June 27, 2019
America’s catch-and-release tailwaters are a world apart.
These food factories grow impressive numbers of large trout, with trout-per-mile densities often in the thousands. Yet the prospect of catching big trout attracts understandable attention and few tailwaters escape the fate of being loved to death.
New Mexico’s famed San Juan River, as a familiar example, hosts 45 anglers per mile per day on average (higher during celebrated hatches). The drill is generally universal: insects trending toward micro sizes, including midges, Blue-Winged Olives, micro caddis and smaller Pale Morning Duns, and the pupa, larva and nymphs of each.
The crowds arrive for scheduled events to enjoy dry-fly bliss, but day in and day out anglers are likely be dead-drifting tiny nymphs (sub size-18) on light tippets (5X-7X) below strike indicators (fancy fly-fishing term for bobber). I’ve certainly spent my share of time poised over bobbing tuffs of yarn, even some highly enjoyable times. It is deadly effective in even the worst of conditions—including clouded water and blustery winter weather.
But too much of this can become monotonous. And, on many days, trout seem to agree, shunning our smallest, most intricately crafted and carefully drifted presentations. Most dedicated anglers continue plugging away, waiting for the worm to turn. I, on the other hand, am cursed by a short attention span and long ago discovered there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve discovered that offbeat, even seemingly heretical, tactics can prove killing — even in snooty tailwaters.
Anglers have been brainwashed into the notion that only the most delicate presentations of the daintiest flies consistently fool tailwater trout. After being charged with entertaining rank-novice nephews and friend’s kids for a day of tailwater fishing (because those who pawn them off on me envision worms and Eagle Claw hooks), I have learned that trying the unorthodox can really turn the tables on “educated” trout. This includes hardware-store spinners, spoons, jigs and plugs.
Catch-and-release water, of course, requires replacing universal treble hooks with single-barb arrangements (using wire cutters to snip away barbs when necessary) and filing the barbs away or smashing them flat. It seems preposterous, casting a behemoth chunk of metal, plastic or squirrel tail into waters where you’ve been plying tiny bits of string and fur…but give trout something they haven’t seen before (because no one in their right mind spin-fishes tailwaters, right?) and anglers might just discover trout approve.
I’ve witnessed surprisingly productive outcomes with tyros dangling small crappie jigs festooned with twister tail grubs, marabou or bucktail, beneath a bobber, because it’s easy to cast and handle on a Zebco closed-face reel. Try something outlandish—chartreuse, purple, white, watermelon sparkle. Guaranteed, tailwater trout have never seen such a thing. They often throw caution to the wind due to this—or at least take them often enough to keep the kids happy. Obviously, being a beginning youth fisherman isn’t required to enjoy such success.
THEY GO SMALL, YOU GO BIG
I stopped over at the San Juan River on a hog-hunting road trip to Texas, talking an old friend into fishing a single morning. I hit it on one of those “tweener” periods: water clarity was off because the lake had turned over, there were no hatches on the calendar and even nymph fishing had proven lackluster. My friend, one of the better guides on that river, rigged up a duo of tiny flies, a translucent larva pattern and sparkle-winged Zebra Midge, to attract attention in the murky water.
After a decade living in northern Idaho fishing surface-focused cutthroats, dead drifting nymphs has become, let’s say, tediously unappealing. I knotted on a size-8 cicada, including a lot of black foam, grizzly hackle and an over-wing of white calf’s tail/flash. My friend pointed and burst into a deep belly laugh.
The predicted slow conditions materialized. By 11 a.m., just before my scheduled departure, we’d boated only seven fish. My friend, tediously drifting his tiny flies, caught four chunky rainbows. I caught three heavy-shouldered rainbows on my hilarious dry fly — and missed a couple raises.
Another time, while fly-fishing the Lower Sacramento River in northern California with old friends, we dutifully stopped by Redding’s Fly Shop to purchase the prescribed flies (bead-head Bird’s Nests, a local variation of the venerable Prince Nymph and caddis larva, all in size 16). While the day was still young, we began drifting these patterns beneath strike indicators. By noon I’d caught one trout, albeit a brightly-hued 16-inch rainbow.
Boredom quickly took hold. I figured if I was doing little more than practicing my casting until an advertised epic sunset caddis hatch arrived, I might as well experiment. I tried a black size-4 Cone-Head Woolly Bugger — a monstrosity with lots of flash I’d created for stillwater browns measured in pounds instead of inches.
The first strike, just minutes later, nearly took the rod from my hands. But I failed to hook up. I yelled to my friends that I had just received a jolting hit on a big Woolly Bugger. They viewed me doubtfully. I became doubly motivated, moving to a green pool, making a long cast across and quartering down, allowing it to sweep into the deep slot at the heart of the pool. I counted it down 20 seconds and began a slow, hand-twist crawl.
There was another unexpected lightning strike and line and rod assumed a life of its own. A fat, 18-inch rainbow came out of the water, quite disconnected from the trajectory of my fly line, but the bow soon straightened, and I was hooked up alright. As the fish slid onto a patch of sloping sand, my friends abandoned their rods to have a look and shoot some snapshots then went back to patiently monitoring strike indicators and mending their drifts.
I caught three more heavy trout before the blanket caddis hatch commenced and big-headed gulpers that we could not catch began rising greedily.
On another tailwater of some note, fishing with true purists, those very Sacramento conditions repeated themselves again. Offering the locally accepted tidbits had yielded exactly zilch. Though you pretend otherwise, other anglers on that river were closely observed. No bent rods. Wooly Buggers, too, failed to impress.
So, I started poking into the dark recesses of my overly stuffed fly boxes in search of a sign. I came across an “Easter Egg.” This simple fly includes a body of metallic-purple “grass” robbed from a youngster’s Easter-egg basket, over-wrapped with clear Larva Lace, adding a peacock-hurl collar, grouse soft hackle and brass bead head, all tied on a size-12 curved-shank hook. I had stocker trout in mind when it was created. On that Montana day, with nothing to lose, it seemed somehow appropriate.
Those trout loved it.
I sought something even more outlandish, finding an inch-long, pure-white “leech” pattern tied on a size-8 hook. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I had in mind with those (carp maybe?), so, of course, those Montana trout loved it. I was fishing a bamboo rod holding my antique reel with its ridiculously raucous click-pawl drag, so everyone within 100 yards couldn’t help but notice every hookup. I might have produced a couple hoots, just to needle my purist friends. Some random guy finally couldn’t take it and sauntered over to ask what I was catching them on. I presented the tandem Easter Egg/white-leech atrocity.
My buddy soon appeared. “What did you say to piss that guy off?” he asked. “He just stomped past, muttering curse words, looking over his shoulder and giving you the stink eye.”
I replied, “Well, guess some guys would rather be stylish than catch fish.”
I thrust my rig a couple inches before his face. A bit dramatically, I thought, he recoiled as if I was dangling fresh cat scat.