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3 Must-Know Fly Tips for More Trout Hookups

Before stepping off into the next trout stream, up your odds for success by learning to crack the cold-water code.

3 Must-Know Fly Tips for More Trout Hookups
3 Must-know Tips for More Trout Fly Fishing Hookups

Just when you think you've got them figured out – I’m talking about trout – they can bring you to the knees of your waders.

Good thing my Simms are so tough, I suppose.

Especially on evenings like the one a number of years ago in the infancy of my fly fishing career as I stood hip deep in a Colorado trout stream with the sun sinking towards the mountainous horizon.

As beautiful as that scene was, I wasn't paying much attention given all of the rainbow and brown trout rising around me.

Buoyed by my first dry fly fishing success – rainbows on an Elk Hair Caddis and browns on a Stimulator – I sensed a glorious evening about to unfold in front of me on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

The evening hatch, it's a fly fisher's dream, right?

Not that night and certainly not for this lowlander from North Texas. Try as I might, I simply couldn't dial up the right fly despite throwing literally everything in my sparse fly box towards those rising trout.

By the time it got dark, I was wading out of the river with my tail tucked between my legs, having managed only one hookup with a small brown.

The next day, as I trudged somberly into Dan's Fly Shop in Lake City, Colorado (www.dansflyshop.com; (970) 944-2281), I was about to discover the error of my ways.




Specifically as the shop's head man told me thou shalt never fish a dry fly when rainbows and browns are actually sipping mayfly emergers.

What were my mistakes the previous evening? Simple, a failure to observe, improper fly selection and poor presentation.

Interested in avoiding my mistakes when you visit your favorite trout stream? Then read on and learn how to become a fly fishing version of an osprey.

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Observation: There's little doubt the most successful fly fishermen are usually the most observant ones.

One such angler I've met down through the years was Matt Pyles, a San Juan River guide and soccer coach in northwestern New Mexico.

As much as Pyles loved to fish the San Juan, I remember he told me he never made a mad dash to the stream once his fly rod was assembled.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is just rushing right into the water, making all kinds of noise," said Pyles.

"They're not sneaking up on fish. Everybody wants to jump right in and start kicking up rocks. That kind of alerts the fish that people are there."

On a morning I spent with Pyles on the San Juan, he pointed out we should move upstream and try some different tactics. Our earlier tricks and tactics, which had not produced any fish that morning, were going to the birds.

Literally, I might add, since the swallows were beginning to swarm near the river as a blue-winged olive hatch began to bloom.

"A lot of times, keep your eyes on the riffles," said Pyles. "A lot of times, when you see the birds hanging around the riffles, you can be pretty sure that some bugs are coming off."

In the heartland of southeastern Oklahoma, Lower Mountain Fork River trout guide Rob Woodruff echoes that advice.

"Pay attention to swallows," said Woodruff. "When they're working over a river and not drinking, you had better check the river out."

Why?

"Because they're feeding on what the trout are feeding on."

But a stealthy approach and watching the birds isn't all that good observation entails on a coldwater trout stream.

It can involve other elements like not being silhouetted against the skyline as you cast; checking the water along the bank for the flash of feeding trout before wading in; turning over rocks in the stream to see what size and color the nymphs are; noticing the bug life contents of spider webs along a stream's edge; and noticing the rise forms of trout suggest emergers instead of dry flies.

Ahem, are you taking notes, Mr. Burkhead?

The bottom line is if you want to increase your trout hookup rates, learn to be more observant.

Tips for Fly Fishing
Want to improve your trout fishing success this year? Then be very careful to match the hatch in terms of color and size. (Lynn Burkhead photo)"

Proper Fly Selection: Most fly anglers know the term "match the hatch" and how to go about doing so. Some will even go as far as to using a net seine on a trout stream to see what the local insect population happens to be above and below the surface.

But sometimes, an angler can do all of the above and then quietly observe the naturals floating downstream like miniature sailboats.

All while being completely ignored by the local river's rainbows and browns.

Why is that? Woodruff says it is often because a fly angler has failed to consider things from the trout's point of view.

"Healthy, just emerged mayflies hold the end of their abdomen up off the water," so what the fish is seeing from below is actually smaller than what you're holding in your hand," said Woodruff, an honest to gosh entomology graduate of Texas A&M University.

In Woodruff's eyes, fly selection should be governed by size first, color second and shape last.

"If you pick up a mayfly floating down the river and he looks like a size #16, you'd be better off to go with a size smaller down to a size #18 as a general rule."

Presentation: Unfortunately, a fly angler can work diligently to increase their on-the-river powers of observation, get the proper fly on the end of their tippet and still walk away from a trout stream shaking their heads and muttering to themselves.

Why? Because of sloppy presentations, a mistake particularly important on heavily pressured trout streams around the U.S.

"You have to get a perfect dead drift," said Pyles. "These fish see a lot of flies and your presentations have to be flawless. You need a nice long drift with little movement of the fly from mending."

Fishing small dry flies before heavily pressured trout isn't the only place good presentation is necessary either.

Because the same drag is the mortal enemy of dry fly fishermen can also torpedo those fishing subsurface nymphs.

"Selective trout know that real bugs don't accelerate and travel faster than the current," Woodruff wryly notes.

Sometimes, spooky trout will still reject an all but perfect drift. When that happens, it's time to pull another weapon from the fly vest – fluorocarbon leaders and tippet material.

On Pennsylvania's storied Yellow Breeches and LeTort Rivers, retired fly shop operator Kathy Weigl often pointed out to anglers such material was often the difference between hooking a good-size trout and ending a day on the water empty-handed.

"Fluorocarbon is important (in Pennsylvania) because our water is so clear and it's slower moving," said Weigl. "The fluorocarbon with the lower refraction seems to be not as obvious to the fish."

And if it's not as obvious to the fish, the odds are much greater that the presentation of a fly to that trout will receive a favorable response.

While employing these three steps – improved observation, proper fly selection and solid presentations – doesn't guarantee more hookups with trout, it certainly can help turn the odds in that direction.

And with the PhD trout that inhabit some of America's top coldwater trout streams, it never hurts.

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