Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The secrets of your water

"I am haunted by waters."
-Norman Maclean

When Norman Maclean wrote this iconic phrase, I wonder if he realized how immortal it would become. The words mean different things to different people, but all anglers feel some bond, or connection to them.

For myself, the idea conjures up an image of an angler, on a warm summer morning, standing in a clear-watered freestone river, the sun dazzlingly adds a soft glow to the dense cloud of mist, rising in softly webbed sheets from the water. It's a place I want to be in the very heart of. It's a place I want to feel, to experience, to attain. It embodies all that is good and hopeful with creation. It's an ideal most anglers spend their days trying to realize. We all seek after those magical moments. It bedevils our subconscious dreams, and we are left with an urge to be in a place where nature cleanses our souls. These words, and those that precede them, are so simple, and yet so powerful. They resonate with a desire held deep in my bones. Their author knew, as many who read them know.

All waters, no matter their location, or the size of fish, hold promise and possibility. A perfect timing for a perfect hatch, where all the elements align and the fish feed with reckless abandon and you can do no wrong. A perfect moment where the light and firmament combine to give you a glimpse of God's creations in their eternally unmatched beauty. It may just be a moment on the water with someone you care about, where you make a kindred-spirited connection, or a peaceful day spent pondering similar relationships. Whatever it is, the stars can align, and that elusive moment can be experienced, usually in a once-in-a-lifetime manner, but it leaves us, well, haunted, wanting more.

The Secrets of Your Water

The diversity that fly fishing offers is what keeps me coming back for more. It is why I love it. Just when one avenue starts to lose its thrill and interest, another opens up, and often from a place I had not foreseen. The techniques and methods of fishing can be mixed and matched in an almost infinite amount of ways, and I am not one to draw boundaries around what I will and will not include in my angling. The locations we fish are not excluded from this blessed diversity. That doesn't mean we have to travel to all corners of the earth (though with the money and time, that would be nice). It just means that we can search for new approaches to the water we already know and love.

I get excited about figuring out my waters. All waters hold their secrets, often in the form of bigger fish, more fish, or new methods to catch the same fish we are familiar with. Whether you are trying to catch a bunch, or the biggest one of that bunch, it can always be done better, differently, more often, or in a way to get that fish of a lifetime. In smaller waters, it may just be a matter of catching more fish, or catching some amount in a different way. This is often why people use lighter weighted rods, such as a 3wt on a small stream. The challenge increases, even if the fishes size does not. On the other hand, in the moderate to larger waters, it usually has some connection to finding fish with increased size.

While I don't know the secrets of your waters, I do know the secret to finding them out. One of my favorite lines in the old movie "Better Off Dead," embodies the main idea.

Okay, so maybe it's not the best illustration, but here is the trick, start from what you know, and do something different. To get the results we have never seen before, we have to do things we've never done before. For a fly fisherman, this may mean using not only a different fly pattern, but a different type of fly altogether. From dry to a nymph, from a nymph to a streamer. From small to large. From low-profile in color to flashy and flamboyant. From slow, methodical retrieves to fast and erratic. It could be as simple of a change as fishing at a different time of day, or year, or in different weather. The whole point is to do SOMETHING different than how you normally do. And, once you have made a change that gives you a taste of success, you'll want to keep looking for other changes that could possibly result in more or better pay dirt. This approach is the key, aside from learning everything you can.

Coming to know your water is critical (and I don't mean just fishing it the same way over many days, in the relatively same locations every time you go). Truly learning about your water means learning about the water temperature and how it may be affecting the fish, learning the terrain, finding out about all the species that live there, and identifying potential forage like insects and their life cycles, and gaining an understanding of the times of day the fish seem to be most active. Learning about all these elements will lead to more success. Timing and location are probably the two main elements, and they frequently dance together, presenting opportunities as varied as the seasons in Idaho. All these aspects, and more, will allow you to make more educated guesses and changes, and the more deliberate the adjustment, the quicker the road to success.

The idea of delving into all there is to learn can be daunting. I think that is why many never take the plunge, striving to be content with the patterns of fishing they know. This is one of those areas where social media is a phenomenal resource. Most anglers aren't super excited about giving up locations, but many are willing to share general knowledge, and observations they have made. Just ask. Those who have made an effort to learn already practice this, and on a regular basis, especially in the beginning to build a base of knowledge, and to hone the skill of knowing how to generate more reliable information. This information and knowledge lead the learner on a path to cracking the secrets of the water that haunts them. Not only is this approach more polite and ethical, it is also far more fun. We place far more value on the things we discover ourselves.

