A lot of people we fish with have an expectation that they will resemble Brad Pitt while elegantly casting a big salmon fly across the Gallatin River to a hungry rainbow trout. In fact, most beginners believe that fly fishing revolves around throwing top water adult insect imitations, maybe because that is how it began. We have learned that the vast majority of a trout's feeding activity (90% or more) will occur under the water's surface. Yes, trout (and other species) commonly feed on adult bugs and terrestrial creatures, this is true. They are, after all, opportunistic feeders always looking for an easy source of protein. But the majority of the food available in streams and rivers begins underwater. Larva, pupae, nymphs, leeches, crawfish, minnows, beetles, frogs/tadpoles...all have substantial lives in the drink. For the fish...chasing adult insects is just not as easy as tracking down the slower development stages and struggling emerges as they strive to live out their destiny as adults propagating the species. It can be tempting to tie on that BWO at the first sign of a rising fish, but there is a better way. Here are 5 things to consider when bringing your focus subsurface first for more fish:
1 - It's hard to hide on a rock: Ever tried to catch a flying bug? It's not easy. If you're lucky they'll land on you and identify themselves. Aquatic insects, on the other hand, can be found all over the bottom of a creek, river, or lake. Next time you are there, just pick up any stick, rock, or some moss. What do you see? Better yet, buy a 5 gallon paint filter at your nearest home improvement store and get a really close look at them. Fit the filter around your net and begin dredging the bottom. The filter will allow the water to pass through holding all bugs and byproduct in the makeshift seine. Those bugs will help you match the best fit from your box and give you a great starting point for making the day a success.
2 - Year Round. The life cycle of nymphs and larva allow for a substantial amount of their lives to be lived underwater. Baetis nymphs, for example, can live underwater for over two years before eventually hatching and becoming adults. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter...bugs are always present and always underwater. This means hungry trout have something to eat during the "offseason". Fishing all year round makes you a better angler and will help you catch fish while others are sipping coffee on the couch.
3 - It's not always how it seems. There are times when beginners will see a trout dimple the water's surface and instantly deduce that adults are being taken. This is not always the case. Take notice of how the fish ate the fly. A roll or dorsal fin exposure typically means the fish are taking emerging insects. This is often the case for dimples on the water as well. These bugs are either struggling from their case at the water's surface, or they are swimming to the top in order to make that transition. Either way, it is an easy target for a trout. If this continues, you may begin to see fish leaping from the water, or splashing loudly during their dinner. This would indicate pursuit of adult bugs. The fish realize that their meal may fly away at any time, and they want to make sure they get to it before it's too late. As a general rule, though, always assume subsurface first, even if you see rising fish. If you are not getting bits at first, try going a bit deeper before trying a new fly. This usually does the trick.
4 - Hungry fish need to eat. When fish are feeding subsurface, especially in current, they do not have time to eyeball every piece of floating food that passes by. Yes, they can be selective at times, but that doesn't mean they won't try things, just in case they might taste good. Fish pick up sticks, leaves, bark, and other pieces of floating debris all the time. Yes, they spit it out just as quickly, but if you can make your fly look anything like a bug (or a piece of bark) and float it near a submerged fish's feeding lane, you are likely to see your indicator go down. Better be quick with your hook set!
5 - You can always bring two rods. If you fish the Black Hills, you should always carry two rods! You never know when a hatch is going to begin or a fish is looking up in a hole. When we fish Rapid Creek near Rockford, we'll employ the double hitter approach. We'll begin on a seam or hole by throwing a beetle, klinkhammer, ant, or caddis. You catch any fish that are looking up before moving your focus to subsurface with your second rod. It always seems like there are more holding in the feeding lane than there are fish looking up, but that depends on the day, time and location. Bring two rods, and you won't have to worry about it.
This is the time of year fish really begin looking up, and is a great time to fish the Black Hills. Caddis, beetles, ants, craneflies, etc. will all entice a hungry brown to the waters surface. Give us a call at the shop to book your next Black Hills fishing adventure, or stop in and see us. We'd love to talk fishing with you!