BWO Mayfly

Technical Dry Fly Fishing

. . . . .to fish fine and far off is the first and principal rule for trout angling

                                                                           Charles Cotton  1676

Fishermen were not always so adept at distance casting . . . . they were great skulkers and sneakers.

                                                                           M.R. Montgomery  (from Hooked by Raye Carrington)

Before we go all tech, lets get some basics under our belt. There’s no question that being further away will spook fewer trout. In direct contrast, the longer a cast, the less accuracy and control we have. The art of dry fly angling is finding the happy medium between not spooking the fish, yet having the control and accuracy to place our fly where we need it in a lifelike manner. This comes from practice. You’re going to surprise a few fish as you learn how to get close. We’ve gotten very adept at judging trout size by the V-wake it makes scooting to safety! Like all dry fly fishing, this is the first conundrum to solve. How far is fine, how close is accurate!

You’ve found a pod of fish, 25 strong, and they’re rising! Yay. It’s Ticos and you recognize that! Yay! Yay! And you knot on your favorite Trico and chuck it out there! Boo! Boo! Chuck it and chance it RARELY gets it done! Spend a minute, watch the rise forms. Check out the path the naturals are taking to get a feel for the currents. PICK A FISH. CAST TO THAT FISH. Focus on what you’re doing, and make the first cast count. Chuck and chance has the potential to spook a lot of fish, and put down the pod. Pick a fish on the edge of the pod, and pick that one off first. Then fish your way into the interior of the pod. Think before the excitement takes you.

One more thought on pods of fish. After you’ve been fishing a pod for a bit, you’re going to figure out the fish are pretty focused on one hatch stage. Good on you if you’ve figured it out! But if you haven’t, paying attention to the rise forms will be most important. Look for new entrants into the pod- a rise where there wasn’t one 30 seconds ago. Cast to that fish immediately. That fish has just arrived, and hasn’t had time to get focused on anything too specific. You have a good chance of taking the newcomer before it gets too wrapped up in what all the other fish are focused on.

You’ve made a bunch of casts that you thought were good, but nothing’s taken your fly. The casts weren’t as good as you thought- that’s what the trout have told you! Move your feet. Find a different place to stand. Change your angle and delivery. There is NO SUCH THING as a little drag when it comes to fishing, and even if you can’t see it, the fish can. It’s called micro drag, and it’s a killer. Changing your position will change the drift. Maybe it’s better. If it’s not, move again until you find the place where you can get a drag free drift. You are not a tree- you have feet. Use them!

Sometimes you find yourself in a position where you need a long cast, maybe even 50’. Often there’s some breeze, or other detriments to casting. It’s tough to power out a long cast and have the fly land with slack line. George Harvey designed a leader for this very situation. To build a good replica of this leader, start with a 7.5’ 2X leader. Knot on about 2-3’ of 3X tippet, and then add 3’ of 5X tippet (Adjust tippet and midsection sizes to suit your fly size). What this provides is an energy sink in the middle of your leader. So no matter how much energy you put into your cast to straighten the line, the leader will NOT transfer that energy to the tippet. So your fly, even at a distance, will land with some slack in the tippet, providing a drag free drift at the end of a long cast. You may have to fiddle with tippet and midsection lengths- it’s worth it to get it right and get the drag-free drift.

Where you stand in relation to the fish makes a lot of difference in your presentation. If you’re standing directly below a rising fish, you will be dealing with much less current on your line. It’s easier to control the drag from that position, but easier to line the fish. As you move to a position 90 degrees from the fish, you have greatly lessened the chance of lining the fish, but added so many additional currents you have to fight and adjust to for that drag free drift. Find your happy spot, where you can get to your chosen fish with a minimum of drag without lining the fish, and go from there. Every time you move your feet, you change the effects of the current on your fly. Watch your fly very carefully to see if it’s dragging. If the fish aren’t eating it, it’s probably dragging!

