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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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