Strategies for Pressured Trout — Something Different or Something Natural?

by | Jan 23, 2022 | 9 comments

A lot is made of angler pressure and its overall effect on trout behavior. In truth, I’m not so sure that fishing pressure is as big of a factor as some people insist, and I think we use it as an excuse sometimes. In fishing, bad luck happens, so we look to explain away an empty net. It’s the barometer, the hatch is late or the water’s too cold. And these fish see too many anglers seems like a pretty good excuse too. All of these are valid reasons, but it’s probably best never to blame the fish.

The daily puzzle that we search to complete out there has a lot of pieces, some large and some small — many of consequence and some that are barely significant. And I do believe angler pressure is a factor.

First, let’s understand that a parade of wading anglers or an armada of drift boats can displace fish from their preferred or natural lies. Angler presence not only forces fish to relocate to new feeding zones, but heavy pressure also spooks trout and puts them down. That’s a day-to-day, undeniable fact regarding the angler’s effect on his quarry.

But what else? What about angler pressure and its effect on fly patterns? What about fly selection? This question is perhaps more mysterious. It’s less provable. And for me, it’s surely less predictable.

So I often wonder, when fishing pressured water, should I show the trout a fly that looks uncommon, or should I aim for something that looks so real that it can’t be denied? Should I show them something different or something natural?

READ: Troutbitten | A Comprehensive List of Fisherman’s Excuses
READ: Troutbitten | They don’t have to eat it to learn to reject it

What’s Different?

Fly designers like to label flies as representations of mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies or midges. Maybe that big one, they tell you, is a crayfish. This one’s a sculpin, and here’s one the trout take for a Black Nosed Dace. I do the same. And while peering into my fly boxes, I surely run through the taxonomy of trout foods as I make a selection. What do I think the trout in this river will eat best? So too, while sitting at the tying bench, I try hard to build bugs that have similarities to what the trout take as food.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. The most popular flies do not look much like what they are supposed to represent. The flashy and gaudy materials on streamers, the hot collars and tags on nymphs, do not look like the real deal. Turn over some rocks, put a few naturals in your hand and compare them objectively to your nymph. Come on, now. Basically, any nymph with a shiny bead disqualifies it from presenting a natural look. (I know, I know — the emerging caddis air bubble thing . . .) Fact is, the hook sticking out of the fly, the ribbing, the flashy stuff, and yes, the bead, probably looks a lot more unnatural than it does natural.

And honestly, thank God for that. Because trout eat it. I really think trout search for a profile and a size. Then quite often they want to be attracted by something on the fly but not turned off too much either.

READ: Troutbitten | Super Fly — The Story of a Squirmy Wormy

Dry flies likely get the closest to imitating what the trout see, and streamer patterns are probably the furthest away from sincere imitation. With so much size, even to a small streamer, there’s a lot for the trout to reject.

Now back to the topic at hand — trout learn to see some colors, some materials, some shapes and movements as fake. And when they see the same fake fly often enough, they stop eating it. That’s what we mean by angler pressure. So, part of the game becomes a guess about what flies the trout have learned to reject and how we can turn the fish on again.

That’s the unnatural thing about trout seeing too many fishermen and too many flies.


What’s Natural?

It’s in these times and these waters of high angler pressure with educated trout that I most often turn to natural nymphs. When the trout seem tough, and when they seem tuned in to the fact that I’m trying to catch them, I reach for flies that have the fewest attractors. Or rather, they look as close to the real thing as I can imitate.

Under average circumstances, with reasonably low angler pressure and unmolested trout, I employ more attractive patterns. These are my go-to flies. I like streamers with some flash and extra movement or trigger colors, nymphs with bright beads and hot spots ,and even dry flies with thicker tails and extra hackle. But, again, my dry flies are the most natural. It’s the underwater game that finds most of us casting flies with added attraction built in, not just as some tinsel on the Christmas tree, but as the main feature. Think about a #16 beadhead France Fly. For the most part, trout are eating the bead — and sure, the body and tail matter a bit too.

READ: Troutbitten | Troutbitten Confidence Flies — Seventeen Nymphs

But when trout refuse my best flies, I’m quick to dial back the disco. And I turn to more bland, seemingly drab patterns that do a better job of matching what’s actually under the water. In turn, I use dry flies with fewer wraps of hackle or none at all. Over selective fish, I choose flies like Comparaduns or the CDC and Elk.

Some of my favorite nymphs over pressured trout are simple fur nymphs, like the original Walt’s Worm, a non-descript scud or my favorite version of a cress bug. So too, a Pheasant Tail with no adornments, no added flash and no bead is a killer converter for pressured, picky fish. The classic Hare’s Ear is all but forgotten in many circles. But I tie a version that I use most during Sulfur season, again with no bead and no flashy dubbing.

