High with snowmelt, the river swept our pontoon boat into a back-eddy — river left. My three-fly cast dropped into the swirl and the line slipped through my fingers. A trout smacked the back fly.
Jim Berl had his net in hand, but our boat was in the rapids before he could scoop the fish out of the water. It was June, the water was running in the shoreside willows and there was no finer place to be.
That stretch of river is well known for its dry fly action. In June, we tie on Elk Hair Caddis or X Caddis or the Caddis Flavor of the Month. We grease them with floatant and, hopeful, watch the choice bit of flotsam bump down the river. But in the hours I’ve spent there, I can only remember one 30-minute stretch of lights-out top surface activity. It was in the evening and the caddis danced on top of the water. Rainbows would clear the water to take a fly six inches above the surface. Those are great minutes in an angler’s life.
Our go-to river rig in June is a setup that can take trout on small streams, big, brawling rivers, and — with a modified technique — on still waters.
It is an unappreciated, almost forgotten, art: fishing a multi-wet fly cast for trout on the swing or the downstream drift.
BUILDING THE THREE-FLY LEADER
The three-fly cast presents a fly in three different planes in the water column. The point fly (tied to the tip of the leader) runs about mid-depth, while the droppers fish closer to the surface.
Jim Berl, a longtime river guide, showed me his technique, adapted from the Ernie Schwiebert way of building leaders. Start with a sinking line, then buy or build an 8- to 8 1/2-foot leader. Begin with a short, heavy butt and then add successively lighter sections for good energy transfer.
Start with a short butt section of 25-pound-test Maxima Chameleon (.020 diameter) blood-knotted down to 20-pound-test to 15-pound-test and so on down to about 5-pound-test or a 4X fluorocarbon tippet.
The keys to this technique lie in the knotted leader with a heavy point fly tied to the tip. For the butt section, employ a stiff monofilament and use fluorocarbon for the tippet. The droppers should be knotted to the main leader with surgeon’s or improved clinch knots. My preference is to use Chameleon for the dropper with a blood knot to a short fluorocarbon section for a total overall dropper length of 4 to 5 inches. Hint: build the leaders at home, on the kitchen table, with good light. Tie up a couple of extras, too, just in case.
Rig up the night before. This is one of the best things an angler can do to increase the number of fish brought to hand. Once I watched a guy spend 45 minutes of the prime part of the fishing day tying a leader in the parking lot. While he was enjoying his coffee and tying on a tippet and sorting through his fly selection, trout were dying of old age.
Now that the leader is built, let’s talk fly selection.
PROSPECTING WITH SOFT HACKLES
In June we can expect a hatch of stoneflies, caddis or mayflies on any given day.
There are a lot of different ways to approach the team of flies, but the important thing is to anticipate what bugs are likely to move. Tie up with a heavy point fly, like a No. 8 or 10 beadhead Woolly Bugger. Buy or tie with a lead wrap and a brass bead or simply go for a tungsten bead. The idea is to let the point fly pull the other flies into the feeding zones.
Ahead of a caddis hatch, use a gold bead soft hackle Caddis Pupa and a Soft Hackle Olive or Green Butt Soft Hackle on the droppers. Other good caddis imitations include the Tailwater Soft Hackle or the Green Caddis Larva with pheasant hackle.
Expecting an evening mayfly hatch, tie on a No. 12-14 Partridge and Gray, Soft Hackle Olive or Soft Hackle Adams. Other good mayfly wets include the Soft Hackle Purple Haze and Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail
Still not sure what flies to use? Tie on a No. 10 to 14 March Brown, matched with a Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear, a Leadwing Coachman, Brown Hackle, Spider or a Cowdung. These old classics are imitative of a lot of foods that drift down a trout stream in June.
Trout like to rest in slow-moving water where they can poke their noses into faster currents. Riffles, waterfalls and turbulence gives trout super-charged oxygen and brings them food, like it’s on a conveyor. Drifting down in a boat, or stalking from shore, let the team of flies swing along the seam. On a three-fly cast, some trout will see all three imitations. It’s like they can order off a menu.
We tend to think of a fish’s blind spots, but in the river, those are minimized as the fish makes micro-moves, keeping watch upstream with binocular vision. In current, fish are constantly moving. Even when it looks like it is holding in place, a trout undulates, its tail and fins in constant tension, to keep the fish in one spot. This enhances its depth perception and allows for fast targeting of the next morsel to come within range. And with three flies in play there is a good chance the biggest fish in any section of river is going to see the offerings.
In each new run, I try to ask myself, where would the dominant trout be? It could be behind a rock at the head of the pool, it might be at the leading edge of a log jam or alongside a ledge. That spot gets my first cast. Then, as the boat drifts toward the tailout, I’ll run my flies into a back eddy or let them sweep, on a taut line, alongside a submerged tree.
A three-fly presentation is subject to tangles. The stiffer leader sections minimize the chance a fly will be fouled, but some of the standard casts are taken out of play. From a boat, the oarsman is the angler’s best ally. By sliding down a rapid and orienting the boat at the right angle, the operator can position the angler to drop the cast in the right spot. And when I say drop, I mean it.
On Jim Berl’s boat we fished with straight mono on the fly reels instead of fly line. There was no casting; we used the lift-and-drop or the drop-and-drag. Sometimes Berl would anchor and we would strip line off the reels and let the current pull the flies downstream.
When prospecting with a three-fly rig from shore, the wading angler can use the pick-up-and-lay-down presentation, taking two steps downstream between casts. There is no need for a strike indicator with this rig. In fact, an indicator can get in the way. Instead, keep the rod tip high and keep slack out of the line. Set the hook at the flash of a fish or if the line goes upstream or sideways.
If a longer reach is desired, a modification of the standard fly cast can be employed.
Let the flies linger at the end of each drift — from 10 to 30 seconds in good water. Try to bring the flies back with a faster retrieve, rod tip high, dancing the top fly on the surface. There’s more than one way to catch a trout on a soft hackle.