Tuesday Tips: How to Fool Really “Smart” Trout

Written by: William G. Tapply


Bill Tapply drifts a dry fly on a mountain stream.
Photo by Phil Monahan

[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. He was far and away the best writer I have edited, and we developed a friendship around our shared angling and literary interests. He wrote books and articles on fishing and hunting, as well as great mystery novels that often featured fly-fishing. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]

If you want to fool the biggest, wariest trout, you’ll need a systematic game plan.

Trout outsmart me regularly. This neither surprises nor embarrasses me. Sure, a trout’s brain is about the size of a pea–a bit smaller than mine–but it’s a highly specialized organ. It’s not cluttered with trivial junk like Hamlet’s soliloquy and the batting averages of the 1975 Red Sox and what your wife really meant when she said, “Have a good time.” The sole function of a trout’s brain is to enable its owner to eat, to evade predators, and to reproduce–in other words, to survive.

Trout have trouble memorizing the ten main exports of Bolivia, but when it comes to survival, they are fast learners. The growing numbers of skilled and well-equipped fishermen who crowd our rivers are educating a generation of PhDs. Trout are warier and harder to fool than ever.

Many of our best spring creeks and tailwaters are year-round fisheries, and they are often protected by catch-and-release regulations. Every day of their lives, the trout who live there are harassed by giants in waders. These fish learn that any morsel that drifts near them might have a hook in it. Trout, it’s safe to say, do not enjoy getting caught and invest a lot of brainpower in avoiding the experience.

This is both good news and bad news for fishermen. The good news is that smart trout grow large and make challenging adversaries. Oh, sometimes it’s fun to catch a bushel of dumb little trout. But persuading a large, smart fish to eat a fly is a profoundly satisfying achievement.

The bad news, of course, is that unless we keep getting smarter ourselves, we won’t catch many of them.

Okay, I’m not that smart. But a lifetime of frustration and failure–and occasional success–has taught me that there are steps I need to take to give myself the best chance of hooking one of those worthy trout.

Here’s my mental checklist:

1. Locate the fish. Fishing the water randomly, no matter how well you cast or what fly you’re using or how many hours you spend doing it, gives you very little chance of hooking a PhD trout. It’s no coincidence that the biggest, smartest fish in any river usually lurk in the hardest places to cast to–along current seams, under sweepers, against undercuts. The demands of survival have taught them to seek lies where they can capture food with a minimal expenditure of energy while remaining hidden from overhead predators.

When they’re on the feed, PhD trout slide into slow-moving, shadowy water and set up close to obstacles such as overhanging bushes, weed patties, rocks, and fallen trees. These fish tend to feed unobtrusively. If they rise, it’s with a delicate sip that leaves barely visible rings on the surface. Your best chance to catch one of them starts with actually seeing him–not just the rings on the water, but the fish itself. Often all you’ll see is his shadow or the white wink of his mouth. If you fail to wear good polarized glasses, move slowly, and look hard in the most likely places, you’ll pass by the best fish of the day.

2. Approach with stealth. When you spot a worthy trout, the temptation is to start flailing away at him. Resist! Odds are you’ll spook the fish with a sloppy cast or a dragging fly. Instead, pause to size up the situation. Study the currents in relation to the location of the fish, and then decide where you need to be standing to execute a short, accurate cast that will give you a drag-free drift.

If you can avoid it, don’t plan to cast across the river. This is the hardest way to drop a fly directly in the trout’s feeding lane. It also lays your line over several different currents, a certain recipe for drag. A trout that’s feeding in the slack water against the bank or inside a current seam is best approached from directly downstream. If he’s finning on the upstream side of a boulder or bush or weed patty, or toward the tail of a pool, your best option is to position yourself upstream and a little to the side of him.

Once you decide where you want to be standing, move carefully. You might have to climb out of the river and creep along the bank before you step back in. Wear drab clothing, crouch as you walk, keep your rod low, go slow, and watch your footing. Remember: A shadow, a ripple, a quick movement, or the glint of something shiny will spook even the dumbest trout.

3. Study the fish. Once you’re in position, don’t start casting. Not yet. First watch the fish. If he continues feeding, it means you haven’t spooked him. So you can take your time. He’s not going anywhere.

Study his feeding behavior. A surface-feeding trout usually leaves an air bubble. If the top of his head, dorsal fin, or tail breaks the surface but his nose doesn’t, he’s eating something just beneath the surface. Nymphs, maybe. Look into the water around your waders and see what you can see.

If he’s feeding from the surface, maybe you can see what he’s taking. If his nose pokes up and sucks in a high-riding mayfly dun, that tells you what to tie on. If he’s sipping something you can’t see, look at the surface around you. Do you see spinners? Emergers? Midges? Crippled mayflies? Ants?

Maybe you see many things. In that case, take your best guess.

