What Moves a Trout to the Fly?

by | Nov 29, 2016 | 7 comments

I recently wrote a short piece about what trout eat, where I argued that a handful of flies will get the job done on a daily basis no matter where you fish. In essence, I think how you fish your handful of flies is usually more important than what those flies are.

But your handful of confidence flies needs some diversity. It needs attention getters. It needs flies that will motivate a trout to go and eat them.

Trout can be moody and unpredictable, and I guess that’s why we like them. Their pickiness is something I respect, because wild trout, especially, are not easily fooled. And it’s hard to grab their attention some days. We know trout generally sit on the bottom, waiting for a good reason to move. Sometimes they take up feeding lanes, while other times they find a shady log and rest underneath it all day. Wherever they are, anglers try to encourage trout to move to the fly. We all know that different patterns work for trout at different times, but I think it’s helpful to realize that some flies move trout a lot further than others.

What moves them?

Central Pennsylvania is in a severe (and really tiring) drought since mid-July. (** This was summer of 2016. ** ) A drought is only good for two things: the low water is easier for kids to wade, and it’s better for watching trout. In my area, we rarely get the chance to sight fish, because the ever-present green murk of limestone waters is a barrier for watching how fish react. Right now, though, the water is low and clear enough to see how fish respond to our flies — as long as you don’t spook them first.

… In a good way

Through the years I’ve come to believe in keeping a healthy selection of junk flies — because trout will move far for junk flies. I carry nymphs like Squirmy Wormys, Green Weenies and egg flies (like a Sucker Spawns and Nuke Eggs.) These are bold, bright flies that get trout’s attention and are hard to ignore. I’ve regularly seen trout move three feet or more for dead drifted egg patterns, Green Weenies and Squirmies. That’s much further than they usually move for smaller and more natural patterns.

I do love junk flies, but I also get a kick out of catching trout on simple patterns of just fur and feathers.  One of my favorites is a Fly Fisher’s Paradise sowbug pattern — just a little muskrat, a little squirrel, and that’s it. Walt’s Worm’s are another staple in my box, and they’re of the same design — dubbing and a hook. These were my first flies when I learned to nymph, and along with Pheasant tails and Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear’s I had a collection of effective, natural, imitative flies, and I caught trout. But when I fished a Green Weenie for the first time, I was stunned. Trout moved from places I didn’t know held fish, and I’ve been hooked on junk flies ever since.

I don’t mean to suggest that all junk flies clean up on any day you fish them, but they sure do have their moments.

I also recognize that the best junk flies have some element of imitation to them. The Green Weenie looks a lot like a Rhyacophila larva — I think a big chunk of chartreuse is the trigger — and green Mop flies achieve the same look. The hot pink Squirmies in my box have the shape of aquatic worms, but perhaps their color is what triggers the attention. Junk flies seem best when they combine an element of the real thing with something odd.


See what I mean? Rhyacophila Larva — Photo by Jason Neuswanger

But it’s not just junk flies that move trout great distances from their rocks either. There’s another trout-moving group that I think of as attractor flies.

We add a lot of triggers to our flies these days: bright beads, hot spots, wire ribbing, fluorescent or flashy dubbing and rubber legs. Attractors! All of these additions stand out. They show an odd shape or an unusual wiggle. The right combination of these elements commands attention; they convince trout to move, inspect and sample the oddity. Set the hook!

All that eagerness of a trout moving three feet to take a junk fly can make you seem like a pretty good fisherman. As you pat yourself on the back, though, the trout’s preferences might change. Maybe the sun hits the water and trout become skittish. All of the sudden, what moves a trout may be small and natural, with no bead, no flash and no hot spot. With more natural patterns, trout seem unwilling to move very far to intercept them in the drift, so a refined, targeted presentation becomes necessary.

I’ll make a cautious generalization here: Trout move furthest for junk flies, a little less for attractors, and they move the least for naturals.

My fly boxes are pretty evenly divided between all three styles, but I usually tie on the attractors or junk flies first. If it’s one of those good days when they don’t demand natural patterns, I feel I’ll catch more fish using junk flies because trout move further for them. With each drift, then, I can effectively cover a wider strip of water with junk and attractors. When I’m fishing naturals, I tend to slow down and aim for pinpoint presentations because I believe trout won’t move as far to pick them up. It’s something to consider.

I also tend to pair my junk flies or attractors with something more natural. I like adding a Walt’s Worm on a tag with a Green Weenie, or maybe a Pheasant Tail together with a Rainbow Warrior.

READ: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Confidence Flies: Seventeen Nymphs


Photo by Pat Burke

All the flies

So far, I’ve referred only to nymphs. But how far trout move for various types of dries and streamers could each warrant their own discussions. Suffice it to say I believe the same general principles apply.

