I backed up slowly and watched the taillights of my 4Runner in the side mirror. Red light blended with a cool blue dawn to highlight patches of leftover snow where new blades of grass poked through.
Springtime has been here for a few weeks now. It’s too soon. And the early warmth, with unpredictable weather seems to have thrown the trout off. Or at least, that’s where my excuses begin.
This morning’s fishing trip started last night at the vise. I’ve been on the water every day for a week, and my local river has presented another mystery that I’m trying to solve with fly patterns. Trout aren’t eating the way I expect, and after two decades of constant fishing here, I have good reason for those expectations.
When trout don’t take flies as they should, I change tactics, refine the drift, or modify leaders, presentations and water types. Rarely do I blame the trout or my flies. But two out of the last three days have presented problems that seemed to be solved with smaller flies or more natural ones — sometimes both. That’s how I found myself at the vise just before midnight. I tied one dozen experiments and another dozen standards. Then I transplanted those flies, all small enough to require forceps and reading glasses, from the catch bin of completed creations to the slotted foam slits of my red fly box.
The Toyota engine was still cooling and crackling when I dropped the hatch. I locked the truck and walked five hundred yards along the river. All the way, I peered through the water’s surface, trying to glimpse the tail of a trout or the swift glint of a fish turning to feed underneath. Later, they might rise to meet an Olive hatch, but for hungry trout this early, the feeding happens below.
I walked until I reached the point where I’d quit the day before. Same light, same temperature, same conditions. This plan should work, I thought, and I waded slowly into position.
I felt my boots take in the familiar river. Cold water settled into my wading boots and around neoprene. Then the chill began its work on the stored heat around my wool socks. Early spring or not, this water is still winter-cold.
I rigged up a pair of the same flies that worked yesterday — a black beaded pattern on the platform of my Bread-n-Butter nymph, with olive dubbing and a red collar. And I kept the offering small at #18.
Fifteen minutes in, following a blank in two gorgeous pieces of water, I made my first change by swapping the top fly out for what we call a Brick Milkshake — still a black bead, just a bit larger at #16, but with the prominent flash of Lazar Dub and AZ Peacock.
That’ll work, I thought. And I stayed with the game plan of small flies that were (mostly) natural.
I took my time to stay disciplined and not rush to my favorite piece of water, upstream — an outside bend under the shadow of tall sycamores, with trees thick enough to provide shade in all seasons, even without the canopy of their massive leaves.
Another ten minutes and some exceptional water passed without a hit. So I swapped the point fly out for Dell’s Grinch (Ric Flair Variant). I had two follows from the same fish in the first handful of casts. This boosted my confidence level somewhere back to a full tank, but the following twenty minutes without another interested fish drained the tank to less than half again.
I was approaching the outside bend. And if I was fishing with a friend and deferring that location to them, I would surely poke my companion with something like, “Ya know, if a guy can’t catch a fish from that spot, there’s no hope for him.”
Hope. That’s what I felt like I was falling back on — and this early in the morning. My original plan evaporated too soon. What happened, I asked myself. What about the flies I tied last night? After two early changes, none of them were attached to my line. So I regrouped, reminded myself what I’d learned, and renewed my confidence by returning to the original plan.
Completing the wraps to attach the second small nymph, I spoke aloud.
“This is why you were up past midnight. So make it work.”
The first cast to the outside bend landed with more confidence than I’ve had for days. It resulted in a deep tuck cast, a quick drop and a beautiful strike zone ride of at least thirty feet in one seam.
That one hurt.
A dozen casts later — mixed with some variations on levels, tuck cast depth and lead speed — garnered one hit from a seemingly small trout that I might have bumped out of position anyway.
I was resigned to the plan but having a hard time watching it fail. After another dozen casts to the outside bank, I turned to my right and half-heartedly threw the flies upstream as I started a walk through the shallows to relocate. That nothing-cast stopped on entry, and I landed the first trout of the day. A tiddler made its way to my net, and it might have swam through the holes of the mesh if I hadn’t released it over the top of the hoop.