These natural nymphs can be the right answer for trout that have seen everything and learned to reject it. Because a selective trout still needs to eat, and he’s probably looking for the safest bet — the real deal — rather than taking a chance on something attractive.

READ: Troutbitten | Feed ‘Em Fur

But Yeah — Get Extreme

Yes, I’m skeptical of the angler pressure excuse. And much of my disbelief comes from what I’ve seen. Sure, sometimes the solution over pressured fish is to go natural with something like fur nymphs. But other times, the answer is just the opposite. Instead of using copper beads on a Pheasant Tail, my buddy, Trevor’s, Trick or Treat Mop Fly with the Orange hot bead wins the day. Oftentimes, something like a juiced up Higa’s SOS with a hot pink body works when nothing else does — and maybe that’s because Mr. Picky Trout has never seen that one before.

It’s a valid approach, and it’s hard to argue with results.

Open Options

So what’s the best answer for dealing with pressured fish? Keep an open mind and a fly box full of options. Get great drifts, and then get better ones. Try going natural with the flies, and then get a little crazy.

Another time tested standard is to choose smaller patterns. And certainly, small or tiny flies have saved the day over pressured trout many times. But just as often, for me, a stonefly, one size larger than usual, turns more and bigger trout in places that you may never expect.

Trout are unpredictable, and angler pressure makes them even less predictable. But it helps to acknowledge our full range of options and know the strategy we’ve selected, if only so we can throw it away and do the opposite when it fails.

Trust your drifts. And then let the fish decide.

Fish hard, friends.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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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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  1. When we switch to a smaller fly are we really switching to a smaller fly or are we switching to a smaller hook? You have to be kidding yourself to think that your rejections are due to small imperfections in the fly when there is a very unnatural relatively large hook sticking out of it. Clearly, the hook is the easiest feature to spot on a fly as a trout approaches for a rejection. In pressured water trout get numerous opportunities to relate that strange protrusion under the fly to sucking wind in a fisherman’s net…could that be the real problem?

    • Well yeah, and I mentioned that above. However, the hook is the one thing we can’t take away, right? We can subtract the bead, the hotspot, the extra hackle, shorter parachute post, less ice dub, etc. But we can’t take away the hook, completely.

      ” are we really switching to a smaller fly or are we switching to a smaller hook?”

      Both, right? We show them a smaller hook and a smaller fly on that hook, so overall, less for them to reject.


      • When the fishing gets tough, l think about the article you wrote around a year and a half ago. Feed’Em Fur.

        • CDC. Makes dry flies come alive. Best trigger ever!

  2. DFO anglers are all too familiar with difficult trout. I don’t really care why they refuse my initial offerings. Call them pressured, selective, spooky, moody, conditioned, or ball busters it doesn’t change the challenge or solution. These are the fish that improve your game way more than a happy, hungry, super eager eater.

    When it comes to these I’llfussy trout that are surface feeding on an identifiable insect, the question is a bit different:

    Something different that imitates? Something different that attracts? Something different that combines imitation and attraction? Something smaller that imitates? Something larger that imitates?

    The beauty of DFO is the feedback we get when trying these different options; as visual as it is visceral!

  3. I had previously been skeptical about the notion that trout learn (to avoid certain flies, or whatever) — it seemed somehow far-fetched to me. One day I googled the subject (operant conditioning trout), and found plenty of research showing how trout, like basically any animal with a spine, can discern and learn sequences of actions or behaviors both to gain reinforcement (food rewards) and to avoid punishment (negative consequences).

    They can learn to push buttons with their noses to gain a food pellet, for example. Getting caught on a hook, brought in, and netted has got to be a massively negative consequence that floods their system with the message, “Do not allow that to happen again!” Though I didn’t find any research dealing with that scenario in particular, it seems plausible that it can contribute to the trout learning to refuse a certain fly pattern or profile. Maybe that’s what happened with the rise and fall (or cooling-off) of the squirmy wormy.

    But they have to eat, like you said. It would be interesting to see research dealing with the specific differences in feeding behavior between trout from highly-pressured and unpressured waters. In any case, published research is a great resource for weeding through the various layers of angler wisdom that may or may not be based in fact.

  4. You are right on track here. The old saying that the first “job” of a fly is to catch and angler is true. Maybe it’s anglers that are drawn to hot spots and flash more than are the trout. I have great success with a simple thread bodied nymph with a bit of UV dub for a thorax. It works in my home waters and on trips out of State.

    Isn’t approach and presentation more important than the fly. I believe if we manage to get the fly in front of the fish that there is a good chance they will eat it.

  5. Thanks for sharing this one, Dom. Really insightful for those of us who aspire to become expert fly fishers!


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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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