Matching the hatch… sort of. With apologies to Ernest Schwiebert
|Bergman Plate of Dry Flies from 'Trout' and antique British rod with Hardy Bougle'.|
The following piece is a tongue in cheek approach to our human foibles and fly-fishing. Ernest Schwiebert wrote the bible on trout stream entomology and fly patterns, Matching the Hatch, and Nymphs, which contain great illustrations by the author, tales about fishing the bugs in storied places, and as scientific a study of Mayflies, Stoneflies, Caddis, etc. that ever has been undertaken in our sport. However, I have meet anglers on my journeys that were literalists, and like biblical literalists, often took things to a less than rational end. As many bugs as there are in nature, do we need every one in our fly box?
I had spent the last days of melting snow seated surrounded by books on the couch, and engrossing myself in the historic writings of the sages of fly-fishing upon aquatic insects, hatches, and flies to imitate them. Halford poked out from under a pillow. Skues resided lower down on the floor, where his nymphs plied the depths above the weeds of empty coffee mugs. Perched on the table were Flick and Gordon. Schwiebert rested neatly next to an ionic column candleholder higher than the rest. Swisher and Richards propped up each end of a stack of dirty dishes. Strewn over the lot were the efforts of the past weeks: nymphs and dry flies of all variety of styles, sizes and materials. This trout opener would not find me unprepared for any possibility.
Several weeks later all the lore and knowledge gleaned from those books stored in my cluttered brain, and my stream bag full to the breaking with the carefully crafted bits of entomological fur and feathers further to tempt the trout, I found myself on the banks of my favorite local stream. I sat and watched as several small brown trout ate some bugs in the riffles above me. I caught one of the tiny insects in hand, and muttered importantly to myself with a new air of wisdom, “Paraleptophlebia size 16 mahogany dun.”
I sorted through my boxes, now carefully labeled and arranged, and located one of the new exquisitely tied upright winged duns I had recently completed. I attached it to my tippet and crouching low, approached within casting range of the riffle and let out a long loop of line with an aerial mend, the fly dropping onto the water above the hungry fish and tantalizingly bouncing down to the waiting trout while riding high on the current. The first fish rose to look at the fly, and then calmly turned up its nose at the offending entrée, and ate a real bug. The next half-hour saw me change my fly down to a size 18, and then to a comparadun version, and then to an emerger, all without interesting a single fish. I caught another natural fly, and compared it to my imitations. If the famous Schwiebert himself had drawn and tied these flies, they could not have been a more exact simulacrum, down to the gray wings, precisely colored and ribbed body, and three tails. I could barely tell the difference until the real one flew off in a hurry to join its brothers and sisters and left me muttering imprecations.
I proceeded up the stream and around the next bend to see if the fish here would be a little more accommodating, but met with the same fate. One trout about a foot long swam over after eating one of the dainty mayflies and casually looked at me from underwater as if to say, “Give it up mister, we aren’t having any.”
Then I heard a splash and chuckle. A man was standing in the next pool and playing a fish. He was dressed in an old Elmer Fudd hat and wore a dilapidated mackinaw jacket. He was using an old sawed off hockey stick as a wading staff. As I watched, he released a nice trout and immediately hooked another one.
“Nice fish,” I called out. “What fly are you using?”
“Usin a brown one mister,” he replied. “Them trout are eating little brown bugs, so I use one of them brown flies to catch ‘em.”
He showed me the fly he had caught the fish on, and I was amazed and appalled all in the same glance. Here was some grievous sin against all those aforementioned great authors and fishermen whose writings and detailed studies of trout-stream entomology and fly-tying had haunted my slumbers these past weeks and months. It seemed to be tied on some old bait or worm hook. For a body it used an old brown rag, and the wing and hackle were twisted out of some giant brown chicken feather. It looked like something my neighbor’s dog spewed up on my doormat a few years ago after eating a dead pigeon and having a go at a heap of coffee grounds in the garbage can for an aperitif. The proportions were so far off, and the hook so much bigger than it should have been, that it seemed a parody to call it a fly. Then the old Elmer Fudd clone whisked his bent fly rod forward and the fly landed and disappeared in the swirl of another hungry trout. I went back to the car where I kept an emergency bottle of bourbon, and attempted save what I could of my own sanity.