The crafty dry fly angler will sometimes move above the fish, and go for the downstream delivery. This has it’s own set of problems, not least that you’re so much more in the line of sight. The big advantage is the fly gets to the fish before the leader, providing a more lifelike presentation. It also gives you first shot at the fish at the top of the pod, which is often the largest. Again, drag control is paramount. Cast just above your targeted fish, and “check” (stop it somewhat suddenly, above the surface) the cast so it lands with some slack. Allow the fly to float over your intended fish. If it eats, classic angling has you say, “God Save The Queen” before striking. This allows the fly to enter the fishes mouth before striking, and lets the hook actually hook something! When fishing from below or the side, the hook is dragged through the mouth, and hooks as it goes by. From above, the fly will just slide out if you strike too quickly.

If you’re having trouble with upstream presentation accuracy, use the Montana mend. This drives Easterners crazy, but it really works. Cast the fly about 8’ beyond the fish, and then swing your rod upstream, pointed at the horizon or slightly above. When the fly is in line to float in the path you want, quickly lower the rod tip. You may need to add a mend as well.  If the fish doesn’t eat, patience is the name of the game. If you rip the fly off the water to cast again, you stand a good chance of spooking a lot of fish. Let the cast drift out of the pod, as you control the swing with your rod tip. When it’s clear of the risers, then gently, gently start the process again.

You make all these adjustments because you don’t just need a drag free drift, you need an accurate drag free drift. Trout have established feeding lanes, and they’re not going to leave them to provide you with a bit of sport. The feeding lanes will vary by the size of the bug. The green drake, with it’s massive mayfly size, is worth ranging a bit left or right to eat, as the caloric return is worth the extra expenditure of energy. But if you’re fishing tricos, a trout’s feeding lane may be 4” wide. You need to get your fly in the lane before the fish will eat it. With no drag. So accuracy counts. Which is why it often pays to be a great skulker and sneaker!

Drag-free drift. So easy to write, so difficult to achieve! We all talk about mending, but for the wading angler, mending can be difficult. Moving the line on the water near feeding fish can create panic, and ruin the fishing. Knowing the casts that can provide an aerial mend (a mend created in the air prior to the line hitting the water) can be invaluable in dry fly presentation. While many casts exist to provide that, we find you really only need two for 90% of your dry fly situations. The reach cast, which can be done to the left or the right, will place the line on the water either above or below its normal landing spot, providing a mend before the cast has landed. This will take some practice, as you’re working with more line, and the physical reach definitely affects your accuracy.

The other cast we use a lot is the steeple, or puddle cast. Stretch out more line than you need, and throw your cast high above the fish. The cast will straighten, and then fall in a heap above the fish. Yes, wind will really affect how this cast lands. Make too much slack, and the fish might eat and you won’t be able to set the hook. But at least the fish ate, and that’s a start! It’s all about the drift!

We’re saying that again, it’s all about the drift. From the moment you see the first fish rise, you’re on top of your game. Choose your fish, and move your feet to get the correct drift. Move again if it’s not working. Vary your presentation, and use the different casts to get a longer and better drift. Adjust your leader as needed, again to give the fly a drag free drift. Yes, it’s good to read this stuff, and have the intellectual knowledge to hit the stream. Knowing some solutions will really help when the angling gets tricky.

However, there’s nothing like being on water, and  actually practicing these things to make you better. There will be some bumps in the road, no doubt. Which are made much more aggravating, as it looks like every rising fish is giving your fly the fin as it floats (drags!) by. That can scramble your brain! Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, when the fish are ignoring your offerings while rising right next door, it pays to take five. Step back to the bank, or turn so you can’t see the action. Reassess, and pretend it’s happening to your buddy. What would you tell them to do? Chances are the same advice will work for you, if you just take the time to think it through.  Chuck it and Chance it? That’s for the other schlubs. You’re about to start making the smart moves to make you a better dry fly angler.

Trico Spinner Fly Fishing

The Lowdown on Cripples, Duns, Spinners and Emergers

So much gets written about matching the mayfly hatch. And rightfully so, because when the hatch is at its most intense, the fish are the most focused. They can concentrate on one very particular phase of the hatch, or in one spot on the water column, and if you’re not there, well the trout aren’t going to change their feeding to make you happy!

