Fly vs Bait

by | May 5, 2021 | 20 comments

I fish for trout in moving waters, in creeks and rivers with a gradient and flow that creates frequent breaks, forming the classic riffle, run, pool sequence. And in these river systems, an accomplished fly fisher has the advantage over a skilled bait angler, most days and in most situations.

I know this is a minority opinion. The average angler assumes that bait will fool more trout than an artificial. Just yesterday, I came across the frequently repeated assertion that bait outperforms flies. I saw it in print and heard it in dialogue on a podcast. It was stated as fact, as though no one could possibly argue otherwise. But it’s wrong. It’s a common wisdom that isn’t very wise. And I think those who believe that bait has the edge over flies have probably spent very little time threading live bait on a hook and dunking it in a river.

I’ve done both. I’ve been in the fly fishing world for a few decades, and growing up, I fished live bait all the way into my twenties — mostly minnows and red worms. As recently as a few years ago, I set aside the fly rod for five months and fished a spinning rod, with Rooster Tails, Rapalas, live minnows and worms. I wanted to test the gear rod tactics of my youth, given my greater understanding of trout habits and how to drift them with or against the currents. After so many years of experience, I figured that going back to bait would bring unstoppable action. But it didn’t.

Instead, I felt hamstrung by the limitations of bait and the gear rod. And what I learned most from the experience was an appreciation for the unmatched versatility of a full set of flies, because they provide the chance to perfectly match whatever food source the trout are targeting.

Photo by Bill Dell

Sight Feeders

It’s worth repeating that my assertion here is regarding moving water. Trout in rivers are primarily sight feeders, while trout in stillwaters have the time not only to inspect the fly longer, but to also be drawn by the scent of natural bait. In that case, I believe bait wins out easily.

But in a river, especially in tumbling pocket water but also in pools and flats with significant flow, flies are the more consistent producers, because trout rely on sight far more than their sense of smell.

A skilled fly angler who can use the fly to mimic the motions or the natural drift of an appropriate food form has the invaluable advantage of versatility. Here’s what I mean . . .

Bait Limits

I grew up killing my catch. We mostly fished put-and-take, stocked trout waters. And we were out to catch our limit, to clean them, fillet them and put ‘em in a frying pan. I still kill a few dozen stocked trout each year, and I enjoy passing the tradition on to my sons.

READ: Troutbitten | Eat a Trout Once In a While

I was probably around ten years young when my uncle first showed me how to gut a trout. And as part of that process I got to satisfy a curiosity. After removing the organs from the trout’s body, the stomach would be right there, lying on the rocks, so I’d slice it open to see what a trout eats. And I’ve done this on nearly every trout I’ve ever killed.

Back then, I didn’t know what to call the small brown things that made up the majority of the stomach contents. But years later, I’d learn about nymphs. That’s what’s in a trout’s stomach. By a wide margin, nymphs make up a trout’s diet. And that’s from my own first-hand samplings — from ten-years-old to the few trout that I killed last fall. Sure, there are some crayfish parts mixed in and some dace or juvenile-trout fins once in a while too. I’ve also found whole frogs, random furry parts, and a lot of terrestrial insects like bees, ants and beetles.

Photo by Bill Dell

So, aside from the crayfish and dace, how can we use bait to imitate the rest of what I found in all of those trout stomachs? What about those nymphs, the terrestrials, the mayflies and caddis?

You can’t fish a sulfur nymph as bait. And even the average stonefly is too small to thread on a hook and keep it there. How do you fish an ant as bait? You can’t. In short, the bait angler cannot present the most frequent of food forms to a trout.

Toward the end of my bait fishing days, I learned to rig live crickets. I thought it would be the answer to the changing habits of trout in late spring. But trout weren’t eating crickets in May and June. They were eating mayflies and caddis. So they largely ignored my live crickets, no matter how well I presented them.

In truth, it’s tough to convince a wild trout to eat something that it’s not already looking for. And, especially through the hatch season, trout habitually look for the same food, day in and day out.

That’s the limitation of bait. And it’s the reason I made the switch to the fly rod. Each year, as the leaves turned green, when the waters cleared and the temperatures warmed, the effectiveness of my favorite fathead minnows dropped off. (I now see the same drop off in streamer production.) And around the same time, I’d have a day or two where I found myself wading through water with rising trout that would have nothing to do with my minnows. So I learned to fish dry flies — something that cannot be done with a bait fishing approach. Then I later learned to fish nymphs — which also cannot be fished as bait. However, these two food forms (nymphs and dries) are the best producers for me — and for so many other anglers — year round.

