Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Why a rusty spinner?

Posted 6/29/22

We planned to go fishing on June 2, but when the weather report forecast an 85 percent chance of showers for the western Catskills, the trip was canceled.

Next morning, when my friend checked …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Why a rusty spinner?


We planned to go fishing on June 2, but when the weather report forecast an 85 percent chance of showers for the western Catskills, the trip was canceled.

Next morning, when my friend checked in, I learned that despite the forecast, he went fishing anyway. Upon arrival at the river he found a large hatch of pale evening duns (PEDs) and had very good fishing, with three large browns brought to net. I cut the lawn and walked my new puppy. So much for accurate weather forecasts, when it comes to fishing.

I did go fishing a few days later, downriver a bit from where my friend had so much success. Around 6 p.m., the PED hatch began with a few trout on the rise. I landed a nice brown within the first 15 minutes, on a traditional Catskill PED imitation. Then the trout all but quit, with the odd fish feeding sporadically.

About 7:30 p.m., as night began to close and the mist started to rise, I found a steadily rising trout about 100 feet downstream from my current position. As I carefully waded toward where the fish was feeding, I watched while dun after dun was taken from the surface.

Since I already had risen a trout on the PED attached to my tippet, I cast just above the last rise. While my fly floated toward that rise, the trout rose about three feet to the left. I cast again, and this time the fish rose downstream about four feet to the right.

This game of casting to feeding trout on the move is a behavior I’ve encountered on any number of outings where fish feed in quiet pools, looking for flies. I call it casting to ghosts, because the angler, more often than not, is placing his or her fly where the trout was, not where it is.

On the next cast, I must have been lined up properly, because there was a swirl under the fly, but no take. In the jargon of the fly fishing community, this type of reaction by a feeding trout is called a “refusal.” What that means is that the trout saw something it did not like, and declined to take the fly at the last moment.

After my last cast, that trout stopped feeding, so I waded back upriver, looking for other rising trout.

About half way back to my original position, I saw a rise mid-pool. I waited, and watched, but that trout did not rise again. In the meantime, my friend downstream began to feed again. So I waded within casting range, this time with a size 16 pale evening dun at the end of my tippet. The same thing happened, the trout came to my fly, but at the very last second, made small boil, rejecting that fly too.     In all the years that I have been fishing, I believe this was the first time that a regularly rising trout refused my fly twice. So I headed back upstream, planning to pack up and head home. But as I reached the path leading from the river, I checked downstream once more, to find that trout still rising! It was a little after 8 p.m., and while logic told me it was time to leave, stubbornness and persistence reminded me it was never a good idea to leave a rising trout. So I waded back into position, attached a number 16 rusty spinner to the 6x, waited until the trout rose again, and then made a cast. The fly floated a few feet, and the trout took it without hesitation. It ran straight upstream where after ten minutes of short runs, I brought it to hand, then cut the tippet because the fly was deep inside the trout mouth. With a flip of its tail the fish quickly disappeared into the depths of the pool.

The question remains; why did this trout refuse my imitations of the hatch in progress, that is PEDs, and take a rusty spinner on the first cast?

Keep in mind that the rusty spinner I fished represented nothing that was on the water. So I have to ask, was it because there were Hendrickson and red quill spinners on the water a week or so before, and trout have recall of those flies? Or was it because the flies I tied to match the PEDs did not appear natural enough to pass inspection by this wily trout?

I have no answers when it comes to these questions, or why the rusty spinner is so effective, other than that it works when other patterns do not. So far this season, which began late due to high flows and cold water temperatures, I’ve only fished four times. During those outings, I landed five fairly large browns, all on a size 16 rusty spinner.

In my little book, “What’s Wrong With My Fly,” I emphasized why it is not always the fly pattern that prevents anglers from rising trout. In fact, there are many factors that determine whether anglers are successful or not. I still believe in that philosophy, but when a trout refuses imitations of the mayflies on the water and takes a rusty spinner, I have to remind myself that sometimes the fly does matter. Such are the mysteries associated with the wonderful world of fly fishing.

Catskills, pale evening duns, trout


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