Trout have an IQ of 4. We use this to set up this example of how a trout feeds during a hatch. Imagine a person with an IQ of 4, standing in front of a conveyor belt, which is bringing things by. Apples, cherries, tomatoes, strawberries, red seedless grapes, raspberries and radishes.  All similar, but different. And all of a sudden, many cherries are coming past and the person at the conveyor belt eats one. It’s good, and they eat again. Imagine the focus needed with a 4 IQ to concentrate on finding cherries. It takes all they’ve got. They lock in, and everything else is out of the picture.

That’s a trout in a feeding lane. They’re on a fly, concentrating for their lives, and nothing is going to break that intensity. As anglers, we might put on a tomato- hey it’s close! But it’s NOT a cherry. It goes by. Same with a raspberry, or cranberry or strawberry. You need to be exact, because the fish isn’t coming out of their little cone of concentration to think of anything else. They don’t have the brain power.

Now, so many cherries are coming down the conveyor belt that some have stems and some don’t. Some are solid red, and some are red/yellow. Again, the person at the conveyor belt gets focused on stems, or no stem, and the feeding process becomes that much more complex. All of a sudden, the person pulling food off the conveyor belt is only eating cherries with no stems that are red/yellow. Yes, there are other cherries going past, but now the focus is tighter, and the food source has become more limited. We think that’s the simplest way to understand what’s occurring during a strong mayfly hatch.

Now let’s get to mayflies. When the blanket hatch is on, like PMD’s, Tricos or Blue Winged Olives, there are many stages of the fly coming past the trout. The fully emerged dun, drying its wings in preparation to fly off. Emergers, which are nymphs breaking their way through the surface film in preparation to become duns. And then there are the cripples. A cripple is a fly that has not successfully made it from emerger to dun. When asked, we say a cripple is simply an emerger that wasn’t capable of becoming a dun. All of these different stages of the same insect are going by at the same time, and like the person at the conveyor belt, the trout will often focus on only one stage.

Quick note. This is most prevalent in a blanket hatch. In contrast, the Green Drakes don’t often come off in huge numbers. They are a sparser emerging insect, and when they come off, there aren’t enough bugs to get the fish focused on one stage. Trout eat the insect that’s going by- dun, emerger or cripple. It takes a lot of bugs to get the fish focused on one stage, and one stage only.

The best guides in Missoula, the best anglers in Missoula and all the shop people will start with a cripple. They often don’t change from that choice, and for very good reason. Nature is a harsh place. If a trout expends 4 calories to move for food, it needs to take in more than 4 calories to survive. We’ve all seen trout come from 5 feet away to eat a hopper. Because the energy expended will be more than replaced with the caloric intake from a hopper. Contrast that with a trico or BWO. Those bugs are tiny, and the reward is much less. A trout will not range far to take in few calories. It’s a fact of nature.

A cripple, to a trout, is a stationary meal. They can’t get away. And that’s critical for a feeding fish. Once the energy is expended, the trout can’t get it back. A cripple is an insect that WILL NOT fly off just at the moment of rising. Again, we’ve all seen fish come out of the water chasing an insect. It’s trying to take in calories to offset the energy expended. It NEEDS the reward at the end of the energy use. Miss that meal too many times, and it starts to die. Not friendly, but true. When an animal is crippled, it becomes easier prey for the predator. Slower to move, easier to eat. Just what every predator is looking for. When there are enough cripples on the water to allow a trout to focus on that phase, they will often do it.

There are more than one type of cripples. You have the failed emerger, caught in its shuck with the wings ¼ to ¾ extended. A cripple may have gotten 10% out of its shuck before failure, or 90%. The wings may be almost fully extended, or maybe just a nub has come out. This is such a boon to the fly fisherman. Once an insect has completely emerged into a dun, they are all exactly alike in size and color (for the most part). But a cripple can vary in length, depending on how far it got in the emerging process. And exact size replication isn’t always as critical with a cripple as it is with a nymph or dun.

