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Summer Time Dry Fly Bonanza: Fooling Rocky Mountain Trout

The Best of Times…

Imagine yourself walking along the side of a high country stream, it’s a beautiful summer day, the sun is rising, the wind is quiet, and not a cloud is in the sky. A steadily increasing swarm of insects starts forming just above the water in front of you, and then you see a number of trout gathering in the river underneath the swarm, and soon these trout begin feeding hungrily on the insects that fall to the water surface. It doesn’t get any better than this right? “Nope”, you answer yourself, as you wade into the river for what you anticipate will be one of the best fishing days you’ve ever had.

It’s a couple hours later now, and the trout are still gorging on the Trico hatch, but you’ve only been able to hook two smaller trout. You ask yourself the same question, but now the answer is, “I hope it gets better, and soon.” When you find yourself in this situation; of being at the right spot, in the right weather conditions, with an unbelievable hatch coming off, with trout nearly in a feeding frenzy right in front of you, but you aren’t catching very many fish; it’s time to step back and analyze what you can do differently to hook-up more consistently during a large hatch.

The Trico

So let’s do that, literally taking a step back from the action and making the time to watch the hatch, the fish’s behavior, and the conditions of the weather and river. First let’s talk about the Trico hatch, one of the most abundant and fishable hatches you’re likely to see in the Rocky Mountain area between July and September. The Trico (Tricorythodes) is the crawler form of the common mayfly and is identifiable by it’s three-forked tail and large triangular shaped gills protruding from the side of its head region. What you’re witnessing is the mating cycle when the male and female Tricos form into a cloud or ball in the air above the river, and at times these swarms can be immense in size. After a period of time the ball of Tricos starts descending towards the water and some of the spent Tricos will actually fall onto the water surface, and that’s when the trout will begin to feed on those insects in their feeding zones.

This mating cycle normally begins in mid-morning, usually starting around 9:00 to 10:00 am, and it can last up to four hours. During the cycle the Trico females (olive in color) fall to the water first, and there they deposit their eggs before dying. Soon after the females begin to fall, the males (black in color) also fall out of the swarm. When the males and females land on the water surface they are spent of energy and their wings will be rigidly outstretched from their bodies. This positioning of the wings causes them to spin on the water surface, thus the term Spinner Fall. The males greatly outnumber the females, and once the males begin to fall to the surface the river can literally be covered with Spinners.

By taking time to observe the conditions you’re fishing in, including the hatch, you will then know that you are going to need to have a Trico Spinner imitation ready as the real Spinners begin to fall to the water surface.

Tippin’ and Sippin’

Understanding the behavior of the fish during a Spinner Fall is going to give us one of the secrets to more hook-ups on the trout that are wildly feeding off of this Trico hatch. Often there are so many Spinners on the water that they can actually create a layer like a blanket that covers the surface. At times like this fish may form into groups in areas where there are an abundance of Tricos floating by. Since the Tricos are spent or dead the trout don’t need to expend energy to chase them down, or even move very far to get all they want to eat. This is when the trout perform a feeding method known as Tippin’ and Sippin’.

Here’s what the trout do. Each trout will find a feeding spot and then suspend itself with its back about 2-6 inches below the surface of the water. In order to feed off of the floating Spinners the trout will tip its head towards the surface, until its nose is just poking out of the water, open its mouth, and ingest numerous Tricos with each sip. Close observation will show you that each trout normally comes to the surface and eats (Tip and Sip) several times before taking a longer resting period under the water. Soon it will repeat the Tip and Sip cycles and then the rest period, and when you have identified a trout that is using this feeding cycle you on your way to increased hook-ups.

With this knowledge about how trout feed during a Spinner Fall you now can present your fly to a specific feeding fish so it will take your fly even though there may be a film of real Tricos coating the water surface. The method of feeding you observed is called Pattern Feeding, and here is how you are going to use it to your advantage.

Pattern Fishing

This Pattern Feeding by the trout is going to allow us to present the fly to that specific fish, so that it arrives in the fish’s feeding zone while the fish is Tippin’ and Sippin’, this is called Pattern Fishing. First wait for the fish you are observing to stop its Tip and Sip cycle, determine how long it stays under before starting its next cycle, then do this a couple times to estimate the average time before it starts again.

