ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Up versus down: a fly-fishing dilemma

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 5/5/20

Those words may sound like an odd title for an article, but they describe one of the most confounding fishing situations anglers are likely to be confronted with. I know that up versus down has been …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Up versus down: a fly-fishing dilemma

Posted

Those words may sound like an odd title for an article, but they describe one of the most confounding fishing situations anglers are likely to be confronted with. I know that up versus down has been an issue with me ever since I began to study aquatic insect behavior in relation to trout feeding years ago.

To begin, let me explain that “up” means the direction that aquatic insects, other than stoneflies, travel through the water column on their way to the surface during the hatching process. “Down” means the way wet flies and nymphs sink in the water column when we cast them. That is in direct conflict with the way insects move and trout feed during a hatch. If anglers look at this logically and from a trout’s perspective, it is easy to understand why our flies might be ignored among other insects. Why would a trout that is feeding on emerging insects, traveling from the bottom toward the surface, take something that is sinking and going in the wrong direction?

When wild trout begin to feed, they naturally follow the cycles of aquatic insects they feed on. That means as fingerlings, they feed near the bottom. As they grow, they follow the insects from the stream bottom toward the surface. Eventually, as they mature, they begin to take adult flies from the surface or just under the surface. Are you beginning to see a problem here?

For those of us that fish beneath the surface during insect hatches, when trout are not taking adult flies, it’s important to remember that our flies sink when presented. So, what can anglers do to avoid that issue and present their flies more naturally to mimic the behavior and movement of hatching insects? One technique that has been used with a great deal of success, is to attach a strike indicator to the leader so the fly will float at the desired depth. Guides, particularly in the West, use this method extensively when there is little surface activity. This technique works very well when trout are holding at a specific level.

But what about when trout are following insects through the water column and taking nymphs at all levels including just under the surface? This is where things get a bit tricky. I’ve tried to solve this problem by floating an emerger just under the surface, using a small strike indicator with limited results. I have had some success with a Pheasant Tail Nymph tied parachute style with a yellow post. Flies tied that way float in the surface film and work pretty well when trout are feeding just under the surface

Historically, one of the most successful methods developed to move trout when they are feeding on emerging insects is the “Leisenring Lift.” That method was developed by Jim Leisenring in the 1940s. It involves fishing a short line at close range in deeper runs and riffles, where anglers roll cast or “chuck” their nymphs upstream, so they have a chance to sink. The angler then follows the travel of the leader with the rod tip, lifting the rod as the flies get closer and causing the flies to rise toward the surface. This method can only be used with a short line and requires anglers to strike at the slightest twitch. Although Leisenring states to the contrary, this method, often calls for the use of shot to get the flies deep. So traditional fly casting doesn’t work very well because of the added weight.

Another method that I’ve tried is a sink tip fly line cast directly across but upstream of a trout feeding on emerging flies. The idea is to allow the flies to sink as they drift toward the fish, then raise the rod tip so that the flies rise toward the surface, mimicking a hatching insect as it nears the trout. I have tried this method a few times but, so far, have not used a sink tip line that gets the flies deep and fast enough.

Of all the fishing situations we run into as fly-fishers, those associated with trout feeding on emerging flies is the most difficult. I’ve been experimenting with all the methods I described here with limited results, which is sometimes frustrating and certainly not productive. Yet, these are the challenges that keep bringing us back to the mysteries and challenges of the river.

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