The other type of cripple is a mayfly that has emerged, but then ran into problems. Blown over by wind, or simply collapsing onto its side from the energy expended while emerging. Once a mayfly’s wings touch the water, it’s done. They don’t have the strength to pull their wings out of the suction created by the meniscus. Close inspection of the bugs floating by you will sometimes show an insect frantically beating one free wing as the other remains in the surface film. That bug is a cripple, but of the second variety.

An emerger, or a nymph that is breaking through the meniscus, is also exceedingly vulnerable at that time. It takes a moment to get to the surface, push its wings from its thorax through the meniscus, and then crawl out through the hole created to emerge as a dun. It has been likened that a mayfly nymph pushing through the meniscus is akin to a person digging through 3 feet of dirt. Not an easy task. So there are many insects just beneath the surface struggling to get to the surface, and that’s also a stage that a trout will focus on.

Vince Marinaro wrote a book on dry fly fishing called In The Ring Of The Rise. Well worth reading. In that book, he details the different rise forms created by feeding trout. Not every trout that breaks the surface is taking a bug off the surface. That bears repeating. Not every trout that breaks the surface is taking a bug off the surface. In a slow glide, on a still day when the fish are podded up, you can hear the “Chup, Chup, Chup” of fish breaking the surface and taking flies. If you look closely at those rise forms, you will see tiny air bubbles coming from around the take point, A tiny bit of air gets trapped in the trout’s upper jaw, and the bubbles escape when the jaw goes beneath the surface. Chup is the sound it makes.

If only we had a dollar for every time we cast over fish that were breaking the surface but not taking from the surface! We wouldn’t be writing this blog. We’d be retired, and hiring the best guide in Missoula to take us fishing every day!!! When a trout is taking an emerger, it’s eating just below the surface, and its back breaks the water as Mr. Big returns to its feeding station.  And no, the trout is not going to come up that extra half millimeter to make you happy! The best way to handle this is to drop a 6” piece of leader off your dry or cripple, and tie on an unweighted nymph. The short dropper will keep the nymph at the correct depth, and you’ll start to take those “rising” trout. Look for bubbles (or the lack of) to identify those rises.

While we’re on the subject of critically watching rise forms, we’re going to talk about spinners. A spinner is a spent mayfly that has returned to the water to die. The classic form is both wings flat against the water, like a cross, though many spinners will have both wings flat on the same side, and their body curled around their wings. Again, the spinner is a stage of life where it CANNOT escape. The rise form to a spinner is very distinct. It looks as if the trout is coming up and just kissing the surface. Very subtle, very gentle. The PMD’s and Ped’s generate a lot of spinners, and once you’ve started to study rise forms, and see the differences in them, the spinner rise will be quite noticeable. Have some spinners with you, and all of a sudden those fish that went begging are in your net.

Duns. Spinners. Emergers. Cripples. We bandy those terms about like it’s general knowledge, but trust us, that information was hard won. It’s attention to detail that gets you to that point. Learning how trout operate and feed takes time on the water. Watching different rise forms is not easy. It’s tough to take a step back and think when you’re surrounded by trout breaking the surface in a feeding frenzy. But if you take 3 minutes to just look, if you’ve prepared your fly box with the different stages of a mayfly’s life cycle, adding in the failures known as cripples, you’re going to start talking more about how many fish you caught, and less about how many fish were rising!

Montana Brown Trout

Missoula Fall Fly Fishing

As the fly fishing season transitions to fall and leaves turn from green to blazing, your approach to fly fishing needs to turn as well. Conditions are about to change around Missoula, and you’ll need to be aware. In mid-August, during the intense summer heat, the best fishing is early morning and then again in the evening. During the heat of the day, between noon and 7:00 pm, little action is seen. Hot temps and high sky drive trout deep to find shelter. Not the best time to fish. When the weather is hot, fishing is better near the edges of the day, and the hotter it gets, the closer to dawn and dusk you need to fish.

But the weather is changing during October and Novemeber, and so are the trout’s habits. Missoula is about to get colder and cloudy, and trout love that.

