This post is a precursor to my new artimouse pattern. It has been affectionately dubbed the "Ichabod Artimouse". Its creation was to try and deal with some of these issues. Now, let's get nerdy.
Hookups and mousing sometimes feel like antonyms. It's as if they are the same poles of two magnets that we try to force together. For anyone who has dedicated time to mousing at night, they can attest to the low hookup to blowup ratio. This is not based on any scientific studies, but my experience leads me to say that in general only about 20-30% of mouse-takes at night result in a hookup. This number varies some according to location, retrieval direction and type, timing and speed of the set, size of fish, and the fly being used. I have had magical nights where everything fell into place and my hookup to miss ratio was much greater, but as a rule, I hook far less fish than I hear or see splash at my fly. But, why?
It is an issue that has been swimming around in the cerebral juices of my mind for the past few years. It does not help that the questions only multiply with added contemplation. Is it just part of mousing, and as such, is an un-fixable problem that mousers must live with? How often are real mice missed in the wild? Is it all about retrieve and set style, or can fly design alter the outcome? Where to begin?
Problem #1 - Messy Takes
First and foremost, a mouse swimming in the water is a potential thanksgiving meal for an ambitious trout. The protein payoff is great, but the effort required to engulf and swallow such a large offering hardly matches the effort it takes to sip a small caddis. The angle of the take is a bit more vertical than a regular rise, as is evident by the toilet bowl flush/splash sound one hears in the darkness of night. It is usually violent. A fish that has committed to eating a poor amphibious mouse is out to kill, to drown, and often to eat. It's not pretty, and it's not clean cut. I think the fish that we hook are those who opt to eat their quarry whole and living, without the fear of being prey themselves. I guess we could call them raptor browns (think Jurassic Park raptors). With this carnal energy, combined with the angle of attack, it is not always easy for a trout to connect with the target. Items floating amid the waters surface tension act/react differently from items that are fully submerged. One moves out of the way easier than the other. It's worth thinking about. We can actually witness this whole messy take phenomenon in the following clip:
The fly is pushed out of the way, whereas if the same fly were subsurface it would be less likely to be pushed out of the way. I think this air-ball effect is often what is happening in the darkness of night, where both human and fish cannot see as well. We just aren't able to witness the fumbles visually. This brings up more questions. Does a smaller fly produce more hookups, or does a larger pattern?
Problem #2 - The Drowning Tail
This issue may well have been placed with the previous, but recent discovery of this video illustrated it so well that I thought I should give it separate attention. Often browns, especially those in slower waters, will try to drown the fly before consuming it. Often the tail is used as the tool. This also results in a very loud splashy noise, and if you are fishing in the dark of night, it's hard to tell the difference between a mouth-take and a tail-slap. So, naturally, we set on these tail-takes. We often feel the fish, but set only to find absolutely no resulting pressure. Because of this behavior, it can be very effective to cast the fly right back to where you felt the set, and let it linger there for a moment, occasionally adding very minute tremulous movements. The attacker may simply be hunting around in the darkness to find it's drowned victim. The following is a video that demonstrates this behavior exceptionally well.
Problem #3 - Big Fly, Little Fly
Flies, both big and little miss fish. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. To be honest, I'm still not decided on the matter. Small flies can certainly fit into a gaping brown trout kype with greater ease, and may leave hooks more exposed with the lesser amount of material used, but the target is harder to see (especially at night) and draws less attention in disturbed water. Smaller patterns can also be easier and less tiring to cast, but are also easier to push aside during an up-swelling take.
Larger patterns are easier to see in the dark, push more water, and can draw more attention. If they are articulated, their attraction factor increases with the extra jointed movement. This can add to the appeal and realism of the offering. In some circumstances I have done better with smaller patterns, but in my experience, this has only been evident when it is smaller fish doing the taking. Larger flies that hold more water are less easily pushed out of the way, but the fish has to hit it at the right angle, as there is more to fit into the mouth. They can also be more difficult to cast with the greater wind resistance. I always start out with an artimouse type fly simply because it is my confidence pattern, and has proven itself again and again.
Problem #4 - Hook Placement and Type
With a larger pattern, where it presents an option, it seems that fish either go straight for the head, or nip the butt, or sometimes the tail of the fly. If the fly is presented right, in relation to how a fish is oriented in the current, the fish T-bones the fly (the best scenario for hookup in my opinion). Because fish generally go for the head or butt of the fly, hook placement can be the difference between a fishless night or one spent tussling with trout. If the hook is too far back (at the end of the tail), you can snag the fish, if it is too far forward, it doesn't usually stick. I'm not opposed to placing a hook at the end of the tail, but I rarely choose to do so. This is not for lack of experiementing and trying. If it has worked for you, cool beans, keep it up. Another issue with stinger hook placement is distance between the two hooks. Place them too close together, and it can cut your hook penetration power in half (much like a bed of nails distributes and lessens the pressure of any individual nail). I have found great success with only using the stinger hook (I prefer mine just after the butt of the fly). I think clipping off the front hook can not only maintain the available pressure/force, but also allow more momentum to build before the hook makes contact, which can result in greater penetration. Gotta love physics.
One issue that a friend of mine brought to my attention, in regards to stinger hooks was the way they behaved due to their design. With a stinger hook, if it has a short shank, the hook can easily turn away from the thing you are trying to stick it into. The eye of the hook, being closer to the bend of the hook, allows more movement away from the intended target. Also, the angle of the eye sets the hook point further out of the way. For this reason, I now place some tubing on my regular octopus stingers to keep the hook exposed and in the line of duty. Or, I simply use a longer shank-ed, straight-eyed hook. Because these are difficult concepts to explain and visualize, I created the following video:
One more thing that can reduce hookups has to do with the size of the hook itself. People often tie mouse flies on larger diameter wire hooks. The finer the wire of hook, the easier the penetration. I think misses and lost fish can occasionally be attributed to this factor. I prefer my hooks super sharp and my wire fine.
