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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Enjoy the day.
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