4. Make your first cast count. Drifting the wrong imitation over a PhD trout will never spook him. But a sloppy cast or a dragging fly will. Make a practice cast. If you’re fishing directly upstream, drop your fly just below the fish and watch how it drifts. Perhaps there are currents you didn’t notice that tug it sideways or yank it downstream. Take a step to your left or right and try it again. Add some more tippet. Don’t cast over the fish until you’re sure you’ll get a drag-free float.

If you’ve taken a position upstream of the trout, start by casting beyond the fish’s feeding lane and well upstream from his lie. Then drag your fly into his path, lower your rod, and let the fly start drifting. If the drift doesn’t look good to you, tug the fly under the surface and bring it toward you before the fish sees it. Shift your position, add tippet, and try again until you get it right.

5. Tie on the right fly. News flash: Big, postgraduate trout are not always choosy about what they eat. If they’re feeling secure and in an eating mood, they’re likely to suck in an imitation of any mayfly or caddisfly that’s in season, whether or not those bugs are actually on the water. Rarely do they refuse a well-drifted nymph or spinner. They also gobble beetles and ants.

We’ve learned a lot about fooling “selective” trout. But the truth is, tying on a precise imitation of what they’re eating is just one element–and as often as not, it’s unnecessary. So your best guess might well be good enough, and if you’ve done everything else right, that trout will eat your fly.

Drift your best-guess fly over him, and observe how he reacts. If he ignores it completely, you’ve probably mistimed your presentation. Trout tend to feed rhythmically, and if your fly doesn’t pass over him at the moment when he’s ready to eat, he’ll let it go. So watch the fish come up a few times and count–“One Mississippi, two Mississippi”– until you get a feel for his rhythm.

If you’ve timed it right and the trout follows your fly and then turns away, it means one of two things: Either it’s the wrong fly, or else it dragged. Keep watching the fish. If he disappears, you’ve spooked him. Go find another one. If he returns to his station but doesn’t feed for a while, the culprit was probably drag so subtle that you couldn’t detect it–but he did. Shift your position or lengthen your tippet–or both–and wait for the fish to resume feeding. Let him come up a few times before you cast again.

If he spurns your fly a few times but continues feeding, it means you’ve done everything well … except tie on the right fly. Congratulations. You’ve narrowed down the problem. You’ve got a genuinely selective trout on your hands. Now it’s time to start changing flies.

First, try to determine exactly what he’s eating. If there are mayfly duns on the water, watch one drift over him. Does he suck it in? If so, pick one off the water and examine it closely. I’ve encountered trout that demanded a particular shade of orange on the bodies of the pale morning duns they were eating. If you’re confident that you’ve got the size and color right but still get refusals, experiment with different designs. Try a no-hackle, a thorax, a parachute, a Comparadun. Remember those Sparkle Duns the guy at the fly shop convinced you to buy? They might be the answer, but it’s equally likely they’re the artificials that this fish has been seeing for the past month. Give him a different look.

We fly fishermen often marvel at the strange effectiveness of scraggly, bedraggled flies. An unused, beautifully tied imitation fresh from the fly box catches nothing until a wing falls off or the hackle starts unwinding. Suddenly trout cannot resist it. The reason is simple: Trout often key on scraggly, crumpled insects–cripples and stillborns and dead spinners–because they taste as good as the pretty ones and are easier to capture. When trout refuse standard imitations, take your fly to the barber. Slice the hackle of a dry fly at an angle to make it ride low and on its side, cut off the tail to make its abdomen sink, or remove one wing or cut them both to stubs to imitate an insect stuck in its nymphal shuck.

If that trout lets the high-riding duns pass, try an emerger or a cripple or a floating nymph. If there are a few spinners drifting around your knees, there may be more of them coming down your trout’s feeding lane. Keep experimenting. As long as he keeps eating, he is, at least in theory, catchable.

***

If you consider all of this to be aggravating and time consuming, by all means don’t bother. Fishing is supposed to be fun. Go look for an easier fish.

You can spend an hour or more working on a single trout. I do this regularly. If I catch him, I feel unnaturally elated. If I fail, I tip my cap to him. But it nags at me. I’ve got to believe I’m the one with the bigger brain.

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply:

They’re available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc. 

4 thoughts on “Tuesday Tips: How to Fool Really “Smart” Trout

  1. Ralph Daviet

    Very well said! After 65 years of fly fishing, fly tying, from Browns to Bones, I still don’t know all the answers and I hope I never will,

    Reply
  2. Tom Conigliaro

    All good advice…..but the thrill of catching a very difficult trout doesn’t compare to returning it in good shape to the water so that someone else can experience the thrill

    Reply
  3. Ethan Wood

    All well said, as a guide I am always trying to explain these same principles to my clients. People are most often to excited to slow down and do it right. I always repeat the mantra, “one cast one fish”. By this I do not mean that anyone can or should expect to catch a fish with every individual cast, but that the only casts that should be made are those that are calculated. If your going to spend and hour trying to catch that trophy you have spotted, your better off spending 55 min watching him, then take one calculated cast to catch him.

    Reply
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