Matching our little concoctions of fur and feather known as ‘flies’ to what the trout are feeding on is a great and important part of the game of fly-fishing. An elementary knowledge is necessary at least if one is to have any chance of fooling a wily fish with a morsel of food that instead has a sharp surprise hidden in plain view. When Mr. Trout wants a certain bug, he wants that bug only… or the theory goes… If he orders a grilled tuna sandwich with basil, feta cheese and dill mustard, and he instead receives a hamburger, nine times out of ten he will dismiss the offending sandwich in preference for his original order. In the remaining instance, he will eat the tablecloth, the hamburger and the waiter. There are times he may be so finicky that he will refuse every morsel of food not to his liking. Wrong size, wrong color, and wrong species… or right everything, but take it back to the kitchen anyway just to be irritating. This gourmet and selective feeding tendency has led to the study of fly-fishing entomology. Dozens of excellent books have been written on the subject, and if the reader ever has a case of intense curiosity or a need to cure insomnia, I suggest reading a few. One will learn in detail all the Latin names of the insects, their preferred dwelling places, their size, their life cycle with pictures and drawings of each of these, their color, their behavior, time of hatching (season – month – etc.) preferred time of emergence, sexual habits ( Hendricksons prefer blondes), and everything else one can read with interest and then forget or get helplessly muddled when on the water.
This entomological knowledge leads to a greater and more intimate understanding of the relationship between trout and their food, or just to more fish for the enlightened angler. At least in theory, because if we dare take the full-monty of fly patterns necessary to match the hatch on any stream in a given season, our poor brother of the angle would spend all his time seated on a rock by the stream sorting and indexing his flies and never wet his line. This is also known to the wise men of the English chalk streams as ‘Sporting Restraint.’
Our angling friend sees the fish feeding on the surface wildly and consistently one late August morning and, according to his acquired knowledge, (not his eyes) he postulates that the fish are feeding on tiny Tricos or Tricorythodes for those partial to the Roman vernacular. However, if we take this to its illogical conclusion by following these guides to the letter, we would need to identify if the bugs are Tricorythodes peridius, T. stygiatus. T. texanus, T. albilineatus, T. allectus, T. atratus, T. explicatus, T. fallax, T. fictus, T. minutus or possibly even… could it be… Tricorythodes absurdium?
In the long run it really doesn’t matter because any size 22 to 24 blackish sparse spinner pattern would mimic most all of these, and most importantly, as we remind ourselves after noting we are due for a visit to the ophthalmologist soon, we can’t see the tiny bloody things anyway.
I once knew a fine gentleman who tied up a couple of dozen of each of these flies in the nymph, dun and spinner stage. He waded into the water with his thousand flies and sinking into the muck on the bottom of the stream, was never heard from again. We miss him, but his hat, stuck on the bottom of the stream now marks a fine pool of trout.
Knowing the taxonomy of the bugs in general is certainly helpful, but when taken to extremes can become annoying, like the gathering in the back of the hall where the old fishing club holds its meetings, and when on any given evening after a meeting and a pint or three of beer may be heard more bad Latin then a prep school symposium on the translations of Caesar.
If you find yourself inserting ‘Ephemerella Subvaria’ into every other sentence as an affectation in order to seem wise while using a bad fake British accent, then you may become the guy at your company holiday party standing in the corner alone next to the potted plant and holding an empty glass.
We inherently want to know the reasons things happen. That oh-so-human character that leads us to study natural phenomenon and attempt to explain it. It is the character of curiosity that makes us human, brilliant, and flawed all at the same time. For always are we convinced that our new theory is the correct one. We propound that the sun revolves around the earth, various mythical beings created us and rule over our lives, that bad smells cause common diseases, and the best cure for that is by bleeding, personality and character is easily read by feeling the shape of the skull, bodily humors, etc. Certainly that is enough to make us shyly wince at our latest attempted explanation of why a trout likes Elmer’s fly and not ours. Wanting to know, however, has lead us to Gordon and Marinaro… to the great Catskill flies, and to the thorax variations. Wanting to know led anglers like Gary LaFontaine to don scuba equipment and discover that caddis emit gas bubbles that glimmer as the bug ascends, and many other discoveries and innovations that make our little sins committed on the stream so much more successful.
But… however scientific or grand our discoveries that lead to better bits of fur and feather, there is still the mind of the trout to contend with. To get to know the trout, we must get to think like him, and once in awhile after a particularly long day in our waders, even to smell like him too.
Perhaps feeding trout are like people ordering pizza. From across the room we know that they are eating pizza, but what kind? Is it a dun-variant pepperoni, or a spent-wing spinach and pineapple deep dish? There are so many crust and topping variations that the mind boggles at the possibilities. We can only make educated guesses by observation. Don’t take that to extremes either, or you might be like the guy who tasted some Blue Wing Olive mayflies to see why the trout liked them so much. I hear they went nicely with a light chardonnay.
Why trout refuse one fly and eat another that is better to their liking for some unseen reason might be explained by a guy watching the local football match on T.V. while drinking beers and eating a bowl of chips. He keeps subconsciously reaching for the chips and crunching them into his mouth again and again with about as much thought as capable in a trout brain the size of a pea, but when he accidentally reaches a bit too far and gets into the bowl of milk duds his wife placed there before Christmas, he hastily rejects the offending round ball out of instinct, and belching loudly, reaches for another beer instead.