It is hard to trust a trout that small. As anglers, we’re out there to gather data about how trout are feeding: where, what depth, what patterns, etc. And smaller trout, under about eight inches, tend to give different answers than their big sisters.
I fished the shallow stuff for the next half hour, trying to convince myself that what seemed prime — the deep, juicy runs just a few feet away, may not be the best target water. I landed two more tiddlers that kept me on the plan, but they inspired no confidence. And at the top end of that shallow riffle, I was back to hoping.
Why was my confidence so easily shaken? Because a river that was once the most predictable of any that I fish has now become the opposite. It’s a confounding mystery that I keep coming back to, wishing to solve. And I know that with enough time, with an open mind and by running the right experiments, I’ll find the answers.
Some friends tell me the key is to go smaller. They say that added angler pressure has turned trout away from standard flies. I do think I’m seeing this with brightly beaded nymphs in the middle sizes. But in the smallest sizes, beads still seem to be part of the answer. Another answer is fur on a hook. Simple nymphs that match the ever-present crustaceans might be a safe bet for trout that are on-guard against the foolery of fly fishermen.
READ: Troutbitten | Feed ‘Em Fur
I had another friend tell me that he doesn’t fish this river because it’s too easy. To that, I answered back, astounded . . .
“How many times have you fished it?” I asked.
“A couple,” he told me. “And both times we plucked trout out of every pocket.”
“Ah, well . . .” I paused and spoke directly. “You might want to fish it a few more times before making that kind of assessment. Because right now, it’s the most challenging water in our area.”
Will that shake his confidence the next time he wades in and feels water soak through his boots and surround the neoprene on the feet of his waders? Surely not. But the trout will deliver the message soon enough.
The game on this one has changed.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
I’ve felt this way in 2023, in general. This year has been “different” for me, and I’d sure like to figure it out too. The experimenting continues.
All I can say is: Ditto, John…Ditto.
It is reassuring to hear this as this year for me has been a head scratcher. Nothing that would “normally” work has and I’ve had to fish outside my “confidence zone.” Experimenting when nothing is working is a tough path to go down as I question everything and find few if any answers. It’s a difficult puzzle and getting a few pieces together can change the day, building some confidence however when I can’t get any pieces to make sense I start to question everything. Confidence on the water is one of the most important aspects to fly fishing and losing it takes discipline to stick to it and find it again.
Well said, man.
Hey Dom, it’s nice to be human sometimes eh? In that circumstance, I tend to use the same fly (only change size/weight). That way I fish each water type, rather than second guessing myself constantly until fish show themselves. So many parameters…
Great read Dom, thank you for sharing. It’s been an odd “winter” for sure. But, we persist, and eventually the conditions/the fish/we change, and the confidence returns. I like that feeling.
Loved seeing you using a wading staff in the pic! Talk about confidence! I’m so comfortable wading with one I couldn’t imagine not using one now!
Thanks for all the articles and podcasts! I just finished the winter series today — learned a lot, as usual! I had my own “fence pole” hike through snow last year! It was frozen and hard packed on the way in but softened up while I was fishing, making the hike out a real struggle! Hadn’t anticipated that! 🙂 Live and learn!
It’s a bit reassuring to hear this. I’m a relative beginner but had felt my winter fishing was progressing nicely. I had a day in early Feb that was likely my best day ever but it was not what winter fishing is “supposed” to be – trout were quite active and in some of the fastest water. But I figured it out and that is so rewarding. But since then it has been TOUGH! I don’t have enough experience to trust myself so when it’s like that my confidence goes away quickly. Vicious cycle. I do think this weather has to be confusing to the trout – it’s confusing to me. Anyway here’s hoping the real spring will mark a return of more normal behavior. And thanks for the article it honestly restores my confidence a bit that I am still making progress.
Thanks for the article and the winter series podcasts.
Hopefully this years warmer winter won’t effect the Adirondack fly fishing this year. The Ausable needs the snow pack.