My friend, Steve, is a dedicated dry fly man. He loves fishing a fly he calls the Sparrow. It’s a large dry fly that appears nimble on the water despite its size, and it moves a lot of fish. The Sparrow gets a ton of looks, and I’ll be damned if Steve doesn’t catch a bunch of fish on it too.

Incidentally, if you trail that Sparrow with something small and natural, you have a pretty good one-two punch as a dry dropper.

READ: Troutbitten | Series | Three Styles of Dry Dropper

That’s really an extension of what I call the bait-and-switch for nymphing — draw them in with something a little outrageous, then stick ‘em with something they believe they should be eating. (e.g., trail a WD40 behind a Squirmy.)

Trout move far for streamers too, but they don’t eat them nearly as often as nymphs. Around here, it takes a good streamer bite to consistently turn that trick, and those times are pretty rare. The key, then, is finding patterns that move trout and make them want to eat it. So I usually cycle through my handful of patterns until one of them stands out to the fish.

I like to fish flies in sizes that I call “edible.” A five-inch streamer might move a lot of trout, but very few commit to eating it. On the other hand, a #12 Wooly Bugger actively nymphed with just a bit of motion may draw attention from trout of all sizes and  be seen as something edible.


Thanks for playing

In a bad way …

Moving a trout isn’t always a good thing. In the low water of an extended drought, I’m constantly watching small wakes on the water surface that race ahead of me. Most of us are not patient enough to stalk trout carefully. Our splashes and other disruptions, our shadow and our simple presence certainly move fish in the wrong way.

It’s amusing to see what trout think of our presentations sometimes. I’ve watched them move away from my flies, let the flies pass by and then return to their feeding lane. And we’ve all seen trout rise to a dry fly and drift with it for a couple feet to inspect it, only to swim away, reject the fly and “give us the middle fin!”  (That’s a Chris Haser line.)

So I’ll take any advantage I can. And I try to use patterns that move fish the most.

Sometimes trout won’t take anything other than natural, imitative patterns. But those days are rare. I usually do better with junk or attractors on the rig — something that convinces trout to get off their asses and eat the fly.

Fish hard, friends.


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. This is all true. I think sometimes those fish hit the junk flies like people hit deals at black friday. If the don’t grab it now maybe another fish will. I really like your theories about the different fly types and how they move fish. I agree with most of that. One thing I have found interesting is trout moving out of a territorial response. I’ve seen some of the biggest browns follow my articulated whatever with the meanest body language but no intent of eating. It’s really cool and frustrating at the same time. Brookies can get super territorial and will destroy minnow patterns if they come near their holding spot. Even 5inch brookies will try to take down a 3inch clouser. Gives you a different perspective to the so called “fragile, dainty” trout.

  2. I’ve had great luck the past couple of weeks on a piece of water that has always come across as picky to me, and we’ve had everything from remarkably low flows up to what I consider to be ideal (although still with 39 degree water). Despite the low flows, its a tailwater and has been off color through this whole stretch, and I attribute a lot of my success to fishing flies with a good degree of flash. When its super clear, I wouldn’t expect much success with these flies, but in the greenish water, trout move quick to flashy purple flies.

  3. I love the bait and switch. A wooly bugger with #18 -#22 zebra midge on the trailer.

  4. The focus here was on the trout’s sense of vision. That big juicy squirmy wormy is a visual treat signaling a large helpless chunk of protein ripe for the picking. In terms of energy gain, well worth moving a few feet to eat.

    Dry fly anglers get to appeal to a different sense, one that can make a trout move a good distance for the same reason! The plop of a large terrestrial often triggers a lateral line take, a sense as important as any if you’re a fish. Big streamers probably attract a lot of attention through the lateral line as well.

    • Hi Rick,

      Regarding fly size and energy gain, sure. But as mentioned above, I find that color/flash is just as big of a factor. You could test with a small Green Weenie vs a simple Walt’s with no bead, for example. And over the long haul, they move further for the GW by a wide margin, in my experience.

      And you are right that the focus here was on visual. For me, the plop you are referring to can either bring trout to the fly or scare them. It’s kind of a toss up, depending on a bunch of factors, of course. And it’s not just dries or streamers that get attention from the plop. It’s nymphs too. Big time. Anyway, the attention gained from the plop isn’t nearly as predictable as the other stuff that I mentioned above. So I left it out. It would be a great topic for a separate article . . .

      Thanks for the reply.


      • I assume your observations are specific to wild brown trout (mostly).

        I guess there’s a reason a Mepps spinner catches so many trout.


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