Problem #5 - Fly Mass
No matter what kind, or how much material you put into a mouse fly, it will not match the mass of the real deal. A real flesh and blood mouse has a greater mass, and therefore, is not moved or pushed away from the trouts mouth as easily as an imitation. I suppose we could make a pattern that weighed as much, but no one would want to cast it. Maybe I would on a spinning rod, but on a fly rod the thought isn't at all appealing. This is one area it is difficult to address with a fly. I often wonder how much it affects the outcome. Larger flies or materials that retain water may be less susceptible to this problem.
Problem #6 - Big Fly Heads
Fish commonly go for the head of a fly. Sometimes having a large foam, cork, or deer hair head can prevent the hookup. The fish often get the fly in their mouths, tension is felt, the angler sets, and then the fly comes flying back at the angler, without the fish in tow. Here is what I think is happening. Once the tension is felt and the angler sets, the big head forces the fishes mouth open. The jaw pops open because there is so much force placed on the fly and the fish doesn't have time to clamp back down on the hooks, which follow right behind the fly's head. I think this is one reason some anglers prefer the smaller flies. A smaller pattern usually has a small enough profiled head so as to not impede the hookset. With the bigger patterns, I think this downfall can be, at least partly, overcome by proper timing on a set.
Another problem with large foam heads is the water resistance they have. It's like attaching a large thingamabobber an inch or so from your hook. There's bound to be issues with the hookup and fight. I see three obvious problems it presents.
Firstly, when a fish takes the fly, the angler has to set hard enough to force the hook into the fishes lip. The force necessary is magnified considering the angler is pulling a chunk of foam through the water as well. The big head's ability to push water makes the mouse pretty irresistible to fish, but it adds a degree of difficulty in setting the hook. Two edged sword I suppose.
Secondly, water resistance and a large foam head also, in some cases, I think, cause the hook to work out once the fish is hooked. When a fish is thrashing around under water, the head has buoyancy force pushing it upward, making it want to float, as well as the force pushing it in the back and forth water resistance. It's no wonder it can pop out during the fight.
Third, and lastly, some sensitivity is lost. When a fish comes up and takes the fly from anywhere but the head, the fish must pull against the floating head for the angler to even feel something. Not all mouse takes at night are loud and splashy, in fact, I think the bigger the fish the less splashy and noisy a take is. If a big fish "sips" in your fly by the butt end, you aren't likely to even notice, and by the time you move to set, the fish has already let go.
These are some of the primary issues I have tried to address with my most recent mouse pattern, the Ichabod Artimouse (Ichabod Arti for short). Its tying tutorial will be put up shortly after this post.
Problem #7 - Setting Struggles (Timing)
On multiple occasions, I have found myself mousing right alongside a friend. One is hooking fish and the other is struggling to connect. Both fishing the same fly. Both fishing the same water. Both getting takes. Only one connecting. The difference? At least in part, it is the timing of the set. I once heard that in New Zealand, guides encourage their clients to say "God save the queen" before setting on their dryfly takes. This is to allow the fish to turn away, causing the line and in turn the hook to press against the fishes lip, so as to increase the chance of connecting with the hook. I have tried applying the technique to my mousing, and it makes all the difference. I used to be a big proponent for only setting once you feel tension. I have since changed my opinion of the matter. I now treat my mousing takes like a big fish dry fly take. Listen to the take, wait a moment for the fish to turn, then strip set hard (I often also add a rod set to this action). On one trip this year with a friend, who was in the exact same scenario I mentioned a moment ago, he finally got the extra pause down, and proceeded to hook up and land fish the rest of the night.
I think sometimes anglers think a fly does not work because they are struggling to hook a fish. They sometimes switch to a different mouse pattern and start having more success. There is nothing wrong with this, but I think the change in fly is more successful because it better matches that individual's technique rather than the fly itself being any more or less effective. Cast, retrieve, and even setting are all affected by the patterns we choose to fish. Go with your confidence fly, but remember there is always more to learn with other patterns, which leads me to the last problem.
Problem #8 - Impatience
Sometimes all we want to do is catch fish. I often find myself gravitating toward the places I have already known success. But, I also know the gratification of fishless nights of discovery and learning. Sometimes I want one, and sometimes I crave the other. Success is always sweeter with the latter. It is earned, and I always come away wiser and with more ideas. People don't have to enjoy the same things, or approach them the same as myself. I'm grateful that most do not, despite my liberal giving of information. For those who are interested in having more success with mousing, to you I say, do not give up. Limit yourself to only fishing one mouse pattern for the whole night. Try it for a whole day even. And don't give up on a specific location. Try it from different angles, different water levels/time of year, and with different retrieves. I have fished the same waters that others have pounded to death, only to find success from approaching it differently. If you keep getting blowups, but aren't getting it to connect, try slowing your retrieve down, waiting longer after the take, or set even when you don't feel tension. Success will always be hidden from the impatient, both in mousing and in life.
No matter what an angler does or fishes differently, I still think there will be plenty of missed fish, especially when chucking a mouse at night. Much of the missing, I think, is the nature of the beast. We anglers miss plenty of fish even in broad daylight. But, just like during the day, we can make adjustments to our technique and our gear to increase our odds. Once an angler gets these things in line, I'd dare say the hookup rate improves to around 80%, and 80% is a pretty epic night of mousing.