I am a firm believer that in most larger waters, there is usually far more high quality fish than most anglers would like to admit. Admitting it is to admit that we are spending most of our time not catching the bigger fish, and I don't know about you, but my pride and ego don't like that thought too much, even if it is the truth. That being said, certain waters simply do not have the biomass, size of living areas, or have too much pressure to produce large fish.  The fish size versus fish bowl size concept seems an appropriate analogy here. Also, what is small in certain waters could be considered a trophy in others. In this case context matters, and I am not so ignorant as to think all waters hold 30" trout. If the biomass and size of water is there, chances are there are fish to match. Please do not be insulted. More than anything, I am making the point that there is usually more to the water than what we casually see.

The fact is, your water has secrets, and not like the Victoria kind. Everyone knows there isn't much to hide there. Rather, these are those little nuggets of gold that only the persevering and observant angler gets to uncover. That very same water you have fished as a wee lad or lass has a treasure chest of success, only hidden from the unwilling. The question is, are you willing to create a map to find it? Time is the great enemy in this endeavor, but with persistence, and some degree of consistency, one can find gratifying success. I know I get excited at the prospect of better learning the secrets of my own waters, even after all I have learned.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

More Lessons in Mousing for Trout

How boring would our sport be, if there were not room to do things differently, to learn from our experiences, and to explore new ideas. I'm thankful the only thing keeping me from making more of my experiences is myself.

I wanted to take a moment and share a few things I have learned, or that have been reinforced over the past year concerning mousing for trout. I mostly fish mice at night, and I primarily target brown trout, so that may be something to take into consideration with the following rambling.

Trying It

The first thing I always tell someone when they are looking into mousing for trout, is to simply do it. It seems redundant, but I cannot emphasize this enough. When I first transitioned to fly fishing I had a hard time leaving the spinning rod and garden hackle at home. The doubt I had in my fly fishing potential pushed me to lean on my old ways, and they became a crutch, crippling my growth. It wasn't until the day I convinced myself to leave the old gear home that I started to see how it had held me back, and distracted my focus from where it needed to be in order find improvement with the alternative method. I remember going through the same process with steelheading. I knew I could catch them with the good old bait-caster. Even then it was sometimes a trial. It took time, but eventually I made the transition. That doesn't mean I don't use spinning rods anymore, but when I do it is not from a lack of confidence like it used to be. I went through the same process with streamers and European nymphing. The moral of the story is, sometimes we have to leave the things that keep us from growing behind. In the case of mousing, that may mean leaving all our other flies at home, and only taking the mouse pattern or patterns we have chosen to experiment with. The risk is that nothing may be caught, but by the end of the day, or night, we will have a much better feel of how our flies look in the water, and how they react to our retrieve.

Not everyone is willing to spend a whole day or night fishing and not catching, and that is okay. We are all at different stages in our angling, and one stage is not better than another. They're just different, and all are enjoyable for their own reasons. If these musings apply to you, cool, if not, don't sweat it.


In previous articles I recommended stripping the line in slowly, trying to make the fly look and swim as natural as possible. In many cases I still feel this is most effective, but what this past year's mousing has taught me is that making a ruckus can really induce bites. The trick is to try multiple retrieves. I did really well with short chugs, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, and found that in one place one approach worked better, but on the same water, in a different location, another approach was better. I learned to mix it up, and not be afraid to make some noise with the fly. I also found that the more natural disturbance there is in the water (from current, wind, or rain) the more "noise" you have to make with the fly to get a fish's attention.

If you are primarily a pm mouser, I highly recommend a stripping basket. You're line will last much longer, and you will have far less frustration pulling your line out of tangled weeds. A DIY stripping basket tutorial is in the works. Still testing the one I put together to see if it's worth recommending.

Hook Set

Initially I said that in setting the hook you should wait till you feel the take. While you can't go wrong with this approach, over the past year I found that setting on the sound of a take sometimes produced a hookup. This leaves me to recommend that you do whatever the heck you want. Two things that I found helpful though, were waiting a moment when hearing the take before setting (in New Zealand I have heard they say "God save the Queen" before setting) and then doing a super strip set when it is time to do so. Be sure to close your eyes/wear eye protection/duck if this is your approach, and be ready to clean your line out of the bushes or hook into a monster.