Trout want exactly what we want from the weather, a comfortable temperature. Not freezing, and not scorching hot. As fall approaches the Clark Fork River valley, those comfortable temps are moving from the edges of the day to the middle of the day. Those cool air temps and colder nights also lower the water temperatures. Trout are finding their comfort level in the middle of the day, instead of the edges of the day. As an angler, you should be as well!

Streamer fishing for Trout and Pike can be great in October and November.

Trout location also changes with water temperature. Warm water holds less oxygen, and high heat requires trout to find highly oxygenated water. As fall arrives, water temps fall and starts to hold more O2. Additionally, trout are cold blooded. Their metabolism slows as water temps fall. These two variables combine to change the trout’s holding lies. Trout use less energy, need less energy and now have highly oxygenated water. Cold weather moves trout to slower moving, softer water. Combine slow metabolism and high O2 content, and trout can and will move into water they shun in high summer. In short, late season fly fishing can be summed up this way, you’re going to find fish feeding in the middle of the day in softer, slower water.

Dropping water temps make fall streamer fishing some of the best of the year. The Brown Trout are moving upriver to spawn, and colder water temperatures let trout know they need to grab as many calories as they can get. A streamer in the morning, before the hatches start, can be a deadly tactic. Make sure to size your streamer to your fly line weight. Traditionally, fall streamers have some yellow or orange in them, though Brown Trout will move for a white streamer at almost any time. Depending on river choice, a sink tip may or may not be in order. The Blackfoot River and Clark Fork River always have sink tip water, while the parts of the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek may not be perfect for sink tip streamer fishing. In all the local Missoula rivers, big fish are moving for streamers! (Click here for 13 tips for fishing streamers)

In Missoula Montana, fall means a lot of other things to its residents. There are two distinct seasons that arrive with the cool weather, hunting season and Griz season. The University of Montana fields a very competitive football team, and Washington Grizzly stadium holds 26,000 rabid fans every Saturday when the Griz are home. From the angler’s standpoint, you know where 26,000 of your closest friends will be from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Not a bad time to go fishing!

A wide angle shot of the Griz football team taking on an opponent inside Washington Grizzly.

Other residents live here for the hunting. Antelope, deer, elk, Bear, Turkey, Pheasants and Waterfowl are all calling to the sportsmen of Montana. With such a limited season in the woods, most angling hunters put down their rods to pick up bows and rifles, and they head to the mountains. For those who angle, that means another large segment of friends are off the rivers as well. The crowds we’ve experienced throughout the summer are clearing out for football and hunting. Just like the grasshopper population is knocked down by fall’s cold weather, the fishermen population is knocked way down by fall’s cold weather activities. The rivers open up in the fall.

There are other issues that come up in fall fishing. As this is being written, there is a cold front coming in, bringing some winter weather. Water and cold weather are not a good combo. Hypothermia is a real concern, whether from falling in or just extended wading. We all know the fastest way to chill beer is put it in an ice bath. When you’re wading, especially as the water temps cool, you’re just like that beer, walking in a cold water bath. That drains energy and heat. Late season fishing means you need to plan ahead a bit. Have a spare change of clothes in the rig. Doesn’t need to be a tuxedo, just dry! Extra food and some water doesn’t hurt either. Maybe a thermos of hot coffee or soup. You get the point. Fall in August, and your friends laugh. Fall in on a 40 degree day, and it’s a bit more serious.

Missoula fly fishing guides and fisherman look forward to the amazing hatches and streamer fishing that the Fall has to offer. The seasons are turning, and long winter is just around the corner. But before the cold gets here to stay, the cool weather will make the fishing something wondrous to behold. Streamers move the big fish, hatches Like BWO, Mahogany and October Caddis bring the anglers out for one last hurrah. To many in town, fall fishing is the pinnacle of the entire year.

Mayfly Madness

They are here in numbers. Big numbers.



The Mahogany.

The fish know they are here too. Pods of rising fish in ever direction from Our beloved fishing town. You really cant go wrong. Play the clouds and stay of of the wind. Get it in their feeding lane, drag free, and get ready. They will eat it…

See you posted up on the risers.

-The MAngler