|An active Caddis took this Brown from a very small creek in Wisconsin's Driftless area.|
I was setting down this essay and coming up with words to describe active presentations such as “Skitter, Pop, Twitch, Flutter, Dapple,” etc., when I remembered from my poetic days a concept word which always amused me, that of Onomatopoeia: Words whose sounds suggest their meaning. Surely a Twitch suggested a well… twitchy short sudden movement, and a Pop... well… and arguments can be made for all of those words, and their effect on the fish which can often result in poetry of a different kind when the fly is moving seductively.
I had read all the books, you see, back in my neophyte days of pursuing trout. Books that explained repeatedly the necessity of a drag-free drift. Books written in the best British and Catskill tradition, they correctly referred to a natural presentation of a newly emergent dun or spent spinner of a mayfly. Drag was an evil to be avoided on any costs!
So I was doing my darndest on the local brook an hour’s drive from home to channel those authors and fishermen of the chalk streams and the fabled New York free-stoners by careful manipulation of the line, mending, and patient control of the speed of the fly. I was fishing an elk hair caddis dry that day, placing it up against an undercut bank and watching as it tantalizingly bounced back to me looking proud and erect in the current. I was catching nothing. The trout were having none of it. When the sixth cast dropped the leader over a twig overhanging the stream, I decided to allow the leader and fly to just come back naturally, instead of attempting to free the leader and possibly entangle the fly in the twig. As the leader came back over the twig, the little caddis fly was dragged up into the air and over the stick. It never made it all the way over. A small brown trout jumped out of the water and missing the caddis, ate part of the stick by mistake, causing the fly to be knocked back toward me. Standing there rather dumbfounded, my fly now trailing behind me and gently skittering or skating back and forth in the tail of the pool, I felt a tell-tale tug, and hooked another brown without even trying. All my efforts had been in vain, while my errors had resulted in two fish taking the fly (or trying to.)
Still the lights did not go on in my head. Over the next year, I fished a wonderful Blue-Wing Olive hatch during a thunderstorm when my fly only got eaten while I was pulling it out for the back-cast. Here I was a little quicker on the uptake, and realized that the fish were eating emergers and that my fly was being drug under effectively imitating the hatching activity. Another time I was fishing a size 24 midge pattern through a hatch, unsuccessfully but doggedly, and once again, after the dead-drifting produced nothing but frustration, picked up the line quickly from the water to produce the load for a little spey cast, causing the midge to come waking across the surface of the water like a water skier. A nice 14” brown fell all over himself in a stupor of reckless passion to eat the midge. I never set the hook, being too shocked to gather my senses.
Over the next several months, back hose years ago, the light bulb slowly but finally came on as I observed more and more erratic insect behavior, and it became my habit to sit and simply watch bugs on the water. Yes, most mayflies behaved like they were described in the books and articles, mostly motionless. Others popped and dove into the water laying eggs, and even danced an exotic and erratic ballet for no apparent reason. Caddis and stoneflies often behaved like bugs; they ran around seemingly at random, fell down, crashed into things, dived in and out of the water, and behaved altogether like the players in one of those awful 1960s electric football games. Remember those? This was the game where after endless time spent setting up the play, the switch was turned on and we adolescent would-be coaches found to our horror that 1/3 of the players ran the wrong way, one third crushed into a little blob and did little else, and the remaining third rotated in circles and fell down.
This is exactly the random behavior I began to consistently notice during insect emergence on the stream, and a behavior I began to copy with incredible results by fishing the fly actively and making it behave like a bug. Drag? Yes, drag could be good now, especially if it mimicked the actual bug on the water…
How to behave like a bug: A primer
No, don’t start buzzing abound looking for a mate and wondering where those wings on your back came from, this is a different kind of behavior. Lets discover a simple set of presentations and approaches that may add a curve-ball to your standard repertoire of pitches on the river.
The Downstream approach:
After working a piece of water with a conventional upstream presentation, try moving to the head of the run or pool by moving around it, being careful not to be spotted by the fish, and try a skitter, skate or a dapple. A dapple simply uses the leader dangling out of the tip of the rod over the stream to dangle the fly on the water, allowing it to skate on the surface. If this does not produce, strip out a bit of line and, holding the rod-tip high, allow the fly to skate back and forth on the water using subtle rod-tip manipulation to achieve this effect. You can continue to let out line a bit at a time and cover the whole pool. In addition, try pulling the fly suddenly toward you, causing the bug to quickly pop under water and skitter upstream slightly. Raise and lower the rod-tip and cause the fly to hop about on the surface to really cause the trout to lose their minds. Try daisy chaining the presentations together: twitch, hop, skitter, skitter, skate, hop, pop, drift, skitter….
All these tactics can also be used with a little practice on an upstream cast. Raising the rod tip slowly can cause the fly to rip across the water back toward you and skate on the surface. A sharp abrupt mini-roll cast can cause a skate and hop back effect, and all the while, you can impart small twitches to the rod tip, causing the same action in the fly. A short and abrupt roll-cast can also place the fly back into the window where the trout are now excited by the active fly and drop it on the water where they will want to take it.
Down and across:
Using a wet-fly swing albeit with a dry, simply cast the fly across and down from 90 degrees across to 45 degrees down stream and allow the fly to skate and wake on the surface. You can add twitches as well to this presentation in which drag is now a good thing!
Add a dropper!
Adding a nymph emerger as a short dropper off the back of your dry causes two things to happen during active-fly presentations: The second sinking fly can anchor the dry and make hopping and popping more effective, and it adds a tantalizing second presentation, that of an emergent insect just under the surface bobbing up and down and back and forth.
Active presentations can also be called waking the trout up. Dour fish that will not rise freely, or have seen everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them may need their meal moving a bit to awake the appetite, and in addition, you will be more exactly mimicking the actual behavior of the bugs on the water, which is what presentation is all about! Just make sure to hold on to your rod. Takes on active drys can be powerful!
Notes on flies and casting:
The active presentation works best at relatively short distances of around 30 feet down to just the length of your rod. Often no cast is necessary at all. More line on the water equals less control of the fly action by the angler. At very short ranges just the last foot of tippet should be on the water. The best flies to use when presenting actively are very buoyant. The addition of hollow hair such as deer or elk, CDC feathers, and even small additions of foam can aid the fly in staying up and doing what you intend, instead of one of those toy football players mentioned before. Stiff hackles are a big plus too. One of the most effective patterns I fish actively was once very popular, but has fallen out favor: the bivisible. This fly uses two contrasting colors of hackle to cover the entire fly in barbules. The rear hackle or the abdomen may use shorter hackle than the front. This fly skitters like no other, and can produce some very large fish that rise with abandon to that strange thing on the surface they just can’t resist.
Expect a big ‘Bang!’ and a nice’ Gulp’ to reward your active efforts, and if the reader didn’t catch that, those are Onomatopoeia too! Gulp, Smash, Swallow…. Words that sound like their meaning!