Long days on the water are best finished with some leisure time back at the truck. So as the guys trickled in, one by one after dusk, my waterlogged waders were already rolled up. I’d just broken the rod down and popped the top on a Troegs IPA when Smith walked through the fading light with his wading boots crunching over the gravel. I handed him a beer and asked the requisite questions: How many? And on what flies?
“Great day!” Smith said. “All nymphs and nothing up top. Mostly Beadhead Pheasant Tails. Fourteens and some sixteens. Silver beads were the best.”
“Nice,” I nodded. “For me it was stonefly nymphs. Copper bead. Took a couple on small trailers, but all the good fish ate the stones. Fun times!”
Smith agreed, and we clinked brown glass bottles. Then we leaned back on the tailgate and watched the darkening path, waiting for our friends to return from the water.
One by one they came back to the gravel lot, all of them pleasantly water-weary and uniquely satisfied. Each had caught lots of trout — that part of the story was the same. But the hot flies were all different. Trout had come to dries, streamers and a variety of nymphs. All of the Troutbitten crew had found success, but each had come to it in a different way.
“So much for matching the Sulfur hatch,” Smith chuckled.
It really is true: You don’t have to match the hatch.
Trout anglers become terribly preoccupied with their plans. It’s part of our process, I guess. Every fisherman I know enjoys thinking about upcoming river trips, considering the conditions, tying up a couple dozen likely flies and stocking the pack with tippet, split shot, floatant and more. We might look at a hatch chart too. But honestly, that chart might be the least important part of the equation.
You don’t have to match the hatch. My assertion is predicated on a system that covers all the bases without getting deep into the weeds of specifics. I carry four fly boxes: one nymph, one streamer and two dries. And I know I can meet the trout on their terms, getting close enough to what they’re eating with one of the flies in my box. Moreover, I know I can catch trout on many of the flies in my box at any one time. It’s a rare day when they take a Bread-n-Butter, but they won’t take a similar-sized Walt’s.
My approach is to allow for multiple looks in each fly type: dries, nymphs, streamers and wets. I have a good range of sizes, colors and flash in each box. And I set out, day after day, to see what the trout prefer. But here’s my point: I do this without much bias toward what flies the trout should be eating. I simply rotate through my confidence patterns (always emphasizing good technique over pattern choice), until I find a nymph that works better than the others.
So what about that Sulfur hatch?
Maybe the river is covered with sulfur duns and spinners. They’re in the tree branches and the spider webs. The expired spent wings lay flat in backwater eddies. But how do you know trout are keyed in and eating Sulfurs?
They very well might be. But I’ve experienced exactly the opposite too many times to believe my first assumptions. Too often, I’ve been frustrated by difficult trout on top, during the dun emergence. I’ve gone underneath with two flies — one a near enough match for a Sulfur nymph and the other a small bugger at the point. And they ate the bugger.
I can tell you stories about great fishing with egg patterns in the summer (far away from any spawning season in these rivers), about streamers in the sun, and extra-small wet flies at night. And I’ve had lights-out fishing with my standard #14 and #16 nymph patterns in tailwaters where the local guides and fly shops swore I’d hook nothing on nymph patterns larger than a #20.
Around here, it’s a running joke that the best fly during the famous Green Drake hatch is a Sulfur. And it’s true! The real joke is on the angler who continues forcing the big bugs when trout are eating something else.
No hatch to match?
Fly fishermen have opened up the term match the hatch to include other bugs too. Are there lots of spruce moths in the trees? Maybe fish those. Cress bugs and scuds in a limestoner? Are there a ton of crayfish in some marginal trout water of late summer? Think about that when choosing a pattern. But don’t get locked into your assumptions.
If you’re slinging streamers, is it really all that important to match the look of a Black Nosed Dace, if that’s the prominent forage in your system? How do you know the trout are eating black nosed dace, and not the slower sculpins? You don’t. And trout usually aren’t all that selective from one pattern to the next. They eat Wooly Buggers everywhere. No one argues against that. And what does a Bugger look like? A little of everything. That’s my point.
What’s it all mean?