Perhaps sometimes it might be O.K. not to know.
Sometimes the best thing to do might be to put our fly in the water…
Four anglers go fishing on a trout stream. One is a Catholic priest, one a philosopher, one a physicist, and the other the village idiot.
The priest walks on the water and asks the lord to choose him the right fly. He has absolute faith in the resulting choice.
The philosopher sits down on the bank and begins to contemplate the epistemology of bug knowledge.
The physicist starts examining and measuring the speed of the current, the roundness of the rocks, and the specific gravity of the water.
The village idiot puts on a fly and casts it into the water. In ten minutes he has limited out, and is back at his hovel cleaning the fish and stoking the fire to cook his dinner.
A silly little parable until we realize the poignant fact. The village idiot was the only one to actually place his fly in the water! As I tell beginning anglers, Pick a fly appropriate to the fish and conditions, tie it onto your leader, have confidence, and put it into the water. Those thousand flies in your boxes can never catch a fish, only the one in the water can.
That is not to say that an intimate knowledge of trout stream hatches and life cycles is not important, it is just that it is only one element of the game. Presentation and reading water being equally important among others. Your fly may be a perfect imitation of the bugs on the menu at the Cordon Bleu trout stream, but we also have to get them to the trout. I don’t know any epicurians of my acquaintance that show up to dine at the Ritz, and just read the menu.
Speaking of menus…
One thing stands out among the fly boxes of some of the best trout anglers I have ever had the pleasure to wet a line with. They use general patterns and a few more specific ones. General patterns match a number of insects of the same species… like the Adams, Gray Fox Variant or Hare’s Ear. One fly can manage a hatch of a size to either side of the imitation, and when this doesn’t work, then out come the specialty flies. When the trout are feeding and finicky, then we have to get fussy too.
Bob Blumreich, one of Wisconsin’s trout sages says (my paraphrase) “Flies should be suggestive of the real bug, but not exact. Exact imitations often don’t work as well as something that is the right color and the right size, but suggests the bug to a trout brain.”
Look at Al Troth’s superb pattern, the Elk Hair Caddis. Does it look like a caddis? Not unless we have a severe eye disorder or drank way too much scotch, but it does SUGGEST the size and shape of the bug with its tailless and tent-winged profile.
There are instances where one needs to carry a file cabinet of flies to be prepared. Still-water fisheries and spring creek trout are notoriously fussy, and often have a buffet of tasty morsels available to them. When this happens it might also help to have a psychiatrist as a fishing partner. The fish can be on emergers first and then switch to the duns, and then ignore both for something you can’t see. Meanwhile the largest spinner fall you have ever seen is occurring and the trout don’t care.
Since the preponderance of water I fish for trout are spring creeks, I tend to carry a lot of flies with me. I used to use a vest, but got tired of constantly having to rummage in the pockets, and decided to utilize a stream bag instead. Then I reorganized all my flies by species and purchased several more boxes to store them in. As a result, I was both more organized and disorganized at the same time. Instead of rummaging around in pockets for boxes, I now rooted around in my shoulder bag for them, usually dropping a few on the ground from time to time. The bag was heavy too, causing my shoulder to hurt and slump, so I moved the strap to the other shoulder, causing that one to slump equally as bad.
Back on the stream, you fumble with your flybox while extracting a pattern and dump the whole shebang into the river, following it downstream with loud splashing and many cries of dismay, while every one of the artificial flies gets ingested by a trout smacking its lips for more. Your buddy asks from downstream which box you dropped. “Caddis box,” you answer, and then watch with horror and fascination as he ties on a caddis and collects all your flies one by one by hooking the very fish that just chowed down on your chum smorgasbord, and after carefully removing your flies from their lips, hands them back to you with a wink. This is called in better-educated circles “Matching the Catch.”
Maybe old Elmer knew something after all…
Maybe sometimes less can be more…
Funny, but if you contrast the approach of great authors and anglers such as Art Flick and Ernest Schwiebert, one may view the two great schools of thought, those of general suggestive flies, and of perfect imitations. Thankfully, this sport is big enough to allow for both. If the minor studies in entomology cause both clarification and obfuscation at the same time, we may remind ourselves that making things far more complicated than necessary for most people in the spirit and intent of explanation is one of the great aspects of this little hobby of ours. For some of us, knowing the Latin name of the bug, its sex, and exact size and color might add something to the game we play with the trout, and others of us might not care at all, preferring to fish a little olive bug when that is what the fish are eating.
So next time you run across someone sitting on the bank deep into study of a copy of the epic seven volume tome “Naturalis Insectora Stupendium,” and searching through his ten drawer chest fly box, you might want to have a few brown rag flies handy to give him. You may be doing him a favor.