A few years ago, Bill Dell and I floated a favorite river from dawn to dusk. It was one of those great days with a friend, with no pressure to put fish in the net and nothing to prove.
Everyone wants a fishing friend like Bill. Both of us are dedicated to catching the next trout and never let off the gas, but neither of us brings any competition to it, either. Instead, we learn by watching the other guy — just by seeing what works.
The steamer action was sporadic that day, and somewhere around my third or fourth shift on the casting deck, with the sun falling closer to the western ridge, Bill posed a question. That’s another thing a great fishing buddy does — he’ll offer advice or some skepticism about why you’re doing the things you think are best..
“So, what’s with the Jimmy Houston bass retrieve, anyway,” Bill asked as he dug the oars into the middle seam, allowing me a little more time and a few more casts at the soft, shady bank water.
“You’ve been doing that for most of the day, and they aren’t really hitting it.”
Bill was right. And I immediately realized a problem that ran far deeper than our ten mile float. I was working the fly pretty hard. I’d gotten into a rhythm of moving the fly with jerks, jigs, strips and twitches that were jumpy — maybe a little choppy. And I’d been doing this for months. Probably longer.
Why? Because I like it. I enjoy the hard contact from rod tip to the streamer. I like watching the fly accelerate rapidly and stop. Even on a ten-inch jigging motion, I like jerking it upward and then letting it fall.
That kind of acceleration and speed in the motions, followed by an abrupt stop, has been a great trigger for me over the years, but on this float it was not. And as I made the next few casts, I realized that it hadn’t worked for me in quite a while.
We switched jobs at the tip of the next island. And as I leaned into the oars and watched Bill, I focused on his retrieves with an open mind.
Bill was casting at the same angles as I had been. His retrieves were of the same style too. He mixed in cross-seam slides, head flips, jerk strips and jigs, but he did all of them a bit softer. His motions to the fly were smoother. His fly moved in the same directions as mine, but he wasn’t in such a hurry to move through those same ten inches. On longer strips, the fly didn’t dart forward two feet, it slid forward at a medium pace but still traveled two feet. His jigging didn’t jerk the fly upward — it just raised the fly in the current until Bill backed off the tension and the fly turned its head downward again. The acceleration and hard stops on his streamer simply weren’t there. While I was moving my fly like an 80’s break dancer, Bill was moving his fly like a ballerina.
And the trout agreed with Bill’s dancer twice as often.
Since that float, I’ve kept this lesson in mind. And I’ve often had to talk myself down, to back off the hard and quick stuff, if they aren’t eating it.
Switching to smoother presentations often changes my luck.
Just this morning, I had a visual example of the difference. Our waters are very low and clear right now. We haven’t gotten the fall-rain blow-outs that we look forward to. But while the waters are technical right now, trout are still going through the same habits, the same routines that they do every fall. That is to say, they’re eating bigger food forms before the spawn. And if you present it well, they’ll eat streamers surprisingly well in such a boney river.
At 8:00 AM, with the sun at my back and behind dense clouds, I could easily see all the way to the riverbed as I waded upstream in mixed pocket water that protected my presence from the fish.
One after the other, I saw trout move to my Half Pint streamer. I watched my fly and the trout’s response. And I noticed that every quick movement, every twitch or chop on the fly literally spooked trout away from the streamer. They slid back to the riverbed or they went bolting for cover. Quickness of presentation was failing.
But when I performed the same motions — the same jigs, slides and strips — smoothly, one trout after another bought the presentation and ate the fly. Smoothness was winning.
This lesson went on for hours. And it’s something I’ll never forget.
It was a visual example of what Bill and I talked about on the boat that day. When my friend asked me why I was moving the fly like that, I told him that it often worked. And of course it does. I have just as many stories about trout being turned on by quick movements as I do of them being turned off. But Bill suggested that I slow things down.
“Don’t be so abrupt with the motions,” He’d said. “Let the trout eat it.” That was great advice that has stuck with me ever since.
I’m all for taking the fly to the trout. That’s my default strategy. Rather than trying to bring out the predatory nature of a fish, I’m more often trying to make trout the offer of an easy meal that the biggest fish in the river can’t pass up. And yet, my quick, jerky motions of the fly might very well be too unpredictable for trout to take the chance and capture it.
Let them eat the fly. That’s another Bill truism for streamers. And smoother motions allow that to happen.
All the Same
Every presentation that I’ve detailed in this Streamer Presentations series on Troutbitten can be performed both smooth or quick. All of them.
What about a jerk strip? Yes, the jerk can be smooth or abrupt. You can move the fly twelve inches with quick acceleration and a hard stop or at a slower speed and gradual stop. It’s still a jerk strip.
I also do what I call a twitch strip — a mini-jerk strip that moves the fly just a few inches at a time. But that twitch of the rod tip can be quick or smooth.
Jigging the fly provides another perfect example for this. Cast upstream and plant the fly and leader in one current seam. Let it fall and gain the bottom, and now jig it upward. Will you accelerate fast and stop quickly? Or will you lift the rod tip at half that speed and stop softly? The fly travels in the same direction, and it rises the same height in the water column. But it’s how the fly got there that makes the difference.
Often, I become enamored with extra rod tip action. It’s fun to move the rod quickly and watch the results on the fly. Over and over throughout the retrieve, that kind of motion can draw some vicious strikes, so the fun is reinforced. So too, the motion of the rod tip as it recovers pushes a bit of slack to the fly, allowing for the materials built into the streamer to expand — marabou opens up and hackles flex, just for an instant. The fly breathes before true contact is gained again. Some articulated flies are even designed so the back end kicks and turns the fly at sideways angles. That too is a great trigger, and it happens best with abrupt movements.
And yet, just as often, trout are turned off by a quick look, and they prefer the smooth moves of a swooning streamer.
While the presentation, the action and motion of fishing a smooth retrieve may be less exciting or less addicting for the angler, catching trout and meeting them on their own terms is the best kind of fun.
Fish hard, friends.
** Donate ** If you enjoy this article, please consider a donation. Your support is what keeps this Troutbitten project funded. Scroll below to find the Donate Button. And thank you.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N