I’m not suggesting to ignore the hatches. I’m saying that you could ignore the hatches and probably catch just as many trout as the next guy.
Stay dedicated to rotating through your generalist set of confidence flies, and keep varying your tactics. In the end, such an approach is usually better than getting locked into any idea of matching the hatch anyway. Because sometimes the trout don’t agree with what we think they’re supposed to be eating.
Keep an open mind out there.
Fish hard, friends.
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T R O U T B I T T E N
I could not agree more!
I have had the pleasure of fishing the San Juan a few times as I have relatives in New Mexico. I arrived on the afternoon prior to my scheduled trip and decided to go out and wade a section of the river. I caught many trout on a size 16 Pheasant tail and went back to my room to get ready for the next day’s trip.
The next day, theguide saw what I had on and essentially laughed at me, knowing it was my first trip there. I told him about the previous day’s fishing and besides categorizing me as a heretic, he never believed me( I have been is sales for over 30 years and could tell)
We did have a good day with tiny midges( really the SJ is a great beginner’s river as if you are in a drift boat there are many visible trout any one of which could hit your offerings and the boat essentially takes mending out of the equation) but I have been back using “classic” flies larger than molecules and had luck.
I fish the San Juan several times a year. As you go closer to the Dam, the aquatic insect size gets smaller (22- 28 Hooks). As you go down stream, the aquatic insect size gets larger. I would like to ask where you fished that first day on the San Juan? I’m wondering if you still need to get closer to the size of the food source.
Great article Dom (as always), and I agree with your fine argument 100%. As for myself, it’s all part of the big picture that keeps all of us coming back for more – sleuths trying to crack the code. I’ve used a pattern on one stream, pack up and drive over the mountain to the next valley, and bat “0” on the same pattern.
Keep up the great writing!
I started out with a limited set of flys and rarely matched the hatch. The Hares Ear ended up being my go-to fly and it worked well for me. Even in those heavy hatch times.
Excellent post. I’m sure I’m not the only fisherman with similar experiences.
Thanks as always.
Happy Fathers Day – I hope you enjoy it with your kids.
Glad you had the gumption to say this directly, Domenick. I kinda came to that conclusion on my own, but it’s good to hear you say it loud and proud. It makes me feel better about it. 🙂 South Platte old-timer and high-sticking advocate Ed Engle says “Give me three flies and I can catch fish anywhere.” (hare’s ear, pheasant tail, and prince nymph)
I’ve tried to learn about what food is in the drift, to learn the bugs, etc, but under a rock in the creek all the bugs look pretty “nymphy.” I wonder how can a fish pick out a tiny difference between two nymphs in a fraction of a second as it drifts by in low light, yet it can NOT tell if there’s a hook sticking out of one? I don’t think they can. It think their selection criteria is closer to “food” or “not food.” If I slot my flies into where they’re expecting food to come from, that’s my best shot.
Hear, damn, hear! I fish winged wets, streamers, various nymphs. I seldom fish dries. I have done this over the 57 years I’ve been fly fishing (has it been that long? Egads!). Not saying “match” doesn’t work, it just hasn’t been necessary for me. In my early years (60s and 70s), no one cared much. Since the 1980s more and more people – especially those younger or newer to fly fishing – have developed hardened attitudes towards what will work, what should be done and how it should be done. I call them the Fly Fishing “No Fun Bunch.” I now fish Tenkara almost exclusively (fishing downstream to boot), using winged wets, streamers and nymphs (for trout), and small lures for smallmouth and trout. Oh, the looks and p/a comments I get. Oh, the fish I catch. Oh, the fun I have. Nice piece, Domenick.
Couldn’t agree more. I almost always ignore the hatch here in Eastern PA. Confidence patterns, reading/adapting to water and presentation almost always wins.
I don’t really ignore them. I like to think about the size and shape and especially where they might be in the water column. That’s a good starting point, anyway, but I don’t get hung up on what SHOULD work, that’s for sure.
Some Excellent points, Domenick. For an example, I don’t even fish on top during the Grannom Caddis hatch. I catch plenty more fish with a cased caddis nymph and grey hackle peacock point fly. My buddy doesn’t worry at all about what’s hatching. He fishes his nymphs and does very well no matter what bugs are around.
