sink it means your nymph is being eaten."

Mitch Melichar

“They gotta eat sometime."

Chris Hall

“Fish won’t move anymore for your flies than the hole will move for your golf ball. Hit the spots!”

Equipment Maintenance: Saltwater Trips

Trout anglers are relatively spoiled when it comes to equipment maintenance. With minimal effort, freshwater fisherman can keep their gear performing at a high level. The same is not true for saltwater anglers. This extremely corrosive environment with quickly ruin even the priciest equipment.

Besides using basic freshwater maintenance steps, you need to thoroughly rinse all of your gear after each trip. An easy way to ensure that you remove all of the salt is to take your gear into the shower with you.

An outdoor wash station is another useful option for cleaning and rinsing gear. Now you can splash water everywhere and no one will care.

At the end of destination trip, you should take apart all of your gear and clean it a mild soap. Be sure to clean your sunglasses, pliers, boga grip, and flies. Air dry your gear before storing.