Big yawns from a tired River.

All Things Being Equal . . .

The fly angler is blessed with versatility at hand, and this is the fundamental advantage — anything at any time. Every food form that a trout eats, we can imitate it in multiple ways with a fly rod and a modest group of well-chosen flies.

But how about a straight up comparison between bait and flies?

What about streamers vs live minnows. Again, in a still water environment, I believe there’s no contest. Live bait wins.

But in a river, the playing field evens out. We can move our streamer in ways that would quickly kill live bait. Then, once the minnow is dead, it’s up to the angler to give it motion. Arguably, at such a point, the marabou, feathers and fur that we build into a streamer looks more alive than a dead minnow. Sure the baitfish holds the scent of realism, but in a river, that doesn’t matter much.

The Half Pint Streamer looks a lot like a baby brown trout, if you move it that way.

I’ll score the streamers vs live minnow matchup as a tie. And because I’ve rarely fished other baitfish, like crayfish, suckers, etc., I have no experienced opinion. But I believe the same should hold true.

What about real worms vs worm flies? I’ll take the worm flies. River trout take real worms best when the water is stirred up from at least a bit of rain. And, because river trout are sight feeders first, I believe the bright pink or orange colors of a vernille worm or a Squirmy can lend a big advantage over the natural.

Enough With the Wisdom

Fly anglers are simply more prepared to meet the trout on whatever terms the river dictates — to show trout a fly that looks like what the fish are eating. By contrast, bait anglers are limited to a few forms of bait. And essentially, it’s hit or miss whether the trout are in a mood for the bait you are throwing.

Somewhere along the line of history, a myth propagated that fly anglers are doing something more challenging. I read it in the article yesterday — that fly fishermen deliberately handicap themselves for the pure challenge of it all, knowing all the while that they could catch a lot more trout by using bait. But that one makes me chuckle. And it’s just more of the bullshit elitism that plagues this sport so much.

I do believe that presenting a fly is more challenging than presenting bait. But the real trick for the fly fishermen is in learning to fish all the fly forms with equal skill. Such an angler is armed and dangerous on the water.

So the next time you hear that bait out-fishes flies, be skeptical. And when someone argues that fly fishers sacrifice trout numbers for the sake of artistry, argue back. Because it’s false. The opposite is true. And the skilled fly angler is equipped with a host of versatile options that are fine tuned and ready to fool a trout in every way imaginable.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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20 Comments

  1. My favorite part about fishing with you a couple days last December was the versatility of your approach and it really made me learn a lot more. Now I easily switch from nymphs, to streamers, to dries. Thanks for that!

    I think I could easily out-fish the 14 year old version of myself drifting worms through pockets using a fly today as well. Hope your spring is starting well!

    Reply
  2. Thanks, Dom. Excellent and always thought-provoking!

    Reply
  3. Not to mention that a small de-barbed fly hook in the corner of the mouth is much better for the health of the trout.

    That photo triggered a memory from last season. I was standing in a tailout of the WB last summer when I noticed a strange brightly colored animal wiggling toward me on the surface. I was half expecting it to be slurrped in by a big brown. When it got close enough to ID I was more than surprised: eastern newt – orange “eft” stage. My first thought was, time to hit the bench!

    Reply
  4. We’re done playing second fiddle.

    Reply
  5. I’m glad for that knowledge. Thanks Dom! I do so much enjoy tying flies then heading out to the river. It’s all very engaging the planning, dreaming, tying and fishing. I hoping to setup another trip with you next year!

    Reply
    • I enjoy all of your articles but this one really hit home. I grew up bait and spinner fishing and probably caught more big trout on rapalas than most but I always tried to get better with a fly rod. The spinning rod was too easy to fall back on. I must admit some resentment at the elitist bullshit you mentioned. I felt like a could out fish any orvis asshole. You should me that not only was my background similar to yours but could be very useful in the transformation. It’s really about the experience. (My experience). Which may be different than the guy that leaned to fish when he was 30. I wouldn’t take anything for the experience and memories of bait fishing with my dad and uncles. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I thank you for helping me get to we’re I am because fishing is a very important part of my life.
      Andy

      Reply
  6. A lot of the “bait is better than flies” theory comes from anglers that fish for stocked trout with canned corn. During a green drake hatch I met two worm fishermen who were perplexed about why the fishing was so poor…for them.

    Reply
  7. Dom, I know this is off subject but can you suggest some streams near State college that are easy to wade without having to walk to far. I’ll soon be 82 so I don’t move real fast and tire easily. I really enjoy picturesque streams. Since I live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast I only get to fish for trout a couple times a year. This time for a few days near State College in May.