I been saying this for years.
I don’t have the discipline to do this, but I’ve long thought that one nymph (doesn’t really matter which one) in various sizes would, in the long run, yield more fish than the constant fiddling to which I am wont.
I’ve done this for very long periods of time, but not quite a full year. It’s enlightening. BHPT, in 14,16 and 18 is the last time I did it. It’s kind of all you need, many times.
Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia clothing company, wrote an article a couple of years ago in Fly Fisherman magazine about doing just that – fishing one fly for an entire year for different species, under different conditions, etc, etc. It was a soft hackle pheasant tail. Spoiler alert: he wacked ’em! He’s a deep cat, Chouinard, Zen-like in his simple approaches.
Thanks for the blog. As a relatively inexperienced fly fishermen matching the hatch was something that I was worried about mastering if I wanted to be successful. If you are not matching the hatch, what’s your tactic then? Do you start out by using your favorite flies and keep switching until you find something that is working? If your not having success at what frequency do you switch flies?
Yes, I pretty much think about the general size of things that trout are likely eating, and start with that. I rotate through my confidence patterns until something works. It almost always does.
I change flies when I feel that I’ve gotten excellent drifts over fish and they haven’t taken it.
Got it. Thanks for the follow-up!
It just confirms that fish are no different from you and I; unique individuals one and all with differing tastes and needs. I fished a remote northern stream yesterday using only a nondescript, unweighted, brown-ish, #14 soft hackle and did quite well. My friend used small beadhead nymphs banging off the bottom all day and did equally well. I love open minded trout.
Couldn’t agree more Dom. Fish a few confident patterns, vary the technique, and, choosing the right water…and walla – magic! Good read, Thank you.
Absolutely one of your best, Dom, and that is saying a lot! How many times have you been asked, “But what fly were you using?”
You don’t worry about conventional wisdom, you just go where the truth is. What a concept. Maybe the best fishing article I have read.
I’ve watched underwater video of trout on the feed in a seam. They pretty much sample everything that goes by their head (talking subsurface here). Pumped stomach contents show all kinds of things that are Not edible bugs; . I believe they mouth most things that look like it could be food rather than micro-inspect every facet of the food. General size, shape and presentation are the key to getting them to eat
I have fished with a guide who regularly checks stomach contents of 15-20″ rainbows in a small, slow moving river situated below a dam. In that stream, the big fish seem to mostly eat small <#20 nymphs with occasional adult dries and terrestrials. It appears to me that small flies and presentation are everything there – mostly presentation. I have spent many hours watching and fishing for unspooked fish in one seam in slow water at the edge of a weed patch there without even one take. All the while, I see them feeding just below surface, but never on my indy rig (fly or yarn indy) no matter what I did. It is my conclusion that my presentation, which was difficult due to having to fish from the bank on the opposite bank, was the only problem. The same flies and methods produced fish in the same river when I could cast down or up stream. I just couldn't get a dead drift at the right depth with 40' casts from a right angle to that frustrating seam. They never stopped feeding the whole time, probably on #22 baetis nymphs. Presentation, presentation, presentation,…
Good post Dom. Totally agree.
If any of you want to get into this a bit deeper I recommend you take a look at ‘What Trout Want’ by Bob Wyatt.
I probably take this one step further.
Fishing all through Eastern Pa and Western Md as well as through Co and Ca’s Sierra Nevada’s, I have pared it all down to a single pattern!
I am a overly dedicated and fairly experienced dry-fly fisherman (I own no nymphs, streamers or wets). I am lucky to have occasion to fish 4-5 days a week and have found that pattern is not as important as size and silhouette the fish sees.
Of course keeping the fly floating high where it stays on top is key.
I choose my fly mostly by size with small variations in hackle color from darker to lighter depending on how the fish are reacting to my fly (refusal to take usually just means I need to go down a size).
Presentation is really everything. To this end I use the smallest possible tippet at all times (6x on big rivers and 7X everywhere else) no matter the fish size. Just be sure to use a light, soft rod!
