Fly Fishing, like any type of fishing can be rewarding, exhilarating and fruitful; however some days you can also drive yourself mad trying to figure out what the fish are biting.
I do not profess to be an entomologist, however I have learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t…sometimes.
A fly fisher needs to be versatile and have a basic variety of flies in his or her arsenal. You can do this in a couple of different ways. Firstly, you can go to your local fly shop or retailer and buy your own. There is nothing the matter with this and it can even be beneficial, especially if it is a new area to you. Most likely, the patterns they have available will closely mimic the local aquatic invertebrates. Going into the shop also gives you a chance to chat up the staff. They will be very knowledgeable in what is hatching now and/or places to go. I can almost guarantee you they will not divulge hot spots, but they can point you in a general direction.
Or, you can tie your own flies. I prefer to tie my own and find it very rewarding, however some may not have the time or patience to do so. I find that I can get more of a variety of flies that are tailored to the lakes or areas I am going to.
You don’t have to be an entomologist, however a basic knowledge of what is hatching or what is active in your local waters will prove to be very beneficial.
How do you know what is hatching? Well, some hatches are quite significant and obvious, while others are a little more subtle. For example, the Columbia River in the Castlegar area experiences one of the largest hatches of Caddis that I know of. In July, the entire river boils especially in the early evening to sunset with the constant rises of feeding Rainbows.
The main food items trout rely on in our part of this fishing paradise are Chironomids, Mayflies, Stoneflies, Scuds (shrimp), Damsel and Dragon flies, Caddis Flies, Water boatman and Leeches. Also terrestrials like Flying Ants, Grasshoppers and Beatles can be on the menu too.
I was surprised when I first came into fly fishing of what hatches and when. I know of folks fishing Chironomids throughout most of the year. Scuds are also a main food source available throughout the year. Mayflies will hatch throughout the warmer months in the warmer portions of the day. Caddis flies also hatch in the summer months. Damsels and Dragons usually only have a very short window in the summer time. Leeches are quite a successful pattern, especially first thing in the morning or after a Chironomid hatch. I have yet to fish with the Backswimmer/Water Boatman, although I know of people fishing these patterns quite successfully in the Fall. Fish Terrestrial patterns wherever you see Terrestrial activity ie: very grassy banks, lots of overhanging cover like trees.
Chironomids are a main food source. However if you come along a particular hatch, ie damsels or mayflies, and are successful at fishing during these times, it can be quite exciting to know that you’ve nailed the pattern for the day or week. Fishing Chironomids is quite technical, and some do not have the patience for it. However I find if you have the patience for ice fishing, you will have the patience for fishing Chironomids. Prior to a Chironomid hatch in the early morning, try flinging a blood worm pattern out to the fish. They are generally bright red and are always in productive waters. Until the fish figure out what is the main colour and size for the day, a blood worm can prove to be quite successful.
Believe it or not, there are ways to determine what might be the fly of the day. Walk along the banks of your favourite river, walk the shores of your favourite Stillwater Lake. Be sure to pay attention to the weed beds. There may be damsels trying to emerge, there may be water boatman paddling along. Look under rocks and submerged pieces of wood. You may find Chironomids or stone flies carrying on under there. Look in the water for Chironomid or Mayfly shucks (the case in which the pupa rises to the surface of the water and hatches out of) as that is a pretty good indicator that a hatch is occurring or has occurred. When you see fish rise or the birds swooping in the air to the water, it tends to mean that something is happening and you need to be in that part of the lake or river to have a successful day.
When I come to a new lake, I will generally search it out by trolling with a sinking line. Some find this inferior while others like myself find it quite useful. I will usually do this with a particular leech pattern I have found works quite well. The only time I don’t do this, is if I know that there is a particular hatch occurring and have learned from someone which fly is working best. Once I have found where the fish are biting, I will change the setup.
Prior to going to a new lake, I will have researched it some with Bathymetric charts which are available online. These are good resources to find the general layout of the bottom of a lake. Finding the shoals and drop off areas will help your chances of landing a fish. If all else fails, try and catch a fish on some sort of stimulator (flashy) or Leechy pattern and use a product labelled as a stomach pump. I find this product quite useful, but am not fond of the way it is labelled or instructed to be used. This should be labelled as a throat pump, because you only want to extract the contents of the esophagus, NOT the stomach. Also, you do NOT fill it with water and pump the stomach of the fish full of water. You wet the tube, depress the bulb, suck in some water, squirt the water out, insert the tube into the esophagus with the bulb depressed and release the bulb on the pump when you feel some resistance and feel that the tube cannot go in anymore. This will extract the most recent feeding contents of the fish. Squirt the contents into a small bottle (vial or a pill bottle). You will get an exact reading of what the fish are eating- type, colour, size etc. Match this as best as you can to what is in your fly arsenal.
So, what do you use and when? As you can tell it is not an exact science. It is determined by time of year, time of day, and also what lake or stream. Just because Mayflies are hatching at lake ‘A’ doesn’t mean they will be hatching at lake ‘B’ down the road.
There is nothing quite like the feeling when you are out on the water, your line is out and performing how it should with a life-like imitation of the real quarry hatching around you. You feel that twitch in your line, you raise your fly rod lightly and there is an immediate tug at the other end. At that moment, everything you have put into this day, this trip, this lake has come together. You focus on nothing, but keeping your rod bent and your line tight. You become one with the fish, anticipating his run out to safety. You let him because you know he will be coming back. You feel him succumbing to the fact that you have mastered the hatch that day. You know in your mind that this would not happen if you had merely flung out a random pattern. You know in your mind that your basic knowledge of bugs, your research into this lake or stream and your ability to make your fly perform correctly for this situation has allowed you to bring in this beautiful bounty.
Good luck out there. Keep your rods bent and your lines tight. Preserve our waters so that others may enjoy them.