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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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