Now be ready to cast your fly just prior to the trout rising, so that the fly drifts into the feeding zone at exactly the same time that the fish rises to sip Tricos from the surface. With practice your fly will be there at just the right moment, the trout will sip in your fly along with some real Tricos, and you’ll be rewarded with a hook-up. The keys are timing, and casting accuracy. You’ll be presenting your fly into a very narrow, often only 6” wide, feeding zone, fishing for one specific fish in the group, and positioning yourself for a cast that will accomplish all of the above without spooking any of the fish.

Delivering the Mail

Where you stand and cast to the feeding fish can be as critical as the fly you are presenting. Fish are wary of predators, and you don’t want to spook the trout you’re fishing to, or those around it, by making the fish aware of your presence, or by slapping the water with the line, or letting the line or leader rub on a fish. Before you approach the fish observe the conditions around the area you will be fishing. Ideally you’ll want to be casting from a spot off to one side of where the fish is Tippin’ and Sippin’, and slightly upstream, so your fly drifts to the fish prior to the line or leader. Identify the spot that you will need to be casting from in order get the drift you want, then make sure you’ll have room for a backcast without snagging brush or debris.

Keeping a low profile is very important. Walking on a high bank and presenting a stark silhouette , or standing so you cast a shadow on the fish will often times spook those fish you’re preparing to cast to. So pick an approach to the water, and a casting spot, that will give you a good position to fish from as well as allow you to stalk the fish without being seen.

Watch the surface of the water upstream from the trout to see how the water flows into and past the trout you’ll be fishing to. Using the Dotted Line technique (see May-June 2004 High Country Angler or visit extremeflyfishing.com Guide’s Corner) to pick the spot you want to cast your fly to, so it will drift right into the fish’s feeding zone.

Now, cast the fly to the spot you’ve selected upstream from the fish, this is called Delivering the Mail, and you should practice accuracy casting on and off the river until you’re proficient at it. As soon as the fly lands on the water do an upstream mend so your line doesn’t cause the fly to drag unnaturally through the water. With proper stalking technique, casting accuracy, timing, and a proper drift, it’s likely you are going to hook-up with that fish.

Drowned Tricos

The Rocky Mountain area is notorious for winds, and wind can be a Trico hatch fisherman’s nightmare unless you know how the fish react to a wind that comes up during a Spinner Fall. When the wind picks up, usually in the afternoon, the trout will stop Tippin’ and Sippin’. They stop because the layer of Tricos on the surface becomes submerged due to the rippling action of the wind on the water, which causes the spent Tricos to sink. These submerged Spinners are referred to as Drowned Tricos.

If you watch the area where the trout were feeding before the wind kicked up you’ll often see those same trout continuing to feed below the surface. You’ll likely see some fairly rapid side to side movement as the trout dart back and forth within a 1-2 foot feeding lane, and the white flash of the trout’s mouth as they feed. What they are feeding on are the Tricos that have washed below the surface, and this subsurface feeding can continue for quite a while after the Trico swarm has dissipated. Here’s how you rig your fly to fish to those trout feeding on Drowned Tricos.

An effective method is to tie on a Adult Spinner dry fly with a micro split shot located about 18-24” above the fly. Cast this set-up into the same area you fished for the Tippin’ and Sippin’ trout, but keep your fly line taut, letting the fly swing at the end of the drift. When you see a trout move to your fly, or you see or feel the line go tauter, do a gentle but firm downstream lift of the rod tip to set the hook. If you hook a fish the fight is on, but if not that will be the start of your backcast for the next drift.

If you do hook a fish remember to keep the line downstream from the fish, and try to steer it away from the other feeding fish so they don’t get spooked. Often you can fight your fish downstream from the others, land it, then come back right away to fish the same area again.

By using these strategies you should hook up with more trout during the Trico hatches. And many of these same techniques are applicable in other fishing situations, so next time your fly fishing take the time to observe the hatch, the fish, and the conditions around you to improve your chances of catching more and bigger trout.

Reprinted with permission from High Country Angler