I have done a lot of searching for a preferred pair of protective glasses, and gone through multiple pairs. One of the things I routinely struggled with is that most protective glasses have some degree of UV protection, which in the pitch black of night decreases the amount of light coming through to the eye. Finally I have found a pair that I really like, which do not have any UV, light reducing, coatings. They are the Head Impulse Protective Eyewear racquetball glasses. And they have a strap, which makes them easy to take them on and off, are comfortable (to me), and are only around $10.

Current Direction

This may not apply on other waters, but all those I fish have appeared sensitive to this. Knowing the down stream current direction matters in the moving waters I fish, even with slow current. I still have found it true that a fish is 95% (Abraham Lincoln said this percentage was accurate, and that the internet tells only truth) more likely to take a mouse if it is moving the direction of the current, not against it. Unless you're in Alaska, or some other place where this doesn't apply, then all bets are off. Maybe just pay attention to which direction you are bringing your fly when you get your strikes more, or if you don't seem to be getting any strikes, try approaching the water from downstream moving up.

Also, with current direction, I have found my hookup rate is much higher when I present the fly so the fish hits it from the side, in a perpendicular/T-bone direction. Often this just means I hook up more fishing from the side of the run, with a slight swing downward toward the end of the retrieve, or casting diagonally upstream or downstream, versus casting directly upstream or downstream. I think it is largely to do with how the fly goes into the fishes mouth, and what it does when the angler sets.

Hook Issues

Generally speaking the hookup rate when mousing seems to be about 20-30%. That means for every 10 takes, only 2 or 3 will stick, and even if those do, they don't always stay. I have my theory on why this is, which I'll address in a different post sometime, but with such low odds an angler wants to do everything he/she can to increase catch rates. Having a super sharp sticky hook is an obvious aspect to this, but what is less obvious is keeping that hook clear of fly tying material. A little bit of fur in the way is all it takes to prevent that sharp tip from doing it's little job of grabbing, and if it doesn't grab, there's nothing for the hook to penetrate into when we do our epic strip sets. To check this I place my fly in water long enough for it to absorb the water and move it around to check if fur is covering the hook. I then take scissors and trim the small parts that may be laying on the hook. I'm not positive this is a game changer, but I feel on some occasions it has prevented hookups before I noticed it.

In terms of which hook is more valuable in an articulated mouse fly, I feel the back hook takes the cake. AND, after extensive testing, I really feel that this back hook is best placed at the butt of the body of the fly, or just a bit (roughly half inch) behind it. Hooks in tails have not been at all effective for me, though this may just be from the wheres and how I fish. They also seem to tangle more than without.

Location location LOCATION!!!!!

The more time I spend mousing at night, the more I have come to realize that where you mouse is critical to your success. This could be general water, such as a particular river, lake, stream, or pond. It could also be where in any given body of water you are fishing. In my experience, the closer to cover you get, the better. Bushy trees that overhang the water are my favorite places to focus on, and mostly because I think fish hang out near them hoping for something to drop. The closer to the bank you can get, the better because that is where land-dwelling morsels originate. Also, foam lines/seams where things naturally are pushed in the water are an excellent place to focus on. These aspects of location are not without complications. The first location concept means that to find success, one has to explore, and risk having plenty of fishless nights. The second aspect of location is tricky because one cannot see the bank or tight spots in the dark, at least not in any great contrast so as to tell where the bank ends and water begins. The more you know your water during the day the better off you'll be at night. Timing also adds a tricky element to location. A place may not produce even a single blowup one night, but then be ridiculously productive two nights later. This could be a factor of light, hatches, water temperature, spawning times, etc. The fact of it all is that location is a critical part of mousing. The nice thing is that once your find a productive area, it tends to remain a productive area.

These aren't exactly earth-shattering tips or realizations, but some I thought worth mentioning. Good luck if you make it out to give it a try, and don't be afraid to dedicate a day (or night, though a night dedicated usually results in the following day dedicated to sleep, so same-diff right?) to it.

For other night fishing, or mousy posts, check out the Tips and Tactics section.