The other day I was listening to a podcast featuring Charlie Craven. I was dreaming of fishing while raking another giant pile of leaves in the backyard when something Charlie said caught my attention: “Trout are not very smart. They eat everything down there.”
It’s a point I’ve heard repeated time and again — that trout brains are small, and they eat sticks, leaves and rocks all the time. Ironically though, the next piece of the podcast interview rolled into what an excellent fly Charlie’s Two Bit Hooker is.
Does that duality make any sense? Sure it does. I think Charlie’s thoughts in the interview match what a lot of us think about fly selection — that trout will eat anything, but sometimes they eat another thing better.
Pattern vs Presentation
The old debate among fisherman about pattern vs presentation is a good one, because just as soon as we have things figured out on the river, the trout throw us a curve ball.
I believe the way you fish a fly is far more important than the way it looks, and I believe that everything works sometimes. But that only goes so far.
The other day, I got back into this recurring discussion with a friend who insisted that pattern means nothing. But he had to chuckle in agreement when I said, “I’ll bet I can tie a fly for you that won’t catch a fish.” Put that way, it makes sense, right? I mean, there are some boundaries and limits to a trout’s gullibility.
Now back to what Charlie said — that trout are eating everything down there . . .
What are they eating?
I’ve killed a lot of trout. Sorry. I know that’s a little out of bounds to some in the fly fishing culture, but I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where acid mine drainage devastated the viability of wild trout in cold water fisheries. All of the creeks I fished as a kid either didn’t have the right PH level or they warmed too much in the summer to support wild trout. A lot of western Pennsylvania is still like that. Burke calls it trout purgatory.
So, because I grew up around a put-and-take system (where the state puts the trout in the river and fishermen take them out), and because I like to eat trout, that’s what I did for a long time. I kept most of the trout I caught. I checked the stomach contents of all the trout I gutted, and I can confirm that they really do eat anything. It’s an interesting mess inside a trout. Sure, most of it is caddis parts and crayfish claws, but I found a lot of sticks, pine needles and pebbles. I’ve also seen gum wrappers, corn, cigarette butts and random pieces of plastic.
As a side note, stocked fish have a lot more junk in their stomach than wild ones. Freshly stocked fish are doing more sampling down there than wild trout.
All trout sample things in the drift, trying to determine if stuff is edible. You can watch videos of trout doing this: they pick something up, decide it’s not food and spit it out in a fraction of a second. Strike detection, therefore, is probably more important than pattern, right? And if you can get a trout to be curious enough to eat your fly, you have to set the hook before they drop it.
When trout aren’t biting, I’d rather change my approach than change the fly. In between casts, I’m better off stepping to the side and modifying the angle of delivery, adding weight, lengthening my tippet or moving on to target a different water type. The way I show the flies to the fish is what matters most.
Accepting that idea comes with time. Like everyone else, I’ve waded through the fly bins, the magazine articles and the endless catalogs of new patterns trying to understand what flies I should carry. But the best fishermen I know all have a handful of go to patterns that they use ninety percent of the time — probably more. Most of those patterns are dead simple. My own handful of flies is basic, yet refined enough to cover any situation encountered on the water.
I carry nymphs, wets, streamers and dries that are big, small, bright, dull, colorful and drab. And I guess, over time, I’ve sorted out the excess and kept what works best. Pretty simple, really. Time with those patterns has given me confidence in them. They fooled more trout, so I took the other ones out of my box because I don’t want to be overwhelmed with options.
But just about the time I’m getting cocky about my handful of confidence flies, a slow day that’s saved by a rogue pattern shakes me up.
Once in a while . . .
Yesterday morning I planned to methodically fish a wide and varied stretch of pocket water. I did that for three hours (fishing my handful of confidence flies) and turned up nothing. Disappointingly, all of the rig changes I made simply didn’t work. When I got to the top of the run, I walked far upstream to relocate and reassess.
The next piece of river had enough logs and undercut banks to inspire a new determination, so when I fished up through the section and still caught only a few small trout, I decided to mix things up. I walked back down to re-fish the same water, tied on a small #18 RS2 as a trailer, and I immediately started getting into fish. The RS2 apparently made all the difference. So I hiked up to some prime big fish water where a heavy run dumps into the next pool, and on the third cast I hooked this guy.
Technically, the RS2 is in my handful of flies. But it’s one that I don’t use very often these days. I had trailed two of my other small favorites yesterday morning with no luck. In fact, I went back to those other flies after a while to see if they would also produce. They didn’t. There was just something about the RS2 that turned the trout on, and it lasted for a few hours until they finally started taking other flies too.
I’ve had that kind of thing happen enough times to believe that sometimes the specific pattern really does matter. And then again, it goes the other way just as often.
You probably have a story about the one time you slayed ‘em on the Prince nymph until the fly came apart, right? The ribbing came off, the herl unraveled, and all that was left were the crooked tail biots and a bare hook. And they kept taking it! Sure they did. I know they did. That’s my story.
Most days fall somewhere in the middle, though. And changing the approach instead of changing the pattern usually gets better results, because a trout will eat anything — sometimes. So I think it’s best to find a handful of flies, build confidence and stick with them until you have a really good reason not to.
I’ve also come across a few really special patterns through the years too. Because of that, I always have a few experimental flies in my box. I’m looking for the next superfly.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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