    Reply
    • I hope to still be wading rivers when I’m 82! I take my hat off to you, sir.

      Reply
    • Dom I was a devout Bass angler for about 45 years until a got “Troutbitten” about 5 years ago. I could entice a bass into hitting my lures out of aggression and not necessarily hunger. What’s your opinion of a trout’s aggression? Can we entice them into eating something if they are not in a feeding mood?

      Thanks,
      Gene Small

      Reply
  8. Ever try a newt/salamander imitation?

    Reply
  9. Dom,
    As usual, great article. I take stomach samples from the larger fish I catch. With the wild trout they usually match up with the flies I’m using pretty closely, but stocked trout, I find to be a little broader in their content and fly preference.

    Reply
  10. Hi Dom a great article. I know you were talking about trout and I only fish with a fly Rod but other species like largemouth Bass and Stripers you will get out fished by bait. Still I wouldn’t fish for them any other way than with a flyRod but all due respect to the other spin Fishers

    Reply
  11. With full acknowledgment that this is just a single anecdote, and doesn’t “prove” anything………..

    Tonight after work I went to shore fish a bit in the local reservoir, where there are (stocked) rainbows, bass, bluegills, and the occasional brown. Another guy came along and set up to fish a ways down the shore, close enough that we could speak. We exchanged a bit of small talk, and proceeded to leave each other be from then.

    I was casting artificial flies (one of which was a “troutbitten” bread-&-butter), and he was spin casting bait (worms I think).

    In the course of the evening he caught two fish (decent rainbows it looked like). I stopped counting my catch after thirty. Hmmmmm.

    BUT! — the other bit of data is that I was (horror of horrors!) was using my tenkara rod.

    So, what does that tell ya?

    d.

    Reply
  12. DOM, I am 72. and being on the water now is a lot more important than catching a limit. Western PA and still here. One exception to that rule, and a very limited scenario. Started with a couple friends and I, preteen and competition/food. One specific scenario-Salmon eggs, stocked rainbow trout, riffles/runs,fly rod,tight line,( not your style), close quarters and young lightning reflexes. Fly tying club high school, PENN STATE, Spring Creek, Fishing Creek, others and friends father owned a camp on Penns Creek. Six of us post graduation on a wild oats fishing trip of the entire west- Colorado, Yellowstone,Grand Tetons, Glacier south to Arizona. We fished flies, but sometimes more than once when supper was on the line, we reverted to the old standby. Desperate times! I will say though, that mostly occurred on high mountain lakes out there. Probably shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag but, kind of relates to your tightlinig without a sighter. And I think it’s not like sucking in a fly and is spit out faster requiring an instantaneous hook set for success. Hadn’t trout fished in 35 years and getting back in on retirement here. Read one of your articles several years ago which lit the candle and related to my old style. Subscribed and have read everyone so I can to teach an old dog new tricks. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  13. When I was first teaching my youngest to fly fish, she was around 6 years old, she actually wanted to tie a fly or two first. So I showed her an easy tie I learned a year before on a guide trip for trout called the “fat caddis.” by Andrew Grillos. We had some bluegill around the local ponds and I knew they should work. I taught her how to tie them and she tied a couple. Then she wanted to fish.

    That weekend, we spent an hour plus, whatever attention span she had at the time, fishing bluegill at an urban park pond. I moved us a good 50 feet away from the ADA dock to give her room to learn the cast and fish. She was using her Berkley 4wt with the fat caddis she tied. She started to get good action and landed a fish after a few takes. Then she landed another, and another. Now one that was 6 inches plus. We started to draw attention from the 2 families at the dock tossing worms under a bobber. They started to cast right next to her fly and wouldn’t you know…..

    My daughter landed 3 more bluegill before one of the worms was taken. She was not even aware of the contest going on, but I took note. That was fun for me too just watching her.

    Tight lines Dom,

    Rick

    Reply
  14. What about worms used for bass fishing???

    Reply
    • Well, I don’t know. Because this is Troutbitten and not Bassbitten.

      🙂

      Seriously, I don’t know. The strength of this website and resource is that it covers a very narrow range of fishing: fly fishing in rivers for trout — mostly wild. That’s what I know about. Everything else? Not so much.

      Dom

      Reply
  15. I primarily flyfish for trout 99 % of the time because I release trout and bait kills more fish . It’s more challenging to fool a fish with a fly I tied anyway and more rewarding.

    Reply

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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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