My fly of choice is the Elk-Hair Caddis in it’s traditional form. Tan and Olive cover colors and I stock my box with #12 all the way down to #22.
Any dry works as well I have found. I just use the EHC because it is tough and resilient and I can adjust it a bit by trimming back its wings as needed.
As mentioned above, it really has more to do with getting good with a particular fly and learning to control it in all conditions.
Since I never need to stand and stare at my fly box while standing in the river, trying to decide on my next fly, I get to keep my fly on the water a lot more, so catch more fish!
Good article Dom. Although my website is largely focused on hatch-matching and it’s my favorite way to fish, it’s also VERY situational. Often, when it’s needed at all, it’s needed badly, and successfully matching what they’re taking makes the difference between a near-skunking and some of the best fishing of the season.
However, as you’ve pointed out, often it isn’t needed at all. I think the use of a narrow search image, which anglers call selectivity, most likely evolved in a distant ancestor of all salmonids as a way to improve prey detection and avoid wasting time and energy pursuing and rejecting inedible detritus. It’s not a response to angling pressure by “educated” fish, as many anglers believe. However, it’s only advantageous for a fish to be selective when the prey it’s targeting are currently extremely abundant. Those are some of the most fun moments to fish because the insect abundance whips trout into a frenzy, but they don’t happen all that often in most places.
I don’t think there’s a big advantage to imitating the most common things trout are eating when they’re not locked on a search image for a thick hatch. It might help for a fly to have a passing resemblance to something familiar, or at least be generally buggy in a way that the average inedible detritus is not, but most good flies check those boxes.
You also hinted at one of the biggest fallacies I see from anglers in general, and not just in fly fishing or trout: the idea that “what they’re hitting” is anything more than a random sample of what some successful anglers happened to be using. It seems like every tackle shop in the country has a whiteboard saying they’re hitting great on a copper Mepps spinner, or a #16 purple haze, or a certain color of plastic worms. Apart from some general relationships between fly/lure type and presentations targeting appropriate depths and activity levels, these all might as well be darts thrown at a board with lure/fly names written all over it.
Thanks for the feedback, Jason.
There are two times when I take pains to match the hatch. The white flies on the Housatonic in August, and isonychia, especially on the Esopus (although the Hous has a robust iso hatch as well).
On the latter, I use a Leadwing Coachman winged wet fly as the default bug. But to get to your point, the Leadwing works all year round, too, anywhere I have fished. Catches smallmouth too.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Good approach to life.
I haven’t killed a wild trout since 1997, but my experience (anecdotal evidence) with examining trout stomach contents shows that trout are opportunistic feeders, unless there are large numbers of one insect species available to them during a hatch, spinner fall, or gathering of terrestrial insects. Here are some examples:
I caught a 16.5″ brown in a limestone creek in July on a size 12 green weenie. Its stomach contained a lot of very small mayfly nymphs, a crayfish, and a grasshopper.
A 15″ brown that I caught in the dark on a coffin fly spinner had 36 natural coffin flies in it stomach.
I caught a 12″ brown on a #16 black beetle in a freestone stream on a May afternoon, and its stomach was packed with small, black beetles. My choice of fly for that fish was a lucky guess based on past experience with beetle flies, because I could not see what that trout was eating.
I caught a 12″ brown on a #16 ant in a limestone stream; it’s stomach contained a variety of terrestrial and aquatic insects, plus a crayfish.
I guess my point is that it is true that you don’t necessarily have to match the hatch, but you should be aware of what insects are most active. In the 1950s researchers in Western North Carolina studied the stomach contests of wild brook, brown, and rainbow trout. They found that all species ate more caddis than any other insect, brown trout ate more crayfish than brook or rainbow trout, and baitfish were rarely found in the stomachs of any of the three trout species. They did find some examples where trout had selectively fed on one insect species.
Right on. I feel like your comments align exactly with what I wrote in the article.
That is so true. I pay attention to what may be flying around but I have found you need to try your go to patterns dir real success. Thank you again for another insightful article. Just a footnote. Troegs makes some fantastic beer.